and Resources in Social Practice
Sarah White and Mark Ellison
(Watzlawick et al 1994:xi)
The story suggests a number of cautions for any attempt to advance a naïve, realist account of the resources that people have at their disposal. It points, first, to the way that the character of resources is given by the context in which they are perceived - and the potentially radical way in which they may be re-conceived and creatively deployed. Second it shows the importance of agency, that it is human subjects and their reading of their needs and what they wish to achieve in the situation they face, that defines how resources are understood - and indeed, whether things are perceived as resources at all. Third, it points to the importance of relationship, and the significance of social identities and power relations to both the capacity to use resources and the outcomes of that use. Finally, it points to the indeterminacy of social practice. However great the creative inspiration of the commandant, the success of his action depended on the response of his opponents. Had they reacted otherwise, the fate of his community and the history of that part of the world would have been very different.
This paper considers the significance of these points to the use of 'resources' as a conceptual category in attempts to comprehend wellbeing. Against the dominant tendency to see resources as stable, fixed categories of assets, we argue that what constitutes a resource in any given context depends primarily on the purposes of the people involved. Resources offer means to an end. Only when one has a goal in mind can one identify what resources one has to secure it. For policy makers, therefore, understanding the ends, or purposes, that people wish to pursue must logically precede any identification of the resources they may use to achieve their aims. The social comprehends the economic.
We begin with a brief introduction to the concept of wellbeing and the livelihood frameworks which inform approaches to wellbeing in development studies. Noting that these break the view that 'resources' or 'capital' comprise only income and productive assets, we ask how much more work such frameworks can do. To pursue this we explore further the social processes through which resources are constituted and deployed. We note how different goods may be classified by different writers as different kinds of resource. Education, for example, is seen by most as 'human capital', but Bourdieu sees it as cultural and symbolic capital. Rather than seeing one of these as right and one wrong, we can see that in practice education may function in both ways. To progress we need to de-stabilise the reified usage of 'capital' and 'resources'. First, this means opening the space to differentiate between (tangible and intangible) goods that can be observed objectively to exist, and the transformation of such goods into resources (or capital) when they are perceived by people as offering the means to meet a particular end. Second, it means questioning the relations between different categories of resource. Rather than seeing specific goods as constituting always a particular type of resource, we suggest it may be more useful to say that all goods have the potential for use as material, social (or political) and symbolic resources. The next section re-locates to the dingy kitchen of a couple of Caribbean share-croppers, to consider a what the cooking of an omelette shows of how subjectivity determines the character of resources and how social structure and agency articulate with this. For theoretical clarification we draw in particular on Bourdieu's concept of habitus, which we consider to be particularly apposite for a focus on wellbeing because it offers an unusually holistic view of human experience, connecting the bodily to the social, and the social to the psychological.
In the final section we note that the value of broadening definitions of 'capital' or 'resources' from the material or financial to include the social or cultural is not self-evident: it becomes meaningful in the context of a policy discourse which privileges economic understandings of what is important. We seek in this section to open up in a very preliminary way the big questions about what constitutes this dominant discourse, and how we might begin to approach things differently. We argue that in place of a reified focus on resources, we should focus on livelihoods and attempts to secure wellbeing as forms of social practice, and consider in particular the negotiation of identities and social relations that these involve. We also argue the importance of consider the needs and purposes of planners and policymakers, and how these shape the concepts and frameworks that are used. We close by calling for a more self-aware, and better theorised approach of social analysis for development and wellbeing, which recognises the creativity and indeterminacy of social practice, and expects to be surprised.
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