About thelearningprofessor

I'm an academic, interested in lifelong learning. Right now I am learning Brazilian Portuguese, more slowly than I'd like; and writing two books, one on British work camps 1880-1939 and one on intergenerational learning.

Social capital and the lockdown (2): how isolation is affecting our social bonds

Recently I posted a brief summary of research into social capital’s consequences for our current pandemic. We know much less, at this stage, about the way the pandemic, and particularly social distancing strategies, is reshaping people’s social ties. So here’s my attempt to summarise briefly what we do know; be warned that some of the evidence comes from snapshot survey findings and is therefore more limited than I’d like.

We certainly know that loneliness is seriously bad for one’s health, and I assume that social distancing on your own is a pretty lonely experience – possibly even a frightening one. Equally we know that mixing with family and friends is good for health and well-being, and presumably distancing can damage that. And studies of the SARS pandemic concluded that social isolation combined with extreme uncertainty had created severe psychological stress.

Some researchers, drawing on data from China, have linked isolating with anxiety, sleep disorders, and depression; similar findings are reported for Italy. It isn’t clear, at least to me, how far these patterns are a result of lockdown and the loss of social support systems, or are a consequence of fear of infection. Still, there clearly is a down side, with isolation depriving people of the social anchoring that they depend on.

Then there is the impact of the pandemic on fragile or exploitative social bonds. A number of countries report a rise in home-based violence (usually, but of course not always, male on female or adult on child). Whether we will also see a longer-term rise in family break-ups as a result of confinement combined with anxiety is yet to be seen.

And anecdotally, while most of us appear to be willing to protect the community by distancing, all of us have seen cases of selfishness bordering on crass stupidity, like cyclists and jogger insisting on exercising their overtaking rights in narrow footpaths. Is there also an up side?

One way to look at this is to focus on social media and our ties. While we might moan about Zoom meetings, they allow us to see and engage with workmates, family, and friends in a way that was unimaginable in past times. Yes, of course a virtual hug with grandad isn’t the same as the real thing, but it’s a hug; and many of us are becoming ever more adept at communicating in new ways.

Second, at least in the UK, there has been an upsurge in volunteering. Much of it is informal and unseen, from women sewing face masks to people phoning an elderly neighbour. One survey estimates that a fifth of UK adults have started volunteering in their community since the pandemic broke; two-thirds of all UK adults reported that their community was stronger as a result of the pandemic. Mutual aid groups have sprung up across the country, and are increasingly linked together as a movement.

Third, there have been highly visible symbolic expressions of mutual solidarity. The best example was the weekly public applause for key workers, which in our street was led by an increasingly proficient piper playing Highland Cathedral. Some of my Facebook friends sneered at the people who came out to applaud, but not one of them is a nurse, hospital porter, bin collector, care assistant, soldier, or delivery driver.

Public solidarity with low-paid and largely disregarded workers is a rarity, and not something I can view with contempt. And certainly in our case, lockdown has seen increased interaction with neighbours, whether in the aftermath of the Thursday applause or in the form of book exchanges, distanced coffee mornings, or chatting among wild garlic gatherers.

Like other forms of social capital, symbolic solidarity has consequences: recent survey data show a massive rise in the number of key workers who say they feel appreciated by the public. This is a body of goodwill that needs to be nurtured if it is to be sustained.

And then there is the converse: public contempt in the UK is largely reserved from those who break the lockdown. A particular fury greets public leadership figures who ignore the rules that they themselves have made. While the Scottish government seems to have got away unscathed with its botched (or worse) handling of its hypocritical Chief Medical Officer’s behaviour, the UK government’s handling of the Cummings scandal seems to have cost it dearly: trust in government information fell sharply in its wake, among people of all political persuasions and none. On the other hand, the communal solidarity of people who have observed the rules for those who seek optouts has been deeply impressive.

