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Civil Society and Social Capital

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the relation between civil society and social capital. It explains that over the last twenty-five years, the concepts of civil society and social capital have experienced a remarkable rise to prominence across many disciplines and sectors. It offers an overview of the concept of social capital and provides a brief survey of the substantive issues to which it has drawn attention, especially as they pertain to the role of civil society organizations in facilitating collective action, economic development, and democratic governance. It also considers some of the key implications of this research for policy and practice.

Keywords: civil society, social capital, collective action, economic development, democratic governance

Over the last twenty-five years, the concepts of civil society and social capital have experienced a remarkable rise to prominence across many disciplines and sectors. Though they refer to broadly similar entities, it is generally agreed that civil society comprises those organizations that complement (and contextualize) states and markets, while at a lower unit of analysis social capital refers to the norms and networks that enable people to act collectively (Woolcock and Narayan 2000). Civil society may be the more encompassing concept and enjoy a longer intellectual history (Seligman 1992; Alexander 2006; Edwards 2009), but its operationalization in contemporary research and policy debates has often been made manifest through the concept of social capital.1 The primary impact of both concepts, I argue, has come less through the novel empirical results they generate or their capacity to forge an inherently elusive scholarly or policy consensus on complex issues, than through their capacity to facilitate constructive dialogue on these issues between groups who would otherwise rarely (if ever) interact, and which necessarily require such dialogue in order to identify supportable ways forward.

This chapter is written in four parts. The first provides an overview of the concept of social capital, and the second provides a brief survey of the substantive issues to which it has drawn attention, especially as they pertain to the role of civil society organizations in facilitating collective action, economic development, and democratic governance. Part three considers some of the key implications of this research for policy and practice and part four concludes the discussion.

(p. 198) 1. Social Capital: An Overview of its Rise and Relevance

In its most elementary form, the idea of social capital provides a name for an intuitive, transcultural recognition that we are inherently social beings, and that this has significant consequences for a host of other substantive issues we care about—variations on the maxim that “it's not what you know, it's who you know” are to be found in languages all over the world.2 Social capital, defined as the norms and networks that enable people to act collectively, provides a common frame of reference for conducting conversations about these important issues across disciplinary, methodological, ideological, and cultural lines, conversations which are vital—indeed necessary to the resolution of many of the issues themselves—but which otherwise occur too rarely. Indeed, I argue that facilitating such conversations has been social capital's vital first-order contribution to scholarship and policy over the last twenty years. Pursuing these conversations in greater and contextually specific detail, however, requires recourse to terms and theories that are more precisely suited to the task.

Since the mid-1980s, both “social capital” and “civil society” have moved from the margins to the mainstream of social science terminology. From the publication of Coleman (1988) and then the famous work of Putnam (1993), social capital became, for better or worse, one of sociology's most high-profile “exports” (Portes 2000) to the realms of public policy and popular debates,3 enjoying citation counts similar to other everyday terms such as “political parties” (see Woolcock 2010). In comparative terms, the use of social capital in academic discourse over the twenty year period from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s increased by a factor of over one hundred, while the companion concept of “human capital” increased by roughly a factor of twenty, as did “civil society.” Few terms other than “globalization” can make such claims.

Social capital has done much of its scholarly and policy work through its status as an “essentially contested concept” (Gallie 1956).4 That is, its coherence and usefulness rests not on a clear consensus regarding its definition and measurement, but—like culture, power, and the rule of law—on its capacity to draw attention to salient features of the social and political world that are of significance in their own right and are valued for different aspects of everyday life (such as education, health, and crime prevention). The very fact that social capital has been used by everyone from Marxists to rational choice theorists to network scholars and structural functionalists means that a universally agreed-upon rendering cannot emerge. While vigorous debate is to be encouraged and expected, social capital is fated to be as controversial as the broader theoretical and epistemological debates in which it is inherently embedded.

