The Quiet Strength of a Large Network
December 2007
Decreasing evenings with friends, dinners with family, and association meetings in the U.S.A. is compromising the country’s economic efficiency. This is only one of the surprising observations made Robert Putnam, an American political scientist and author of “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”. This book has had such great success since its publication in 1995 that organizations, such as the World Bank and Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) were inspired to use its concept to integrate elements of social development into their projects.

As for our cooperatives, social capital brings to mind a person’s stock in becoming a member. Let’s just forget about this for now. Political scientists view social capital as a representation of a person’s social relationships. In other words, an individual’s personal network. According to Putnam, the social capital of a society constitutes a public good that can significantly increase its efficacy. Which means, the stronger the interpersonal relationships, the more resilient the social fibre, the better society will be. In fact, when a person socializes and builds networks, that person increases his or her world of intangible assets: participation, trust, reciprocity and tolerance. In fact, such values reduce the cost of transactions within the collective. Trust, for example. If I work on a project with someone I trust, there will be no need for extensive formalities, legal advice, guarantees, personal and professional research on my future partner, etc. The project can then be completed within a shorter timeframe and at a lesser cost. Which brings me to why I believe Putnam said that social capital allows a society to function more efficiently.

Definitely something to think about. And along this same line, the American economist, Francis Fukuyama, noted that “Asia’s developing economies owe their success to forms of social capital that are often considered insignificant, such as trust, the feeling of belonging and social integration”. When he looks at the United Stated and the United Kingdom, he predicts that their proclivity toward individualism will soon undermine their respective economies. Uh, oh… Let’s not forget that we too are open to egoism.

I’m glad to see that the Québec government, in its sustainable development strategy, supports involvement in the community, community action and democracy. Community action, as stated in the government brief, “ultimately targets social development and is exemplified by organization that try to improve the social fabric and living conditions…”. Correct. We need to shout it loud and clear for everyone to hear: our cooperatives are part of such organizations that heavily contribute to Québec’s social capital.

In terms of our network, and with the scene set for Chrysalide, which will entail a huge restructuring, social capital will be stretched thin. All over. Areas of participation and control will remain intact and where they are most needed, which means close to producers who are the very foundation of our network. It’s the principle of subsidiarity, which is required by any approach to sustainable development. However, with Chrysalide, structural angst will be part of the whole. And that’s when we need to remember that it is people, much more than structures, that make a difference. Yes, people. Our people. Our social capital. Everything that symbolizes solidarity and mutual aid is needed to carry out this huge endeavour. Thank goodness our network has been developing its social capital for nearly a century – we should have enough stock by now, don’t you think? And the beauty of this type of social capital is that… the more we use it, the more it multiplies! So why not be generous.


Colette Lebel, agr.
Director of Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: (514) 858-2025


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