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date: 22 June 2021

Post-Disaster Recovery and Social Capitalfree

Post-Disaster Recovery and Social Capitalfree

  • Suzanne VallanceSuzanne VallanceLincoln University
  •  and Ashley RudkevitchAshley RudkevitchLincoln University


Disaster scholarship has resurrected interest in social capital, and it has become well established that strong social ties—bonding capital—can also help individuals and communities to survive in times of crisis, as well as provide substantial and wide-ranging benefits on the long road to recovery. The theoretical tripartite of bonding capital generated in “close ties,” bridging capital developed through “associations,” and linking capital from possibly cool but nonetheless “civil” encounters is also reasonably well established. So too are the currencies of trust and reciprocity. Social capital is noted to be a potent resource capable of facilitating many benefits in terms of health and well-being, and it is considered fundamental to post-disaster attempts to Build Back Better in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Indeed, the idea of social capital has become almost synonymous with resilience.

Nonetheless, it is also acknowledged that there may be disadvantages associated with social capital, such as tribalism, neoptism, and marginalization. Scholarship therefore paints a rather complex picture, and there is still considerable debate about what social capital is: what it does, where it comes from and where it goes, and for what purpose. Without denying the value of a celebratory approach that focuses on the benefits, it is concluded that there is a need for more attention to be given to the broader ideological contexts that may shape the generative and distributional effects of social capital, particularly as these underscore health and well-being outcomes post-disaster.


  • Disaster Preparation & Response
  • Public Health Policy and Governance


Although subject to intense debate, social capital is often considered foundational to a well-functioning civil society, a healthy democracy and a resilient society, both in times of crisis and in developing pro-active adaptation and risk reduction strategies (Vallance & Carlton, 2014). Its growing popularity may be attributed to research conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s that sought to understand how and why some groups—even those apparently most disadvantaged according to standard metrics—managed to survive and overcome significant challenges after disasters better than others. Subsequently, a growing body of work has documented how trust, reciprocity, and shared norms are instrumental in both immediate disaster response and longer-term recovery. The evidence suggesting that social capital can have such positive benefits in the worst of times has aligned with non-disaster scholarship exploring how it might contribute to better outcomes—such as improved health and well-being—for people in everyday “peacetime” settings.

The challenge for academics and practitioners is to acknowledge and celebrate the potency of social capital while exercising analytical discretion about both its positive and potentially negative effects. These negative effects can be explored in terms of nepotism, tribalism, racism, and other forms of discrimination and marginalization (Gordon, 2020; Uekusa, 2020). This raises questions about the broader configuration of individuals, collectives, and the public sector given the ideological context within which they operate, and the ways this might shape, generate, and distribute positive and negative effects. Examples are drawn from a range of sources, particularly two “natural” disasters in the South Island of New Zealand and then the global COVID-19 pandemic, to explore some key concepts such as how different forms of social capital are acquired, invested, generated, and distributed through broader networks.

What is Social Capital?

Early work on social capital was instrumental in establishing it as a type of currency or resource not dissimilar to built, environmental, or financial capital. Early theorists, including sociologists like James Coleman and Pierre Bourdieu, were interested in the relationships between these various capitals—but particularly social capital—and social structures and institutions of class, race, and gender. For Bourdieu, as an example, social capital was defined as “the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 119).

Bourdieu’s concern for the interplay of agency and structure informed his understanding of social capital as a resource that accrues to individuals based on one’s status. Status, in turn, derives from and depends on broader social, cultural, and economic factors but is expressed in basic assumptions, attitudes, norms, and even habits, such as the way one blows their nose. A person’s ability to understand and behave like others of higher status then bestows power and influence over others. Social capital thus enables better access to other forms of capital and, essentially, explains the reproduction of inequality and class distinction through individual behavior (Bourdieu, 1986). Similarly, Lin (1999, p. 31) argued that social capital accumulated to those “individuals [who] engage in interactions and networking in order to produce profits” because those networks secured information, enabled one to influence others and consolidate their social credentials, and also reinforce one’s right to other resources and forms of support.

This reading of social capital may be described as “negative” because it helps explain the ways in which social capital contributes to inequality and marginalization. Following this tradition, Hakli and Minca (2009) have argued that social capital can be seen “as an unevenly distributed resource that depends on individuals’ ability to enact the power potentials that reside in their membership of social networks.” The benefits to individuals of this are diverse, but can be used to generate additional social, political, or financial wealth. Field (2017, p. 28), for example, notes that “people who are able to draw on others for support are healthier than those who cannot; they are also happier and wealthier; their children do better at school, and their communities suffer less antisocial behavior.”

