Presentation to the Rural Affairs Forum for
5 November 2004
The term ‘social capital’ has moved slowly by osmosis into
the everyday language of regeneration. My feeling is that only a minority of
those involved in community regeneration have gone back to basics to understand
the origin and original meaning of the term.
Although I had sought out definitions in the literature and
on the web, the real revelation for me came when I came across the concept of
‘sustainable livelihoods’. This is a whole approach to the alleviation of
poverty that is used extensively in supporting less developed countries. Within
this approach, social capital is defined as being one of five capital ‘assets’
that an individual, or family unit, has at their disposal in order to build a
sustainable livelihood. The ruralnet|2003 conference was built on the theme of
sustainable livelihoods and the five capital assets. I have gone back to the
ruralnet|2003 forum on ruralnet|online in the preparation of this brief paper.
The five assets at your disposal that you can ‘exploit’ to
build and sustain a livelihood are: financial capital (money), physical capital
(infrastructure), environmental capital (land, water etc), human capital
(skills) and social capital. These assets are used by all of us in our day to
day lives. We ‘exploit’ them to operate as we do. In simple terms, social
capital is the social contacts, relationships and support we can exploit to
prosper. Social capital is that which bonds us together and builds bridges
between our community and others.
An initiative that builds social capital and reduces social
inclusion is likely to be perceived as ‘good’ or beneficial. The goals of
building social capital and increasing social inclusion have come to be
associated in most people’s minds as ‘universally good’. But is the building of
social capital always a ‘good thing’ and does it automatically lead to social
Whose social capital is it anyway?
In 2002 the Home Secretary, David Blunkett said:
"Today, there are 350,000 school governors. There are
160,000 local neighbourhood watch schemes registered with the National
Neighbourhood Watch Association. .. Balsall Heath took radical action against
prostitution and crime in the early 1990s – and have gone on to form the
Balsall Heath Forum which is working to regenerate the area. They built the
capacity and confidence of local people to create and sustain associations and
services that make their neighbourhood strong. In 1990 there was one residents
group. Today there are 21. In 1970 there were three voluntary organisations.
Today there are 56. The Forum has calculated that 4,000 people out of Balsall
Heath’s population of 12,000 regularly participate in a caring activity
designed to improve the quality of life of the neighbourhood. The Forum’s
ambitious target is to involve 60% of the population in local associations by
Home Secretary’s speech: How government can help build
social capital (
It is true that, when looking down from above, as the Home
Secretary was doing, increased community activity, as evidenced by the existence
of voluntary sector infrastructure, clubs and associations, is generally
associated with a ‘healthy’ community. Such communities are described as having
high levels of social capital. Societal social capital has a real value. It is
much more than a warm cuddly feeling. Take the situation where you have £2m to
spend on improving the performance of a secondary school. You are likely to
have a better short and long term return if this money is invested in engaging
the school with the local community and vice versa rather than spending it on
building a new computer room or re-decorating the school and updating the
signage or even, arguably, on more teachers.
But if we look at social capital from the individual’s point
of view, from the bottom up, then social capital is one of five assets you have
at your disposal, as an individual, to enable you to survive and maintain a
If, as an individual, or family unit, you live in an area
considered to be high in social capital, like the area described by the Home
Secretary in 2002, but you are excluded from these social networks, the social
capital you have to exploit is virtually zero. You are socially excluded in an
area with high social capital.
The devil is in the detail
The picture presented by the Home Secretary may not stand
too much scrutiny from another view point. What if the clubs, associations and
voluntary infrastructure are controlled by different sectors of the community
who are in competition or even conflict with each other? Both the Catholic and
Protestant communities in
are characterised by very high levels of social capital which bonds individuals
within each community but virtually none that forms bridges between them. The
same can be said for different ethnic groups in many urban and rural areas
today. Similarly, there are divisions in villages: the posh and working class
end of the village; the in-comers and those who have lived there for
generations. Further strengthening ‘internal’ (or bonding) social capital in
these circumstances is not likely to produce any positive benefits either for
the individuals in the community or for the community as a whole. It is a bit
like being given large amounts of financial capital (money) but only being able
to spend it on one thing which you don’t want or need.
Social inclusion initiatives are often about building social
capital between groups of individuals. Enabling people from one tight-knit
community, with high levels of internal social capital, to participate in the
opportunities available to another group and vice versa.
Are the aims of social inclusion incompatible with the
building of social capital?
The picture is complex. The short answer is ‘yes’ the more
considered answer is ‘it depends’.
It could be argued that community-based development
programmes may actually exacerbate social exclusion especially if they are
associated with short funding deadlines. For people in a given area to be able
to respond to development funding and other opportunities at short notice, they
need to be very well organised before they start – i.e. possess high levels of
social capital. This means that funding and other support of this nature may
tend to enhance already highly developed and existing social structures and if
you are excluded from such structures at the start you will still be excluded
at the end. Indeed, the existing social structures, of which you are not a
part, may well get stronger and more exclusive as a result of the funding
The process by which funding is released and community-based
development is supported may also mitigate against social inclusion. For
example, the insistence that a development be overseen by a ‘steering
committee’ may immediately exclude those who don’t have the assertiveness
required for such a duty or whose customs do not permit such involvement.
Projects aimed at increasing social inclusion will often require a methodology
which puts ‘people before structures’. Given that social capital is about
building or reinforcing social structures there may be a tensions between the
aims of social inclusion and building social capital.
What about ICT?
Those of you who know me will not be surprised that I
consider the role of technology in everything! This is no exception.
There are several outcomes associated with the increasing
use of ICT in our society. Already we are seeing that people are starting move
around less for work and spending more time in the community in which they
live. In future we could see people moving around their community more on foot
and cycle. In this process they will bump into their neighbours more. They will
get to know their neighbours better and as they do they will trust them more.
Is this utopian or real?
Let me introduce you to the work of Professor Keith Hampton
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has carried out controlled
experiments comparing different communities with and without email-based
technology. In the communities with technology he found that 46% reported an increased
‘sense of community’, 13% reported an increased sense of neighbourhood safety,
40% felt there was an increased ability of the neighbourhood to react to an
important issue or emergency and there was a 29% increase in neighbourhood
Technology is also playing a role in increasing the social
capital between people bound by a common interest but separated by distance.
When considering initiatives aimed at increasing social
capital and social inclusion we need to progress carefully. At the very least,
one can’t assume that community-based initiatives aimed at building social
capital will have increased social inclusion as an automatic consequence. In
fact they probably will not if they are associated with short lead-in times and
On the other hand, community-based initiatives aimed at
increasing social inclusion will usually increase the social capital available
to the individuals. This occurs because actions aimed at promoting inclusion
are often about building bridges between the excluded and the social structures
that manage or control the opportunities, services and facilities that they are
Initiatives aimed at building social capital will usually
require a parallel activity to monitor the effects on social exclusion and
resources to act to resolve any negative effects that emerge.
And finally, ICT is a powerful tool that can be used to
build social capital for the individuals that have access and are able to use
it. Those on the wrong side of the digital divide, without access, without the
motivation or without the skills to use ICT will be further excluded through
their inability to participate in the increasing amount of social networking
that is taking place online.
(c) 2004 ruralnet|uk
See the PowerPoint slides that accompanied this presentation