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Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff

Publication details for Professor Gina Porter

Porter, G. & Lyon, F. (2006). Social capital as culture? Promoting cooperative action in Ghana. In Culture and development in a globalizing world: geographies, actors, and paradigms. Radcliffe, S.A. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 150-169.

Author(s) from Durham


In this chapter we focus on culture and its complex interconnections with the concept of social capital. Our study is set in the context of recent preoccupations of the World Bank (followed by other donors) with the concept of social capital itself and the related construct that it can be built in order to promote economic growth and development. The adoption of the social capital concept is perhaps the closest that the World Bank has come in recent years in its recognition of the potential linkages between local cultures (notably cultures of enterprise), economic growth and development. That is not to say that we agree that culture is social capital – or vice versa. Far from it, indeed! Our thesis is rather that the World Bank has taken up social capital in a highly essentialized form - as group cooperation per se - in its development initiatives, whilst at the same time congratulating itself on its adoption of a more culturally (as opposed to economistically) oriented development paradigm. The Bank’s conflation of social capital construction with group activities, and its consequent efforts to promote development through supporting group-based initiatives, far from illustrating a cultural turn in its development thinking, arguably reflect a continuing lack of sensitivity to cultural diversity and the specific geographical contexts within which diverse cultural registers (elite, popular and youth cultures, among others) evolve and interact (see also Nederveen Pieterse, this volume).

Following a brief introduction to the links between concepts of social capital and culture, we review recent development problems and donor activities in Ghana. We then present two rural case studies of group-based development interventions in Ghana’s coastal savanna to illustrate our argument that while culture is complex, multi-faceted and inextricably linked with place and time dynamics, recent development interventions seemingly emanating out of donors’ desire to build social capital have been based on very poor conceptualizations of culture.

Social capital is, as Harriss (2002) observes, a slippery concept. Widely publicized through the work of Putnam (1993, 1995), it focuses on the potential benefits of associational life and collective action. The positive value of social relations built on trust, norms and networks is a central theme, though precisely how these relations are initiated and sustained, and by whom, lacks explication. Nonetheless, social capital is assumed by much of the donor community to bring voluntary cooperation that leads to improved welfare and economic performance (Barr and Toye 2000). This focus on social interaction as a positive win-win situation of empowerment and inclusion (DeFilippis 2002) has been extremely seductive to development specialists mired in their persistent failure to find solutions to seemingly intractable poverty problems. There has been a growing view that interventions are possible which can harness underlying social forces and energy in society and thus expand social capital and correct for state and market failures (Mayer and Rankin 2002). Consequently, social capital 'has become one of the central organizing themes in global development work' (De Filippis 2002), in no small part due to its adoption by economists at the World Bank, where it was identified in a 1997 publication as a developmental ‘missing link’ (Harriss 2002:797)