Getting rid of ‘social capital’: the politics of support mobilization in a West African city1

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Getting rid of ‘social capital’:

the politics of support mobilization in a West African city1

Ilda Lourenço-Lindell

Dept. Human Geography, Stockholm University

People living in African cities today face great challenges. The deterioration of basic services, housing and environment, the falling access to secure jobs and sufficient incomes, and the virtual absence of state welfare provision, interpreted by many as symptoms of an “urban crisis”, have been well documented. The economic benefits of globalisation have largely bypassed Sub-Saharan Africa and its cities. The measures for economic stabilisation advocated by international financial institutions since the mid-1980s have had a heavy toll on the standard of living of most urban dwellers, with their effects on retrenchment, rising costs of living and falling real wages2.
To be sure, urban popular groups have not passively watched their conditions deteriorate. So as to meet a variety of needs, they create a variety of collaborative efforts. Survival in the harsh urban environment is largely accomplished through face-to-face interaction. Urbanites can seldom count on impartial overarching institutions to regulate relations and conflicts in urban society. It is also evident that the majority lack access to the modern technologies of communication that are said to neutralise distance in today’s world. Indeed, most African urbanites are said to have been excluded from the “network society” found at the centre of contemporary “informational capitalism” (Castells, 1998:92-5). And so they build another kind of “network society”. Daily survival in the city builds extensively on networks of personal relationships that people construct for mutual support, for accessing resources and for exchanging goods and services (Lourenço-Lindell, 2001; Simone, 1998). The importance of personal relationships and social networks has probably intensified with the urban crisis, as that which can be expected from the state in terms of material assistance decreases and market based entitlements decline. In this difficult environment of constant insufficiency and uncertainty other kinds of entitlements need to be activated. In the process of establishing links with others to deal with the crisis, people generate expectations between one another and develop claims and informal rights and norms which, albeit not enforceable in a modern court of law, nonetheless govern urban relations.
This paper is about the social networks that the urban poor engage in for survival. The discussion will address issues of participation and exclusion from networks and the processes involved, how the networks of the poor are faring in the crisis and how economic hardship impinges upon social relations within networks and patterns of assistance. The perspective used differs crucially from the fashionable ‘social capital’ discourse currently holding sway in the neoliberal literature.

