Academic journal article Rural Society

The Intersection of Social Capital and Power: An Application to Rural Communities

Academic journal article Rural Society

The Intersection of Social Capital and Power: An Application to Rural Communities

Article excerpt


The political economy of social capital has rarely been addressed. In this sense we seek to understand the ways in which various forms of social capital intersect with a multiplicity of power relations that are also contextualised by the particular culture (s), history(s) and spatial location of these settlements.

Social capital is a concept that is much critiqued but nonetheless growing in importance and relevance to rural communities. For some, social capital is seen as a magic bullet that can ensure social and economic sustainability of small isolated rural towns, despite drought, loss of population, and the vagaries of global commodity prices. For others, social capital is at best a con, at worst a serious misrepresentation of structural imperatives over which communities have little control. We accept neither approach on its own, but find the concept of social capital a very useful conceptual framework for exploring some of the complexities of sustainable community development.

The social capital framework

Social capital was defined by Putnam as 'those features of social organisation, such as trust, norms and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions' (Putnam, 1993, p. 167). Since the concept was made popular by Putnam's work there have been many discussions and various definitions, often reflecting the use of the concept within different disciplines.

Two of the most frequently used definitions of social capital reflect a difference in theoretical emphasis Bourdieu (1985, p. 248) defined the concept as 'the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition'. For Bourdieu, social capital was a core strategy in preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of the elite. Because all forms of capital can be converted into other (primarily economic) capital, social capital was simply one way of preserving class advantage. However other theorists including Putnam see social capital as a resource (often the primary resource) that is open to all groups and communities They see social capital as located within the social structures, the space between people, and not within the individual. Social capital is capable of producing a variety of positive outcomes, beyond economic advantage, such as improved health and well-being.

A related issue of considerable current debate is the relationship between social capital and structural bases of power. It is important to recognize from the outset that social capital should not be presented as a kind of 'spray on' solution to economic, environmental or social problems. A political economy must be included in any analysis (Fine, 2001). Indeed, as Schuurman (2003) argues, social capital has the potential to help understand the link between the social and the political:

Explicit attention should be awarded to the extent that power differentials within the social as well as between the social domain and the political domain are related to the absence of social capital and trust.

(Schuurman, 2003, p. 1008).

If we are to understand the connections between social capital and sustainable development at the local level, we must therefore understand power and conflict and how these are played out in the sub-politics of the local (Beck, 1992). However, any such analysis must be contextualized within the historical specificity and the unique dynamics of a particular setting. We know for instance that social capital is most likely to work effectively among equals; inequality, exploitation, and power tactics are highly destructive of working social capital. We also know that social capital can be and is used to establish and maintain a competitive advantage over other groups, as Bourdieu demonstrated (Dale & Onyx, 2005). At a more sinister level, social capital can and is used in the discourse of consensus which supports the status quo (Bryson & Mowbray, 2005). …

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