Enhancing Community Development in Adelaide by Building on the Social Capital of South Australian Muslim Communities

Co-authored by Lauren Tolsma and Zuleyka Zevallos
This report was first published in 2009 by the Swinburne Institute for Social Research. I republish the summary and one of the findings chapter. The study can be read free and in its entirety via the link below.


This report provides a sociological analysis of the settlement and support services available to Muslim migrants living in the suburbs of Greater Adelaide, in the state of South Australia. In particular, we seek to learn how existing Muslim organisations address the collective needs of Muslim migrants in Adelaide. We present a critical analysis of the literature on community development with specific focus on the provision of services that aid economic development.

Broadly, we use the term ‘community development’ to refer to the process of organising, educating and encouraging the participation and collaboration of local residents and stakeholders in order to improve their collective outcomes and objectives. Stakeholders might include practitioners who work in the social welfare sector, community leaders, businesses and government agencies who work with Muslim communities. These stakeholders are able to provide funds, or exchange their skills, services, prestige or other forms of support in order to achieve social change. As a pilot case study of community development, we incorporate previously unpublished data on South Australian Muslim community organisations. This includes interviews with service providers, representatives and religious leaders, as well as field notes during visits to organisations and the public events that these groups hosted around Adelaide in 2008.

Our report considers different forms of social capital in relation to Muslim community development and service provision. Social capital refers to the norms, knowledge and status enacted by social actors through their participation in social networks in order to become more socially mobile, particularly by tapping into the resources and capacities of other groups who are better off. This concept is used to examine the power dynamics in negotiations of social and economic exchange among different Muslim organisations and other groups, including mainstream service providers and government officials.

Photo by Nur Alia Mazalan. Via Flickr. CC
Photo by Nur Alia Mazalan. Via Flickr. CC

Our study finds that many newly arrived Muslim migrants do not understand the breadth of government-sponsored services available to them, and so they largely rely on a couple of the smaller and widely trusted Muslim community organisations for all of their needs, rather than approaching mainstream organisations for specialised services. In this connection, because some Muslim organisations have stronger visibility among new arrivals, some groups are struggling to manage their members’ requirements, especially given their limited resources. Consequently, a small number of over-worked volunteers deliver targeted assistance for which they have no formal training or qualifications. This includes crisis counselling, occupational assistance and educational advice.

We suggest that an asset-based community development (ABCD) approach would strengthen the social network ties and resources both within and external to the Muslim organisations studied. The ABCD framework is an evaluation methodology which first identifies the social and material capacities that presently exist within particular organisations. This information is used to establish practical ways in which those resources might be used to enhance their service delivery. In order to mobilise the existing assets of Muslim organisations around South Australia, the report proposes the establishment of a South Australian Muslim Community Corporation (SAMCC) which would consist of Muslim community service providers, volunteers and their Muslim clients from around South Australia. We propose a number of recommendations regarding the SAMCC including:

  • Assisting equitable decision making among Muslim organisations via the SAMCC.
  • Rather than solely privileging religious leaders, the SAMCC is set up to encourage the inclusion of a broader range of Muslim ‘voices’ that would contribute to community development activities;
  • Recruiting a SAMCC media liaison to help disseminate important information via a multi-lingual, regularly updated Muslim community newsletter and website. This includes promoting non-Muslim participation in community events, focusing on secular activities, and making available a list of culturally sensitive, mainstream service providers to Muslim community groups;
  • Restructuring the existing grants scheme of community funding. This is with a view to supporting the long-term self-sustainability of a wider range of ‘grassroots’ Muslim community organisations;
  • Funding training and hiring professional staff. This would ease the burden of Muslim organisations that are widely used and trusted but currently overextended, while still allowing them to continue providing specialised services for Muslim migrants.

The idea of the SAMCC is to provide sustainability for the Muslim community groups currently in operation, by pooling together and taking better advantage of their existing resources. In this way, it complements the asset-based approach to community development, by mobilising existing social networks and the value that those networks have for ordinary Muslims living in South Australia.

