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Which role for the civil society organizations
and the state?
The ideas and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of UNESCO.
The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout the publication
do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO
concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or
concerning its frontiers or boundaries.
Produced by the Social and Human Sciences Sector of UNESCO
Published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
© UNESCO, 2002
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Ali Kazancigil and Else Øyen …………………………………………………………5
Introduction to the Symposium
Francine Fournier …………………………………………………………………….. 7
Social Capital Formation as a Poverty Reducing Strategy?
Else Øyen .…………………………………………………………………………… 11
Citizen Participation and Social Capital Formation: Resource Mobilisation
for Social Development: the Experience of Comunidade Solidária in Brazil
Miguel Darcy de Oliveira ……………………………………………………………..15
Social Capital in Theory and Practice: Reducing Poverty by Building
Partnerships between States, Markets and Civil Society
Michael Woolcock …………………………………………………………………… 20
Social Capital and the Rural Poor: What Can Civil Actors and Policies Do?
Sanjeev Prakash ……………………………………………………………………… 45
Comments on Presentations
Faith Innerarity ……………………………………………………………………….. 58
Biographical Notes …………………………………………………………………… 63
An international Symposium entitled Social Capital Formation in Poverty Reduction:
Which Role for the Civil Society Organizations and the State? was co-organized between
UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme and the
International Social Science Council’s (ISSC) Comparative Research Programme on
Poverty (CROP) on 28 June 2000 in Geneva, Switzerland. It took place in the context of
the 24th Special Session of the General Assembly on the Outcome of the World Summit
for Social Development and Further Initiatives, Geneva (26 June – 1 July 2000).
The World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, March 1995) addressed three
core issues: eradication of poverty, promotion of full employment, and fostering social
integration. It signaled the emergence of a collective determination to treat social
development as one of the highest priorities of national and international policies, and to
place the human person at the center of development.
The 24th Special Session of the General Assembly, entitled “World Summit for Social
Development and Beyond: Achieving social development in a globalizing world” was
convened with three objectives:
reaffirm the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action adopted at the
World Summit for Social Development;
identify progress made and constraints encountered;
recommend concrete actions and initiatives to further efforts towards full and
effective implementation of the agreements reached at the Summit.
The Geneva 2000 Forum was organized parallel to the United Nations Special Session. It
was designed to build a bridge between the General Assembly session and the public at
large. It attracted parliamentarians, industry and business groups, trade unions,
academics, citizen interest groups and professional organizations, as well as governments
and intergovernmental organizations. It was in this framework that the MOST/CROP
symposium was organized as a contribution to the policy debate on strategies to achieve
poverty eradication and social development.
During the five years between the World Summit for Social Development and
“Copenhagen + 5”, there were a number of deliberations on issues that had arisen in the
international development debate before, during, or after the World Summit for Social
Development. The role of social capital was one of the issues debated in this context.
Several important conclusions and recommendations emerged from the deliberations and
are reflected in initiatives included in the Geneva Outcome Document, adopted at the
Special Session of the General Assembly in Geneva. In the Document reference is also
made to the encouragement of investment in social capital. Social capital is thus
acknowledged by the United Nations and its member States as being an important
element in achieving the goals of the Copenhagen Declaration.
Although social capital is more and more recognized as an important factor in poverty
reduction, it is difficult to measure quantitatively. The presentations made by the
panelists at the MOST/CROP Symposium also illustrate that there are diverging views as
to what extent social capital formation contributes to poverty reduction. This publication
contains the papers presented at the MOST/CROP Symposium which reflect such
Included in the Geneva Outcome Document was a significant initiative to “… reduce the
proportion of people living in extreme poverty by one half by the year 2015 with a view
to eradicating poverty”. The same goal was reiterated in the Millennium Declaration
adopted at the United Nations Millennium Summit, New York, September 2000.
UNESCO has been called upon by its Member States, through various General
Conference resolutions and Executive Board decisions, to make specific contributions to
poverty reduction –which is now the priority of the international development agenda–
through the design of an appropriate long-term strategy. In UNESCO’s Medium Term
Strategy (2002-2007), poverty eradication is a cross-cutting theme and a priority for the
Organization. One of the three major, interrelated lines of action in UNESCO’s strategy
on "The eradication of poverty, especially extreme poverty" is to focus on mobilizing
social capital by building capacity and institutions, with a view to advocating and
enabling the poor to enjoy their rights in areas of UNESCO’s competence. Thus
UNESCO is recognizing the role of social capital as an important component in the
poverty eradication efforts.
Executive Secretary, the MOST Programme
Deputy Assistant Director-General, Sector of Social and Human Sciences
Scientific Director of CROP and former Chair,
Head, Centre for International Poverty Research
University of Bergen
Social Capital Formation in Poverty Reduction:
Which Role for Civil Society and the State?
by Francine Fournier
The Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on Copenhagen + 5 is
being held at a time when there is growing concern over globalisation. A particular cause
for this concern is that while the global economic system continues to perform
efficiently, social development does not show satisfactory results . Economic growth is
accompanied by increasing poverty and inequalities worldwide. Five years after the
Copenhagen Summit, the international community is still confronted with the challenge
of harmonising economic and financial policies with social development policies. This is
an ethical, as well as political, imperative. There is a need for bold international and
national reforms to extend the benefits of globalisation to the majority of the world
population. Adequate governance mechanisms, reflecting the interests of the citizens of
the planet Earth, must accompany economic, financial and technological globalisation. At
the international level, we should ensure that globalisation takes on a human dimension,
responds to the demand for equity and helps to reach development goals. Too many
people are marginalised by globalisation. It also makes certain challenges more acute,
such as managing immigration and refugee flows, combating environmental degradation
and health problems (e.g. HIV/AIDS) and the possible increase of social and political
deterioration. Globalisation is too important to be left unmanaged, as it is at the present;
this has been illustrated by protests and riots in Seattle and, more recently, in
Washington, DC. Economics still dominate current thinking, and this is expressed by the
explicit acceptance of the trickle-down theory. There is an urgent need for democratic
macroeconomic controls that enable both reasonable economic growth and social
development. The benefits resulting from such growth should ultimately flow throughout
the entire fabric of society, and spread to the very base of the social pyramid. The
agenda of the Earth Summit - and, even more so, that of the Social Summit - implicitly
deny the trickle-down theory. However, many governments continue to base their action
on it, and the most extreme neo-liberal currents of thought preach it openly. The
individual should be at the centre of development, calling for sound economic policies
that are accompanied by policies directly aimed at social development and eradication of
poverty. Today, there is broad agreement that economic development is embedded in
social and political development. As a result, we are witnessing a burgeoning of interest
in, inter alia, social capital and discussions about applications of the concept across
sectors and disciplines.
As the intellectual and ethical organization of the United Nations system, UNESCO is
deeply concerned with the problems of poverty, exclusion, inequalities and their impact
on human rights. The social capital approach can contribute both towards poverty
eradication and social stability, as well as to economic development. Consequently,
UNESCO has a growing interest in the role that social capital could play as a component
of a strategy for poverty eradication.
The opening paragraph of the 10 Commitments in the Copenhagen Declaration adopted
at the Social Summit, covers practically all areas of UNESCO’s concern: striving to
strengthen the role of culture in development, preserving the essential bases of people-
centred sustainable development, and contributing to the full development of human
resources and to social development. Through its programmes in education, natural
sciences, social and human sciences, culture and communication, UNESCO implements
interdisciplinary, integrated activities in social development.
To UNESCO, improving the conditions under which poverty-stricken people live is a
human right, as recognised by the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights and
the Copenhagen Programme of Action. Extreme poverty is a violation of human rights
because it is the main obstacle for implementing all other human rights, as well as the
principle that all human beings have equal dignity. The right to a decent standard of
living, adequate housing, education, work, health, protection of the family, privacy,
adequate food, and even the right to life are not implemented for those living in extreme
poverty. The same can be said about the right to take part in politics and all other human
rights. Through its activities, UNESCO establishes a strong link between building peace,
and socio-economic development and poverty eradication. Commitment 2 on Poverty
Eradication is thus particularly relevant for UNESCO. This is also the case of
commitment 4 on Social Integration. A main instrument for developing activities
concerning commitments 2 and 4 is UNESCO's Management of Social Transformations
Programme (MOST) It does research and field activities on cities and urban governance,
focusing on areas where there is a concentration of unemployment, poverty, social
exclusion, crime and violence, and also works on multicultural societies and local-global
linkages. All the research, policy activities, and field programmes of MOST aim to
enhance social integration and solidarity. As social capital is a powerful factor of
development, it has become a growing concern for UNESCO as well. I am not going to
elaborate upon the notion of social capital, nor on its impact, as we have four speakers
who will do so. Nonetheless, to give you an illustration, I would like to mention that a
participatory research project in Tanzania found that increases in social capital increased
household income by 20 to 30 percent. Social capital is often the only capital the poor
have: if they are deprived of basic social services, at least they have each other. Social
capital can very simplistically be defined as: "it is not what you know, it is whom you
know". For the poor, the only resource they have is often each other. Social capital is, in
part, manifest in a commitment to a cause that allows people to work together for a
common goal, though this may not maximise their personal self-interest. Social capital
exists in relations between and among actors, and is based on mutual trust. Fixed social
capital exists in relations of trust necessary for common survival, while movable social
capital is found in relations of trust between individuals who are pursuing personal goals.
UNESCO's integrated, intersectoral approach involves going beyond policies and
measures which address poverty eradication only sectorally. Poverty is a symptom, the
causes of which are multiple and complex, whether they have their origins -
internationally or nationally - in economic, social, cultural or political structures. Thus,
poverty eradication and development need to be supported by a combination of measures,
by economic policies obviously, but equally by social development programmes
concerning health, education, literacy, shelter, family planning, and population and
gender equality. An integrated approach with concrete goals and strategies is a must,
together with close cooperation between governments, civil society, private business, the
United Nations system and international financial institutions, as well as bilateral
In implementing the Copenhagen Programme of Action on Social Development,
UNESCO's actions are centred on: the appropriation and exercise of human rights as a
guiding principle of development; endogenous capacity-building and human resource
development, through education at all levels and throughout life; democratic and
participatory governance; the incorporation of cultural factors in development strategies;
environmental protection; and harnessing science and technology for development. To
sum up, development is to aim for a "triple win": economic efficiency, social equity, and
Economic and political opportunities tend to reinforce each other, thus the importance of
a rights-based approach to development that is two-pronged, reflecting both economic
and social rights - people’s right to freedom from want, and civil and political rights,
including the right to freedom of expression and participation. Freedom from want
cannot be divorced from people’s freedom to make their voices heard and their right to
participate. The bundling of developmental opportunities, which a sustainable livelihood
strategy requires, is best realised through participatory development. Participation makes
development more demand-driven, bottom-up, rather than top-down and supply-driven.
Building human capacities and ensuring democratic and good governance constitute
inseparable elements of the right to development. Participation is a basic element for the
creation of social capital, and interventions to reduce poverty should be designed not only
to have an immediate impact on poverty, but also to foster a rich network of cross-cutting
ties within society and between society's formal and informal institutions. When states
are functional, the informal and formal work well together – for example, government
support for community-based development. When states become dysfunctional, informal
institutions take on their role and they are reduced to serving a defensive or survival
function. To move toward economic and social well-being, states must support inclusive
development. Investments in the organizational capacity of the poor are critical.
At the dawn of the third millennium, the world has never before known such levels of
wealth, technological advancement and knowledge which could guarantee living
standards consistent with human dignity for everyone. The challenge of realising this
goal is a daunting one. This special session of the General Assembly should give new
impetus to social advocacy and political responsibility. There has to be political will to
prioritise social development and to reallocate resources within society. Economic and
financial policies should serve social policy. The poor and vulnerable populations should
have an influence on the formulation of policies which concern them through
participation at all levels. The first step of the ladder is at the micro-level, beginning with
belonging to a family, a group, and a community of people who help and support each
other. Humans are both the means and ends of development.
Social Capital Formation
as a Poverty Reducing Strategy? 1
by Else Øyen
The title of the symposium is "Social Capital Formation in Poverty Reduction: Which
Role for Civil Society Organizations and the State?". The emphasis here is on poverty
and whether poverty reduction can be obtained through a strategy of increased social
capital. The emphasis is not on social development in general or the broader relationship
between the state and social capital. Our goal here and now is to focus on poverty
reducing strategies and to discuss whether the latest "fashion" of poverty reduction
through social capital formation is likely to achieve the UN goal of massive poverty
Social capital is defined in several ways and the experts disagree on the definitions. The
major problem is that this is not a precise concept and that makes it difficult to use social
capital as an analytical tool. As a social scientist I would rather throw it overboard.
However, lately social capital has turned into a very important political tool, in particular
in relation to poverty reduction, and as such we shall need to deal with it in order to
understand better its usefulness - or lack of it - in poverty reduction.
In its simplest form, an individual acquires social capital through participating in
informal networks, registered organizations, associations of different kinds and social
movements, and it represents the sum of these experiences. Some will argue that only
participation in formal organizations can be defined as social capital. Others will argue
that sporadic participation in a social movement should also be defined as social capital.
We need to keep these differences in mind. It is believed that through membership in
different organizations and networks individuals will develop joint interests and shared
norms, which in turn will lead to trust and better understanding of differences in culture,
background and life style. During this process democracy might emerge and individuals
might have the opportunity to capture rights and benefits. Still others will emphasise that
the social capital created within a social structure, such as reciprocity or mutual aid,
increases the opportunities for collective action. If this is so, then civil society and
organizational development ought to be encouraged.
The major questions in this forum, and everywhere else where poverty issues matter, are:
• Whether social capital formation is relevant to poverty reduction;
• Whether social capital formation is likely to be more efficient than other strategies;
1 Paper presented at UNESCO/MOST and CROP/ISSC on "Social Capital Formation in Poverty
Reduction: Which Role for Civil Society Organizations and the State?" at the UN Summit + 5.
• How the strategy of social capital formation teams up with other strategies for
The notion of social capital is not new. It is part of human nature to interact and
participate in the lives of other people. For a long time the notion of social capital and its
variations in different cultures have been part of the social sciences, if not to say that the
study of human interaction is the core of social sciences. The interesting questions are:
• Why has this concept now reappeared?
• Why is social capital being promoted so vigorously?
• Who are its promoters?
