Toolbox 1 – Understanding the context of communities

What is life like in the community? What are the key dilemmas, difficulties and opportunities that people face in their everyday lives? A good starting place to answer these questions is to map out the types of institutions, social capital and resilience of the community.

A central feature of bottom-up social development in Rio de Janeiro is that activists and leaders work with the institutions available in the community and draw on its social capital and resilience to convey a positive narrative both inside and outside of its borders.


What is this about?

Institutions are social structures established in the community. They can be organisations with a physical presence in specific buildings, such as NGOs, the police and churches. They can also be groups of people organised around a goal, such as drug trafficking. The family is usually the institution closest to community members, the first and usually the most important group of people with whom they have contact.

Why does it matter?

Mapping out the institutional framework is important for taking stock of the resources that are available in the community and with whom grassroots organisations can work in addressing problems.

Key facts from the favelas:

In favela contexts there are five main institutions whose support and reach impact on the decision-making of favela dwellers. Each of them fulfils a different role:

  • The family, which plays a crucial role enabling or disabling life trajectories and choices.
  • The State, whose presence is scarce and mainly represented by the police.
  • Drug trafficking, which is still a key organiser of favela life, offering jobs, rules and controls that occupy the empty space left by the State.
  • The churches, mainly evangelical, which offer support but are not always compatible with the lifestyle of many favela dwellers.
  • NGOs, such as AfroReggae and CUFA, who offer opportunities and alternatives to a life in crime. They draw on all the above-mentioned institutions, playing the role of family, State and churches and competing with organised crime in shaping the choices and decision-making of favela dwellers.


  • Institutions offer support to community members whatever stage of life they are at; their quality and range has the potential to enable or disable life outcomes. Institutions are not just a background; they are important factors in the trajectory of individuals and communities.
  • The number and range of institutions play a role in the social and physical mobility of community members; they influence border crossing and the networks that individuals build.
  • Religiosity and faith can have a strong hold in communities, and working with religious institutions can be productive.

Download Workshop exercise on institutions

Social capital

What is this about?

Social capital designates the wealth of networks and social relationships that a person has. According to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1986), capital equals power, and social capital is the sum of resources linked to a network of relationships which have the potential to give you and your community other resources. In other words, it is the capital you have by being part of a group, so that when you need a job you may know someone who can help you find one, or who can introduce you to someone who can.

There are two types of social capital (Putnam, 2000): bonding social capital, which keeps people connected within the community, and bridging social capital, which enables communities to connect with each other. The more connections people have, the richer the exchanges they experience, the greater the likelihood of collaboration with others to attain a goal and the greater the chances of meeting new and profitable ideas and opportunities.

Why does it matter?

Social capital is considered an important factor of a resilient community (one that resists sudden shocks), and enables community members to be resilient as well (Breton, 2001). Being socially connected inside and outside the community is required for bringing about social change. Inside connections allow communities to act together on matters of common concern. Outside connections leverage these concerns in the wider public sphere.

Key facts from the favelas:

  • There is a strong sense of belonging and cohesion in the favelas.
  • Favela residents are linked to their territory, and the place where they live is part of their identity.
  • Sociability is an important aspect of favela culture; favela residents are convivial and enjoy social gatherings with their neighbours and other groups in the community.


  • Social cohesion is a resource for the effectiveness of grassroots organisations; the internal solidarity of communities facilitates bottom-up social development.
  • Identification with the territory enables grassroots organisations to put forward a positive story that undermines stereotypes and negative representations about communities.
  • Bridging social capital undermines isolation and connects the community with a wide range of outside actors, enabling grassroots organisations to influence policy and society at large.


The concept of sociability is important for bottom-up social development because it allows us to understand community life. The concept was introduced by Simmel (1950) to describe the play-form of social life and the joy and imagination that accompany the experience of the social. Simmel defines sociability as the play-form of sociation, that is, the pleasurable, joyful and delightful experience that comes out of people’s interaction in society. Imagine the perfect social situation: having fun with peers, chatting, laughing, joking and enjoying the sheer delight of being together. For Simmel, this experience is the essence of sociability. This pure pleasure of sociability is possible because social actors are able to detach themselves from the real, material and concrete forms of social life, which involve structures and positionings related to hierarchies and inequalities in social fields. If one abstracts from wealth, position and power, if one forgets status and other burdens of ‘real’ life, then it is possible to playfully engage in the game of sociability, of enjoying the presence of others, of playing the conversational and relational games that make conviviality and shared experience. A central marker of Brazilian culture, sociability as playfulness is particularly present in favela culture, both as an expression of cultural identity and as an act of resistance against harsh living conditions.

Download The mutirão: organising community joint action for urban renewal


What is this about?

The concept of resilience has its roots in physics and refers to the capacity of materials to retrieve their original form after they have been modified by a force. In psychological terms, we speak of resilience when referring to people who, despite experiencing conditions of adversity – such as extreme poverty, violence and personal loss – manage to adapt and attain achievements in life (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000). One famous example of this process was documented by psychologist Viktor Frankl in his book “In search of meaning”, where he narrated his experience in Nazi concentration camps and his quest for survival in this context.

Coutu (2002) identified three conditions in resilient people:

  1. to acknowledge the real circumstances of the context in which they are immersed;
  2. to search for meaning, using the imagination to conceive a potentially better future that depends on a sense of purpose at present;
  3. to be resourceful and improvise solutions with the means they have at hand.

Key facts from the favelas:

Despite the adversity of the context, many favela residents show agency and are able to build successful lives, especially if they can rely on some level of institutional support in the community (Jovchelovitch & Priego-Hernandez, 2013). Favela dwellers fulfil the conditions identified by Coutu:

  • They speak openly about their problems and voice their concerns – it was found that participation in AfroReggae and CUFA is associated with increased realism about their problems and conditions of life.
  • They use culture, local art and Brazilian identity to give meaning to their dreams and aspirations for the future.
  • They generate solutions from the materials they have at hand, working actively and creatively to improve their living conditions.


  • Psychosocial support from people and institutions protects against negative life outcomes and enhances resilience. See Psychosocial scaffoldings.
  • Dreaming about the future protects the self from the adversity of context and enhances resilience. See Storytelling.
  • Concrete collaborative action strengthens individuals and communities when facing adversity, teaching lessons and providing mutual help. See Mutirão.

Download Workshop exercise on resilience and social capital