Deciphering Culture

Social Media & Social Capital (an applied approach)

with 3 comments

As an ethnomusicologist applying my training as a researcher and scholar to work outside of academia, I am looking for ideas of how others are approaching putting humanities and social science research and analysis to work in cultural projects (commercial or non-profit or public). Although, undoubtedly shaped by a different cultural and political setting, the efforts of the InteractiveCultures group of the Birmingham School of Media recently caught my attention. The description of their work presents an engaging model for the much-needed creation of effective interfaces between arts & culture research and arts & culture practice and policy:

Our work is part of a wider strategy by the Birmingham School of Media to make arts and humanities research useful in commercial and cultural projects, and to ensure academics engage with commerce and culture. Our partners have improved their business models, developed new insights, or instigated new cultural strategies as a result of their work with us….   We provide a consultancy service for partners from businesses and organisations in the cultural sector, developing new modes of working and informing public policy.  We demonstrate creative online techniques, assist our partners in developing new strategies, and work on online prototypes.

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My interest was especially captured by a recent blog post on InteractiveCultures by Jon Hickman (Social Capital & Social Media) that resonated with my prior work on the social capital created by a nightclub district in North Richmond, California and research on online musical communities. Hickman expands upon an earlier conference paper to make a simple, yet important, point: a community created by social media is not simply a network but a culture dependent on the availability of social capital to its members. The social capital created by social media is not equivalent to that described by Robert Putman in his landmark Bowling Alone (which built on the work of earlier sociologists, such as M.S. Granovelter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties”) but firmly in line with the earlaier use of the term by Pierre Bourdieu as:

…aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition (Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. 1986, p.248)

Eschewing the theoretical frameworks and formulas placed on the analysis of social capital by Putnam (and others that came before and after him), this approach simply acknowledges “that social capability can confer power upon individuals and groups.” As Hickman states, “… that is the key issue at the basis of much that is interesting about social media.” Further, this approach opens up many interesting questions. The one Hickman addresses is how social media communities use social capital to work together for a particular benefit to the community. Community members utilize the potential social capital “resource” that existed and “was activated by a set of social media practices, delivering benefit to its collective owners. Without the social capital, the clever social media tools would be useless.” The last sentence is crucial to remember when examining social media practices — it’s not the technology but the members that have agency.

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 24, 2010 at 5:13 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Thanks for your input on this topic, Jeffrey. Glad you like the direction of our work too. If work brings you to Birmingham, UK be sure to stop by for a coffee.

    Jon Hickman

    July 27, 2010 at 2:09 am

    • Thanks Jon. & we’re now LinkedIn — look forward to that coffee either in Birmingham or here in San Francisco — best, Jeff

      Jeffrey Callen

      July 27, 2010 at 9:03 am

  2. […] Social Media & Social Capital (an applied approach) « Deciphering Culture – Possible Worlds says: […]


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