There are numerous definitions from the different literatures, namely the psychological and social.  For example, Harvey (2002) defines agency as “the capacity of persons to transform existing states of affairs”. Other definitions include “the capacity of the individual to plan and initiate action” (Onyx and Bullen 2000), and 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). Bandura’s social cognitive theory investigates agency from the perspective of intentionality, forethought, self-reactiveness and self-refectiveness and highlights that “perceived collective agency is not simply the sum of the efficacy beliefs of individual members. . .it is an emergent level property (2000, p. 75). Bandura’s self-efficacy theory is based on the belief that human agency—not just impersonal forces hard-wired into our brains—affects our behaviour and life choices.

Networks are composed of actors connected by ties, different ties create different networks (Borgatti & Foster 2003), sometimes referred to as social capital. Social capital ties can be bonding, bridging and vertical linkages. Researchers suggest that an increase in the size and density of networks will have positive effects on a community.

Social capital is defined as the norms and networks that facilitate collective action (Woodcock 2001), focusing on the relationships within and between them (Schuler 2001).  Social capital, at its core, is about cooperation and how it emerges through human relationships. Social capital supply is built on active connections between people. The glue holding these connections together is made of trust, mutual understanding, shared values, and behaviours that bind people in networks. Importantly, social capital determines world-views that regulate the flow of resources and energy from ecosystems (Sparkes, 2005 citing Putnam, 1995). Developing social capital in support of sustainable development requires engagement, trust building, cooperation, development of collective norms, diffusion of knowledge, and a shared vision of the future (Dale, 2005) citing Bohm and Nichol; Dale; Etzioni and Robinson (1996; 2001; 2000; 2004).

Social capital has three different types of ties, one, bonding and two linking ties, bridging and vertical.

Bondingties refer to the close relations usually experienced among family members, physically proximate friends and neighbours (Woolcock, 2001). These networks are highly personal and thus tend to be closed to people with interests and affiliations in common.

Bridging ties refer to horizontally linked relationships between networks held together by bonding social capital, and the relationships tend to be more impersonal as the linkages are established for strategic reasons. They are often characterized by weak and opportunistic ties that facilitate access to resources and opportunities that exist in other networks. Here, trust is often more thinly held.


Vertical ties refer to connections between a network or networks to political and financial decision-makers.  They are also characterized by weak and opportunistic ties and are viewed as “the capacity [for a community] to lever resources, ideas and information from formal institutions beyond the community” (Woolcock, 2001:13).

Sustainable development can be regarded as a process of reconciliation of three imperatives: (i) the ecological imperative to live within global biophysical carrying capacity and maintain biodiversity; (ii) the social imperative to ensure the development of democratic systems of governance to sustain the values that people wish to live by; and (iii) the economic imperative to ensure that basic needs are met worldwide (Dale 2001; Robinson and Tinker 1997).

Sustainable development is often criticized for being an ambiguous concept. The process of reconciliation (Dale & Onyx, 2005) or the practice of incorporating social, environmental and economic considerations into decision making and life decisions is the power behind the concept.