Bigmen and Wantoks: Social Capital and Group Behaviour in Papua New Guinea, Working Paper Number 27, Paolo de Renzio


The concept of social capital has received a lot of attention in the social sciences in the last few years. It has come to be seen as an important factor in promoting socioeconomic development. Despite the diversity of definitions available and the lack of clarity surrounding the concept, it is claimed that the level of trust, and the presence of the norms and networks that constitute social capital play an important role in enhancing economic efficiency and promoting government effectiveness.

These claims, however, need to be properly qualified, as the nature and scope of social capital is much more ambiguous than is often suggested. High stocks of social capital can stifle development efforts in close-knit communities, and can be used to achieve objectives that may have negative effects on the wider community. More generally, the attempt to subsume a theory of institutions and a theory of group behaviour under the unifying label of social capital may not be very enlightening.

Nevertheless, the social capital approach can provide useful insights for the study of group behaviour, related to the importance of looking at the characteristics of cooperation within groups and to state-society relations as important factors in determining the outcome of group functioning. Some characteristics of social organisation in Papua New Guinea demonstrate these points quite clearly.

The existence in Papua New Guinea of a complex web of reciprocity obligations based mostly on ethnic identity (the wantok system) shows how existing social capital based on trust and cooperation within groups can have both positive and negative overall effects on group functioning.

Moreover, the nature and structure of state-society relations, based on the country’s colonial history and its institutional framework, influence group behaviour in a way that seems to promote vertical linkages of patronage and reinforce the negative effects of the wantok system.
January 2000

This paper was conceived while I was working as an ODI Fellow with the Office of National Planning of Papua New Guinea. I would like to thank, among others, David Kavanamur and Mike Manning for sharing
their views and knowledge. A preliminary version of this work was presented at the project seminar on “Group Behaviour and Development” held at UNU/WIDER in Helsinki on Sept 10-11, 1999. I am very grateful to all participants for the comments received and in particular to Frances Stewart for her continuous advice, help and support.

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The purpose of this paper is twofold.

Firstly, it seeks to link the research programme on group behaviour and development (Heyer et al. 1999) to the burgeoning literature around the concept of social capital and its applications to development theory and policy.

Secondly, it looks at some characteristics of social organisation in Papua New Guinea, in the attempt to spell out some of the insights that a social capital perspective can contribute
to the understanding of group behaviour.

The first section critically reviews the various definitions of social capital and the main debates around the concept, highlighting its shortcomings. The second section focuses on the links between the social capital approach and the group behaviour approach, trying to identify the possible contributions that research on social capital can make to the explanation of group functioning and effectiveness.

The third section gives an account of some characteristics of group behaviour in Papua New Guinea society, related to the existence of a complex web of reciprocity obligations based mostly on ethnic identity (the wantok system) and to the predominant influence of state-society relations. The last section presents some preliminary conclusions and indications.

Social Capital: Definitions and Debates

The concept of social capital has received a lot of attention in the field of social sciences in the last few years, and it has come to be seen as an important factor in promoting socioeconomic development and better government in societies both in the developed and in the developing world. Narayan and Woolcock (1999) identify a number of research fields in which social capital has featured prominently, including:
(i) families and youth behaviour problems,
(ii) schooling and education,
(iii) community life,
(iv) work and organisations,
(v) democracy and governance,
(vi) general cases of collective action problems,
(vii) public health and environment issues,
(viii) crime and violence, and (ix) economic development.

Wall, Ferrazzi and Schryer (1998) argue that the main reasons for such interest are that its direct appeal to people’s experiences makes it easily conveyed to non-academic audiences, and that at the same time it is a concept that bridges different academic disciplines.

Woolcock supports this last point by stating that “social capital provides sociologists in particular with a fruitful conceptual and policy device by which to get beyond exhausted modernisation and world-system theories […]

In social capital historians, political scientists, anthropologists, economists, sociologists and policy makers […] may once again be able to find a common language” (Woolcock 1998:188).

Nevertheless, the search for such common language is proving to be fraught with difficulties. Despite the widespread interest that the concept of social capital has raised among researchers and policy makers in international organizations, governments and NGOs alike, it is still very difficult to find agreement on its meaning1, and on the policy implications of adopting a social capital approach.

James Coleman, in what is considered to be the pioneering work on the topic, says “social capital […] is created when the relations among persons change in ways that facilitate] action” (Coleman 1990:304), and manifests itself in the form of obligations and expectations, information sharing, norms and sanctions, and social organization. These are aspects of social structure which “facilitate certain actions of the individuals who are within the structure” (ibid:302). Thus, social capital constitutes an asset that individuals can use to their own advantage, to reach goals they could not reach otherwise.

Along similar lines Robert Putnam, in his influential book on the performance of regional governments in Italy, claims that social capital can be described “in the form of norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement”, and that it refers to “features of social organization, such as trust, norms and networks, that can improve the efficiency of a society by facilitating coordinated actions” (Putnam 1993a:167). Communities and societies which are endowed with a large stock of social capital are then considered to be more efficient and equitable, in the sense that they have a greater capability of resolving problems of collective action, relying on the reciprocal commitments that their members are willing to make on the base of the trust they place in each other. Putnam’s argument points to a particular feature of social capital that he claims is fundamental in bringing about positive development outcomes: groups based on horizontal linkages (in the sense that they are based on equality and participation) are the ones through which citizens are able to cooperate for mutual benefit more effectively. The kinds of organizations he points at are choir groups, sports clubs and other similar ones, more common in Northern Italy, in which social capital created to fulfill a simply social function can then be reproduced and spread for other activities, to bring about economic and institutional improvement outside any single group.

1 For an overview of the debate on social capital, see Harriss and de Renzio (1997), Woolcock (1998), Portes
(1998), Narayan and Woolcock (1999), and Fine (1999).

