Social nimbyism and social exclusion as witnessed in Achill, Ballinamore and Oughterard are not new occurrences in this country. Attempts to settle travellers and social housing tenants in locations around the country have, over the years, also met with organized opposition. Difference, whether it be related to ethnicity, class or racial background is perceived as an unwelcome threat to the host community. In order to get to grips with this negative response to social change we need to acknowledge the importance and value of social capital as an instrument for the creation of social cohesion.
International recognition of the importance of building and supporting communities has found expression in the concept of social capital. Social capital is an important asset generated from the raw materials of human relationships. Social ties, shared social rules and relationships between community members act as a social glue or lubricating agent in this process. The main indicators of social capital in a community are regular, honest and co-operative behaviour based on commonly shared social rules. When people engage in reciprocal social exchanges- I will do something for you if you do something for me- and demonstrate that they trust each other positive networks are established. These networks find expression through committed neighbourliness and are manifested in membership of community groups, religious organizations, youth clubs, playgroups and voluntary support services.
However negative outcomes such as social nimbyism and social exclusion can be fostered by a type of social capital which supports and produces in-ward looking social networks. Referred to as ‘bonding ‘ social capital, it reinforces solidarity and ties between groups who share the same values and outlook on life. This form of social capital is ‘good for getting by’ as it enables like- minded people with similar attitudes and cultural practices to enhance their self -esteem, identity, sense of belonging and perceptions of control. However it can also create costs for wider society by driving a wedge between social groups and reinforcing identities which reject other groups and make community members wary of participating in activities with strangers.
On the other hand ‘bridging’ social capital is produced by outward looking networks which encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Trust in strangers is a basic component of social cohesion and civic engagement. Bridging social capital is good for ‘getting ahead’ as it facilitates social connections which can help link individuals and communities to build wider economic and social assets. Cross-cultural and cross-class networks linked to the arts, sport, volunteering, schools employment, faith-based organizations and wider community development platforms provide opportunities for developing bridging social capital.
So while it is clear that the people of Achill, Oughterard and Ballinamore have strong relationships and networks in their communities-bonding social capital- their stock of bridging social capital is limited. This shortfall in bridging social capital is a critical factor in the current stand- off between the residents and potential new community members. Both types of social capital- bridging and bonding - are important assets for all citizens coming to terms with evolving changes in the make- up of Irish society.
It should come as no surprise that there is a social capital shortfall across rural towns and villages in Ireland. A government policy framework for fostering social capital does not exist. Indeed for many years now, government policies have been reducing levels of social capital across the country. Closure of post offices, garda stations, reductions in economic activity and poor transport connectivity have consequences. Prolonged underinvestment in collective public services- education, health, housing- and the promotion of reluctant individualism weakens the capacity of communities to create social capital through positive network formation. Immigrants are seen as an extra burden because the civic spaces available for communities to participate in cultural, recreational, educational and economic activities with other people is shrinking. The reaction of some communities to proposals for settling some immigrants in their midst is a cause for concern.
Community Development Policy Intervention Urgently Required
Urgent active policy intervention is required from the government to reverse the decline in all social capital levels and to increase the capacity of communities to develop bridging social capital through the creation of channels for cross cultural contact and employment opportunities. Educational, cultural and social networks can be fostered under the auspices of a community development centre. At the heart of community development is the strengthening and extending of networks of relationships between individuals from all backgrounds, between organizations and just as importantly between different sectors of society. However the once vibrant community development sector in Ireland has been penetrated by elements of neo-liberal business and managerial models. Lack of political support for the sector and the permanent austerity measures it has endured have taken their toll. Community development aligned with public service and public amenity expansion is the direction that must be taken to ensure that social cohesion is enhanced and promoted across the country. National and local government must step up and apply concepts and understandings of social capital in their policies and practices. Their role as ‘place makers’ is to build not just the physical fabric of communities but the social fabric as well.
Colm O’Doherty is lecturer in the Dept of Applied Social Studies, IT Tralee. A qualified social worker with extensive practice experience, he has researched and published in the areas of social policy, child protection, domestic violence, community development, social work, family support and parenting. He is the author of A New Agenda for Family Support, Providing Services That Create Social Capital (2007) and co-editor of Community Development in Ireland: Theory, Policy and Practice (2012) and Learning on the Job: Parenting in Modern Ireland (2015). He holds a PhD from UCD.