Tackling loneliness: a role for policy?

I’ve long seen loneliness as a neglected dimension in the social capital debate.A furry of recent media reports about loneliness and the young, as well as loneliness and the elderly, has made me revisit this issue

At its simplest, the example of loneliness and its damaging effects always seems to me a good reason for ignoring those who say social capital is not worth researching. If loneliness can be so harmful, it follows that decent social connections are a positive resource, at least potentially. So I’ve often wondered why social capital researchers don’t at present have much to say on the topic.

I tried to remedy this in a little way in my social capital textbook. The final chapter considers policy interventions in the area of social capital, and in the third edition I introduced a few ideas about tackling loneliness. Like any intervention in social capital, there are risks and problems, but not acting to prevent loneliness is also an intervention – and one with damaging consequences.

My own view is that thinking of loneliness in the context of social capital is helpful, but you can make up your own mind about that.


From Social Capital (p 84)

It’s worth adding that fostering public debate over loneliness in itself makes a valuable contribution. I’ve been impressed by the Yorkshire Post‘s long-running campaign over loneliness, for example. Simply hiding the problem is, it seems to me, a recipe for making things much worse.

Gender and social capital: are social networks a mixed blessing for women?


Having a decent social network is usually a really good thing, both for you and for the communities to which you belong. Conversely, loneliness and isolation can be seriously harmful to your health and well-being, as well as damaging to your communities’ attempts to cooperate.

In revising my introductory textbook for its latest edition I concluded that the literature on the health benefits of social capital is now well-established and reasonably conclusive. However, as I also emphasised, different forms of social capital can have different consequences for different parts of the population. And just as the book went to press, along came a new study which made this point nicely.

The study was led by Sara Ferlander, from the Stockholm Centre for Health and Social Change, and drew on data collected in the Moscow Health Survey. You can read their paper, which is available on open access here. I will therefore focus in this post on the findings that particularly interested me.

First, as with a number of other studies, the survey found that women were more likely than men to report that they suffer from depression. They were also more likely to say that they suffer from severe depression. The authors then used a statistical technique called regression analysis to try to determine how other factors, including social networks, were connected to depression; they found that while education and age showed little connection, money problems and depression did go together.

Other studies, summarised in my book, have shown that social networks generally help act as a buffer against depression. The reasons might seem obvious: having someone to turn to in times of trouble isn’t just a way of overcoming practical problems, but is also reassuring to your sense of self and worth to others. But Moscow survey findings show a degree of complexity.

Women who were divorced or widowed, all other things being even, had higher odds of reporting depression. This is broadly what social capital theory leads us to expect, and the Ferlander team concluded that this form of social capital has particular importance for women.

More unexpectedly, the study found no association for either men or women between self-reported depression and either membership of voluntary groups or contacts with friends. And for women, it found that those with fewer age-bridging connections were less likely to report depression than those whose social ties were richer in age-diverse connections. The researchers suggest that this might be explained partly by sharp inter-generational tensions in Russian society and gender discrimination in the workplace.

The obvious question is whether we would find similar patterns elsewhere. Given Russia’s particular social and economic history, it’s likely that there are distinctive factors at work in the well-being of both women and men. Nevertheless, this study nicely illustrates the ways in which social capital somtimes works differently for women and men, and I wish I’d had access to it before the book went to press!


Social capital and ethnic diversity at work: the role of language learning

fireI’m extremely interested in the relationship between social capital and ethnic diversity. Put simply, the standard hypothesis is that we find it easier to build trusting relationships with people who share similar characteristics to ourselves. Robert Putnam, the doyen of social capital scholars, wrote in 2007 that residents in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods tend to ‘hunker down’, a contention that he supported with abundant evidence (his article is available here).

And now along comes a rather good study of linguistic diversity in the workplace. People use language in the workplace not just to communicate about the tasks they have to complete, but also to build bridges with one another through small talk, gossip and humour, and displaying trust by disclosing ‘private’ information about themselves.

While linguistic diversity might not disrupt work that involves routine and simple tasks, this study shows that it has wider effects for relationships between different groups of workers. The author, Frederik Thuesen, concludes that ‘in low-skill workplaces characterised by linguistic diversity, communication problems have a small impact on the completion of work tasks but a large impact on social relations’.

