Lost in translation: a genealogy of the “social capital” concept in public health

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Abstract

Study objective:

To examine the genealogy of the social capital concept in public health, with attention to the epistemological concerns and academic practices that shaped the way in which this concept was translated into public health.

Design:

A citation-network path analysis of the public health literature on social capital was used to generate a genealogy of the social capital concept in public health. The analysis identifies the intellectual sources, influential texts, and developments in the conceptualisation of social capital in public health.

Participants:

The population of 227 texts (articles, books, reports) was selected in two phases. Phase 1 texts were articles in the PubMed database with “social capital” in their title published before 2003 (n = 65). Phase 2 texts are those texts cited more than once by phase 1 articles (n = 165).

Main results:

The analysis shows how the scholarship of Robert Putnam has been absorbed into public health research, how three seminal texts appearing in 1996 and 1997 helped shape the communitarian form that the social capital concept has assumed in public health, and how both were influenced by the epistemological context of social epidemiology at the time.

Conclusions:

Originally viewed in public health research as an ecological level, psychosocial mechanism that might mediate the income inequality-health pathway, the dominance of the communitarian approach to social capital has given disproportionate attention to normative and associational properties of places. Network approaches to social capital were lost in this translation. Recovering them is key to a full translation and conceptualisation of social capital in public health.

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