Coleman, another early theorist and sociologist, saw social capital more positively, as a potentially equalizing force. He emphasized the ways in which social capital both depended on (in his early work), but also generated (in his later work), reciprocity, trust, and shared values. These, then, explained why and how people learned to cooperate for mutual or collective benefit. For example, Coleman’s (1988) research on education showed that Catholic students were often high achievers despite their lower social class, suggesting that strong networks and shared norms offset economic disadvantage. He later came to see social capital as a public good of benefit to all those in the network and, with his focus on education, argued it was instrumental in creating self-identity and enhancing cognitive development (Field, 2017). As a sociologist, Coleman was cognizant of broader structures such as welfarism, affluence, and religion, but as a rational choice theorist, he saw social capital not as the outcome of people rationally choosing to invest in it, but as a “byproduct” of people engaging in activities undertaken for other purposes. Importantly in the trajectory of social capital research, Coleman highlighted the social network as the source and beneficiary of social capital, and the focus of subsequent research has to a significant extent retained the network as the unit of analysis.

In this vein, Putnam (2000) came to see social capital as an outcome of reciprocity in social networks, mainfesting in norms and trust generated as a byproduct of other collective activities. However, he also became increasingly interested in the relationships between civic life and democracy; hence his comparative study of social life in Italy and the United States. This interest was articulated in his 1995 work Bowling Alone, where he noted that although more Americans were bowling than ever before, they were also more likely to be bowling alone. This was a concern because, according to Putnam’s research:

There is very strong evidence of powerful health effects of social connectedness . . . controlling for our blood chemistry, age, gender, whether or not you jog and for all other risk factors, your chance of dying over the course of the next year are cut in half by joining one group, and cut to a quarter by joining two groups.

(Putnam, 2001, p. 12)

After dismissing a range of explanations for decreasing social capital in the United States (analyzed in terms of fewer social networks with weaker links in the network), Putnam argued that the large number of women entering the workforce, along with the rise of television and other home-based entertainment, were to blame. These, he believed, explained the gradual erosion of social capital exhibited by a particularly civic-minded generation, born in the 1920s, who had lived through war and reconstruction. He thus established one of the earliest connections between social capital and disaster recovery.

Putnam also noted that although social capital can be seen in shared values, norms, collective identity, and so on, it can be deployed in various ways depending on the circumstances. Bonding capital was associated with close ties within a group of friends and families and was used to “get by,” whereas bridging social capital worked between bonded groups and could be used to “get ahead.” He also noted that these forms of social capital can be generated through either formal (as in a Parent Teacher Association) or informal (regular bar-goers), densely interlaced (as when one attends both the PTA and the bar) or very thin and “almost invisible” interactions associated with the nodding acquaintance.

Woolcock’s (2001) contribution was to analyze and categorize different aspects or elements of the network that both generated and benefited from social capital. In some ways, Woolcock sought to reconnect the network to the broader context within which specific networks operated (as had Bourdieu when looking at religious, economic, or political “structures”). Woolcock and, later, Szreter and Woolcock (2004) elaborated on Putnam’s notions of bonding and bridging by suggesting a form of “linking” capital that extends across difference; a foundation to cool but nonetheless civil relationships embodied in, for example, the nodding acquaintance. Though subtle and often intangible, this apparently weaker form of social capital is also valuable, and as Putnam warned:

[Don’t be] too dismissive of very casual forms of social connection, because there has been good experimental evidence that if you nod to people in the hall, they are more likely to come to your aid if you should have a fit or have a heart attack, than if you don’t nod to them, even if you don’t otherwise know them. Merely nodding to someone in the hall generates visible, measurable forms of reciprocity.

(Putnam, 2001, p. 3)

These cooler relationships become even more apparent—and important—during and after disasters. As Solnit noted in her book A Paradise Built in Hell:

[Hurricane] Katrina was an extreme version of what goes on in many disasters, wherein how you behave depends on whether you think your neighbors or fellow citizens are a greater threat than the havoc wrought by a disaster or a greater good than the property in houses and stores around you.

(Solnit, 2009, p. 1)

These distinctions between bonding, bridging, and linking social capital were helpful in developing a “networked” approach to analysis (see Figure 1); however, developing a widely adopted methodology for identifying and measuring both social captial and its various carriers has been elusive. The importance of social capital “currencies”—norms, trust, solidarity, cooperation (Putnam, 2001) and other “lubricants” of social life (Field, 2017; Fukuyama, 1995)—cannot be disputed, but operationalizing and measuring these intangibles is notoriously difficult. Grootaert and van Bastelaer (2002) have also noted that tangible and less tangible forms of social capital can exist independently of each other or be mutually reinforcing. Issues of scale—individual (micro), community (meso), or social (macro); and local, metropolitan, national or even global—complicate measurement further.

