Category Archives: Networks

Bowling Alone: Robert Putnam’s vision of Social Capital

Putnam Bowling AloneRobert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) is the great classic of social capital, referred to in almost everything that is dealing with community and connection.


Before getting into why that is, a hilarious aside of how worried people in power get (and academics when embedded in that) about people having too much time on their hands. You know there are some hardcore assumptions about working class people in this

1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago, which fretted that “the most dangerous  threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. (16)

So what is social capital?

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

The term social capital itself turns out to have been independently invented at least six times over the twentieth century, each time to call attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties. (19)

This is what I love, that social capital is all about connection. It is all about relationships. What I hate? The word capital. But ah well, it’s done and dusted and a term thrown around hither and yon now, and so must be engaged with. Unlike the capital of Marx’s title, reciprocity is the key here:

Social connections are also important for the rules of conduct that they sustain. Networks involve (almost by definition) mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere “contacts.” Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity… (20)

And, of course, such close and tight-knit relationships do not always lead in good directions — the more I write about white mobs, the more clear this becomes. So some care is needed in thinking about how this works. More thought is needed about the nature of these connections.

Social capital, in short, can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital … Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital — mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness — can be maximized and the negative manifestations — sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption — minimized.

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). (22)

This is such a key distinction. I think a lot can be done with this… Whereas a Freirean or a Frommean would think about how one or the other leads to a more full expression of our humanity, a more full life, a better society, a truly radical reimagining of our relationships, the use of ‘capital’ tends to lead us down another road:

Bonding social capital is, as Xavier de Souza Briggs puts it, good for “getting by,” but bridging social capital is crucial for “getting ahead.” (23)

I don’t know what getting ahead means, and for people of wealth and privilege, bonding capital is good for both. So this takes us sliding down into a more apolitical, neutral concept. But we don’t have to go that way.

Even so, anything that pulls away from the mad idea that we do it all ourselves is great:

our national myths often exaggerate the role of individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort.

So a central question of the book is, is it true community is really on the wane? Reading Raymond Williams on the Country and the City, it’s clear there’s a nostalgia in every generation. Putnam writes:

Debates about the waxing and waning of “community” have been endemic for at least two centuries. “Declensionist narratives” — postmodern jargon for tales of decline and fall — have a long pedigree in our letters. (24)

But Putnam seeks to establish whether or not this is true — and finds it to be true:

The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (27)

And so we enter the great lists of just what is declining.

The Great Declines

Declines in Political Participation

I like the need to measure different kinds of change, to make this distinction between

social change that is intracohort — the change that happens within a generation, an intercohort — the change that happens when a generation dies off. (34)

And Putnam does find a decline.

Financial capital — the wherewithal for mass marketing — has steadily replaced social capital — that is, grassroots citizen networks — as the coin of the realm. (40)

Declines in Civic Participation

Looking at 32 national chapter-based associations (PTA B’nai B’rith, Knights of Colombus etc…), again, more decline (though still, better than 1900):

bowling-alone-23-728(p 54)

On average, across all these organizations, membership rates began to plateau in 1957, peaked in the early 1960s, and began the period of sustained decline by 1969. On average, membership rates more than doubled between 1940-1945 and the peak and were slightly less than halved between the peak and 1997. (55)

Declining religious participation

I don’t know that I think that this all that terrible a thing — because I think we’ve seen a real rise in religious participation lately and it’s fucking terrifying. But liberation theology and Black radical traditions are a whole different thing.

Religiosity rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement. (67)

…the more demanding the form of involvement — actual attendance as compared to formal membership, for example — the greater the decline. In effect, the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” (72)

The result is that the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups — the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched. (75)


Informal Social Connections

In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers — that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers. (93)

I like this distinction. I like too the realisation that cities weren’t the evil, atomising places they were once theorised to be.

Some early sociologists though that this thicket of informal social connection would not survive a transplant o the anonymous city, that urbanization would doom both friendship and extended kinship. However, experience showed that even in the most densely populated urban settings, social filaments linking residents were steadily regenerated. The density of social connections is lower in cities … but twentieth-century urbanization was not fatal to friendship. Urban settings sustain not a single, tightly integrated community, but a mosaic of loosely coupled communities … (96)

Despite this,

we are connecting less every year, and schmoozers more and more common than machers. But even ‘informal social connectedness has declined in all parts of American society.’ (108)

Still, I’m not such that schmoozers and machers really describe all the informal connections within communities.I’m not so sure that this captures what I think of when I think of informal support networks, how people survive on low incomes. Another way Putnam measures loss is in restaurants and cafes and bars giving way to fast food —

These cold numbers confirm the gradual disappearance of what social commentator Ray Oldenburg calls “the great good place,” those hangout that “get you through the day.” (102)

And I’m not sure that fast food in some places isn’t actually filling that role still, though in a different way.