In Southern Italy, on the contrary, traditions of “amoral familism” have created social and politic relations which are vertically structured, based on dependence and exploitation, which promote mistrust and suspicion and therefore inefficiencies.

The World Bank, which has shown great interest in the concept2, has defined social capital as “the informal rules, norms and long-term relationships” (World Bank 1997a:114) which can explain differences in the nature and intensity of popular collective activity in different communities or nations. The Bank has also claimed that social capital may contribute to the explanation of development success stories by defining the ways in which “economic actors
interact and organize themselves to generate growth and development” (World Bank 1997b:77).

Their Social Capital Initiative tries to test these hypotheses by promoting projects that can shed light on definitions, measurements and possible impacts of social capital (World Bank 1998)3.

Despite the diversity of definitions available, there are a number of themes that run through all accounts of social capital, which help find some common ground for a clearer description of the concept. First of all, all definitions agree that social capital is an aspect of social organization, in the sense that it is concerned with relations between and among people and groups of people, and with the way in which these interactions are structured.

Secondly, they all link together the economic, social and political spheres of life, and try to look at the way in which these influence each other. Thirdly, they all refer to two distinct sets of issues: on the one hand to norms, values and traditions which promote cooperation and reciprocity, and on the other to networks, relationships and organizations that bring people together to try and solve common problems4.

2 Social capital features in the 1997 World Development Report (World Bank 1997a) on the role of the state, and will be one of the main themes of the 2000 Report on poverty. For a critique of the World Bank’s incorporation of the concept in the “post-Washington consensus”, see Fine (1999).

3 A number of documents, papers, and other material related to this initiative can be found on the World Bank’s website.

Lastly, there is widespread agreement that high stocks of social capital can promote both economic efficiency and government effectiveness. These last claims will be further clarified and explored before looking at some of the inherent problems of the social capital approach.

Social capital and economic efficiency

Robert Putnam, in his interpretation of the success of regional governments in Northern Italy, identifies some mechanisms which enhance the overall efficiency of a society where high stocks of social capital allow groups to perform their function more effectively. He says:

“Norms such as those which undergird social trust evolve because they lower transaction costs and facilitate cooperation […] In particular, the norm of generalised reciprocity is a highly productive component of social capital.

Communities in which this norm is followed can more efficiently restrain opportunism and resolve problems of collective action.”
(Putnam 1993a:172)

Networks of civic engagement, according to Putnam, also play an important role in addressing market failures, by “increasing the potential costs to a defector in any individual transaction”, and by “facilitating communication and improving the flow of information about the trustworthiness of individuals.” (ibid.:173-4)

The World Bank (1997b) gathered evidence from around the world to explain the various mechanisms through which social capital affects economic outcomes. One of them, as already suggested by Putnam, is information sharing. Knowledge about individuals’ reputations and expectations about their behaviour is transmitted and shared through networks and relationships, thus reducing the risk and uncertainty which often prevent successful cooperation. Such knowledge, coupled with social norms which condemn opportunism, can provide a strong enforcement mechanism which increases the efficiency of groups5.

4  Uphoff and Krishna (1999) refer to these two distinct forms of social capital as “cognitive” and “structural” respectively.

Another important mechanism is that of coordination of activities. The social capital embodied in groups can “reduce opportunistic behaviour by creating repeated interaction among individuals, which enhances trust” (World Bank 1997b:80), and at the same time provide examples of positive patterns of cooperation that can be used for purposes different from the one initially pursued6.

In this context social capital contributes to the reduction of transaction costs by restructuring individuals’ perceptions of the costs and benefits of collective action, and by aligning individual incentives with group objectives7.

The third mechanism identified by the World Bank is collective decision making, seen as “a necessary condition for the provision of public goods and the management of externalities to market processes” (ibid.:81).

Social capital is seen here as working in favour of collective decision-making by addressing the information and incentive
problems highlighted above, and by promoting cooperative patterns linking individuals and groups together.

A very interesting account of how these mechanisms work is presented in the research Deepa Narayan and Lant Pritchett (1997) conducted in Tanzania, where they tried to evaluate the level of social capital existing in a number of villages and to analyse the effects it has on economic well-being. They measured social capital through a survey that asked questions about people’s membership in various voluntary associations and groups, about the characteristics of those groups (mostly about membership and functioning), and about
the existence and role of norms of trust towards the family, the clan and other entities including government.

They found that village-level social capital has a strong influence on the level of incomes of households within that village. They then identified a number of possible mechanisms through which social capital might contribute to well-being. These include (i) greater cooperation among villagers in monitoring the performance of government, leading to more effective public services, (ii) a better management of common property resources like roads, and (iii) a greater use of opportunities for agricultural improvements, including credit and innovative practices, made possible through information and diffusion of innovations, and through informal insurance mechanisms.

5 The case of group-based lending schemes like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh is one of the most immediate examples of this.
6 In this sense, see the discussion by Coleman (1990:313) on the fungibility of social capital, and Putnam (1993a).
7 For an interesting discussion on the role of trust in different enforcement mechanisms for cooperative agreements, see Dasgupta (1997).

Other interesting case studies focus less on social capital as a means to overcome market failures, and point instead to different mechanisms through which efficiency in group activities can be enhanced. In his account of the vicissitudes of an irrigation scheme in Sri Lanka, Uphoff (1992) challenges the conventional view that assumes the irrationality of collective action, and focuses on the role of the ideas, ideals and values that each individual has when he or she enters a cooperative arrangement, and on the way in which they evolve over time.