• Why is social capital being linked to poverty reduction?
In the World Development Report from the World Bank increased social capital
formation is promoted as a major strategy for poverty reduction. Political scientists in
particular have constructed a new paradigm around social capital. NGOs seem to be
delighted that their investment in community work and participatory approaches can now
be legitimated through the strategy of social capital formation. At the same time, donors
are looking at social capital formation as yet another unsuccessful attempt - of many - to
Does all this enthusiasm mean that social capital formation will be an efficient poverty
reducing strategy? Or is it more that the concept of social capital fits into other agendas?
The discussion on the future role of the State seems to be crucial here. The World Bank,
for example, has for a long time advocated a diminishing role for the State and a decrease
in public expenditures. Strengthening civil society through the promotion of social capital
fits into this agenda. New trends of individualism - or maybe not so new - that stress
individual freedom rather than investing in society, are also setting different agendas.
This kind of ideology may be part of the picture. Individuals are encouraged to place
their loyalties in organizations that further their own particular interests rather than those
of society. Then there is the agenda of political scientists who, for a long time, have been
searching for a new paradigm: some of them have found it in social capital analysis.
Economists might try to parallel their efforts of operationalising human capital to that of
social capital. Also, some voluntary organizations stress the humanistic values of social
capital, such as a renewal of democracy, support for grassroot power, and an escape from
"ugly politics". (Also, but that is just between us: as a poverty reducing strategy, social
capital is a great money saving device!!)
Keeping all these different agendas in mind, and accepting the fact that increased social
capital formation is valuable in itself, let us move on to the crucial question: is social
capital formation a relevant strategy for poverty reduction?
The notion of social capital is based on the understanding that informal and formal
structures form around certain human needs. Some networks are heterogeneous and open
to a wide range of participants. Other networks are homogenous and accept only people
who are of the same kind. At least two questions are relevant here:
• Do poor people have the same sort of networks as the non-poor?
• Are poor people allowed to enter the networks of the non-poor?
The first question can be answered in the negative. Poor people do not form or participate
in the same kind of organizations as the non-poor, as confirmed by a whole set of studies.
Their non-participation in political and civic life is part of political poverty, which is so
closely connected to other forms of poverty. The time constraint created by poverty
reduces participation in networks organized around non-profit activities. Instead,
networks of the poor are often found to be related to strategies for survival. These
networks may be based on bartering and exchange of trust in the sense that borrowing
and lending goods and services are integrated in a symmetrical pattern of mutual
expectations. Another kind of network exists through family support which may stretch
far both in kinship and geographical terms. Occasionally interest groups are formed to
fight for some public good, which is usually controlled by the non-poor. While
community workers and others do try to develop and strengthen networks among the
local population that can reach into the broader community, the tendency is that the
poorest groups do not become lasting members of these networks.
The second question is whether poor people are allowed entry into the networks of the
non-poor. A qualified guess leads to another negative answer. All societies are stratified,
some more, some less. Stratification and differentiation have as their foremost goal to
define some people or groups as members of a state or organization, and to keep others
out. Usually it is the majority that is kept out, and the minority that receives the
privileges and rights which belong to the strata/organization of which they are members.
The poor are by definition and tradition at the bottom of such stratified societies. Social
exclusion is still another feature of poverty. Symbolic differentiation and exclusion may
be just as powerful. The poor can be exposed and excluded if they fail to adjust to the
dominating norms of the non-poor, understand the "real" values of society, get ahead, etc.
The whole set of stereotypes can be put on the witness stand here. With all these
stereotypes floating around there is little reason to believe that the poor will be welcome
in most networks. In any network a member is expected to contribute something, whether
it be material or non-material resources. By definition the poor may not have much to
offer in the way of material resources to any non-poor network, and their non-material
resources may not be much appreciated since they stem from a different background.
The rosy picture that is presented of integration through social capital formation is in fact
gloomy and unrealistic. If a majority of the poor are neither able to develop useful
networks for increasing their own social capital on a large scale, nor given entry into
those networks where social capital flourishes, how can social capital then be an
efficient instrument for poverty reduction?
The conclusion must be that at present social capital formation is not a useful instrument
for poverty reduction.
However, that does not mean that efforts to increase the social capital of the poor should
not be intensified - even if it is for somewhat different purposes. It is necessary to
mobilise the poor if any changes in their living conditions are to occur. It is necessary to
make the poor part of political life for their voices to be heard and for democracy to
develop. It is necessary to open up and let the poor into civil society if they are to become
part of society at large. It is necessary to increase the social capital of the poor if civil
conflicts are to be avoided. For all these reasons, it is vital for the poor, as well as for the
non-poor, that social capital formation among the poor be increased. Over time, and in
conjunction with a whole set of other strategies, such as the redistribution of major
resources, social capital may lead to poverty reduction. It may take a generation or more.
The important thing here is that we do not exchange basic redistribution measures, the
extension of citizen rights, investments in health and education, and the implementation
of human rights, for social capital formation, however useful it may be for several other
Likewise, it is important that civil society organizations get a realistic picture of the
usefulness of social capital formation in poverty reduction. Elsewhere I have argued that
it is not enough to educate the poor. It is just as important to educate the non-poor to
make them understand the restrictions that poverty puts on the day-to-day lives of the
poor, to make them understand what it takes to open up society for better integrating the
poor, and what tolerance and understanding it takes for them to open up their own
personal networks for the creation of social capital among the poor.
Citizen Participation and Social Capital Formation
Resource mobilisation for social development:
the experience of Comunidade Solidária in Brazil
by Miguel Darcy de Oliveira
Comunidade Solidária is a new type of political instrument created in the beginning of
the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Administration in 1995. The mission of this tool – more
a programme or a strategy than a formal institution - is to promote citizen participation
and to forge new alliances between the State and civil society for enhanced resources to
fight poverty and social exclusion in Brazil.
Comunidade Solidária is supported by the Government of Brazil, which provides its
infrastructure and administrative services, but is not owned by it. Decisions concerning
its policies and operations are taken by a council composed of four Ministers of State and
twenty-eight civil society leaders, including social entrepreneurs, NGO activists,
businessmen, scholars and artists.
This institutional design helps to ensure that the programme is able to open up new
channels of dialogue and communication between government and civil society.
Comunidade Solidária and the government are working together to promote and identify
the goals and synergies of social programmes for helping the poorest areas and groups of
the country. It is also in contact with civil society to mobilise knowledge and resources
for the experimentation, evaluation and replication of innovative practices and initiatives
in social development.
Throughout its five years of resource mobilisation and investment in social capital,
Comunidade Solidária has accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience that can
now be conceptualised as a new frame of reference for the action of government
agencies, citizen organizations and communities to generate social solidarity and
The cornerstone of this basic set of assumptions is the notion that the fight against
poverty and social exclusion should not transform people and communities into passive
and permanent beneficiaries of assistance programmes. Quite to the contrary, the fight
against poverty means strengthening the capacity of people and communities to satisfy
their needs, solve problems and improve their quality of life.
We are certainly not alone in this conviction. This reliance on citizen participation and
innovative partnerships involving multiple actors represents a strategy that is increasingly
being pursued by a wide variety of other agencies, both public and private, in Brazil and
elsewhere. This participatory approach has also been receiving attention and support
from well-know social scientists and development practitioners, such as Manuel
Castells, Anthony Giddens, Amartya Sen and Robert Putnam, among many others.
Accordingly, this paper will seek to outline a vision and practice that can sustain this
emerging, new pattern of relationships between the State and civil society, based on the
notions of social capital, cross-sectoral partnerships among multiple actors, inter- and
intra-governmental linkages, decentralisation, and the convergence and synergy of
programmes and policies.
* * * * *
The fabric of contemporary societies has changed. Today’s polity includes more than
just the State and the market. The rise of the non-profit and non-governmental third
sector is a recent and massive phenomenon that is paving the way for unprecedented
forms of interaction and regulation between civil society, the State and the market.
Contrary to a notorious statement once made by Margaret Thatcher that there is no such
thing as a society, civil society not only exists but has positioned itself as an irreplaceable
key partner in the generation of social solidarity and sustainable development.
At the turn of the millennium, Brazilian society is more open, diversified, informed and
participatory than at any other moment in our history. Groups of citizens are mobilising
around each and every question of public interest, demanding action from the State and
acting on their own to tackle social problems.
Citizenship is no longer confined to voting in elections. It grows out of citizens’ daily
participation in civic life, in the improvement of the neighbourhood, school, hospital,
library, museum, or wherever there is work to be done for the common good.
In their immense diversity, the spontaneous initiatives of NGOs, business foundations,
philanthropic associations, service clubs, volunteer centres, informal support networks
and self-help groups, respond to little perceived needs, confer visibility on problems
encountered by vulnerable groups in the population, and test – even if only on a small
scale – innovative solutions. This exercise of participatory citizenship is significantly
contributing to expand the energies, capabilities and resources invested in social
Each and every programme of social development implemented by Comunidade
Solidária involves a large set of partners, such as NGOs, government agencies,
universities, churches, volunteers and private companies.
This proliferation of private initiatives for the public good is a historical novelty that is
profoundly reshaping the prevailing patterns of relationships between the State and
society. Citizen involvement and public-private partnerships do not constitute an
alternative for the programmes and policies implemented by the State, but rather a pre-
requisite for their implementation in a more efficient and equitable manner. Serving the
public interest is not only the duty of the State, but also the permanent task and
responsibility of all citizens.
The growing participation of citizens and their organizations in the public sphere is also a
global phenomenon, coincident with the emergence of what various authors describe as a
more reflexive and energetic - and less passive - society.. This is not because citizens, all
of a sudden, have become smarter, but rather because they are constantly being called
upon to produce value judgements and to make choices where, before, they had only to
conform to a pre-established destiny (Giddens). For citizens this means exercising
flexibility, and being capable of engaging endlessly in the reconstruction of the self,
reprogramming themselves to confront new challenges (Castells). It has also meant being
able and willing to transform the public space into an arena for debate where values and
interests become issues for collective deliberation (Habermas).
The emergence of the so-called network society, based on knowledge and innovation,
and propelled forward by information and communication technologies, is facilitating the
growing dialogue and interaction between groups and individuals. This on-going debate,
in turn, is opening the way for new forms of social awareness, public debate and citizen
involvement in all matters of public interest.
The emergence in Brazil of such a model of democracy – complex, pluralist, dynamic
and in a constant state of flux – both requires and favours a radical transformation of the
State’s ways of operating and of relating to civil society. This process is taking place
under our very eyes, giving rise to new challenges and calling for profound conceptual
For sure, there are sectors within government agencies that still fear the participation of
civil society as an undue interference in their jurisdiction. There are also sectors of
society that perceive collaboration with government as putting themselves at risk of being
manipulated and coopted.
However, as those who are involved in the partnerships begin to see the benefits that
cooperation can bring, prejudice and misconceptions, mutual lack of trust and fear tend to
disappear. Significant changes are indeed occurring in the reciprocal perception of and
relationship between public and private actors. Governmental agencies and citizen
organizations are both learning how to come together and cooperate on the basis of their
respective comparative advantages and added value, without this resulting in a confusion
of roles or a denial of their own identities.
Cooperation does not erase differences nor does it eliminate disagreement. Conflict is
intrinsic to democracy. Different people do not need to agree about everything, all the
time, in order to put together their resources to deal with the task at hand. Partnerships
and alliances, more often than not, follow a pattern of variable geometry. They tend to be
multiple and flexible. Consensus is built on a case-by-case basis, as a function of the
action to be taken. When several partners join forces, the resources they mobilise are
broader and more diverse, the redistributive impact of the public programmes is greater,
while the risks of waste, patronage and corruption are diminished.
This emerging, new frame of reference is particularly consistent with the concept of
"social capital", understood as the forms of social interaction and “connectedness”
generated by the links between individuals who share attitudes of mutual trust,
community belonging, solidarity and reciprocity.
Studies on social capital, such as those of Robert Putnam, demonstrate that the existence
of such ties and connections between citizens – "habits of the heart", in the expression of
Tocqueville – are not only a touchstone for the association of citizens. These values tend
to make people more self-reliant, trustworthy and healthy, tolerant of diversity, sensitive
to the necessities of the more vulnerable, and better empowered to transform private
problems into public issues.
Civic virtues, such as solidarity, reciprocity, trust and cooperation for the mutual benefit,
are old notions that today are gaining new meaning and value. In each and every
community, no matter how poor, resources - in the sense of social capital - are available,
and almost always on a scale greater than imagined by an external observer. The
challenge for policymakers is to identify and mobilise this local social capital, and then
tailor programmes and public services after it so that beneficiaries can fully participate in
their design and implementation, and in the resulting actions.
Accordingly, there is no contradiction between the offer of programmes and services by
governmental agencies, and active and responsible participation by the community and
its organizations. In truth, governmental initiatives can and should contribute to the
appreciation and strengthening of local social capital.
Government programmes aimed at encouraging parents’ involvement with school life or
mobilising people to take care of their own health demonstrate that the “top down” and
“bottom up” approaches, far from being opposed or excluded are, in fact, complementary
and mutually reinforcing. The positive results of such initiatives, in turn, reinforce the
internal links of solidarity, increasing the community's confidence in its own skills and
in the government.
Strengthening bonds of reciprocity and social connection is also the basis for the
initiatives being developed by Comunidade Solidária, with the goal of promoting
volunteerism and philanthropy in Brazil. These practices, which have always been
present in Brazilian tradition, now deserve to be recaptured, celebrated and enhanced in
the context of the fight against poverty and social exclusion. Thus a new volunteerism
and new philanthropy have been gaining strength and recognition. They are directed at
social development, grounded more in ethics of solidarity than on simple generosity, and
marked by civic virtues rather than by individual ethical-moral motivations.
This renewed appreciation of volunteering at the intersection of solidarity and citizenship
is contemporary to another recent phenomenon: the growing commitment by the
Brazilian business sector to the notion of social responsibility. The number of companies
that not only finance social interest projects, but also encourage their executives and staff
to offer their skills for the improvement of the community, has significantly expanded in
recent years. This concept of corporate social responsibility has grown from a new vision
that entrepreneurs hold of their role and place in society.
