Social Capital in Outdoor Adventure? We are here to have fun man. Yeah, the fun could seriously lead to profits!
In one of my MSc modules Social Theory and Outdoor Education, I explored the relevance of Social Capital to the field and, in turn, its benefits. It was a great assignment because my analysis of the topic affirms my belief on the relevance of outdoor education in both business settings and our daily lives.
In this article, I will share the idea of using outdoor adventure programmes for building social capital in business.
First thing first, what is social capital?
Social capital is a term used to signify the importance and value of creating relationships (Field, 2003). Robert Putnam, one of the idea’s proponents defined it as ‘connections among individuals’ resulting in ‘social networks and the norms or reciprocity and trustworthiness’ (2000).
A common theme of social capital brought forth by different scholars, such as Hanifan (1916), Bourdieu (1986), Coleman (1988) and Putnam (2000), is that fostering connections and relationships between people could yield positive benefits to both individual and society.
Benefits of Social Capital
Social capital benefits both individuals and communities by enabling all parties involved to be more effective in working towards common goals. Putnam (2000) explained three main operations of social capital. First, social capital helps people resolve conflicts and problems easier through cooperation. Second, social capital helps communities to progress smoothly due to high levels of trust by reducing unnecessary costs. Third, the connections created through social capital increase people’s social awareness between themselves and others. In addition, social capital also acts as a mean for the flow of useful information. Through these mechanisms, social capital is able to bring about economic, cultural and social benefits (Johnston & Percy-Smith, 2003). Examples of these benefits include lower crime rates, lower transaction costs, more efficient governance, better family ties and access to employment.
Foundations of Social Capital – Generalised Reciprocity and Trust
Putnam introduced ‘generalized reciprocity’ as the foundation of social capital which he described as:
‘I’ll do this for you now, without expecting anything immediately in return and perhaps without even knowing you, confident that down the road you or someone else will return the favour’.
The concept ‘generalized reciprocity’ – not being certain that the favour will be returned demonstrates a high level of trust. In other words, in order for a society of generalised reciprocity to exist, people need to be both trusting and trustworthy.
I support Putnam’s ideas because it could result in more productive and efficient life for all. Especially in today’s fast-paced and hectic world, anything which is inefficient and disconnected will lose out.
Social Capital in Outdoor Adventure
The opportunities to build social capital through outdoor education are abundant. Without going into analysing multi-days hard adventure kind of programmes, we could generally observe a few components of an outdoor education programme which inherently build social capital.
1. Strangers Meeting For The First Time
Most commonly, people meet up strangers at the beginning of a programme. We could easily recall how at least the first hour of a programme being filled with ice breakers and trust building activities. Through such activities, participants begin to develop multi-directional trust between one another. The newly forged understanding will then be brought forth to subsequent activities.
2. Participants Physically Supporting One Another
Outdoor activities are characteristically physical involving at least two persons. Rock climbing requires a climber and belayer. Tent-pitching requires a team to hold on to the tents’ corners while the guylines are being secured. Solving team games requires the planners and doers. In short, everyone is physically helping out, hence further strengthening the relationships.
3. Teammates Emotionally Supporting One Another
In order for a particular activity or obstacle could be completed, participants are sometimes (or normally) physically challenged. Such situations normally brought forth the encouraging cheers and morale support from their fellow teammates. I personally observe that the positive actions came about without being called for or expecting a return.
With trust and reciprocity, there is always an air of positive bonds being forged during an outdoor programme.
Returning Home With The ‘Spoils’ of Social Capital
As illustrated earlier, social capital could be developed in an outdoor education programme. Imagine the programme participants to comprise of your department staff or a group of CEOs, the connection and understanding forged could go a long way benefiting from your company to a network of partnering organisations.
Enough of ballroom-style retreats, bring your team out for a climb, trek or sail. Your investment into building social capital will bear their fruits in the long run.
Here is a great video to illustrate this simple yet powerful idea.
Beames, S., & Atencio, M. (2008). Building social capital through outdoor education. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 8(2), 99-112.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.