Strictly speaking, one did not need the concept of social capital to have a conversation about the salience of social norms and networks prior to its rise in popularity, but to have such conversations in the public domain, and to have them (p. 199) across so many different sectors and countries, something is required that is more encompassing and tractable than these formal academic terms supply. For organizations like the World Bank, for example, which itself had only established a department for social development concerns in 1995, the timely emergence of social capital seemed to offer a convenient discursive bridge between economics (the dominant discipline at the bank) and the other social sciences (Bebbington et al. 2006). For its emerging portfolio of projects that stressed civic participation, harnessing and “building” social capital provided the necessary (if crude and imperfect) discursive justification that World Bank vice presidents and task managers needed to distinguish their proposals from those of more orthodox initiatives that focused on building “human capital” (schools and hospitals) and “physical capital” (road, bridges, and irrigation systems). Moreover, they rightly argued, even the efficacy of education and agriculture projects turns in no small measure on their engagement with the local social context. Community norms and civil society networks, for example, play a major role in shaping the extent to which farmers adopt technical innovations such as new fertilizers (Isham 2002). Independently of whether such projects worked or could be shown to be demonstrably better than their alternatives, they first had to be demarcated, justified, and promoted, and a constituency supporting them had to be mobilized. Using the language of social capital performed these tasks.

For some critics, however, any such efforts seemingly amounted to a sell-out, a naϯve capitulation of social theory and social spaces to the ever-encroaching forces of economic logic, which in turn would only overwhelm and further marginalize anything that was distinctively “social” (Fine 2001, Somers 2008). But social theory is not so fragile, economic theory is not so robust, and some form of mutual exchange is needed for sensible resolutions to be crafted in all realms of life, especially those where the topics of debate are inherently contentious.5 To be politically useful, concepts do not have to meet standards of academic purity. Rather, they need to generate productive debate within and across constituent groups, debates that should include highlighting the limits of those concepts. And while deploying different terminology is surely an insufficient lever of policy change, it is a necessary one (as every national election and marketing campaign attests), even as the use of particular concepts themselves must be adjusted with evolving circumstances and shifting audiences.

To this end, in the sections that follow I consider some of the key findings of social capital research and debate in the specific domains of collective action, economic development, and democratic governance, but laying greater stress on their outreach to other realms of the academy and to public debate rather than to their narrow technical merits. Understood in this way, social capital's positive impact largely takes the form of its status as a public discursive good, providing a common frame of reference around which a range of agreements and disagreements can be discerned and refined across disciplinary lines and professional boundaries, something that is especially important for civil society groups and the types of issues around which they mobilize. For many of the issues to which the language of social (p. 200) capital has been directed—such as social justice and equity, whose resolution largely requires political, not technical, answers—it was precisely these kinds of debates that were (and remain) necessary to craft legitimate, supportable resolutions.

2. Applications to Civil Society Research and Practice

A range of studies from across the sciences and social sciences have documented just how central are social relations for shaping, and in turn understanding, human behavior (see Woolcock and Radin 2008). As political theorists such as Aristotle, David Hume, and Alex de Tocqueville have long reminded us, however, and as Putnam (1993, 2000) made the centrepiece of his analysis, the nature and extent of participation in civic affairs matters not just for one's own individual and group well-being, but has larger social consequences. The manifestation of such consequences constitutes the epicenter of the social capital literature.

a. Collective Action

A central claim of Putnam's work (1993) was that social capital provided a mechanism for resolving otherwise pervasive collective action problems—namely, those situations where private individuals, rationally following what is best for them, leads to suboptimal public outcomes. The canonical case is the management of common pool resources (such as water and forests), wherein what is rational for the individual user (i.e., “appropriate as much as possible”) has harmful aggregate consequences (such as depletion and inadequate maintenance). The most celebrated work on this topic is Ostrom's (1991), who at the time did not use the term social capital but later came to embrace it enthusiastically (Ostrom 2000). It is safe to say that Ostrom's work enjoyed much wider impact as a result, thereby embodying one of the central themes of this chapter: in and of itself, social capital was not really necessary to make a core claim about a pervasive empirical and policy problem, but casting such problems in social capital terms enabled them to be amenable to a vastly larger audience. Research on collective action problems with respect to the environment (Pretty and Ward 2001), community governance (Bowles and Gintis 2002), and climate change (Adger 2003) have all gainfully deployed the terminology of social capital to draw attention to important collective action problems.

