‘More Community!’ Does the Social Capital Hypothesis Offer Hope for Untrusting Societies?

Toby Fattore, University of New South Wales
Nick Turnbull, University of New South Wales
Shaun Wilson, Australian National University


Academics, politicians, and commentators influenced by the idea of social capital make a general claim that enhancing the social capital of the community can restore trust. Trust is produced, they argue, by group membership and participation, intimate connections, and consultation. But we argue here that the kind of relationships that many social capital researchers describe as trust are quite distinct, and that we should not expect that straightforward ‘more community’ solutions will be effective in building greater trust. We use data from the Middle Australia Project to specify regression models that predict three kinds of trust — trust in neighbours, trust in others, and trust in government. We find definite limits to the explanatory power of measures that could meaningfully be described as social capital indicators for the latter two types of trust. We consider why social capital measures do not confirm the intuitions of social capital-based research and propose some alternative ways of looking at the problem.

Until recently, Toby Fattore was a researcher in the School of Sociology at the University of New South Wales. His current projects examine young people’s experiences of paid and unpaid work, children and young people’s understandings of well-being. Nick Turnbull is postgraduate student in the School of Social Science and Policy at the University of New South Wales. His PhD research studies the process of policy-making <n.turnbull@unsw.edu.au>. Shaun Wilson is Research Fellow at the Centre for Social Research at the ANU. He is a Principal Investigator of the new Australian Survey of Social Attitudes <shaun.wilson@anu.edu.au>.

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