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.

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).

Some people find it difficult to discuss male underachievement (updated)

As someone with a long track record of interest in educational inequalities, I started my day by reading a new report on male underachievement. Published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, the report points to evidence from the UK of male underachievement in higher education entry, persistence, and final results. In particular, it presents evidence of underachievement among white working class boys. It then sets out a number of proposals for changing that situation.

New Picture (2)

I found it a reasoned and evidence piece of work, though far from perfect. Aware that they were entering a minefield, the authors went to some trouble to point out that they were very comfortable with the growth of female participation in higher education, and they noted that there are significant differences between subjects; they discussed male/female salary differentials for graduates and criticised female under-representation in senior academic positions. They developed their proposals in a way that sought to avoid zero-sum political carve-ups.

However, that wasn’t enough to prevent an official from the National Union of Students using the highly-respected WONKHE blog to attack them for turning “a complex and nuanced issue into a battle of the sexes”. Even for a zero-sum world view, this ignores possible wars over ethnicity and class.

The WONKHE blog also contains a number of inaccuracies. For example, it claims that the HEPI report says that female school teachers are the main reason why boys do badly in school. The HEPI report says in terms that “the evidence on whether male teachers raise the achievement of boys is contradictory” – so it is pretty much the opposite of what the WONKHE blog says.

I’d idly started to wonder whether the blogger had actually read the report, or was drawing on another source. Then I spotted an attempt to smear the authors based on who they cited. The WONKHE blog says that on page 36 the report refers to an “un-named academic”, with a footnote referring the reader to a “disreputable source” by the name of Mike Buchanan, who is a leading figure in a campaigning group called “Justice for Men”.

New Picture

The blogger simply got this wrong, muddling two quite separate footnotes to two quite separate sentences. The reference to the “un named academic” (footnote 61) is to Joanna Williams, who is at the University of Kent. Mike Buchanan is not identified at all in the report, but footnote 60 does list three sources – one of them being Justice for Men etc – for the statement that “groups representing men’s interests claim to have found areas where hard evidence has been ignored”.

In itself, I don’t think this is that important, though I’d like WONKHE to correct the factual “errors”. The National Union of Students exists to defend its views, and sometimes it officers will do so in ways that they see as robust and others as underhand. What this episode does tell us, though, is that some people will try and stamp out any attempt whatsoever to discuss male educational performance.

 

Update

It turns out that the report put out by HEPI in advance to sector stakeholders and media had three slightly broken footnotes which were corrected in the finished version which was published. One of those who received an advance copy was the NUS, whose vice-president produced the WONKHE blog post. You must judge for yourself whether a failure to twig that something was obviously wrong was the result of the author’s prejudice or something else. Muddled footnotes do not, though, explain the other inaccuracies.

We must use ethnicity more clearly in social research

I’ve been thinking about the changing influence of large scale datasets on how social scientists understand difference. For the most part, it is pretty easy to analyse survey data in terms of gender; and while class and status are more complex, there several well-understood (if not always agreed) approaches to categorising people by occupation or income. But when it comes to ethnicity, we’re challenged.

Part of the problem arises because people have strong feelings about ethnicity. A storm of protest met early attempts to collect information about ethnicity in the census. Proposals to include ethnicity in the 1981 census disappeared, and although it has featured since then, there has been repeated controversy over which categories to use.

Data on ethnicity are also collected in the main longitudinal surveys that provide such rich source material for social scientists in Britain. The cohort surveys and panel surveys have informed major studies of social mobility, as well as providing the raw material for recent research into the benefits of adult learning. However, it has so far been very difficult to analyse these surveys in terms of ethnicity.

The researcher faces a dilemma. Either you aggregate the responses of people from different ethnic groups, using an umbrella category such as ‘South Asian’, in which case you will miss very important variations between them. Or you present your findings for each separate group, while making it clear that they are based on such a small number of respondent that the results are statistically insignificant.

This is likely to change in the near future. First, some of the major surveys now involve boosted samples of minority ethnic respondents. The Millenium Cohort Survey, for instance, was structured by neighbourhood, allowing for areas with high proportions of ethnic minorities to be deliberately over-represented (researchers will, of course, allow for this when analysing responses).

Second, researchers increasingly have access to large bodies of administrative data, suitably anonymised. They can then use linkage techniques to analyse information on individuals that was originally collected by the NHS, education authorities and other public bodies. This approach is being pioneered in Scotland, and offers considerable potential for detailed and robust statistical studies of small groups.

And thirdly, information processing methods allow researchers to ask extremely complex questions of large datasets. I remember carrying copies of completed questionnaires over to something called an electronic data processing centre at Warwick, which then seemed very zippy to me. It took a couple of weeks before I had the results, and longer still if anything needed running again. Now, advanced statistical processes take a laptop an afternoon.

In other words, it is going to be much easier to use large datasets to study ethnicity. We will not only be able to distinguish between smaller categories of ethnicity for minority groups, but also among those of white European origin. And we’ll be able to ask new questions and draw on new types of data – indeed, in principle, we could even link survey data with individual genetic information.

I’m not convinced that giving social researchers access to people’s genetic codes will happen any time soon. It might, as it is only a small step from exploring how people’s genetic background affects health to considering how it might affect other life chances. My point at this stage is that that our capacity for studying ethnicity has expanded dramatically, and is growing. This should be a force for enriching social science, and improving its public impact, but it won’t be an easy process.