Altruism, Volunteering, and Philanthropy

The second two of these three are hard to measure unless you’re talking about middle classes and formal organisations I think, which captures only a fraction of connection…

Reciprocity, Honesty & Trust

There is an important difference between honesty based on personal experience and honesty based on a general community norm — between trusting Max at the corner store because you’ve known him for years and trusting someone to whom you nodded for the first time at the coffee shop last week. Trust embedded in personal relations that are strong, frequent, and nested in wider networks is sometimes called “thick trust.” One the other hand, a thinner trust also rests implicitly on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity. (136)

This is an interesting concept, this thick and thin trust. I like the ways that Lyn Lofland and Elija Anderson take this in different directions thinking more about the connections people make and the spaces they make them in, building of course on Jane Jacobs.

Small Groups and Social Movements

Ah, social movements… I agree mostly with both of these statements, though always worry when terms like ‘social movements’ are thrown around as kind of everyday things, when in fact I think they are fairly rare, and what we have are groups engaged in building movement.

Social movements and social capital are so closely connected that it is sometimes hard to see which is chicken and which egg. Social networks are the quintessential resources of movement organizers. (152)

Social movements also create social capital, by fostering new identities and extending social networks. (153)

Why the Decline?

Why, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, did the fabric of American community life begin to unravel? Before we can consider reweaving the fabric, we need to address this mystery. (184)

Pressures of time and money

Longer working hours, increased financial worries and sense of financial vulnerability mean people don’t get together. Putnam notes that one practical way to increase engagement is to make it possible for men and women to work part time if they wish (and still continue to live a decent life). Amen to that.

Mobility and sprawl

First the creation of suburbs — this is pretty anti suburb, though it doesn’t get into how suburbs fostered a white sense of community by coming together to fight like hell to keep everyone else out. They are now hoist with their own petards.

Eric Oliver found that the greater the social homogeneity of a community, the lower the level of political involvement; “By creating communities of homogenous political interests, suburbanization reduces the local conflicts that engage and draw the citzenry into the public realm.” (210)

A good quote from Lewis Mumford: “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life.” Putnam continues:

Now, however, the privatization of suburban life has become formalized and impersonal. Gated communities are innately introverted, as traditional urban neighborhoods were innately extroverted. (210)

Putnam quotes Kenneth T. Jackson, great scholar of the suburb and the KKK, about a ‘weakened sense of community, increase in social life feeling privatized’ (211)

He looks at commuting:

Car and commute demonstrably bad for engagement, the more commuters in  community the less engagement of all members of community, even those who don’t commute (213)

Spatial fragmentation between home and workplace bad for community life. (214)

He looks at sprawl (these are all picked up in Urban Sprawl and Public Health, and Walkable Cities) and gives the main reasons sprawl is bad: Time taken in commute, social segregation and increased homogeneity, disruption of community “boundedness”, separation from work, home and shopping. (214)

Technology and Mass Media


Nothing — not low education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress — is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment. (231)

So What? Why We Should Care

Social capital has many features that help people translate aspirations into realities. (288)

That’s always nice. This is a pretty good list of why connections are good for us, even if I worry about some of the language. Greasing the wheels for example.

  1. social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily.
  2. … greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy … everyday business and social transactions are less costly.
  3. … widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fate is linked… Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others… (288)
  4. The networks that constitute social capital also serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information that facilitates achieving our goals.
  5. Social capital also operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individuals’ lives. Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively. (289)

Putnam goes on to measures how social capital makes a difference in our lives looking at 5 variables: child welfare and education, healthy and productive neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic citizenship and government performance. (290)

There’s some stuff here too about how inequality and social solidarity are incompatible — the more unequal a society, the less social capital. It’s significant how badly former slave states perform along every index. Of course, books like The Spirit Level have since picked up on this and broadened the analysis to be global.

child welfare and education:

— higher social capital rates statistically highly correlated with babies healthier, fewer teen parents, lower dropout rates, less violent crime, suicide, homicide, lower child abuse rates, higher test scores (informal social capital more highly correlated than formal for student achievement)

healthy and productive neighborhoods,

Higher social capital correlates to lower crime, less lethal violence, also home to survival networks

economic prosperity

support networks for jobs, loans, ideas etc

health and happiness

huge benefits to health (see the Marmot report, not quoted here but all the same findings…)

democratic citizenship and government performance

higher public-spiritedness, local organizations become schools for democracy, the more isolated people, the higher tendency to extremism, need more forums for debate, meaningful engagement in big issues…

The Dark Side — Babbitry

Shows tolerance has increased between 1960s and 1990s as disconnection from civic life decreased…. But still studies find that more engaged people are more tolerant. Given growing inequalities and disengagement, perhaps this all explains the trouble we are having now?

