Beyond social capital: A strategic action fields approach to social licence to operate

Susan Wright, Sara Bice

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Australia's national economy continues to benefit from the extraction and exportation of non-renewable resources, even despite the end of its mining boom. The negative impacts of this primary industry endure and are felt disproportionately by rural communities in close proximity to mining sites. The challenge of holding mining and extractive companies to account for social concerns – which may be difficult to measure or pin down to any one cause – has influenced affected communities to look to other, non-regulatory means of accountability to raise their concerns and see them addressed. ‘Social licence to operate’ (SLO) is often touted as one such tool for holding large resource companies to account. But a growing field of research into the concept has remained largely focused on social capital measures and has yet to consider the conditions necessary to facilitate communities’ successful deployment of SLO as an accountability mechanism or negotiation tool. There remains a gap in our understanding about how SLO can be used meaningfully by communities as a tool for advocacy and accountability, especially in company-community negotiations. This article introduces a strategic action fields (SAFs) approach to SLO to facilitate exploration of the relative strength between and within differing views (power), requirements and agendas of stakeholder groups (strategic agendas) and the aligned interconnections of affected stakeholders (social cohesion), thus enhancing understandings of SLO possible through a social capital approach. In introducing SAFs for SLO, this article extends research on SLO measurement through exploration of three central research questions. First, it asks whether and how SLO might exist as more than a benchmark measurement of acceptability, as defined primarily from corporate, risk-based perspectives? Secondly, building on existing, social capital-based approaches to SLO measurement, are there other approaches that could complement or extend a social capital approach to SLO to understand better a community's ability to operationalise it? Following this, how might insights possible via a complementary means of SLO measurement assist us to expand current understandings about the role of relationships in granting SLO? Three M&E sector case studies from the resource intensive states of Western Australia and Queensland are explored via a set of 105 government, public, media, social media and other related documents. Data was thematically analysed using N*Vivo10 software. Application of social capital and SAFs approaches reveals key tensions in claims to a SLO, especially where, under a social capital-only approach, strong relationships between particular stakeholders would suggest that a SLO has been granted. The addition of a SAFs lens—especially consideration of social cohesion—reveals that even where SLO may be granted, it may not necessarily be operationalizable by communities due to these competing fields. The article concludes with suggestions about the benefits of applying SAFs to SLO measurement, as a means of teasing out the utility of the concept to affected stakeholders. Recommendations for future research adopting this approach are also suggested.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)284-295
    JournalResources Policy
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


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