This mobilisation of the most varied of actors, from the ordinary citizen to the
entrepreneur, from NGOs to churches, and from unions to professional associations,
increases resources and stimulates innovative solutions. Such initiatives are becoming
more and more two-way streets – they are channelling not only generosity and
donations, but also opening up to new experiences, and providing learning opportunities
as well as the pleasure of feeling useful to a community.
In today’s Brazil, the dynamics of citizen and community participation are being strongly
facilitated by another recent and positive change: the trend towards greater
decentralisation of jurisdiction and resources from the federal sphere to the regional and
local levels. This process goes hand in hand with strengthening the municipality and the
community as the loci for the implementation of social development policies.
It is certain that decentralisation - which is bringing the management of programmes
closer to the populations who benefit from them - facilitates and at the same time
demands greater and better social control over public spending and its results.
This process, in turn, makes the adoption of participatory methodologies more feasible
for the management of social policies. These methodologies include people’s active
involvement and participation in the identification of local needs and assets in order to
better match external inputs to internal community resources. Such an approach also
requires strong investment in the training of public and private actors for programme
management, as well as the establishment of flexible and efficient mechanisms for
monitoring and evaluation.
The decentralisation of resources and powers, therefore, facilitates the participation of the
population and the establishment of working partnerships with organizations from civil
society. This strategy is complemented with innovative forms of cooperation,
convergence and synergy between the different levels of government agencies – both at
the federal and local levels – thus strengthening the outreach of policies and
To put it in a nutshell: the experience of Comunidade Solidária demonstrates that in a
country like Brazil money may be scarce, but resources – understood as skills, expertise,
organizational capability and networks – are abundant. The challenge is how to mobilise
and invest this social capital with efficiency and scale.
Social Capital in Theory and Practice:
Reducing Poverty by Building Partnerships between States,
Markets and Civil Society2
by Michael Woolcock3
But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must
lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Democratic National Convention, 2 July 1932
This paper provides a brief introduction to the recent theoretical and empirical literature
on social capital as it pertains to economic development issues, with a particular focus on
the implications for states, markets, and civil society. It seeks to address four specific
questions: (1) What is social capital? (2) How do different disciplines conceptualise and
measure it? (3) How do any similarities and differences in social capital formation
influence development theory and research? and (4) How might an awareness of the
strengths and weaknesses of these different approaches help to build more
complementary partnerships between states, markets, and civil society?
The paper proceeds as follows. I begin by examining the remarkable resurgence
of interest over the last decade in the social dimensions of development in general, and
the idea of social capital in particular. Then, I provide a basic primer on social capital and
a brief survey of the empirical evidence that supports key hypotheses pertaining to
economic development. Next, I provide a response to several of the recurring criticisms
levelled at social capital. I then explore more fully the approaches to social capital
theory, research, and policy taken by the different social science disciplines, and the
mechanisms by which they might contribute to greater synergy between governments,
firms, civil society organizations, and citizens. I conclude by calling for a renewed
commitment to interdisciplinary and multi-method research on development issues, to
keeping debates on social capital focused on the evidence, and to understanding that even
a relatively parsimonious conceptualisation of social capital has a range of important
implications for scholars, practitioners, and policymakers seeking to cultivate a more
productive economy and inclusive society.
2 This paper draws on Woolcock (2001; forthcoming) and Woolcock and Narayan (2000). Suggestions for
subsequent revisions gratefully received.
3 Please address correspondence to Michael Woolcock, Room MC3-548, 1818 H Street NW, Washington
DC 20433. Email: email@example.com The views expressed in this paper are entirely those of the
author, and should not be attributed to the World Bank, its executive directors, or the countries they
I. The Decline and Rise of the Social Dimensions of Development
In the last ten years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the social and institutional
dimensions of economic development (World Bank, 1997; 2000a; 2000b). Work in this
field was pioneered by Hirschman (1956) and Adelman and Morris (1967), but in general
the issues they had raised so poignantly were crowded out until the late 1980s. During the
1970s and 80s, Cold War rhetoric and ideological dichotomies (State planning versus
free markets) dominated development discourse in First and Second World countries,
while elites in the Third World (and many of their western scholarly counterparts) tended
to blame forces beyond their borders for poor domestic performance.4 For more than
thirty years, then, the role of national and local institutions—political, legal, and social—
were largely neglected.5 A number of geo-political factors contributed to the turnaround
in the 1990s, most prominent among them being the fall of communism, the rise of ethnic
conflict, the ostensible difficulties of creating market institutions in transitional
economies, the financial crises in Mexico, East Asia, Russia, and Brazil, and the enduring
scourge of poverty in even the most prosperous economies. Meanwhile, policymakers,
foreign investors, and aid agencies alike finally began to recognise that corruption, far
from “greasing the wheels” in weak institutional environments, was in fact imposing
serious and measurable net costs (World Bank, 1998). Faced with the glaring evidence
that orthodox theories had neither anticipated these difficulties nor offered safe passage
through them once encountered, attention returned to the social and institutional aspects.
This was the demand side of the story. On the supply side, a remarkable series of
publications combined to give social scientists greater confidence to address these long-
neglected themes. In economics, Nobel laureate Douglass North (1990) argued that
formal and informal institutions (the legal structures and normative “rules of the game”)
were crucial to understanding economic performance.6 In political science, Robert
Putnam (1993) showed that the density and scope of local civic associations laid the
foundations for the widespread dissemination of information and social trust, thereby
creating the conditions underpinning effective governance and economic development
4 To be sure, the power of wealthy nations, corporations, and individuals to exert disproportionate
influence in developing countries remains an important issue, but in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s the myopic
focus by dependency theorists on these “external forces” trumped most serious efforts to examine “internal
conditions”. Modernisation theorists raised some of these concerns, but largely in unhelpful ways, e.g.
examining national or ethnic “cultural traits” or levels of “achievement motivation,” which they believed
were reflected in patterns and degrees of development. For a review of the more recent literature on culture
and development, see Alkire, Rao, and Woolcock (2000).
5 Even today, it is the rare development economics textbook that contains a single index entry for
“institutions”, “communities,” or even “corruption.” “Governments,” where discussed at all, are usually
portrayed as rent-seeking and/or price distorting entities with little positive or proactive contribution to
make to society other than the provision of essential public goods.
6 The pioneering work of Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, and Mancur Olson on (respectively) incomplete
information, human development, and institutional rigidities was also influential (see, only most recently,
Stiglitz 1998, Sen 1999, and Olson 2000).
(see also Fukuyama 1995).7 In sociology, Peter Evans (1992, 1995, 1996) demonstrated
that whether a State was “developmental” or “predatory” was crucially dependent on
both the capacity of its public institutions and the nature of State-society relations.8 By
the late 1990s, the development literature on institutional capacity, social networks, and
community participation inspired by these works began to coalesce around a general
framework loosely held together by the idea of “social capital.”9
II. Defining and Conceptualising Social Capital
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” This common aphorism sums up much of
the conventional wisdom regarding social capital. It is wisdom born of our experience
that gaining membership to exclusive clubs requires inside contacts, that close
competitions for jobs and contracts are usually won by those with “friends in high
places.” When we fall upon hard times we know it is our friends and family who
constitute the final “safety net.” Conscientious parents devote hours of time to the school
board and to helping their kids with homework, only too aware that a child’s intelligence
and motivation alone are not enough to ensure a bright future. Less instrumentally, some
of our happiest and most rewarding hours are spent talking with neighbours, sharing
meals with friends, participating in religious gatherings, and volunteering on community
Intuitively, then, the basic idea of “social capital” is that one’s family, friends, and
associates constitute an important asset, one that can be called upon in a crisis, enjoyed
for its own sake, and/or leveraged for material gain. In the development literature, those
communities endowed with a rich stock of social networks and civic associations have
been shown to be in a stronger position to confront poverty and vulnerability (Moser,
1996; Narayan, 1996), resolve disputes (Schafft and Brown, 2000), and share beneficial
information (Isham, 1999). As several sophisticated econometric studies have shown,
diffuse sets of social ties are crucial for providing informal insurance mechanisms (Coate
and Ravallion, 1993; Townsend, 1994) and have important impacts on the success of
development projects (Isham, Narayan and Pritchett, 1995; Galasso and Ravallion, 2000).
Conversely, the absence of social ties can have an equally important impact. Office
workers, for example, fear being “left out of the loop” on important decisions; ambitious
professionals recognise that getting ahead in a new venture typically requires an active
commitment to “networking”, i.e. to creating the social connections they currently lack.
A defining feature of being poor, moreover, is that one is not a member of—or is even
actively excluded from—certain social networks and institutions, ones that could be used
7 Elinor Ostrom and Norman Uphoff also made influential contributions through their work on the
importance of social relations to the maintenance of common property resources (especially the
management of watersheds in developing countries).
8 For comparable innovative work in anthropology, see Singerman (1995) and Ensminger (1996).
9 See Woolcock (1998) for an overview of the intellectual history of social capital. Extensive social capital
citations in fields other than development are presented in Woolcock (1998) and Foley and Edwards
to secure good jobs and decent housing (Wilson, 1996). Without access to employment
information networks, residents of inner city ghettoes find themselves trapped into low-
wage jobs (Loury, 1977) and thereby rendered “truly disadvantaged” (Wilson, 1987).
Narayan et al’s (2000) exhaustive global study of the poor’s explanations of their plight
strongly implicates (among other things) the absence of organizations enabling those
living in poverty to voice their collective interests and aspirations. Varshney (2001)
shows that where there are cross-cutting ties to connect different groups, such as
associations that bring together Hindus and Muslims in India, conflict is addressed
constructively and rarely descends into violence; where such ties are lacking, there are no
established channels for dealing with difference. Barr (1998) reports similar findings
from work on firms in Africa, where poor entrepreneurs are shown to have a limited and
circumscribed set of “protection” networks, while the non-poor have a more diverse set
of “innovation” networks (see also Fafchamps and Minten, 1999). There is also evidence
to suggest that in many poor communities, women primarily possess the intensive
“protection” networks, while men have access to more extensive “innovation” networks
(Narayan et al, 2000).
Intuition and our everyday language also recognise an additional feature of social capital,
however. It acknowledges that social capital has costs as well as benefits, that social ties
can be a liability as well as an asset.10 Most parents, for example, worry their teenage
children will “fall in with the wrong crowd,” that peer pressure and a strong desire for
acceptance will induce them to take up harmful habits. At the institutional level, many
countries and organizations (including the World Bank) have nepotism laws, in explicit
recognition that personal connections can be used to unfairly discriminate, distort, and
corrupt. In our everyday language and life experience, in short, we find that the social ties
we have can be both a blessing and a blight, while those we do not have can deny us
access to key resources. These features of social capital are well documented by the
empirical evidence, and have important implications for economic development and
Social capital has entered debates about economic performance on its ambitious claim to
constituting an independent—and hitherto under-appreciated—factor of production. The
classical economists identified land, labour, and physical capital (i.e. tools and
technology) as the three basic factors shaping economic growth, to which in the 1960s
neo-classical economists such as Theodore Schultz and Gary Becker introduced the
notion of human capital, arguing that a society's endowment of educated, trained, and
healthy workers determined how productively the orthodox factors could be utilised. The
latest equipment and most innovative ideas in the hands or minds of the brightest, fittest
people, however, will amount to little unless they also have access to others for
information, guidance, assistance, and dissemination of their work. Life at home, in the
10 Indeed, an early criticism of the social capital literature was that it failed to appreciate the forms and
consequences of these costs. For members of cults, for example, group loyalties may be so binding that
attempts to leave result in death; some successful members of immigrant communities have reportedly
Anglocised their names in order to divest themselves of obligations to support subsequent cohorts (Portes
and Sensenbrenner, 1993). More onerously, the destructive acts of hate groups, drug cartels, and terrorist
organizations may impose enormous burdens on society as a whole (Rubio, 1997).
boardroom, or on the shop floor is both more rewarding and productive when suppliers,
colleagues, and clients alike are able to combine their particular skills and resources in a
spirit of cooperation and commitment to common objectives. In essence, where human
capital resides in individuals, social capital resides in relationships.11 Though beginning
from a different theoretical standpoint, many economists have also conceptualised social
capital in relational terms, using the language of externalities, public goods, and
Much of the broader interest in social capital, however, has been fuelled by a
conceptualisation that includes not only networks and social relations, but psychological
dispositions (such as social skills, cooperation, honesty), and political measures ("rule of
law", "contract enforceability", "civil liberties", etc.).12 This all-encompassing approach
is appealing to some because of the existence of large, cross-national datasets (e.g. the
World Values Survey, Gastil indexes, Freedom House scores), which permit “social
capital”—now measured by country-level “trust” and “governance” scores—to be
entered into macroeconomic growth regressions.13 Such studies make for provocative
reading, but the collective panoply of micro and macro measures of “social capital”14—
and their correspondingly eclectic theoretical moorings—has led many critics to accuse
social capital of having become all things to all people, and hence nothing to anyone.
What can be done? One approach has been to refer to macro-institutional issues under a
separate banner, calling them instead “social capabilities” or “social infrastructure” (e.g.
Koo and Perkins, 1995; Temple and Johnson 1998; Hall and Jones, 1999). The virtue of
this strategy is that it relieves social capital of its mounting intellectual burden,
analytically and empirically disentangling micro-community and macro-institutional
concerns. The vice is that it removes a convenient discursive short-hand for the social
dimensions of development vis-à-vis other factors of production (cf. “human capital”,
“financial capital”), and treats as separate what is more accurately considered together
(see below). A second approach has been to call for a more tightly focused micro
definition of social capital (Portes, 1998; Putnam, 2000), to advocate a “lean and mean”
conceptualisation focusing on the sources of social capital—i.e. primarily social
networks—rather than its consequences (which can be either positive or negative,
depending on the circumstances), such as trust, tolerance, and cooperation. The upside of
this approach is that it is more or less clear about what is, and what is not, social capital,
making for cleaner measurement and more parsimonious theory building; the downside is
that it tends to overlook the broader institutional environment in which communities are
11 Human and social capital are complements, however, in that literate and informed citizens are better able
to organize, evaluate conflicting information, and express their views in constructive ways; schools which
are an integral part of community life, nurture high parental involvement, and actively expand the horizons
of students, achieve higher test scores (Morgan and Sorensen, 1999; cf. Coleman, 1988; Hanifan, 1916).