One of the reasons for the success of the Gal Oya irrigation scheme was a restructuring of people’s perceptions achieved by catalyst agents who managed to get farmers to work together. By showing the positive effects of cooperative patterns of behaviour, a shift in attitudes took place that “awakened” the dormant stock of social capital, promoting a less self-oriented approach and bringing about a more efficient use of common resources.

Along similar lines, Kilpatrick et al. (1998) analysed the working of a network of farm businesses in Eastern Australia, who developed a common education and training programme which has substantially improved the management of individual businesses.

The elements of social capital linking together this “learning community” and promoting its efficiency, according to the authors, are networks based on reciprocal trust and on shared values and experiences, and the commitment and identification with the community shown by the members. In these cases the importance of social capital in enhancing efficiency of group action assumes a broader meaning, not strictly related to its economic effects in addressing market failures, but also highlighting its role in promoting shifts in attitudes towards altruism and commitment to shared objectives.

Other authors, however, have noted how high stocks of social capital in a community can also have negative effects on efficiency. Examples drawn from the literature on ethnic entrepreneurship (Portes and Landolt 1996; Woolcock 1998) point out how social capital can place a burden on group members, since a group with strong ties can end up imposing heavy particularistic obligations on some individual members, while allowing other members to free-ride.

In Woolcock’s view, “the high degree of density and closure characterising the social relations undergirding the relatively simple, small-scale, informal exchange in village markets, for example, could in fact pose considerable constraints on successful members of these communities as they attempted to make the transition to membership in the larger, more extensive, and sophisticated exchange networks coordinated by formal institutions and the rule of law”, (Woolcock 1998:163) thus preventing more efficient outcomes.

Social capital and government effectiveness

In the literature on social capital, there are at least three conflicting views on the nature of the relation between social capital and the effectiveness of government action.

Firstly, in Putnam’s view, the social capital that characterizes the civic community (exemplified by Northern Italy’s engaged citizenry) is the key to good government:

“Social capital, as embodied in horizontal networks of civic engagement, bolsters the performance of the polity […]: strong society, strong state” (Putnam 1993a:176); “On the demand side, citizens in civic communities expect better government and […] they get it. They demand more effective public service, and they are prepared to act collectively to achieve their shared goals. […] On the supply side, the performance of representative government is facilitated by the social infrastructure of civic communities and by the democratic values of both officials and citizens” (ibid.:182).

The causal link then clearly goes from social capital (embodied in civil society organizations) to good government.

Secondly, some of Putnam’s critics have pointed out how this view is characterized by a “lack of state agency” (Tarrow 1996:395)8, and have criticized the lack of clarity in explaining how the causality that links networks of civic engagement and good government works (Levi 1996:49). In their view, Putnam does not consider the fact that “governments provide more than the backdrop for facilitating trust among citizens; governments also influence civic behavior to the extent that they elicit trust or distrust towards themselves” (Levi 1996:51). In this view, alternative to the society-centered one provided by Putnam, government action influences social capital, and good government can contribute to its formation.

As a third possibility, Peter Evans, along with other authors9, has suggested that the link between social capital and good government is by no means uni-directional, and should instead be interpreted in terms of “synergy”:

“Creative action by government organizations can foster social capital; linking mobilized citizens to public agencies can enhance the efficacy of government. The combination of strong public institutions and organized communities is a powerful
tool for development”. (Evans 1996:1130)

The synergy view focuses then on the possible reciprocal effects that government action and social capital may have, looking for mechanisms for the formation of social capital and for the promotion of good government along and across the “blurred boundary between private and public” (Tendler 1995).

Such synergy however has been interpreted in different ways. Among the social scientists that have devoted attention to social capital, some of them actually suggest that the activity of the state in providing resources and services constitutes a negative incentive for the creation of social capital, since the availability of such an alternative “crowds out” informal networks and voluntary organizations, leaving a community without the need to invest in social capital in order to provide those same resources and services (Coleman 1990;

8 Tarrow argues that state action played a crucial role in bringing about and perpetuating the backwardness
of Southern Italy, where, after unification with the North, civic capacity was shaped by state strategies based
on perpetuating political and administrative dependency (Tarrow 1996:394-5).
9 See the collection of articles on Government Action, Social Capital and Development, in World
Development 24 (6), 1996.

Hadenius and Uggla 1996); if instead the state withdraws from various societal spheres, independent organizations created by citizens in a joint effort to supply a viable substitute for the state’s activity are more likely to step in, fostering the creation of social capital (ibid.:1629-1630). Along somewhat similar lines, Hirschman has argued not only that the absence of government action can promote joint activities that result in the formation of social capital, but that these activities can also arise as a reaction to repressive actions by governments10
There is a further distinction among supporters of the synergy hypothesis. Some focus on the existence of a consistent initial endowment, or stock, of social capital, as a precondition for the existence of positive synergy. The absence of such a stock, due to the difficulty of creating social capital in contexts in which it seems to be lacking, “dooms the society to self-perpetuating backwardness” (Putnam 1993a:177)11. Others argue instead that social capital is constructable in the short-run, even in cases in which the social and political context is not favorable, through “creative cultural and organizational innovations” (Evans 1996:1129) that allow for a positive, even if limited, synergy between state and civil society in the process of creating social capital12
Probably both points of view offer useful insights into the problem. The origins of an abundant stock of social capital certainly are deeply rooted in the history and culture of a population, in a tradition of cooperative attitudes and of mutual trust, and in an egalitarian social structure. Nevertheless, the state can, through appropriate policies, favour or discourage the kinds of activities and practices that can be transformed into greater

