Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ties that bind
Recently, I had a talk with a catholic priest about people’s participation at the Mass. Not surprisingly, he told me about the continuously declining numbers of participants, but he was more worried about the decreasing level of general social participation in his parish. As a matter of fact he pointed out the additional problems of recruiting or retaining members of various parish-related associations like charities, youth, hiking or card playing groups. In his opinion this phenomenon was not basically a question of religious faith, but mainly one of individualism. As people want to take their lives in their own hands and like to organize more and more aspects of their lives individually, they make ever less use of the parish’s social offerings. Again, this is not a new insight, as Robert Putnam (2000) described in his seminal work “Bowling Alone” various aspects of the American community (political, civic and religious participation, workplace connections etc.) and its decreasing level of social activity or, as he named it, social capital.
I am asking myself what the consequences of this shrinking in social capital are for people’s willingness to participate in collective actions regarding social issues. Let’s take the steadily increasing disparity of incomes and wealth in most of the Western countries as an example: “We are the 99 percent” is one of the corresponding “Occupy”-movement’s slogans. But why are those 99 percent not able to trigger any societal change regarding fairness in the dissemination of income and wealth? “No, we can’t!” seems to be the more adequate slogan.

I think that individualism is part of the problem. If people are striving for their own personal goals, they are not really organized regarding the pooling of shared interests in the context of a social issue. Further, people’s membership in and their feeling to belong to associations, unions and other social groups fosters the development and maintaining of shared values, norms and interests in the context of a social issue. Therefore, not only personal relationships, but also memberships in social groups lead to ties that bind among people.
One possibility to approach a social issue is a stakeholder network. Especially regarding complex social issues for which cooperation among the affected actors is needed to create sustainable solutions, stakeholder networks are a promising organizational form. However, even if stakeholder networks have proved their potential to create value regarding a complex focal social issue, they are no panacea. Stakeholder networks depend heavily on the knowledge and skills of the different stakeholders’ representatives participating in the problem-solving regarding the focal issue at hand. Therefore, through the interactions of representatives in a stakeholder network, the corresponding shared values, norms, and interests regarding the social issue are emerging. These personal interactions, in the sense of people for people, are important for creating sustainable solutions in complex issue-based stakeholder networks.

Stakeholder networks and its organizational form create social capital by supporting two different kinds of ties that bind. On the one hand, there are the already mentioned interactions among representatives of different stakeholders. On the other hand, shared values, norms and interests provide the social glue among individuals. This glue is needed to address complex social issues like the increasing disparity of incomes and wealth.

Tom Schneider

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