Research Summary

Measuring social capital among youth: applications in environmental education

Applying the Concept of Social Capital to Environmental Education

Environmental Education Research

The concept of social capital has garnered increasing attention from scholars over the past few decades because of its relevance to understanding and addressing societal issues. Little scholarship, however, has explored the relevance of social capital to environmental education (EE). The authors of this paper argue that two areas of social capital research are of particular relevance to EE. First, a number of studies have linked social capital to positive youth development and well-being. Second, research has shown that social capital fosters collective action, including community-based management of natural resources.

In this paper, the authors first present an in-depth literature review of social capital, focusing on its relevance to environmental education. Second, the authors propose a measure for social capital among youth that could be used in EE. They developed and tested this measure for reliability, and they present results from a preliminary study to demonstrate how the measure can be applied in EE research.

Much of the literature defines social capital as the goodwill and relationships that exist within a community. Individuals within communities develop (and use) social capital through community events and other relationship-building activities. This social capital can then, in turn, be enacted to bring about change. One of the critical debates in social capital literature is a “chicken-and-egg” problem. Specifically, researchers ask, is social capital the cause of collective actions, or does social capital result from collective actions? This paper’s authors propose that one way to address the issue is to accept that social capital makes collective actions possible and, in turn, such collective actions foster additional social capital. In other words, social capital may both be a contributor to and an outcome of collective action. The authors argue that this solution is consistent with non-linear or systems ways of thinking, which is considered an important element of EE.

The authors make three arguments for the need to link social capital and EE research and practice. First, they argue that EE programs need to adapt to address youth development and related outcomes of interest, especially in low-income, urban, and other stressed communities. Second, incorporating social capital into EE programs could expand existing work in civic participation. Specifically, social capital could provide new conceptual and analytic frameworks to expand scholarship in intergenerational learning, place-based learning, school-community partnerships for sustainability, and other forms of EE geared toward addressing social concerns. Third, social capital could be a valuable tool in EE for fostering collaborative natural resource management in communities. A key concept of this work is that resilient social systems and resilient ecological systems are interdependent. In particular, social capital offers a framework that shifts the focus from changing individual behaviors to creating the conditions that enable a community to take action to safeguard its natural resources.

Next, the authors turn their attention toward the challenges of measuring social capital. One of these challenges is being clear about the construct of social capital: Is it a static asset similar to financial capital, or is it dynamic and ever-changing? Various instruments and constructs have been designed to measure social capital in these different ways; each has advantages and disadvantages.

The authors report on their version of measuring social capital among youth; they note that this conceptualization may be particularly appropriate for EE. They developed and tested the measure for reliability. The authors drew constructs and scales from the National Social Capital Benchmark Survey, which has been used to measure social capital among adults. They adapted the questions to be suitable for use among youth between the ages of 10 and 14. The survey included five constructs: social trust; informal socializing; diversity of friendships; associational involvement; and civic leadership. The questions used 5-point, Likert scale-type items as well as dichotomous (yes/no) items.

The authors pilot tested the survey with nine teenagers (between the ages of 14 and 18) who were summer apprentices in a New York garden program. The youth provided feedback that informed minor revisions of the instrument to enhance comprehension. They conducted a second pilot test online with a random sample of 210 children between the ages of 10 and 14 (of the sample, 52% were male). The social capital questions were administered as part of a larger survey related to youth place meanings and attachment. Once again, the researchers revised the survey slightly related to pilot-test findings and feedback.

As a pilot test, the authors used the revised survey to evaluate the impact of summer EE programs on social capital among youth in the Bronx, New York. The authors administered pre- and post-program surveys to youth between the ages of 14 and 18. All of the youth were participants in urban EE programs (intervention, n = 63) and in urban non-environmental youth employment programs (non-EE intervention, n = 24). These programs were of the same length over the summer of 2010.

The results of this pilot test suggested that participating in EE programs was associated with statistically significant increases in some measures of social capital, including students’ informal socializing and students’ diversity of friendship. By contrast, there were not significant changes in any of these constructs in the non-EE intervention. In terms of reliability of the scales, the constructs for social trust and informal socializing and diversity of friendship were found to be statistically reliable, while the measure for social trust was usable, but on the low side in terms of being considered statistically reliable. The authors were not able to determine the reliability of the measures for associational involvement and civic leadership because the dichotomous scales in these questions meant they lacked appropriate statistics to measure reliability.

Overall, this pilot test provided an example of how social capital could be included in program evaluation, and suggested that certain EE programs are already addressing factors that increase social capital. The authors suggest that further exploration is warranted for expanding the understanding of the relationship between social capital and EE.

The Bottom Line

The concept of social capital—which is fostered through collective activities that build social trust, networks, and connections between individuals, families, and community members—may be a valuable tool for developing and evaluating the impact of environmental education (EE) programs. Building social capital in communities can make community members more likely and able to take collective action to address environmental problems. Developing measures that appropriately and reliably assess different aspects of social capital, particularly within an EE context, is critical to better understanding what is occurring within an EE program to enhance social capital. In turn, those measures also help examine how social capital can contribute to various outcomes of interest, both environmentally related and otherwise.