Figure 1. Nested social capital.

Given the sociological foundations of the concept, many studies have considered and retained a “structural” focus by examining the religious, educational, or other cultural shapers of a network (Glaeser, 2001; Uphoff, 2000). Other scholarship has taken an “institutional” (rather than structural) approach (e.g., Rothstein & Stolle, 2002) by examining social capital as it flows through affiliations to more tangible or easily observed organizations and networks. An institutional approach makes it possible to evaluate qualitatively and/or quantitatively different forms of social capital, whether formal or informal, weak or strong, generalized or specific. Following Putnam, for example, by focusing on institutions of various kinds, it is possible to observe the flows of social capital through the signing of a petition, voting in a local election, or volunteering to coach a childrens’ sports team. These sorts of observable behaviors are often used as proxy indicators of broader levels of social capital, and they provide a practical line of enquiry for empirical research.

These social capital concepts are explored here in the context of various disasters but, first it is necessary to clearly articulate why it matters whether social capital is an individual or public good and consider the extent to which its generation and distribution is tempered by broader religious, educational, or ideological contexts. Szreter and Woolcock (2004) explain the differences in the individual versus public good approaches and the implications for public health very well, making a distinction between psychosocial (individual) and political economy analyses (see also Kawachi et al.’s [2004] commentary). Adopting a political economy lens can provide a better understanding of why people behave as they do in unusual and tragic circumstances. As just one example, whether the reference to Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone is by accident or design, it is interesting to note documentary maker Michael Moore’s (2002) title Bowling for Columbine.1 This documentary explores why Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold might have deliberately hunted, shot, and killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher at their school in 1999. Moore speculates as to why neighboring Canadians, despite having reasonably high gun ownership rates, have significantly fewer gun-related deaths (“America’s Gun Culture,” 2019). He concludes “Canadians have learned to behave well with each other . . . [Americans] believe it’s every man for himself” (Ross, 2019).

This example suggests it is critical to understand not only how to measure social capital but how its various forms might contribute to and shape a generalized good in a way that is broadly beneficial for health and well-being post-disaster. As Rothstein and Stolle (2002, p. 3) argue:

We consider here generalized trust as the heart of social capital, since it is an integral and probably irreplaceable part of any democratic political culture, as it clearly indicates an inclusive and tolerant approach to the population at large. We consider these civic attitudes as important prerequisites for cooperative behavior and the successful solution of collective action problems. As is well-known from standard non-cooperative game-theory, it makes no sense to support solutions for the common good if you do not trust most other agents to do the same.

(Rothstein & Stolle, 2002, p. 3)

This raises an important difference in the way social capital ebbs and flows, where a network may comprise few components with high levels of trust, or many components with less trusting relationships, and anything in between (see Son & Feng [2019] for further discussion). Generalized trust goes beyond close bonded social networks and is “a rather abstract attitude toward people in general, encompassing those beyond immediate familiarity, including strangers (people one randomly meets in the street, fellow citizens, foreigners, etc)” (Freitag & Traunmüller, 2009, p. 784). Where there is a nodding acquaintance, there may be high generalized trust; casual eye contact and relaxed familiarity can create, and are possibly the result of, shared and trusting social environments. Importantly, this generalized trust can be deployed in difficult times. For example, New Zealand’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic under a left-leaning Labour Government has been presented rather positively in the international media (Figure 2), with trust in the government and the “team of 5 million” highlighted as the secret of the country’s success in fighting the virus (Ensor, 2020).

Figure 2. Positive media reports on New Zealanders’ trust in the government’s COVID-19 response in 2020.

This focus on generalized trust suggests a need to depart from Bourdieu’s focus on the benefits of social capital for the individual while remaining attentive to his interest in broader structures and systems that shape relationships between individuals and broader social networks. In particular, this indicates the need to examine more closely the ways in which ideological persuasion—and specifically neoliberalism—influences social capital and the accumulation and distribution of its benefits. This requires critically interrogating the market-led antidote to the debt-burdened, monochromatic, sluggish, and heavy-handed excesses of the modern welfare state, where neoliberalism was promoted as a politico-economic pathway to individual liberty, with each person free to maximize their interests. The neoliberal logic is that the aggregation of millions of market transactions would provide a more responsive and innovative version of the public good.

On the back of widespread neoliberal reform, many people’s relationships with the state, their employers, and each other have been fundamentally altered through restructuring, deregulation, and amalgamation to reap the benefits of economies of scale, privatization, commodification, and corporatization (Keil, 2009; Peck & Tickell, 2002). The implications of this have not had as much attention as they probably deserve among social capital scholars, but there is a case to suggest that this ideology would have demonstrable impact on social capital (just as it has had on financial capital and its distribution) given it prioritizes individual freedom over the common good, user pays rather than reciprocity, and competition over cooperation. Consequently, and returning once again to Bourdieu, it is also necessary to explore the distributional effects of neoliberalism not only on financial resources but on systemic readings of bonding, bridging, and linking forms of social capital as well.

