Zen and the art of academic writing (an inquiry into social capital)

This post is a brief story about a story. Both stories are about connections, ’embeddedness’, and the nexus between preparation and opportunity (otherwise known as good luck).

In the early 2000’s I worked in the Economics Department of the University of Otago, in Dunedin. Also on my floor was an interesting gentleman named Joe Wallis, who researched and wrote prolifically on  such topics as government reform and the economics of institutions. His interest areas coincided with mine, and through his networks we teamed up remotely with another researcher, Professor Brian Dollery in Australia.

This is the pattern for many successful collaborations  – a meeting of minds towards a common purpose, resulting in more than could be achieved individually. In the early 2000’s, as part of my pursuit of truth and meaning (still work-in-progress), I was studying the ‘economics of social capital’. The development of a joint journal article on social capital was a task not just about social capital but of creating and leveraging social trust, networks and norms of cooperation between three researchers of different ages, backgrounds and perspectives towards a common purpose.

In 2002, an initial article on Social Capital and Social Economics was published in the Forum for Social Economics. A subsequent collaborative article with Wallis and Dollery, Social Economics and Social Capital, was released in 2003 as a Working Paper of the University of New England School of Economics and in 2004 published in the International Journal of Social Economics.

Today, this article is the top-read item on my ResearchGate profile, with citations in research papers on topics ranging from economic development in regional New Zealand, to understanding trust in European regions, to social capital and accountability in Ugandan community-led HIV/AIDS initiatives. Social capital is indeed a far-reaching concept, with communication and cooperation at its heart.

Here’s a taster from the 2002 article:

‘The concept of social capital would be of little interest to social economists if it could only be viewed as an independent variable with a statistically significant effect on economic performance. This paper has advanced the view that the distinctive approach of social economists to poverty alleviation fits better with certain sociological concepts of social capital. In the first place, an analysis of the resources that members of an impoverished community can draw on in the form of bonding and bridging social capital involves a more holistic and organic approach than that associated with conventional economic analysis, since it must take into account the social context that shapes and constrains members’ behavior. Moreover, the potential role that certain agencies can play in facilitating the formation of bridging social capital would suggest that the ameliorative approach favored by social economists might be more realistic than the implication of Putnam (1993) that social capital investment is constrained by hundreds of years of cultural inertia. The success some NGOs have experienced in this regard should give encouragement to the activist tendencies of social economists. Finally, it would seem that for an external agency to act as a bridging organization, it must be guided by a clear understanding of how its activities can secure social justice. The value-directed approach favored by social economists could make a contribution to shaping this understanding.’