Social capital: what roles has it played during COVID-19, and how can it be harnessed for recovery?

IPPO is pulling together evidence and expertise on the importance of social capital to pandemic recovery strategies – from levels of trust to the role of civil society. This topic snapshot outlines some of what we already know – but now we’d like your insights

Geoff Mulgan, Rachel France and Joanna Chataway

Over the next year, crucial decisions will have to be made about both ‘levelling up’ and post-COVID-19 recovery.  Much of the focus on levelling up so far has been on the purely economic aspects – how to promote infrastructure, investment and job creation in places that have been left behind, many of which were particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

But attention is also likely to turn to the less visible aspects of inequality and, in particular, to inequalities of social capital and civil society. There is plenty of evidence that these factors influence economic growth. They also influence other outcomes such as wellbeing, which is strongly shaped by whether people can rely on others to help them in a crisis.

In this topic snapshot, we look at the roles social capital, and civil society more generally, have played in the pandemic – and what part they may play in any recovery process. The answers are subtle and complex: social capital isn’t something that can just be ‘switched on’. The details of place, relationships and behaviours matter more than aggregates, and this will need to be reflected in any policy responses.

We’re also hoping to encourage others to share their answers – both on the diagnosis and on the prescription. Specifically, we’re interested in evidence on three sets of questions:

  • What was the state of social capital and civil society in the UK pre-COVID?
  • What happened during the pandemic and do they explain any of the variations?
  • What role should social capital and civil society play in recovery plans?

What is social capital and why does it matter?

Although social capital is not easily defined, the term is typically used to refer to how people and groups relate to each other – covering personal relationships, social network support, civic engagement, trust and cooperative norms (ONS, 2020). Theoretical work on its meanings was led by figures including James Coleman, Pierre Bourdieu and Robert Putnam, each of whom (in different ways) addressed the value to an individual of being able to mobilise networks of support and influence. The types of social capital they studied overlap with a series of linked issues:

  • Trust – in government and institutions (including trust in government messaging on vaccines) as well as within families and communities.
  • Social cohesion – including willingness to comply with government regulations, and (conversely) behaviours such as panic buying.
  • Community capital – such as local amenities and locally-owned assets.
  • Social resilience – how well society functions in the face of difficulty.
  • Networks – both formal and informal.
  • Civil society – the strength and effectiveness of charities and non-profit organisations of all kinds.

A distinction is often made between different kinds of social capital – for example, ‘bonding social capital refers to connections to people like you [family, relatives, kinship] … bridging social capital refers to connections to people who are not like you in some demographic sense’ … ‘linking social capital pertains to connections with people in power, whether they are in politically or financially influential positions.” (Woolcock, 2001; Mayoux, 2001). Most agree that social capital in all these forms matters, whether to economic growth or to the health of a democracy. But there is no one definition and to some extent at least, the term is contested (Harper, 2002).

In the years immediately before the pandemic, evidence suggests that some aspects of social capital in the UK had grown weaker. Trust in national governments fell, fewer people reported positive engagement with their neighbours or felt that they ‘belonged’ in their local areas, and fewer people volunteered (ONS, 2020). Cuts in local services also impacted on social and community resilience, with local authority budgets reduced by almost a third between 2011-12 and 2016-17. This meant that in some areas, civic institutions closed or shrank their services, including libraries and post offices (Onward, 2020), and there were fewer local support officers and community development teams (Morrison et al, 2020). Some high streets experienced decline, as did community institutions such as pubs – although some areas saw an active response with the rise of community-owned pubs and local shops (Onward, 2020).

What happened during the pandemic?

Communities with better social capital have generally fared better than others during the pandemic (McCabe et al, 2020). This study found that ‘across all areas, it was the extent to which community-led infrastructure has been built – through investment and support – that seems to have made the difference’.

While demand for services provided by the voluntary sector increased during the pandemic, many voluntary organisations struggled to meet this demand as their income reduced and social distancing and other COVID-related measures made operations difficult. For example, as food insecurity increased, particularly among families and social renters, there was a sharp rise in demand for the services of food banks (Trussell Trust, 2020).

International research confirms the importance of social capital. A recent study exploring its role in the spread of COVID-19 in Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK showed that a one standard deviation increase in social capital led to 12% and 32% fewer COVID-19 cases per capita accumulated from mid-March until mid-May 2020. A more in-depth case study based in Italy also found that high social capital areas had lower excess mortality (Bartscher et al, 2020).

Another study using data from more than 70 countries, taken from the latest World Values Survey (Elgar et al, 2020), suggested that more economically unequal countries and those with lower levels of some dimensions of social capital, including civic engagement and confidence in state institutions, experienced more deaths from COVID-19.