b. Economic Development

Research on social capital (specifically) and civil society (more generally) has reinvigorated research on the social dimensions of economic development. At the micro (p. 201) level,6 the work of economists such as Fafchamps (2006) and Barr (2003), among many others (see also Durlauf and Fafchamps 2005), is greatly refining our understanding of the ways in which different types of networks are used by the poor: immediate kinship systems are structured to minimize risk and retain identity, while a more spatially diverse set of ties are cultivated to enhance economic opportunities. Related work by political scientists such as Krishna (2002, 2006) has shown just how central are the interactions between networks and the prevailing local context in determining who moves out of (or remains mired in) poverty, and the mechanisms by which these different outcomes emerge. This is essentially a similar storyline to that formulated by sociologists of international migration such as Massey and Espinosa (1997). Again, a close reading of this type of scholarship shows a pragmatic, rather than ideological, commitment to social capital terminology: these scholars use the concept as and when necessary, depending on the audience. For the purposes of this chapter, it bears repeating that these types of studies from different disciplines encounter and constructively engage with one another because the language of social capital makes an opening conversation possible. Without it, they would likely operate in parallel universes.

c. Democracy and Governance

Perhaps the boldest claim of Putnam's book Making Democracy Work (1993) was that social capital—as measured by a dense, overlapping network of civil society organizations—not only facilitated collective action and economic development, but was ultimately the mechanism that connected the two together: aggregating collective action into broad-based prosperity turned on the construction and maintenance of effective local civic and political institutions that make democracy work.

Much of the subsequent work on this issue, following Fukuyama (1995), sought to make trust the centrepiece of the analysis. However, if one discerns in Putnam, not so much a clarion call to construct a clean empirical link that connects societal trust to effective government and the wealth of nations, but rather an invitation to revisit how the tone, level, and terms of everyday engagement in community affairs influence local politics, then there is considerable scope for advancement at the level of theory, evidence and policy. Yet again, one does not need the specific terminology of social capital to make such advances, and indeed for certain specialist audiences to do so could be a distraction. But the more diverse the audience and/or the less familiar any given audience might be with the finer points of social and political theory, then the stronger the case becomes for deploying a concept such as social capital which can bridge these divides.

Research in Indonesia on local government reforms is perhaps the best exemplar of this process at work, not least because the main project that was introduced to facilitate such reforms was explicitly designed on the basis of social capital theory (Guggenheim 2006). In the post-Suharto era, a succession of national governments pledged its full support for a major initiative to enhance the responsiveness and (p. 202) effectiveness of local government, especially with respect to its capacity to serve poor rural communities. The efficacy of this initiative has also been extensively examined, empirically and critically, by social scientists of all persuasions (Li 2007; Olken 2007; Rao 2008; Barron, Diprose, and Woolcock 2010). These studies make few grand claims about the capacity of such initiatives to single-handedly and uniformly reform local politics and reduce poverty, but it is important to note that social capital was here conceived as a mechanism by which civic participation—in this case, participation by otherwise marginalized groups in village-level decision-making bodies—could shape how decisions over the allocation of development funds were made and enforced. Specifically, it was hoped that by requiring funds to be allocated on the basis of the knowledge of everyday villagers (as opposed to external “experts”), and by requiring decision-making meetings to be (a) open to the public and journalists and (b) held only once proposals from at least two women's groups had been received, that the dynamics of decision making and enforcement would be different in kind from those that had prevailed during the autocratic Suharto era.7

3. Implications for Policy and Practice

The preceding discussion of social capital theory and research points to seven issues regarding the salience of civil society organizations. Some of the most salient examples are drawn from economic development, but they also apply more generally. First, civil society organizations help provide important insights for contributing to analyses of responses to poverty. In the face of pervasive risks and inadequate institutional mechanisms for addressing them, the poor have always drawn on their kinship systems, friends, and civic groups to help them survive and advance. Savings clubs, credit groups, and informal insurance systems, for example, even if imperfect, are actively created in many poor communities in very different countries. Chinese diaspora communities around the world are famous for this, actively helping recent immigrants to get their first foot on the economic ladder by supporting their entrepreneurial activities (Weidenbaum and Hughes 1996). A key question for public policy is whether and how external agents can work with and complement these informal (“organic”) social mechanisms in poor communities to enhance their effectiveness in managing risk and vulnerability without undermining the other important social functions such groups perform for their members.