The next section presents our findings from Chapter 5 of our report.

Social Capital Among South Australian Muslim Community Organisations

This section begins with an overview of the Muslim community support services that were identified during the course of the pilot study. We then provide some brief examples of the ethnographic data to demonstrate the importance of linking social capital and its relevance to community development. This will be followed by similar discussions on bridging and bonding social capital. Having reviewed the literature, we define social capital in the following way for the purposes of our analysis:

Social capital refers to people’s capacity to draw upon social and material resources through their active participation in social networks, the norms that encourage collective social action, and the power relations that govern social exchanges.

Photo by Michael Coghlan. Via Flickr. CC
Photo by Michael Coghlan. Via Flickr. CC

The initial fieldwork shows that there are a number of avenues through which Muslims might seek support in Adelaide. Through internet searches and word of mouth, the first author visited six mosques, two Islamic education groups, two ethnic-based groups, one sect-based group, one Muslim reference group and a women’s group. All three of Adelaide’s main universities also had Muslim student groups, although only one of them was officially registered as a student  association at the time of the research. While the sample of this study includes only a section of the Muslim community groups around South Australia, the representatives who were interviewed describe a wide range of services that their organisations coordinate. The following is a list of the types of services provided by the seven Muslim groups included in this study’s sample. The groups will not be linked to the services they provide, to protect their anonymity. Generally, the groups provide a number of the following support services:

  • Social events for members and their friends;
  • Islamic awareness events for non-Muslims;
  • Religious classes;
  • Workshops/life skill classes;
  • Halal food services;
  • Libraries for lending religious texts;
  • Informal counselling;
  • English classes;
  • Financial aid;
  • Community events for cross-cultural interaction;
  • Fundraising events for charity organisations;
  • Women’s and youth support groups;
  • Separate sports programs for women and men;
  • • Settlement support and practical assistance.

According to the organisation representatives interviewed, the primary aim of these programs is to target those individuals who are socially vulnerable or isolated, such as new migrants and refugees, although educating and interacting with non-Muslims is also a central objective of some programs. They facilitate information, practical support and friendship to new arrivals from overseas. There are various ways in which new arrivals can be referred to these community organisations, including through their primary Australian connections, such as family members, friends or ‘proposer’ (sponsor for a humanitarian visa), or through people from their local mosque. This emphasises the central role of social networks in helping people to find out where to go for help; in these  cases, a new migrant would need to know somebody who already knows of one of these groups.

Additionally, new arrivals might seek out this information through their national embassy, not-for-profit organisations that assist in resettlement, or government agencies responsible for migration and settlement. Issues with this largely word of mouth referral system will be discussed later in the report, as they point to the strength of weak ties in accessing information and increasing the social capital of marginalised people (Granovetter 1973).

Having sketched an outline of the Muslim community services and formal support networks available, the next section will examine how these might use links with other institutions and public agents in order to leverage their resources. We also discuss an initial suggestion for an ABCD corporation to help pool together the resources of grassroots groups; to engage the participation of stakeholders, including government and local residents; and to manage the inequitable distribution of power among existing social networks.

Linking social capital

Adelaide Town Hall. Photo by Michael Coghlan. Via Flickr. CC
Adelaide Town Hall. Photo by Michael Coghlan. Via Flickr. CC

Linking social capital refers to connections with ‘people in high places’, as well as with mainstream institutions, such as large, well-funded service providers. Strong levels of linking social capital are associated with the success of community-based initiatives (Mathie and Cunningham 2003; Grant 2001). This is because smaller groups are potentially able to access resources and support through larger and more powerful affiliates.

The community development literature has suggested that hierarchical relationships are characterised by the manipulation of people with less power by people with more powerful social links (Grant 2001). This does not necessarily have to be the case, but power issues need to be explicitly managed. An ABCD approach can contribute to the empowerment of local communities by identifying ways to break down the segmented and hierarchical structures of social networks and by providing more egalitarian access to resources (Burnett 2006: 291). This is primarily achieved through multi-group community collaboration, information and resource exchange.

