Making Sense - and Use - of 'Social Capital'
The study of international development is very vulnerable to swings in intellectual fashions. New ideas and concepts succeed one another with bewildering rapidity. Aid and development agencies are constantly in the market for 'new' terms that hold out the promise that the future will be better than the past. Ambitious staff members can build successful careers by backing the right new fashion at the right moment. They can generally find 'intellectuals' willing to supply their needs. A great deal of time and effort is wasted in processing and assimilating these new fashions. Responsible scholars find themselves continually diverted to the task of exposing the shallow foundations and hidden flaws in the latest fashion.
'Social capital' has constituted one of the most diversionary intellectual fashions in the development business over the past decade. The term has enormous intuitive appeal. The World Bank, in particular, adopted it rapidly. Considerable resources were then deployed in finding a use for it, and defending that use. A decade later, it is very hard to find evidence that all this effort has improved either our analytical or our practical understanding of the world. There are still radical differences in interpretations of the term, and a strong case to be made that, except for some symbolic recognition of the idea that 'social relationships affect the outcome of development activities', the concept serves no socially useful purpose at all. One of the more insightful and readable critiques is by John Harriss (2001).
If in ten years time 'social capital' is still in currency in the development
business, that will be in large part due to the work of Anirudh Krishna
(2002). Krishna does not waste a great deal of time arguing around the
concept itself, although a very clear and insightful critique of much
of the literature is implicit in the way he presents his own work. He
concentrates not on the term itself, but on the real question that should
lie behind our use of it: what are the factors that increase the propensity
of poor people to engage in collective action to achieve common development
goals? His data come from an extremely detailed study of 69 villages in
Northern India. The book is a model of how to present the results of rigorous
social science research in an accessible fashion without obscuring the
significance of the important methodological choices that have been made.
One can summarise his main findings, but not do justice to the elegance
with which they are presented:
People interested in rural India will find Krishna's book fascinating for a different set of reasons. He provides some very powerful evidence of how local politics are changing radically under the combined impact of: the rapid spread of formal education to lower caste groups over the past two decades; the multiplication of government rural development and anti-poverty programmes and of the funding to support them; and growing inter-party political competition. But it is through Krishna's practical contributions to the debate about social capital that this book will have an international impact. This is one of those rare cases where one can say that no one interested in the topic can afford not to read this book. Apart from all else, it provides an invaluable basis for understanding the significance and value of a great deal of other empirical research in the field
Sources: Krishna, A. 2002. Active Social Capital: Tracing the
Roots of Development and Democracy. New York: Columbia University
Keywords: social capital, collective action, India.
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