“The Visit”: What We Learned from our Friends from Far Away (IV)

Posted: 3 June 2010 in Riding
Tags: , , , ,

Social capital can be thought of as a resource embodied in relationships between people that allows them to accomplish things (good and bad–but hopefully good) that they could not accomplish alone.  There are any number of categories for talking about what social capital is (see Michael Woolcock’s critique of this in his 1998 article:Social Capital and Economic Development: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis and Policy Framework” in Theory and Society) but one useful one talks about “bonding” capital, “bridging” capital and “linking” capital.

Bonding capital exists within “homogeneous” groups and represents a resource provided by deep relationships of trust within groups.  These groups might be of the same ethnicity or share a language or simply be committed to similar issues.  Whatever the case, bonding capital enables action as the members build trust and common goals.  The problem of bonding capital, from a community development perspective, is that it is self-limiting.  No amount of solidarity can overcome the fact that groups in which it is strong often lack all the know-how or experiences to overcome the complex problems they face be they problems of poverty, violence, or poor health (for example).

To overcome the limits of bonding capital groups need bridging capital, that is, meaningful connections to  groups outside their own. Bridging capital expands the knowledge and experience base of groups better equipping them to deal with problems they face.  Bridging capital can be planned and enabled.

When I thought of the visitors coming to our town to learn with us about what makes for a bike friendly community (go here for more on that), I was focused on bridging capital.  I wanted them to teach us and I wanted us to teach them.  I assumed a certain level of bonding capital was already in place in both locales and wanted to help explicitly build bridging capital to help all of us do a better job at promoting cycling for community health and well being.  I was not totally wrong in that assumption but failed to see that when bridging capital emerges it can also strengthen (and even create) new bonding capital.

I saw this in the way that merely meeting and talking together as two communities taught us important things about the resources in our own communities and helped us build relationships of trust.  For example, every time we met as a group and talked about the history of biking in my town and the people involved, I learned something from those people about my town.  I came to see the wonderful resource in the people around me and, more importantly, began to develop relationships that I might call on to help me in my efforts to promote biking.  At the same time, as the visitors debriefed each day, they developed deeper relationships of trust with each other as they explored common concerns, solutions and planned actions together.

At the end of the trip we had developed some wonderful learning from each other (community to community).  We created bridging capital that we drew on and can draw on to learn more.  Also, by the end of the trip we had created bonding capital within each of our groups which, in both cases, have already led to actions in each city that might not have happened without the trip.

Conclusion: An investment in bridging capital led to the creation of both bridging and bonding capital.  For a movie that illustrates some of this go here (or for a high quality, downloadable version  go here)

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