Gorbis’ reflections on Soviet childhood and social capital

Marina Gorbis weaves recollections of her childhood in Soviet Ukraine into a compelling story about the once and future importance of social capital:

What bridged the gap was the informal economy, an economy driven by social rather than financial capital. This economy was deeply rooted in the myriad relationships people like my mother used to acquire goods, services, information, education, and many other things. They did not do this consciously–no one was teaching them how to grow their network or increase their following the way many social marketers are eager to teach us today, they just did this to survive. The web of social relationships was an invisible fabric that permeated the economic life and made that particular society work.

Social capital has served a critical role in the economic life of the Soviet Union and continues to do so in many poorer countries today. Teodor Shanin, an eminent sociologist, has invented a field of study called “peasantology,” which looks at how people survive in informal economies. Shanin argues that peasants inhabit an economic structure entirely different from either capitalism or socialism. The key element of the peasant economic structure is the existence of dense and vibrant social and family networks that provide members access to necessary resources. Researchers observed the phenomenon first in Africa years ago where they could not find any economic explanation for how the majority of the population survived. They didn’t own land. They didn’t seem to have any assets.

Long post, but worth a read.  The cynic in me is often reluctant to proclaim anything “game-changing” or “a paradigm shift” while living it–the business press and people who feel obligated to overuse the label “2.0” have fouled that nest–but I suspect this is more true than not:

We are witnessing a rise in what I call information-driven sociality — sociality that derives from our ability to get direct access to strangers and remove their anonymity by giving us access to information trails they leave behind, thus providing us with knowledge about many aspects of their selves–interests, reputations, online contributions, musical tastes, even buying preferences. In the process, the raison d’etre for many types of organizations we created over the past few centuries — organizations needed for aggregating resources and enabling transactions between anonymous strangers — is disappearing. Amplified with the collective intelligence, access, and resources embedded in social connections with multitudes of others, we are now increasingly able to achieve the kind of scale and reach previously achievable only by large organizations.

Driven by information-driven sociality, the next decade will usher in a whole new array of organizational models, new forms of currencies, and new sets of work practices. At the same time we will need to create new regulatory frameworks suited for organizational forms based on principles of social connectivity and familiarity.

The contrarian view would be that this is a process that happens all the time, albeit perhaps with minor perturbations.  I wonder, though, whether a major recession, communications tools that are disappearing behind their uses, and an appetite for “free” are creating more churn than usual.

3 responses to “Gorbis’ reflections on Soviet childhood and social capital

  1. could you please identify the urls for those two long quotes? i don’t find them here. and i’d like to take a look.

    the points about the informal economy relate to mexico: one reason it’s system did not collapse in mid 1980s (when some analysts were predicting it would) was because of enduring strength of informal and kinship networks that gave the unemployed some back-up options. one reason that the old-line PRI party did well in this month’s elections in mexico may be because of a longing, esp among urban street vendors and others in the informal economy, to go back to less restrictive, more corruptible ways of doing business.

  2. Sorry I omitted the links. They are there now.

    Interesting observations on Mexico. I had some similar thoughts about Zambia, Kenya, and Colombia.

  3. Pingback: Week in Public Organizations, 20Jul2009 « PublicOrgTheory

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