Social Capital and Policy Development

By Good, Raewyn | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, July 2000 | Go to article overview

Social Capital and Policy Development


Good, Raewyn, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


SOCIAL CAPITAL AND POLICY DEVELOPMENT edited by David Robinson

INTRODUCTION

The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) of Victoria University of Wellington has sponsored two workshops on aspects of social capital and published two volumes of the presented papers. These workshops followed a Third Sector Research Conference in July 1996 and an August 1996 visit to New Zealand by Professor Robert Putnam, who has published extensively in the area of relationships between social interaction, social capital and the role and effectiveness of government.

The first volume, Social Capital and Policy Development (Robinson 1997), contained papers presented at the IPS-sponsored workshop held in July 1997. Presenters at this first workshop attempted to clarify "the relationships between the current overlapping usage of the terms social cohesion and social capital as well as building an improved understanding of the complex linkages between social and economic policy" (Pomeroy 1998). The papers reflect a range of perspectives on social capital, what its impact might be on the community and what the public policy implications might be. A second workshop held in August 1998 concentrated on community case studies and practical understandings of social capital. These papers were published in a second IPS volume, Social Capital in Action (Robinson 1999).

While the two volumes can be read separately, they are complementary. Various government agency, academic and community perspectives are necessary in order to tease out and debate all the issues that are part of the development of a comprehensive understanding of social capital. A concentration on the first workshop material alone would give a more academic focus to the reader's understanding. An exclusive focus on the second volume would over-emphasise community perspectives. Taken together, however, the various papers reveal a wide range of viewpoints about social capital at the policy level and at the community level. They are less revealing on human capital(1) and on social cohesion.

Few authors attempted a definition of social capital. Some chose to apply the term social capital (undefined) to a particular sector or community or organisational perspective. Others utilised the concept of social capital (undefined) to make observations about perceived gaps or failures in policy approaches applying at the time. A few considered the concept of social capital as a potential policy tool and proposed ways whereby the concept could be developed.

By using descriptive summation, the editing of the two volumes keeps faith with each of the presenters but adds little more for the reader who might wish to advance their understanding beyond the particular perspective of the various authors. Readers with an interest in applying a concept of social capital to their own activity must therefore undertake considerable reflection for themselves.

WHAT IS SOCIAL CAPITAL?

While most authors used the term "social capital", few attempted to define its meaning. In fact, the task for those presenting at the first workshop was not to define but to "clarify how the ideas associated with the term "social capital" could contribute to current policy development in New Zealand" (Robinson 1997). According to Robinson, Putnam uses the term social capital to refer to "networks of repeated social interaction which reinforce social norms, especially trust". Several authors attempted a definition of social capital building on Putnam. Thus, Crampton suggests that "Social capital may be defined as the social connections and the attendant norms and trust that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. It is chiefly a characteristic of societies rather than individuals". According to Reid, "It exists within the social space between families, firms and governments, that is "civil society". There are three major elements: trust, networks and participation in deliberative governance". …

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