So, social capital.







Learning from Civic Systems Lab: Designed to Scale

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to ScaleThe community garden is only one of many community projects we are looking to start up in my day job. Multiple linked efforts that will begin to create a strong, caring and supportive community here. Much of the inspiration has come from Civic Systems Lab, particularly Tessy Britton and Laura Billings, and it’s been wonderful to go through their team’s detailed (and free!) research report on The Open Works research project in West Norwood — just down the road from me now! If only I had moved a year earlier…

This report is for several different audiences — foundations like Lankelly Chase who helped fund it, politicians and government workers like those of Lambeth Council who partnered in this particular project and really should be funding similar projects in the future. For that reason it uses a certain language, but it also manages to be very geared towards those who wish to do similar things in their own community, particularly the last chapters.

It focuses on participatory culture, building on many years of work studying best practices and building this kind of connectivity — a most impressive work of praxis. Civic Systems Lab’s report on Open Works studied on a most basic level whether multiple small-scale community projects engaging people on a daily basis could create real and lasting change on a larger scale.

So much of my life has been spent assuming that that is so — and happily the report agrees. It notes, however, that neither government services and commissioning cycles nor top-down organisation of services operate to support such efforts. Rather they work (just as market forces do) to segment and separate people from each other — serving the elderly, the disabled, the Spanish speaking, etc.  Rather than building networks and collective efforts, they often destroy them to replace them with one-way relationships of dependency and service.

While I personally and politically am fully committed to full government funding for social services and a safety net, there were always fundamental issues with how these were delivered that no efforts to save them should ignore. We need full funding for better ways of creating healthy and caring communities — like this one. While this does actually fit into Cameron’s hated Big Society in many ways, it doesn’t have to — and this report for survival purposes I respect, has left either possibility open.

Civic Systems Lab – Designed to Scale

Their key findings in their own words:

  1. Building a dense participation ecology at scale is possible.
  2. A fully developed prototype of this dense participatory ecology is estimated to take 3 years to build.
  3. High levels of micro participation could be a key component for building local sustainability and resilience in a neighbourhood.
  4. Micro participation needs to reach a threshold to be effective. — early estimates are that around 10% – 15% of local residents would need to be participating regularly at any one time (c. 3 times a week) for multiplier effects to be achieved. This estimated level of participation greatly exceeds any current levels of participation through existing models.
  5. Two levels of participation typography are needed for the ecology to work… a fully developed participation ecology should consist of two levels of activity. The first level is a highly accessible and inclusive network of commons-based co-production activity built into everyday life. Building on this foundational level of mass participation in micro activities, the second level would see the development of community businesses, co-operatives and hybrid ventures through platform incubation programmes.
  6. Moving the centre of gravity through the platform approach has the potential to create a new collaborative model between citizens, government and other institutions.
  7. The estimated costs of building and maintaining a participatory ecology represent a low percentage of public spending for an area. (21)


I don’t know when we forgot that a mutually supportive and connected community was key to our survival…perhaps when we no longer faced starvation and the need to build our own homes. But sometimes I feel like we are facing a starvation of the spirit here in the developed world, even as people starve in other places intimately connected to us through trade and consumption yet removed from our immediate knowledge. From exactly those places, the development literature grown around decades of aid (making little impact as you can see) has brought us terms such as resilience. It is still perhaps useful here, and will be ever more so through austerity’s bite and the onset of deeper poverty:

Resilience as an integrative construct

The construct of resilience offers a useful lens through which to discuss how neighbourhoods might be re-organised for both individual and collective wellbeing. People and families need to find ways to manage the ongoing ups and downs of life, and this is done through a combination of resources which are collectively referred to as ‘protective factors’.

Resilience resource indices include:

  • Biological factors (e.g. regular physical exercise, genetic resilience factors).

  • Individual factors (e.g. optimism, agency and executive functioning).

  • Interpersonal/family factors (e.g. secure family relations and close social ties).

