The Project, Part II: Social Capital

Time for another thrilling introduction to my research!

One sentence summary that says the same thing I said two days ago except in less than 500 words: I’m going to Uganda to evaluate what makes farmer cooperatives – organizations formed to help alleviate hunger by making farmers more productive, innovative, and market-friendly – succeed or fail. Previous research has determined that the characteristics you might think would matter – the soil quality, the crop chosen, or the education of the farmers – play only a minor role in outcomes. Instead, the key to a successful cooperative is leadership and the social interactions between farmers within them.

“Social capital” is a sociological term that’s entered non-academic parlance (to the extent that my roommate sophomore year went to parties in order to “increase his social capital” prior to bicker). Basically, it refers to the ability to access certain resources through membership in networks of people.  It is, for example, social capital that allows a Princeton graduate to find a job from another alumnus and it is social capital that a single parent draws on when she asks her friends to take care of her kids because she cannot afford daycare.

A few years ago, Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, published a book called Bowling Alone in which he claimed that American’s social capital is declining, as evidenced by the fact that a long of Americans are – you guessed it – bowling alone. People seized on Putnam’s argument to claim that the problems ranging from teenager motherhood to gun violence are caused by a decline in civic-mindedness and community-participation compared to the good old days of the 1950s. Most sociologists, though, have a hard time taking Putnam seriously, because hesuggests social capital as a cure for all ills, when in fact social capital is useless unless there are other resources with which you can exchange it. (When looking for a job, it doesn’t matter how many people you know if you live in the inner city and you don’t have a diploma).

At the same time, Putnam’s argument – that many of the problems of modern society are caused by a dearth of social capital and its attendant benefits – might actually be on the mark for the Third World. I read an article recently that suggested that what many developing nations are suffering from is a lack of trust. Government leaders cannot be trusted to act in the peoples’ best interest, much less hold elections. Bureaucrats are corrupt and teachers and doctors are unreliable. Western donors are unreliable and often fail to provide promised aid.

Farming cooperatives, however, thrive on trust. Farmers have to be willing to pool their limited resources in order to buy equipment. They have to put faith in projects for long-term productivity rather than short-term profit. And they have to believe that their elected leaders will accurately represent their interests and effectively negotiate on their behalf. In short, farming cooperatives require specific forms of social capital to function properly. Our project seeks to measure social capital while maintaining certain key distinctions (such as that between social capital and its benefits, or beneficial or harmful social capital). The goal is to identify “what works” in terms of leadership and what creates the social capital that makes that possible.  In short, how do leaders in third world farming cooperatives – where just to survive many individuals must learn to count on no one – to put their faith in a community institution?

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