Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Sociotechnical capital

Eva Cox sent me a copy of the paper she gave the other day called Reclaiming Social Capital: an exploration of new standpoints and complexities. I found the paper pretty useful and challenging.

I have been thinking how a theory of sociotechnical capital might be relevant for exploring some of the more mysterious aspects of people-technology relations within organisations. I discovered upon googling that a guy called Paul Resnick has adapted the notion of social capital to the sociotechnical domain and is considered to be one of the pioneers in the development of recommender and reputation systems. Not sure if you know about recommender systems. Amazon is a good example of one -
you know how when you search for books you get a whole host of ways of mapping the found book/object in relation to what other books customers have bought who have also bought this book, customer reviews and customer book lists (listmania). Very interesting indeed, not least because it represents an attempt to capture social capital as a reusable resource. I was interested in Eva's use of it as a kind of lens for identifying the presence (or absence) of some qualities at the level of the group that could then be analysed using a range of analytical tools.

I found her piece interesting and was drawn to the concept of social capital because it helps to articulate how a group produces social contexts and relations through its interactions, and identifies the role of this dimension as constitutive of the operations of the group and individuals within it. Where I think it has room for expansion and/or adjustment is in the clear separation of the social from the material. For example, bonding can take place between people and objects, as can bridging and linking. In some cases the relation is with the object itself and in others the object plays a mediational role shaping the experience of the connection with others. Trust and distrust play out on these different levels too - think of how you feel when you are having a conversation with someone that you trust over the phone but their phone keeps getting cut off whenever you talk to them. This may not lead you to distrust the person, but it may make you feel less trustful about sharing your thoughts over the phone, which may in some strange way have the same effect, particularly if your primary contact with them is over the phone.

So some of the questions that came up for me included how social capital relates to material capital. Another example, my experience working with many community organisations that were under sustained funding pressure/cuts was that I observed a slow degradation of social capital within the organisation. Yet in some organisations this did not happen and would paradoxically lead to higher social capital. So while they do seem interconnected and the structural elements are important, neither of these things in themselves explain everything.

Other question I had was how S.C. relates to concepts like 'diversity' and this lead me to wondering how compatible it would be with an ecosystem perspective - to help explain and/or identify that there are certain qualities of local ecologies that are a product of the relations that constitute them that contribute to their survival as healthy and robust local systems within a larger heterogenous ecosystem.

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