Maximising social capital

Posted on March 12, 2009 in Journalism

During a recession, areas should look towards their strengths to help them survive.

In which case, should we revisit ‘social capital’, a term that was frequently used until a few years ago and which is greater in rural areas than urban ones?

First though, a reminder: what is social capital, how is it measured and what are its benefits?

In the 1950s, Aneurin Bevan, who oversaw the creation of the NHS, talked of ‘the living tapestry of a mixed community… [where] the doctor grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street.’

This about sums it up: social capital is people’s links and relationships, or lack of them, to the people and organisations that can affect their lives.

Rural Services Network – March 2009

Social capital is now formally measured.


The Office for National Statistics breaks it down into people’s personal networks, membership and participation in organisations, and their level of trust and feelings of influence.


And national surveys reveal that is greater in rural areas.


People in rural areas are more likely to: say they get on well with others in their neighbourhood (85% in rural England compared to 78% in urban areas); feel they belong in their neighbourhood (78% versus 73%); feel they can influence decisions (40% versus 30%); and participate in volunteering (34% versus 27%).

And the benefits go wider than this.

The ONS report that higher levels of social capital are associated with better health, educational achievement, better employment and lower crime rates.

Increase social capital

So, how do we promote it?

Firstly, support and promote the voluntary sector.

The sector focuses on some of the main problems of rurality, such as isolation, transport and access to services.  And it has a virtuous relationship with social capital; it depends on people’s contacts within their community for getting things to happen, and broadens and deepens these contacts through people’s participation.


Not everyone agrees, however, about the role social capital can play.

A few years ago it was criticised for being seen as a panacea, which it is not.  Social capital alone cannot solve bigger problems such as the lack jobs and affordable housing; but it does make a contribution, alongside other forms of capital such as finance, buildings and machinery.

Bonding – Bridging – Linking

Whatever your view on social capital, it also provides a useful model.

For example, to an outsider, rural communities can look close-knit and neighbourly.  They have a lot of what is called ‘bonding’ social capital.

But people can be at risk of social exclusion if they are unable to break into strongly bonded communities, or they look exclusively to their relatives and friends.

To get ahead in life people need trust and links with different communities and people of different backgrounds (through what is called ‘bridging’ social capital) and with institutions that affect their lives (‘linking’ social capital).

Indeed, a study by the Rural Evidence Research Centre concluded that the constant replenishment of bridging social capital was crucial to ameliorating social exclusion.


Also, that few of the successes attributed to social capital in rural areas, such as vibrant community activities and caring communities, would have occurred without the deployment of linking social capital.

Their report identifies factors that can increase and decrease social capital – it stresses the importance of places for people to meet, such as village halls – and concludes with several messages to people working with rural communities: respect their enthusiasm, encourage diversity, recruit locally when delivering projects, consult over decisions that affect them, and don’t drown their enthusiasm with unnecessary paperwork.

Also, facilitate things that are ‘fun’ to do, which encourages people’s participation more than any sense of duty.  And don’t let people get disillusioned by unsuccessful bids for funding – reward them and at the very least provide positive feedback.


Anyone with an interest in social capital should watch events in Leicestershire.

There, the Local Area Agreement has identified increasing social capital as one route to meeting its national target of ‘building stronger communities,’ and the partners are now addressing local communities’ needs.


Examples of their interventions have included: helping a social club access transport and funding to enable leisure trips (bonding social capital); bringing people together who had a common interest in improving a local park (bridging); and facilitating a community’s lobby for a lower road speed limit (linking).

Next month [FEBRUARY] they will examine the impact of these activities on communities’ social capital.

© Robert Bullard.  Not for reproduction without prior permission

A conference on the link between social capital and community resilience is being held in Scotland on 4th June.


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