The importance of social capital in crises

October 5, 2014
In our Crisis Informatics class, we’ve discussed ways to use information and communication technology (ICT) and social media for crisis information management, and we’ve discussed more traditional methods. But in real world situations we’re reading about, there is not such a clear dichotomy between these methods of handling crisis information. It’s usually more of a blend. I noticed a common theme in our readings — that no matter the format of information, there is a huge value in social capital.
Patrick Meier defines social capital as “those ‘features of social organizations, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit.'” He goes on to say that not only does social capital increase “a group’s capacity for collective action and thus self-organization, which is a key driver of disaster resilience,” but “case studies suggest that social capital is more important for disaster resilience than physical and financial capital.”
It’s easy to imagine the value of social networks after (or during) a disaster, especially in the immediate aftermath, before the government and NGOs have been mobilized. In chapter 8 of CIM, “Community media and civic action in response to volcanic hazards,” Birowo remarks on “the importance of social capital, especially social networks [which] have value that can help people coordinate their activities” (p. 150). This is demonstrated by community radio, which at the time of a disaster, already has established networks in the community that it can activate (CIM, p. 141). During the eruptions on Merapi, volunteers not only kept the community radio stations running, but they also found other creative ways to alleviate the disaster’s damage. When the radio station went offline due to evacuations, volunteers pitched in with aid to refugees (CIM p.147-148).
It’s interesting to see that social capital has value even on digital networks. For instance, in her chapter in Crisis Information Management, Kate Starbird mentions a Chilean woman (Twitter handle @Clandrea) who was a valuable contact after the 2010 earthquake. Starbird writes, “the importance of a local advocate who can localize such a socio-technical effort cannot be underestimated.” @Clandrea “had both international and local influence during the event,” using TtT syntax, and retweeting tweets from Project EPIC. She demonstrated that it’s not just how many relevant tweets are sent, “but rather who sends them.” She goes on to say that “ideal messengers … are recognized as having local authority during an emerging event” (CIM p. 56).
The lesson I’ve learned is that no matter the method of information management, it’s important to remember that it’s about connecting humans to humans — creating networks to help communities rebound after crises.

One Response to “The importance of social capital in crises”

  1. Excellent reflections Robin, particularly your last comment. Often social networking is thought of in the context of technical tools i.e Facebook etc. Social networks are not new; they have been a topic for study for many decades – human to human without the tools!