10 See Hirschman (1984), especially chapters 3 and 4.
11 Once again, Putnam supports this argument by showing how regional governments in Italy proved much more successful in the northern regions, characterized by a tradition of cooperation and civic engagement centuries old, than in the South, where a “hierarchical solution to dilemmas of collective action – coercion, exploitation, and dependence […] predominates” (Putnam 1993a:177), based on vicious circles of noncooperation and mistrust that also are rooted in history.
12 The kinds of innovations that Evans identifies, which remain somewhat confused, deal with “new definitions of identity and interest”, “‘soft technologies’ of organizational design” and “simple redefinitions of problems” (for clarification see Evans 1996:1129, along with the other articles in the same issue of World

 availability of social capital for developmental ends. Woolcock (1998; see also Narayan and Woolcock 1999), drawing on previous work by Peter Evans (1992, 1995), argues that the developmental effectiveness of state-society relations, and therefore their capacity to foster social capital, depends crucially on two characteristics of public institutions: embeddedness, best described as the existence of strong links with outside organisations in civil society and the corporate sector and of forums in which policies are discussed and common goals identified, and organisational integrity (or autonomy), meaning a coherent and capable
bureaucracy sheltered from political interference.

This kind of framework can be helpful in understanding the role of government action in processes of social capital formation, and in identifying the actions that can be undertaken in order to promote a more synergetic relationship between the public sector and civil society. In particular, focus should be put on the creation of a favorable institutional framework, in which existing forms of social capital are taken into account, given recognition, and involved in government action. In this respect, three factors, highlighted in the literature, seem to gain particular importance: (a) the influence that the institutional framework can have on opportunities for democratisation and political participation13; (b) the existence of “reformers” within and outside government, or of individuals pushing for change and willing to cross the public/private divide and create partnership with civil society organizations14; and (c) the crucial role played by information, in the form of campaigns,


13 Putnam claims that “changing formal institutions can change political practice”, and that in Italy “institutional changes were (gradually) reflected in changing identities, changing values, changing power, changing strategies” (Putnam 1993a:184). In this sense a change in the institutional framework can trigger further changes in people’s mentalities that promote an active support of civil society and the formation of social capital.
14 Fox describes the importance of reformist officials that “created positive incentives for collective action from below” (Fox 1996:1090); Tendler tells the story of successful policies in the state government of Ceara, in Brazil, after two young, committed governors came to power (Tendler 1997). These authors touch on a very important point, that regards what might be called the “individual side” of processes of social capital formation. In their examples, traditions of cooperation and trust and/or state/society synergies cannot be considered the only ingredients of a recipe for the creation of social capital.

Another fundamental component, too often overlooked, regards “people”, intended as social leaders, reformist politicians and bureaucrats, enlightened entrepreneurs, and other individuals committed to social change; in other words they are what
Fox calls “social capitalists” (Fox 1996:1091) and Walzer defines as “connected and responsible” citizens (Walzer 1992:107, my emphasis). These are persons with a vision of the public good (and may be with particular leadership skills) who are willing to invest in the formation of social capital, even if that entails significant personal costs and goes against simple, rational self-interest maximization. The “moral resources” that Putnam talks about (Putnam 1993a:169) seem to belong more appropriately to the realm of individual inclinations and convictions, and relate very closely with their level of “social energy” (Hirschman 1984a:43)

through the use of the media, to inform the population about citizens’ rights and obligations in relation to specific government policies or to government action in general

15 Once again, a word of caution has been voiced by some authors, who highlighted how the controversial nature of social capital is evident at the wider level of the community or of society as well. Firstly, distributional aspects need to be taken into account. “If social capital is a resource available through social networks, the resources that some individuals claim come at the expense of others” (Portes and Landolt 1996), which means that social capital may be available to individuals on a very unequal basis. In this sense, social exclusion may occur even in societies characterized by apparently high stocks of social capital.

Government, in some cases, may therefore work effectively in favour of elite groups with better access to social networks, while at the same time marginalising groups with little “voice”.

Secondly, it seems that the real problem is not whether or not social capital is a public good in itself, but whether its use by persons or groups who possess it provides the wider community with collective benefits in the form of positive externalities. A Ku Klux Klan chapter and a Parent-Teachers’ Association may both be based on strong ties of trust and
cooperation, but their activities will probably have very different effects on the wider
community16. This further shows how the structure and purpose of social relations, or of
existing social capital, does not necessarily contribute to government effectiveness, but may
in certain cases work against it.

Social capital, institutions and groups

In a comprehensive review of the relevant literature to date, Narayan and Woolcock (1999) identify three main perspectives adopted by different contributors to the social capital debate. The first one, the communitarian perspective, equates social capital with local level organisations, namely the associations, civic groups, and informal networks that nurture the norms of trust and reciprocity facilitating mutually beneficial collective action17.

or of “moral capital” (Reilly 1997:10). These are factors that contribute to the creation and maintenance of social capital. Civic engagement does not come only from trust and networks, but also from individual commitment to social change and progress, in all sectors of society.
15 Tendler (1997) emphasizes this point.
16 In this respect, see the debate on the important distinction between “sources” and “consequences” of social
capital (Portes and Landolt 1996; Woolcock 1998).

The communitarian perspective tends to imply that social capital is “good” by its very nature, that communities are homogeneous, and that group activities benefit the whole community.

In other words, it overlooks a number of more controversial issues which constitute the “downside” of social capital (see Portes and Landolt 1996, and Woolcock 1998) which will be discussed further below, and which form the basis for the second perspective, the networks perspective. This view tries to account for both the positive and negative aspects of social capital, by recognising the potential for conflict, inequality and exclusion that exist in social organisation and in group activities.

Associations and organisations might pursue different and contradictory objectives, might be based on exclusive group membership, and their activities might have effects that have negative impact on the community at large or on development more generally. The third and most encompassing perspective is the institutional one which, without disregarding community-level organisations, considers socio-political structures and the institutional environment as important factors in the making and unmaking of norms and networks of cooperation and trust. The focus here comes to include state-society relations as one of the arenas in which social capital can be constructed, transformed or destroyed.

