Jonathan Fox, How does civil society thicken? The political construction of social capital in rural Mexico”, World Development 24 (1996), pp. 1089-1103

Summary: explores pathways for the ‘thickening’ of civil society under less-than-democratic conditions.


Method: examination of the variety in political dynamics across different regions and over time in rural Mexico.


Important Insight: argues that the growth of the building-block organizations of an autonomous civil society in an authoritarian environment depends on the ‘political construction’ of social capital (which emerges via cycles of interaction between states and society). Social capital can be produced (a) by state and local actors (synergistic collaboration – the main pattern in rural Mexico) or (b) by the interaction of local societal actors and external actors in civil society (religious, developmental, environmental, civic, or political). Social capital may also be produced (c) from below, but external allies still turn out to be crucial in the ability of such organizations to survive.






*three conceptual building blocks contribute to the ‘political construction’ approach to the uneven emergence of social capital under authoritarian regimes:

1) political opportunities: elite political conflicts have an independent causal effect on civil society’s capacity to organize because they determine the state’s willingness and capacity to encourage or dismantle social capital.

2) social energy and ideas: while historical legacies shape the ways in which actors respond to positive or negative incentives for collective action, they do not respond in automatic or unidirectional ways. Contingent ideas, leadership, and action influence whether grievances are defined as shared and whether problems are interpreted as subject to change.

3) the processes of ‘scaling up’ local representation and bargaining power: social capital is not homogenous – some kinds of organizations have more public good ‘spillover effects’ than others. The premise here is that bargaining power is necessary to create respect for freedom of association, which in turn requires some degree of ‘scaling up’ of organization beyond the most local level (contrast this with Putnam, 1993).

*scaling up is especially important for representing the interests of dispersed populations since they have the greatest difficulty in defining common interests and are the most vulnerable to ‘divide and conquer’ efforts from above.