The Keystone to Community Resilience: Social Capital

By Megan Clifford

The deadliest tornado in the U.S. since 1947 struck Joplin, MO in May 2011, leaving vast devastation and destruction in its wake. And yet, in just a matter of months, the town was bouncing back. School started on time, the hospital opened at a temporary location, and stores were rebuilt. Faced with unprecedented adversity, the community took the lead in the town's revival.

Why are some communities, such as Joplin, MO, more resilient and able to recover after significant disasters? What are the common elements, and more importantly, the replicable drivers of a resilient community? Playing an active role in national emergency preparedness and recovery support, we have seen firsthand the exceptional collaboration and deep trust that enable these communities to successfully work together as a collective whole. At its core, they all have one important quality in common: social capital.

What is Social Capital?

Social capital is the critical element of the community resident's ability to carry out collective action for self-improvement. As a sociological theory, social capital re-emerged in the early 1970s and began trending in academic literature in the 1990s, most notably through the continued work of Professor Robert Putnam.1 According to Putnam, social capital is "networks, norms, and trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" among citizens in a community and could "enhance the productivity of physical and human capital" in that community. This capital is accumulated through mutual activities, which enhance people's reliance upon and trust of one another.2 Putnam further adds that the concept of social capital first depends on the community's efforts and its emphasis is different from the traditional public administration processes that depend more on the state and federal governments to find a solution.

While there are a variety of definitions of social capital, all emphasize its focus on social relations that have productive benefits. Tightly interlaced are the dimensions of trust, reciprocity, networks, collective whole, mutual productive gain, and facilitation of collective action.

Establishing Community Trust Leads to Social Capital

Social capital is key to resilience. FEMA defines resilience as "the capacity to absorb severe shock and return to a desired state after a disaster. It involves technical, organizational, social and economic dimensions.... It is fostered not only by government, but also by individual, organization, and business actions." 3 Further, FEMA outlines the role of trust in resilient communities by stating, "Establishing trusted relationships among leaders and communities prior to a disaster is essential to community resilience and sustainability." This notion is echoed throughout the academic literature by simply stating that trust at the community level is the driver for its social capital.

Social Capital at Work

The power of social capital—with this high level of community trust—has been illustrated in a number of disaster recovery and response efforts over the past 20 years. In contrasting disaster response in 2005's Hurricane Katrina with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and earthquake, the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard University states, "…in the most advanced technological and largest economy in the world, thousands of people were moved out of New Orleans for their own safety and have never gone back … [whereas] Northern Indonesia was hit by that big wave and it recovered remarkably quickly in part due to the fact that it did have social capital…." In looking at the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, the United Nations Center for Regional Development outlines the way in which communities with social capital are more proactive in collective decision making, thereby contributing to a faster recovery. During the 1997 Red River flooding in North Dakota, Minnesota, and southern Canada, communities characterized by higher levels of "physical, human and social capital" were better prepared and more effective responders to the floods. And in Joplin, MO, Superintendent of Joplin's Schools, Dr. CJ Huff, has discussed the importance of community trust in Joplin's success. "It's all about developing peer-to-peer relationships, which [is] really important, post-disaster…developing the relationships in and amongst and between organizations within the community… tapping into the time, talent, and treasures of those organizations," states Huff." That gives you a sense of community that we've built in Joplin, and it's real, it's not contrived, it's very real."

Building Resilience at the Community Level

While social scientists research how social capital plays out in a resilient community, there is a real need to incorporate this critical element in the National Preparedness Goal as a core capability. At a minimum, social capital must beat the heart of the community resilience framework. FEMA has encouraged a whole community approach to emergency management, recognizing it takes all aspects of a community—not just the government—to build resilience at a local level. This approach sets the "infrastructure" for the development of social capital. And while all parts of the whole community are now involved, or are getting involved, in National Preparedness, the connectedness and trust of the networks within the whole community will make a difference between those communities that stick together and rise above tragedy, and those that struggle to bounce back.

It is imperative that we find the trusted community leaders to foster mutual understanding and respect across the whole community. It is equally imperative to identify those common values that bind people together to inspire individuals to take personal mitigating action. Joplin is a community that embodies resilience, and within that, the empowerment of a high degree of social capital. Trust, mutual aid for mutual gain, facilitation of collective action, civic participation, networks, and reciprocity are found in this community.

A resilient, whole community is social capital personified.

1Robert Putnam leads the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America initiative at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has written more than a dozen books, including Bowling Alone and Making Democracy Work, both among the most cited publications in the social sciences in the last half century. The London Sunday Times has called him "the most influential academic in the world today."

2Mohan, Giles, and John Mohan. 2002. Placing social capital. Progress in Human Geography 26: 191–210.

3FEMA Draft National Hazards Mitigation Framework, 2012: Godschalk, David R., Rose, Adam, Mittler, Elliott, Porter, Keith and West, Carol Taylor (2009) 'Estimating the value of foresight: aggregate analysis of natural hazard mitigation benefits and costs', Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 52:6,739–756.


Megan Clifford, a Principal at Booz Allen, is a leader of the firm’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) market team. She oversees the firm’s support to FEMA clients, providing support in the areas of policy analysis, program design and development, stakeholder engagement, grants management, and program management focused on efficiencies and effectiveness. Ms. Clifford has more than 14 years of experience serving a variety of clients, including the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Energy, and Department of Defense. She is a member of the Association of State Flood Plain Managers, National Grants Management Association, and Project Management Institute.