  • Community/organisational factors (e.g. green space, volunteering).

The resources used to cope in challenging circumstances are not evenly distributed in or across neighbourhoods – perpetuating unequal access to resilience resources. (24)

I translate that in my mind to more concrete things like access to healthy foods and time for exercise, access to education and the ability to have power over your own life and the political and economic forces impacting you, close and supportive relationships that provide love and intellectual discussion and laughter, and a networked and supportive community.

I think that physical space should be separated from that as its own factor — access to nature, to growing things, to earth, safe and decent housing that makes you feel like you’re home, safe neighbourhoods that encourage you to spend time outside rather than flee, public spaces that encourage chance meetings and bring different people together, perhaps also transportation that ensure no one is trapped and all have good access to all parts of the city. All these things that Gehl, Appleyard, Whyte, Adams and Cullen among others describe.

An Ecology of Place

They don’t quite engage with that literature or work on space, but it fits in well with the thinking embodied in terms like ecology and ecosystems, it fits in also with thinking around networks and emergence, and the growing body of work on permaculture I’ve just started to dig back into.

Where roads and pipes allow for the efficient flow of transport, water and power, this participatory ecosystem aims to create a new and essential piece of connecting social infrastructure for our individual and collective wellbeing.

The report does bring us to the geography of it all — how place and people connect and the fact that ‘Resilient places support resilient people’. Hardly a surprise, though I am amazed at how many development experts consider the two to be separate. So returning to their thoughts on what a resilient place would look like:

An ecology of place:

The projection for a fully formed ecology after 3 years of development would see life experienced through the following participation opportunities:

  • Within a 5 to 15 minute walk from your home you would have approximately 140 opportunities every week (20 opportunities every day) to participate in free activities with neighbours. These might be in spaces on your nearest high street, or in kitchens, workshops or gardens on your own housing estate.
  • These activities would be practical, low commitment, low barrier opportunities that would be open to everyone, that you could decide to join at short notice, depending on your other home or work commitments.
  • These opportunities would be imaginative and creative project ideas, some of which you would find particularly interesting and which would also help you with your day-to-day life. For example, some projects could save
    you money through bulk cooking or bulk buying, you
    could learn new things and share what you know through
    weekly short lesson skill sharing, you could share, fix or
    make things that you need everyday such as equipment,
    food, clothing or furniture.
  • The network of opportunities would also include free regular incubation programmes which might help you cultivate new interests or livelihoods. These peer-to-peer incubators would allow you to develop your ideas without any formal qualifications and could lead to self-employment or employment.
  • Through these activities you would be able to get to know many local people in very informal and enjoyable settings. These people might be like you, but also might come from a wide range of backgrounds, ages and cultures, many of whom might have very different social and work networks, and these could be helpful for you to learn or progress to employment.
  • The new local community businesses, including collaborative childcare, energy, retail, or urban farming would create opportunities for you to balance your work and family commitments more easily and affordably.
  • For families there are projects, kitchens and workshops which enable you to make baby food, toys and clothing in social settings, which save you money and build supportive social networks and friendships.
  • Your new local networks would enable you to understand what public resources and benefits would be available to you, and help you easily access professional support when you need it. (26)

I love the illustrations in this evaluation/manual, this is just one example:

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale
These diagrams ‘demonstrate how this ecosystem of social projects and activities creates opportunities for people to lead sustainable lives, through self-direction, and for producing direct, collective and networked outcomes for themselves, their family and the neighbourhood. (p 27)

I quite love their ambitions as well:

Active, connected neighbourhoods as a universal ambition

People want to live in places where they know and like their neighbours, where they can do things together regularly, where they can help to create welcoming and safe communities in which to raise their children and grow old.


Through the participatory ecology described in this report, neighbourhoods could be re-organised not just for practicality, but also to be inspiring and exciting places to live: expanding our horizons, growing ideas and projects, inventing new livelihoods. Examples of which already exist.(28)

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale


Not bad at all.

From a community organising background (and one more built around popular education, positive community projects and working with individuals and families rather than a focus on working through institutions to amass power to challenge power which is more IAF’s model), so much of this seems self-evident. Still, I know well from working with many service-providers that this is often opposite to their normal practice (and demands of funders and government and often academics), and key to emphasise how this differs just to be very clear:

  1. People participate on an equal footing
  2. There are self-directed pathways of progression from
    micro levels of participation through to employment
  3. There are new dense networks for friendship, support
    and resources, as well as opportunities to develop new
    skills informally… (30-31)

These networks and participation need to reflect the community and all of its diversity — a challenge in a world that works to effect the opposite. I write and obsess about racism, and there are multiple other factors involved here that such an approach needs to work hard not to sustain, much less to undo — and there isn’t a great deal here about to how to do that, but I think this is an approach that can begin to tackle these issues despite the challenges:

Traditional attempts have largely failed to bring people from a wide range of different backgrounds, with different abilities and cultures, into the same spaces regularly enough to develop the connections and friendships necessary to build large bridging networks.

