Category: Pub: Article / Paper
Details: Susan Bandias, Charles Darwin University, Australia (2010)
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Abstract

This paper examines the nexus between social relations of mutual benefit, information communication technology (ICT) access and social inclusion. More specifically, a case study methodology is used to examine the role of ICT in facilitating the social capital of Indigenous communities. A remote Indigenous community in the Northern Territory (NT) is the focus of the paper. Whilst the potential of social capital to affect positive outcomes across a diverse range of areas is well researched, Indigenous disadvantage is well documented and the role of ICT in facilitating social and economic development is well established, although little is known about the ICT social capital nexus in an Indigenous context. The paper commences with a review of the social capital literature. A description of the methodology employed in the data collection phase of the project is followed by the case study. The paper concludes with a summary of the findings and recommendations for further research.

Introduction: The Case Study

Social capital and social inclusion are two separate concepts that are used to describe the implications of social interaction. In the context of this paper, the concepts can be understood as a framework that explores the benefits of access to information communication technology (ICT). The potential of ICT to disseminate information quickly, to reach vast numbers of people simultaneously and to include the previously excluded is immense. Consequently, this paper examines the nexus between social relations of mutual benefit, ICT access and social inclusion. More specifically, a case study methodology is used to examine the role of information communication technology (ICT) in facilitating the social capital of Indigenous communities. A remote Indigenous community in the Northern Territory (NT) is the focus of the paper.

Social capital is an elusive concept and there is considerable debate as to what is actually meant by the term. According to Stone (2000) the essence of social capital is quality social relations. Winter (2000a), suggests that social capital encompasses “…social relations of mutual benefit characterised by norms of trust and reciprocity” (p.1). Social capital is, according to Grootaert (1998), “… the glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human well-being” (p.1). The ABS and the OECD define social capital as “… networks, together with shared norms, values and understandings which facilitate cooperation within or among groups” (ABS, 2004a, p.5; OECD, 2001, p.1). According to the ABS (2004a:5) the OECD definition of social capital is emerging as a common basis for international comparability. Consequently, this paper has also adopted the ABS and OECD definition.

The positive benefits of the quality social relations that constitute social capital are reported to have implications for a range of areas including education, social and economic development and social and civic stability (ABS, 2002b; Cox, 1996; Fukuyama, 1999; Putnam, 1993). Social capital, the ABS (2004a) claims, may also help mitigate the effects of social and economic disadvantage and “… assist in supporting the development of sustainable local communities, including rural and remote areas …” (p.1).

Whilst the potential for social capital to affect positive outcomes across a diverse range of areas is well researched; Indigenous disadvantage is well documented (Banks, 2003, 2005; Productivity Commission, 2003a); and the role of ICT in facilitating social and economic development is well established (Clarke, Durand, & Pilat, 2001; Colecchia & Schreyer, 2002; DCITA, 2005a), little is known about the ICT social capital nexus in an Indigenous context. Consequently, this paper examines the relationship between social capital and ICT access in a remote Indigenous community in the Northern Territory [1].

The paper commences with a review of the social capital literature. A description of the methodology employed in the data collection phase of the project is followed by the case study. The paper concludes with a summary of the findings and recommendations for further research.

Literature Review

A review of the literature revealed a substantial body of research on the topic of social capital. The concept of social capital is, according to Farr (2003), relatively new and still evolving. The origin of the term has been widely attributed to Lydia Hanifan, a rural educator from West Virginia, who first articulated his concept of the civic ideal in 1916 (Farr, 2003; Putnam, 2000; M Woolcock & Narayan, 2000). In the latter half of the twentieth century the conceptual framework of social capital was informed by a number of theorists. Early influential writers were from a range of disciplines including sociology (Coleman, 1988), politics (Putnam, 1995), education (Coleman, 1988) and economics (Fukuyama, 1995).

