‘The simple habits and reciprocities of everyday life.’

 This is how David Halpern describes the focus of work that examines and values the role of social capital in our communities.

This warm, insightful phrase is a world away from the normal vocabulary of government, despite depicting pretty much everything that affects and is affected by government. Basic, daily human interaction and cooperation shape our communities, our health, our economy, our sustainability – everything that we value as individuals and as a society.

There are lots of reasons for this disconnect between the language of national and regional government and the simplest, most subtle level of social behaviour.

You might start with the problem of trying to define it. Social capital is fuzzy edged and multi-faceted. It takes different forms, drives different outcomes and is difficult to measure and track in relation to policies and interventions. Social science can embrace this complexity*, but obliqueness does not suit traditional politics, which relies on a media that needs to say ‘someone did that and this happened’. Claiming a straightforward relationship between specific policies and the invisible, subtle forces of social capital isn’t possible, which presents a major challenge to those that have to justify their work in a very limited way.

That the subtle, gradual changes to indicators of social capital, such as associational life and social trust, can only be measured over time, presents a similar challenge. Policy developed and implemented within a 4-5 year period has to deliver impact and change within that same period. Like so many meaningful areas of policy, shifts in the underlying strength of our communities can’t be attached to one term of a government or even its lifetime. David Cameron recently claimed, fairly accurately, that ‘applications from disadvantaged children to universities have gone up’ and ‘there are fewer workless households’ in the UK. These are both trends that have developed and revealed themselves over at least 20 years, but Cameron’s job is to lay claim to them in relation to recent Coalition policies.

A third challenge is the very nature of the relationship between authorities and these ‘simple habits and reciprocities of everyday life’. The negative correlation between government and community life defines the Big Society agenda, with the withdrawal of government influence linked hypothetically to the emergence of local mutual support and leadership. This has always seemed such a depressing view of government – that it can only be delivered in clunky, explicit ways and therefore cannot foster more subtle capacities and forces within our communities. But, that extreme aside, the role of government in creating and multiplying social capital isn’t particularly clear, on either side. But it could be.

So where and how might an obsession with social capital shape government?

London seems like a very good place to start.

David Robinson believes that ‘there seems to be something about the scale of cities which makes a radical vision both achievable and worth doing and something about the nature of their leadership which is capable of transcending national politics and building the consensus for bold alternatives.’ And I would agree with him – a Mayor seems to get a different coloured permission slip to those entering national government.

London also represents a good home for this obsession and an ideal environment for creativity around social capital, because it has a harder job than many cities.

London is the most diverse city in the world, with more than 300 language spoken, at least 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more and pretty much every race, nation, culture and religion represented. This is part of London’s richness, but there should be no idealism about the challenges this presents to fostering greater social capital, particularly ‘bridging’ social capital, which describes the connections across social and ethnic divides.

Robert Putnam, the pioneer of social capital research, found that US states and communities with higher levels of ethnic diversity showed substantially lower levels of trust, among and within racial groups. Work in the UK, including that of Edward Fieldhouse at Manchester University, identified a similar effect. There are other contributing factors noted in this research, such as poverty and disadvantage, but the negative impact of diversity on social capital is clear and makes London’s task more complex.

Secondly, to borrow another of David Halpern’s evocative phrases, ‘we Anglo-Saxons have spent the past few decades using our growing personal wealth to escape from the inconvenience of other people.’ The free market revolution unleashed by Thatcher-Reagan ideology shifted our cultural perspective inwards and London has been at the vanguard of this revolution. At the heart of this movement is the City, which has revealed its rejection of any sense of communal responsibility in the most unequivocal way over the last 6 years.

These challenges make a radical, long-term commitment to understanding, catalysing, and measuring social capital even more relevant and exciting in London.

There has been so much good work done in this area, many hundreds of projects in London that have had and are having a profound effect on the city’s social capital and great new ideas emerging all the time. At We Are What We Do, we hope to add to this work and here are some of the principles that we’ve been applying:

1. Avoid the fluff

The concept of social capital is inevitably complex and varied, but that doesn’t mean that we have to be vague and fluffy about it. Huge progress has made in how social capital is traced and measured, with the ONS Social Capital Question Bank as a good example, and London’s obsession with social capital should draw on all this progress, add to it and take the lead in rigorous longitudinal studies, randomised control tests and peer reviews. Sometimes, when it comes to trying to assess and articulate the holistic ‘rising tide’ effect of certain policies and projects, it’s easy to fall back on broad statements and case studies, but this doesn’t do this impact justice and the tools to do better are out there.

2. Don’t restrict ourselves to traditional forms

There has been a lot of work done on the role of churches, libraries and community centres on social capital and every bit is valid, because these are unequivocal sources of mutual support, interaction and civic participation. But every policy, project and product affects social capital in some way, from Twitter to Job Centres, and we should understand all these influences and how to harness them. In my home town of Lutterworth in Leicestershire, a new Costa Coffee has become, almost immediately, a really natural, inclusive community hub. There would be a natural snobbery about a national coffee chain arriving in a local community and an assumption that this is a sign of bland anonymity, but if we’re open minded, we won’t miss out on sources of social capital that might surprise us.

3. Focus on genuine sources of social capital

London’s obsession should be rooted in profound influences within communities, rather than superficial layers than can sometimes be mistaken for the same thing. If many civic values have drained out of communities over the last 50 years, as Putnam and others describe, then we can’t pretend that they can be replenished overnight with overtly contrived initiatives and short-term projects. Let’s ask how we can establish permanent sources of mutual support, civic participation and associational life, that grow slowly and become self-sustaining influences within their communities.

*‘Despite problems with its definition as well as its operationalization, and despite its (almost) metaphorical character, social capital has facilitated a series of very important empirical investigations and theoretical debates which have stimulated reconsideration of the significance of human relations, of networks, of organizational forms for the quality of life and of developmental performance’. Adam and Roncevic (2003, p. 177)

Related posts