Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Online facilitation as Building Social Capital

Social capital is a emerging concept. There are various definitions and understandings and no agreement as to what it is, how to measure it and how to change it. It seems to really important for health and many other social outcomes such a educational and social order outcomes but some troubling questions remain.

Social capital is not an easy idea to explain as it could be a course in and of itself. It is the subject of many Phds already.

Because of all this, it not clear what is the best way to improve social capital for those individuals and communities who have low social capital.

In short some people live in communities with rich social connections and a high degree of trust and social order. Such people and communities tend to get on and do well. They tend to be happy and healthy.

In communities with the opposite, people struggle and you have higher rates of illness, school failure and other nasty social problems such as crime.

But is all this causative or a just an association?

What caused what?

After all you don't have to go to uni to know that the wealthy healthy people move to the good neighbourhoods and the poor and sick get to live in the crappy parts of town in the crappy houses.

Also you can debate if social capital is something individuals have or something only communities have?

And can you build social capital from low to high and improve outcomes of concern?

Or to improve social capital do we need to reduce things like crime, improve wealth(financial capital) and education (Human capital), Health (Human capital) to improve social capital and if this is the case is there much point to the concept of social capital.

Social capital could be a trendy new term to talk about social issues without talking about tuff issues such as human rights, discrimination or economic inequality. Such tuff topics can question our own privilege and leave our own self serving bias untroubled.

Anyway we know that when people have social connections that feel good, tend to be healthier, engage in healthy behaviors, and they feel they can solve problems and give it a go and they can use their social connections to help them solve problems. Pretty significant stuff. Apple pie.

Similarly we know that if there is social order, people feel safe. They can feel in control and they can take risks. You can benefit from this risk taking. Even if you fail, social capital can buffer you from any lasting harm.

You also need to feel safe in order for the brain to be able to work effectively. Learning requires a trust and a feeling safety.

Feeling safe is related to people's perceptions, their experience and to norms and rules of a community.

We know some people have connections with many similar people (People who only have relationships with people of a similar background, eg same ethnic group, same education or age backgrounds).

This is called bonding social capital. This can be quite harmful or helpful depending on the dynamics. (I know I said that above that social capital was apple pie.)

Others have what is termed bridging social capital, links with dissimilar people. This is really useful for solving problems.

Think of a learning group when everyone has the same background vs a diverse group. People might be a little out of their comfort zone but the learning can be much more dynamic and deep.

The Nazi party made lots of bonding social capital for their in groups and excluded others. The Nazi were not big on bridging social capital, particularly across ethnic groups.

Ultimately the Nazi's lost the war as their social capital fell apart.

I hope you can see how building and shaping the dynamics of social capital is a core role of online facilitators.

When a leader in group can facilitate ways in which the group can can make collective decisions, the group can become alive. It has control and whole new dynamic emerge. The capacity of groups to engage in self governance is also a part of what makes up high social capital.

All questions welcome?

Google scholar throws up the main theories and key pubs very well.


  1. hey Maclcolm, I don't know why I'm being so thick & struggling to understand social capital...I thought it was something about doing 'good' for the community?

  2. capital is "resource". so social capital is socail resource. and it is very definitely linked with cultural capital and the "Gaze" of the dominant group. sarah,you and I as acaedmics, live in a privileged section of society and have much of this capital. and the power and privilege that it brings. I think your comments about the poor not getting education shows that you see those people don't count in the capital sense.

  3. Thanks for your comment. I agree people who have lots of financial capital also tend to have lots of cultural capital as well other forms of human capital more generally. While this is not always the case, it is generally so. Wealth begets wealth and $$$ can be exchanged for other forms of capital.

    The wealthy can also define what is valued and it tends to be what suites their values.

    There is an excellent discussion of this and concept of cultural capital as developed by Bourdieu available as a transcript and a podcast from Australia's ABC radio at The Philospher's Zone

    I do think the poor ought to count more and that those with more resources have an interest and moral duty to do what can be done to address inequalities.