Experience has shown that creating and sustaining dense and diverse networks is harder than it looks. The way our systems are currently organised shows that these relationships do not develop as naturally as we would hope or as easily as they once did. (42)

This is one place where I think we definitely need to put more work and thought.

Building Platforms and Building to Scale

They also start to struggle with scale — again for us as community organisers this was always a big issue that we never quite cracked and debated endlessly.

The challenge of scale
One of the key strengths of many new participatory models is that they are small scale in nature. Typically, practical activities are done in functional local settings in small groups – and it is these highly personal peer-to-peer experiences that are proving to build relationships and generate mutual benefits. Study of many of these successful projects identified that they offer whole sets of different outcomes, and that they are productive, imaginative and engaging at a time when interest in some traditional community activity is declining in many places.

However, despite all these obvious strengths of participatory culture, we concluded that participatory projects of this kind are unlikely to fulfil their promise to transform places and people’s lives if they remain scattered, unsupported and small scale.

The reality that when things get too big, their truly participatory nature becomes harder and harder to maintain. I think, however, a broad base of people used to this kind of ecology of daily participation in multiple smaller projects with multiple relationships of trust and respect in an area could make a much more participatory society work on many different levels. I think if we created it, we could much more easily start to talk about scale with some integrity. In its absence, everything seems a little hollow and I myself haven’t much hope.

I also like their idea of platform, as a goal, as a foundation, as a construct and invention:

The Open Works project set out to discover if we could invent a platform approach that would allow us to change a whole set of existing participatory infrastructures, and accompany this with a change process that could build a larger system of these small scale experiences. (42)

More on the platform idea, that I’m still trying to get my head around:

Platforms for participation and mutualism: Unlike many government or third-sector led projects of the past, the new participatory project and civic ventures don’t seek to involve people in processes or representative structures, but are direct opportunities for participation. They operate on a platform logic: thriving on uncovering, inviting and combining multiple, unpredictable sources of input such as dormant existing resources or ideas from multiple sources, rather than just focusing on creating new products. For example with overcrowded hospitals a platform approach would look to system redesign, prevention and needs reduction, a products approach would procure more hospital beds. The former is a highly generative approach, as the wide range of unplanned, indirectly facilitated exchanges between platform participants can generate independent momentum. (151)

The scaling ideas they present are really impressive, showing how small projects could grow or serve as groundwork for or even federate into larger, more transformative ones. Here is just one example around growing and energy:

Civic Systems Lab - Designed to Scale


A question of Agency

Much of the literature they draw on is far removed from that of critical theory (not surprising) or community building and organising or even health and wellbeing (a little surprising but not too much). I enjoyed it, and how it presented small snippets of unfamiliar theory that I found quite thought provoking around social change and democracy, like this summary of agency as described through social cognitive theory by Albert Bandura (2006), which ‘incorporates the concept of a humans are both products and producers of their environments.’ Lefebvre says that too of course, a major innovation of critical geography, and I wonder if there is cross-pollination there, but that is to digress. They quote Bandura at length and so shall I:

Social cognitive theory distinguishes among three modes of agency, each of which is founded in people’s beliefs that they can influence the course of events by their actions. These include individual, proxy and collective agency.

In personal agency exercised individually, people bring their influence to bear on their own functioning and on environmental events.

In many spheres of functioning, people do not have direct control over the social conditions and institutional practices that affect their everyday lives. In those circumstances, they seek their well-being, security and valued outcomes through the exercise of proxy agency. In this socially mediated mode of agency, people try by one means or another to get those who have access to resources or expertise or wield influence to act on their behest to secure the outcomes they desire. For example, children work through parents, marital partners through spouses, employees through labor unions, and the general public through their elected officials.

People do not live in isolation. Many of the things they seek are achievable only through socially interdependent effort. In the exercise of collective agency people pool their knowledge, skills and resources, provide mutual support, form alliances, and work together to secure what they cannot  accomplish on their own. People’s shared beliefs in their joint capabilities to bring about desired changes in their lives is the foundation of collective agency. Perceived collective efficacy raises people’s vision of what they wish to achieve, enhances motivational commitment to their endeavours, strengthens resilience to adversity, and enhances group accomplishments.” (123)

I quite love that definition of collective agency, particularly in thinking about organising and what so much of my life’s work has been about. It’s interesting arriving at these thoughts not through Freire or Horton or Camilo Torres, but social cognitive theory.

