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Conference: Developing Social Capital; From Promises to Knowledge Exchange

This paper was written and presented by Alex Dunedin and Susan Brown at the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) Annual Conference 2012.  The theme of the conference was ‘Promises: Crisis and Socio-Cultural Change’.  It was held at Manchester University.

We were invited to present the Ragged project at their 8th annual conference and contribute to the dialogue as an informal education project which seeks to bring about positive social change.  The theme of it was ‘Promises: Crisis and Socio-Cultural Change’….

CRESC logo

The promise has been an enduring theme in the history of social and cultural research.  From the very earliest mapping and measuring of modern societies, researchers have sought to realise dreams, both grand and mundane, and devise plans, projects and visions of the social.

They have helped to engineer futures that manifest particular political, economic and cultural realities.  If the promise is both a vision and a commitment, it is also a ground for hope and a source of expectation – of how social worlds might hold together for progressive and beneficial ends.  That promises might prove unattainable, become contested or get broken, is, of course in the nature of the social – promises can fail.

They can also restrict or oppress.  Understanding the success or failure and both the intended and unintended consequences of different kinds of promise is crucial in accounting for patterns of socio-cultural change.  And so this conference invited delegates to reflect on promises within four broad streams:

  • Capitalism: what are the broken promises of financialised and globalized capitalism ? What can social and cultural research tell us about the crisis ? What solutions might it help effect ?
  • Cultures: as the promises of cultural engagement, participation and policy are challenged in crisis, what is at stake in efforts to imagine and re-imagine the cultural worlds of tomorrow ?
  • Expertise: what does knowledge promise in the fields of science, law and education and the environment ? How might we conceive of new or transgressive public knowledge and expertise ?
  • Democracy: what projections can we make for democracy, or even post-democracy? What futures are anticipated in the political reform of crisis ?

The CRESC roundtables brought together different aspects of these four streams, showcasing current research about promises amongst members of our research centre and their collaborative communities.  The following is the Ragged contribution which attempts to give a voice to many under-represented perspectives:

The Presentation

The notion of ‘promise’ is perceived as a rhetoric used to get people to buy into institutional agendas. I, Alex Dunedin, have worked hard getting people to participate in the project and have found that use of the word ‘promise’ creates barriers and suspicion.

Inclusive social capital is formed through messy and unregulated interpersonal informal networks to which everyone can contribute and where forms of communication are, therefore, emergent; The vision of the Ragged project is to create such a network. This presentation describes that vision.

The promise of inclusivity is something which we think needs to be substituted by action – everyone is a stakeholder in knowledge capable of participating in the intellectual activity of civic society.

Ragged University

Everybody is a Ragged University this is the central concept of the Ragged project. Who is this about? Everyone who is keen to share their knowledge and skills through bonding, bridging and linking forms of relationship. By seeking a target demographic or focused remit, the project becomes exclusive and prevents certain forms of social capital from developing.

The Ragged project provides a space where people are stakeholders in knowledge through experience and through passion.  Inspired by the Madras peer led teaching method devised by Andrew Bell, the project gets individuals to share their knowledge and skills in a social space. It affords non-academic communities the opportunity to take part in what is largely considered an area of academic expertise knowledge building .

The promise of inclusivity is a rhetoric in society as long as there is undervaluing of individuals from outwith fields to contribute potentially inventive and innovative work to a conversation held by experts. Joseph Lancaster’s motto is also at work in the Ragged project model of sustainable education; Learning by Teaching this highlights knowledge building as a two way process where people sharing the knowledge also benefit from being in conversation with curious fresh minds.

By holding education events in social settings it holds a dynamic which is fluid enough to bridge language barriers across subject areas, individuals and social groups.  Making it a non-monitored, non-closed space as an ideal insures the inclusive social dynamic whilst maintaining the privacy which individuals look for in personal relationships.

  • Madras peer led teaching peer led learning, bonding, linking, co-production, public social skills
  • Inclusivity open criteria for participation, eclecticism, valuing experience, valuing passion
  • Learning by Teaching interdisciplinary, bridging, public engagement
  • Open Spaces public place with the privacy eticate of a private club, free of financial barriers

Who are the knowledge stake holders?

University of Manchester

The task at hand is to create an environment which fosters learning, thought, interaction and community across societal strata. The possibilities inherent in a room of people are neither measurable nor conducive to forecasting. Promising quotas and outcomes as a standardised approach for funding must be balanced with understanding the nature of the phenomena and the settings.

Social capital is based on trust and reciprocity, which commonly happen on interpersonal terms these friendships and interactions create situations of knowledge spillover where there is an exchange of ideas among individuals latently through the social nature of the events but also through the Madras method of peer led teaching. In this case, public speaking is a focus for production of the events.  Everyone necessarily needs to be involved in society.

The canvas for gaining the positive effects of being involved in a network is having a critical mass of people coming into proximity with each other. In knowledge management economics, a knowledge spillover is a non-rival knowledge market externality that has a spillover effect of stimulating technological improvements in a neighbour through one’s own innovation.  It has been said that cities produce invention and innovation because of knowledge spillover effects.

