We looked briefly at Social Capital in the economic model for sustainability. Its definition as being community support (see box) is in keeping with our understanding of the ethos of Permaculture. However, as with the word sustainability, there are a number of different explanations of social capital, some related to outcomes and some to mechanisms (see box again). These definitions combined take the concept of social capital on from an element of nurturing of the first and into the positive social progression of the second. And you may conclude that they are complimentary - one doesn’t happen without the other when delivering on the common good. But we have to be cautious about buying in to a narrow view of social capital. We could regard it as a set of horizontal associations between people, consisting of social networks and associated behavioural patterns (norms) that have a positive effect on community productivity and well-being. There are, however, communities, groups or networks that exhibit high social capital through these horizontal associations, but are isolated, parochial, or working at cross-purposes to society's collective interests (e.g. drug cartels, corruption rackets) and which can actually hinder social development.
We need to think of developing social capital that has both horizontal and vertical associations. A broader understanding of social capital accounts for both the positive and negative aspects by including vertical as well as horizontal associations between people, and includes behaviour within and among organisations. This view recognises that horizontal ties are needed to give communities a sense of identity and common purpose, but also stresses that without bridging ties that transcend various social divides (e.g. religion, ethnicity, socio-economic status) the horizontal ties can become just a basis for the pursuit of narrow interests. As we saw with health inequalities, long-term solutions to the problems of inadequate resources and social exclusion require connecting the poor to mainstream resources and services. While the social capital that there already is amongst among the poor is critical for daily survival, it is only by accessing increased resources that poor people will be able to lift themselves out of poverty.
The broadest and most encompassing view of social capital includes the social and political environment that shapes social structure and enables norms to develop. Thus the capacity of various social groups to act in their best interest depends crucially on the support (or lack of it) that they receive from the state as well as the private sector. Similarly, the state depends on social stability and widespread popular support. In short, economic and social development thrives when representatives of the state, the corporate sector and civil society create forums in and through which they can identify and pursue common goals. Idealistic as this may be, it shows yet again how important equable and meaningful participation is to social progress. The effectiveness and accountability of community-based organisations is seen to be due in part to local decision-making. Local participation in project design, implementation and evaluation ensure that projects and policies make sense within the local context and fosters the support and ownership necessary to sustain the project once, for instance, development workers and initial grant funding are gone (i.e. the vertical association).
Social capital has been measured in a number of ways, but getting a single true measure is probably not possible. The problem is with the variety of definitions of social capital and with the ambiguity sometimes of what constitutes a community, network or organisation. In the end, you have to compile indexes from a range of approximate items such as: confidence in public institutions (i.e. level of trust in different levels of government, voter turnout), degree of civic involvement (membership of civic organisations, hours spent volunteering), newspaper readership, membership in local societies and football clubs. What you are trying to do is build up a picture of the strength of civic associations and social cohesion.
Here is a guide:
Mark Fisher - Permaculture Design course handout notes