The ethnographic fieldwork identifies that the Muslim student associations in the three universities maintain good levels of communication. This is mainly a reflection of the external relationships between the members of these student committees, who are also involved in Muslim groups outside of their universities. This finding highlights the existence of a core group who participate in a variety of programs, groups and events around Adelaide. For this reason, these students might be seen as potential ‘social capital brokers’, given that they have good internal ties within their  organisations and external ties to other groups (Kilpatrick, Field and Falk 2003: 427, 430). They are in a good position to diffuse information and garner resources for different programs and events. The members of these student organisations, however, are the exception.

The other Muslim community organisations have working relationships with other groups, but most of their collaboration was infrequent, and the idea of what constitutes collaboration is quite fluid. The larger community events encourage the greatest level of collaboration, mainly due to the costs and time involved. With such events, therefore, there seemed a clearer need to pool resources simply due to the size of the potential audience. The interviews with the community representatives identify that two of the larger Adelaide mosques have a long-standing relationship, sharing committee members and regularly organising community events together. These mosques only occasionally collaborated with a third mosque, although not recently at the time of the interviews.

Aside from these mosque organisations, the representatives of two of the other community groups discussed having never collaborated with any other Muslim group, although one of them had an ongoing relationship with a migrant resource centre that did not specifically cater to Muslims. The idea of Muslim communities working together is seen as difficult to achieve, because it would require a lot of coordination that seems insurmountable given the uneven links and infrequent collaboration among Muslim organisations. One of the ordinary participants said:

[The] community is not working together or cooperating… I can see that there is a community… but [pause] on practical terms, on everyday terms, it’s not like that’.

This comment might suggest that there are inactive, ineffectual or less productive ties between Muslim organisations in Adelaide that might be better harnessed to assist service provision on a day-to-day level. It might also suggest that the notion of ‘the Muslim community’ pulling together is difficult to orchestrate without a shared vision, possibly due to differences among the sectarian and ethnic groups that this phrase describes. Other issues include the differing socio-economic status of Muslim communities in different areas around Adelaide, particularly between so-called ‘new and emerging communities’ (a vogue term for refugees) who may be living in lower socio-economic suburbs and longer-established migrants who may be living in more affluent areas.

The cultural, human and social capital among different groups of Muslim migrants might be first explained by the length of time they have spent in Australia; it might be reasonable to assume that newly arrived migrants require more external assistance than those who have been in Australia for more than a decade. At the same time, their differences in capital might better explained by the skills, vocational and educational credentials that they had achieved before entering the country.

The statistical trends on Australia’s humanitarian entrants signify various issues regarding childhood development, education and vocational skills among different groups of Muslims. Cumulatively, these issues suggest that the differences among Muslim migrants set up class and power imbalances that are subsumed and rendered invisible by programs and initiatives which aim to assist ‘the Muslim community’. The organisations currently working with Muslim migrants provide an eclectic mix of services to clients from different backgrounds. They might better collaborate together, but there is currently insufficient common ground, time or resources to facilitate this process, especially given the differences within and across Muslim community groups around Adelaide.

During the fieldwork, community representatives talked at length about problems they faced in trying to access government grant schemes. One says that her group received regular grants, but that the process was difficult and time consuming, but she did not want to ‘complain’ because grants were the only way that the group is able to remain in  operation. Their funding has decreased in recent times, however, and the group had to cut some of their support programs, including providing emergency loans for new migrants. One participant also discusses the problem that she saw with the grants scheme:

I’ve seen Muslim organisations over and over again who receive government funding for five years, and great! They are doing great. But all of a sudden the government says, ‘No more funding for this particular thing’, and the whole organisation just falls apart because that’s the only thing they knew, was government funding. And once that’s cut, there’s nothing any more.

