The Potentials of Social Capital in Making a Strong Society: A Dialogue With Distinguished Fellow Kawachi Ichiro


Kawachi Ichiro, distinguished fellow, JICA Ogata Sadako Research Institute for Peace and Development (JICA Ogata Research Institute), studies the connection between social capital (which is defined as resource that could be accessed through social networks) and health. Our senior research fellow, Saito Kiyoko, interviewed him to ask about the roles of social capital in overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic and creating a society where no one would be left behind in case of another crisis, which is sure to take place in the future.

The two-sidedness of social capital that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed

Saito: With the COVID-19 pandemic currently ongoing, discussions on the resilience of healthcare systems are becoming active. COVID-19 is straining healthcare systems in various ways, destroying local communities politically, socially and financially, and it is said that discussions on resilience should take all these factors into consideration. Under such circumstances, what are the roles that social capital, a strength of communities that is receiving particular attention, should play?

Kawachi Ichiro, distinguished fellow, JICA Ogata Research Institute

Kawachi: I believe that social capital is playing two roles—a global one and a local one—during this pandemic. There are several mechanisms in which social capital promotes health. One of these is the leveraging of various norms that facilitate cooperative behavior. When every member of the community wears a mask and gets vaccinated, it is a classic example of cooperative behavior. I think this example exactly shows what roles social capital has. In countries with strong social capital, many people wear masks even if no law or regulation that requires them to do so is in place. See how neither Japan nor China has laws that mandate masks. On the contrary, in the US and European countries, such laws had to be made because the normative awareness to wear masks for the sake of everyone is lacking. Increasingly more people believe that they themselves are not at risk, so they choose not to wear masks. This leads to friction that starts arguments and eventually there is no choice but to make a law. I think it is safe to understand this as a lack of social capital and sense of solidarity. I therefore think that the first role of social capital is to induce cooperative behavior, reinforce it with social cohesion and contribute to public health.

Saito: To allow social capital to fulfill this important role, what kind of interventions or improvements are needed?

Kawachi: It is quite difficult to make changes when a crisis is ongoing. Unless we make changes through policies during normal times, enhancement of the sense of solidarity across society is challenging. This shows how long-term preparation against disasters is therefore extremely important.

Saito: What is the other role of social capital, the one from a local aspect?

Kawachi: This aspect is precisely the one that is effective during a crisis. For example, dense networks allow for quicker communication of information that benefits our health. This is indeed an effect of social capital that becomes visible for the first time when a crisis takes place. That is, through networks, we become able to get various types of resources like information, mutual assistance and mental support. This happens locally and I think the effects can persist during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing for the improvement of many issues in local communities. It is pretty difficult for, say a local municipality, to make interventions in social cohesion with policies, as it depends on social structural influences during normal times. On the other hand, the role networks fulfill to ensure that social support reaches all residents could be taken at the local level, anytime and anywhere.

Saito: Some say that if things do not work during a crisis regardless of how much has been prepared, that is where the limit of social capital is. Are there necessary measures to overcome this problem?

Kawachi: In the studies that I have conducted to date, social capital established during normal times also worked when disasters occurred. For example, results from my study on the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami clearly show effects like less likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) development after the disaster among people who lived in areas where social capital had been strong prior to the disaster. This suggests that it is important to build social capital before disasters occur, precisely because it is difficult to reinforce social capital during or shortly after a disaster.

Saito: Can social capital built as part of a response to a crisis remain afterwards?

Kawachi: Findings from numerous studies provide evidence that it can. As an example, it has been reported that following the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, neighborhood associations and community groups were formed as a result of various community development activities. These were still in place more than ten years after the disaster and were said to have helped solving a variety of issues, not only those directly caused by the disaster but also a range of those faced by communities later on. Therefore, it seems like once social capital is built, it will continue to have use.

