23 Jun

‘Capital’ and Health

Posted By Senthil

The earthquake in Nepal and the surrounding region in April 2015 were catastrophic, as ‘Acts of God’ often are. As is typical in these situations, the gap between the most well-off and the least well-off was highlighted during the rescue and relief efforts afterwards (see the commentary on inequalities throughout Contemporary Health Studies). The ‘wealthy’ (mostly) Westerners at Everest base camp were airlifted off the mountain to safety at considerable cost per individual, whilst local people were left stranded. This reflects access to one type of capital – money! In health promotion and in other disciplines, we refer to different types of capital, such as social capital. Research points to the fact that, in times of crisis and disaster, social capital increases in communities via focused, collective participation in coping with a specific event (Yamamura, 2013). Some even argue that social capital is created in these situations and that natural disasters can be a catalyst for social capital.

The concept of social capital was developed by a French sociologist called Bourdieu. Putman has built on these ideas and wrote a seminal book about the demise of social capital in America, called Bowling Alone. In brief, social capital arises from connections within groups and communities which are strengthened through engagement and participation – two factors which are central to health promotion’s concerns. Social capital has also been linked to community resilience or the ability of a community to withstand disaster (Aldrich, 2012) and is generally viewed as being linked to more positive health experience.

More recently Hyry-Honka et al (2012) have proposed that health is a type of capital in itself. They have developed the concept of ‘health capital’, arguing that, like other forms of capital, health can be a reserve, can be consumed and can be invested in. The notion of health as a resource and as linked to consumption is something we discuss in Chapter 1. In addition, it is clear that health can be invested in at different levels – for example, at an individual level by making healthier choices, and at a structural or societal level by tackling health inequalities and creating supportive environments (see Chapter 9).

Finally, continuing with the theme of ‘capital’, there is a body of work which suggests that physical activity can produce different types of capital outcomes for individuals. Bailey et al (2013) have developed the Human Capital Model (HCM) to illustrate this. The HCM brings together a number of benefits resulting from physical activity. We know that, almost without exception, being physically active has significant health benefits. The HCM goes further to suggest that not only does physical activity bring physical capital (direct benefits to health), but it also has an impact on other types of capital, namely emotional capital, individual capital, intellectual capital, financial capital and, to bring us back to where we started, social capital.


Bailey, R., Hillman, C., Arent, S. & Petitpas, A. (2013) ‘Physical Activity: An Underestimated Investment in Human Capital?’ Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 10, 289-308.

Hyry-Honka, O., Määttä, K. & Uusiautti, S. (2012) ‘The role of health capital in health promotion.’ International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 50 (3), 125-134.

Yamamura, E. (2013) ‘Natural disasters and social capital formation: The impact of the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake.’ Munich Personal RePEc Archive, <mpra.ob.uni-muenchen.de>

Ruth Cross