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

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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!

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