Assessing the different types of social capital during COVID-19

Social cohesion: At the start of the pandemic, social cohesion improved – as it often does when a community faces a shared threat. But levels then fell back, and are now similar or worse than before. These broad trends also disguise wide variations: for example, six local authorities (Blackburn with Darwen, Bradford, Peterborough, Walsall, Waltham Forest and Calderdale) that had invested in programmes to strengthen social cohesion and integration in the two years prior to the pandemic reported consistently higher levels of neighbourliness, volunteering and positive social action than elsewhere from June to December 2020 (Abrams et al, 2020).

Each of these local authorities adopted a different approach: for example, one area prioritised equality of opportunity, improving community relations, social engagement and activism, and tackling crime, while another focused on young people and connecting communities. All of the programmes tried to strengthen intercultural relations and increase social mixing between groups and communities (British Academy, 2021).

Trust: This has proven to be vital for public health – whether in encouraging testing and reporting or, later, in encouraging vaccine take-up (Khorram-Manesh et al, 2021). In this respect, the pandemic echoed other health-related crises such as Ebola, where trust was essential and government messaging had to be culturally and contextually sensitive (Barai, 2021). In the UK, levels of trust in government institutions and politicians were low before the pandemic, rose as the pandemic started, only to fall back again – partly as a result of the Dominic Cummings affair, but also because of problems with the different test and trace systems and frustration with economic and emotional losses (British Academy, 2021). Trust in the media also declined, while digital platforms had a high level of use during the pandemic.

Volunteering: A review of volunteering activity in the UK during the pandemic (to October 2020) found that the main tasks were food shopping, picking up prescriptions, and providing emotional support to people who became isolated (Mao et al, 2021). However, as the pandemic progressed, there was increased engagement of volunteers in political matters – for example, signing petitions and contacting MPs, as well as involvement in campaigns such as that around preventing evictions.

Organisations joined up with other groups to provide local services – for example, a community bakery shifted its production to support a local food bank and community centre (Alakeson & Brett, 2020). While overall, volunteering rates increased particularly among younger people, the number of older volunteers reduced, possibly because of shielding but also because of lockdown regulations. Volunteers tended to be from higher socioeconomic groups (Paine 2020), with motivations changing as people took the opportunity to make social connections during the pandemic.

Community Champions: These are volunteers who promote health and wellbeing through their social networks (Public Health England, 2021). International evidence suggests they can help in reducing health inequalities, both during emergencies (for example, they were used successfully in the Ebola response and in vaccination programmes) and for longer-term prevention. The UK Government opted for a highly centralised approach to test and trace, unlike other countries such as South Korea, but later pivoted to involve local authorities and Community Champions much more – partly in response to recommendations such as those by the Independent Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B, 2020), which argued that Community Champions were likely to be effective where trust in government is low.

The importance of ‘hyper-local’ social capital

Civil society is often organised at a ‘hyper-local’ level. At the start of the pandemic, hyper-local mutual aid networks – ‘self-organising groups where people come together to address a shared health or social issue through mutual support’ (Seebohm et al, 2013) – sprung up across much of the UK, though particularly in communities already rich in social capital (Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020), using platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. These groups initially provided services such as picking up shopping and medicine, but some grew to take on activities such as combatting loneliness (e.g. through virtual coffee mornings) and financial stress (Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020).

Schemes were more successful when local government played a facilitating role, rather than either ignoring them or trying to micro-manage (Tiratelli & Kaye, 2020). Examples include supplying mobile phones, proactively connecting volunteers with existing groups, and providing spaces or infrastructure. A group in Bristol was able to develop a system with the local authority to undertake Disclosure and Barring Service checks for volunteers in 24 hours (Alakseson & Brett, 2020). Local areas which had already invested in this kind of infrastructure – such as through social cohesion programmes – were able to mobilise more quickly to support vulnerable people (Abrams et al, 2020).

Co-location could also be helpful in promoting linking social capital. Successful examples include the co-location of social work and community services in North Ayrshire, a scheme to connect schools with care homes to alleviate isolation in Glasgow, and partnership working to respond to homelessness in Cardiff (Morrison et al, 2020). However, achieving such services relies on individuals with the necessary social capital and skills, as well as on sustained engagement with community representatives.

Share your insights on social capital’s roles during COVID-19

There is strong suggestive evidence that uneven social capital contributed to the very uneven effects of COVID-19. The causes are multiple and complex, but one common finding of much recent research is the importance of a healthy, reciprocal relationship between the state and civil society – an ability to work in genuine partnership. This may also be vital for any levelling up plans – that they involve structured partnerships that build trust through how they work as well as what they do.

Over the coming months, IPPO will be pulling together more evidence and expertise on the roles that social capital can play in pandemic recovery strategies, including by convening a virtual roundtable event. If you are a researcher, policymaker or practitioner and would like to share your insights, please email us at ippo@ucl.ac.uk.

Professor Joanna Chataway is Head of Department for Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP) at University College London, and Principal Investigator of IPPO.

Sir Geoff Mulgan is Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at UCL STEaPP, and IPPO’s Co-investigator.

Dr Rachel France is IPPO’s Research Fellow.