  • Everybody is a stakeholder in knowledge
  • Focusing on a demographic negates both inclusivity and bonding/bridging social capital
  • Inclusivity necessitates a cross-cultural and intercultural approach
  • Bringing people from many different backgrounds together brings about Knowledge Spillover

Inclusive Venues

The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo  [Bowling Alone Copyright © 2001 Robert D. Putnam, Chapter 6: Informal Social Connections P113]

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg identifies third-places as beer gardens, main streets, pubs, cafes, coffeehouses, and post offices, and suggests that these places promote social equality, facilitate community engagement, and provide a sense of wellbeing and belonging to individuals and communities. In his book, The Great Good Place (1999), Oldenburg puts forward the premise that contemporary, industrialized society is isolated at home (which is the first place) and work (the second place). Third-places, he argues, offer a safe public space for people to meet and establish bonds. Using Oldenburg’s model, we posited that the academic library can be redefined as a third-place for the campus and surrounding communities. [Popular Culture & American Culture Association Annual National Conference. St. Louis Grand. St. Louis, Missouri. April 2010. Copyright © 2010 Frey & Codispoti]

The venues which Ragged uses for generating the third space necessary to host an inclusive event are inherently social and informal. Public houses, cafes and libraries which are open to everyone and which are as free of institutional value systems and processes as possible they are dynamic to a range of possibilities which in formal circumstances are not tapped.

The claim here is made that the freedom of expression found in informal circumstances is often where the ‘work’ happens in society for example a board meeting is held, presentations are given but the relationships and deals are struck up in the restaurant, bar etc where in depth comparisons and meticulous exchanges occur under the auspices of pleasure.  A central posit of the Ragged model is that knowledge exchange is a gifting and social behaviour often found in association with pleasure Marcel Mauss is a key thinker who’s work The Gift is being explored.

Food and drink remind us of complex and ancient social behaviour which is both universal and individually empowering. It is a home ground to everyone. It is used as a social focus such as is found in a Sikh Gurdwara for example.  As a model which aims to be inclusive, the provision of food in the Ragged social model fits with the view of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; thus it is an activity supportive of inclusivity and educational outcome.

The events must be free for people to attend as finance is both a barrier to involvement and has a tendency to formalise activities as it is heavily administrated for example by HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). The idea that the payment of money is a good way to demonstrate commitment in an activity or project must be challenged as a marginalising rhetoric a single pound may have meaning as food to one person but a token donation to another. This adds perspective to the conversation surrounding new social enterprise models of proposed in the third sector.

  • Open social spaces are necessary to bring people from all parts of society together
  • Public spaces allow a freedom of expression which foster emergent communication modes
  • The Ragged project builds on these spaces with activities which are personal and informal
  • Financial barriers to participation prevent engagement of low income people

Ragged talks

Emergent communication. People not differentially positioned by dominant modes of communication (Bernstein, 1981, p, 327). Eclectic and Interdisciplinary are two key concepts which articulate the intellectual space.

The criteria for talking, contributing to the website, or involvement on any level, are that you are passionate about the subject, that it fits within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that it is non-political, non-religious, and non-corporate.  These parameters are there to make a distinct model yet allow a vast terrain for expression and involvement under the banner of the Ragged space.

Ragged

The Ragged project wants to provide a model for people everywhere to build, reveal and unite open learning communities. A balance is being sought in the holistic model which is value neutral and so it can effectively cross borders as an educational practice. This sets the scene for the emergent forms of communication desirable for building social capital.

These open criteria for involvement considers everyone a stakeholder in knowledge and a carrier of a unique body of knowledge which is of value. To truly realise inclusivity and a mixture of bonding, bridging and linking social capital, all subjects and levels should be open for discussion by anyone, subject to the ethics.

The value of people outside a field is rarely if ever estimated by those within a field interdisciplinary studies are vital for cross fertilization of subjects where transferable knowledge and ideas help innovate in unexpected areas.  For this reason, inclusivity can be thought about through the lens of bridging social capital, and that a successful format is putting on two disparate talks without engineering ‘theme nights’.

Inclusivity necessarily ventures into the realms of the eclectic, and in piloting the project the question was raised whether it would be too ‘unfocused for the public to get it’. What is found is that people are surprised at and enjoy the contrasts and connections in each subject, which is counterintuitive in a society which increasingly presses for specialisation.

Inclusive organisations are inherently outward looking.  Exclusive organisations are inherently inward looking.  Built on the premise of knowledge, we should all be able to come together in a social space and discuss ideas. Ragged provides that space where ideas can be informally test driven, and where amongst the private conversations of that evening there is the spark of invention and innovation which drives society.

  • The open criteria for participation is passion and an ethics
  • The Ragged project is non-religious, non-political and non-corporate to avoid partisan appropriation
  • All subjects are open for discussion; eclecticism embodying the inclusive nature of Ragged
  • Two disparate talks are scheduled to encourage interdisciplinary study and bridging

Discussion Points

The promise of inclusivity is a rhetoric which needs to be replaced by realised activity.  The notion of promise has been eroded by dominant modes of communication where depersonalised institutions have tapped into personalised space to get ‘buy-in’ to agendas.

The word ‘promise’, and it’s all too often partner in crime ‘inclusivity’, have lost currency in many parts of culture; as has done ‘charity’.  Ragged is working hard to restore the authentic meaning to these words, not through rhetoric but through tangible educational and social activities.

We would like to invite academics to help inform the model by sharing in the intellectual life of the community and suggesting constructive critique around how it achieves it’s aims of developing inclusive social capital.

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