12 See Temple (2000) for a review of this literature.
13 See, among others, Knack and Keefer, 1997; La Porta et al, 1997; Knack 1999; Collier and Gunning,
14 For a summary of various measures of social capital, see Grootaert (1997), Box 3.
A third approach has been to dismiss the definitional debate altogether. For researchers
such as Knack (1999b), it is a mute question as to whether social capital is, or should be
understood as, a micro or macro phenomenon: “social capital is what social capital
scholars do.” Just as social scientists do important and rigorous work on “power” without
a universally agreed-upon definitions of it, so too, these writers maintain, we should care
less about debating terms and more about applying consistent scholarly standards to
evaluating the merits of research on “social capital.” If the work satisfies rigorous
methodological, empirical, and theoretical criteria, then definitional issues will take care
So is social capital a micro phenomenon, a macro phenomenon, both, or doesn’t it
matter? My own approach to these concerns, first outlined in Woolcock (1998), has been
to acknowledge the merits of each approach, and to attempt something of a synthesis.
The core components of my approach are as follows. First, we do need a definition, and
one that is more or less agreed upon. I therefore reject the “anything goes” argument
while wholeheartedly agreeing that all research should be subject to consistent and
rigorous scholarly standards. A definition is needed because social capital is being used
in so many different disciplines; far from precluding agreement, it is remarkable how
much overlap there actually is, presenting us with a timely opportunity to adopt a concept
that transcends familiar disciplinary provincialisms. Definitional debates have been going
on for the best part of a decade now, and lest they continue to absorb time and resources
best spent on more important issues, I am prepared to declare that while the battles aren’t
over, the war has essentially been won. There is an emerging consensus on the definition
of social capital, one built on an increasingly solid empirical foundation, and it is as
follows: social capital refers to the norms and networks that facilitate collective action.
Second, to avoid tautological reasoning, I maintain that any definition of social capital
should focus on its sources rather than consequences, on what it is rather than what it
does (Edwards and Foley, 1997). (Without this distinction, for example, an argument
could be put forward that successful groups were distinguished by their dense community
ties, failing to consider the possibility that the same ties could be preventing success in
another otherwise similar group.) This approach eliminates an entity such as “trust”,
vitally important in its own right but which for our present purposes can be regarded as
an outcome (of repeated interactions, of credible legal institutions, of reputations).
Third, for clarity’s sake, social capital makes most sense when it is understood as a
relational (i.e. sociological), rather than psychological15 or political variable.16 (Having
said that, I think there is a sense in which the spirit of social capital can be applied to
broader political economy concerns, and I discuss this below.) If we are to be true to the
dictums of scholarship—namely, that the reliability and validity of data (whether
15 Cf. Krishna and Uphoff’s (1999) distinction between “cognitive” and “structural” social capital.
16 A relatively narrow definition of social capital does not preclude cross-country comparisons, but the
reality is that we simply do not have the data we need at this time to make meaningful statements. I discuss
this aspect in more detail below.
qualitative or quantitative), its analysis and interpretation constitute the central focus of
our deliberations—then the broader definition is becoming increasingly untenable,
because the best and most coherent empirical research on social capital, irrespective of
discipline, has operationalised it as a sociological variable (see Foley and Edwards,
1999). Furthermore, if “social capital” is facile or distracting, as some (e.g. Fine, 1999)
maintain, then this too should be demonstrated empirically, not refuted polemically.
Given the ever-accumulating weight of evidence documenting the significance of social
capital, however, the burden of proof is rapidly shifting to the detractors. One virtue of
adopting a relatively narrow definition is that it encourages supporters and skeptics alike
to play by the same rules. Another is that it allows us to include several decades worth of
careful research by sociologists and economists on communities, networks and
associations that, while not deploying the social capital terminology as such, nonetheless
most certainly can and should be read as foundational work in this field.
Fourth, in order to accommodate the range of outcomes associated with social capital, it
is necessary to recognise the multi-dimensional nature of its sources. The most common
and popular distinction—drawing on Cooley’s (1909) notion of primary (and,
Durkheim’s writings on secondary) groups, and Granovetter’s (1973) work on “strong"
and “weak” ties—is between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital (Gittell and Vidal,
1998: 10). The former refers to relations between family members, close friends, and
neighbours, the latter to more distant associates and colleagues.17 Bridging is essentially
a horizontal metaphor, however, implying connections between people who share
broadly similar demographic characteristics, irrespective of how well they know one
another. As Fox (1996), Heller (1996), and Bebbington (1999) have stressed, social
capital also has a vertical dimension: poverty is largely a function of powerlessness and
exclusion, and as such a key task for development practitioners and policymakers is
ensuring that the activities of the poor not only “reach out”, but are also “scaled up”. An
important component of this strategy entails forging alliances with sympathetic
individuals in positions of power (Brown and Fox, 1998), an approach Hirschman (1968)
wryly calls “reform by stealth.” To further extend the Hirschmanian discourse, this
vertical dimension can be called “linkages.” The capacity to leverage resources, ideas,
and information from formal institutions beyond the community is a key function of
linking social capital.
A multi-dimensional approach allows us to argue that it is different combinations of
bonding, bridging, and linking social capital that are responsible for the range of
outcomes we observe in the literature, and to incorporate a dynamic component in which
optimal combinations change over time. These distinctions have particular significance
for understanding the plight of the poor, who typically have a close-knit and intensive
stock of bonding social capital that they leverage to “get by” (Briggs, 1998; Holzmann
and Jorgensen, 1999), a modest endowment of the more diffuse and extensive bridging
17 The standard distinction between “bonding” and “bridging” is between those who are “like you”, and
those who are “not like you”. I find this too crude a division—my family and close friends are valued in
qualititatively different ways from those individuals in my Rolodex file, for example—which is why I have
sought to introduce a third “linking” dimension.”
social capital typically deployed by the non-poor to “get ahead” (Barr, 1998; Narayan,
1999; Kozel and Parker, 2000), and almost no linking social capital enabling them to gain
sustained access to formal institutions such as banks, insurance agencies, and the courts
(see World Bank 2000a, Chapter 7). In order to avoid functionalist understandings of
these dimensions, it is important to stress that bonding, bridging, and linking social
capital also have their downsides: strong communal ties can justify cruelty against
women and minorities; friends in low and high places who fall foul of the law can bring
you down too (“guilt by association”); and oppressive linking ties—e.g. those between
landlords and peasants—can perpetuate servitude and oppression.
Fifth, it is important to stress that a narrowly sociological definition of social capital—
i.e., one centred on networks within, between, and beyond communities—must not blind
us to the institutional context within which these networks are embedded, especially the
role of the State. Indeed, I contend that the vibrancy or paucity of social capital cannot be
understood independently of its broader institutional environment: communities can be
highly engaged because they are mistreated or ignored by public institutions (e.g.
providing credit and security because banks and police refuse to do so), or because they
enjoy highly complementary relations with the State (Narayan, 1999). As a number of
economists and anthropologists have noted (e.g. Besley and Coate, 1995; Davis, 1999),
the absence or weakness of formal institutions is often compensated for by the creation of
informal organizations. As such, I caution against explanations of the rise and fall of
social capital—and policy arguments for enhancing or reviving it—that occur in an
institutional vacuum. Weak, hostile, or indifferent governments have a profoundly
different effect on community life (and development projects), for example, than
governments that respect civil liberties, uphold the rule of law, and resist corruption
(Kaufmann, et al, 1999). Failure to grapple seriously with the complex role of institutions
in shaping the fortunes of communities is one of the major reasons why contradictory
public policy prescriptions have been submitted in the name of “building social capital”
(see Woolcock, 1998).
The importance of institutions is particularly instructive for understanding the plight of
minorities and marginalised groups in developing countries, and the role of social
divisions more generally. One of the most popular empirical measures of social divisions
is “ethno-linguistic fractionalisation”, which some (e.g. Easterly and Levine, 1997) have
argued is a significant source of economic stagnation in regions such as Africa. The most
recent work, by Collier (1999) and Posner (1999), however, argues that high levels of
ethnic fractionalisation per se are in fact not a concern (indeed, diversity can be a asset);
rather, it is the presence of two or three large competing ethnic groups coupled with weak
public institutions that spells danger.18 This explains in part why ethnically
heterogeneous societies like in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia (and in OECD
countries in general) have been able to enjoy the fruits of their diversity, while many non-
democratic developing countries have not.
18 The “timing” of the formation of these institutions—i.e. when the country became independent—and the
conditions under which the transition from colonialism took place also surely matters, but these aspects
await further investigation. See Ritzen, Easterly and Woolcock (2000).
III. Responding to the Critics
The rise of social capital has, not surprisingly, met with a backlash in some quarters. In
addition to concerns about conceptual overreach and lack of empirical specificity
discussed above, a number of other questions have been raised. Some of these are
legitimate, of course, and need to be addressed, since no idea or agenda is well served by
advocates who fail to take stock on a regular basis, who romanticise community, or who
do not acknowledge and attend to genuine weaknesses. Many of the concerns raised by
critics are simply unfounded however, or at least do not constitute grounds for dismissal.
In this section I present and respond to six commonly expressed reservations.
Social capital is flawed, say the critics, because it:
1. Just repackages old ideas; is more style (good “marketing”) than substance
The “good marketing” aspect of this claim is true, but that doesn’t make it a flaw. The
hype surrounding social capital, like any “product”, would have collapsed under its own
weight long ago if there wasn’t a sufficiently rigorous empirical foundation on which it
was built, and if a broad constituency of people didn't “buy it”. But the foundation is
strong and expanding19, and the audience wide and deep. Sociology for too long has been
content to let its key ideas trade under obscure, jargon-laden terminology that has little
resonance with other disciplines or (more importantly) the general public. The idea of
social capital is at heart a pretty simple and intuitive one, and it consequently speaks to a
lot of different people. Without unduly compromising itself, the idea of social capital
gives classical (and contemporary) sociological themes a voice they would not otherwise
2. Is merely the latest social scientific fad/buzz word
The downside of successfully “marketing” a new but still imprecise idea is that a lot of
people try to ride its coattails. Such people seek to procure credibility for their work by
calling what they do “social capital research”, even if they have only a passing
knowledge of how most others have used the term. Repeated too many times, it creates a
situation where social capital does indeed appear to be “all things to all people”.
19 In addition to the development literature cited above, sophisticated empirical findings on the effects of
social capital in OECD countries have emerged in the fields of urban studies (e.g. Gittell and Vidal, 1998;
Sampson, Dorenoff, and Earls, 1999; DiPasquale and Glaeser, 1999), public health (Kawachi, Kennedy,
and Glass, 1999; Kawachi and Berkman, 2000) and corporate life (Meyerson 1994; Burt, 2000; Fernandez,
Castilla, and Moore, 2000), the unifying argument being that, controlling for other key variables, the well-
connected are more likely to be hired, housed, healthy, and happy. Specifically, they are more likely to be
promoted faster, receive higher salaries, be favourably evaluated by peers, miss fewer days of work, live
longer, and be more efficient in completing assigned tasks. An increasingly large number of studies—
drawing on an intellectual tradition going back to Marshall and Smith—also explore the role of
“communities of practice” within and strategic alliances between firms, especially in the finance, bio-
technology, and software industries (e.g. Lesser, 2000; Wenger and Snyder, 2000). To the extent that
productivity and regional growth performance are driven by these types of alliances, innovative policies to
facilitate them need to be given serious consideration.
Although the number of studies continues to expand exponentially, a coherent and
rigorous core is emerging. As a consensus (of sorts) is reached about its definition and
theoretical underpinnings, the difference between the contenders and pretenders will
become much clearer. As such, conceptual sloppiness is a problem for journal editors and
conference convenors, not the term "social capital" per se. It’s important to note that
there is also a “demand side” component to social capital’s recent popularity in that it
satisfies a large conceptual void in both mainstream economic and social theories of
development about how to deal seriously with “the social dimensions.” As long as that
void exists, and as long as the idea of social capital can convincingly fill it, the buzz
should be welcomed, not scorned.
3. Encourages and rewards “economic imperialism” (social relations as
The idea of social capital has been developed primarily by economic sociologists, and as
such provides as much opportunity for “sociological imperialism” as it does for opening
the floodgates to economists and “economism” (or economic rationalism, as it is called in
Australia). In the end, however, I'm not convinced that this kind of imperialism is really
all that bad in either direction. Disciplines should have the confidence of their
convictions; there are no laws saying who can or should study what subject with what
tool kit, and the prize should go to those who provide the most compelling answers to the
most important questions. To the extent that we live in a world where the dominant
ideas—in both popular discourse and public policy—are those of economics, we should
welcome windows of opportunity for (a) modifying the more extreme elements of those
ideas, and (b) having a concrete alternative to those ideas. To talk of social relations as
“capital”, for example, is not sociological heresy or a sell-out to economics: it simply
reflects the reality that our social relationships are one of the ways in which we cope with
uncertainty (returning to our family when we lose our job), extend our interests (using
alumni networks to secure a good job), and achieve outcomes we could not attain on our
own (organizing a parade). Perhaps social capital’s greatest quality, however, is that it
helps to transcend the imperialism wars altogether, providing a common discourse across
disciplinary, sectoral, and methodological divides.
4. Reinforces or legitimises orthodox (“Washington consensus”20) development
This is a recent but largely spurious critique, in that it (a) denies and masks the very real
changes that development theory and practice are undergoing today at the major
development organizations, especially when compared with those of a decade ago, and
(b) fails to recognise that social capital theory can be a powerful tool for explaining how
and why certain power structures are established and perpetuated. The idea of social
capital is not entirely value-neutral (no idea is), but seen as a complement of physical
capital (tools and resources), financial capital (monetary assets), and human capital
(education and health care), it can forge an important conceptual space for taking the
social dimension seriously. In this light, the perpetuation or decline of (neo-)
“Washington consensus” development policies is shaped by a much larger constellation
of forces. Social capital should be seen as part of the solution, not the problem, for those
with a legitimate axe to grind about the bad old days of development. Importantly, social
capital is facilitating sociology’s entry into high-level policy discussions—an arena from
which it has been comfortably excluded until now—giving the discipline the chance to
have a real influence on issues it claims to care deeply about.
