Rural families, industry change and social capital: some considerations for policy.

AuthorSampson, Kaylene


Rural communities are an important part of New Zealand society, and the New Zealand economy is highly dependent on rural-based activities. Substantial changes occurring in the rural economy have the potential to significantly affect local communities. This study has taken a social capital perspective to examine how 12 rural families have attempted to resolve dilemmas that have arisen as a consequence of local industry change. This change included the loss of the forestry industry, and growth in the tourism and dairy sectors. The social responses observed highlight the strong presence and substantial buffering role of social capital in assisting rural people to balance family, work and community life. We suggest that the level of self-determination afforded to the community and control over the processes required to amass social capital are fundamental to successfully fostering it. Agencies taking approaches that embrace the norms inherent in social capital itself, such as trust, reciprocity and mutuality, will be advantaged in their capacity to "bring along" families and community. These insights will be discussed in terms of their social policy implications.


In New Zealand's Westland District the closure of the local indigenous timber industry alongside rapid growth of the dairy and tourism sectors has produced dilemmas for families and communities as they attempt to adjust to the social consequences of rapid industry change. Drawing on a social capital perspective and a case study of 12 Westland families, this project examines how rural families bring balance to aspects of the three actions defined by Arendt as being essential to "the human condition": family, work and community life. The findings reveal significant insights into how social capital is effectively reproduced in times of change. These insights are discussed in terms of their social policy implications.

Fifty years ago Hannah Arendt (1958) published The Human Condition. In this work she contended that there are three types of action required to be "fully human". The first two of these actions, engagement in family life and paid work, are necessary for human existence in contemporary society. The third action she called vim activa, or public life: a life that is actioned within jointly built civil spaces. Within these spaces we are capable of debate, we share actions and we resolve collective dilemmas (Arendt 1958). Arendt reminds us that the absence of, or over-attention to, any one aspect of the human condition is likely to be problematic.

A half a century on from Arendt's original thesis, public policy continues to debate aspects of vita activa and democratic governments still seek to engage vita activa in economically and socially productive ways. Working out the shifting balance between family life, paid work and vita activa is a crucial aspect of responding effectively to significant social change, be it local issues (such as natural disaster relief) or meeting the challenges that arise as a consequence of external or global forces (such as the loss of a core industry). The concept of social capital has been used as a way to recognise and gauge vita activa (Cox 1995).

The term "social capital" originated, in part, in an attempt to understand how "those features of social organisation, such as trust, norms and networks can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions" (Putnam 1993). Voluntary or joint social actions provide the opportunity to resolve collective dilemmas. Individuals achieve this through the development and use of social bonds and networks as resources to facilitate productive activity (Coleman 1988). By maintaining the social relationships and structures necessary for collective activity, individuals, families and communities are able to realise some of these benefits, and in doing so can resolve some of the issues they face in common.

Collective social activity relies upon networks made up of social ties. Close friends (strong ties) have frequent and overlapping contact within the social cluster or group, forming a "densely knit clump of social structure" (Granovetter 1983:202). On the other hand, acquaintances (weak ties) are often diverse and heterogeneous in experiences and social location. They are not known by all within one's social circle, and the level of engagement with them is often much less (Granovetter 1983). Both types of ties are important for cooperative social action. Weak ties allow access to a different set of resources, ideas or people that may be necessary to address issues or resolve problems. Strong ties provide networks imbued with social memories of successful past collaboration, which function as a kind of "cultural template" for future collective action (Putnam 1995). Strong bonding ties allow individuals to "get by", while weak bridging ties enable them to "get ahead" (Woodhouse 2006:86).

The networks that are drawn on to enable response to shared dilemmas are generally qualified in terms of the extent to which trust and reciprocity characterise them and guide the actions of individuals. The social norm of trust describes the willingness on the part of the individual to "take risks in a social context based on a sense of confidence that others will respond as expected and will act in mutually supportive ways" (Onyx and Bullen 2000:24). High levels of trust enable co-operative action, and this in turn facilitates the expectation of mutuality. Thus, in this model, high levels of those constituent parts of social capital generate increasing "amounts" of social capital. In short, social capital feeds on its own success.

As a conceptual tool, social capital focuses explicitly on the interstices of family, work and community in ways that can reveal policy-relevant insights about how communities, both rural and urban, effectively cope with New Zealand's rapidly shifting socio-economic environment.


The communities of interest to this study are Whataroa (pop. 405 in 2006) and Hari Hari (pop. 351 in 2006). They are situated on the South Island's West Coast, just north of the tourist destination of Franz Josef Glacier (see Figure 1). The area has a history built largely upon timber and dairy farming. Both communities remained small (around 400 people) until the 1950s, when the sawmilling industry expanded and the New Zealand Forest Service (NZFS) extended its presence in the area, providing increased employment opportunities and encouraging steady population growth. The post-World War II housing boom meant that Whataroa and Hari Hari were well positioned to receive a good share of forestry prosperity.


However, from the 1970s through the 1980s, rationalisation of timber processing and state sector restructuring resulted in the loss of the NZFS and considerable forestry jobs from the area (Pawson and Scott 1992). By the mid-1990s both townships had lost their timber-processing mills, workers were laid off, and local communities were forced to find ways of absorbing the ongoing effects of timber industry decline. A proportion of workers moved on, but many stayed, mainly taking up lower-paid jobs in the growing tourism and farming sectors (Sampson et al. 2007). Finally, in 2002, came the complete cessation of logging from nearby Crown-owned land, as its status was shifted from production to conservation management. By the time the decision was implemented fewer than 20 people were directly employed in a timber felling, hauling or processing capacity (Sampson 2003), a far cry from the vibrant timber industry operating in Westland in the 1970s and 1980s.

As forestry has declined, dairy farming and tourism have become pivotal to the local economy. The growing economic significance of dairying and tourism for this rural West Coast area directly reflects the importance of these industries to the national economy: tourism and dairying compete with each other as the country's leading export earners (Statistics New Zealand 2009). Alongside forestry decline, the farming sector underwent considerable change and growth. Drystock farming has almost entirely ceased, with many farms converted to more lucrative dairy units. The number of dairy units in the area has increased markedly. There are currently 33 dairy farms in Hari Hari and 30 in Whataroa, an increase of around 20 farms since 1970. (2) While this number has increased steadily, in the last five years the rate of increase has slowed, with the addition of only three new units. Despite this, milk production figures indicate more intensive farming practice. Since 2002 production has increased by about 25% per dairy unit per day. This growth has been marked by farm conversions to dairy, farm amalgamations, increased herd size and intensification of production. These changes have generated the need for more labour units, both seasonal and year round. The farming community reports that these changes have necessitated working longer hours.

Tourism in the region has also steadily grown...

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