So, a recap from Civic Systems Lab on just what is key to these participatory projects:

Emergent: The projects we have studied have all been
started by citizens as ‘ordinary people’. Not primarily in
a formal role such as community organisers, or to make
money, nor because they were invited to by governing
authority or organisation, or given a pot of money to entice
them into action.

‘Live’ and ‘lean’ development: The initiatives are not efforts to compel some other party to solve a problem, but are
rooted in practical DIY ethos.

Oblique approaches: These initiatives develop oblique or
secondary ways of addressing social, environmental, and
economic issues. (150)

Scale: Most of these projects work on a local scale. They tend to be rooted in the very tangible opportunities and problems of people’s lived experience in local areas and the social networks embedded in them. (151)

I think DIY can only get you so far and sometimes you have to fight bad things, too often really, but it’s true that the building of positive local initiatives has not received nearly enough study or attention. In some ways I agree with this, being always optimistic about what local people working together can achieve — and utterly pessimistic about how long it will take it to be smashed. But that’s for another post maybe, the rougher things become, the more necessary these initiatives will become, and in imagining an ideal base from which to create a different world, I cannot think of a much better one.

This foundational research suggests that a radical re-think of our institutions needs to occur: because of their valuable multiple social outcomes, the autonomous activities of civic initiatives and ventures are worth supporting as a complement to current developments in public service reform and innovation. The challenge is to create structures and investment mechanisms that work with the grain of what citizens are already doing together in this domain. This will be an important next step in the evolution of the relations between the state, the market and citizens in the UK and beyond. There is growing case study evidence on how, at the scale of individual projects, neighbourhoods and whole cities, this evolution is already underway, giving ample cause for optimism. (132)

I found this interesting too, a curious mix of things that on the whole I’m not sure I agree with — and it’s paragraphs like this that make me feel most that I am not the intended audience as this is not a critical study, but a practical one demonstrating not just how to do this, but why it should be funded.

What characterises the participation culture and civic entrepreneurialism we are witnessing now is that it brings together the diverse values of civic society with the new approaches and culture of 21st century start-ups. Where in the 20th Century, civic action was frequently focussed on protest against the state or market, or on demands to be included and represented in government decision-making, the new citizen participation and entrepreneurship firmly focuses on seizing opportunities that make life better or create more enjoyable places through practical action. They are marked by innovative and energetic hands-on design processes and a DIY ethos, drawing on existing resources where possible – whether physical resources in the locality, online tools or collaborative relations with people.


In sum, a ‘many to many’ culture has grown. People now have the access to tools and platforms to act independently of established players: market and state institutions, but also traditional local community power structures. (136)

I’m not sure what I think of ‘civic entrepreneurialism’. So I will let that go for now…and keep thinking about how this approach could lead to a deeper transformation of injustice and oppression in our society than such paragraphs allow. More nuts and bolts to follow, but this is already far too long…

For more on building social spaces…



Fritjof Capra: the hidden connections

Fritjof CapraIn this book I propose to extend the new understanding of life that has emerged from complexity theory to the social domain. To do so, I present a conceptual framework that integrates life’s biological , cognitive and social dimensions. My aim is not only to offer a unified view of life, mind and society, but also to develop a coherent, systemic approach to some of the critical issues of our time. (xii)

I always worry about coherent systemic approaches to all things, just as I worry about the straightforward application of theories evolved through physical and life sciences to social science — they often throw up interesting things, as Emergence did, but still they remain problematic. Fritjof Capra does not escape my critique entirely, but his coherent, systematic approach is based upon an understanding of networks, of relationships between things being as fundamental as things themselves (how dialectical of him really, though there is not a ounce of dialectics otherwise), of constant change and never a full knowledge of the whole, of humility in scientific inquiry, of anti-capitalism in the sense that we must substitute new values for that of profit above all that exists now and has brought us almost to to the brink of destruction.

He is also rigorous and smart, and my critiques of the sections on social science are offset by my appreciation that he actually read and grappled with Manuel Castells’ three volumes on networks.

I also like that he tries to bring together the material and the social — the geographers are missing from his account, but I forgive him, as I too think this is key.