As neglected as the community-level focus may have been in the past, however, and as powerful as social ties can be in shaping survival and mobility strategies in poor communities, the evidence also shows how important it is to understand the nature and extent of social relations across formal and informal institutions, and especially across power differentials, such as those between police and citizens, teachers and students, doctors and patients, farmers and extension officers, lawyers and clients, and bankers and creditors—relationships that are central to the well-being of (p. 203) everyone, but especially to the poor. In this regard, organizations of the poor are critically important to enhancing their political strength in negotiations (or outright confrontations) with those who are more powerful (Gibson and Woolcock 2008).

Second, social capital theory and research evidence can be instructive in helping to improve the quality of service delivery. We are far beyond a consensus that funding should be provided to build schools and health clinics for all; we are still a long way, however, from realizing these commitments, with millions of children each day arriving at an empty school because their teacher has failed to show up for work (World Bank 2003). A key part of this failure of implementation is that the social relations binding teachers, parents and communities are inadequate, relations that are needed to underpin the accountability mechanisms that ensure that learning actually takes place. While there is considerable concern over the content of education (i.e., the curriculum), of more fundamental concern is that teaching and learning takes place in and through an ongoing social process, most particularly a face-to-face relationship between teacher and student that is sustained for six hours a day, two hundred days a year, for over a decade. Similar processes are needed to sustain medical, legal, and other social services (Pritchett and Woolcock 2004).

Third, a social capital perspective can be instrumental in helping to address a particularly difficult and complex set of development problems, namely those that require negotiated rather than technical solutions. While experts are necessary for addressing particular types of development problems (e.g., how to design roads that will function in high rainfall environments), there are many others—most especially those pertaining to political and legal reform—that are deeply context-specific and whose efficacy turns on the legitimacy that is afforded to them by virtue of the political contests through which they have emerged. A social capital perspective rightly places considerable emphasis on the vibrancy of the civic spaces that nurture and sustain such contests (Briggs 2008). As countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and China become more open societies, for example, the quality and accessibility of these civic spaces, and the degree of equity that characterizes the contests within them, will be central to identifying and implementing effective solutions to context-specific problems. In these realms, more experts, whether foreign or domestic, cannot arrive at the “right” answer (or even if they can, it is a qualitatively different answer if the same verdict is reached via a deliberative process).

Fourth, political movements towards greater openness and complexity in decision making will most likely entail increased demands for citizen participation. State-society relations will be a key arena in which change will occur as countries (especially those that are large and experiencing rapid growth, such as China and India) becomes more prosperous. Specifically, this will be an arena for reconceiving accountability mechanisms, from patronage arrangements that are almost exclusively upward to proto-democratic arrangements that are incrementally downward. Rising literacy, for example, will mean that citizens will be better positioned to more forcefully and accurately assert their demands and aspirations (by accessing the media and by harnessing data to support their arguments); their leaders in turn will face increasing pressures to be more responsive to them. The issuance of basic (p. 204) markers of identity and citizenship (such as birth, marriage, and death certificates) will also enhance these pressures (Szreter 2007). The social compact between citizens and politicians will therefore need to shift from one of intimidation, neglect or mistrust to more open collaboration.

Fifth, everything that is known from social and political theory suggests that organizational change, and especially rapid change, is associated with conflict (Bates 2000). This is already taking place across China (Muldavin 2006), and the pressures underpinning it are only likely to increase as a result of China's rapid growth. Importantly, these conflicts are a product of development success, not failure. Urbanization, migration, rising literacy, and changes in occupational categories, social status, and political influence are all factors that will alter the prevailing power structures, normative expectations, social identities, and systems of rules from the household level, to civil society, to the nation as a whole. The creation of new civic spaces for addressing these conflicts in a relatively peaceful manner, well before they become violent, will be crucial not only for sustaining growth, but nurturing a new and more dynamic social compact on which such continued growth will ultimately rest. In the decade following the East Asian financial crisis, Indonesia's triple transition—from autocracy to democracy, from corporatist to open economy, and from centralized to decentralized political administration—has been truly remarkable, not least because it has occurred with relatively minimal violent conflict, and it is at least plausible to argue that this is a result of development policies explicitly designed to work with and nurture Indonesia's civic organizations (Guggenheim 2006; Barron, Diprose, and Woolcock 2010).