The romanticising of social networks

There is now a renewed interest in the contemporary role of social networks in urban life. This interest is apparent both in the priorities in various research agendas for urban Africa (Halfani, 1994:158; Rakodi, 1997b:563-7) and in the agendas of international agencies. Some of the ideas and concepts emerging in this renewed debate are hardly new. Much of this new work seems to be an extension of earlier research traditions with an emphasis on shared norms for assistance. These traditions are therefore worth mentioning. The early work by Mauss on the gift (1967) associated gift exchanges with enduring bonds between people and depicted reciprocity as a cultural imperative. In its path, many have continued to adress the role of culture and sentiment in exchange relations3. The “moral economy” discourse stressed the social institutions and collective insurance mechanisms devised by (pre-capitalist) societies whose members were entitled to a minimum subsistence4. The “economy of affection” perspective (Hyden, 1983) depicted exchange in peasant African societies as governed by a social logic of reciprocity embedded in bonds of solidarity and moral or cultural precepts. Each of these schools has attracted their own share of criticism but some of it could apply to several of these discourses5. Among the most serious is that they have tended to ignore inequalities, antagonism and differentiation within “pre-capitalist” societies and to romanticise traditional norms. The latter are depicted as ”moral”, welfarist and non-conflictual. A variety of studies directly or indirectly inspired by this tradition often take for granted that social resources are equally available to everyone within a local community and consider exchange of support as essentially benign relations. By reducing the range of explanation to the ”invisible hand of reciprocity”, to borrow Lemarchand’s (1989) fortunate expression, such perspectives preclude the possibility of conflict and politics in relations of assistance.
More recently, the role of social networks is being interpreted in the light of the broader debate on social capital. In this debate, a particular view of ‘social capital’ - one that is particularly inspired by the work of Robert Putnam - has become dominant and has influenced both the agendas of international aid organisations and the directions of much of the research emerging on this subject. In line with this view, ’social capital’ is bein portrayed as “the missing link” in development, and the solution to a variety of social ills ranging from “bad governance” to low incomes (World Bank, 1997, 2000; Narayan, 1997). Social networks are presented as playing a positive role in poverty alleviation, as they are viewed as one among several kinds of “civil institutions” in which the poor participate for improvement of incomes, services and welfare (see for example Narayan, 1997, 2000). In addition, networks of personalised relationships are being flagged as crucial components of market efficiency: they are said to improve the performance of enterprises, facilitate access to market information and the enforcement of business contracts, among other things, and are being advanced as adequate alternatives to state regulation6.
The kind of empirical work which legitimises the World Bank’s stand on these matters is usually premised on elaborate quantification of the descriptive, external attributes of social networks. That work gives new breath to earlier trends in the older social network research tradition, which have been criticized elsewhere (Hannerz, 1980; Lourenço-Lindell, 2001). These trends were characterised by an increasingly complex quantification and statistical manipulation of network ties, by a growing rigidity and a disinterest for human agency. Many network analyses became ahistorical, portraying networks as static and detached from their social context7. The more recent neoliberal ‘social capital’ discourse and research suffers from similar ills8. It has been criticized for bypassing the less virtuous side of this “social capital” and for ignoring how it may reproduce inequalities in society. Indeed, there is usually no serious consideration of the power relations which networks both contain and are inserted into, reproducing in this way some of the flaws of earlier approaches (see above). Social networks are in this way deprived of politics and, consequently, of change. This hegemonic discourse has chosen to disregard the insights from earlier work on ‘social capital’, particularly that of Pierre Bourdieu, who among other things considered the connection between social capital and social stratification, stressed the importance of social context, of historical contingency and of the role of specific cultures, and conveived ‘social capital’as socially constructed.
The current neglect of the wider structural constraints in which networks operate has led to an overenthusiasm about the potential of networks among the poor. This optimism is not new, as reflected in older works such as that of Lomnitz (1977) in Mexico, which take for granted that social networks are a resource that the poor do have and that they do cope by using them. The effects of material constraints or deepening poverty on such networks are left undiscussed. This optimism has gained new impetus in the neoliberal social capital discourse. The latter discourse not only presents social networks as the solution to poverty but tends to neglect the constraints placed on these networks by an adjustment-led development strategy9. On the contrary, it is often assumed that extended family networks and other collective arrangements are able to provide a minimum of welfare and to cushion against the hardships and gaps created by adjustment policies. Although several writers have criticized the dominant social capital discourse, empirical work substantiating this critique is lagging. This study has attempted to address this gap, by making a critical assessment of how the social networks of the urban poor are faring in the context of deteriorating urban conditions and by exploring the social relations involved in those networks.

The politics of support mobilisation

In this study social networks are ‘unpacked’ in a different way10. The focus here is on the social relations that social networks both contain and are inserted into. I look upon networks as social fields where both co-operation and struggle may take place. They contain internal divisions of rights and duties, imbalances in flows and power, with instances of dependence and marginality. Networks may be held together by rules or sets of informal rights which are enforced, defaulted upon, negotiated and contested. They conflate relationships built for different purposes, recruited in different social settings and underlined by various affiliations and identities. All of the above contribute to make networks fertile ground for contradictions that may give rise to action by discontented participants. This action may range from subtle manipulation of rules and positions to more confrontational forms, possibly against persons with powerful positions in networks. In this sense, networks could be thought of as containing in themselves both ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, as conceived in structuration theory in which these concepts entertain a dialectical relation11. On the one hand, divisions of power internal to networks may set limits to individual action. Relationships in particularly solidified networks may be difficult to discard, and deeply institutionalised rules may not be broken without consequences – and indeed, there may be instances where people are precluded from acting, or even from participating in networks altogether12.
On the other hand, participants may try to influence rules to their advantage, to improve their position in the internal distribution of power and resources or to increase their leverage by investing in alternative relationships. I refer to this complex of possibility and constraint, of participation and marginalization, which networks of assistance represent as the politics of support mobilisation. This implies looking upon networks as fields of social process, i.e. they are constructed and reconstructed through the actions of participants who may have opposing interests. It also implies seeing networks in their wider context, as participants’ positions in wider society constrain what can be achieved within and through networks. Such a dynamic view of networks should equip us to approach issues of change in networks of assistance, taking into consideration both their internal dynamics and wider processes in society.

