This workshop builds on the interest of the Academy in social capital (particularly Marginson’s Investing in Social Capital and Manderson’s Re-Thinking Well-Being) by taking up the challenges foreshadowed by this earlier work of the ASSA. The concept of social capital continues to be the subject of heated discussion and debate in both social policy and social science arenas. However, there appears to be a growing gulf between the manner and effect by which each set of discourses is being played out. Despite its omnipresence in the realms of both public policy and academic discourse in Australia, a serious collaborative examination of social capital appears to be more elusive than it has ever been since it became such a commonly employed term during the past decade. In social and public policy, a contemporary observation might argue that social capital has been so ‘captured’ by both progressive and conservative ideological interests that its policy application not only has an often questionable normative basis but is now incapable of critical analysis. Similarly, a critical overview of Australian social science analysis of social capital might suggest that social capital’s potential usefulness as a concept to strengthen public policy and social justice is not helped by academia’s entrenched disciplinary silos that invariably limit the gaze which is cast on social capital.

Occasional moments have provided the opportunity for advocates from public policy, the community sector and social sciences to ‘unpack’ the utility or otherwise of social capital although these inevitably are defined by their sector content (eg health, education, housing, etc.) above and beyond a primary focus on social capital. The only ongoing opportunity for such a gathering nationally occurred briefly during the late 1990s via a series of ‘social capital think tanks’ convened by the Department of Family & Community Services, and to a lesser extent through the social capital work of The Australian Institute of Family Studies, culminating in Ian Winter’s (2000) edited book ‘Social Capital & Public Policy in Australia’, to date the only published work that has gone close to capturing the extent of Australian academic interest in social capital. However, many emerging and established scholars have since enlivened and enriched the debates about social capital in this country without being able to gather their collective wisdom within a single forum. The sustained interest in social capital within the public sector warrants the inclusion of several participants from selected government departments.

The workshop can also be a platform to move towards some consensus on what are distinctly Australian approaches to the study and application of social capital theory, an analytical approach that has been taken up successfully in the United Kingdom (Halpern 2005), Europe (Koniordos 2005) and the United States (Putnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’ and the flurry of publications responding to it). It is recognised that previous ASSA workshops have focussed on social capital in particular contexts (poverty, working mothers) but with the direct influence and support already enlisted of current ASSA Fellows (Manderson, Lawrence, Western), the proposed workshop will attempt to cast a larger net in terms of social capital and public policy. In particular, the workshop promises highlighting some of the emerging areas where social capital theory is being rigorously scrutinised such as in immigrant, refugee and indigenous communities and in natural resource management along with developments in the more traditional social policy arenas of family, health and housing. Hence, this workshop provides many scholars not only with the chance to debate critical aspects of social capital in a multidisciplinary setting but will also selectively invite several of the so-called ‘architects’ of social capital-oriented public policy initiatives at Federal, State and Local Government levels to participate. Such a congregation is arguably (and only partially) replicated at the annual UNSW social policy conference but is stretched by the demands of a conference addressing such a diverse range of social issues. A workshop with a concentrated focus on social capital enables a number of key themes to be addressed:

  • the extent to which contemporary scholarship on social capital is reflected in current social and public policy at local, state and federal government levels
  • whether particular disciplinary interpretations and understandings of social capital are more or less likely to strengthen public policy and social justice
  • how various efforts to measure social capital have benefited or weakened public policy
  • exploring the utility of closely related concepts (well-being, quality of life) as effective alternatives to strengthening public policy and social justice
  • identifying more effective means of aligning theory and practice through establishing more permanent dialogues and forums about social capital.