5. Neglects considerations of power, especially for those who are relatively
Social capital has been appropriated by scholars, activists, and policymakers spanning the
political spectrum (an interesting fact in and of itself), so it is possible to read the
literature selectively and arrive at the above conclusion. A more complete reading,
however, reveals that a social capital perspective can be used not only to help explain the
emergence and persistence of power relations, but—perhaps more important—to provide
a constructive basis for doing something about it. It is one thing to recognise, for
example, that poverty is caused in part by the exclusion of certain marginalised groups
from public, private and civic institutions; it is quite another to say what should happen
next. Marxist theory predicts and promotes revolution, on an assumption of shared
interests among disenfranchised groups; neo-classical theory assumes markets (formal
and informal) will emerge of their own accord to reach an efficient equilibrium;
modernisation theory advocates the wholesale transformation of all traditional social
relationships if greater prosperity is to be attained. At its best, a social capital perspective
recognises that exclusion from these institutions is created and maintained by powerful
vested interests, but that marginalised groups themselves possess unique social resources
that can be used as a basis for overcoming that exclusion, and as a mechanism for helping
forge access to these institutions. Intermediaries, such as NGOs, have a crucial role to
play in this process, because it takes a long time to earn both the confidence of the
marginalised, and the respect of institutional gatekeepers. In short, it takes an articulated
20 The “Washington Consensus” is a phrase coined by John Williamson to refer to the common elements of
structural adjustment packages unilaterally offered to developing countries by the major multilateral
development agencies. The essential elements are trade openness, privatisation of state-owned industries,
de-regulation, macroeconomic stability, currency convertibility, and low inflation.
effort of both “top-down” and “bottom-up” to help overcome this exclusion, but it can be,
has been, and is being done, with positive and lasting results.
6. Is a Western (especially US) concept supported by Western research, with little
All ideas are grounded in language and history, and for whatever reason, we find
ourselves living at a time when most of the best social science departments in the most
prestigious (and well-funded) universities happen to reside in the Western world. For
better or worse, “social capital” is an idea that has emerged from this milieu, but one of
the reasons for grounding our understanding of it in “intuition” (as well as empirical
research) is that it is the basic intuition, not the precise words or formal definition, that
travel best across time, space, and circumstance. The words “social capital” translate
poorly into many European languages, let alone Asian or African ones, but everything
from individual PhD dissertations to multi-million dollar cross-national research projects
are being carried out in its name, producing remarkably complementary findings: high
quality social capital research has been carried in countries as different as India, Togo,
Haiti, Italy, and Canada. All social scientific words suffer translation problems—the
Western idea of a “household” or “neighbourhood” does not even exist in some
languages—but that is no reason not to search for creative and culturally appropriate
IV. Social Capital and Economic Development: Getting the Social Relations Right
This conceptualisation of the role of different types and combinations of social networks
in development represents an important departure from earlier theoretical approaches,
and therefore has important implications for contemporary development research and
policy. To see why, it is instructive to briefly review those theories.
Until the 1990s, the major theories of development held rather narrow, even
contradictory, views of the role of social relationships in economic development, and
offered little by way of constructive policy recommendations. In the 1950s and 60s, for
example, modernisation theory regarded traditional social relationships and ways of life
as an impediment to development. When modernisation theorists explained “the absence
or failure of capitalism,” Moore (1997: 289) correctly notes, “the focus [was] on social
relations as obstacles.” An influential United Nations (1951) document of the time
encapsulated this view; for development to proceed, it proclaimed,
ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions
have to disintegrate; bonds of caste, creed and race have to burst;
and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress
have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated.
(cited in Escobar, 1995: 3)
This view gave way in the 1970s to the arguments of dependency and world-systems
theorists, who held social relations among corporate and political elites to be a primary
mechanism of capitalist exploitation. The social characteristics of poor countries and
communities were defined almost exclusively in terms of their relations to the means of
production, and the inherent antipathy between the interests of capital and labour. Little
mention was made of the possibility (or desirability) of mutually beneficial relationships
between workers and owners, of the tremendous variation in success enjoyed by
developing countries, or of political strategies other than “revolution” by which the poor
could improve their lot. Communitarian perspectives21, on the other hand, with their
emphasis on the inherent beneficence and self-sufficiency of local communities,
underestimated the negative aspects of communal obligations, overestimated the virtues
of isolation, and neglected the importance of social relations to constructing effective
formal institutions. For their part, neo-classical and public choice theories—the most
influential in the 1980s and early 1990s—assigned no distinctive properties to social
relations per se. These perspectives focused on the strategic choices of rational
individuals interacting under various time, budgetary, and legal constraints, holding that
groups (including firms) existed primarily to lower the transaction costs of exchange;
given undistorted market signals, the optimal size and combination of groups would duly
emerge. “Selective incentives” and third-party enforcement were needed where markets
failed to ensure that groups acted to serve collective interests.
For the major development theories, then, social relations have been construed as
singularly burdensome, exploitative, liberating, or irrelevant. Reality, unfortunately, does
not conform so neatly to these descriptions and their corresponding policy prescriptions.
Events in the post-Cold War era—from ethnic violence and civil war to financial crises
and the acknowledgement of widespread corruption—have demanded a more
sophisticated appraisal of the virtues, vices, and vicissitudes of “the social dimension” as
it pertains to the wealth and poverty of nations.
The social capital literature, in its broadest sense, represents a first approximation of the
answer to this challenge. It is a literature to which all the social science disciplines have
contributed, and it is beginning to generate a remarkable consensus regarding the role and
importance of institutions and communities in development. Indeed, one of the primary
benefits of the idea of social capital is that it is allowing scholars, policymakers, and
practitioners from different disciplines to enjoy an unprecedented level of cooperation
and dialogue (Brown and Ashman, 1996; Brown, 1998). In reviving and revitalising
mainstream sociological insights, there has been a corresponding appreciation that
different disciplines have a vital, distinctive, and frequently complementary contribution
to offer for dealing with inherently complex problems. Another distinctive feature of the
social capital approach is its approach to understanding poverty. Living on the margins of
existence, the social capital of the poor is the one asset they can potentially draw upon to
help negotiate their way through an unpredictable and unforgiving world. As Dordick
(1997) astutely notes, the very poor have “something left to lose”, namely each other.
While much of the discourse surrounding poor people and poor economies is one of
“deficits”, a virtue of the social capital perspective is that it allows theorists,
policymakers, and practitioners to take an approach based on “assets.”
21 This perspective encapsulates the views of the South Commission and Amatai Etzioni, among others. On
the doctrine of self-reliance, a key theme of communitarians, see Rist (1997: Chapter 8).
If, as I have argued, we should adopt a relatively narrow sociological definition of social
capital, but understand it as inherently embedded in an institutional context, where does
this leave us in terms of applying social capital to questions of economic development?
What relevance does a social theory of norms, networks, and institutions have for those
concerned with poverty reduction?
This question can be answered in a number of ways, but I will identify four. The first is
that social capital, so understood, should mind its own business, focus on communities,
and leave weightier matters such as development and poverty reduction to the
macroeconomic experts. A second response is to search for existing proxies for network
size and structure, and simply “add” them to the catalogue of other variables deemed
significant for growth and well-being. A third answer is to do the hard work of
integrating serious qualitative and quantitative research strategies into the design of
comprehensive new instruments to more accurately measure social capital. A fourth
strategy is to take the central ideas underlying the social capital perspective (the “spirit”
of social capital, if you will), and apply them in innovative ways to broader issues of
political economy, seeking to forge greater complementarity between different
disciplines and stakeholders. Of these answers, the first is overly modest, the second
overly ambitious. The third is a desirable long-term objective, the fourth an intriguing
possibility with more immediate returns. Needless to say, I cast my lot with champions of
answers three and four. In the remaining space, let me sketch out these positions in
Toward new, better, more comprehensive measures
For social capital to become a serious indicator of regional and national well-being,
measures of it need to be drawn from large representative samples, using indicators that
have been pre-tested and refined for their suitability. Such efforts are underway in a
number of countries, with the distinct possibility that social capital questions may soon
be included in the census of several OECD countries. In developing countries such as
Guatemala, the highly acclaimed Living Standards Measurement Survey (LSMS)—the
standard bearer for high quality data on income, expenditure, health, and education—is
about to incorporate a social capital module, the first of its kind. (Armenia has recently
completed a similar exercise.) Just as this survey will enable us to make reliable national-
level estimates of the levels of poverty, education, and health, so too will it provide more
or less comparable data on social capital. The quantitative measures to be gleaned from
this survey of 9000+ representative households will be complemented by a major
qualitative analysis at the village level. Armed with data of this scale and quality, there is
a strong possibility that social capital will soon be “mainstreamed” into the range of
familiar economic measures used to take the pulse of society (unemployment rates,
consumer price indexes, inflation levels, and the like).
It is important to stress that, while gathering “hard data” is indispensable, the qualitative
aspects of social capital should not be neglected. In many respects it is something of a
contradiction in terms to argue that universal measures can be used to capture local
idiosyncratic realities. At a minimum, this means that the construction of survey
instruments to measure social capital should follow intensive periods in the field,
ascertaining the most appropriate way to ask the necessary questions. This has been a
feature of the work of the Sugaro Seminar at Harvard University studying social capital
in the US (Putnam 2000), and more modestly, of my own efforts (with Vijayendra Rao)
to understand the risk management functions of social capital in the slums of Delhi. In an
age of electronic communications and busy schedules, it is all too easy to download other
people’s social capital surveys, append them to your own, and march off to the field with
noble intentions. Previous efforts should be a guide to, but not a substitute for, doing the
hard work that social capital research entails. Clean models and dirty hands are both
Incorporating the spirit of social capital into political economy and public policy
The policy response to reading the social capital literature should not be a call for
governments to provide more choirs and soccer clubs, as readers satirising Putnam
(1993) have tended to infer. Social capital is not a panacea, and more of it isn’t
necessarily better. But the broader message rippling through the social capital literature is
that how we associate with others, and on what terms, has enormous implications for our
well-being, whether we live in rich or poor countries. A number of important findings
that have recently emerged independently from the political economy literature, though
they (rightly) avoid the social capital terminology, are entirely consistent with the
emerging social capital perspective.
To see why, recall the three dimensions of social capital outlined above, and my
insistence that they be understood in the context of their institutional environment. If it is
true that meagre stocks of bridging social capital make it more difficult for ideas,
information, and resources to circulate between groups, then it follows that broader
economic, social, and political forces that divide societies will be harmful for
development. Economic inequality, and overt discrimination along gender and ethnic
lines, for example, undermines coherent efforts to reduce poverty and stimulate growth.
Similarly, if leveraging social capital is an important risk management strategy during
times of economic distress (e.g. losing a job, enduring crop failure, suffering a prolonged
illness), it follows that divided societies will experience greater difficulty managing
economic shocks. Moreover, my emphasis on understanding the efficacy of social capital
in its institutional context implies that how communities manage both opportunities and
risk will necessarily depend on the quality of the institutions under which they live.
Rampant corruption, frustrating bureaucratic delays, suppressed civil liberties, failure to
safeguard property rights and to uphold the rule of law can be expected to force
communities back on themselves, demanding that they supply privately and informally
what should be delivered publicly and formally. Accordingly, in countries where these
conditions prevail, there should be little to show for even the most well-intentioned
efforts to build schools, hospitals, and encourage foreign investment.
Recent work by Dani Rodrik (1999a, 1999b) and William Easterly (2000) provides
powerful econometric evidence in support of the general idea that economic growth in
general, and the ability to manage shocks in particular, is the twin product of coherent
public institutions and societies able to generate what Easterly calls a “middle class
consensus.” Countries with divided societies (along ethnic and economic lines) and
weak, hostile or corrupt governments are especially prone to a collapse of economic
growth. When shocks hit—as they did in the mid-1970s and early 1980s—these countries
proved unable and/or unwilling to make the necessary adjustments. Lacking well-
established precedents, procedures, and institutional resources for managing conflict,
these economies experienced a major growth collapse from which some have still not
recovered (see below).22
For students of economic growth in the 1960s, as Rodrik (1999a) correctly notes, it was
hard to adjudicate between the merits of different strategies, as all economies—
open/closed, natural resources/manufacturing, landlocked/coastal, temperate/tropical,
large/small—did relatively well. The real test came with the oil crises of the 1970s and
the global recession of the early 1980s, which produced a growth collapse in the
developing economies of “Grand Canyon” proportions, one that did not end until 1995.
The devastating growth collapse of 1975-1995 cost the average person in the typical
developing country around $200023, and set back by at least a decade the level of
economic development that would have been attained had the 1955-74 growth trajectory
been maintained. (By comparison, the recent Asian financial crises will appear as
temporary, localised, and relatively minor. The OECD nations also suffered a growth
collapse in the late-70s/early-80s; they recovered relatively quickly, but have returned to
modest growth rate levels more commensurate with their history.)
So, while social capital scholarship per se is surely on the safest ground when it speaks to
community development issues, the spirit of social capital is also consistent with findings
now emerging in studies of macroeconomic growth. It is in this sense that I think social
research on economic issues and economic research on social issues is reaching a
remarkable—but largely unacknowledged—consensus. More dialogue and diplomacy
among social scientists, rather than perennial civil war, might enable us to harness these
collective insights in the joint pursuit of a more productive economy and inclusive
society, one that forges partnerships between governments, firms, and civil society rather
than pitting them against one another.
V. Implications for Development Policy
A number of important policy implications follow from the above analysis. Given space
limitations, I will outline only the three most salient here.
22 For recent related work on the importance of governance and bureaucratic structures for development,
see Tendler (1997), La Porta et al (1998), Campos and Nugent (1999), Kaufmann, Kraay, and Zoido-
Lobaton (1999a, 1999b), Rauch and Evans (1999), and Evans and Rauch (1999). For early work relating
social capital to growth, see Helliwell and Putnam (1995).
23 This figure represents the difference between the growth rates that prevailed during the 1975-95 period,
and the 2.35% rate of growth sustained over 1955-74. The figure is measured in constant 1995 dollars,
based on the median economy in 1974, which had a GNP/c of $730. The growth collapse therefore cost the
average person in this economy roughly three times their annual income. See Woolcock (2000).
