ICT-Enabled Changes in Social Capital
René van Bavel, Yves Punie and Ilkka Tuomi, IPTS
Issue: ICTs are playing an increasingly significant role in the creation and appropriation of social capital. In terms of civic engagement, they are transforming and supplementing social capital. In terms of social contact, when social capital is understood as the capability to mobilise material and knowledge resources, further developments in ICTs (particularly ambient intelligence) can overcome the challenge of transferring tacit knowledge across communities of practice.
Social capital has been defined as 'features of social organisation, such as civic participation, norms of reciprocity and trust in others, that facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit' (Putnam, 1993). It is a notion that has caught the attention of researchers and policy-makers alike. Significant relationships exist between levels of social capital in a society and positive indicators for health, education, economic growth, crime, and effectiveness of government institutions, to name a few (Performance and Innovation Unit, 2002; Grootaert & van Bastelaer, 2001). Therefore, from a policy perspective, awareness of social capital offers a number of opportunities across a range of EU policy areas.
Social capital is defined as 'features of social organisation, such as civic participation, norms of reciprocity and trust in others, that facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit'
Viewed from the perspective of Information Society policies, there is evidence to suggest that the widespread diffusion of information and communication technologies (ICTs), no longer restricted to early adopters, is having an impact on social capital. ICTs are increasingly becoming an integral part of people's everyday lives and of the everyday business of organisations (whether profit-seeking or not). ICTs are transformative, giving rise to new ways of living and organising which would not exist without them. The use of ICTs in social practice and their challenge to traditional conceptions of time and space present new challenges to social organisation, re-organising those structures and processes that make up social capital. A prospective glimpse suggests that this influence of ICTs will only increase.
Viewed from the perspective of Information Society policies, there is evidence to suggest that the widespread diffusion of information and communication technologies is having an impact on social capital
Today we are at the early stages of social change enabled by ICT. The Internet is still in its infancy, just as television was in the early 1960s. Interactive and online communication channels are no longer restricted to PCs, but are increasingly available through multiple devices. Access to fixed-line and wireless broadband is providing always-on multimedia connectivity. As a result, ICTs are starting to penetrate everyday life in new ways, transforming space and time, and reorganising the basis of social interaction.
Putnam (2000) argued that social capital has been declining consistently in the post-war period in the US, and concerns over the reasons and consequences of this decline have fuelled interest in social capital as a topic of research. Among many others, one of the factors associated with this decline, according to Putnam, is the increase in the amount of time people spend watching television. The assumption is that time spent in front of the television is time taken away from participation in civil society. By extension, according to this view, widespread ICT use may lead to a decline in civic engagement. The image which emerges from such a view is one of users (particularly young computer whizz-kids) increasingly interacting with their computers, but having little if any contact with the outside physical world. The implication, according to this perspective, is that ICTs may lead to an overall impoverishment of social relations and social cohesion, as suggested by Putnam's image of people 'bowling alone'. Moreover, such a development might contribute to an increasingly fragmented and individualised civil society, characterised by lower voter turnout and lower participation in public affairs.
Television has been accused of being responsible for the decline in social capital in recent decades, on the assumption that time spent in front of the television is time taken away from participation in civil society
However, such a pessimistic vision can easily be put into doubt. Recent research suggests that ICTs act as a catalyst for alternative ways in which people can relate to one another, and so lead to the emergence of 'new' forms of civil society. The importance of traditional institutions is declining while informal social collaboration is becoming more important. This observation gives rise to two different ways of understanding the impact of ICTs on social capital. One perspective sees ICTs as transforming social capital and the other as supplementing it (Quan Haase and Wellman, 2004).
It may be that ICTs act as a the catalyst for alternative ways in which people can relate to one another and so lead to the emergence of 'new' forms of civil society
In order to emphasise the fact that certain aspects of social capital are specifically shaped by ICTs, networked social capital emerges as a useful term (Van Bavel et al., 2004). Such a notion enables discussion of the implications, with regard to social capital, of living in an increasingly networked society. Moreover, as noted earlier, the reliance on ICTs will only increase through time, making the notion of networked social capital more relevant in the future.
