Introduction: Recent research on health inequalities moves beyond illustrating the importance of psychosocial factors for health to a more in-depth study of the specific psychosocial pathways involved. Social capital is a concept that captures both a buffer function of the social environment on health, as well as potential negative effects arising from social inequality and exclusion. This systematic review assesses the current evidence, and identifies gaps in knowledge, on the associations and interactions between social capital and socioeconomic inequalities in health.
Methods: Through this systematic review we identified studies on the interactions between social capital and socioeconomic inequalities in health published before July 2012.
Results: The literature search resulted in 618 studies after removal of duplicates, of which 60 studies were eligible for analysis. Self-reported measures of health were most frequently used, together with different bonding, bridging and linking components of social capital. A large majority, 56 studies, confirmed a correlation between social capital and socioeconomic inequalities in health. Twelve studies reported that social capital might buffer negative health effects of low socioeconomic status and five studies concluded that social capital has a stronger positive effect on health for people with a lower socioeconomic status.
Conclusions: There is evidence for both a buffer effect and a dependency effect of social capital on socioeconomic inequalities in health, although the studies that assess these interactions are limited in number. More evidence is needed, as identified hypotheses have implications for community action and for action on the structural causes of social inequalities.