First, while I think it is reasonable to argue that something resembling a coherent theory
of development is coalescing around the idea of social capital, it would be contrary to the
spirit of this emerging tradition to posture itself as yet another “grand theory” of
development, or as a “master synthesis” of the otherwise diverse social science
perspectives. Rather, a distinctive feature of the social capital approach should be that it
provides a framework and a discourse that permits a common conversation among
representatives from different disciplines, methodologies, and sectoral backgrounds. To
draw a parallel with religion, the goal is not to create a new faith or to convert other
faiths to your own, but rather to create spaces, opportunities, and mutually agreed-upon
rules of engagement that enable each to learn from the other. Klitgaard (2000) astutely
argues that at the cutting edge of contemporary public policy thinking is a recognition
that blueprints are out, frameworks that enable diverse stakeholders to forge common
solutions are in. Putnam (2000) is right to stress the importance of not letting social
capital’s marketing department get ahead of its product development, but the real reason
for policy caution is not so much lack of knowledge about core elements of the social
capital framework—as outlined above; it is more that definitive a priori claims about
what should or should not be done can defeat the very purpose of getting communities,
firms, and governments to own the process of identifying, implementing, sustaining, and
evaluating appropriate policy solutions. In any event, the central goal of a social capital-
based policy agenda should be the reduction of social and economic divisions, increasing
the responsiveness and accountability of public institutions, and encouraging openness to
and interaction among people from different walks of life. These principles apply as
much to families, communities, and firms as they do to nations.
Second, for institutions of higher education, I think this key message—i.e. the importance
of harnessing the insights of different perspectives—paradoxically means that
considerable caution needs to be exercised regarding the offering of “inter-disciplinary”
courses in development studies. Such courses always have noble intentions in terms of
freeing students from disciplinary constraints, and doubtless they sometimes succeed in
this. The harsh reality, however, as Smelser (1997) correctly notes, is that
interdisciplinary scholarship is perhaps the most-lauded, but least-rewarded, academic
activity, and for good sociological reasons: we are not trained this way, interdisciplinary
work has no organized constituency to recognise and reward it, and the most influential
individuals and paradigms in any field are solidly grounded in a single discipline.
For these individuals and paradigms to successfully meet the challenges they are facing
today requires a two-part strategy: part one entails engaging in what Hirshman (1968)
describes as “smuggling in change”—i.e. finding sympathetic allies within the existing
power structure who are willing to push the frontiers of acceptability; part two entails
forging positive coherent alternatives that can nonetheless articulate constructively with
that power structure. (Most critics of a prevailing system are far clearer about what they
are against than what they are for). Effectively carrying out both parts of this strategy
requires people who are solidly grounded in a single discipline (depth), but who are
simultaneously cognisant of a given discipline’s inherent limitations, and who know how
and where to find complementary perspectives (breadth). Orthodox undergraduate degree
programmes in general—and graduate programmes in particular—do a fabulous job
perpetuating the former, but a woeful one incorporating the latter. This implies that there
is enormous scope for interdisciplinary programmes of study, where both the integrity of
disciplines is respected and common ground rules are established to encourage healthy
competition and cooperation between them (intellectual monopolies are as inefficient as
their economic counterparts). Nowhere are these debates more necessary and important
than in questions pertaining to the wealth and poverty of nations.
A third implication pertains to the practice of development research and projects. If better
policy emerges from political contexts encouraging the input of different stakeholders,
and if better students emerge from educational contexts encouraging both rigorous depth
and sympathetic breadth, then I think we should also expect better development research
and better development projects from institutional contexts that encourage the integration
of different types and sources of knowledge. This reasoning may seem to be a truism at
one level, but at another it is actually quite radical, because it implies that (i) there are in
fact different forms and ways of “knowing” (the experience of sleeping in a homeless
shelter for two weeks, for example, teaches you something that is qualitatively different
from data on the homeless downloaded from the web); and (ii) harnessing the
comparative advantage of different types of knowledge holds enormous potential for
intellectual and practical advancement (Klitgaard 1994). This means that active support
should be given to exercises ranging from “village immersion” programmes for
development executives, mentoring programmes for youth in disadvantaged
communities, and volunteering, to requiring economists who study poverty to actually
talk to the poor, and teaching qualitative social scientists how to interpret a regression
table—i.e. get all sides to recognise the virtues of both "clean models" and "dirty hands"
(Hirsch, Michael, and Friedman, 1990).
For both countries and communities, rich and poor alike, managing risk, shocks, and
opportunities is a key ingredient in the quest to achieve sustainable economic
development. Whether shocks manifest themselves as terms of trade declines, natural
disasters, strikes, disputes over access to water, domestic violence, or the death of a
spouse, those social entities able to weather the storm will be those that are more likely to
prosper. A social capital perspective seeks to go beyond primordial “cultural
explanations” for these different response strategies, to look instead for structural and
relational features. Development, however, is more than just a matter of playing good
“defence” (or “getting by”); it also entails knowing how to initiate and maintain strategic
“offence” (“getting ahead”). From large public-private partnerships (Tendler, 1995) to
village-level development programmes (Bebbington and Carroll, 1999), success turns on
the extent to which ways and means can be found to forge mutually beneficial and
accountable ties between different agents and agencies of expertise.
It is in this sense that I argue that “getting the social relations right” (Woolcock,
forthcoming) is a crucial component of both the means and ends of development. If the
idea and the ideals of social capital help move us in this direction—and do so by
encouraging and rewarding greater cross-fertilisation between disciplines and
methodologies, and between scholars, practitioners, and policymakers24—then it more
than justifies its place in the new development lexicon. In matters pertaining to the social
dimensions of development, it’s easy to be cynical, and it’s even easier to be a true
believer; what we need is more critical innovators, those able to bring reliable and valid
evidence to bear on empirical questions, and who can also find ways and means to do
with others what they cannot do alone.
24 Especially among prominent sociologists, who seem reluctant to enter the policy domain. A notable
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Social Capital and the Rural Poor:
What Can Civil Actors and Policies Do?
by Sanjeev Prakash ∗
Poverty is not to lack clothes, but he who has nobody is truly poor.
Saying among the Wolof of
(cited in Rahnema 1993)
The Iranian scholar, Majid Rahnema, observes that the modern conception of poverty
combines several different characteristics and “lacks” which in the vernacular Persian (as
well as in many other languages) would be referred to by separate terms such as
starvation, powerlessness, homelessness, isolation, etc. (Rahnema 1993). For example,
the Persian word bi kassi literally means “to be without anyone”, a total isolation from
the community and its web of social relationships.
Indeed, acknowledgement of the social dimensions of deprivation has been central to
traditional understandings of poverty. However, poverty as conceived and measured by
development analysts these days essentially implies a lack of financial and human
capital. As a quantity of recent literature makes clear, it does not necessarily involve a
lack of other resources, whether social or natural.1 For poor people in the rural South,
many of whom inhabit fragile and marginal environments, these latter resources are often
crucial for survival, for overcoming risks to livelihoods, and for reducing the effects of
natural and macro-economic shocks.
While analysts of informal markets and subsistence economies have long recognised the
importance of social bonds in maintaining trading networks, learning webs, and
reciprocal structures of mutual aid, contemporary economists and students of formal
markets have been slow to recognise or address these important dimensions (Cantor, et
al, 1992; Prakash 1997). Long ago, Karl Polanyi identified norms of general reciprocity
∗ Director, ETI Consultants, New Delhi & Guest Professor, The Rokkan Center for Social Studies,
University of Bergen, Norway. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Fax: +47 5558 3901. This paper
draws on my own work and that of my colleagues within the social capital project at the University of
Bergen. Grateful acknowledgement for comments and help is made to Per Selle, Else Øyen, Frances
Fournier, Cecilie Golden, Tommy Tranvik and participants at the UNESCO/MOST & CROP seminar in
Geneva, June 28, 2000. All errors and omissions remain my responsibility, of course.
1 For an overview of this literature, see Prakash 1997.
and rights to minimal subsistence as features common to the structure of virtually all
subsistence societies through human history. Polanyi’s survey of historical and
anthropological evidence suggested that the modest yet intricate redistributive
mechanisms arising from these two principles explain the virtual absence of individual
starvation - as distinguished from collective starvation - in subsistence societies (Polanyi
1944). James Scott’s work on Malaysian peasant society in the 1970s provided further
empirical confirmation that these essentially moral principles apply as strongly to
relations between equals as between unequals (Scott 1976). In some measure they may
also apply to relations between peasant groups and larger entities such as the state.
I suggest that while these conceptions precede the idea of social capital they are related to
it, whichever of the multiple current definitions of social capital we apply. In the first
instance of relationships within family and local community, we are dealing with
something close to what we now call “bonding” social capital; in the second instance, of
horizontal or vertical ties across domains and networks, to “bridging” and “linking”
social capital. These and other empirical accounts point to the persistence of social assets
among poor communities in the rural South. Such assets play an important role in, for
instance, enabling mountain farmers to deal with external shocks through risk-pooling
(Rhoades 1988; Prakash 1997; Jodha 1993), in constituting common regimes for the
collective management of local environmental resources, such as forests and water
(Jodha 1986; Ostrom 1990; Bromley 1992), or in constructing trans-local associations
and social movements to protest against inappropriate and technocratic development
(Prakash 1997; Bandyopadhyay and Shiva 1987; Agarwal and Narain 1989). Such assets
are by no means rare exceptions among poor rural communities, though admittedly there
can be great variation in how sustained and resilient the underlying institutions are.
The World Bank’s World Development Report 2000-01: Attacking Poverty (which deals
extensively with the role of social capital in policies to end poverty) suggests that while
the poor have plentiful bonding social capital, they require more bridging and linking
social capital to connect them to external actors and policy makers.2 While that may well
be true, the question is what can be done about it. Specifically, how can we make stocks
of social capital among the poor broader, more effective, and more suitable for poverty
In this paper I will, first, note some recent developments in the literature on social capital.
Then I will examine how the notion of social capital relates to the situation of the rural
poor in countries of the South. Finally, I will consider what policymakers and civil
society organizations can do to facilitate the formation of social capital for poverty
2 In Chapter 4, page 4.4, para 4.10 of the consultation draft of the World Development Report 2000-01 at
http://www.worldbank.org/poverty/wdrpoverty/ This refers to the consultation draft of the World
Development Report 2000/1 posted on the website in January 2000 and replaced in September 2000 by the
final published version (where the corresponding section , with somewhat different phrasing, comes at
Chapter 7, pp. 128-29).
Recent Research on Social Capital
Social capital is neither an entirely new nor a single concept. Instead, it is a bundle of
conceptual entities defined by their function. Swedberg, followed by Portes and
Sensenbrenner and others, have documented how current understandings of social capital
have roots in debates that prevailed within classical sociology, notably in the traditions of
Durkheim, Weber, and Marx.3 As applications of social capital have sprawled from civil
society and associative democracy to economic development and human capital, from
work and organization to family life and community, from common-pool resource
management to ethnicity and immigration, so have conceptual approaches and methods.
As we use it today, the idea of social capital was developed by James Coleman, Pierre
Bourdieu, Glenn Loury and others as a heuristic way of referring to elements of social
structure, such as trustworthiness, information channels, authority relations, and norms
and effective sanctions, that serve to facilitate collective action and institutionalised
endeavour (Coleman 1990).4 The idea of social capital has since been used to account for
institutional success and failure in several fields. In most cases, social capital has been
understood in terms of its bonding functions in building collective action and in-group
cohesion; however, this also has a downside since strong social capital within a particular
group results in the exclusion of other individuals and groups. This dual aspect points to
the positive (trust and reciprocity lower the transaction costs of cooperation) and negative
(marginalization and social exclusion) implications of social capital, both of which are
important in the context of poverty and its reduction.
Perhaps the primary importance of social capital has been to act as a bridge between
political theory, economics and sociology, and between the analysis of market and non-
market domains. Social capital research has been valuable in explaining how institutions
– seen as the human-devised constraints that structure social, economic and political
interaction – are embedded in social structures and relations that lead to trust, improved
information exchange, lower transaction costs, and the likelihood of collective action.
Social scientists have relied on three main approaches to social capital, by focusing on: a)
elements of social structure and networks; b) on the norms and attitudes of individuals; or
c) on local governance and political institutions.5 Each of these approaches has distinct
3 For comparisons between the ideas of the classical sociologists and different forms of social capital, see
particularly Richard Swedberg, “Economic sociology: past and present”. Current Sociology 35:1 (1987): 1-
215; and Alejandro Portes and Julia Sensenbrenner, “Embeddedness and immigration: notes on the social
determinants of economic action”. American Journal of Sociology 98:6 (1993): 1320-1350.
4 Coleman’s initial delineation of social capital was part of a larger project to incorporate the action of
social norms within a “rational choice sociology”. Bourdieu’s approach, though also originating within the
discipline of sociology, is substantially different.
5 The first approach generally identifies the work of sociologists, particularly in network sociology and
“rational-choice sociology” (Granovetter, Coleman, Burt). The second (Putnam and other neo-
Tocquevilleans) and third (Stolle and Rochon, Rudolph, Rothstein) are representative of political theorists
as well as some economists. The third, stressing the primary role of political institutions in fostering civic
advantages and limits. Each also has specific implications for measurement, a matter to
which I will return.
The first approach, broadly representative of the work of network sociologists, is
sensitive to context and the relational nature of social capital in keeping with Coleman’s
initial delineation. The institutional context has a lot to do with whether and how much
we find each other trustworthy and reliable. Another way of putting this is say that trust
is endogenous to, or is generated within, social structures. Context counts critically to the
social interactions that are at the heart of social capital. Specific features of social
structure and organization also mean that relational assets are not evenly distributed
across society or are not equally accessible to all actors, an aspect that assumes central
importance for the poor and for research on poverty. This approach, representative of the
work of sociologists and network theorists, captures the complexity of social structures
and social capital, including the negative aspects of closure and exclusion (though there
is far too little analytical work on these negative aspects of social capital in comparison
to the voluminous work on its supposed benefits).
The second and third approaches, representative of the work of political scientists and a
small number of economists, see social capital as arising essentially through the
interactions of individuals. These interactions (as argued by proponents of the second
approach) are facilitated by the density of horizontal or egalitarian civic associations,
and/or (according to proponents of the third approach) by specific qualities of political
institutions and governance. Supposedly, one or both of these factors give rise to a
“generalised trust” within the wider community that leads to further civic engagement
and associational density, with attendant benefits for civic institutions, democracy and
economic performance (Putnam 1993). Because political scientists often tend to rely on
survey research and interview techniques to gather data, those who follow the second
approach have often ended up aggregating the norms and attitudes of individuals but
leaving out more contextual elements of social structure. For some, even macro-level
differences in democratic participation and economic development can be accounted for
through the presence or absence of such bottom-up, interpersonal cultures of interaction
rather than through more explicitly macro-level variables. The relative simplicity of the
second approach and its emphasis on measuring participation through memberships in
civil society and voluntary organizations have made it very popular, leading to a growing
literature on social capital in this stream over recent years. The third approach is
promising and capable of being pursued independently of the idea of generalised social
trust, though few scholars have actually done so.
