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The conceptual and empirical utility of social capital for public health

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posted on 2023-01-11, 13:21 authored by Deborah Gleeson
Abstract: This thesis evaluates the utility of 'social capital' for public health in four dimensions (communication, explanation, practice and measurement) and at two levels (macro and micro), using interviews with public health workers and a theoretical analysis of social capital. It concludes that the concept is potentially useful for public health but that there are limitations to its utility, arising from the presence of two competing discourses or world views identified in the social capital literature: the rational choice discourse and the political economy discourse.This thesis argues that although social capital is widely perceived to have rhetorical leverage in macro-level policy debates, its contested meaning draws into question the value of any consensus built on the glossing over of different world views. The concept has no value for communication at the micro level.The rational choice theory of social capital appears useful for explaining the social determinants of health although it does not adequately account for the power structures which shape and constrain access to social capital, and it undervalues many aspects of social relationships. The political economy approach is more useful in these respects but is far more complex and difficult to quantify. It is unclear whether either of these theories adds much value to the existing literature which social capital tends to eclipse.The concept has limited value for public health practice, as the dual world views embedded in it can be used to support widely varying policy directions. It is also limited by its inability to describe the dynamics of change or to identify levers for initiating change. The meaningfulness of social capital indicators is compromised by the reductionism of the rational choice paradigm. The political economy discourse renders the development of quantitative indicators far more problematic but may be useful for informing qualitative research.

Originally part of the Australasian Digital Theses (ADT) database.

Submission note: A thesis submitted in total fulfilment for the requirements for the degree of Master of Public Health [to the School of Public Health], Faculty of Health Sciences, La Trobe University, Bundoora.


Center or Department

School of Public Health.

Thesis type

  • Masters

Awarding institution

La Trobe University

Year Awarded


Rights Statement

The thesis author retains all proprietary rights (such as copyright and patent rights) over the content of this thesis, and has granted La Trobe University permission to reproduce and communicate this version of the thesis.

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