“The power of social capital” – for whom, when and where? Sceptical notes about social capital

An ESRC Festival of Social Science event on social capital was publicised on the ESRC’s twitter feed with the phrase “I’ll be there for you: the power of social capital”. But to what extent can we assume that it will be? Can we expect the benefits of social capital to be available at all times, can we expect that people will engage to a greater extent than they have to date, and are these benefits available to all communities? There are some contradictory indications – some of which are discussed at greater length in a TSRC working paper here although what follows draws on the work of several other academics.

Firstly there are long-term changes in behaviours which may mean that we can’t rely on previous sources of social capital at all times. Consider participation in associations and charitable giving (though there continue to be academic debates about whether these are a cause or an outcome of social capital). Sarah Smith has shown using 30 years of household surveys on living costs that there are indeed generational reductions in the probability of charitable giving. This meant it was possible to compare people born in different birth cohorts measured at the same ages – e.g. someone born 1931 observed at the age of 45 in 1976 could be compared with people born in 1961 measured in 2006. Comparing people born in the 1930s with their counterparts from the 1960s, she found that the proportion engaged in charitable giving for the latter was some ten percentage points lower than those for the 1930s. Andrew McCulloch found similar trends for participation in associations. he used the British Household Panel Survey and analysed associational membership for four birth cohorts covering decades from 1935 onwards. Men born in the 1960s were around one-third less likely to be members of associations, compared to their counterparts born in the 1940s, after controlling for socioeconomic status and for education.

That said there is a lot of evidence of stability in levels of social capital as measured in a number of ways – as shown by Anthony Heath and Lindsay RIchards’s recent work. They presented a picture which was relatively optimistic about the stability of various indicators of social capital – and while there were some puzzles still to be explored, as one questioner at the event pointed out, this relative stability might well be welcomed by the government, convinced that their economic policies were not adversely affecting the social fabric.

Others would dispute this, and for two reasons, both from the work of Chaeyoon Lim and James Laurence. While overall rates of volunteering have remained relatively stable for as long as they have been measured consistently, the extent of engagement was badly affected by the recession. Whether one measured formal or informal volunteering, the conclusion was the same: the hours committed by volunteers dropped, on average, by around 25% (from just over 3 hours per month to under 2.5 hours). There’s a graph from their work here which summarises this point.

The second is from a long-term social survey, the National Child Development study, which has tracked a cohort of individuals born in 1958 at intervals throughout their lives. It asked about patterns of participation at various stages of life, and also gathered detailed labour market histories, including periods between the waves of the study. They considered the relationship between forced job displacement and engagement. There was clear evidence that the former was associated with reduced participation and that the negative effects were long-term.

If there’s a civic penalty of economic hard times maybe that is something policy-makers ought to look at. There are also questions about whether people want to or have the capacity to engage. We don’t often ask about that but a TSRC working paper on what people thought of the big society provides some food for thought. Respondents, note, were generally committed volunteers – they were recruited by the longitudinal social research charity, Mass Observation, and they share many of the characteristics of committed volunteers (www.longitudinalvolunteering.wordpress.com). I’ll take that up in another post.

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