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Social capital - up close and personal

By Geoffrey Woolcock - posted Monday, 21 February 2011


“Aaagghh! Not another flood/disaster story - I can’t deal with any more!” Yes, we’re hearing this from both the affected and the many who weren’t but bear with me, for I wanted to cast some first-hand reflections now that the euphoria of the amazing goodwill in the SEQ floods has settled down along with the Brisbane River.

I write this as someone who’s clearly still experiencing signs of post-traumatic stress after our Fig Tree Pocket house was inundated four weeks ago but also as one who has researched and written about social capital - the non-familial networks, or glue that holds neighbourhoods, communities, and societies together.


Like so many affected communities have experienced, we were overwhelmed with the support that came from near and far, friends and strangers, family and acquaintances.

Amongst so many wonderful gestures of unconditional giving, perhaps the one that stood out most for us was the unexpected arrival of the builder of our house from five years ago, with a team of his “subbies” to advise on repairs, and an immediate offer to house our family of five in his small house in Pine Rivers.

Another anonymous hero for us was the young tradesman occupying the house in an adjoining street that was our only access into our street and property on the night we raced down from holidaying at the coast. With the water rising rapidly, his willingness to move all our heavy furniture in his 4wheel drive ute through his bogged property to higher ground until 4am that morning was truly inspirational.

This was social capital at its best and they join with countless stories of abundant altruism in response to this, and indeed all, recent natural disasters in Australia.

Perhaps a less heralded aspect of the response has been the pivotal support of friends and family, too numerous for us to mention, save for our closest friends who were there for us the moment waters were rising, leading the evacuation of our household goods that night and following morning and their house a comforting refuge for us on those first shocking nights.

What they and so many others provided, which we prized above all else, was quite simply, presence - that is, the willingness to be there alongside us in our time of distress.


Anyone who turned up without feeling they had something to offer or assist, we didn’t care for a moment - there were plenty doing that anyway.

What counted was that they turned up - and for those who physically couldn’t, an sms/phone message/email to convey their thoughts. Some have chosen to share this later, and a handful of friends not at all which being honest, certainly forces you to question the supposed strength of such friendships.

Another striking observation of how social capital has played out in the flood recovery is how it has impacted residents’ responses in many of Brisbane’s blue-chip suburbs.

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About the Author

Dr Geoff Woolcock is the Senior Research Fellow at Wesley Mission Brisbane (WMB) and the Queensland convenor for the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY).

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