This comment suggests that the current grant schemes may not be an effective way to promote self-reliance or long-term development opportunities, given that the government funding is a short-term, and unreliable, source of income. The way in which grants are allocated might benefit from a reappraisal, given that smaller groups rely heavily on government funding. Currently, the grants support muchneeded activities in an ad hoc way, but small community organisations might access funding resources to better effect. The next section will offer ideas about how to begin making this happen.

In this connection regarding external support, the power imbalances inherent in linking social capital ties need to be considered and explicitly addressed. One issue relates to the power inequality among Muslim community groups. The representative from a migrant support group says that there are some difficulties in garnering support from other, larger, community groups. She claimed that if the Imam (or another key leader) did not approve of a program, then they would not promote it, and the program would not receive much support or attendance from a broader cross-section of ordinary Muslims. Some of the ordinary participants also discussed the power dynamics that they see operating within the organisations to which they belong. One suggests that some religious leaders were ‘from the old school’ and found it hard to make allowances for new or different community initiatives to come to fruition. Another says that some are:

Just so [pauses] stubborn and old. And don’t understand what the community needs. And some people when they’re there for a long time, they forget the purpose or their [pause] function. So it becomes very politicised.

Another important aspect of linking social capital with relation to Muslim community groups is their links with different levels of government. Some maintained quite affable ties with local and state government representatives. One ethnic-based group in particular demonstrated a high level of familiarity with their local government representative, and with one state level representative. Both of these male politicians were billed as ‘special guests’ at one of the organisation’s commemoration evenings, where they gave speeches demonstrating the history of their affiliation with the organisation. In another example, one community representative says her group took advantage of a state election to petition their local candidate for an upgrade of their prayer facilities. They were successful in obtaining government support for this project, which in turn got them the funding to commence the much needed renovations.

Community development projects necessarily require the input, advocacy and support of more powerful political actors, particularly by engaging decision makers who shape social policies that affect the community (Glickman and Servon 1998: 504).  Government agencies at all levels (local, state and federal) take a participatory role in many Muslim community events in South Australia, usually by attending large functions, giving keynote addresses and endorsing the petitions of the larger organisations to which they are affiliated. At the same time, if smaller community organisations are to prosper, they need to better nurture links with government officials at all levels, particularly in order to establish their credibility and to grow their resources (Glickman and Servon 1998: 527).

Currently, all except two of the Muslim community organisations studied do not have strong linking capital. It also seems as if the associations between the smaller and larger Muslim groups are characterised by power disequilibrium, even though these organisations do not necessarily see themselves as being in conflict. Power struggles exist even if they are not actively manifest as conflict, hostility or competition. The end result, however, is that smaller groups are not well positioned to establish linking ties to external groups, given that they do not actively manage the power relations with the larger community groups. This limits the types of resources they are able to draw upon and, in the long run, it does little to increase the economic and social development of the communities with whom they work.

Superimposing linking ties in this case would not be very effective – simply getting governments involved may not necessarily help the smaller community groups. Despite their best intentions, government workers and external practitioners are in a position of power, even when they mean to adopt a consensual and helpful approach (Wakefield and Poland 2005: 2826-2827). They might inadvertently take over the agendas of the smaller community groups, in an attempt to help them. Externally run, ‘top-down’ community programs are less effective in garnering local support, are less sustainable in the long run and do not really promote community empowerment (Kilpatrick, Field and Falk 2003; Mathie and Cunningham 2003).

Government involvement in community development projects needs to be carefully and actively managed. The smaller community organisations need to grow their political capacity, not just by simply networking with external stakeholders, but also by growing their ‘organisational capacity’ (Glickman and Servon 1998: 516). This could be accomplished by involving their members in leadership and negotiation training and by coordinating their efforts with other smaller and larger community groups, so that they might navigate, grow and manage their linking ties together.