So talk really matters.Thuesen concludes that employers and trade unions can and should do more to promote language learning, as well as providing intercultural training for majority workers. He also quotes the example of a supermarket firm which used Facebook to promote inter-cultural dialogue among cashiers. And of course government can help create a supportive environment, not least by promoting language learning and ensuring the quality of provision.

The abstract for Thueson's article

The abstract for Thueson’s article

Of course, workers themselves can also intervene, for better or for worse. I certainly don’t assume that migrants and minorities are passive victims of everything society throws at them; I’ve written before about the attempt to build a mosque that is designed to promote trust and remove suspicion, a development that I very much welcome. But above all it is for the host society, and particularly its government, to ensure that those who come from other cultures are able to contribute effectively, and to build bonds with their new compatriots.




The Social Progress Index – how does your country rate?


New Picture

We expect to see countries ranked and compared all the time. This seems a natural enough process in sporting occasions such as the European Football Championships under way now (though as with the EU, the list of participating nations helps to define what we understand as “European”). And there are hundreds of international league tables for everything from health, wealth and education to crime, corruption and war.

I’m always interested in attempts to produce league tables that are a bit more thoughtful and informative than the average. One of these is the Social Mobility Index, which I blogged about here. And now along comes the 2016 Social Progress Index (SPI), a composite table that draws on a range of social and environmental outcome indicators, with the aim of informing policies to improve well-being.

The resulting league table tells you which countries over-perform on social progress in relation to GDP (per capita). Costa Rica leads this group, suggesting strong social progress; however, it is followed by Kyrgyzstan, which is probably down to economic decline.

Those who come top overall are those which are both prosperous and socially progressive: Finland ranks first, followed by Canada, our friends the Danes, and then Australia. Three oil-rich countries lead the table for low social progress relative to GDP. Saudi Arabia is way out ahead, followed by Kuwait and then the United Arab Emirates. Significantly, the USA also makes it into the top 20 for this group, just ahead of Venezuela.

I take a particularly close interest in the fortunes of Germany (15th) and the UK (9th), as these are the countries where I live. Interestingly, the UK is among those who are high on social progress relative to GDP, though with some problem areas, including perceptions of crime. Despite its higher GDP, Germany is the other way round, thanks mainly to low scores on health and wellness and even lower scores on tolerance and inclusion.

New Picture (2)

I like the way that SPI applies an outcomes approach to wealth, rather than treating it as the main indicator of well-being. Rather than relying directly on measures of wealth, it treats health, education and freedoms as the outcomes of wealth. And what it tells us is that while being rich certainly helps, what also matters is how you use your riches.



Social capital in the trenches

Poster from September 1914, British Library exhibition "Ednduring War: Grief, grit & humour"

Poster from September 1914, British Library exhibition “Enduring War: Grief, grit & humour”

I’ve known for a long time about the Pals’ Battalions in the First World War. Recruiters – who included ‘philanthropists’, civic dignatories and religious leaders as well as the military – played on young men’s personal loyalties as a way of persuading them to enlist in groups. Initially the ‘pals’ came largely from the middle classes, though nowadays we tend to think of them as drawn mainly from the industrial cities.

In war, as in many other situations, friendship and workplace networks are an obvious way of swelling the ranks. It isn’t simply a matter of getting more bangs for your buck, so to speak, by recruiting a whole group rather than individuals. Social capital theories suggest that not only will people volunteer more readily as part of a group, but that they will be able to draw on their learned resources of trust and co-operation once they are in uniform.

This poster, which I spotted at a fantastic exhibition in the British Library, sets out the case very clearly. It was aimed at ‘young men from 19 to 35, especially those employed in Banking and Commercial Houses’, and its main selling point was that the recruit would ‘Serve with your friends’. I guess it must have worked well enough for a time, because the same approach was then extended to the industrial north.

Of course, social capital theory tells us that connections can work in many ways. It suggests that soldiers who know each other well can also organise and co-operate to resist authority. It also suggests that strong bonds might predispose some young men to refuse to serve in war, and indeed the BL exhibition includes a moving statement by a young Quaker and Socialist who stood trial rather than be conscripted.

No one has claimed that social capital theories identify some entirely new phenomenon. The value of connections has entered cliche corner a long time ago, through phrases like “old school tie” and so forth. What the theories can help us do is to understand the nature of those ties, the meanings that they have for people, and the ways in which people use them, for good or for ill.

