Social Capital and Complexity Theory: The Science and Language of Collaboration

By Elizabeth D. Carlson, Joan C. Engebretson and Robert M. Chamberlain.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Social capital, as a research variable, has gained
international popularity in public health and health
disparities research. In the U.S., an Institute of Medicine
report has recommended that the next generation of health
promotion research should be focused on designing,
implementing, and evaluating interventions that build social
capital. At an international level, the World Bank has
identified social capital as a critical aspect of poverty
alleviation efforts. Missing from the research is the
ethnographic investigation of social interactions to refine
the conceptual domains, attributes, and variables. Such a
refinement would create a theoretical framework for
hypothesis testing and intervention design. Therefore, the
purpose of our research trajectory was to develop a more
complete understanding of social capital for research
purposes and practice application. Methods: The Hybrid Model
of Concept Development provided the methodological framework
for the study. Participatory observation and theoretical
sampling examined the facilitating or constraining
influences on mutually beneficial collective action in 3
neighborhood settings. Results: Using the paradigm and
language of complexity theory as an interpretive lens
provided a theoretical fit with the findings from the data.
Understanding groups as complex adaptive systems provided an
explicit distinction between the structural and cognitive
domains and resulted in a definition of social capital as an
emergent cultural phenomenon. Trust was distinguished as the
attractor, the point in any behavioral field through which
all relationship trajectories eventually travel. More
importantly, variation in the cognitive domain, understood
as cultural patterns of interpreting meaning, significantly
altered the probabilities of successful collaboration.
Conclusions: We believe that the value of this theory lies
in its practice and research potential to evaluate initial
conditions, invest resources to address issues of trust, and
self-monitor relationships to maintain successful partnerships.

Keywords: Theory, Social Capital, Trust, Collaboration, Health Disparities

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp.409-424. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.343MB).

Dr. Elizabeth D. Carlson

Assistant Professor, Mennonite College of Nursing, Illinois State University, Springfield, Illinois, USA

Dr. Elizabeth D. Carlson, PhD, MPH, APRN-BC, is a graduate of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Nursing (PhD) and School of Public Health (MPH). She is certified as an Advanced Practice Gerontological Nurse Practitioner and a Public Health Clinical Nurse Specialist. After finishing a three year postdoctoral fellowship at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, she left Texas and moved with her husband to Springfield, Illinois, USA. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Mennonite College of Nursing, Illinois State University where she teaches research methods and professional roles and issues at the graduate level. Her research interests have focused on understanding the social and cultural mechanisms that create health disparities across the continuum of cancer prevention. This has focused her program of research on understanding what social capital is and how it can be leveraged for mutually beneficial collective action and the improvement of population health outcomes.

Dr. Joan C. Engebretson

Professor, School of Nursing, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Houston, Texas, USA

Dr. Engebreton, PhD, RN is a Professor at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Nursing with an adjunct affiliation at the School of Public Health. She has been a registered nurse for over 30 years and has a wealth of experience as a public health nurse. Her research interests focus on cultural studies of the illness experience and on culturally diverse explanatory models of health and illness. Dr. Engebretson served as the chair of the dissertation committee during Dr. Carlson’s doctoral work and served as a member of the mentoring team during the three year Postdoctoral period.

Dr. Robert M. Chamberlain

Professor, Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, USA

Robert M. Chamberlain, PhD is the Ashbel Smith Professor and Chair of the Department of Epidemiology at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Chamberlain served as the primary mentor for both Dr. Carlson’s Predoctoral and Postdoctoral training periods. He holds advanced degrees in medical sociology and anthropology. His educational background and his research studies on cancer and racial disparities were assets for guiding the overall direction of the mentoring team for this program of research.


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