Relationship Between Social Capital and Crime in Rural Australia

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The paper investigates the relationship between social capital and crime in rural Australia. First the paper outlines the conceptualisation of social capital which has informed this research. It suggests two key links between social capital and crime which has led researchers to utilise the latter as a proxy measure of the former and questions the theoretical justification for this by reference to the concepts of bonding, bridging and linking social capital. The paper then provides an overview of key themes within criminological research in rural Australia. Using original empirical data from research undertaken in rural Queensland the paper explores the relationship between social capital and crime within the context of small rural communities, emphasising the role of the local newspaper in influencing local opinion on issues of law and order. The empirical results challenge the established theoretical connection between social capital and crime and suggest that the level of crime cannot be used as a simple proxy for the level of social capital. The results also illustrate the manifestation of the downside of social capital and suggest that the concept of linking social capital plays a critical role in fostering a tolerance of diversity within otherwise cohesive and functional communities.

Keywords: Social capital, crime, rural Australia, small towns, newspaper reporting.


In an effort to expand on theory surrounding the concept of social capital, researchers are understandably keen to utilise easily accessible data to measure levels of social capital across time and space. However, several critics have questioned the validity of research findings which, it is argued, have failed to adequately conceptualise the multifaceted nature of social capital. Such studies have subsequently used inappropriate or inadequate tools for its measurement thus undermining the value of the concept (Mohan & Mohan, 2002; Stone, 2001; Woolcock, 1998).

Typically, measures of social capital include one or more of the variables strongly associated with its development including membership of voluntary associations (Falk & Kilpatrick, 2000; Narayan & Pritchett, 1999; Putnam, 1993, 2000; Svendsen & Svendsen, 2000), levels of trust (Hogan & Owen, 2000; Knack & Keefer, 1997; Whiteley, 2000), or civicness (Lochner, Kawachi & Kennedy, 1999; Onyx & Bullen, 2000; Putnam, 1993). A further proxy measure which has a strong theoretical connection to social capital and one which has gained some currency in recent years is the level of crime within a particular locale. It is argued that crime rates share a strong inverse relationship with levels of social capital (Fukuyama, 1995, 1999; Macgregor & Cary, 2002; Putnam, 2000; White & Habibis, 2005).

The research upon which this article is based was undertaken in rural Queensland in 2001-02 and had two main purposes: firstly, to develop a robust quantitative measure of social capital. And secondly, to use this measure in conjunction with other qualitative measures, to explore the relationship between social capital and other variables such as economic development and crime. Some key findings from this research, including a detailed review of the methodology, have been reported elsewhere (Woodhouse, 2006). This article provides an overview of the methodology and explores the theoretical relationship and key findings in relation to levels of social capital and crime.

Defining social capital

Before assessing this relationship it is useful to outline some key issues in the debate concerning the conceptualisation, definition and measurement of social capital.

A myriad of definitions of social capital exist and essentially they express two differing but complementary views. The first espoused by Putnam (1993) sees social capital as a process of interaction and reciprocated positive behaviour between people. Putnam (1993) defines social capital as 'features of social...
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