It should be noted that the idea of “generalised” trust remains very controversial and
disputed. The central argument of the proponents of this approach to social capital is that
levels of civic engagement and interpersonal trust have a reciprocal relationship with
trust in government. On the other hand, critics of this approach have pointed out that
cross-country data show little reliable correlation between trust in government,
engagement has been particularly notable in recent work on Scandinavia (Stolle, Selle and Wollebaek,
Rothstein) as well as on South Asia (Rudolph, Jayal).
associational membership and a generalised trust in other people (Newton 1998, 1999;
Foley and Edwards 1999). The aggregation of individual attitudes and the model of trust
as a generalised resource both suggest a view of social capital as relatively equitably
distributed across society, and risk glossing over the complexities of a phenomenon about
which it is difficult to generalise.6 As one author has noted, “patterns of political and
social trust vary from one social group to another in different countries in a way which
makes it difficult to generalise about trust as a general concept” (Newton 1998). An even
more trenchant criticism of the approach that relies on generalised trust may be that this
method can only tell us what individuals say about their trust in other people, but little or
nothing about who they actually trust. Notably in these views, aspects of social structure,
social organization and institutional density are not seen to constitute a form or indicator
of social capital; instead associational membership is considered a source of social
capital as well as often an outcome.
While these approaches may in some senses reflect broad continuing divisions within the
social sciences between explanations based on structure and agency, they also imply
radically differing methods of measurement. Understanding social capital as an aspect of
social structures has considerably different implications from approaching it in terms of
the norms and attitudes of individuals. Social structural approaches involve different
qualitative dimensions with regard to the effects of scale, embeddedness and exclusion
than does the aggregation of individual interactions. Indeed, until the question of where
social capital is primarily located - in the norms and attitudes of individuals or in social
structures and institutions - is resolved to a satisfactory degree, opinions about
measurability will probably continue to differ widely. We know too little as yet about the
causes, mechanisms and interrelationships of different types of social capital to approach
its evaluation and measurement with a reasonable amount of confidence, or to be able to
rely on such measurement without proper triangulation and careful reflection on the
choice of method most appropriate for particular institutional domains, locales and
The burden of opinion among economists seems to be that investments in social capital
are not capable of direct measurement. As Robert Solow has pointed out, quantified
measures of social capital do not estimate the value of actors’ efforts to build social
networks and ties (Solow 1997). Kenneth Arrow, in a recent World Bank publication,
suggests that social capital should not be considered a form of capital because there is
much evidence that efforts to build it are made for their intrinsic rewards (i.e. the intrinsic
enjoyment of meeting friends) rather than for their instrumental value as economic
investments (or they would be recognised by others as false and untrustworthy).7 Thus,
6 The complex and intractable nature of trust has been treated effectively by a number of authors; see, for
instance, Mick Moore, “Truth, trust, and market transactions: what do we know?” Journal of Development
Studies, 36: 1 (1999): 64-88.
7 Indeed, in most languages there are characteristic words for people who seek to befriend someone for
selfish purposes, for example “matlabi dost” in Hindi and Urdu. This is completely different from saying,
however, that over time one’s social ties and relationships function in a manner that can ensure
trustworthiness, reliability and other conditions for successful collective action. It is the latter that
for Arrow “The essence of social networks is that they are built up for reasons other than
their economic value to the participants…Indeed, this is what gives them their value in
monitoring” (Arrow 2000: 4).
Most “measurement” of social capital is of a proxy variable, leaving the choice of proxy
a matter of approximation and frequent contention. For instance, some researchers have
used indicators such as the proportion of the population who read newspapers as well as
those who are members of voluntary organizations to assess the level of social capital
within a group or society. Others estimate levels of generalised trust by posing their
respondents questions such as “how much do you trust other people in general, or do you
think one can’t be too careful with other people?” Economists with their bias for revealed
preferences are not the only ones to find such methods unreliable and suspect. It is an old
adage in the social sciences that people do not do what they say, do not say what they
mean, and do not know what they know. In contrast, recent efforts to develop measures
for the benefits flowing from the presence of social capital may prove to be more useful,
especially in the context of poverty and development research.8
The widespread adoption of the idea of social capital has led to some analytical problems
and inconsistencies. The popularity of the idea and the reference to capital has led to
analytical explanations being transferred across contexts and sectors as if social capital
could simply be compared across domains and institutions. But there is little empirical
evidence that social capital can be considered a simple stock of homogeneous assets,
more of which is invariably a blessing. Rather, the indications are that it consists of
different kinds of assets that are subject to trade-offs and constraints. While empirical
research has consistently pointed to the existence of different sorts of social capital, what
is as yet lacking is a comprehensive analysis of its different forms and their fungibility or
transferability across sectors and domains. Another problem is the general absence or
very cursory treatment of specific mediating mechanisms that produce different forms of
social capital, indeed a surprising omission in a concept that is largely functionally
essentially concerns social capital. For comparisons and limitations of the social capital idea in relation to
theoretical conceptions of capital in economics, see also Paul Adler, “Social capital: the good, the bad, and
the ugly”, unpublished world wide web manuscript at:
8 For a notable recent example of this in the context of rural development in Rajasthan, India, see Anirudh
Krishna, “Moving from the stock of social capital to the flow of benefits: the role of agency”, paper
presented to the workshop Investigating Social Capital, Solstrand, Norway, May 18-21, 2000, in Sanjeev
Prakash and Per Selle (forthcoming). Krishna distinguishes between the stock of social capital and its flow,
or benefits, and argues that the magnitude of flow is determined by more than the magnitude of stock
alone, including how the stock is deployed or invested, aspects of the institutional environment, etc.
9 Functional explanation in the absence of any specification of mediating mechanisms may merely point to
a correlation between variables without accounting for the specific pattern or mechanism that relates them,
in other words how and why the variables are related. For an engaging account of why mechanisms should
play an important part in the social sciences, see particularly Jon Elster, “A plea for mechanisms”, in Peter
Hedström and Richard Swedberg (eds.), Social mechanisms: an analytical approach to social theory,
1998; and also Jon Elster, Nuts and bolts for the social sciences, 1989.
More broadly, empirical studies have suggested there are important connections between
bridging and bonding social capital. Putnam’s work in Italy proposes that membership in
civic groups or voluntary associations, symptomatic of bridging ties at the micro level,
have “spillover” effects that lead to better state-society relations through the mediating
level of civil society (Putnam 1993). This idea has its antecedents in Tocqueville, who
believed from his observations of American society that voluntary associations function
as a “learning school for democracy”. Others have argued that it is essentially family
background and conditioning, aspects of bonding ties at the micro level, that act as a
training school for developing civic virtues, trustworthiness and social capital (Coleman
1988; Uslaner 2000). Conversely, Susanne Rudolph points out in the context of India that
for many developing societies it is a democratic, well-functioning state that serves to
facilitate new civic linkages, as well as disrupt older forms of solidarity within and across
different groups, castes, and cultures (Rudolph 2000). Which way does the causal
sequence run, from interactions between individuals and micro-level social structural
conditions to macro-level concerns of governance and state, or the other way around?
Which form or forms of social capital supply the essential mechanisms for these
transitions across scale that make social capital-based relations and institutions function
or fail across societies? It is difficult to address these questions without broader
comparative studies of the interactions between bonding and bridging social capital.
Social capital is a bundle of concepts rather than a single entity, which may be an
advantage in that it is accessible through different disciplinary approaches and traditions.
Yet these approaches have their limitations and cannot be applied or combined ad hoc.
One of the most important tasks for research on social capital is to identify the overlaps
and divergences in different approaches and traditions. Social capital research so far has
been characterised by a generally optimistic outlook rather than a systematic approach to
causes and consequences. The novel contribution of such research may well be to
illuminate linkages across institutional domains. The idea of bridging or crosscutting
social capital is a valuable area for investigation within poverty studies as it is for other
fields.10 Because the concerned issues seem related to stages in the development of
institutions and interactions between micro and macro-level phenomena, a comparative,
multidisciplinary perspective on societies that are undergoing rapid social and economic
change, such as in many parts of the South, offers especially valuable opportunities for
exploring these relationships. Clearly, linkages and synergies will need to be
demonstrated in terms that are independently meaningful and empirically valid for
research to result in more than sweeping generalisation.
Social Capital and Rural Poverty
I began by noting that there is much in the relational assets of rural poor communities
that constitutes a stock of social capital for purposes of individual risk-pooling, for the
10 I include here the idea of linking social capital (i.e., vertical ties linking for instance the poor with
political elites) though some analysts differentiate this function from that of bridging.
possibility of collective management of local resources, and even for some aspects of
local enterprise and employment generation.11 But these are bonding forms of social
capital: largely endogenous, based on normative contents and local institutions,
restrictive as much as they are liberating.12 Let us not be romantic about poverty: local
institutions may limit the freedom of action that individuals need to escape from poverty
as much as they often enable it. Such institutions also do not provide the external
networks - whether to policymakers, markets or civic organizations – that are required to
overcome collective risks and deprivation. The poor are excluded from the latter
networks almost by definition: “social exclusion” has become another term for poverty in
countries such as France and Britain, just as it is among the Wolof.
Bonding ties with one’s own community are perhaps the only kind of social capital that it
is possible to have if one is poor (though, as I think I have pointed out, it does not work
the other way around: being poor does not necessarily mean that one has this kind of
social capital – the deprivation, apathy and alienation evident in the typical modern
megapolis is proof enough of that). Bridging ties with neighbouring communities can
allow local markets – and personal autonomy – to grow, but poor communities in rural
areas of the South most usually have neither the material nor the social resources needed
for this process to take place. External agents, such as NGOs and responsive government
agencies, can in some cases provide the assistance needed. As for vertically linking ties
with political elites and the ability to influence policies substantially, to have these
resources is, almost by definition, not to be poor. NGOs, social movements and other
lobbyists for the poor can only provide part of the solution here. Much of the task lies in
designing well-functioning political institutions that enable the empowerment of the poor
and allow them to overcome the social forces and institutions which are largely
responsible for their poverty.
A reliable institutional environment is important for poverty reduction, as we know it is
for building trust in general interactions with others. Education helps, but an equivalent
level of education seems to help people build social capital in developed countries more
than in developing countries, for various complex reasons (Inglehart 1999). Recent
research across several countries shows that linking groups and associations of poor
people with reliable and efficient local government services, and providing a context for
NGOs and social movements to cooperate in poverty reduction programmes with the
support of local government, may provide part of the solution (Prakash and Selle,
forthcoming). The problem is that local government agencies in many Southern countries
are often hostile to the poor and their interests. Another crucial task is to evaluate poverty
11 It is interesting to consider how these aspects may relate to the condition of poor urban communities. In
modern cities, where great wealth and extreme poverty exist side by side, the possibility of bridging (or
linking) social capital may be particularly pertinent. Unfortunately, this author has not done enough
research in this area to venture an informed opinion.
12 The normative contents of social capital are clearly important in relation to its effects but have received
comparatively little attention from analysts. Among contemporary theorists, perhaps Pierre Bourdieu is
most aware that social capital must be constructed in terms of its contents and meaning.
in ways that reach beyond simple measures of income. In the end, the poor do not have
access to stocks of bridging and linking social capital because “poverty is not to lack
clothes…”. The message of the Wolof saying is simple: poverty has dimensions of social,
political and cultural disempowerment that we cannot afford to ignore.
If social capital is inclusive as well as exclusive, there can be as yet no final answer on
how social capital research can assist the poor to escape poverty. Decentralisation of
governance and access to participatory political institutions are certainly part of the
answer, as is the greater involvement of civil society and community based organizations
(where they exist) in poverty reduction. There have been a few successful examples
where project designers have recognised that sufficient local stocks and forms of social
capital exist to generate effective and participatory management of resources by poor
communities. These include joint forest management in many parts of India, the
Comunidade Solidária in Brazil, and other examples too numerous to name here. Even
the Grameen Bank and other micro-credit organizations can be considered cases in point
because of the trust that each member of the debtor group invests in the other members,
and due to the maintenance of trustworthiness without which each group member’s
access to credit is jeopardised and becomes impossible.
However, I am sceptical enough about the risks of uninformed meddling with such social
capital as poor communities do possess to sound a note of caution. In an earlier paper, I
examined institutional formation in the collective management of common-pool
resources by rural communities in the Himalayan region of Garhwal (Prakash 1998). I
noted there that different principles of fairness with respect to the distribution of benefits
and burdens from the the use of the resource (which was a village forest planted by the
community with minimal government input, except for facilitation of legal access to
land) were associated with changing social relations and forms of investment in social
Table 1 describes these observations. The first column shows the four principles of fair
distribution that were adopted by the community at some point or other during the life of
the institution: parity, which refers to equal distribution of benefit and burden among all
households; proportionality, that is, distribution of benefits in some relation to provision
or burden undertaken by each household; priority, or distribution of benefit and burden
according to need and capability; and prescribed, which refers to any principle
determined by external agents (government agencies or aid donors, for instance) which
the community is, as a rule, required to follow. The second column shows how social
capital was typically invested in different forms of decision-making in order to arrive at
an appropriate principle of fairness; the third column sketches the typical attributes of the
group, including symmetries in beliefs and interests as group relations changed over the
course of successive management regimes; and the fourth charts the form of solidarity
(following Durkheim’s classical formulation) – either mechanical solidarity (based on
similar functions) or organic solidarity (based on differentiated, complementary
functions) – present within each separate management regime or institutional type.13
I also noted in that paper that such self-governing collective institutions and regimes
reflect the form of the society in which they are embedded. Thus, interference by funders,
government agencies or NGOs with the collective processes through which local
communities invest social capital in collective management (for instance, and most
typically, by prescribing a regime of equal distribution of benefits) can, as row 4 in the
table shows, deplete stocks of social capital within the community and make future
collective endeavours more difficult. This is so, I argue, because the process of
negotiating individual households’ contributions and benefits with respect to the
collective management of the common-pool resource is precisely the process wherein the
community’s stock of social capital is invested. Clearly, such cooperative, collective
management needs to succeed in order for local stocks of social capital to develop and
eventually to be reinvested in other, future joint endeavours.