Research questions, methods and study setting

In the light of the above, one of the aims in this study was to assess how the assistance networks among the poor are faring in the face of the contemporary worsening of living conditions in urban areas and to uncover processes of marginalisation and exclusion from such networks. The second issue discussed here is that of subordination in networks. Who is unable to enforce their perceived rights and how do such persons struggle for their rights, try to influence norms, to disconnect from or circumvent the power of powerful persons in networks? In connection to this, a third aim in this paper is to illustrate, in a specific empirical situation, processes of change within networks in the context of wider processes. How is economic hardship impinging upon social relations within networks? How are norms of assistance changing and what power relations are involved in their reformulation? Finally, the paper considers the the consequences of such changes for participants, in terms of their ability to mobilise assistance in a time of need.
The results presented here are based on data collected in Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa, for a doctoral project completed in 1992. The main target groups were food traders and households. In-depth interviews were conducted in 1992, 1995 and 1999, with some 60 food traders, and adult members of about 45 households. Most of the interviewees were selected on the basis of a household survey encompassing about ten percent of the population of Bandim, and which focused on the food and income strategies of households. Qualitative interviews with seniors and a variety of key informants were also conducted.
Bissau is a small capital city, with a population estimated at over 300 000 inhabitants, and extremely peripheral to the interests of global capital. Beyond the old colonial centre, the urban landscape is dominated by unplanned settlements. Most of my empirical data was collected in one of these suburbs, Bandim. The area of Bandim was inhabited by the ethnic group Pepel prior to the foundation of the city and pre-colonial forms of organisation are still identifiable today, in the form of a political hierarchy topped by a chief, domestic groups organised by lineage, which also determines access to customary land around Bandim where rice is cultivated. The population of Bandim has grown rapidly since the mid-1960s and is today estimated at over 40 000 residents. The neighbourhood is very poor in infrastructure and could be generally considered a low-income neighbourhood, altough there is some internal differentiation. For example, two thirds of the households eat only one meal a day, based on my own household survey covering about ten percent of the households in the neighbourhood. According to the results of the same survey, most residents make a living in selfemployment, mainly in informal trade in goods and services. Bandim has little in terms of formal associations. But there is a variety of less visible collective efforts, which this study tries to uncover. The focus is on social networks for survival, specifically the relations sustaining the income activities and the consumption of poor groups.

Local configurations of assistance

It is useful to begin with a bried presentation of the various kinds of networks of survival found in the study setting. Kin and neighbours were important sources of assistance for the studied households. According to my household survey, transfers of food and money for example came mainly from other households sharing the same house or compound. Relatives in particular were regarded as those with the obligation to assist, even though practice often deviated. Kin relations supporting consumption took a variety of forms, ranging from dyadic exchanges between two relatives to a complex system of reciprocities within corporate kin groups. But kin support also pertained to market activities, for example by being a major source of start up capital, skills and even goods, and by assisting in recovery when traders lost their working capital.
Other relations of assistance developed at the market place. There were partnerships between sellers in the same trade who assisted each other throughout the working day, sometimes pooling resources and contacts, and sometimes even exchanging help in domestic activities. A share of traders could count on credit from suppliers, with the great advantage of not needing to have capital up front to get access to merchandise. Rotating savings groups - a long tradition in the city and common in other West African contexts – constituted, for some traders, a way of expanding their businesses and a security in case of unforeseen material difficulties. Another kind of co-operation that I found in the study setting consisted of organised groups among day workers. In these groups, men share job opportunities and redistribute incomes. Finally, a share of Bandim residents participated in local religious groupings, particularly catholic and evangelical congregations (Islamised groups are a minority in this neighbourhood).
Support relations were differentiated in terms of the power balance they appeared to exhibit. On the one hand, I encountered relations of exchange and co-operation between social equals, i.e. people in fairly similar material conditions, where the flow of exchange was perceived as more or less balanced and where no one had the upper hand – one of many examples is the above-mentioned egalitarian and mutual exchange between pairs of women in trade activities. On the other hand, a share of respondents reported to be involved in unequal relations of exchange with people in better off or more powerful positions. This was the case of one way assistance from relatives enjoying better living standards in the city as well as the flows of food downward in the social hierarchy within corporate kin groups in Bandim. In the market, unequal relations pervaded the informal agreements involving powerful agents in the market who were in a position to decide the terms of the exchange, to dictate the rules governing access to merchandise and often to exploit retailers13.