The next section will explore the bridging social capital held by South Australian Muslim communities, and how this can be supported through practical, bottom-up strategies.

Bridging social capital

Photo by Nur Alia Mazalan. Via Flickr. CC
Photo by Nur Alia Mazalan. Via Flickr. CC

Bridging social capital refers to weaker relationships between people and groups who are of more or less equal social standing (Putnam 2000: 22-24; Woolcock and Narayan 2000: 226). These relationships tend to be inclusive, diverse and orientated towards the acquisition of tangible assets, such as external information and resources. The most obvious way that bridging social capital relates to the Muslim community organisations sampled in this study is their central interest in bridging cultural and religious divides. In particular, all the groups wish to encourage non-Muslims to participate in their religious and cultural activities.

The community organisation representatives talked about their aim to demonstrate that Muslims are ‘normal’ and like everyone else in Australia, and how they hope to weave themselves into the broader social fabric, by strengthening the visible contribution that Muslims make to the communities where they live. One mosque representative believes that one way to do this is through educating the wider public about Islam. To this end, his mosque hosts education  evenings and provides speakers for schools and businesses.

One of the ordinary participants echoes this sentiment, suggesting that mosques should have barbecues and invite the non-Muslims in the neighbourhood to come to mosque after Friday prayer. He suggests that this would be with a special emphasis on giving visitors information about the mosque and Muslims more broadly. He also sees this as an opportunity for intercultural socialising, where people could meet each other and ‘show that they aren’t terrorists’. This comment exemplifies how the interviewees saw negative stereotypes of Muslims as a significant roadblock to stronger interaction with non-Muslims. Another participant also mentions having open days at her local mosque as a good start to intercultural understanding and interaction:

I think open mosque day would be great, you know, to start with. You know, just educating people about who Muslims are, and things like that. Maybe have Eid celebrations [festivals which mark significant Islamic occasions], [and] invite people to come!

She goes on to say, however, that open mosque days might be a ‘little bit out of date’, and so she also talks about organising events that Muslims and non-Muslims can do together that have less of a religious orientation. She discusses book clubs and environmental programs – activities which focus on shared interests, rather than religious difference. This is a useful suggestion, given that other studies have found that effective models for social cohesion encourage face-to-face interaction and socialising on the basis of secular activities and social similarities, rather than on religious education and difference (IDA 2007; Wise and Ali 2008).

As the initial fieldwork identifies, some mosques and prayer centres are not easily identified by the general public. As a non-Muslim, Lauren experienced a lot of trouble finding Islamic organisations, and upon arrival, the buildings did not really have sufficient signs which strongly advertised that they were Muslim centres. Additionally, there were no representatives available to greet any visitors. Lauren relied on mosque patrons to help her locate a mosque representative, and sometimes there was no-one available. This could discourage members of the public who, unlike the researcher, may not be willing to go to such lengths to have a chat with someone about Islamic organisations and the life of Muslims more generally.

The fieldwork identifies that many Muslim organisations lacked visibility in other ways. In general, Muslim community groups are difficult to locate through traditional channels, as many are not listed in the Yellow and White Pages or in online community phone directories. Many of the public listings in the current directories are no longer valid. Some are not publicly registered as organisations (religious, not-for profit, charity or otherwise), making them impossible to contact unless you know someone who knows a member of the committee. Not being registered or listed as an organisation also impedes the ability of these groups to apply for grants, or to be recognised and consulted in policy decision making that may affect local Muslim communities.

Another issue regarding the visibility of Muslim organisations regards marketing and promotion, something which is currently managed poorly and may be preventing stronger participation of non-Muslims in Muslim community events. Promotion for events is often done through mail-box leaflets, and through word of mouth. There are also some events which are advertised online, but these sites would only be consulted by people specifically browsing for Muslim community events. These concrete efforts to promote community events may simply not be reaching enough people. More troubling is the distinct lack of media interest. This is peculiar considering that there is generally some level of government representation at these events. While the media was quick to follow the South Australian Attorney-General’s bicycle ride to a so-called ‘Nazi house’ in an Adelaide suburb (for example see ABC News 2008), there was a conspicuous lack of  media interest in the five Muslim community events that he attended around the same time.

