Introduction Research has demonstrated benefits of social capital on depression, but variations in this relationship by geographic characteristics such as urbanicity have rarely been investigated. Methods Using survey data on 4,209 Ghanaian and 3,148 South African adults aged 50 and above from the World Health Organization (WHO) Study on Global AGEing and Adult Health (SAGE), exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses were conducted to extract dimensions of social capital from survey items. Structural equation models with the extracted factors were then used to estimate the associations between social capital and depression in each sample and assess differences between urban and rural settings with measurement and structural invariance tests. Results Factor analyses suggested three dimensions of social capital representing community engagement, sociability, and trust. Urbanicity did not substantially modify the effects of social capital on depression in either setting, but urban-rural differences in the measurement and level of social capital were observed. Urban Ghanaian older adults were less socially integrated and trusting than older rural residents (standardized mean difference: -0.28, -0.24, and -0.38 for community engagement, sociability, and trust, respectively) while urban South African older adults appeared less engaged in community activities but significantly more trusting and socially active informally than older rural residents (standardized mean difference: -0.33, 0.30, and 0.17 for community engagement, sociability, and trust, respectively). Moreover, while trust was associated with a lower risk of depression in South Africa overall, sociability and trust were associated with an increased risk of depression in Ghana. Conclusions Results indicate that the composition and average levels of social capital differ between urban and rural older adult residents in Ghana and South Africa although urban-rural differences in the strength of the association between social capital and depression were not substantial. Furthermore, the associations between social capital and depression are context-specific and are not uniformly beneficial.
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