Douglass North’s influential work on institutions and their effect on the path of social and economic development that nations follow (North 1990) resembles quite closely this third perspective, and more in general provides an important backdrop for the whole debate around the concept of social capital. North defines institutions as “the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, the humanly devised constraints that shape human interactions” (North 1990:3). Such institutions can be formal, such as laws, regulations and contracts, or informal, such as conventions and codes of behaviour, and they define the set of incentives
that individuals and organisations face in their interactions. Another crucial distinction that North makes is that between institutions and organisations, the latter being “groups of individuals bound by some common purpose to achieve objectives” (ibid.:5), including

17 This view has led to some confusion between the related concepts of social capital and civil society. It is important to keep them distinct, since the norms and relationships that characterise social capital can be present at the family level, or within the state, as much as in civil society. Civil society describes a realm of social interaction, while social capital tries to capture the structure of all social interactions.political, economic, social and educational bodies. North’s main argument is that the interplay between institutions and organisations determines a society’s capacity to promote economic growth and well-being, and that studying the history of processes of institutional change provides illuminating insights into the reasons that have led nations onto very
different development paths. Putnam’s explanation of the differences between Northern and Southern Italy (Putnam 1993a) draws heavily on North’s approach, linking the higher levels of civic engagement and the existence of norms of reciprocity in the North to historical developments in institutional frameworks and social organisation dating back to the Middle Ages.

In order to clarify the differences in the two approaches (and link them to the group behaviour approach discussed in the next section) it is useful to distinguish different areas or domains of social organisation based on the norms and relationships that constitute social capital (see Harriss and de Renzio 1997:932). These can be classified as:

  • family and kinship connections, relating to the single household, the extended family, the clan, based on “strong” ties of blood or ethnicity;
  • wider social networks, related to groups and organizations that link individuals belonging to different families or kinship groups in common activities for different purposes (economic cooperatives, sports clubs, religious groups, social movements);
  • cross-sectoral linkages, or “networks of networks” that link together organizations belonging to different sectors or levels of society (NGOs, grassroots organizations, government agencies, private firms) in the search for solutions to complex problems, by combining different resources and different kinds of knowledge (see also Brown 1994); cross-sectoral linkages are the realm of “complementarity”, in the form of “mutually supportive relations between public and private actors” (Evans 1996:1120) and of “coproduction” (Ostrom 1996; see also Tendler 1995);
  • political capital, representing the norms and networks that shape the relations between civil society and the state, giving a society the capability to mediate conflict by hearing, channeling, and composing multiple citizen demands; political capital relates to the “informal institutional arrangements” that may lead, on the one hand, to clientelism, rent-seeking and exclusion, and on the other to effective representation, accountability and participation; business associations, trade unions, government agencies and political parties are among the organizations through which this form of social capital works;
  • institutional and policy framework, or the set of formal rules and norms (constitutions, laws, regulations, policies) that regulate public life in a society, and that determine, for example, political and civil rights, regulate contract enforcement and the structure of property rights, and so on;
  • social norms and values, defined by a community’s or a nation’s shared cultural beliefs and the effects these have on the functioning of society as a whole (Fukuyama 1995; see also the discussion of “collectivist” and “individualist” societies in Greif 1994); these norms and values bear on all other forms of social capital as well, but even so they can be considered to represent a further and more general form of social capital in themselves.

North’s theory of institutions and institutional change focuses mainly on the macro-level, and therefore on the last two of these areas, more strictly linked with formal and informal rules and codes of behaviour. In North’s approach “the focus on organisations is primarily on their role as agents of institutional change” (North 1990:5), and therefore is mainly instrumental in explaining historical evolutions in norms and institutions. The main differences between North’s institutions and social capital lies in two aspects: first, North’s institutions cover norms and relationships of all types, hierarchical as well as horizontal, whereas social capital generally denotes more horizontal and cooperative arrangements, certainly as interpreted by Putnam (though not Coleman). Secondly, North’s analysis is an aspect of positive economics, not normative: he describes institutions and analyses their role and evolution, including those with negative development outcomes. Among social capital analysts there is instead a tendency to interpret social capital in a normative way, as enhancing economic efficiency and government effectiveness.

These considerations are summarised in the matrix below:
Approach Social Capital North
Putnam Coleman
Coverage Norms, networks and associations Institutions and
Types of relationships Horizontal
linkages based on trust and cooperation
All efficiencyenhancing relationships
All relationships

Effect on group functioning
Promotes COOP behaviour
Depends on type (COOP or P/C)

Depends on type

The group behaviour approach (discussed in more detail in the next section), on the other
hand, deals mostly with the first two areas described above, or with organisations at the
micro-level, in the attempt to describe behaviour within groups, their possible modes of
operation and the effect of those on the group’s functioning in terms of efficiency, equity
and well-being. Cross-sectoral linkages, societal norms and formal institutions like the state
are taken into account because they influence group behaviour, but they are not the central
focus of attention.
In summary, there is a three-fold ambiguity about the concept of social capital which makes
it difficult to use precisely. Firstly, there is a lack of clarity coming from the differing
definitions highlighted above, with some authors using the concept to cover all of the areas
outlined above, and others some subset. This is indicated by the variety of existing
perspectives on social capital noted above, which highlights a tendency to utilise the allencompassing concept of social capital to suit differing needs and views, instead of
delineating a clear field of investigation. The attempt to subsume a theory of institutions and
a theory of group behaviour under the unifying label of social capital leaves much room for
Secondly, there is ambiguity about the type of relationships that “count” as social capital. Putnam emphasises horizontal linkages of trust and cooperation. But the originator of the concept, Coleman (1990:311) identifies vertical “authority relations” (similar to the P/C mechanism described in Heyer et al. 1999) as one form of social capital, since such relations structure reciprocal obligations and expectations in a way that reduces transaction costs and
promotes efficiency.