To explore these concepts and questions in the context of health and disasters, it is possible to modify an institutionalized approach roughly consistent with that adopted by Rothstein and Stolle (2002) and Aldrich (2012). Examining “empirically accessible” carriers and conduits of bridging social capital (such as more or less formal community, faith-based, and other third-sector organizations), and official decision makers (particularly those in local government office) can provide observable elements of a network both exhibiting and generating linking capital. Drawing on a range of cases, this framework promotes a better understanding of more specific issues associated with social capital, health, and disasters such as exploring how forms of social capital contribute to both physical and mental health in the response and recovery phases of disaster.

Bonding Social Capital

At 12.51 p.m. on February 22, 2011, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck the Canterbury region of New Zealand, killing 185 people. One of the authors of this article happened to be in her 6th-floor office when the shaking began. Keeping in mind that this quake generated one of the highest peak ground acceleration readings ever recorded, it made the filing cabinet walk, books fall from shelves, and plaster drop from the ceiling and walls. When the shaking stopped and the building stopped swaying, she reported as follows:

My colleague found me crying under my desk, convinced I was going to die and absolutely devastated that I wouldn’t get to see my children grow up. He helped me off the floor and drove me to the daycare center to get the kids. My cousin, who worked in a different childcare center had a horrible experience because the shaking generated liquefaction—basically mud and sand rising up like floodwaters. It kept rising and rising. At first they waited for parents to arrive to collect their children, but when the mud kept rising, they were terrified they would lose a child to the mud. They realized they would just have to hail any passing four-wheel drive motorists and hope like hell they would get them home safely. She still has nightmares about it years later. That night our friends stayed at our house because their floor had given way and there was broken stuff everywhere. We made the most enormous pot of overcooked pasta, which we ate with a bottle of red wine.

These kinds of experiences during and after the earthquake were absolutely commonplace. Thus, an interesting aspect of disasters and bonding capital is that although disasters are devastating, they are also unusual in creating a shared experience that indeed bonds people together in ways that are often missing in everyday life. Friends, family, and neighbors rescue and support each other, and in so doing they save lives. This is a comon thread across a range of very different disasters: as Klinenberg (2003) found in his “social autopsy” of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, isolated elderly individuals were more likely to die and not be found for some time. Bonded groups of friends, family, and tight-knit communities provide essential resources—food, water, first aid, shelter—and also emotional support, encouragement, skills, and information. Importantly, this can substantially reduce the pressure placed on more formal response organizations.

Daniel Aldrich was one of the first to carefully document the ways in which social capital—particularly bonding social capital—was key to both surviving and recovering from catastrophic events. In his 2012 book Building Resilience, he reviewed the post-disaster responses of four different communities—Tokyo following the 1923 earthquake, Kobe after the 1995 earthquake, Tamil Nadu after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, and New Orleans post-Katrina. Through this work, he concluded that strongly bonded social networks were crucial in rebuilding not just physical infrastructure but also the social ties and sense of place that minimized migration of people and resources away from the disaster zone. Bonding social capital has also been shown to facilitate the provision of “informal therapy”(Marquet, 2015) and a range of other positive effects necessary for health and well-being over the long marathon of recovery (Aked et al., 2010; Norris et al., 2008; Reich, 2006; Wind & Komproe, 2012).

Chamlee-Wright and Storr’s (2009) analysis of a Vietnamese community’s recovery post-Katrina is particularly interesting as they highlight the importance of the close ties generated through shared ethnicity and coordinated by the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. Bonding capital was not only used to rebuild the distinctive community; it was also used to coordinate collective recovery action and activity and to undertake political action in the face of post-disaster reconstruction and redevelopment. Based on a different case study in St. Bernard, New Orleans, the same authors (Chamlee-Wright & Storr, 2011) later identified the importance of bonding capital in shaping recovery narratives—such as “self-reliance”—which then informed individual strategies.

