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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:
1. Social capital is a concept, not something tangible that actually exists in the real world. Forget any idea of trying to measure social capital in the abstract. Concentrate rather on defining and measuring different concepts of social capital - a predisposition to cooperate for collective purposes - to suit particular contexts.
2. The Indian state is actually very generous with funds for rural development, but lacks the capacity to ensure these funds are well spent. A major source of differential welfare between Indian villages is their relative capacities actually to organise themselves to engage with the state, obtain a share of these funds, and spend them usefully - on roads, schools, clinics, irrigation, water supplies, land development, etc.
3. The relative abilities of different villages to access these funds are determined by the interaction of two main, measurable variables. One is 'social capital' - an aggregate, multi-dimensional variable of the predisposition of villagers to act locally in the collective interest. Villages that can get their collective act together have more clout in both the electoral and the bureaucratic arenas. The second main variable is the extent to which individual villagers are endowed with what Krishna calls 'new leaders'. Unlike 'old leaders', these 'new leaders' base their power and influence not on inherited family or caste status and wealth, but on their ability to act as intermediaries between villagers and external political and bureaucratic organisations. Interpersonal skills, literacy, education and sheer willingness to work hard at the job are the prerequisites for the success of these 'new leaders'. 'Social capital' alone is useful but not very effective. The same is true of an endowment of 'new leaders'. It is the combination of the two that really turns villages into powerful collective actors for the purposes of accessing state resources.
4. The bases of effective collective action however vary from activity to activity. This same combination of high levels of social capital and 'new leaders' is also very effective in increasing the level of participation of villagers in electoral politics. Social capital alone has a powerful influence on keeping villages free of internal conflict and dispute. But, when there are conflicts and disputes, they are most effectively settled by a different kind of local instituition: the non-formal but highly institutionalised village councils, dominated by 'old leaders'.

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 Press.
Harriss, J. 2001. Depoliticizing Development. The World Bank and Social Capital. New Delhi: Leftworld Books.

Keywords: social capital, collective action, India.

Commentator: Mick Moore, IDS, (January 2004)

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