When I think of social capital, I think of a group, an organization or a coalition of groups that hold memberships of common interests, purposes and visions, where there is solidarity, reciprocity and collective strength, and which wields power and resources to forge collective benefits. Community empowerment, group formation, civil society strengthening, coalition building are integral components of social capital and social development interventions, which are gradually getting recognition for their economic and political potential in serving broader development goals. But social capital can be highly contextual. One kind of social capital may be good in one setting but not necessarily in another setting. Therefore, it is very important to understand negative and positive consequences of social capital in designing policy and program interventions.
There are different forms of social capital. It can be a tie among family members, with neighbors, ties from shared experience, cultural norms, common purposes and pursuits. Social capital can have a group base, a network base or an institutional base. An extended family network, a clan, a tribe, a farmers’ group, community-based groups in a traditional sense; and a book club, a youth club, NGOs, internet forums, social networking sites, in the modern sense. Membership in a political party or even citizenship of a state can qualify as a social capital. Robert Putman in his book, Bowling Alone speaks of two ways of looking at social capital, which he terms as bonding vs. bridging in social capital.
Bonding in social capital is referred to as social networks between homogenous groups. Bonding can be valuable for oppressed and marginalized members of the society to band together in groups and networks and support their collective needs. For instance, in earlier days, international feminism focused on Women in Development (WID) approach, where development interventions were catered exclusively to women, through investments in reproductive health care, girls’ education and labor skills training. This led to the formation and capacity building of women’s organizations and network among these organizations to work on women’s issues. Similar concept has been applied in the formation and capacity building of indigenous groups, women’s groups, farmers’ groups water-user groups in rural communities, which works and builds upon the common interests and collective strength of in-group membership to exercise collective agency for common ends.
The shared social norms and cooperative spirit from bonding also provide social safety nets to individuals and groups to protect themselves from external invasion. This is another reason for societies to maintain traditional forms of social capital through family, kinship and community. When the state is unable to provide basic services, social capital based on family relations and kinship provides a cushion against hard times. Francis Fukuyama in his article, Social Capital and Development, provides examples of post conflict societies, where the declining trust in political parties or the state in providing social protection have retained strong family ties and kinships in businesses and other arena.
While cultural norms and social trust discourage individuals to engage in risky behaviors, Fukuyama warns that bonding in disfranchised societies can have negative consequences, as in the case of criminal gangs and factions based on ethnic or political lines, which promote exclusionary practices based on distrust, intolerance and hate. Fukuyama also cautions that in-group bonding can strengthen vertical patronage system where social capital can be used to cultivate nepotism in the interests of family or a group, thus depriving members outside the group from equal opportunity in accessing goods and services. This is where Putnam’s concept of bridging in social capital comes in handy.
Bridging in social capital is referred to as social networks between socially heterogeneous groups. Bridging allows different groups to share and exchange information, ideas and innovation and builds consensus among the groups representing diverse interests. This widens social capital by increasing ‘radius of trust’ in Fukuyama’s terminology. Unlike bonding, which occupies a narrow ‘radius of trust,’ bridging can help create an inclusive institutional structure that is more democratic in nature and which has implications for broader political and economic development.
Globalization can be seen as a bridging exercise of social capital. However, some argue that the expansion of social capital in globalization has been done at the expense of traditional bonding of social capital, which is based on shared norms, values and cooperation among in-group members for common ends.
In my opinion, bonding and bridging in social capital can co-exist as long as they are in harmony and well-balanced. While bonding is important to cultivate trust, cooperation and collective strength among individuals and groups with shared history, experience and common purpose, especially if they are historically oppressed or marginalized, as in the case of women-only groups, it is important to build bridges and consensus among different groups representing diverse interests for increased collective resource and social capital. The ability of the state to enforce rule of law and ensure social safety measures, with transparent policies can complement the bonding and bridging exercise of social capital, which in turn will influence the legitimacy of the state.
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