Sixth, rising prosperity, mobility, and transportation and communication can only make countries more, not less, diverse in the coming decades. This is true for virtually all countries, but is especially significant for rapidly growing (and thus changing) countries such as India, Vietnam, and China. Not only will there be more diverse sources of identity (actually and potentially) from a strict demographic perspective (including occupation, language, and location) as populations expand and interact, but there will also be (a) greater awareness of it, (b) greater political salience attached to it, and (c) greater demands on individuals (and groups) to manage multiple forms and sources of identity at any given moment in time and over their lifetime. Moreover, social (and thus political) fault lines that are as yet unknown are likely to emerge in the future, especially as levels of inequality rise and economic (and political) opportunities, for some, expand.

Seventh, all these factors culminate in the need to reimagine and sustain a dynamic, genuinely inclusive sense of social cohesion (Easterly, Ritzen, and Woolcock 2006). Where and how the “us”-“them” divide is drawn is crucial in every society and constituent community; there cannot be a single invariant definition, but a flexible, legitimate, broadly shared and still coherent understanding is vital. This is especially important for the world's largest and fastest growing (hence potentially most rapidly changing) countries, and for those countries seeking to make a durable transition from autocratic to democratic governance. Nurturing the spaces, providing the resources, and enhancing the procedures for underpinning equitable (p. 205) contests between a country's different stakeholders is central to this challenge. These contests, by definition, cannot always be harmonious, but they can be waged in such a way that their outcomes are perceived as fair and legitimate.

4. Conclusion

For all the criticism that has surrounding it, social capital nonetheless remains unambiguously one of social science's most successful exports, and should be recognized as such. For this initial success to reach its full potential, however, the challenge remains to deploy a secondary set of tools and concepts that are better suited to enabling a more nuanced and sophisticated conversation on the wide range of specific issues that merit attention. There will always be a place for a term that can convey the essence of social science to larger audiences, but that term (whatever it is) should not be expected to carry a load it cannot bear. Social capital is destined to be as controversial as the broader theoretical, empirical, and epistemological debates in which it is necessarily embedded, and as such it will continue to occupy the beguiling status of a necessarily contested concept. It is to the substantive issues to which the social capital literature draws attention—and the accompanying debates that it has facilitated—to which we should be directing our energies in the years ahead, simultaneously encouraging broad participation using terms that are amenable (including social capital), and greater refinement in more specialized circles using the more precise terms, theories, tools, and evidence that serve that purpose.

Civil society organizations have been a key beneficiary of the emergence of social capital as the terminology of choice for facilitating dialogue and debate across diverse constituencies. Whether in public forums, corporate board rooms, the mass media, or the college classroom, social capital has enabled such organizations to be able to argue for and demonstrate the veracity of their concerns in ways that other terms have not. Even so, the core premise of this chapter still holds, namely that further advancements will require civil society organizations to deploy a dual discursive task: continuing to reach out to and engage an ever-widening spectrum of groups (a task for which the general social capital terminology is well suited), while simultaneously refining their theoretical moorings, evidence base and policy prescriptions—a task for which more specific concepts will be more useful.


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                                                                                                            (1.) Social capital's intellectual history is explored in Portes (1998), Woolcock (1998), and Farr (2004); its development in applied research over the course of the twentieth century is explored in Woolcock and Narayan (2000).

                                                                                                            (2.) Southern Africans, for example, refer to the delightful concept of ubuntu, which in its barest form translates as “I am because we are.”

                                                                                                            (3.) Tellingly, such claims were being made when social capital's citation count was five times lower than it is today.

                                                                                                            (4.) See Collier, Hidalgo, and Maciuceanu (2006) for a broader discussion of such concepts.

                                                                                                            (5.) Responses to the various criticisms that have been leveled at social capital are explored in Woolcock (2001).

                                                                                                            (6.) Research at the “macro” level (using cross-national comparisons) was launched by Knack and Keefer (1997), but (as this section outlines) the micro-level work has been the most consequential in terms of its impact. See also the macro-sociological work inspired by Evans (1996).

                                                                                                            (7.) Similar studies in this same category include the important work on participatory democracy (Fung and Wright 2003), decentralization (Heller, Harilal, and Chaudhuri 2007), local democracy (Baiocchi, Heller, and Silva 2008), accountability (Fox 2007) and empowerment (Alsop, Bertelsen, and Holland 2006).