Here then is perhaps the central lesson for policies on social capital and poverty
reduction: where collective organizations and social movements exist in areas of rural
poverty, they should be accorded the necessary minimal recognition, legitimacy, and
rights to organize that allow them to represent the collective interests of poor
communities. Where that is not done, policy actors are unlikely to be considered
trustworthy enough by the poor to do much more. It may also be possible for local
governments to foster the growth of community organizations and the building of social
capital in development and poverty reduction (the state of Himachal Pradesh in India is a
noteworthy example of this), but that process is concerned with an entirely separate scale
and process of social capital formation which is the subject of another, more extensive
13 I do not suggest that this is the way to map forms of social capital investment in all conditions because
different contexts and conditions require different heuristic approaches, but this approach seems
particularly appropriate for studying a common-pool resource regime.
14 See Sanjeev Prakash and Per Selle (forthcoming) including the introduction to that publication for an
extended treatment of civil society, state-society relations, and related areas in the context of social capital
TABLE 1: Four observed regimes for forest management in a Himalayan village
(from Prakash 1998)
beliefs & interests
beliefs & interests
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Social Capital Formation in Poverty Reduction:
Which Role for Civil Society Organizations and the State?
by Faith Innerarity
The notion of social capital, though gaining common currency in recent years, is not
entirely new, and it has been known by others labels. Classical sociologists in exploring
the forces at work behind the growth of industrial societies placed varying degrees of
emphasis on the nature and importance of social relations. Marx emphasised class
struggle, Durkheim the division of labour and Weber the protestant ethic and rationality,
while Toñnies encapsulated his view of industrial change in two ideal types:
Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (association or society). Toñnies concept of
community embraced the idea of a homogeneous group of people, who are united by
kinship ties, and have shared norms and values.
The kind of community or Gemeinschaft he had in mind was similar to that of a
traditional, pre-industrial community where everyone knew, and was possibly related to,
everyone else. The opposite of Gemeinschaft is Gesellschaft. This he used to describe
societies where face-to-face relations have become impersonal, superficial and short-
lived. Everything is large-scale and the main tie between people is not sentimental but
contractual. These terms, as Toñnies intended, have most frequently been used to
describe the difference between pre-industrial and industrial societies, but have also been
applied to explain differences between rural and urban societies.
Georg Simmel, a contemporary of Durkeheim, Toñnies, and Weber, also developed
Toñnies' ideas in an essay in which he argued that cities required inhabitants with a
certain type of personality if they were to survive its demands. It was largely Simmel’s
ideas that Max Weber was building on when he wrote The City (published posthumously,
1958). He acknowledges Simmel’s argument that the city broke down personal
relationships, but tried to broaden this view, incorporating it as a support of his own
theory, examining social actions, social relations, social initiations and the concept of the
The writings of Toñnies, Simmel and Weber represent the foundation for more recent
explorations on the effects of community relations. The Gremeinschaft - Gesselschaft is
also discernible in Talcott Parsons’ conception of the pattern of variables underlying
social action. Robert Redfield in Folk Society (1947) also investigated the importance of
where people lived in determining their social attitudes and behaviour, with particular
emphasis on rural society. In contrast, Louis Wirth (1938) focused his attention on
analysing the features of urban life. Also important to this field of study is Cooley’s
(1909) concept of primary groups and Durkheim’s writings on Secondary groups.
From the foregoing it is clear that the notion of social networks and their importance for
individuals and society as a whole, have had a long history in social thought.
Comments on the presentations
The presentations made covered a wide range of issues related to the concept of social
capital and its emergence as a critical dimension of development dialogue.
Francine Fournier, in her introductory comments, emphasised the context within which
the social capital debate has emerged. She pointed to the pace of globalisation and its
impact on social development, highlighting the importance of adequate governance
mechanisms to regulate this process, and in this regard, stressed the need for
harmonisation of economic, financial and social policies. The view was advanced that
recognition of social capital can contribute to economic and social development. This
was linked to the interrelatedness of culture and development and the value of a people-
centred approach, underpinned by the human rights commitment to education and health
in the transformation of conditions of poverty. It was posited that relations between and
among actors based on mutual trust, as well as social advocacy and political will, were
crucial elements in the debate on how to build on social capital as a resource for the poor.
The underlying condition identified to be met was that of giving the poor a voice.
In her presentation entitled "Social Capital as a Poverty Reducing Strategy?" Else Øyen
called for careful reflection on the question "can social capital reduce poverty?" She
addressed the definitional problem, asserting that social capital is not a precise concept
and poses difficulty as an analytical tool. However, it was recognised that social capital
can be a powerful political tool as in the case of participation in social networks or social
movements. The view was also put forward that democracy could be fostered where
individuals develop joint interests and shared norms. The encouragement of reciprocity,
mutual aid, and the development of civil society were seen as positive forces.
On the other hand, professor Øyen strongly advocated the necessity of reflecting on
whether social capital formation is indeed relevant to poverty reduction and whether it
will be more effective than other strategies.
Among the interesting issues delineated were the political forces contributing to the
resurgence in focus on social capital and the link to poverty. A range of poignant
questions were raised in this regard:
Why is social capital being promoted?
Who are the promoters?
Why the link with poverty?
What are the agendas?
The part played by the World Bank in this trend was considered to be of great
significance as it seems to coincide with the philosophy of the reduced role of the State
and the heralding of individual freedom. Cognisance was taken of the fact that there are
many different agendas, ranging from that of political scientists, to those driven by the
humanistic approach with interest in factors such as grassroots organizations.
The issues raised by this presentation are very pertinent to the debate on whether social
capital is simply a new “buzz word” or an attempt to legitimise or reinforce the
“Washington Consensus”, or even more fundamentally, lay responsibility for the
conditions of the poor at their own feet.
As Professor Øyen cautions, if social capital is to be taken as relevant for poverty
reduction, it is crucial to be aware of the limitations on the capacity of the poor to form
The poor indeed do not have the same networks as the non-poor, and are often not
allowed entrance to the latter. As noted, this is linked to stratification systems present in
all societies where the poor are at the bottom of the social hierarchy and experience
social exclusion. Particularly instructive is the observation made that the poor cannot
develop their own networks for increasing social capital on a large scale, nor can they
gain entry into networks where social capital flourishes.
Miguel Darcy de Oliveira focused the discussions on the dimension of partnership
between the State and civil society using the Brazilian experience. He pointed to some of
the underlying assumptions of citizen participation:
Sustainable bottom-up development as the State alone is not able to promote
Emergence of strong and vibrant civil society as an inescapable partner in
There is no contradiction between State responsibility and strengthening civil society. It
does not mean that government is abandoning its responsibility. Both partners are
different and the challenge is how to co-operate.
Mr Darcy de Oliveira also discussed the Brazilian experience in addressing HIV/AIDS to
illustrate how the partnership between government and civil society can be effective. An
initiative from people affected by the disease brought the issue to the public arena and led
to decisive government action which had previously been lacking. A number of lessons
for strengthening partnership were learnt during this process.
Through political engineering, new channels and mechanisms need to be
developed which will enable NGOs to receive government support while
Broad-based national alliances are not always possible but collaboration
and conflict can co-exist.
Importance of monitoring and evaluating initiatives.
Information visibility (volume of resources available, number of
organizations, etc.) is of critical importance.
Legal and regulatory framework is essential.
In conclusion, an optimistic note was sounded that resources in the form of trust,
knowledge, networks and supportive capacities existed in most countries to foster
effective partnership between government and civil society.
Michael Woolcock (in his paper "Social Capital in Theory and Practice: Reducing
Poverty by Building Partnership between States, Markets and Civil Society") focused
attention on the conceptual definition of social capital, pointing out that this idea was not
new in the social sciences, but was discernible as early as the philosophical thoughts of
Aristotle. He highlighted the fact that definitions of social capital cover the range of
psychological, economic, sociological and political domains, giving rise to the criticism
of conceptual overreach.
The socio-economist approach was viewed as providing the best framework for an
understanding of the phenomenon. Evidence of this was identified in an "emerging
consensus on social capital as the norms and networks that facilitate collective action".
Woolcock discussed the multi-dimensionality of social relationships, as seen in the
different types and combinations which exist. This spans the neighbourliness of primary
groups (bonding), to business and social contacts through secondary groups (bridging), to
the formation and participation in formal organizations (linking). As was argued, the poor
possess significant social capital in the form of bonding through family, kinship and
community networks which serve as an important risk management strategy. However,
they are seriously disadvantaged in respect of bridging social capital. The diversification
of social networks through migration was identified as a major bridging strategy for the
poor. In respect of long term effectiveness and the potential to influence change, it
appears that ‘linking’ social capital holds the key. As Woolcock asserts, this involves the
capacity to engage power structures.
While the bonding capacity of the poor and initiatives such as micro-financing and the
activities of the NGOs at the community level are of tremendous value, there is need to
move beyond this level.
One must concur fully with Woolcock’s conclusion that it is insufficient to celebrate and
romanticise these elements. The rules of the game change constantly and the poor must
be organized to make their voices heard.
Sanjeev Prakash (in his paper "Social Capital and the Rural Poor: What Can Civil
Actors and Policies Do?") entered the debate from both an academic and pragmatic
standpoint. He acknowledged that since pre-history social bonds have played a critical
role in alleviating conditions of poverty, but expressed some scepticism in the efficacy of
the current links between the two.
Like Øyen and Woolcock, Prakash also highlights the conceptual divergences in the use
of the concept of social capital. In this vein, he puts forward the view that conceptually
the primary importance of social capital is probably to "act a bridge between political
theory, economics and sociology, and between the analysis of market and non-market
Prakash highlights limitations in respect of the ability to measure social capital
investments as well as analytical weaknesses in the constant generalisations across
sectoral and institutional domains. A call is therefore made for a more systematic
approach in research on the subject as well as greater efforts to document observations
based on empirical evidence.
In assessing the potential of social capital to reduce poverty, he argues, like Øyen, that
social capital is inclusive as well as exclusive and that poverty and social exclusion are
The observation is made that local institutions of the poor may in themselves limit the
freedom of action of individuals to escape from poverty as much as enable it, and they
are also very often excluded from bridging networks required to overcome collective
risks and deprivation.
Underlying Prakash's presentation is the focus on rural society as the geographical space
within which social capital may have its greatest relevance as a coping strategy for the
Sociological analyses of the nature of social relations have traditionally offered
competing models. This is reflected in the contrast between the structural functionalist
approach which emphasises consensus as compared with Marxism and other conflict
perspectives. On the other hand, the symbolic interactionists abandon the marco level
analysis of both the functionalist and conflict theorists and focus on micro-level
The issues that have been raised in the debate on social capital as a path to social
development reflect similar theoretical and conceptual divergences but are very pertinent
in moving the agenda forward. The controversies that have arisen do not negate the
usefulness of the concept, but rather provide an opportunity for sharpening the tools of
The direction of the discourse surrounding the subject of social capital has also served to
highlight the necessity for the formulation of clear and practical guidelines for its
Francince Fournier served as Assistant Director-General of UNESCO’s Sector for
Social and Human Sciences from 1990 to 2000. Former professor of political science at
the University of Montreal and the University of Quebec (Canada), Mrs Fournier has
taught political participation, political behavior and research methodology. She served in
the Canadian and Quebec Governments as Secretary-General of the Council on the Status
of Women, Director of Research and as President of the Quebec Human Rights
Commission. She also served as Chairperson of the Canadian Equality Rights Panel, and
as Secretary-General of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.
Else Øyen is Scientific Director of CROP (Comparative Research Programme on
Poverty) and former Chair. She is also Head, Centre for International Poverty Research,
at the University of Bergen, and is former Vice-President of the International Social
Science Council. Professor Øyen is a pioneer in poverty research and her research
interests span from theory of the welfare state and comparative studies of health and
social policy programmes in industrialized countries, to analyses of poverty phenomena
in developed and developing countries.
Miguel Darcy de Oliveira is a member of the Council of Comunidade Solidaria and
Coordinator of the National Programme of Volunteer Work in Brazil. He has inter alia
previously served as a diplomat.
Faith Innerarity is currently Director of Social Security in the Ministry of Labour and
Social Security, Jamaica. She has also been vice-chairman of the Commission of Social
Development in the ‘Copenhagen + 5 process’.
Sanjeev Prakash is Director of the Environment, Technology and Institutional
Consultants in New Dehli, India. He is also adjunct professor at the University of Bergen.
Michal Woolcock is a consultant with the Development Research Group at the World
Bank. He is also adjunct-lecturer in public policy at Harvard University.
UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme started in 1994,
designed as an experience in social science that was innovative in several aspects:
it was the first intergovernmental social science research and policy
programme to be created in a UN Specialized Agency;
it aimed at fostering interdisciplinary and comparative research on important
areas such as multicultural societies, international migration, cities and
urbanization, local-global linkages, poverty, governance and sustainability,
that was defined to be truly international by design, conceptualization,
methodology and participation, and
its over-arching long-term objective was to enhance the linkages between
social science research and policy-making, as well as various social and
economic actors, such as NGOs, the media and the private sector.
The first phase of MOST (1994-2001) is completed. In its second phase, MOST will
continue to be an effective instrument to foster the production of policy-relevant
knowledge on social transformations.
The Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) is an International NGO
initiated by the International Social Science Council (ISSC). The CROP Secretariat is
located at the Centre for International Poverty Research, University of Bergen, Norway.
CROP is organized around an extensive international and multidisciplinary research
network, open to all poverty researchers and others interested in a scientific approach to
poverty. The members of its Scientific Committee are outstanding poverty researchers
representing different geographical regions and scientific disciplines worldwide.
CROP is a response from the academic community to the problem of poverty; it
concentrates on research. The major aim is to produce sound and reliable knowledge,
which can serve as a basis for poverty reduction. The Organization has attracted
researchers from all over the world and gained respect as an independent voice in an area
where many different interests are involved.
CROP has been selected by the Norwegian Research Council as a “node” for poverty
research in Norway directed towards the South.
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