Social networks and deepening urban poverty

What can be achieved through networks needs to be related to a variety of constraints, both wider processes and relations in society and power relations within networks. I will begin by considering the first set of constraints, that is, how and whether social networks are coping with economic hardship.

Contemporary economic hardship seems to be eroding the collaborative efforts among the poor and the material basis of their support networks. Many respondents declared a narrowing of their networks of assistance in connection with job redundancies, death of an income earner or a general worsening of their living conditions. Some households came to rely only on their own resources, as they perceived their former sources of assistance to be as impoverished as they themselves were. Some people were quite isolated. They reported a very small number of sources which they could turn to for help often expressed that they were not certain that they would be able to mobilise assistance during times of need.
Redistribution groups among casual workers were, according to respondents involved in this kind of work, struggling with irregular work and declining incomes. Welfare practices by the local evangelical church were reported as insufficient to reach the large number of needy members. For other respondents, rotating savings groups, a savings mechanism used by many traders, had ceased to be an option often because they became unable to make regular contributions due to lower and variable incomes or ill health in the household. The income squeeze that many traders were experiencing was probably decreasing their range of options and the elasticity of these social arrangements in the market. Interviewed traders with the most precarious levels of income seemed to be particularly exposed.
Formerly mutual relations had, in several instances, reportedly turned into one-direction flows when one of the parties lost the ability to reciprocate - and potentially into an unbalance power relation. Unbalanced relations of assistance with persons in a better-off economic condition showed, in several instances, considerable resilience during crises, thus pointing to the advantage of having a heterogeneous network from the socio-economic point of view. But one could assume that these relations also risk introducing power differentials into the relationship. Dependent parties often expressed feelings of shame and a preference for mutual kinds of ties with balanced flows in both directions and therefore potentially more egalitarian in nature. The latter seemed, however, more easily exhausted in their material resources. A few examples illustrate the limitations that deteriorating economic conditions place on horizontal, egalitarian kinds of assistance relations. The first one concerns partnerships among women sharing the same market niche and a similar economic situation. They assisted each other in their trade activities but, given the poverty of both partners, that ability sometimes collapsed when market conditions for their particular niche suddenly worsened or continuously deteriorated. Another example concerns the fragility of casual worker groups and rotating savings groups. As mentioned above, some respondents had ceased to ask for the assistance of others that they thought were just as badly off as themselves.
These data give a picture that differs substantially from common assumptions in the mainstream literature about social networks being able to withstand the crisis and to buffer the poor against the effects of adjustment policies.
To be sure, some groups seem to have seen their “social capital” increase in the market in the contemporary context of adjustment. This is most probably the case with well-positioned participants in the vertical networks of accumulation headed by import-export firms – although I only interviewed a handful of persons involved in such networks. These networks seem to differ substantially from networks of survival in the amount of resources they command, in their relations with state actors and in their direct links into the international space. In addition, networks of accumulation appear to derive a share of their profits from the exploitation of groups such as rice retailers and casual workers. This exploitation seems to be draining the resources and energies of horizontal networks among these latter groups and to be threatening their viability. One could assume that networks of survival may to some extent be subsidising networks of accumulation thereby indirectly contributing to reproducing inequalities and power relations in the wider society. But I also identified instances where networks among small actors were subversive of the interests of capital and were used in circumventing them. And indeed, one could interpret some horizontal networks among small actors as representing spaces of autonomy from a variety of dominant actors in society. However, the sustainability and potential of support networks are to be seen as interwoven with wider processes and distribution of power and as conditioned by the structural position of actors in society. These crucial differences have been overlooked in the neo-liberal literature about social networks.