In short, bonding capital saves lives, provides pathways for the distribution of essential goods and services, reduces reliance on formal rescue and recovery agencies, rebuilds community commitment, and facilitates political action that is often required during the long and difficult recovery phase assocaited with Building Back Better. This explains why there is now such an impressive list of studies correlating high levels of social capital, collective action, and disaster recovery and resilience (Aldrich & Meyer, 2015; Cutter et al., 2010; Dynes, 2005; Love & Vallance, 2013; Nakagawa & Shaw, 2004; Norris et al., 2008; Rudkevitch et al., 2019; Shaw & Goda, 2004). The disaster scholarship demonstrates that bonding social capital can mobilize and coordinate the collective provision of life necessities and also promote spiritual, cultural, mental, and physical health. Bonding capital is indeed foundational to gangs, tribes, old boys’ clubs, and other collectives of a violent and dangerous nature, but it is also the glue of community gardens, school sports clubs, and Stitch and Bitch sewing circles. As Hawkins and Maurer (2011) indicate in their article “You Fix My Community, You Have Fixed My Life,” its benefits can accrue to individuals and cliques, but it also can and often does contribute to the satisfaction of general and collective interests.

This is very important if one considers the ways in which neoliberalism discourages communal ownership and collective action and configures the public good as the aggregation of individual market-based transactions. The sale of local assets—like community halls and other recreation facilities—can make it difficult for (re)bonding to take place post-disaster. Deregulation, competition, and the removal of tariffs and trade barriers mean that individuals now have private access to cheap goods and services—from books to swimming pools, to cars—that were once prohibitively expensive. The consequences show in the declining patronage of public pools, libraries, public transport, and other sites of social capital (e.g., generalized trust) development and exchange. There are sufficient grounds to suggest that understanding of the ways in which neoliberalism shapes the generative and distributive potential of bonding capital deserves significant scholarly attention.

Bridging Social Capital

Although bonding capital is generally associated with close groups of like-minded people with shared values, high levels of trust, and strong ties, bridging capital has been described as arising from and through contact with less similar people such as work colleagues. It is also at times referred to as that arising from connections one has with “associates” and how those with such associations can use them to “get ahead.” Hawkins and Maurer’s (2010) analysis of 40 families post-Katrina showed how bonding capital provided immediate support, but bridging (and linking) capital was more important for longer term recovery and broader community regeneration. They highlighted the ways in which the reconstruction of survivors’ broader “social fabric” at the “structural/community” level was important in re-establishing people’s ontological security (Hawkins & Maurer, 2011), and concluded that a community development approach might be helpful in mitigating the vulnerabilities and inequalities that compound the adverse effects and negative physical and mental health impacts of disaster.

This highlights the need to look more closely at empirically observable “entities” or “units of analysis” that facilitate such associations that connect dissimilar people and that are niether profit oriented nor state led. There are numerous definitional issues here, but this discussion is limited to those “third-sector organizations” (TSOs) and networks, however (in)formal, that are not-for-profit and nongovernmental. They include faith-based organizations, geographic communities, and communities of interest, including small and informal reading groups, slightly more formal clubs such as sports teams, and gangs like the Mongrel Mob or Hells Angels, as well as international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like the Red Cross. In the New Zealand context (and that of other countries with indigenous populations), the third sector may also include those with tribal, Iwi, or hapu affiliations (Kenny & Phibbs, 2015) whose populations may be self-governing, though these are still very much unrecognized formally in many parts of the world.

Analysis of and appreciation for the third sector is important in disaster situations, based on an analysis of the third sector in post-quake Canterbury, where it was found that such groups were “the first to respond and the last to leave” (Vallance & Carlton, 2014). It is possible that their longevity and effectiveness may be framed by pre-disaster trends and conditions because, as this longitudinal study showed, the first few years after the earthquakes (2010–2015) saw an explosion of new groups and networks, but most of those still active four years after the first earthquake had been in operation well before the first event. Although the original purpose of those networks and organizations was often unrelated to disasters, many had subsequently layered disaster recovery work over their core business.

Although their core business may not have been disaster related, it provided generic but essential organizational training and skills that could then be deployed for disaster recovery—membership databases; newsletters and other communication strategies, including Facebook and online social media; accessing, managing, and accounting for funding; arranging a meeting, chairing and taking minutes; mediation and so on. TSOs often owned or had access to useful assets that included anything from charitable status and a bank account to ropes and ladders. The Farmy Army, for example, formed immediately post-quake and used tractors and diggers to help shift liquefaction in the Eastern suburbs of Christchurch. Faith-based organizations and sports clubs often owned or leased buildings that were used to host public meetings. If they did not own assets, they could often mobilize to “acquire” them, sometimes using very creative means. Gap Filler and Greening the Rubble, for example, are two networks that became widely known for developing sites made vacant because of earthquake demolition for temporary, pop-up, and transitional projects. They thus deployed bridging capital to mobilize significant levels of resourcing in order to create very explicitly “public” parks (Vallance et al., 2017), such as the Commons (Carlton & Vallance, 2017), without actually owning either the land or significant physical or financial assets or resources.

