Knowledge and Learning in Online Networks in Development: A Social Capital Perspective

Sarah Cummings, Richard Heeks, Marleen Huysman


The paper examines whether the concept of social capital can be applied to facilitate our understanding of online networks in development. It first argues that knowledge and learning are important to development and development actors. Much of the knowledge generation and social learning in development takes place in networks. These networks, now increasingly going online, thus have an important role to play in facilitating social learning and the improvement of development practices. Although there seems to be a general feeling that these online networks are a positive force in development, there are many unknowns about these networks, partly because they are in their infancy. New ideas and tools are needed to facilitate our understanding.

The concept of social capital has been applied to examine the functioning of groups and societies. More recently, it has also been applied to development and to online networks outside development. Given this background, it may offer a useful approach for increasing understanding of online networks in development. With this objective in mind, three non-development approaches for examining social capital in online networks and communities are reviewed. Elements of these approaches, into which development-related aspects are incorporated, are combined to produce a framework which aims to facilitate the analysis of social capital in online networks in a development context.

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Educator's guide

Synopsis questions

  1. Why is knowledge important to development? [part A]
  2. What role can online networks play in generating knowledge for development? What issues arise in such networks? [part B]
  3. What is social capital, and how applicable is it as a concept to online development networks? [part C]
  4. What criticisms can be levelled at social capital as a development-related concept? [part D]
  5. What models can be used to characterise social capital in online networks? [part E]
  6. Outline the proposed framework for analysis of social capital in online development networks. [part F]

Development questions

  1. How could an understanding of social capital help you to manage an online development network, and to make that network produce knowledge for development?
  2. Has the proposed framework addressed issues that arise in online development networks, and criticisms of social capital?
  3. Reflect on your own experience online. Is this a good way to produce knowledge? Is social capital better or worse in virtual as opposed to 'real' networks? From your answers, what conclusions can you draw about online development networks?