School cheating and social capital

I’ve always been interested in the contradictory consequences of people’s social connections. While the literature on social capital has shown conclusively that there are far-reaching positive benefits, there is also a clear ‘down side’. I’m revising my book on social capital for a new edition, and have been reading up on recent research that addresses the negative as well as positive effects.

soc cap book

In a particularly interesting study, two Italian scholars have examined the relationship between social capital and cheating in school achievement tests. We should note that these were so-called ‘low stakes’ tests: the results are not published, and they have little or no impact on student grades. Their main finding was that cheating was higher in schools situated in neighbourhoods with low scores on several social capital measures. So far, then, the study seems to support the positive story of social capital’s benevolent consequences.

Next, though, they looked at the prevalence in neighbourhoods of two broad sets of values, universalistic and particularistic. Their data showed that cheating was negatively associated with the former but positively with the latter. Finally, they found that cheating was more frequent when teachers were from the local community as well as when the students were relatively homogeneous in terms of social status and ethnicity. This brings us closer to understanding why some forms of social capital are liable to produce ‘negative externalities’.

Symbolic violence and poverty porn

I’ve been thinking off and on about Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence. His well-known book on Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture started with a discussion of ‘a theory of symbolic violence’, which defined it in terms of the power to ‘impose meanings and impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force’. He went on to describe all ‘pedagogic action’ as ‘symbolic violence in so far as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power’.

While never returning to the idea in such depth, Bourdieu continued to use it in broadly similar terms. But it has never had the same currency as the other key ideas that he helped to generate. A search of the British Journal of Sociology of Education returned 53 papers which used the concept in some way, compared with 331 which referred to cultural capital and 247 which referred to habitus. Even social capital, with 159 mentions, fared better than symbolic violence. A quick check of the British Education Index confirmed my hunch that it is less popular than these other typically Bourdieusian concepts.

While I have drawn on Bourdieu in my own work, I have never warmed to the idea of symbolic violence. I can see what he is getting at, but I find it excessive. Even as a metaphor, it is a hyperbole which is good at capturing the attention but bad at explaining anything. Worse, it can distract us from the role of actual, physical violence, whether in the form of dangerous working conditions that cause direct or indirect damage to people’s bodies, or in the form of deliberately inflicted harm of the kind that is all too common within families.

Still, Bourdieu was on to something. Elsewhere he talked about the insults that the respectable feel free to heap upon the marginalised and poor, as well as the gentler disdain of the ‘culture of condescension’ found between different strata of the bourgeoisie. And of course people can then internalise these demeaning and scornful attitudes, seeing themselves as somehow worth less than other people. I was particularly struck by this while reading Vicky Duckworth’s excellent study of adult literacy learners in Oldham, which is one of the few sociological studies in our times to use Bourdieu’s idea.

And our times are certainly prompting me to think about how we – the comfortable and respectable – relate to the marginalised and dispossessed in our own society. Duckworth’s book made me think about the way in which different people are responding to Benefits Street, the Channel Four series which portrays people living on benefits in a single Birmingham street. For some conservative commentators, the programme has triggered opportunities to quote exactly the sort of language that Duckworth notes in her study: the street is ‘filthy’, a ‘moral cesspit’ inhabited by ‘scrounging vermin’. Against that we have the equally stigmatising disdain of those who turn their backs on ‘poverty porn’ – the mirror image of the shame that the stigmatised experience when confronted by the respectable.

Television documentaries like Benefits Street and The Scheme are double-edged. They reinforce a culture of blame, yet at the same time they force viewers to contemplate fellow citizens who otherwise they avoid seeing. For after all, we live in cosy suburbs and dormitory villages, we commute to work by car, we shop in anonymous warehouses – what are these behaviours about if not avoiding those parts of our society that we prefer not to see?

I have never come across a writer who bemoans ‘poverty porn’ yet who then goes on to explain what kind of documentaries on poverty they would prefer to see – or how they would reach a popular audience. It seems pretty reasonable to conclude that these critics are therefore saying that documentary film makers should avoid poverty; and that audiences, if they must contemplate these things, should turn to fiction. I strongly disagree; I loved such films as Ken Loach’s Sweet 16 or Peter Mullan’s Neds, but there is also a place for documentary film. I am afraid that simply scorning it as ‘poverty porn’ is also a distancing technique.

Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Paul Passeron, Reproduction in education, society and culture, Sage, 1977 (original French edition 1970)