Many TSOs distilled, disseminated, and translated information from other sources, and members were often affiliated to other TSOs, thereby constituting both the weft and weave of a broader social fabric by making the “net” work. Often these multiple connections were deliberately deployed to expand the collective of collectives. The Social Equity and Wellbeing Network (SEWN) and Te Hā o Mātauranga are two examples of organizations that provide regular updates to other TSOs on funding opportunities; run training days; provide links to podcasts and webinars; and, importantly, advertise consultation exercises undertaken by formal decision makers and government officials.

This speaks rather well to Rothstein and Stolle’s (2008) query about how the broader context influences the positive or negative deployment of social capital (gangs versus clubs) or, as Hawkins and Maurer (2010, p. 1789) ask, how might we “maximis[e] social capital, while distinguishing positive from negative or counter-productive social capital.” Is it possible that “civil” society, and the health and well-being of our democracies depends on the health and well-being of the third sector? If so, once again, what influence does the broader ideological context have on this sector?

Again, examples help to sketch possible avenues of inquiry; along with information about funding for Neighbours Day, COVID-19 screening locations, and a link to access the latest Community Law manual, SEWN also shared the results of New Zealand’s Time to Shine: A Survey of Aotearoa New Zealand’s Community Sector on the Impacts of COVID-19 produced by the Centre for Social Impact (2020). Their survey of 1,400 community organizations found that 74% of the participants had experienced or were expecting to experience reduced funding. These funding cuts are likely to be felt by the loss of government funding, reduced number of donations from the private sector, and fewer opportunities for fundraising. This indicates some key opportunities for future research into critical connections between financial and bridging capital, ideology, disasters, and public health crises.

Linking Social Capital

As with bonding and bridging capital, plenty of debate centers on linking capital: what it is, what it does, where it comes from, where it goes, and for what purpose. In addressing these debates about “generalized” trust in others, as opposed to, say, trust in the state specifically (Rothstein, 2018), it is possible to identify at least two theoretical threads. The first suggests that where bonding capital accrues to an individual through “close ties” and bridging capital through “associates,” linking capital is achieved through more distant but nonetheless “civil” interactions. The second theoretical thread that is perhaps favored in the disaster-related scholarship adopts the institutionalized approach, with the various social capitals seen as an emergent property of relationships between bonded groups, organizational (third-sector) bridges, and their links with official or state decision makers. The intricate web of actors—including official decision makers—has been documented by Chan et al. (2018, p. 619), who argue that “social capital builds collaborations and partnerships among disaster organizations, mobilizes the public as disaster volunteers, strengthens community resilience and deepens family ties.”

This complex web of relationships again raises interesting questions about the role of the state, and questions concerning the broader legislative, political, and ideological setting become paramount. Of particular note is the idea that neoliberalization has prompted democratic deficits that erode the legitimacy of the state (Purcell, 2009). If the legitimacy of the state is fundamentally compromised, people’s relationships with it may also be significantly affected. This speaks to an area of concern where “research should not only focus on the effect of community-level social capital on government performance, but also the effect of government-associational relationships on social capital” (Maloney et al., 2000, p. 223; but see also Bevir & Rhodes, 2003; Bull & Jones, 2006; Coffe & Geys, 2005; Sønderskov & Dinesen, 2016; Woolcock & Narayan, 2000).

Rothstein and Stolle (2008) provide a good overview of some of the main debates surrounding linking social capital and the state. They note, for example, that adopting the society-centered argument that social capital is generated through “regular social interaction . . . through voluntary associations” is complicated by the observation that volunteers seem to self-select as much as anything and, furthermore, not all associations are “normatively desirable” (p. 442). Although bridging capital (which they interpret as “relationships with many people who are dissimilar”) apparently creates more desirable outcomes, the question of “social” causation remains. These authors question Newton and Norris’s (2000; in Rothstein & Stolle, 2008, p. 443) claim that social capital “can help build effective social and political institutions, which can help governments perform effectively, and this in turn encourages confidence in civic institutions.” Rothstein and Stolle argue that the reverse logic is just as plausible. Instead, they propose examining political institutions,2 specifically “the legal and administrative branches of the state responsible for the implementation of public policies” because (a) they are supposed to be nonpartisan, even-handed, and impartial; and (b) the courts, police, and other legal institutions of the state are there specifically to manage the untrustworthy.

In a post-disaster situation, the role of the courts and the police is perhaps less important than local government planning authorities, which, in New Zealand, are called city or district councils and are responsible for, among other things, pipes, roads, rubbish and recreation. Local or metropolitan government generally undertake urban planning through land use regulation and critical infrastructure provision. When viewed through the lens of public health, local government has perhaps done more to extend our life expectancy than even the medical profession given improvements to sanitation, public transport mobility, waste disposal, air and water quality, and open space provision. Given the range of services local government may provide, it is essential to carefully interrogate linking capital flows and the distributional benefits that such capital generates.