Thirdly, as noted above, while North’s institutional approach and the group behaviour approach are mainly descriptive, the social capital approach has a normative thrust that creates confusion and weakens its analytical use. The general tendency to consider social capital as something inherently good and to claim that “more is better” has created normative controversies that proponents of the social capital approach are still trying to
It is therefore important to recognise that the nature and scope of the norms and relations embodied in social capital are much more ambiguous than what is usually believed, and that their existence will not necessarily bring about positive development outcomes. The claims
for economic efficiency and government effectiveness need to be properly qualified. High stocks of social capital can stifle development efforts in close-knit communities, and can be used to achieve objectives that may have negative effects on the wider community. White and Robinson stress this point by stating that “the term [social capital] is highly ambiguous: it can be a force for antisocial conspiracy as much as socially oriented cooperation; it can exclude as well as include and intensify as well as ameliorate conflict; and it can operate hierarchically as well as horizontally. In regard to organising synergy, it may impede as well as facilitate cooperation among civic groups or between them and public agencies” (White and Robinson 1998:104-5).

18 A very lively debate on this topic has been ongoing in the World Bank-sponsored e-mail discussion list on social capital.

Social Capital and Group Behaviour

The main purpose of the research programme on group behaviour and development, outlined by Heyer, Stewart and Thorp is to “identify major factors influencing group behaviour, so as to suggest changes that would be likely to improve group functioning, with a particular focus on equity and well-being” (Heyer et al.1999:1).

Focusing on the internal working of groups, the scope is to describe how the outcomes of group activities are influenced, in turn, by different possible modes of operation within groups, and by existing societal norms, or more in general by the external environment in which groups exist.

Groups are defined as “entities in which individuals together undertake activities and collectively interface with the market: they include firms (large and small), governments (central and local), community and voluntary organisations, and families” (ibid.:2). Groups play a very important role in the lives of individuals, communities and societies; their activities shape people’s daily interactions in a myriad ways, and constitute the way in which a series of basic social, political and economic needs are addressed.

In this sense the importance of what has been referred to as social capital for group behaviour, or the way in which norms and relationships influence patterns of interaction and cooperation both within and between groups, can hardly be questioned. Social capital, and the particular forms in which it manifests itself in different contexts, will shape group action, and group action in turn will itself shape social capital. The problem lies in spelling out these linkages without perpetuating the ambiguities of the social capital approach identified in the previous section, in order to analyse the possible insights that the concept of social capital can offer in the study of group behaviour.

Social capital and cooperative behaviour within groups Heyer et al. (1999) identify three major “modes of operation” that groups adopt to solve what they call the “consistency problem”, or that vital aspect of group functioning by which individual action is reconciled with group objectives. The first one is based on power/control (P/C) in hierarchical relations. The second one uses financial incentives, or quasi-market operations (M), to ensure individuals’ compliance. The third one is based on cooperation (COOP), whereby individuals act in line with group objectives because they recognise that it is in their long-term interest, because of expectations of reciprocity, or because they have developed attitudes and motives which limit the pursuit of their own self-interest.

As indicated by the discussion above, the social capital approach emphasises the importance of COOP as a mode of operation based on horizontal linkages, and stresses its capacity to promote efficiency in group functioning. As far as equity and participation are concerned, the role of social capital is a more controversial one given that, as already shown, social capital can be used to perpetuate inequality and exclusion. The social capital approach, however, seems to point at certain features of group functioning which are likely to promote equity and well-being. These can be summarised as:
· inclusive, diffuse, and voluntary membership, meaning that there are no rules that either automatically exclude certain individuals from becoming members of the group, or oblige them to become members; groups therefore are based on networks that “link substantial sectors of the community and span underlying social cleavages” (Putnam 1995:665), functioning as “bridging organizations”19;·

participatory decision-making procedures, relating to the functioning of the group, and to the way in which objectives are set and decisions taken. These procedures point to the existence of horizontal linkages, and are also a way of addressing the consistency problem;
· positive externalities associated with the group’s activities, to ensure that COOP within the group is used for developmental ends and brings benefits to the wider community.

The importance of state-society relations

Another contribution that the social capital approach can offer to the analysis of group behaviour is linked to the “synergy” hypothesis outlined in the previous section.

19 As opposed to “bonding organisations” bringing together individuals from similar backgrounds, based on exclusive membership and promoting narrow interests.

When groups are formed not only for efficiency reasons, but also “to advance the claims of its members to power and/or resources” (Heyer et al. 1999:5), the nature of their relations with other groups, and in particular with the state, as the main mechanism through which
power and resources are distributed, becomes crucial. As discussed in the previous section, the social capital approach has given particular attention to state-society relations, and has
highlighted the importance of cross-sectoral linkages that span the public/private divide (see Tendler 1995), to increase groups’ capacity to promote efficiency, equity and well-being.

In particular, once again, the horizontal and “bridging” nature of relationships seems to be crucial in the achievement of positive development outcomes.

The importance of such linkages is shown in two interesting case studies presented by Jonathan Fox (1996) and David Brown (1994; see also Brown and Ashman 1996). Fox shows how in some areas of rural Mexico the “political construction of social capital” that addressed claims by poor peasant groups under an authoritarian regime was made possible through three main processes:
(i) state-society convergence, in which “middle and lower level reformist government officials recognised and encouraged relatively autonomous grassroots organisations” (Fox 1996:1095);
(ii) collaboration between local and external civil society organisations, which in the state of Chiapas saw the Catholic church contributing organisational support that led to the thickening of indigenous civil society, both by “providing positive incentives for horizontal association and a buffer against the negative sanctions that would otherwise punish such efforts” (ibid.:1096); and
(iii) independent production of social capital from below, seen at its most dramatic in the Zapatista movement and its “extraordinary example of how grassroots organisations can broaden and deepen without external allies” (ibid.:1097).

