Positioning Policy: The Epistemology of Social Capital and Its Application in Applied Rural Research in Australia

By Whittaker, Andrea; Banwell, Cathy | Human Organization, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Positioning Policy: The Epistemology of Social Capital and Its Application in Applied Rural Research in Australia


Whittaker, Andrea, Banwell, Cathy, Human Organization


Place, community, and identity have emerged as central issues in our ongoing research in a small rural community in Australia. We reflect upon the spatialization of the concept of social capital and the uncritical use of the term community and participation within this policy discourse. We describe the links between projects to improve community capacity and movements that are changing the nature of governance and forging new relationships between people and the state.

Key words: social capital, community, policy, rural anthropology, Australia

Policies are inherently and unequivocally anthropological phenomena. They can be read by anthropologists in a number of ways: as cultural texts, as classificatory devices with various meanings, as narratives that serve to justify or condemn the present, or as rhetorical devices and discursive formations that function to empower some people and silence others. Not only do policies codify social norms and values, and articulate fundamental organizing principles of society; they also contain implicit (and sometimes explicit) models of society.

Cris Shore and Susan Wright, 1997:7

Australian policy circles have adopted the concept of "social capital" as an explanatory model and inspiration for a range of initiatives, particularly those aimed at developing "sustainable" and "strong" communities (see Stone 2001). As consultants to one such governmentsponsored community project, we have been offered the opportunity to reflect on the structures, discourse, agencies, and power relations through which "social capital policy" operates.

The first part of the paper describes the project and the theoretical basis to it. We trace the origins of the current policy discourse of social capital and its permutations, including the discourse of community capacity that is the foundation for the project. We then look at some of the important mobilizing metaphors and language used in the discourse of social capital and explore how this policy discourse positions concepts such as "community," "place," and "identity."

Social Capital and its Metamorphoses

In sociological literature, social capital generally is understood as the ability of individuals to secure benefits by virtue of membership in social networks or other social structures. The term originates from the work of Bourdieu (1985), who used the metaphor of capital to discuss the instrumental benefits for individuals by virtue of their being involved in groups. Through social capital, individuals potentially gain access to real capital (economic resources), or they can increase their store of cultural capital through contacts with experts or through participation in prestigious associations. Coleman (1988) refined the concept by suggesting that the most useful relationships for individuals are those that act as a form of social insurance, provide communication and information networks, and create norms and sanctions that facilitate social action (see Harriss and de Renzio 1997).

In "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Robert Putnam (1995) bemoans the erosion of social capital in America, the dramatic decrease in civic engagement through associations, and a loss of social trust and interaction between neighbors. Putnam's definition of social capital refers to "features of social organization, such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" (ibid.:35-36). This was derived from his 20-year study of subnational governments in different regions of Italy. He suggested that the quality of governance in these regions was determined by long-standing traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Variables such as voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in clubs, and associations were the hallmarks of a successful region. He also suggested that they were a precondition of socioeconomic modernization and produced better schools, faster economic development, and lower crime rates. …

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Positioning Policy: The Epistemology of Social Capital and Its Application in Applied Rural Research in Australia
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