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Introduction by Dr Lisa Wood

“Social capital is the social glue, the weft and warp of the social fabric which comprises a myriad of interactions that make up our public and private lives.” (Eva Cox, Boyer lecture, 1995)

What Is This Thing Called “Social Capital”?

While there has been a lot of discussion around social capital over the past five to ten years, there is no single or agreed definition. Most simply, it has been referred to as the glue that holds society together(1) or the raw material of civil society that is created from the everyday interactions between people.(2) More specifically,

Social capital consists of the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviours that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible.(3)

The theme of most definitions is that social capital is about networks of people getting some common benefit from interacting with each other. Importantly, social capital does not have to be either defined or confined by geography. Instead, it can be created within any number of the smaller communities that people belong to, such as recreational or interest groups, workplaces, families and even virtual communities.

Like other core features of humanity such as love and goodwill, social capital is difficult to see and measure directly. Instead it is measured more indirectly through its traits, such as community involvement and participation, trust, the extent to which people do things for each other, and the informal and formal networks between individuals and groups.

So What’s The Big Deal?

The word “capital”, coupled with “social” seeks to convey that ‘social capital’ has a value; a value that is on par with economic and human capital as foundations of a civil society. Like other forms of capital, it can either grow and be invested in, or be depleted.

Robert Putnam, one of the earliest and most prominent thinkers on social capital, alerts us to the economic benefits that accrue in places and regions rich in social capital(4) by raising levels of human capital and forging civic engagement and trust.(5)

Trust is a distinct hallmark of social capital and one seen as essential to collective and individual wellbeing. As articulated by Eva Cox, “without trusting the goodwill of others we retreat into bureaucracy, rules and demands for more law and order”.(6) The absence of trust can also breed fear and intolerance to differences. Such an absence was powerfully depicted in Michael Moore’s provocative documentary style film on American high school massacres, whereby lack of trust, tolerance, and the dominance of individualism over collective goodwill were investigated as part of the complex web of possible causes for this terrifying scenario.

What Benefits Does Social Capital Bring?

One of the most prolific areas of social capital research and interest is in the health field, with lower mortality rates,(7-9) higher self-rated health,(10) better general health(11) and decreased common mental illness(12) all positively associated with social capital. Other research indicates that higher levels of social capital are associated with a lessening in violent crime,(13) positive child development(14) and good community governance.(15)

As an example of social capital in action; the risk of dying as a consequence of a major Chicago heat-wave in July 1995 was found to correspond strongly to social capital. Socially isolated elderly persons experienced the highest mortality rates during this heat-wave, while those with links to community groups such as clubs and churches experienced much lower rates.(16) Similarly, the death rate among socially isolated elderly people was higher in communities characterised by low levels of interaction in public places and higher crime rates.(17)

Social capital has caught the interest of researchers and policy makers in fi elds as diverse as health, education, business, agriculture and family psychology. National surveys of social capital are also being conducted in an increasing number of countries, including Australia, on the premise that social capital is a marker of individual and community wellbeing. It is now not uncommon for social capital to ‘pop up’ in government policy documents, as well as in not for profit and corporate programs.

This is occurring not because social capital is a totally new concept but rather because it gives a name and value to those human aspects of community, organisations and family life that are sometimes overlooked, but are nonetheless vital to individual and community wellbeing.

What Have Pets Got To Do With It?

Social capital can stem from many sources; for example it is being created and applied when people (individually or as groups and organisations) lend a helping hand, get involved in community issues, interact with local residents, volunteer, share useful contacts and skills, work towards a common goal, overlook someone’s differences and more.

With concerns growing both within Australia and around the globe regarding the erosion of community and social capital, and accumulating evidence of the impact of social and psychosocial factors on health and wellbeing, pets are emerging as valuable and positive features in community and neighbourhood life.

Scientific Research On Pets And Pet Ownership

In our own research,(18-19) pets were found to act as a lubricant for social contact and interaction and pet owners had elevated perceptions of suburb friendliness. Even among people who didn’t own pets themselves, pets were seen as a conversation ice-breaker and to contribute positively to people getting out and about in their community. Pet owners were more likely to exchange favours with neighbours, to be involved in community issues and to have higher levels of social capital. Pets also appeared to ameliorate some determinants of poor mental health, such as loneliness. The connection between pets and social interaction and social capital suggests that the domain of a pet’s influence can extend beyond its immediate owner and home turf, to have a positive ripple effect on the broader community. Research undertaken by colleagues also demonstrates the role that dogs play in motivating their owners to be more physically active,(20) which in turn has a flow on benefit to health and reduced burden of disease at the community level.

There are also pet related examples of social capital traits such as volunteering, community involvement and programs to support people with special needs. Even when pet related problems arise, social capital can ‘kick in’ to help identify mutual ground and build community-based solutions. Moreover, including the needs of people with pets in communities can benefit everyone, as noted by Walljasper in a guide to building great neighbourhoods:

“When you create a neighborhood that’s friendly to dogs, it’s friendly to people, too. The traffic is not speeding and dangerous. There are green places to hang out and walk. So dogs are a good indicator species.”(21)

This handbook and the case studies within it provide examples of the ‘power of pets’ at work across a diverse range of community settings and issues. Importantly, most of the initiatives described in these case studies have evolved at the community or local government level, and the ideas can be readily adapted to suit differing circumstances and places.

While not everyone has the desire or capacity to have a pet of their own, communities that embrace pets for their positive and tangible contribution to human health and well-being, have much to gain.


Lisa Wood

Centre for the Built Environment and Health

School of Population Health

The University of Western Australia

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