Though speaking of peacetime rather than post-disaster settings, Lowndes and Wilson (2001, pp. 634–639) identify four areas in which local government may shape social capital:

How the local authority works with the voluntary sector (grant levels, access to funding or wider networks, capacity building/training

Opportunities for citizen participation (public meetings and consultations)

Local authority’s responsiveness to citizen’s concerns

Democratic leadership and social inclusion, meaning the accountability and responsibility of leadership at both government and community level

By comparing four different city or district council approaches in post-disaster settings, it was found that linking capital takes time to develop and can be rather fragile. Waiting until the aftermath of disaster to make connections within and between sectors complicates the process because there is so much urgency and uncertainty. Nevertheless, once established, relationships can be both durable and invaluable during disasters. In one example described by Karaminejad (2020), when a socially deprived neighborhood was targeted for housing renewal in 2000, the Housing NZ Corporation (HNZC) undertook a process that began with a 6-month discussion about the location of a park bench. Over 2 years and through 22 small projects, the HNZC helped an un-bonded geographic collection of households become a community as it helped build bonding capital with a distinctive voice and a representative body exhibiting bridging capital: the Aranui Community Trust (ACTIS). Later, the Christchurch City Council (CCC), HNZC, and ACTIS signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding to guide the renewal project, thus consolidating linking capital. ACTIS remained active and was able to assist the Aranui community following the quakes a decade later by procuring and distributing essential supplies, and was later able to advocate for their community in the recovery process.

This example shows that the opportunities for “participation” (that is, linking with decision makers, and decision makers linking with their constituents) is critical at all times, but particularly during disaster recovery (Coles & Buckle, 2004; Vallance, 2015; Ward et al., 2008; Waugh & Streib, 2006), despite the likelihood that everyday governance challenges will be amplified by the need to make decisions urgently and often with inadequate information (Kim & Olshansky, 2014; Platt & So, 2017). Care is needed to ensure that it is not just the “squeaky wheels” or those with pre-existing relationships that are consulted or invited to participate in decision-making processes about Building Back Better. Insufficient care may lead to questions about “whose view of better.”

Following New Zealand’s 2016 Kaikōura earthquakes, for example, there was evidence that those with bonding capital (developed through work and activities connected to the third sector) were then better able to build and mobilize stronger linking capital. For instance, a TSO representative reported how they were able to access increased funding for their project as they were “doing all the right things in terms of recovery, health and wellbeing . . . we are probably more organized than any other group” (Rudkevitch et al., 2019). Interestingly, those who led this TSO already had strong ties (links) with local decision makers, making it easier to access funding opportunities. The converse was also seen in accounts from other TSOs:

General thoughts from today is [sic] that people are unhappy with the governance, from Kaikoura District Council and the central government and how the social response/recovery was not handled properly. There seems to be a disconnect in the discourse. The “officials” say the community is doing just fine on their own, whereas the community groups feel the government hasn’t done much to help them.

(Rudkevitch et al., 2019)

It is not uncommon to see evidence of consultation around disaster recovery initiatives being dominated by individuals and groups with pre-existing relationships with decision makers (Bockmeyer, 2000; Portes & Landolt, 2000), and it is necessary to challenge the assumption that recovery authorities will welcome, encourage, and enable broad participation. Indeed, a growing strand of literature documents the ways in which communities’ post-disaster aspirations are deliberately denied through opaque decision-making pathways and the suspension of democratic rights or conventional participatory processes. Increasingly, research highlights ways in which the post-disaster context—urgency, uncertainty, and shock and awe—is used by those with “connections” to push through their own agendas (Klein, 2008; McClennen, 2012).

Again, the distributional effects of social capital are hard at work, but attention should be placed on how the broader context is foundational to the way it ebbs and flows. For example, drawing on research conducted in New Orleans, Gotham (2012) has illustrated how the outsourcing of responsibility for disaster management to the private sector has changed the perception of traumatized disaster survivors to marketized “customers” and “clients.” Klein (2008) argues that neoliberalization promotes a disaster capitalism that perpetuates crises through critical infrastructure failure, but further, its privatization also incentivizes the development of public–private partnerships. These may come at the expense of public (state) and third sector relationships and lead to decision-making processes that favor those who already have certain advantages (Scoppetta, 2016; see also Tierney, 2015). Nyamori et al.’s (2012, p. 572) case study of local government in New Zealand highlighted how “market forms of management” promoted individualism, narrow departmental goals, manager control, and a reliance on experts that reduced opportunities for community and elected members’ participation in decision making. They found this was “inimical to deliberative democracy” and negatively impacted on the development of all forms of social capital.

