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Integration of Participation and Social Capital Theories Part of 2004 Report "Designing Social Capital Sensitive Participation Methodologies"

It is evident from the literature reviews on participation and social capital above that there are many similarities between the two concepts. Both concepts are poorly defined, conceptualized and operationalized in both debate and application. The two concepts are highly context specific and highly complex. Individually, the concepts still require further analysis to answer key questions, particularly about appropriate application. Jointly, little work has been done to identify the impacts that they have on each other and particularly how social capital benefits can be maximized in participatory methodologies. Pelling (1998:477)[1] is one of the few authors to make connections between the two concepts, identifying that there is ‘some recognition of the role participatory methods could play in strengthening social capital in host communities’. Coulthard, Walker et al (2001)[2] identified that social capital reinforces partnership and participatory approaches to sustainable development but neither author gives details as to how these processes take place. Brown and Ashman (1996:1477)[3] stated that ‘active participation in intersectoral problem solving and implementation by NGOs and grassroots organizations can generate social capital that fosters future problem solving, which will generate more social capital … and so on. Implementation arrangements will become increasingly effective to the extent that they can facilitate the creation of social capital’. Again, this claim is unsubstantiated and there is currently no direct empirical evidence available to backup these suggestions.

There is however value in applying the theoretical assumptions made by each theory to each other to generate a greater understanding of how they interact. Ideally an empirical study would ascertain the causal relationships however the scale of such an exercise is beyond the scope of this study. This study will make connections between social capital and participation and illustrate some specifics through a case study approach that indicates the value to other participatory methodologies. The following discussion identifies numerous points that require further investigation to uncover the causal mechanisms. The content of the participation and social capital literature reviews provides ample material to discuss many important relationships between the concepts.

Different participatory tools will have different impacts on social capital in terms of gain or loss and social capital types and levels will interact to effect participation. An important clarification from the literature must be made on this last point. Social capital cannot be equated to a number or even a series of numbers. Social capital is multi-dimensional with each dimension having a different relationship to the ‘capital’ under different contexts. For example, it is not possible to add bonding capital to bridging capital especially when considering that the ‘amount’ does not result in productive social capital but a mix of productive and perverse. Therefore it would be more relevant to talk of changes to social capital structure. That is, the make up of the social capital and the components relative externalities. In this way, important ‘events’ such as community participation do not necessarily result in more or less social capital but changes in social capital structure – for better or worse.

Network theories of social capital provide a good starting point for understanding the possible social capital structural changes that result from participation. The majority of participatory methodologies involve social interaction. This interaction results in the formation of weak ties, an important component of social capital. The formation of weak ties, often between diverse groups outside of normal interaction circles, means that the actors are located at structural holes. In situations where the participation of representatives of various groups is sort, the actors may find them located at structural holes between groups with network closure. This has significant benefits, particularly in terms of information flows. Methodologies that involve repeated interaction of the same individuals result in the formation of stronger ties and norms of reciprocity. Other factors that would be involved in realising these benefits would include social stratification, gender, income and education and whether the interaction is based on work/livelihood, pleasure, family, religion, or general interest.

Many discussions of participation are based on a continuum of participation, often from low level (participation as one-way information flows), to high level (participation as empowerment). Factors such as level and type of participation as well as the level and type of existing social capital are likely to have different impacts on resultant social capital structure. At the upper level of participation, social capital building is likely to occur as a result of achievement, interaction, membership and group identity. As identified earlier, social capital is not always good and can result in perverse outcomes therefore increased social capital could have negative outcomes for project and society in general. At the lower end of the continuum it is also possible that social capital could be developed. Ineffective participation can also result in social capital benefits through different mechanisms. Group dynamics theory suggests that where groups form in response to adversity, group function is generally highly effective. This motivation for social interaction generates strong ties with strong norms of reciprocity and also places actors at structural holes. These processes do not result in benefits to all types of social capital and there are unknown possible negative impacts from this kind of social capital interaction. Vertical networks are likely to be weakened through distrust and skepticism and future participation impaired.

Historical factors are documented in participation literature as important in prescribing participatory methods. They are even more important when taking into account social capital theory. The success or failure and nature of past interventions can have significant impacts on the structure of social capital present in the community. Success is associated with good feelings of achievement and therefore the positive emotion associated with high levels of social capital. Networks, norms and trust are simply mobilised for future participation, resulting in further building of social capital – a virtuous cycle. Failure on the other hand can lead to feelings of betrayal, loss of trust and cynicism. Participation is likely to be lower and more ineffective reinforcing the negative feelings resulting in a vicious cycle. It is important to highlight the impact of specific events in these cycles. Social capital built over time can be lost from a simple action such as change of government policy or the decision not to go ahead with a planned project.

From this discussion it can be seen that there are both positives and negatives associated with participation at both ends of the continuum. Perhaps the inappropriate use of medium levels of participation are most damaging to a wide range of social capital characteristics. Care must be taken to take these possible factors into account in the design of participatory methodologies. Further research into the role different variables play in the interaction of participation and social capital in this setting is required.