Brown analysed some cases of successful efforts by NGOs in various countries to create new forms of social capital by “promoting cooperation among parties who are unequally powerful” (Brown 1994:3). The roles that these NGOs played in facilitating, mediating, educating and organising different (and differently powerful) actors, such as grassroots organisations, government agencies and international donors, in the search for cooperative
solutions to development problems brought to a strengthening of local organisations and to the creation of “attitudes and institutions to support future cooperation” (ibid.:21), or
fostered norms supporting COOP as a mode of operation.

Insights that research on social capital can offer to the study of group behaviour thus focus on the one hand on the nature of COOP mechanisms, pointing at some features of COOP behaviour that are likely to promote efficiency, equity and well-being, and on the other on the importance of inter-group relations (in particular state-society relations) as factors that influence group behaviour and effectiveness.

However, the ambiguities associated with the social capital approach, highlighted in the previous section, call for a serious re-consideration of its applicability as an all encompassing framework for the study of norms, social relations and institutions and their relevance in development theory and policy.

Social Capital in Papua New Guinea: Wantoks, Bigmen and Cargo Mentality

Papua New Guinea is a country of great cultural diversity. About 800 languages are spoken within its boundaries by tribes and clans belonging to a number of different ethnic groups.

For a long time before the arrival of colonial powers, these groups lived in small isolated communities, existing as separate social systems, separated by geographical cleavages, differences in customs, and fear of warring tribes and sorcery (Simet and Iamo 1992). Over the decades, contact, communication and exchange intensified among some groups, mainly through trade networks and plantation work, while the more recent processes of urbanisation and nation-building have contributed to a partial overcoming of the existing inter-community cultural barriers. Nevertheless, there is hardly any doubt that geographic, ethnic and linguistic affiliation represents, still today, the single most important factor influencing group behaviour in Papua New Guinea. This can be easily seen in what has been termed the “wantok system”. The wantok system can be loosely defined as the system of relationships (or set of obligations) between individuals characterised by some or all of the
(a) common language (wantok = “one talk”),
(b) common kinship group,
(c)common geographical area of origin, and
(d) common social associations or religious groups (Mannan 1978:200).

The wantok system is a salient feature of social organisation in Papua New Guinea, especially in urban areas.

Going back to the definitions of social capital, the wantok system clearly constitutes a source of social capital. First of all because it is embedded in social relations, and secondly because it provides opportunities for trust, cooperation and mutual benefit. The benefits of the wantok system are quite numerous: it provides a strong support network based on trust and solidarity (Monsell-Davis 1993:1), it can “provide the prospective entrepreneur or businessman with cheap capital, cheap labour and cheap land” (Mannan 1978:202) and “with some degree of risk insurance through pooling resources” (ibid:205), and it supplements the very meagre publicly-provided social security and social welfare mechanisms (or social safety nets). At the same time, though, supporting the concerns expressed by Portes and Landolt (1996) and Woolcock (1998), this form of social capital has costs that are imposed on the members of the group. The common tale of the incomeearning individual who finds it impossible to save any money or to advance his/her economic position because of the heavy demands that unemployed (or simply lazy) wantoks impose on the scarce earnings when pay-day comes can be used as an example (The National 27/9/96, 19/6/98). It shows how social capital, when it lacks “autonomy”20, can actually function as a “disincentive to initiative” (Monsell-Davis 1993:10).

Dickson (1995) notes how “cultural constraints are a very common problem in enterprise development” (Dickson 1995:44) in Papua New Guinea, and how many small businesses end up closing because of the obligation to extend credit to wantoks and of the strong communal orientation, combined with egalitarianism (what Portes and Landolt (1996) would term “downward leveling pressures”). Moreover, in some cases, the same strict rules of reciprocity that govern interactions among wantoks can bear grim consequences. Sister J.P. Chao (1987) described how at 9-Mile Settlement in Port Moresby some of the poorest households were facing terrible hardship because of their inability to “reciprocate”, or to fulfill obligations to their kin in terms of contributing to expenses for traditional ceremonies and other common activities.

20 At the micro-level of community organisation, autonomy refers to the existence of extensive extracommunity linkages which allow members to pursue economic opportunities outside the boundaries of their

Another negative effect of the wantok system that is worth mentioning is its influence on the public service, where appointments are frequently based on nepotism along kinship lines, and where there is lack of coordination and cooperation among groups belonging to different regions or clans. A major review of the public service found that there was a deteriorating sense of nationalism within the PNG Public Service and a weakening of the principle of “one nation, one public service” (Public Service Rationalisation Task Force 1993).

The wantok system also lacks some of the desirable features of group functioning described in the previous section, relating to membership, participation and impact of group activities.

The way membership is defined for wantok groups depends clearly on strong ties of kinship, and is therefore neither voluntary nor inclusive; moreover, social relations are based on a very restricted kind of reciprocity, which often implies mistrust of outsiders. This implies that the COOP mechanisms on which the wantok system is based are not normally likely to promote widespread efficiency, equity and well-being, outside the immediate members of the group.