In order to consider the ways in which this trend towards the pervasiveness of ICTs is impacting social capital, a further refinement is required. Quan Haase and Wellman (2004) suggest that social capital can refer to, on the one hand, civic engagement (organised social networks and relationships) and, on the other, social contact (interpersonal communication patterns). Communication technologies enable social contact and they also underlie more institutionalised forms of social and civic engagement. This article will attempt to look at both.
Transforming social capital
Networked social capital emphasises interconnections between people with shared interests. Yet as interests become increasingly global and independent of physical proximity, interconnections between people from the surrounding (physical) environment, such as neighbours, are potentially neglected. This shift echoes the ongoing debate in the social sciences, dating back to the 19th century, regarding the changes in community life due to economic and technological advances. Some feel community life has been 'lost' due to the emergence of industrial society, while others, by looking beyond locality as a defining characteristic of community, point to transformations in social life and the emergence of a 'liberated' community (Quan Haase and Wellman, 2004).
Along these lines, some authors have been worried that by facilitating social connections independent of time and space ICTs could create a society dominated by self-referential interest groups, with an associated decrease in society-wide participation. This possibility is sometimes characterised as the "balkanisation of public interest."
One concern is that by freeing social connections from constraints of time and space, ICTs could create a society dominated by self-referential interest groups, leading to the so-called "balkanisation of public interest."
Moreover, the new forms of participation are thought to be different from the traditional ones where participants typically have to make compromises and need to commit to ideas or projects which they might not be entirely in agreement with. In fact, traditional representative democracy, where voters must yield to the will of the majority, is a prime example here. New forms of civic participation through ICT may require less commitment (i.e. they allow for less 'sticky' participation), and, for some authors, such a trend may also be a matter of concern.
Supplementing social capital
ICTs will, however, also create new ways to generate and appropriate social capital. From this point of view, ICTs offer another means of empowering civil society, giving new impetus to attempts at building a community, leading to greater social engagement, establishing different kinds of relationships between people, and helping provide the basis for a 'glocal' (i.e. simultaneously both global and local) civil society.
From another perspective, ICTs offer a means of empowering civil society, giving new impetus to attempts at building a community that is connected simultaneously at global and local levels
Frissen (2003) provides evidence of the active role of ICTs in stimulating civic participation, such as an on-line community project in response to local tragedies (Jongeren.volendam.nl), a website challenging ethnic stereotypes and promoting social integration between locals and immigrants (Maghreb.nl), and global web-based organisations opposed to globalisation (Indymedia.org). In a traditional political setting, the US presidential election campaign by Howard Dean used the Internet to enrol hundreds of thousands of supporters in just a few months, giving them a voice in setting the political agenda (Jett & Välikangas, 2004). More recently, the Internet and mobile phones enabled the coordination of last-minute protests, the night before the election, against the Spanish government in the wake of the March 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid.
Facilitating the exchange of knowledge
From the perspective of Information Society policies, it is particularly relevant to examine the role of networked social capital in the exchange of knowledge. A distinction is often made between explicit and tacit knowledge (see Duguid, 2003, for a review). Explicit knowledge is "de-contextualised" from its practical setting in a form that allows its representation and abstraction. As a result, it can be exchanged and diffused relatively easily, and here conventional information systems play a significant role. Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, is embedded in practice, difficult to represent as data in computer systems, and not easily diffused. The transfer of tacit components of knowing typically require social learning and socialisation into specific practices.
Generating and transferring tacit knowledge requires social interaction. Repeated interactions lead to social structures that are often described as communities of practice. These can be described as social entities that generate their specific world-views and interpretations, and which maintain the social learning processes that are required to make sense of the knowledge that is specific to the community in question.
Communities of practice are social entities that generate their specific world-views and interpretations, and which maintain the social learning processes that are required to make sense of the knowledge that is specific to the community in question
Historically, communities of practice have been understood as relatively localised social structures (meaning that members are often located in proximity to one another). They require the existence of trust among members, which often requires frequent face-to-face contact in order to be established. It is possible, however, that ICTs replace this contact, establish trust, and lead to the creation of "virtual" communities of practice. While some research suggests that ICTs play a stronger role in maintaining, rather than creating social capital and communities (Steinmueller, 2003), there is also growing evidence against such a claim.