During the primary researcher’s participant observation at community events, the level of non-Muslim participation was quite low. The events which aimed to draw in non-Muslims primarily centred on religious education. Examples include two seminars held in central Adelaide at the beginning of 2008. The first was marketed as an Islamic arts event, and attracted a large number of academics and arts patrons. The other was a government-sponsored workshop on workplace diversity and discrimination which attracted a large number of service providers, such as teachers and social workers.  These events seemed to be successful in encouraging people to think about the stereotypes they held about Muslims, but there was little opportunity for Muslim and non-Muslim attendees to interact socially.

One of the main Adelaide mosques also held a public seminar which aimed to educate non-Muslims about some common misconceptions about Islam. The organisers sponsored a renowned American Muslim scholar to come and speak, and as a result there was a strong Muslim attendance. Non-Muslim attendance, however, was limited, and consisted mainly of older Christian men who seemed primarily interested in arguing the virtues of Christianity over Islam during public question time. While the audience appeared to maintain a quiet curiosity about this debate, the guest speaker became somewhat irritated, and none of the criticisms were resolved. Interfaith dialogue programs and events that get bogged down in theological differences do very little to challenge religious intolerance and racism (Ho 2007: 9). Racism and bigotry still need to be addressed at the local community and societal levels, but not in a discourse that confuses religious difference, values and beliefs as the source of narrow-mindedness.

Other studies find that some community activities that single out specific groups as needing special attention might not be looked upon favourably by the sections of the wider community who are already harbouring racist ideas, as they do little to challenge intolerance. For example, some non-Muslim Anglo-Australians consider that activities that aim to educate them about Islam are ‘too contrived’ when they are ‘pushed down [people’s] throats’ (Wise and Ali 2008: 93). This highlights the need to have projects which encourage more naturalistic  socialisation. Such events could centre around music, theatre, sport or civic programs, where the emphasis is on cooperation and developing mutual understandings.

These might also be good opportunities to encourage further positive media exposure, which seems to elude Muslim communities in Australia. This is only in one small part due to the marketing of these events. Muslim community organisations do not have the funding, time or training to liaise with various channels of media. In large part, the media relations issues that Muslim groups collectively face is certainly a product of structural racism. This is an important social issue that goes beyond what we can address in this report. Negative media stereotypes also reinforce Muslims’ sense that Australian society does not support or include them as part of the nation (Kabir 2008). Howard Brasted brings the onus of media representations back on Muslims:

In the end, the responsibility for describing and defining the world of Islam more accurately than the Australian and Western press might have managed to do, is the challenge facing Muslim communities in the future. For it is unlikely that the non-Muslim press will report or interpret the world – including the Muslim world – in a more understanding or low-key way than it has in the past. In a series of lectures in Australia, the Imam of New York, Siraj Wahhaj offered this blunt message: if Muslims want Islam to be promoted as a religion of tolerance, not terrorism, they will need to demonstrate this by their own actions (2001: 224).

This might suggest that Muslims should take control over media representations of their communities. A better way to go about it is to increase the bridging ties between Muslim and non-Muslim groups via better communication with media outlets, and by focusing on secular social participation and interaction, rather than on religious differences.

The fieldwork finds that the Muslim groups who focused on secular activities received the greatest level of non-Muslim participation, and a small measure of positive media coverage through a public broadcasting service. Again, this is consistent with research which has shown that secular programs have been the most successful in promoting community cohesion through sociability (Wise and Ali 2008). While this approach might possibly undermine the importance of religion to those involved in religious organisations, there seems to be some merit in gaining wider community support by engaging with the secular elements of Muslim community belonging, rather than trying to get people engaged in religious activities.

