Agency is the ability to respond to events outside of one’s immediate sphere of influence to produce a desired effect. It is the intentional causality and process that brings about a novel state of affairs which would not have occurred otherwise (Bhaskar 1994, 100). While networks can build social capital, based on previous research, agency at both the individual and collective levels is needed to mobilize this social capital for sustainable community development (Dale and Onyx 2005). Thus, both agency and social capital must be available in a community in order to affect meaningful change (Krishna 2001), and respond to impacts external to a community that are often beyond the control of the community to predict. This research will explore the relationship between agency and a community’s capacity for bridging and linking social capital. The capacity for creative action is a function of ability to obtain non-redundant information from one’s social networks, to not be bound by the pressure to conform, to be able to afford taking risks, and to sustain a trust in innovative behaviour (Reuf 2002). With both social capital and agency, further agency and social capital can be created (Harvey 2002), resulting in a “virtuous” cycle for sustainable community development. Network formation as encouraged through the accumulation of bridging social capital can increase agency, allowing further bridging capital to be gathered.
This research focus will build upon previous research on network properties that generate social capital and the mechanisms by which social capital contributes to sustainable development in several ways. First, it will draw upon the existing data generated from five case studies of network formation to identify the critical actors (or connectors) from those case studies. Second, a series in-depth interviews and on-line focus groups will be conducted with these actors to determine what role agency played in the deepening of network formation and the building of bridging and linking social capital. Of particular interest to this research are those network mechanisms that have contributed to increased access to more diverse resources critical to the sustainability of case study communities.
Agency’s Role in Community Sustainable Development
There are several aspects of agency and social capital likely to be important to sustainable community development: The presence or absence of ‘connectors’; the openness to new ideas and individuals; structural resilience of networks; capacity to resolve power and conflict issues and evidence of bridging and linking social capital. Groups that are strong in bonding capital but weak in bridging capital can be maladaptive as they can be resistant but not resilient to change (Larsen et al. 2004). Social capital alone does not always encourage diversity (Onyx and Bullen, 2000). Bonding social capital can trap people in maladaptive situations (Borgatti & Foster, 2003), as strong social norms can discourage innovations and the willingness to adapt solutions from outside the group. An overabundance of bonding capital can also negatively impact agency, leading to networks that have dense ties based on strong interpersonal relations, but are incapable of developing bridging or linking social capital in the face of change, particularly change based on forces external to the community. The extent to which network memberships overlap, or bridge, affects the ability of persons in one context to call for assistance from another context (Dale and Onyx 2005).
This continuing research program exploring the dynamic interactions between agency, social capital and sustainable community development is critical to understanding how one community has the capacity to transcend either an ecological or economic crisis, while others collapse or wither away. We suspect that the dynamics of ‘agency’ may be one of the most critical factors in successful transitions at both the individual and collective levels. This work has implications for both government social and economic policy development at the local, provincial and federal levels and could ultimately lead to better targeted and more effective strategic policy development.