Negotiating power and assistance in networks

The potential of networks for personal improvement and empowerment is not solely constrained by policy decisions taken at the national and international levels and the actions of hegemonic actors on the national or international scene. As argued above, networks constitute in themselves a realm of possibility and constraint. When networks are constituted by unequal social relations, it is important to address the internal power relations and the agency of participants. A lengthy analysis of such power relations in a variety of social networks both in and outside the market can be found in my doctoral thesis (Lourenço-Lindell, 2002). Here, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the power games unravelling within kin-based networks in the context of wider changes.
Kin-based assistance is guided by deeply institutionalised rules of assistance which in turn may be connected to historically evolved power hierarchies. In the study setting, these rules were a source of material security for some people. At the same time, they also represented obligations that were difficult to discard and, where linked to power hierarchies, they implied a restraint on individual freedom. Such rules or norms of assistance are neither given nor static but are constructed, reconstructed and fought over, with consequences for participants. Let me illustrate with the case of extended family groups - hereinafter referred to as ‘compounds’.
A share of the population in the studied neighbourhood live in complex family arrangements, which consist of groups of households that are related by kinship and lineage and who acknowledge the authority of the eldest male. This person, the head of the compound, controls the compound’s labour and the distribution of rice fields to the constituent households. He holds himself the largest fields and often has a surplus of rice that he ought to use for cultural ceremonies and assistance within the compound. Women and youth, while theoretically having right to this assistance, have historically had a subordinate position in the compound. This hierarchy/position and the rules of assistance attached to it have however been long subjected to a variety of internal and external pressures, which I lack the space to discuss here14. For example, women and youth have long been involved in income generating activities and associated alternative forms of social organisation in the city. While such activities seem to have been to some extent functional to, and compatible with, traditional hierarchical structures (of support), they have also expanded the room for manoeuvre for subordinate groups, and powerful groups have been impelled to make concessions15.
Today women and youth continue to participate in a variety of networks for a variety of purposes, thereby cultivating a range of positions and identities, as this is required for survival. Their participation in activities carried out away from the domestic kin group have certainly intensified. These activities were often reported by both subordinate and dominant participants to conflict with the interests of powerful persons in the domestic domain. Church attendance (particularly the Evangelical church) emerged as one such potential area of conflict, as in required that members broke with the order of the lineage and the ancestors. The increasing number of hours that women were spending at the market was also perceived by male seniors as a threat to the labour needs of the compound and the authority of men in general. While these activities at least in theory contained the seeds of liberation from the oppression by powerful persons in kin groups, they also in several instances endangered the traditional claims that subordinates could have on them. This suggests that juggling with different identities and the balancing of different affiliations is not necessarily unproblematic, as a wrong step could conceivably have drastic consequences for one’s well-being.
Subordinated groups may try to disconnect from kin structures of support that are perceived as oppressive and constraining and to invest in alternative sources of support. But it is important to consider the viability of the available alternatives to kin support. In the study setting, the available alternatives - the evangelical church, casual worker groups, rotating credit groups and other market-based networks -, either tended to marginalise the poorest or lacked sufficient resources. From a material point of view, they seemed to be poor alternatives for low-income people willing to disengage from senior and male authority in kin groups. On the basis of my data, it would seem that deepening poverty is draining the potential of these alternative networks and restricting the exit options and the bargaining strength of subordinate persons within kin structures. In the case of small women traders, as mentioned above, deteriorating incomes forced many to withdraw from market-based networks, which tend to have little tolerance for repeated failure to reciprocate assistance. Not surprisingly, a large share of women traders were dependent on relations of assistance based on kinship bonds to keep their businesses floating, particularly the support of husbands and male relatives. These relations seem to have a longer staying power than market-based relations, as the power structure rests upon this dependence or the one-sidedness of the assistance relation. This questions frequent easy assumptions about women being empowered by their increased participation in the market in the context of economic liberalisation. Many lack the resources to establish viable livelihoods independently from kin (male) assistance and those that can count on the support of male and senior relatives will probably think twice before they directly challenge the authority of the latter.
Thus, the wider material insecurity seemed to be in some instances contributing to the strengthning of the position of powerful persons in the kinship and domestic fields in the study setting. Within compounds, subordinate members not only often expressed resentment over their subordinate positions in these kin groups but also complained about being neglected and discriminated against by heads of compounds in their redistribution practices. In a couple of cases, new heads of compounds simply took over the compounds’ resources and refused to assume their responsibilities towards their members. In the accounts of the latter, they had become unaccountable to their dependants by denying them their legitimate rights. Here it is important to ask who is breaking which rules and at the expense of whom. In these particular cases, powerful persons in traditional structures were breaking the rules, with drastic consequences for their dependants. This contrasts with the limited options of the subordinate categories who, usually lacking viable alternatives, could not afford to default on their obligations towards seniors. I interpreted these cases as being instances of norm reformulation “from above”, in which members of subordinate groups were becoming increasingly vulnerable.
Generally however, the direction of change in practices of kin assistance in the study setting is far from unequivocal or unilinear. Judging from the accounts of seniors and members in several compounds, some norms were being upheld while others were being discarded, seemingly as a result of the intersection between manipulations from both subordinate and powerful members. There were also wide variations between compounds in terms of the extent to which redistribution obligations were being fulfilled and of the position of compound heads as redistributors of food and resources. The general picture however is one of a complex interweaving of struggles and of layers of agency involving both powerful and subordinate groups in these hierarchies.
When considering the wider group of kin relations of assistance beyond those taking place within compounds, exchange of support among relatives also showed signs of on-going change. Changing structures of expectations among certain kin categories seemed to be taking shape, by which some groups seemed to be becoming more vulnerable. This was often the case of women and the elderly. Not only were many women responsible for feeding the household, as the responsibilities of males “out of work” were easily being written off, but they also seemed to increasingly bear the burden of assisting other relatives. Young single mothers often could not claim the assistance of the father of their child. Older women often could no longer count on assistance with provisioning by the younger generation, and were instead increasingly burdened with assisting the latter or imposed with the responsibility of providing for grandchildren. I referred to these signs of change as potential gender and generational inversions in responsibilities for provisioning and assistance. Violation of one’s legitimate rights was not always accepted with passivity. In some cases action was taken to correct these perceived injustices, including by resorting to customary courts.