The secular events held around Adelaide encourage non-Muslims to participate and allow Muslims and non-Muslim to interact in positive ways that emphasise their similarities rather than their differences. A good example of this is a community group who offer free sausage sizzles to their members. They find that many non-Muslims join their group to get free food, but this activity actually encourages socialising, and because all members automatically get the monthly newsletter by email, the non-Muslim members are kept up-to-date about the group’s activities.

In another example, one representative from a Muslim education group discusses their involvement in a number of secular programs and activities, with varying degrees of success. One of their civic programs consistently enjoys a strong Muslim and non-Muslim following, and provides several opportunities to socialise face-to-face. This organisation had also launched a secular literary program, but this did not seem to attract the same level of interest from non-Muslims. At the time of the interview, it only has support from a few Muslim women.

This next section of the report will look at the role of bonding social capital in the formation and maintenance of Muslim community organisations. Considerations will be raised about the reliance of some groups on more insular ties in the provision of social services. We offer some suggestions about how these ties might be better utilised, without compromising external links and resources.

Bonding social capital

Photo by Nur Alia Mazalan. Via Flickr. CC
Photo by Nur Alia Mazalan. Via Flickr. CC

Bonding social capital refers to the systems of familial support that people might seek out through their personal networks (Putnam 2000: 22-23; Woolcock and Narayan 2000: 227). This includes comfort, personal advice and empathy, as well as more tangible forms of support such as financial and settlement assistance when they experience a personal crisis.

The concept of bonding social capital has been frequently applied to community development, in the context of establishing the norms and values which hold community groups together. It is characterised by homogenous ties, leaning that there is a degree of perceived commonality among members of a network. For example, young Muslims turn to friends who share their ethnicity in order to cope with the trauma and displacement they experienced as migrants and refugees, as they see that these friends share common experiences and values that their Anglo-Australian friends cannot really understand (Tolsma 2008).

There are a number of ways that bonding social capital might manifest among Muslim organisations, including when the members and volunteers develop close friendship ties over time. This is also the case when informal friendship and family networks become the basis of a formal organisation. One example is a sect-based group in Adelaide who started as a group of family and their friends who provided assistance to new arrivals. This group has grown to over 200 members and continues to provide a wide variety of social support and settlement services to new migrants. It also hosts regular social events for members, helping to strengthen the social connections of new arrivals, and thus bolstering their bonding social capital.

The social aspect of belonging to a group was a central attraction to becoming involved as a volunteer in these organisations. One participant describes her involvement with her local Muslim organisation as an opportunity to socialise with like-minded people. She sees that the other members had, like her, ‘Come [to Australia] at a young age or [were] born here, and so they have similar experiences’. The support of people and friends that ‘get where you’re coming from’ is discussed as an important factor to the participants who were born in Australia, as well as to those who arrived as young adults. Sawrikar and Katz (2008) also discuss the importance of culturally specific support services. They suggest that some cultural norms may inhibit seeking help from people who are not well known or trusted.

This issue is also raised by one of the ordinary participants who comments that accessing mainstream services had

A lot to do with trust… Maybe if I developed trust with some of these agencies… perhaps I would go to them. But it would take a long time.

This highlights the importance of providing culturally relevant support services that people feel confident and comfortable using, and which provide people the option of seeking specialist assistance outside of their family or friendship networks.

There are some less productive functions of networks which depend upon high levels of bonding social capital (Portes 1998; Streeten 2002). Two Muslim community representatives mention an increased need to find new volunteers who will take over some of the civic duties currently performed by their organisations. They comment that when the Muslim population in South Australia was still relatively small, religious leaders organised and ran most of the programs, and so they provided most of the hands-on settlement support for new migrants. As Muslim migration to South Australia has risen in recent years, Muslim organisations have become more reliant on volunteer members to take on some of the more practical support services.