Saito: Studies I have been involved in are showing similar results and I agree fully on this. Leaving the positive aspects of social capital aside for now, I would like to ask you about the “dark sides” and any points we need to keep in mind. For instance, when discussing whether to invest in mental or financial support upon providing social support, we often hear people saying that financial support should be prioritized. What do you think about this?

Kawachi: The concept of social capital is based on various resources that can be obtained through networks. These resources include information, mental support and financial support, among others. But I think we cannot say for sure that we should focus on one in particular. For example, at least at the start of the pandemic when no one knew how to prevent infection, a positive aspect of social capital was seen in how really useful information was communicated. On the other hand, a dark side was seen when for example, incorrect information was spread through social media networks in the US. In politically polarized countries like the US, such dark sides seem to stand out; networks are capable of spreading both good information and bad information. It is quite difficult to prevent incorrect information from being widely spread without the help of corporates.

Saito: Is there any other dark side?

Kawachi: In communities where a sense of unity as a group is strong, norms like having everyone wearing masks can easily spread. Here, the dark side would be strong oppositions against people who do not follow such norms. Worst cases include the stigmatization and discrimination of those who caught COVID-19. In Japan, there were news reports on how rumors about those who became infected were spread within their networks, resulting in bullying. Such cases are pretty rare in Europe and North America. I think bullying is one dark side of communities that have strong social capital.

Saito: Some argue that “bridging social capital” or “linking social capital” is necessary to prevent dark sides from emerging or to break through them. In practice, what ways are there?

Kawachi: It is difficult to give examples but let us look at the ongoing discrimination against Asian immigrants in Europe and North America. Hate crime incidents targeting Asian immigrants saw a rise, particularly when the Trump administration used the phrase “Chinese virus.” In this respect, I think it is important to build a network that bridges Asian and non-Asian citizens.

Bridging for vulnerable populations by collaborative efforts of volunteers, governments/municipalities and businesses

Saito: Who falls into the category of vulnerable people during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Kawachi: Vulnerable people from the perspective of social capital would be those who belong to groups with insufficient bridging social capital. In the case of Europe and North America, these include people in poverty, ethnic minorities, immigrants, the physically disabled, the elderly, and people in groups that are cut off from others and socially isolated. When you think about which groups are lacking various kinds of social capital, you can see who is vulnerable.

Saito: During discussions taking place under the pandemic, some academics argue that COVID-19 is an emerging infectious disease for which scientific knowledge is limited and there was a delay in responding actions because of fear of the unknown. Meanwhile, others say that the coronavirus group existed throughout the years and the existence of the risk of a new emerging infectious disease was known. That is, they argue that we had the information but were unable to respond. In other words, were we unable to respond because we did not know, or were we unable to respond even though we knew? If we assume that communities could not function although we knew, what problems existed from the perspective of social capital?

Kawachi: I gather that most people clearly did not know. I believe it took several months before the virus transmission route became clear. Fear at the early stage was indeed about us not even knowing how this virus was transmitted. Under such circumstances, it is extremely important that accurate information is disseminated. Sure, for many years it was said that there definitely will be a pandemic. Yet when it came to how and by what kind of virus, things were not so clear.

Saito: After a while from the initial fear, even after the unknown became known, we are still being unable to adopt normative behavior. I think the reason behind this is related to the dark sides of social capital that you explained. Some researchers argue that the act of intentionally bringing potentially vulnerable minority groups to the center of majority groups to get their message through would serve as a catalyst for a breakthrough. Do you think this could be effective to a certain degree?

Kawachi: It is important to bridge vulnerable groups with others. At least at the local level, there are several cases where bridging social capital was built. For example, in Unnan, Shimane, residents of diverse backgrounds come together to hold meetings for community development and solve issues related to COVID-19 there. In such ways, perhaps we can successfully build bridges through the participation of various types of people, whether it be the disabled or the elderly.

Saito: Would this bridging take a top-down approach from the government or a bottom-up one from the residents?