One conclusion I draw from the research studies is that our online behaviour is providing social scientists and others with an awful lot of valuable data. These raises ethical issues which will be familiar to many of those who use data from social media and mobile device records.

But my wider conclusion is that the pandemic really is reshaping our social bonds. The early signs suggest trends that might simply be short term responses to particular circumstances. However, while lockdowns may come and go, social distancing will be around for some time. If so, it likely will have longer term effects on our behaviours which will include our interactions with others. My expectation is that there will be some negative impats on social capital and some positive, but at least as important will be some deep-rooted changes in the ways that social bonds are made, reinforced, and broken.

Social capital and the lockdown (1)

Usually one of the most crowded streets in the resort town of Whitby

I have a long-standing interest in social capital – that’s to say, the many different ways in which our social ties can serve as a resource. So the pandemic, and the common policy of social distancing as a way of reducing infections, raises some obvious issues. In particular, I’ve wondered about some simple but big questions.

  • How do our social ties affect our experiences of social distancing, and of the wider pandemic?
  • What effect is social distancing having on our social ties, and indeed on their value?
  • In the longer term, what is the role of social capital in recovery from Covid-19?

This post looks at the first of these questions; I’ll look at the others in the next couple of days. And given that social researchers have access to much pre-existing data, as well as some new data on the pandemic, it’s not surprsing that some research has already emerged, thouigh I am guessing that much of it has yet to be peer-reviewed.

All I can do here is offer a few examples of studies that seem to me robust enough to command attention; as a crude headline, the findings seem so far to be consistent with the view that social capital still matters, even in the midst of a global pandemic.

One study of two ‘hot spots’ in Italy and New York State points to evidence that online social ties are associated with the spread of the disease. Conversely, access to mediated social ties may help inhibit the disease: according to an analysis based on US data, while income level appears to be the main factor in explaining social distancing – with the rich more likely to distance than the poor – access to high-speed internet access also matters.

Whether trust is a dimension of social capital or one of its outcomes is arguable, but it certainly appears to be a factor that shapes people’s social distancing practices. Based on US data, one study shows that compliance with stay-at-home orders is higher in neighbourhoods with high levels of trust; interestingly, trust in the press had a much larger impact on compliance than trust in either scientists or government.

While distancing appears to be affected by trust in the media, it is also associated with political specific forms of media consumption, and by political cultures. In the USA, it seems that viewing Fox News reduced the propensity to stay at home. Meanwhile, according to another paper, areas that vote Republican stayed at home less than those which voted Democrat.

Another study slightly took me aback, this time on distancing and ethnicity. Drawing on data from Russia and the USA, the researchers found that people who lived in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods are more likely to observe distancing rules than those in more homogeneous areas. This finding is consistent with the broader literature on diversity, which tends to find that we are more likely to form ties with, and trust, people who are most like ourselves.

Given these findings on stay-at-home behaviour, it is little wonder that initial analyses of social capital and Covid transmission overall show a negative correlation. In short, the more social capital a community has, the lower the rate of transmission (other things being equal).

So, as in other areas of public health, social capital is something to be taken seriously, and it follows that policies which promote it can help slow the spread of infection. Conversely, policies which reduce social capital, and undermine its foundations, pose a risk to successful recovery from the pandemic. And policies which build bridges between people with different identities – political, cultural, ethnic, national -may be particularly important in the longer term.

Race and immigration in interwar Scottish nationalism

One of the joys of archival research is the many opportunities it offers to get seriously distracted. I was browsing the Stirling Journal and Advertiser for the interwar years in the hope of finding reports relating to work camps. Stirling and Clackmannanshire were both mining areas facing high unemployment; and the Kirk ran a labour colony at Cornton Vale.

The paper was a rich source of material, only some of which ended up in the book. But as usual, I found myself fascinated by reports that had no direct connection to my own study. One was a report of a speech by a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Duncan Cameron of Kilsyth, addressing the weekly luncheon of the City Business Club in Glasgow. According to the edition for 15 April 1926, Cameron told his audience that “unless drastic measures were taken to safeguard the Scottish race in their native land, within the next thirty years the Irish population would be predominant in the industrial areas of Scotland, and that they would be in a position to dictate the lines of policy”.