In the seven organisations that were visited during the fieldwork, there were only four fulltime paid staff members. They were therefore almost entirely dependent upon the financial and operational support of their volunteer members.  significantly, this means that crucial support services are being provided by people who are not professionally accredited to do so. This may be problematic with regards emotional and psychological support, as even the larger organisations do not have trained social workers or professional therapists. The more informal and social assistance provided by volunteers is invaluable, but it may be insufficient in some cases where more professional intervention may be required, such as crisis counselling or occupational assistance (Ali, Milstein and Marzuk 2005).

Most Muslim community representatives interviewed discuss how their counselling services provided their assistance in terms of doing things the ‘right way’ and according to Islamic tradition. The other representatives, however, talk about being asked for legal advice, citizenship advice, financial advice and help in finding work. These organisations need to be better aware of the professional and culturally appropriate support services available through mainstream providers. The ability to refer people to such services is crucial in light of research which has suggested that some groups may be apprehensive about approaching certain mainstream services, such as mental health professionals or job network providers, due to their culturally defined notions of shame that are associated with seeking help outside of one’s family (Colic-Peisker and Tilbury 2003). In this case, smaller Muslim community support groups can provide not only the link, but also the encouragement, to seek help from professional services providers where they might be required.

In order for that to happen, these Muslim organisations would need to feel confident that they can refer their members to these mainstream service providers, and there are cultural, structural, service and physical barriers that need to be addressed in order for this to happen (Sawrikar and Katz 2008). Trust is central to social networks, but so is power. On the one hand, referring members to an outside group is a bit risky, as community groups may fear compromising the strong bonding social capital between members if they start going elsewhere for support. On the other hand, developing a strong relationship with a mainstream service provider in order to feel confident in referring members requires elements of both bridging and linking social capital.

Bonding social capital can also have a negative impact when considering issues of confidentiality. The insular nature of some Muslim community organisations is problematic for some members interviewed, as the high integration prevents them from seeking help through their group. They feel scared of other members finding out about their problems and spreading this information through gossip. This meant that members needed to go elsewhere for support. This is not something which is problematic in itself, except that alternative services are difficult for them to locate. 

Another way to counter the negative effects of being over-reliant on bonding social capital is to provide funding to increase the number of paid staff members among the various Muslim community organisations, in order to ease their service provision. Policy and decision makers need to remain mindful of the practical and contextual barriers to the development of social capital resources, including the physical and funding needs required to increase the social inclusion of Muslims.

The volunteers working for the Muslim groups studied are juggling their personal, work, school, family and other social commitments alongside their unpaid work in helping to run crucial support services. Many of the services that the organisations previously offered, such as English classes and emergency loans, are no longer viable because volunteers’ time and efforts are already over-extended and the people running the organisations do not know where to apply for funding. This puts newer Muslim arrivals at a disadvantage.

Bonding social capital is pivotal to the functioning and maintenance of community organisations. It also provides their members and clients with emotional support, friendship and charity. Given the strong value of these bonding ties, the community groups need to remain independent and to keep running things the way they want. Links with other organisations and public agents are important for the sustained success of small community organisations, but their autonomy and self-sufficiency also need to be maintained. This would ensure the diversity in services, knowledge and forms of social capital that are important to the social development of Muslim communities around South Australia.

This leads to the key suggestion of this report: to establish what we term a South Australian Muslim Community Corporation (SAMCC). This initiative aims to facilitate the collaboration of Muslim organisations around South Australia in order to better leverage their resources and to help address the power and capital differences within these networks and other mainstream groups.

Read more about the literature that informed this report, our methods and our recommendations about how to improve community development using social capital via the link below.


Original citation below. Download this report as a free PDF via the link:

L. Tolsma and Z. Zevallos (2009) Enhancing Community Development South Australia Muslims. Hawthorn: Institute for Social Research.

3 thoughts on “Enhancing Community Development in Adelaide by Building on the Social Capital of South Australian Muslim Communities

  1. Really Good Article.i like this article because you write positive things about muslim community.Thank you.


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