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Rural ‘Community’, Chiefs and Social Capital: The Case of Southern Ghana


  • This paper is an offshoot of a collaborative project with Glenn H. McKnight of Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa, whose influence I gratefully acknowledge. I also would like to thank Henry Bernstein for reading an earlier draft very closely and offering invaluable suggestions for improvements.

Jeff D. Grischow, Department of History, Wilfrid Laurier University, 75 University Avenue, West, Waterloo, Ontario, N2L 3C5. e-mail:


Social capital emphasizes community and social cohesion as the foundation of development. In Africa, this has prompted the promotion of traditional authorities as agents of development because chiefs and elders are assumed to embody communal norms. Critics have argued that this vision is ahistorical. In response, social capitalists have attempted to ‘historicize’ their analyses. But in many cases, ‘history’ simply refers to the micro-level production of trust, networks and norms. From a historian's perspective this is problematic because it ignores historical processes that often produce social hierarchies and inequality within ‘traditional’ communities. Using a case study from southern Ghana, I argue that, because of their particular view of history, many social capitalists remain blind to differentiation and conflict at the community level. As a result, social capital-driven projects run the risk of reproducing deeply rooted inequalities.

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