Conversely, there have also been examples of local government using disaster recovery planning to ensure that the process is inclusive and empowering. Examples from East Grand Forks (United States) and Waimakariri (New Zealand) suggest that community-based recovery planning that promotes all three forms of social capital may enhance political stability (Garnett & Moore, 2010; Kweit & Kweit, 2004; Vallance, 2015). The report Soft Infrastructure for Hard Times (Vallance et al., 2019) draws on the International Association of Participation’s spectrum as an example of how different kinds of participation may generate different forms of social capital. Figure 3 shows how participating in processes at the left versus right end of the spectrum may shape its distributive and generative effects.

Figure 3. Increasing social capital flows across the spectrum of participation.

Although this may seem abstract, the ideas are being put into practice, as shown in Figure 4. Selwyn GetsReady is an example of a hybrid council–community program deliberately working at the right-hand side of the spectrum, enabling and empowering communities in the district to better respond to disasters by promoting all three forms of social capital. This is achieved by developing good communication and working relationships between officials and townships, neighborhoods, streets, and households, using street and area coordinators. The model means that both the council and their communities are better informed during disasters, and responses are better suited to communities’ needs, which creates less opposition to decisions.

Figure 4. Community response model for Selwyn Gets Ready.

This model also shows how the three forms of social capital can be synergized, not just for disaster recovery but also for disaster risk reduction and management generally. One can see it being usefully extended to a broader range of public health issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, where Selwyn GetsReady has been seen as a trustworthy source of information to help separate “fact from fiction” (left hand of the spectrum), but it also supports those who need help (through relationships developed at the right-hand side). It may seem obvious, but those who are part of this system both give and receive different costs (time, energy) and benefits (healthcare, access to information, and other resources) than those who are not involved. It therefore highlights the point that the distributional benefits of social capital can be profoundly shaped by the broader sociopolitical and ideological context.


Disaster scholarship has brought a new vigor to established scholarship on social capital, and it is now well established that the capitals generated in and through different relationships can help both individuals and communities to get by and get ahead. The benefits of trust, reciprocity, shared norms, and civility range from basic survival in times of crisis, to the facilitation of more complex mental and physical health-related recovery, risk reduction, and resilience goals. In anticipation of an evolving body of scholarship documenting the benefits and pitfalls of strong social capital in both peacetime and disaster, a case has been made to direct greater levels of attention to a framework that might usefully inform future research, particularly as it relates to those broader goals and frameworks associated with, for example, the Sendai Framework.

First, there is still considerable debate about what social capital is, what it does, where it comes from and where it goes, and for what purpose. There are a number of different answers and approaches, including a focus on benefits accruing to individuals rather than collectives; institutionalized rather than structural approaches; and general versus specified trust, norms, and values. This leads to considerations about a second well-established but still unresolved concern for appropriate units of analysis, operationalization, and aspects of measurement. Is it appropriate to examine individuals, communities, the third sector, and local government, as is increasingly common in disaster research (as the conduits or “banks” of social capital)? Or should the focus be on the capital; in other words, variations of close ties, trust, degrees of reciprocity, shared norms, and other forms of “currency”? It is concluded here that a co-constitutional approach may be needed to reconcile these different research trajectories.

Third, it has been demonstrated that a range of remarkable advantages are derived from different forms of social capital where, if people spend the currencies of trust and reciprocity, they can purchase survival, health, and well-being. Given the range of benefits, what are the various ways in which investmests in social capital might be made while being mindful that there is, in fact, a dark side to social capital deployment to be considered? It has been suggested here that the broader ideological context may play a key role in balancing the positive and negative effects. This is because there are aspects of neoliberalization that may have potentially profound impacts on relationships and networks, as it emphasizes individual freedom over the common good, user pays rather than reciprocity, and competition over cooperation. Thus, to conclude, given the potency of social capital and its potential benefits, there is value in pursuing scholarship aligning disaster recovery and health, particularly in the context of broad Building Back Better agendas. Social capital is clearly an important part of disaster management, but also risk governance and public health more generally. Without denying the value of a celebratory approach that focuses on the benefits, it has been argued, there is also a need for more attention to be given to the the generative and distributional effects of linking capital, and the ideological context that shapes capital flows. This paves the way for a wide range of both practical and applied research, but also more theoretical and, indeed, critical approaches.

Further Reading


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  • 1. Perhaps even more strangely, apparently Timothy McVeigh “cooked up the Oklahoma City bombing in a bowling alley in Oklahoma City” (Putnam, 2000, p. 3).

  • 2. For similar reasons, this article draws upon the third sector as nonprofit and nongovernmental (often apolitical) as an appropriate level of analysis.