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Guide to Social Capital

What is social capital?

Social capital describes the pattern and intensity of networks among people and the shared values which arise from those networks.

Greater interaction between people generates a greater sense of community spirit.

Definitions of social capital vary, but the main aspects include citizenship, 'neighbourliness', social networks and civic participation.

The definition used by ONS, taken from the Office for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is 'networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups'.

Why does social capital matter?

Research has shown that higher levels of social capital are associated with better health, higher educational achievement, better employment outcomes, and lower crime rates.

In other words, those with extensive networks are more likely to be 'housed, healthy, hired and happy'.

All of these areas are of concern to both policy-makers and community members alike.

How do we measure social capital?

There are a number of different aspects to social capital and measuring the level of social capital in communities can be complex.

In many surveys respondents are asked a range of questions that cover a variety of issues. They commonly focus on:

  • levels of trust - for example, whether individuals trust their neighbours and whether they consider their neighbourhood a place where people help each other

  • membership - for example, to how many clubs, societies or social groups individuals belong

  • networks and how much social contact individuals have in their lives - for example, how often individuals see family and friends

What are networks?

Formal and informal networks are central to the concept of social capital.

They are defined as the personal relationships which are accumulated when people interact with each other in families, workplaces, neighbourhoods, local associations and a range of informal and formal meeting places.

Different types of social capital can be described in terms of different types of networks:
  • bonding social capital – describes closer connections between people and is characterised by strong bonds, for example, among family members or among members of the same ethnic group; it is good for 'getting by' in life
  • bridging social capital – describes more distant connections between people and is characterised by weaker, but more cross-cutting ties, for example, with business associates, acquaintances, friends from different ethnic groups, friends of friends, etc; it is good for 'getting ahead' in life
  • linking social capital – describes connections with people in positions of power and is characterised by relations between those within a hierarchy where there are differing levels of power; it is good for accessing support from formal institutions. It is different from bonding and bridging in that it is concerned with relations between people who are not on an equal footing. An example would be a social services agency dealing with an individual, for example, job searching at the Benefits Agency

What are shared norms, values and understandings?

These relate to shared attitudes towards behaviour that are accepted by most individuals/groups as a 'good thing'.

Examples are not parking in a disabled parking space at a supermarket and giving up your seat to someone who needs it more on the bus.

These norms of behaviour are understood by most members of society.

Sanctions underpin norms: fear of disapproval might compel individuals to comply with the shared values or norms and behave in an accepted way.

What are groups?

Groups in this context are very broadly defined and can refer to:
  • geographical groups - such as people living in a specific neighbourhood
  • professional groups - such as people in the same occupation, members of a local association or voluntary organisation
  • social groups - such as families, church-based groups, groups of friends
  • virtual groups - such as the networks generated over the internet in chat rooms through common interest groups
Content from the Office for National Statistics.
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