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.

How diverse social relationships help improve your life chances

Steven Johnson’s book on decision-making is a lively read, and full of good ideas for helping you decide things. What attracted my attention, though, was its relevance to the social capital debate.

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Most of us prefer to hang around with people who are much like ourselves. We like neighbourhoods full of people who are similar to ourselves, we get intimate with people like us, and we join clubs and interest groups of like-minded people. It also happens that we inevitably end up spending most time with people not just with shared interests, but also of similar ethnicities, faiths, socio-economic background, cultural assumptions, and life experiences.

This ‘principle of homophily’ is well known in the social capital literature, and it can indeed help make life easier and more pleasurable much of the time. But according to Johnson, it also makes our decision-making capacities more vulnerable. He believes that the greater the diversity of those involved, the better our decisions. This is because people with varying backgrounds and assumptions will challenge and question each other, rather than simply going with the flow.

So a wider range of participants from different backgrounds is not just a matter of fairness; it also leads us to make better decisions. This is consistent with social capital research which shows a number of advantages to heterogeneous networks: as in the well-known case of job opportunities, to take one example, they are better than tight networks of folk like us for exposing us to information and ideas that we might otherwise miss /or overlook.

I agree with most but not all of Johnson’s analysis of networks and decision-making. First, for some purposes it is best to have access to a tight networks of people like us. To give one example, if you need a loan to start your new business, family and close friends are more likely to help than people you don’t know so well. More controversially, some research shows that pupils perform better academically when taught by members of the same ethnic group or gender.

So we appear to need a balance of heterogeneity and homogeneity to provide a mix of different resources to see us through our lives. Mixing only with people like yourself is a sure fire way of limiting your options; mixing only with loose ties is to cut yourself off from dependable and secure relationships.

Second, Johnson doesn’t discuss the policy implications of his thinking (though he does have interesting things to say about fiction and decision-making). He doesn’t look at organised attempts to bring large numbers of different people together to deliberate on agreed solutions to shared problems, such as citizens’ juries or other moderated large scale debates.

When they work, as in some types of community planning, they are great; when they become shouty (eg the two sides of Brexit) they just make matters worse. In short, how can we best improve public decision-making capacity through organised diversity?

Why academics love each other

I came across an interesting figure this morning. In her recent study of academic time use and gender inequalit, Rosalind Pritchard found that almost half of her study sample were partnered with other academics. Now, this was a relatively small group of 87 women in four subject areas in Britain and Germany. Nonetheless, it struck me as something worth thinking about.

Sociologists are very familiar with the principle of homophily – or, in common parlance, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. This is very obvious in our friendship circles, where our closest friends will usually share our cultural tastes. But not only do we have common interests in – say – French movies, Australian soaps and Chicago blues.  Our closest friends are usually of the same ethnic group, generational cohort, social class, political outlook and so on. And this in-group membership often leads on to homogamy – that is, marrying people of similar background and values to ourselves.

All the same, if anything approaching half of academics live with another academic, that really would be exceptionally high. And I suppose another group of academics will find partners elsewhere in the university, probably mainly among their administrative colleagues. This makes for a pretty dense network of interlocking partnerships (especially as, if my own acquaintances are anything to go by, the average university department includes an ex-partner or two, plus the occasional affair).

Does this matter? You could argue that these tight bonds help to generate high levels of social and cultural understanding and support, and reinforce a strong occupational identity that in turn is good for everyone’s morale and security. But the social capital literature suggests that over-reliance on ‘bonding social capital’ can make a community inward-looking, conservative and risk-averse.

In order to innovate and develop, you need to encounter people who will challenge your assumptions and encourage you to explore new approaches and ideas. So if Professor Pritchard’s sample is anything to go by, academics need to get out more. Perhaps the research councils’ programmes for placing doctoral students with government departments, voluntary organisations and the private sector will, over time, have some interesting unintended intimate consequences.

Rosalind Pritchard, Neoliberal developments in higher education, Peter Lang, 2011