Author's School

Brown School

Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2022

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Nancy Norrow-Howell

Committee Members

Carolyn Baum, Vanessa Fabbre, Shenyang Guo, Sojung Park


This study aims to develop our understanding of social capital by exploring the dimensions and profiles of social capital among Chinese older adults and the factors and health conditions associated with social capital in later life. The approach was secondary analyses of the China Family Panel Study (CFPS), a nationally representative survey of the Chinese population. It is the intent of this work to offer applicable guidance on policy and project design regarding health promotion for the aging population through social intervention. Aim 1 explores the dimensions and associative factors of social capital of Chinese older adults. It was found that the social capital of Chinese older adults was derived from three levels of social environment---family, community and the macro society. Older adults who relied heavily on family-level social capital may be constrained in their capacity to seek resources and social supports outside their immediate family. The physical community environment plays an influential determinant of social capital. Aim 2 identifies three distinct social capital profiles among Chinese older adults: Family-centered, Moderate and Diverse social capital. The use of individual-based categorization contributes to our understanding as it better captures the reality of older adults engaging in various social relationships and provides valuable insights into the complex interaction between aspects of social capital and heterogeneous older groups. The results suggest that family is still a salient source of social capital for Chinese older adults, while a deficiency in community-level social capital is faced by many older people. The findings also highlight the vulnerability of the Family-centered group whose access to all forms of social capital was limited. Results suggest that supporting communities to improve the physical environment and developing social capital interventions targeting older adults could be effective strategies to prevent depressive symptoms and promote Chinese older adults’ overall wellbeing. Aim 3 examines the mediating role of community social capital underlying the link between the built neighborhood environment and depressive symptoms among urban and rural older adults. It also explores the moderating role of other sources of social capital. Results suggest that the interaction between the built and social neighborhood environments is related to depressive symptoms for urban and rural older adults in later life. Other levels of social environment also played a role in this process, but the effects have differed in rural/urban areas. Supporting rural and urban communities with physical infrastructure and service availability and developing social capital interventions targeting older adults could be effective strategies to prevent depressive symptoms and promote Chinese older adults’ overall wellbeing. In summary, the results of this present study show that social capital, as an interaction between the actor and the multiple levels of the social environment, was derived from different environmental levels, including families, communities and the broader society. In the Chinese context, family is still an important source of social capital for older adults despite increasing reliance and sometimes preference for formal support. Meanwhile, older adults’ social capital is highly connected with the community they live in. The findings from this dissertation expand our understanding of social capital by integrating the ecological perspective and addressing limitations introduced by viewing social capital by single indicators. The methodology used to identify social capital compositions and profiles in this dissertation provides a more stable and accurate base for studying the complex social relationship of a “whole” person in real life. It is also suggested that health promoting interventions should incorporate environmental components, and use social capital building as a crucial pathway in health-promoting. Since community social capital plays an increasingly important role in maintaining older people's mental health, community development should be prioritized in health-promoting programs for the older population.

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