Kawachi: First both. Of course, local volunteers would be necessary but municipalities would have to assist them. Through public-private partnerships, corporates may also be able to participate. I think intervention by a range of social capital is something that is done through a combination of activities by three parties: volunteers; governments and municipalities taking on top-down approaches; and if possible, corporates.
Saito: Would the involvement of these three parties change depending on the circumstances?

Kawachi: What is required at which stage based on systematic thinking is not fully understood yet.

Saito: As for socially vulnerable groups, are there any populations of which vulnerability came to light by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Kawachi: Hardly any. Groups that showed vulnerability to the pandemic were obviously already vulnerable before the pandemic. I think it was predictable before the pandemic that the ones most vulnerable when a pandemic occurs are populations lacking social capital, and in particular, bridging social capital, from normal times. It is therefore unlikely that a new vulnerable group emerged.

Reinforcing community resilience by leveraging social capital

Saito: Allow me to summarize things like this: social capital is important from normal times; networks built through it are used to the maximum extent in case of a disaster/pandemic and during restoration phases; but activities conducted through these networks are flexibly handled. Is this kind of network building seen as a way to achieve resilient community?

Kawachi: Exactly. As needs differ depending on each vulnerable population, bridging social capital must be created while being catered to these differences. In the US, it is said that lockdowns led to sexual minorities becoming cut off from others and socially isolated as they lacked bridging social capital from normal times as well as having difficulties in building networks because of the stigma they face. To prevent such situations from happening, I think it is important that bridging groups are formed to prepare for future pandemics.

Saito: I think social capital is precisely a research topic that is in need of further studies now. What points need to be discussed from here?

Kawachi: How to leverage social capital. Instead of one-sidedly strengthening social capital, we need to seriously consider how to leverage social capital while dealing with its dark sides. The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled both positive and negative aspects of social capital. How should we reinforce community/societal resilience while dealing with the dark sides in the future? For example, to prevent incorrect information from being widely spread, cooperation from social media platform operators like Twitter and Facebook is needed but that alone would only cover upstream regulation. How social capital in communities can be reinforced is, on the contrary, a local issue. To mitigate the impacts of the dark sides, we need to think from a local perspective, for instance, about how to prevent stigmatization of COVID-19 infection.

Saito: In order to consider how social capital in communities can be autonomous, I believe that how to get citizens to participate with a sense of ownership is one important point that needs to be discussed. Now, the problem lies in the macro perspective. When we see the world as a global community, ownership of issues in developed countries is not linked with that of lower middle-income countries (LMICs). This results in risks as seen in the emergence of the Omicron variant, which most likely took place in a country where vaccination is not widespread. I think that not only bonding social capital within each community but also bridging social capital that covers larger social units is important. How can we build this kind of social capital?

Kawachi: That is a critical challenge being faced globally. Climate change is similarly an issue that cannot be solved unless everyone in every country cooperates. Unless everyone solves these issues together, our world would surely collapse in the future. To give an example, the difference in vaccine supply between developed countries and LMICs was a phenomenon caused by income disparities. How are we going to address income disparities around the world? As long as we do not face this question, I think issues around both the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are hard to solve.

Saito: Income disparities remind me of the discussion we had earlier, about whether to prioritize financial or mental support. What are your thoughts?

Kawachi: This sounds a little like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, but one of the consequences of the pandemic is its negative effects on mental health. Various people were affected, including the elderly. In this context, I think mental support was in need rather than financial support. Japan saw a rise in young women’s suicide rate as well and I guess this is not much a sign of financial damage but more of the insufficiency of mental support.

Saito: Finally, in terms of social capital, in what ways can JICA Ogata Research Institute make contributions?

Kawachi: JICA is conducting interventive activities in places like Africa. I think where JICA can contribute most is the execution of case studies during such interventive pilot projects. More specifically, over 90% of existing studies on social capital intervention looked at developed countries and studies in LMICs are seriously lacking. How should social capital intervention in Africa look like, and what can be done locally? It would be wonderful if answers to these questions can be provided through case studies.

Saito: Thank you.

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