The limitations of “social capital”: towards an alternative framework

The above findings suggest a need to re-evaluate the assumptions pervading various celebratory and romanticising views of informal support systems, among which the social capital discourse is the most recent. In this discourse, it is assumed that social capital facilitates performance in the market and is capable of providing a minimum of welfare and services. In the light of my findings, there are at least two major problems with this discourse. The first refers to the neglect of issues of exclusion and marginalization from support networks and the structural processes involved in their production. Directly connected to this is a lack of consideration of the (un)sustainability of networks in an environment of adjustment-led austerity. My empirical material suggests that the immiseration imposed by adjustment policies was undermining the collaborative efforts of many and that some people were falling off the various networks available in the neighbourhood. Among the group of my respondents, these people were often the income poor, subordinate members of kin groups and notably women. The limits of the “communitarian spirit” are also visible in other large African cities being subjected to similar pressures, where new groups of people excluded from support networks are swelling the numbers of street children and are inflating rates of crime. In its present rhetoric, the social capital discourse accounts for little more than passing the whole burden of social reproduction onto the poor and releasing the state from any responsibilities towards them. As it looks in my data, the weak economic viability of many networks among the poor suggests that prospects that this “social capital” will be able to replace the state in taking care of the weak are quite slim.
A serious consideration of the role of social networks or social capital in the creation of sustainable cities requires not loosing sight of how networks are inserted in the wider society. This takes us to the second major problem with social capital and similar discourses. This contrasts with the blindness of the neoliberal ‘social capital’ literature to the inequalities that social capital may contain and reproduce and the attendant struggles. My data suggest that support systems may be held together by both bonds of solidarity and relations of dependence and unequal power. Indeed, relations of assistance seemed to be as much a source of relief and success as they were of subordination and marginalization. Clearly the governing of the informal city must be anchored in the social fabric of urban society, the practices, values and affiliations created by urbanites, as failure to do this in the past has contributed the current urban crisis. But the representation of African values and traditions as something inherently good and democratic and the romanticising of voluntary or ascriptive groups in urban society need to be replaced by critical assessments of existing modes of organisation in concrete empirical situations in order to judge their content and sustainability. Among the studied cases there were egalitarian forms of collaboration but I also found a variety of informal agreements and relations of assistance that involved differences in power. Indeed, as incomes and the range of options declined, some groups were apparently being pushed into, or forced to remain in, subordinate relations to make ends meet. Ignoring these loci of power also renders invisible the efforts of disadvantaged groups to circumvent them. It thus also obstructs the promotion of a sustainable social city that builds on such efforts.
In this study I have attempted to look at social networks in a different light. I have approached social networks as a conflictual terrain where informal rights and rules of assistance are fought over and where divisions may be both reproduced as well as challenged. The intention is to conceive of networks as resulting from social processes, which I have tried to capture in the expression ‘the politics of support mobilisation’. Throughout my study of social networks conceived in this way, a number of dimensions emerged as important for understanding the politics of assistance and which are potentially of relevance in other contexts. These dimensions may be considered as components of network relations influencing access to support and what can be attained through and within networks.
To begin with, the political economic environment and the structural position of participants in it are crucial to understand what is happening to the networks of the poor. Secondly, the range of their sources of support needs to be considered as well as the processes marginalizing people from networks. Thirdly, the kinds of claims that people can make on others in their networks, their perceived rights to assistance and the characteristics of the norms pervading exchange of assistance are of importance. Some of these characteristics are the degree of institutionalisation, where a high degree may guarantee a minimum of security; the degree of rigidity or flexibility contained in these rules, for example to what extent they can be manoeuvred or discarded without serious consequences; and the instances of rule reformulation and the power relations involved, i.e. who is pushing the changes and their consequences. Fourthly, the power balance in the relationships pertains to the terms of participation and to members’ ability to exercise their rights to assistance. This may vary between egalitarian and unequal relations. Finally, particularly where relations of assistance entail subordination, it is important to identify what are the alternatives available to the subordinate partners and the viability of these alternatives.
Exploring the politics of support mobilisation seems to be a more fruitful way than the dominant ‘social capital’ discourse of approaching the potential of and the contemporary change in relations of assistance, by taking into consideration both the internal dynamics of networks and wider processes in society.