My extension of the systems approach to the social domain explicitly includes the material world. this is unusual, because traditionally social scientists have not been very interested in the world of matter…In the future, this strict division will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century — for social scientists, natural scientists and everyone else — will be to build ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their technologies and social institutions — their material and social structures — do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. (xv)

Clearly how we think about cities, housing, transportation, infrastructure and &c. are key to survival of ourselves as a species and the planet as we know it now. Of course, if we destroy ourselves, I have every confidence that life will continue to emerge and flourish. Life is pretty amazing.

The first section of this book is on life itself, with some thought-provoking concepts, like autopoiesis – ‘self-making’. Capra writes that on a cellular level, life is present where there is both physical boundary and a metabolic network. Living systems as autopoietic networks ‘means that the phenomenon of life has to be understood as a property of the system as a whole’. (9)

For a long while scientists thought genes fixed, determinative, this idea fitted so neatly into racist and classist and sexist ideas of place and station, our understandings of society. I love, love, how that has all been turned on its head, with little fixed at all:

A key insight of the new understanding of life has been that biological forms and functions are not simply determined by a genetic blueprint but are emergent properties of the entire epigenetic network. (10)

I love too, the idea of emergence, that things are created through a collective relationship, and often great than the whole:

This spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability is one of the most important concepts of the new understanding of life. It is technically known as self-organization and is often referred to simply as ’emergence’. (12)

He comes back to this, writing

The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops. (102)

He describes, for example, the crisis faced by quantum physicists in 1920s as their experiments and observations pushed the limits of our understandings of reality. It is something we know today, without being able to well conceive of what it must have felt like. Perhaps my favourite thing in the whole book was this amazing quote from Werner Heisenberg, on the cost of emergence, and how it is in fact greater than any one man but emerges from collective work and thinking:

I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments? (103)

They did not stop the experiments but continued on, pushing against the certainties of our knowledge. Allowing that the world might be greater, wilder than we had ever imagined it. It is the findings of quantum physics, in some ways, that have opened up every other field. They have shown the world is not as we thought it was, that by the very act of studying it we enter into a relationship with it and thereby change or fix its behaviour.

In the very simplest of ways, biology reminds us that it is in the relationships between one thing and another that some of their properties are determined:

When carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms bond in a certain way to form sugar, the resulting compound has a sweet taste. The sweetness resides neither in the C, nor in the O, nor in the H, it resides in the patterns that emerges from their interaction. It is an emergent property. Moreover, strictly speaking, the sweetness is not a property of the chemical bonds. It is a sensory experience that arises when the sugar molecules interact with the chemistry of our taste buds… (36)

He brings up Saussure here, as you would, the structuralist view that words obtain meaning only in relation to other words, to phrases. No Voloshinov though, to further complicate things with the ways that meanings are further contested.  Ah well.

I also like being reminded of the wonder and unimaginable timescale of our emergence.

memory became encoded in macromolecules, and ‘the membrane bounded chemical networks acquired all the essential characteristics of today’s bacterial cells. This major signpost in the origin of life established itself perhaps 3.8 billion years ago. (24)

So I suppose in the great scheme of things it is not so terrible that we have been stuck imagining things as static and fixed for some time, when in fact they are growing and learning.

The decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon the Cartesian view of mind as a thing, and to realize that mind and consciousness are not things but processes. (29)

Being a social scientist (of a sort, I suppose), I found the sections on the social a little less interesting in terms of expanding my own thinking, but still quite interesting in thinking about how someone from the hard sciences approaches some of those topics we wrestle with. Power was the most interesting, so much has been written on power, Capra’s choices of definition and source are quite fascinating:

One of the most striking characteristics of social reality is the phenomenon of power. In the words of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, ‘The exercise of power, the submission of some to the will of others, is inevitable in modern society; nothing whatever is accomplished without it…Power can be socially malign; it is also socially essential.’ The essential role of power in social organizations is linked to inevitable conflicts of interest. Because of our ability to affirm preferences and make choices accordingly, conflicts of interest will appear in any human community, and power is the means by which these conflicts are resolved. (76-77)

The origin of power, then, lies in culturally defined positions of authority on which the community relies for the resolution of conflicts and for decisions about how to act wisely and effectively. In other words, true authority consists in empowering others to act. (77)

That is an interesting definition, one with which many a social scientist might be happy to contest (or better said, complicate). No Foucault, no Lukes or Gaventa, no Guevara, no Agamben. There’s a key liberal in that list I am forgetting, but the list of people writing about power is in truth a very long one. Though few would deny the truth of this:

Thus, power plays a central role in the emergence of social structures. (78)

I like this boiling down of things to simple definitions. If only because I then want to complicate them anew.

