What more can be done to harness the full powers of social capital? Notes from IPPO’s roundtable

Around the world, social capital – or a lack of it – can be seen to have affected the course of the pandemic. Our recent virtual event highlighted the importance of mapping, supporting and harnessing this powerful, if hard-to-define, force

Rachel France

Last month’s IPPO topic snapshot on the roles social capital has played during the pandemic observed that, while the term is hard to define precisely, it can be seen as the manifestation of factors such as trust (for example, in government), social cohesion, social resilience, community capital, social networks of all kinds, and the presence and strength of civil society organisations.

These and other issues formed the basis of our recent virtual roundtable, for which we invited academics and policymakers from across the UK to discuss the importance of social capital during COVID-19, and how it could best be harnessed to aid recovery strategies. This report provides an overview of the main points of our hour-long discussion, followed by a list of the research and other resources that were shared during the event.

What happened during the pandemic?

Around the world, social capital – or a lack of it – could be seen to have affected the course of the pandemic. For example, how well government health-related messaging was trusted seems to be a factor in explaining differences in mortality rates between countries. However, a nuanced approach is needed here, since countries are made up of sometimes disparate social groups – and social capital is itself not a uniform, stable concept.

Different forms of social capital operate at different levels, and vary between countries depending on the political system in place. In countries with a high degree of government control, citizens are more likely to follow policy regulations – making social capital less important. The opposite is true in more democratic countries.

In addition, there may be lower levels of trust among people from minority groups – reference the higher levels of vaccine hesitancy among some minority groups in the UK. The differential impact of social capital levels among groups is therefore vital in understanding both how social capital affected outcomes, and how it can help stimulate recovery.

Supporting and mapping community groups

One event attendee put forward the example of undocumented migrants who had low levels of social capital pre-pandemic, as they were living below the radar of statutory bodies. The pandemic saw some who had previously been isolated come forward for help, increasing their social capital and the reach of civil society. However, it was observed that increased support for community groups who are reaching and supporting such isolated cohorts would help where government messaging fails to cut through to them.

Research with community leaders shows how the health of community organisations pre-pandemic affected their COVID response. These organisations played an important ‘intermediary’ role, linking communities and local government. Mapping the extent of this across the UK would be a useful first step in understanding what went on, although it is already clear there was a correlation between levels of social capital and deprivation.

It should also be noted that ‘natural’ social capital, such as neighbours helping each other out on an informal basis, is unlikely to show up in any mapping exercise.

Understanding what happened to people with disabilities was highlighted as being particularly important since they were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Such research should take intersectionality into account in understanding how their experiences cut across different contexts of social capital. While some disabled communities have relatively high social capital and visibility in local civil society organisations, others do not. In other words, people with disabilities must not be treated as a homogenous group.

What more can be done?

Developing an appropriate conceptualisation of social capital is vital for building a theory of change, and thus being able to harness social capital for recovery. Although a contested term, the notion of ‘counterpublics’ may offer a lens through which the issues can be helpfully conceptualised.

The role of local government in the pandemic showed that a ‘light touch’ worked with regards to supporting civil society in its response, but also that the quality of existing relationships was important. To be useful, research in this area needs to take into account the nuances involved.

The role of local institutions is also likely to be important, although pre-pandemic cuts in local government funding will have reduced the ability of these to respond fully. The differential cuts between the four UK nations may form a kind of natural experiment here. Mapping past (dis)investment on to pandemic-related outcomes would be a useful first step in understanding the mechanisms involved – Huw Benyon’s work on the coal industry may provide a model.

The roundtable also highlighted that there should be a specific focus on supporting young people, as they will have to deal with the long-term effects of the pandemic.

Concluding thoughts and next steps

It is important to understand that social capital is not necessarily positive. For example, local hubs such as pubs may encourage more negative views towards vaccination, while some communal activities, such as singing in choirs, may be associated with spreading the virus. Initiatives in Toronto, Canada, have focused on areas of the city in which additional support is given to build trust through social activities, thereby raising levels of trust in government.

The conceptualisation of social capital in terms of bonding, bridging and linking – as outlined in our earlier topic snapshot – is another useful way of thinking about strengthening social capital to aid recovery. It is also important to take into account how social capital evolves over time: for example, as the pandemic progressed, the role of the online space in developing social capital became more important.

Finally, research into the role of social capital during the pandemic, and how it may be harnessed for recovery, needs to be based on the fact that the relationship between social capital (however defined) and outcomes is multifactorial, dynamic and nuanced. There is variation between individuals as well as between social and ethnic groups.

Starting with outcomes rather than with social capital itself – for example, health outcomes (mortality, hospitalisation, infection, mental health) and social consequences such as economic outcomes – may prove a useful starting point. The social fabric index (Tanner et al, 2020) provides a framework for this (relationships, civic institutions, norms and behaviours, physical infrastructure and economic value).

Research and resources

Links to research and resources that were highlighted during the IPPO event:

  • Asset Based Community Development: Evaluation of Leeds.
  • Participatory research with undocumented/irregular Filipino migrants.
  • We Were Built for This: How community organisations helped us through the coronavirus crisis – and how we can build a better future.
  • Quarantine, distress and interpersonal relationships during COVID-19 (Goodwin et al, 2020).
  • Map of mutual aid groups: Bennett Institute, University of Cambridge.
  • Evidence around the mental health burden of living in poorer communities based on very large-scale data in the UK:
  • Mental Health Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic: A latent class trajectory analysis using longitudinal UK data (Pierce et al, 2021). The Lancet. Psychiatry, 8(7), 610-619.
  • People Power Under Attack 2021: 2021 Findings from the CIVICUS monitor.
  • Mobilising UK Voluntary Action – review, analysis and evaluation of volunteer responses to the crisis, includes comparison between the four UK nations.
  • How the Voluntary Sector has Responded to COVID-19: Thiery, H., Cook, J., Burchell, J., Ballantyne, E., Walkley, F. and McNeill, J. (2021) ‘Never More Needed’ Yet Never More Stretched: Reflections on the role of the voluntary sector during the COVID-19 pandemic, Voluntary Sector Review, vol 00, no 00, 1–7, DOI: 10.1332/204080521X16131303365691
  • Analysis of the impacts of being a UK City of Culture was undertaken on the city of Hull showing the effect on social capital.
  • Turnaround: How to regenerate Britain’s less prosperous communities by helping them take back control (Onward, 2021).
  • A Surprising Turn of Events: Episodes towards a renaissance of civil society infrastructure in England. (Macmillan, 2021). People, Place and Policy (2021): 15/2, pp. 57-71. DOI: 10.3351/ppp.2021.7367428978
  • Power to Change. Building our social infrastructure: Why levelling up means creating a more socially connected Britain.