It therefore seems that despite its positive effects and its strong embeddedness in Papua New Guinean society, the wantok system lacks an appropriate level of autonomy that would allow for broader and more positive development impacts. This discrepancy manifests itself in two ways: at the micro-level, with the prevalence of strong intra-community ties at the expense of weak inter-community ones. As Putnam puts it, “dense but segregated horizontal networks [like the ones present in the wantok system] sustain cooperation within each group, but networks of civic engagement that cut across social cleavages nourish wider cooperation” (Putnam 1993a:175). At the macro-level, the lack of autonomy becomes evident in the fragmentation and inconsistency of the bureaucratic system and in its relationship with the political sphere. The COOP mechanism that is at the base of group functioning seems to provide benefits exclusively for group members, and even then it does so only in a limited way. This reinforces the point made in the previous section about the need to look at the characteristics of COOP behaviour within groups, to assess the group’s functioning in terms of promoting efficiency, equity and well-being. own immediate social environment (see Woolcock 1998).

There are examples in Papua New Guinea of “bridging” organisations that are based on horizontal ties cutting across kinship lines, or wider social networks. Sports clubs, church groups, women and youth organisations, trade unions and other Non-Governmental Organisations may fall among these.

These organisations can work both at the micro- and at the meso-level, in some cases promoting useful cross-sectoral linkages. In general, however, they do not seem to have reached the degree of cohesion and capacity that would allow them to really “make a difference” in terms of bringing about positive social change.

What seems to be needed is a process of “scaling up” (Fox 1996), whereby these organisations can overcome locally confined solidarities, gain bargaining power and access wider information networks (Fox 1996:1091).

Papua New Guinea’s traditional past also has a strong effect on the nature of state-society relations. Peter Larmour describes traditional Papua New Guinea political systems as “small
and stateless […]

Order within them was maintained by a mixture of self-help, reciprocity, gossip, shaming and supernatural sanctions” (Larmour 1995:40). Within each clan, there were “few social divisions based on rank or superior and inferior status. Everyone [had] more or less equal access to resources” (Lawrence 1967:21). The social capital based on kinship provided very strong solidarity ties, and linkages that were mostly of a horizontal kind. Problems of coordination were addressed through the presence of bigmen, individuals who possessed exclusive knowledge and who “imposed discipline, upheld the traditional way of life and gave executive directions” (Cochrane 1970:137).

The arrival of missionaries and of colonial powers with their administrative machinery and their “goods” brought about big changes in the religious and economic spheres of life, sometimes in such an abrupt manner that people developed what have been known as “cargo cults”.

These consisted in “an appeal to the supernatural to resolve the intolerable paradoxes of white rule” (White 1965:120), especially in terms of the mere quantity of “cargo” (tools, houses, ships, planes) hitherto unknown to local communities, and were based on the belief that through some magic ritual people would be able to access the white man’s riches. The traditional bigman was replaced by the colonial government official, who on top of possessing exclusive knowledge held the key to the cargo. In general this has meant that the people of Papua New Guinea have developed a conception of development as something that is delivered from outside, and that they “approach the whole question of improvement of the quality of their lives with a profound sense of powerlessness” (Scholl 1997:5).

This became more evident after Independence, in 1975. Peter Lawrence had warned against the effects of such an attitude. He claimed that in the political field, as a consequence of the “cargo mentality”, “people may vote for specific candidates […] in the belief that these men possess the secret of wealth and will reveal it after […] election to office. Such people will make impossible demands for lightning-quick development on the successful candidates, without realising that development can come only through hard and long labour” (Lawrence 1967:24). The elected politician, in the new structure of statesociety relations, has become the new vehicle for “cargo” now repackaged as development projects to be delivered to communities. This can be seen in the emphasis repeatedly put in government discourse on the “delivery of goods and services” (Scholl 1997) and in the formulation of programs through which elected politicians have control over a large share of the resources that get distributed at the local level for development initiatives.

Going back to the considerations made above on different sources of social capital, it seems that in general the political capital in Papua New Guinea is characterised by vertical links of patronage and dependence similar to those existing in Southern Italy as described by Putnam (1993a). Individuals and communities will find it easier and more rational to look for access to public resources that can bring development either through the channels provided by the wantok system, linking them to individuals within the state structure, or through giving their vote to the candidate delivering electoral gifts and promises which often cannot be kept. Ben Reilly (1998) has brilliantly described how the interplay between existing traditional social structures and the first-past-the-post electoral system can reinforce these negative consequences, by promoting localisation and fragmentation of politics along kinship lines and allowing candidates to be elected with a small percentage of the votes.

At the same time, the “weakness” and “lack of autonomy” of state institutions (Larmour 1995:44) means that the institutional framework can hardly be considered as an effective source of social capital. The lack of appropriate mechanisms for participation and accountability in the form of cross-sectoral linkages instead allows for the exploitation of public resources by individuals and reinforces the dependency and patronage that characterise state-society relations.

It therefore seems that the effectiveness of group functioning in Papua New Guinea is limited by the nature of state-society relations, often based on a “cargo mentality” approach and structured along vertical lines. This seems to reduce incentives for the type of COOP behaviour that has been identified as enhancing efficiency, equity and well-being.


This paper has provided a brief overview of the debate around the concept of social capital, that has brought scholars together from disciplines as diverse as economics and anthropology in developing an explanatory framework of how different features of social organisation affect development opportunities and outcomes.

It has highlighted some of the arguments that the proponents of the social capital approach make, mostly linked to the claims that social capital promotes economic efficiency and government effectiveness.

However, a number of shortcomings of the approach have also been pointed out, including its vague definition, its all-encompassing tendency and the ambiguities of its effects.

Nevertheless, the social capital approach can make two important contributions to the study of group behaviour and effectiveness, in particular as far as COOP-type behaviour is concerned. The first points to the need to look at some features of group functioning that can promote or hinder efficiency, equity and well-being, and the second to the importance of the nature of state-society relations as an explanatory variable for the outcomes of group

A brief look at some characteristics of social organisation in Papua New Guinea reinforces these two points, warning against an unqualified support for COOP behaviour as the best mechanism to promote efficiency, equity and well-being as the preferred outcomes of group functioning.


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