Social systems produce nonmaterial as well as material structures. The processes that sustain a social network are processes of communication, which generate shared meaning and rules of behaviour (the network’s culture), as well as a shared body of knowledge. The rules of behaviour whether formal or informal, are called social structures. (79)

Back to dialectics

The biological structure of an organism corresponds to the material infrastructure of a society, which embodies the society’s culture. As the culture evolves, so does its infrastructure — they coevolve through continual mutual influences. (80)

There is a strange section about corporations, and management’s interest in his work as a way to repair these massive and ailing behemoths. I feel that management, like science, once held a very precise view of our ability to impose our will on the world which hasn’t quite shifted fully.

To run properly, a machine must be controlled by its operators, so that it will function according to their instructions. Accordingly, the whole thrust of classical management theory is to achieve efficient operations through top-down control. Living beings, on the other hand, act autonomously. They can never be controlled like machines. To try and do so is to deprive them of their aliveness. (91)

But there are some looking at how autonomous human beings create for themselves the networks and support they require. Capra cites Etienne Wenger, and his definition of ‘communities of practice’ as

self-generating social networks, referring to the common context of meaning rather than to the pattern of of organization through which the meaning is generated. (94)

A community of practice has three main features: ‘mutual engagement of its members, a joint enterprise and, over time, a shared repertoire of routines, tacit rules of conduct and knowledge. (95)

These are networks that emerge, take on lives and structures without (at least in the beginning) formal directives or top-down demands. They have the ability to be horizontal. Capra writes:

Although it may seem that in an ecosystem some species are more powerful than others, the concept of power is not appropriate, because non-human species (with the exception of some primates) do not force individuals to act in accordance with preconceived goals. There is dominance, but it is always acted out within a larger context of cooperation…The manifold species in an ecosystem do not form hierarchies, as is often erroneously stated, but exist in networks nested within networks. (133)

After this framing of the key nature of networks and relationships in both biology and social science, the book moves towards what sustainability should look like, how we can achieve it based on this new knowledge.

One of the subtitles is ‘Life as the Ultimate Commodity’ (174) — I had not realised in my youth that the Human Genome Project was actually a race against time, a social collective trying to map the genome for public knowledge before a consortium of corporations did it first so that they could patent it. They won, I had no idea of the drama of that victory, or how much was saved. Capra writes:

underlying all evaluations is the basic principle of unfettered capitalism: that money-making should always be valued higher than democracy, human rights, environmental protection or any other value. Changing the game means, first and foremost, changing this basic principle. (185)

In some ways, the new nature of genetics we are discovering is on our side in this, the patenting of genes doesn’t work very well given that there has been

A profound shift of emphasis, from the structure of genetic sequences to the organization of metabolic networks, from genetics to epigenetics is taking place. (143)

It doesn’t stop Monsanto and others from trying, however. Still, this is a call for a new kind of science, one that does not seek arrogant mastery but works with the concept of emergence:

We can imagine a radically different kind of biotechnology. It would start with the desire to learn from nature rather than control her, using nature as a mentor rather than merely as a source of raw materials. Instead of treating the web of life as a commodity, we would respect it as the context of our existence.

This is key to our survival, as is understanding sustainability:

The concept of sustainability was introduced in the early 1980s by Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, who defined a sustainable society as one that is able to satisfy its needs without diminishing the chances of future generations. (200)

Specifically, there are six principles of ecology that are critical to sustaining life: networks, cycles, solar energy, partnership, diversity and dynamic balance. (201)

Above all, sustainability is achieved through a network of healthy interdependent relationships:

In order to combine respect for these human rights with the ethics of ecological sustainability, we need to realize that sustainability — in ecosystems as well as in human society — is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships: it involves a whole community. A sustainable human community interacts with other living systems — human and nonhuman — in ways that enable those systems to live and develop according to their nature. In the human realm sustainability is fully consistent with the respect of cultural integrity, cultural diversity and the basic right of communities to self-determination and self-organization. (188)

How do we get there? You know I liked this:

According to Sociologist Manuel Castells, social change in the society does not originate within the traditional institutions of civil society but develops from identities based on the rejection of society’s dominant values — patriarchy, the domination and control of nature, unlimited economic growth and material consumption, and so on. (191)

We build connections, networks, challenge capitalism and arrogance. We look to increase diversity, decrease consumption and above all increase our own ability to work together to increase our abilities to collectively change and shape our world.