The role of negative or perverse social capital has received considerable attention in the literature. Clearly high levels of social capital can result in some unwanted externalities. The social capital benefits associated with belonging include feelings of obligation and reciprocity but there are also negative effects, particularly where this results in exclusion. In participation this is particularly important, especially where information is seen as, or equates to, power.

In developing counties traditional networks of social interaction are critical determinants of social capital structure where social stratification is strongly evident and there are strong norms and mores that often result in exclusion of some social groups. Strong social capital can also facilitate contrivance against the project for which community participation is undertaken, thereby strongly influencing project outcomes. In this sense, high social capital can be a major obstacle to participation and project implementation.

In developed countries social networks are increasingly being facilitated by modern technology. Email is increasingly being utilised for communication, which offers cheap and fast connectivity that compresses the space-time continuum. More recently SMS (short message service) is increasing networks of mobility. Both of these technologies have different impacts on social capital because of the lack of personal contact of face-to-face interaction. The type of social capital that is produced from this interaction is significantly different from that found in traditional relations (for further discussion see (Kavanaugh and Patterson 2001[4]; Meredyth and Ewing 2003[5]; Pruijt 2002[6]; Sullivan, Borgida et al. 2002[7]; Wellman, Haase et al. 2001[8])). This contributes to social isolation, particularly in urban centres of developed countries. Whereas in the past, social networks were commonly based on proximity, they are now based more on work and interest groups. The strength of networks based on proximity has decreased because people know few of their neighbours, particularly in medium to high density areas and where there is high residential mobility. The result is limited opportunity for repeated interaction, which is fundamental to the equilibrium concept for social capital generation.

The contrast highlighted above between developing and developed countries is strongly influenced by modernisation and globalisation. Increasingly the transition from traditional leadership with traditional networks and change of culture will impact on the structure of social capital within these communities. This illustrates the highly context specific nature of social capital. Therefore participatory methodologies that take into account social capital theory will not be homogeneous but must be adaptive to the local context.

In discussion of the role of culture in participation and social capital debate, it is important to identify an important generalisation – developed country communities are generally egocentric, whereas developing country communities are generally socio-centric. This will result in a very different interaction process and therefore very different social capital related outcomes. There are similar divides such as rural / urban and rich / poor that can assist in the prescription of methodologies with expected benefits.

Existing studies of social capital differences in rich and poor communities are flawed, not because there is not a difference, but because they do not adequately take into account the nature of social capital. Network theorists will tell you that the key productive assets of a social network lie within the actors in the network. Wealthy actors have a few key differences to less well off actors; they generally have access to higher quality information and generally have greater power of influence. Therefore if rich and poor communities exhibited identical types and structures of social capital and social networks, then rich communities would have ‘more’ social capital. The results of such studies do not consistently reveal this, indicating that social capital is far more complex, explained by the differences in the types and structures of social capital itself. Network assets result in only minor differences in comparison to other factors such as available time, information overload, and over consultation. The role of poverty is often overlooked in participatory methods, but not for the above-discussed social capital reasons. Time away from work activities can greatly limit participation, limiting social capital benefits, further disadvantaging these groups.

A multitude of other factors are likely to impact on the interaction of social capital and participation such as: political society and structure, optimism, satisfaction, perceptions of government institutions, political involvement, and participation setting and the built environment. Further research is required to gain a greater understanding of the processes discussed above. Generally participation and social capital are highly context specific, taking into account the local differences and intervention need to reflect this context specific nature. The discussion above assists in the identification of important factors for discussion in reference to the participatory methodologies used in the case study project.

Citing this article

This report was prepared for Social Capital Research. You should reference this work as:

Claridge, T., 2004. Designing social capital sensitive participation methodologies. Report, Social Capital Research, Brisbane, Australia.

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  1. Pelling M (1998) Participation, social capital and vulnerability to urban flooding in Guyana. Journal of International Development 10, 469-486. ^
  2. Coulthard M, Walker A, Morgan A (2001) ‘Assessing people’s perceptions of their neighbourhood and community involvement (Part 1).’ Health Development Agency, London. ^
  3. Brown LD, Ashman D (1996) Participation, social capital, and intersectoral problem solving: African and Asian cases. World Development 24, 1467-1479. ^
  4. Kavanaugh AL, Patterson SJ (2001) The impact of community computer networks on social capital and community involvement. The American Behavioral Scientist 45, 496-509. ^
  5. Meredyth D, Ewing S (2003) Social capital and wired communities: a case study. In ‘Australian Institute for Family Studies Conference’. Melbourne ^
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  7. Sullivan JL, Borgida E, Jackson MS, Riedel E, al e (2002) Social capital and community electronic networks: For-profit versus for-community approaches. The American Behavioral Scientist 45, 868-886. ^
  8. Wellman B, Haase AQ, Witte J, Hampton K (2001) Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital? Social networks, participation, and community commitment. The American Behavioral Scientist 45, 436-455. ^

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