Contemporary social capital researchers and theorists have expanded on the concept of social capital and have generated “… [a] multitude of perspectives, definitions, theoretical propositions, and emphasis”(Lin, Cook, & Burt, 2001:iiv). In recent years Woolcock (1999, 2001) has explored the link between social capital and economic development; Narayan (1999) has researched the role of networks in the alleviation of poverty and Grootaert (1998; 2003; 2001) has examined the role of social capital in sustainable development. The Worldbank (1998, 2001, 2002, 2004a, 2004b), the OECD (2001, 2002), Australia’s Productivity Commission (2003b) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2000, 2002a, 2002b, 2003b, 2004a) have also taken an active interest in the concept of social capital and its potential implication for civic engagement and sustainable development.

In the Australian context there are also a number of influential social capital researchers and theorists. Cox (1995a, 1995b, 1995c, 1995d, 1995e, 1995f) has written extensively on the role of social capital in building civil society; Winter (1998, 1999, 2000a, 2000b) has researched social capital and public policy; Stone and Hughes (2000a, 2000b, 2001) have examined the role of social capital in family and community life; and Falk (2001; 2000) has examined the nexus between social capital and educational outcomes. However, as Brough et al (2006) has acknowledged, there is “…limited research that has specifically examined social capital in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities”(p.3).

Whilst the literature that does exist in regard to Indigenous social capital is limited, it covers a range of areas. Hunter (2000a, 2000b, 2003) has researched the area of social capital, Indigenous unemployment and Indigenous poverty; Gerritsen, Crosby and Fletcher (2000) have examined social capital and Aboriginal community capacity building; Christie and Greatorex (2004) have explored social capital in regard to the Homeland Movement of the Yolngu people in Arnham Land; Bell and Heathcote (1999) have researched social capital and Indigenous youth; and Brough et al (2006), have examined social capital in an urban Aboriginal context.

The potential of ICT to support the development of social capital in Indigenous communities is acknowledged in a discussion paper prepared by the Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA, 2005b). However, to date there has been no research that specifically examines the nexus between Indigenous access to ICT and social capital. The lack of literature in regard to ICT and social capital in an Indigenous context indicates that research in this area is clearly warranted.

Methodology

Sensitivity to the needs and experiences of Indigenous participants was an overriding concern throughout this study. Low levels of literacy and numeracy amongst Indigenous participants were also significant issues that were taken into consideration with regard to the data collection instruments and research methods employed in the research. Consequently, it was deemed inappropriate to survey the Indigenous community members and a case study approach was adopted. According to Feagin, Orum and Sjoberg (1991), a case study is an ideal methodology when a holistic, in-depth investigation is needed. A participant observer approach was the main methodology employed in the case study. The data collected via observation was triangulated through information gathered in interviews and through a verbally administered questionnaire.

In the course of the data collection phase approximately 10 Indigenous community members were interviewed and consulted. Three interviewees (approximately one per cent of the population) were identified by the community as suitable spokes-people. These three interviewees subsequently consented to participate in a detailed semi-structured interview.

These interviews explored in depth the social processes, the social capital indicators present in the community as well as community access to telecommunications services. The multi-perspective analysis enabled a range of experience and knowledge to contribute to the study. Multiple perspectives is, according to Tellis (1997), one of the most salient characteristics of a case study approach:

This means that the researcher considers not just the voice and perspective of the actors, but also of the relevant groups of actors and the interaction between them….They give a voice to the powerless and voiceless. (p.1)

The interviews were structured around a questionnaire which incorporated the core concepts from a survey developed by Narayan and Cassidy (2001). The questionnaire employed statistically validated questions for measuring social capital in developing countries. This questionnaire was administered verbally. The three participants all held a significant role in the community: they were employed full time and were recognised by the community as representative of the views of the community. All three participants were traditional land owners, and all three were women.

Permission from the Tiwi Land Council to undertake research was obtained prior to conducting the study. The project also had the full support and cooperation of the participating community.

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Bandias, S. (2010) ‘Building Indigenous Social Capital in an Online World’, PLATFORM: Journal of Media and Communication ANZCA Special Edition (April): 38-51. ISSN: 1836-5132 Online © Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Australia license