Research Essay: Generating social capital through networking opportunities created by Highway Africa

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Reporting in Africa

Prof. G. Berger

Journalism and Media Studies Honours

Lynsey Chutel


Research Essay:

Generating social capital through networking opportunities created by Highway Africa


I hereby declare that this essay is my own work. I have acknowledged all the authors’ ideas and referenced direct quotations from their work. I have not allowed anyone else to borrow or copy my work.

Lynsey Chutel

6 November 2008

Executive Summary

In its twelfth year, Highway Africa has become a Pan-African event that attracts a host of media practitioners and academics from across the African continent as well as further a field, providing a unique networking opportunity. As it has grown and developed, the conference has also become an umbrella event, under which parallel events such as the Digital Citizens Indaba takes place. With its main focus on Information and Communication Technologies, the conference has aimed to develop this through dialogue and training. However, the unique social, political and cultural aspects of the African continent still hinder the progress of ICTs. Whether the conference has made any social impact may best be measured through the people who attend it. In this way, it may be possible to assess the social capital generated by the networks created at Highway Africa.


This research essay is focussed on social impact created through the Highway Conference. Its objective is to assess the social impact of the conference. It will clearly state the research object. It will give an outline of the conceptual framework of social capital theory in relation to networks. It will describe the context of the conference itself. It will describe the methodology and explain why it has used the in-depth interview method as the most effective. The sample used will be described, with a brief profile given of each interviewee. Finally, it will provide a summary of the findings and attempt an analysis thereof.

Research Objectives

This research will attempt to assess the social impact of the annual Highway Africa conference through the generation of social capital through networking during this conference.


  • To investigate networks and their sustainability.

  • To assess the proportion, character and dynamic of internal connections within the network.

Social Capital:

  • To assess what social capital is generated by networking.

  • To understand social capital and varying perceptions of it.

  • To assess the social impact of the Highway Africa conference.

Conceptual Framework

Social Capital is the conceptual framework through which the social impact of the Highway Africa conference will be discussed. Social Capital theory extends the potential for impact assessment of networks by assessing the activity of the networks created at the conference. It is important to note that networks do not necessarily produce social capital. Rather, when a network is active, it yields a specific capital that would not have been achieved by an individual effort (Field in Berger, 2008).

The definition of social capital by Putnam (1995) that will be used by this research paper is favoured as it includes the characteristics of social capital.

Features of social life – networks, norms, and trust – that enable participants

to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives…Social capital,

in short, refers to social connections and the attendant norms and trust.

(Halpern, 2005: 1)

Despite the particularly economic terminology employed, social capital is inherently socially positive, existing in favour of the public good. Networks are not themselves necessarily public entities nor do they always function for the public good. Networks “are clusters of norms, values and expectancies that are shared by group members” (Putnam, 2005:10). Network theory (Cohen & Prusak in Berger, 2008:17) proposes that for socially beneficial networks to exist they should entail “regular communications and bonds characterized by some degree of trust and altruism”, and they are based on individuals investing time, money, energy and emotion. Social capital theory focuses specifically on the benefits that may be derived from networks.

For the sake of assessing the sustainability of the networks created at the Highway Africa Conference, the Marxian perspective is used. From the Marxian perspective, “capital [is] the dynamic of investing money to acquire more money, and investing this for yet more, and so on ad infinitum” (Berger, 2008:21). This perspective sees capital as foremost a social relation which allows the researcher to translate Marx’s economic terms to the social networks created. Extending this to a structuralist perspective, it is possible to assess the Highway Africa conference as a structure that is able to facilitate and “compel” the “continuous investment and reinvestment in productivity” (Berger, 2008:21).

Social capital is the human variable of the economic perspective. The existence of social fabric that is inherent in the communication and interaction that occurs in networks is inherently beneficial to the individuals and communities that participate within that network (Putnam, 2005:2). Adding a humanist and socially responsible aspect to social capital is to take into account the pooled resources that are available to members of a network. But it is important to take heed of the power relations that occur and may hinder the distribution of resources to various members of the community (Putnam, 2005). There exists the possibility of the political economy of resource distribution within the network- who gets what and why?

