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.

new-picture

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?

image

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!

front-cover

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.

Save

Save

Save

Education, organisations and civil society

I’m just back from the annual conference of the Commission of Organizational Education of the German Society for Educational Research. This year’s topic was ‘Organization and Civil Society’, a theme close to my own interests in adult learning in connection with social capital and active citizenship.

New Picture

The topic was obviously an attractive one: as well as the two keynotes, one in German and one in English, there were 25 papers. A high proportion of papers came from postgraduate researchers, which suggests that the future of this area should be in safe hands. Highlights included studies of:

  • learning through different types of ‘citizen science’, including such grassroots initiatives as the Quantified Self movement;
  • learning and identity in migrants’ voluntary organisations;
  • the development of support for basic literacies in labour office programmes for the unemployed.

Both keynotes came from outside educational studies, which related to a feature of the conference that I found interesting: many of the papers drew on contemporary management and organisational studies, with neo-institutionalism being a particularly strong source of conceptual inspiration.

Among other strong intellectual influences were Pierre Bourdieu, whose work on cultural capital and habitus informed a number of studies of civil society organisations. Unsurprisingly, Bourdieu’s concept of social capital, which relates to the role of networks in elite formation, received little attention.

The other strong thread was reference to contemporary discussions of learning, including organisational learning. Key here were thinkers like Illeris, who have developed broad theories of learning based on syntheses of more empirical literature. If the Communities of Practice or professional learning literatures were discussed in any of the strands, I missed it.

Methodological preoccupations surfaced in a number of discussions of papers drawing on qualitative data. A number of presenters emphasised that they had undertaken a systematic approach to content analysis, and this attracted quite a lot of discussion. I was struck particularly by the influence of Ralf Bohnsack’s work on reconstructive social research, a book that has made virtually no impact in the English-speaking world – though it has parallels with the way in which I and other colleagues have used ‘sensitising concepts’ (including that of ‘habitus’) to guide qualitative data analysis.

I was struck by the lack of clarity and consensus around the idea of civil society. Some papers treated schools and similar formal state institutions as part of civil society, some included major charitable agencies, and others limited their focus to voluntary and community groups.

Interestingly, the conference took place in the Evangelische Hochschule Darmstadt, a ‘university of applied science’ associated with the Lutheran church, whose tradition of diaconical service had a significance influence on the development of the welfare state in Germany. And it allowed me to visit the artists’ colony at Mathildenhöhe, an extraordinary collection of art nouveau buildings sponsored by the Grand Duke Ernst Lugwig.

 

 

Another benefit of adult learning: social mobility

saveaded
Participating in learning has a measurable impact on people’s lives. This is obviously true for children, but recent research has shown convincingly that adults also benefit from their learning. Much of this research is particularly compelling because it is based on longitudinal studies, which allow us to examine how individuals’ lives change over time.

Now Arianna Tassinari from the Office for National Statistics has added to this important body of data. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, she reported on a study of whether adult education participation can change the relationship between parental background and an individual’s own socio-economic status at different points in time.

The BHPS collects two types of information on adult learning: having acquired a qualification, and having undertaken non-formal adult learning. Tassinari and her colleagues looked at changes in socio-economic status that look place between one and five years after participation in learning. And by controlling for other factors, they were able to determine whether changes in status were associated with something else than participating in learning.

Their findings were clear. Tassinari and her colleagues reported that

A distinctive, positive effect of participation in adult learning for inter-generational mobility is found when considering outcomes five years after participation in adult education. In particular, we find that participation in adult learning leading to qualifications at level 3 or to other professional qualifications significantly decreases the effect of parental education on individuals’ own socio-economic position.

So there we have it. As well as having small but significant impacts on health, well-being, self-efficacy, cognitive resilience, employability, earnings and community-mindedness, we now have clear evidence that adult learning can help overcome inherited disadvantage. So investing public funds in adult learning ought to be a no-brainer, shouldn’t it?

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.

A mosque that enhances social capital

How can we improve relations between Muslims and other members of the community? In many neighbourhoods, where people are rubbing along quite happily together, this question might not make much sense. But it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that suspicions and hostility are also common, and for symbolic reasons, these feelings often find expression when a Muslim congregation decides to build a new mosque.

Equally, though, the decision to build a mosque can also be an opportunity to build bridges between Muslims and their neighbours. I was very forcibly struck by that when I saw the splendid new mosque in Cologne’s multi-cultural Ehrenfeld district. Cologne is famous for its extraordinary gothic cathedral, from which you can see the mosque’s two tall minarets, while the mosque itself is a large modern building on a busy cross-roads on the area’s main street.

In short, it is very visible, and it’s big. As in many other European countries, there were noisy protests when the plans were first announced, and far right groups have called repeatedly for it to be demolished. In contrast to some other cities, though, the protests rapidly became tiny, and have now vanished. Instead, in a city that has some pretty mediocre architexture, the mosque is now more llikely to attract pride.

Koelner_Zentralmoschee_Januar_2013

What struck me was not just the soaring dome and minarets, but the lightness and openness of the building. There are vast windows and massive glass doors, which open out onto a square. We looked through the doors and saw rows of girls in the prayer hall with name plates in front of them, with tv cameras recording. A passer told us that the girls of the madrassa – it was Saturday – were taking part in a competition, and it was being filmed for Turkish tv. The congregation also have an informative and lively website, in German.

I found this openness – architectural and personal – very inviting. The whole aim of the building is to provide a space for worship and other community events that allows outsiders to see what is going on. And though this on its own won’t abolish mistrust and fear, it seems to me very likely to reduce them, and to prevent some of the ridiculous but harmful misinformation that surrounds Islam in much of the west.

For someone who is interested in social capital, this was a very encouraging experience. It is common in the social capital literature to find that most people trust and mix with people who are similar to them, and a number of studies show that ethnic and religious diversity are associated with lower levels of social capital.

However, while this may often be how we behave, there is nother inevitable about it. I particularly like one article, which confirms that while ethnic and religious diversity tend to undermine the social capital of white majorities, this effect disappears when people interact ‘across the fence’.

For me, the Cologne mosque at least puts windows in the fence, and provides a public space where non-Muslims can interact with Muslims on a personal level. It’s also an impressive statement of the ability of the Muslim community to take control of the debate over their place in the wider society, rather than passively suffering prejudice. In my view, an example worth following.

Update, December 2016: At the end of 2016 the mosque was still unfinished. It isn’t unusual for large building projects in Cologne to fall behind schedule (and over budget), but in this case it also seems that the project has fallen foul of the conflict within the Islamic community between supporters of Turkey’s president Erdogan and his critics. At present, the local committee seems fully supportive of the original “mosque for Cologne”; they opened the building for visitors on the Day of German Unity, under the theme of “Hijra: migration as challenge and opportunity, and were overwhelmed by curious locals. According to the local press, the mosque is now scheduled to open some time in 2017.