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I have two reminders this week of the fractal nature of my three powers theory (adapted from ‘cultural theory’ which itself based on the work of Mary Douglas).

First Catherine Alexander emails me from the anthropology department at UCLA to point out the parallel between the three major forms of social capital and the hierarchical, individualistic, solidaristic typology

“ Linking social capital “connect[s] people across explicit ‘vertical’ power differentials, particularly as it pertains to accessing public and private services… ‘linking’ social capital draws empirical support from a range of studies showing that, especially in poor communities, it is the nature and extent (or lack thereof) of respectful and trusting ties to representatives of formal institutions—e.g. bankers, law enforcement officers, social workers, health care providers—that has a major bearing on their welfare.”(Woolcock and Szreter: ‘Health by association? Social capital, social theory, and the political economy of public health’ Journal of Epidemiology, 2004)

“Bridging social capital… comprises relations of respect and mutuality between people who know that they are not alike in some socio-demographic (or social identity) sense (differing by age, ethnic group, class, etc). The precise nature of the social identity boundaries… individuals that are otherwise more or less equal in terms of their status and power [are brought together in horizontal relations], e.g. ethnic traders seeking counterparts in overseas markets, participants in artistic activities, or professionals of different nationalities exchanging business cards at international conferences.”

“Bonding social capital refers to trusting and co-operative relations between members of a network who see themselves as being similar in terms of their shared social identity.” (ibid 5-6) “

Secondly, in discussing local difference while preparing for a keynote I am delivering to the LGA next week, my interlocutor questioned the thesis of my annual lecture: ‘You may argue that in the South East or in England as a whole individualism is dominant while hierarchy is under siege and solidarity attenuated, but that’s not how it feels in the North East’.

There are multiple overlapping units of social action – the individual, the family, the neighbourhood, the organisation, the city, the nation. If the balance of the three powers (or four perspectives if we include fatalism) can be different at every level are we in danger of expounding a theory which manages to be both overly complicated and overly reductive?

This is certainly a potential weakness but I think it can be managed. As long as we know what unit matters in terms of our analysis or prescription we can - while recognising the context of other units – protect ourselves from too much complexity.  Having said which, an individual’s assets are very likely to be reflective of social context. For example, in a middle class community it would be substantially easier to address and individual’s lack of linking capital.

Indeed, as this implies, looking at the interaction of different levels may itself be a source of insight. As an hypothesis we can say that each unit of social power will tend to seek to replicate its power balance (or imbalance) in the units alongside and the levels below or above it.

Thus someone with a strong stock of bonding capital but little linking capital is likely to recommend solidaristic rather than hierarchical solutions to neighbourhood problems. By the same token an inherently hierarchical local authority is likely to seek to enhance the linking capital of communities by encouraging people to join committees and elect representatives.

Looking at different levels might also throw light on a distinction between incremental, innovative and disruptive change: the first is change within the parameters of the unit’s power balance (for example a change in the individual bonus system in a bank); the second, is change using a different power mix (for example, encouraging volunteering among a bank’s employees through solidaristic exhortation); the third is change which seeks to change the whole power balance (seeking to increase regulatory supervision and social responsibility among traders in bank).

Thus when we seek to bring change to system we need to explore the fit between the power balance implicit in the change and the context in which it is pursued. Is incremental, innovative or disruptive change necessary? Obviously the closer the change is to the disruptive end of the spectrum the stronger will need to be the argument and alliance for change we can muster and the more our case will need to address issues of risk.

Not sure whether this is helpful but it gives me something to think about over the weekend.


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