As computer networks increasingly become networks that facilitate computer-mediated communications, the characteristics of computer use change. Computers have traditionally been used as information processing machines that manipulate data. Now they are becoming a core element in social communication and knowledge exchange. The communicative use of computers, therefore, also facilitates their use in shared projects. They become embedded in social practices and thus allow for the transfer of tacit and practice-related knowledge within communities of practice. For example, Internet-based communities - such as those centring around open source software (e.g. Linux) - have increasingly become environments for social learning.
Communities of practice act as the loci of expertise. When social capital is understood as the capability to mobilise material and knowledge resources, access to communities of practice becomes a key source of social capital. By definition, community members have relatively good access to these resources. People who bridge several communities often play an important role in transferring socially embedded resources from one domain of application to another. In social capital literature, such persons are often said to have "bridging" social capital and they fill "structural holes" in social networks.
Knowledge can move within communities of practice by being codified into particular representations
Knowledge can move within communities of practice by being codified into particular representations. A particular term, say 'digital territory', will be taken to mean something very specific within a community that specialises in the topic, and is interpreted in a similar fashion by those who share the same tacit knowledge. Members of a community of practice will know how to decode a representation and will also know about its limitations. However, knowledge exchange across communities of practice typically requires translation by persons who simultaneously participate in different communities and who bridge their structural holes.
Knowledge also moves across communities of practice in the form of 'boundary objects', which can be documents, drawings, prototypes, etc.
Knowledge also moves across communities of practice in the form of 'boundary objects'. These can be documents, drawings, prototypes, information in computer databases, material artefacts and, for example, products. The boundary objects make some knowledge explicit by embedding it in the objects that move across different social practices. Such boundary objects, therefore, also structure and constrain the possibilities for mobilising social resources.
There is the potential for ICTs to play an increasingly significant role in social learning and the exchange of knowledge across communities of practice, particularly now that network infrastructure and network access are becoming ubiquitous. But this will not be realised automatically. There is a need to go beyond the current design paradigm that focuses on functionality and external appearance, and complement it with explicitly social considerations.
Future ICTs, as expressed in the vision of Ambient Intelligence (AmI), could prove to be relevant for such a purpose (ISTAG, 2001). AmI products and services will be, according to the vision, context-sensitive, intuitive and adaptive. Potentially, they will therefore be able to integrate and communicate tacit knowledge more easily than current-day technologies can. Social learning might be facilitated in such an environment since it can bring people from different backgrounds and different communities of practice closer together. The intelligent environment will take over the role of facilitator and make the necessary translations.
An illustrative example of the potential of AmI to support spontaneous learning and to establish a 'collective learning memory' is described in the so-called ISTAG Scenarios for Ambient Intelligence in 2010.2 The scenarios that were developed and tested with over 35 experts describe possible futures for Ambient Intelligence environments and also identify major key technologies, socio-political issues and an S&T research agenda for realising AmI (ISTAG, 2001). One of the scenarios was "Annette and Solomon". It describes a meeting of an environmental studies group that is led by a human mentor but facilitated by an "Ambient" knowing the personal preferences and characteristics of the participants (real and virtual). The scenario implies significant technical developments such as high 'emotional bandwidth' for shared presence and visualisation technologies, and breakthroughs in computer supported pedagogic techniques. But it also presents a challenging social vision of AmI in the service of fostering community life through shared interests.
The increasing pervasiveness of ICTs invites an examination of its impact on social capital. In terms of civic engagement, and contrary to monocausal explanations, ICTs appear to both transform and supplement social capital. In terms of social contact, ICTs can play a prominent role in creating and maintaining a community of practice and facilitating the exchange of knowledge within it. However, ICTs face the challenge of bridging across communities of practice and transferring knowledge which is embedded and created in social practice - a field in which Ambient Intelligence holds particular promise.
Social capital, information and communications technology, communities of practice, civil society, tacit knowledge
1. This article is based on insights from the workshop 'ICTs and Social Capital in the Knowledge Society', held in Seville on 3-4 November 2003 (see Van Bavel et al., 2004, for a full report).
We would like to thank the participants of the workshop on ICTs and Social Capital in the Knowledge Society (3-4 November 2003, Seville, Spain) for the quality of their interventions and for their enthusiasm during the workshop and for the constructive comments they made on the draft report of that workshop. Special thanks also to Jean-Claude Burgelman and Bernard Clements.
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