Cameron had form in this area. He had contributed to the Kirk’s 1923 report on Irish immigration, telling the Kirk’s general assembly that “Scottish nationality would be imperilled and Scottish civilisation subverted” unless Irish immigration were controlled. And the year before he had warned the assembly of the risk of violent warfare. So this was no isolated act, and clearly he was far from alone in the interwar nationalist movement in fomenting alarm over Irish immigration, which he contrasted with the emigration of what he saw as superior Scots.

This is where I can see a link of sorts with my own research focus on work camps, as the Scottish nationalists occasionally claimed that work camps were themselves contributing to the dilution of the Scottish race, by helping prepare men for emigration. And while it isn’t news that interwar nationalist movements were often deeply racist, it’s helpful to remind ourselves occasionally that ideas based on imagined communities can have real consequences.

If you want more on the work camps, check out my book on Brirish work camps before 1940.

The shift to online learning and skills training shows promising trends and troubling signs

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered an abrupt transition to distance education, training and e-learning. The crisis has resulted in massive shifts to…

The shift to online learning and skills training shows promising trends and troubling signs

Lifelong learning in crime fiction: murderous Scotland and the MOOC

Traces is a series on Alibi, which usually runs endless episodes of classic TV detective series. It has a lot going for it: a stunning cast, unfeasibly attractive principal characters, strong female leads, suitably atmospheric locations, and a plot inspired by Val McDermid.

Traces also features a MOOC as a basic plot device. Emma, the lead character, has returned to her home town of Dundee to work as assistant in a forensic science lab. As part of her induction she undertakes a MOOC, which is designed and delivered by senior staff in the lab, only to discover that it involves a case study which closely resembles the murder of her own mother some 18 years before.

So far so familiar: Traces is a cold case series, clearly rooted in McDermid’s long-standing interest in forensic science. I’ve now seen all of the series, and found it watchable if unexciting. Surprisingly, given McDermid’s involvement, the main problem lies in the script; the plot seems mechanical, the narrative clunky, the dialogue punctuated more than once by the need for explanation, and some of the relationships overly coincidental. But that’s just me.

Meanwhile, the role of the MOOC threads through the story. The decision to use a MOOC in this fictional series presumably has its origins in a real-life MOOC, developed by Dundee’s Professor Sue Black, which included a Val McDermid story. Given that the script involves several explanations of what MOOC stands for, I guess we are not yet at the stage where MOOCs are a part of everyday life. But the fact that one features so prominently in a prime time tv series suggests that we are getting there.

https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/books/10k-enroll-on-val-mcdermid-inspired-forensics-course-1-3849399

‘Dundee, it’s been an utter pleasure’: Professor Sue Black prepares for next adventure

James Baldwin on identity

The Devil Finds Work (1976) could be summarised as a series of essays on film and its troubling relationship with race. I love the clarity and beauty of Baldwin’s writing, and find the book thought-provoking and full of insight. Here are two of his reflections on the question of identity.

“…a victims may or may not have a color, just as he may or may not have a virtue: a difficult, not to say unpopular notion, for nearly everyone prefers to be defined by his status, which, unlike his virtue, is ready to wear“ (p. 10, bridging discussions of Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the American South as victim, and A Tale of Two Cities).

“An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change clothes” (p. 77, introducing a dissection of Lawrence of Arabia).

Lockdown reading: 21 April – 20 May

North York Moors

Non-fiction

James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work

Mike Dennis, The Stasi: Myth and reality

William Atkins, The Moor: Lives, landscape, literature

Fiction

Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock

Antti Tuomainen, The Man who Died

Graham Greene, Stamboul Train

Sujata Massey, Die Tote im Badehaus

Doris Lessing, Landlocked