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1 This paper is an excert from my doctoral thesis: “Walking the tight rope: informal livelihoods and social networks in a West African city. Stockholm Studies in Human Geography 9. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell. ISBN 91-22-01968-5. (Can be ordered from

2 White (1989); Halfani (1997:14-6); Tostensen, Vaa and Tvedten (2001:9-1);1Rakodi (1997a:43-5; 1997b:555); Simon (1992:83; 1997:81-3); Halfani (1997:18-9); Rogerson (1997:340-2).

3 Sahlins (1984); Rogers and Vertovec (1995); Werbner (1995); Cheal (1988). See also Yan (1996) for a review of the anthropological debate on the gift.

4 A major proponent was Scott (1976). Other works that may be identified with that discourse are Gregory (1982); Watts (1984); Platteau (1991). See also Booth (1994) for a review.

5 For a critique see: Gore (1993); Booth (1994); Lemarchand (1989); Benda-Beckmann and Kirsch (1999).

6 See for example studies by Barr (1998, 2000); Fafchamps (1996); Bigsten (2000); World Bank, (2000, 2002).

7 Exceptions have been studies that relate social networks to class perceptions and identity consciousness, or to class responses to gentrification (Bridge, 1993; Hannerz, 1980).

8 See for general critiques: Fine (1999); Portes (1998); Harriss (1997, 2002); Putzel (1997); Beall (1997); Levi (1996).

9 Worth mentioning, however, is the more nuanced stance forwarded by Moser (1996) in a comparative analysis of four urban communities, where she identifies elements of ”social capital” being strengthened while others are being weakened. Particularly in Chawama, a neighbourhood in Lusaka, some households are reported to have been pushed beyond being able to sustain reciprocity.

10 The network notion is used here as a tool to map relations of assistance. By this I mean using networks to grasp the range and kinds of social resources available to individuals or households, by specifying the nature of their various social ties in terms of motivation, claims and power balance in the relationships.

11 See Giddens (1999:17-24) on “the structuring qualities of rules”.

12 See Giddens (1999:14-5) on circumstances of social constraint.

13 For an account of these relations and related struggles see chapter five in Lourenço-Lindell (2002).

14 For a fuller account, see chapter seven in Lourenço-Lindell (2002).

15 An example of this is the change in inheritance practices among the group being discussed, whereby the rules of inheritance of cash crop fields have changed from matrilineal to patrilineal, under the pressure of sons.

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