Social capital theory is not only able to assess the existence of social relations in the networks present at Highway Africa, it also able to assess the strength of these relations through the connections between networks. These connections may either be categorised according to bonding, bridging, which are described as the functional subtypes of social capital (Putnam, 2005:19).

Bonding is the strongest type of connection. These connections are often created between people who are similar to them. This is often an inward looking network, that although it encourages reciprocity and solidarity, it often leads to a lack of diversity. In its assimilationist character, it may weaken the possibility of bridging capital. The links created by bridging, sometimes referred to as linking, are weaker connections that are outward looking and are able to encompass individuals from a diverse background (Putnam, 2005). “While bonding is good for getting by; bridging is good for getting ahead. The drive for social capital promotes internal group cohesion…” (Berger, 2008:25). Linking is perhaps the ‘loosest’ form of network connection and may be a by-product of bridging. Linking allows for access to a wider source of social capital. Although ties are comparatively weaker, linkage relations allows for connections to be created up and down the social and economic scale.

Social capital theory views the above categorisations holistically, recognising the connectivity between the different types of social capital created. The dynamic nature of the connections created is complimented by the dynamic nature of communication. Communication is the means through which Highway Africa delegates are able to access the social capital created across networks and how they are in turn able to reinvest in this capital. The types of connections generated are additionally dependent on how delegates choose to communicate; their competency and capacity to communicate with their colleagues. This view of communication also sensitises researchers to the inequalities and relationships between delegates (Berger, 2005).

As is necessary for a functioning network, the production of social capital rests largely on the creation of an environment of trust and participation. Trust refers to the “trust of others in the network, and of institutions which provide security for the networks maintenance” (Berger, 2008:22). Media practitioners thus have not only to trust their colleagues and the organisations such as donors and media organisations that they form networks with, it is also necessary for them to trust the integrity of the Highway Africa conference itself. The use of social capital theory therefore allows not only the benefits and investments of delegates, but the function of the conference itself. It is important for the generation of social capital that the conference is viewed as a worthwhile investment from the point of delegates.

Reciprocity is not, however, a requirement for generating social capital, especially at Highway Africa (which is why it is important to note that social capital is not necessarily a transactionary phenomenon). Reciprocity may not necessarily occur among individual delegates, however at the macro-level of the conference, during the exchange of ideas and information, feedback as well as the training provided by the conference. Nonetheless, it is possible to assess then social capital credit or debt of delegates. Social capital theory is able to assess which delegates - be they individuals or organisations – are able to benefit more or less from the conference and are able to reinvest and increase social relations and capital thanks to the conference. This may be utilised to assess the extent to which Highway Africa creates South African-centric networks (Berger, 2008).

Social capital theory is further helpful in that it allows one to take into account the intended and unintended effects of the networks of Highway Africa. This is due to the view that social capital is not always purposely generated. According to Cohen and Prusak (Berger, 2008:23), social capital is generated between individuals but contributes to the social capital of the organisations. In this, the social capital generated between delegates contributes to the social impact of Highway Africa. The instrumentalist view of social capital theory sees social capital as intentionally generated through the “investment in social relations with expected theory” (Lin in Berger, 2008:23).

Berger (2008:23) suggests that is possible to assess the social impact of Highway Africa through social capital created by networking opportunities at Highway Africa. This takes into account the aspect of trust in generating social capital. Trust cannot be intentionally manufactured, but is the product of a viable environment. It must be noted, however, that the conference could either encourage or discourage this, depending on how its organisational structure. A sense of purpose is able to foster this trust and it is hoped that the planned meeting of media practitioners and organisations with a specific purpose will foster this environment. Here, it is also necessary to note “pleasure” component of creating social networks. In conversation, delegates will be able to exchange the knowledge, values and objectives that are seen as the resource of social capital theory. Highway Africa creates a space and time for delegates to exchange stories and create memories that generate sustainable social capital (Berger, 2008).

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