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.

Tackling loneliness : a public health perspective

I’ve long been interested in social capital – a concept that draws attention to the complex ways in which our social connections serve as a resource. For the third edition of my short book on the subject I added a section on loneliness, which I saw as a neglected aspect of social capital, as it demonstrates the negative effects of having too few – or too weak – connections with others.

Since then, debate over loneliness has attracted widespread attention. This week’s edition of the Lancet carries a strongly worded editorial on the subject, triggered by a new and authoritative report on the risks and costs – social as well as financial – of loneliness. As we move towards policies of ‘social distancing’ in response to Covid-19, I thought it well worth sharing.

Bourdieu goes to Dublin: Class and Capital in Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”

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I loved Normal People, which I received as a Christmas gift and read last weekend. It centres on the relationship between Marianne and Connell, two young people from a small town near Sligo whose continuing friendship and intermittent love affair carries on from their final year at school to their time as scholarship holders at Trinity College, Dublin.

At the start their relationship is defined by class –  Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family – and by cultural fit – Marianne is a despised outsider, Connell is the popular footballer. Neither, Connell in particular, is willing to acknowledge their friendship publicly, and that does not change when they move to Dublin. What does change is their cultural fit, as Marianne swims in her new environment as smoothly as a fish in water, while Connell is unable to adjust to college life while simultaneously losing his ability to relate to his old life.

Rooney is an avowedly political writer, so it comes as no surprise that her novels map the remarkable recent journey of capitalism in Ireland. One particularly unappealing and entitled character is described as son of one of the people who caused the financial crisis (‘not figuratively, one of the actual people involved’). His friends wear plum chinos and waxed jackets, build their social capital through the debating society, and take their future for granted – all in utter contrast to Connell’s dispositions.

I was struck by the extent to which Normal People is a Bourdieusian project, examining the ways in which people’s habitus promotes or constrains their access to cultural and social capital. For working class Connell, fumbling his way through unfamiliar social and culrural terrain, higher education is an unsettling experience, even as he succeeds academically. And for Marianne as much as for Connell, the dissonance between one’s own values and intimate desires and those one must perform can lead to anxiety, even severe depression. What, indeed, are ‘normal people’?

The book is also a love story, though one whose sexual politics I found disturbing, and which centres around misunderstandings and missed opportunities. And it is a kind of morality tale for millienials, in which people demonstrate over Gaza together, and use emails and texts to maintain or end their social bonds, even on occasion when they are in the same house. I’m not taking my copy to Oxfam, which is where most of our books end up after we’ve read them, because I want to read it again.

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?

Doctor Who and my own little social media bubble 

Preparing the latest edition of my textbook on social capital, I became particularly interested in the way that social media are shaping our social connections. Judging by the research available, social media play a complex role in which they sometimes complement and sometimes compete with face to face relationships. And sometimes they mirror each other.

One way in which social media mirror face to face interaction is a tendency towards homophily. Most people like to follow others on social media who are broadly similar to themselves – just as they do in other social interactions. Yet the main benefit of social media is the opportunity they provide for interacting with those who are very different from yourself. And if you think that being challenged by different perspectives is beneficial, as I do, then you try to build social media networks that are broad and diverse.

And I thought that was what I had done. During the Scottish referendum I managed to get attacked by Tweeps from both sides; I follow UKIPPERs, Corbynistas, Remainers, Welsh Nats, Lib Dems, some Tories and a Cornish independence campaigner; I follow people from different countries and speakers of four European languages. Some even follow golf and motor racing, which I hate with a vengeance. I don’t think I follow any racists, and certainly none who are overt, but I do follow some people who think all whites are at best deeply inclined towards racism. So it’s hardly an echo chamber – but clearly I’ve been too smug by half.

The new Doctor Who

Today I woke up to aTwitter storm over the new Doctor Who. The long running BBC series will now be led by a woman, played by the wonderful Jodie Whittaker, and my timeline was full of people protesting vociferously against others who had complained about the role going to a woman. But not a single tweet appeared from the protesters, not a single one.

Now it is possible that actually hardly anyone is really upset by a female Doctor. This is hardly radical casting: we’ve had feminist sci-fi for decades – why would one more female lead bother anyone? I can imagine that one or two of the usual rent-a-pen journalists might perform anger in order to generate a bit of click bait for their employer (I’m not going to name them, because that is what they want). But perhaps they are on their own this time.

Or perhaps I’ve stumbled across the boundaries of my own social media bubble. And even this bubble reflects face-to-face bonds, because I realise that I don’t actually know anyone who watches or even cares a fart about Doctor Who. On reflection, though, I am inclined to return to my smug default setting: what Twitter has done is connect me with a community that was previously unknown to me. How diverse is that?

Loneliness and social capital in later life

Loneliness poses an enormous challenge to those experiencing it, and in our society it seems particularly prevalent among older adults. It is easy to understand why this might be so: on the one hand death and physical decline rob us of our friends, and on the other our society has become more individualised and fluid so that making new friends is harder. The question then is what should be done.

This issue came up clearly at a conference I am currently attending on Transitions in the Life Course. It was organised by an impressive new doctoral school called Doing Transitions at the Universities of Frankfurt and Tübingen, and I will blog more about the conference and its background in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, I wanted to report back on a paper that impressed me, by Nan Stevens, a researcher on loneliness in later life.

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Stevens started by outlining the positive benefits of friendship networks for older people undertaking transitions, before moving on to explore issues of loneliness in social networks. She then asked whether it is possible to improve friendships in later life, and then reported on the effects of a particular friendship enrichment programme for older women.

Based on feminist therapy and reevaluation counseling, the programme comprises 12 weekly lessons focussing on self-esteem, relational competence, and friendship formation and maintenance, as well as the practice of relevant social skills. Stevens’ studies are available online, so all I will say here is that (a) she has reasonably good evidence for their effectiveness for those who participated and (b) I encourage you to read them for yourself.

I did wonder, though, whether much the same impact could be achieved by promoting self-help educational programmes that do not focus on friendship per se, but instead pursue the interests of older adults themselves. By the time people reach later life they are often sick of being told what they need to learn by other people, and one reason why the Universities of the Third Age and Men’s Sheds movements are so popular is that they consist of people doing their own thing.

For me, the issue then is how we go beyond the existing constituencies of these self-help forms of adult education, and engage those in later life who are simply not attracted to the U3A or Men’s Sheds. Although I tried exploring this in my book on social capital, I’m still not really certain what the best way of doing this is. Given the benefits of friendship and the penalties of loneliness, extending the reach of learning opportunities for older adults does seem to me an important part of the policy toolkit.

Refugee integration and rugby

Living in Cologne didn’t exactly at put me the centre of the rugby world, but I found it easy enough to satisfy my cravings. Six Nations matches were shown in several bars (none of which were worth visiting on any other grounds) and at the local clubhouse of ASV Köln. And I also watched ASV Köln, not that my support them much good: they finished bottom of the 2. Bundesliga West. In fact, in recent years the men’s team has done rather poorly, while the women’s team has been relatively successful.

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Cologne’s Rugby United participants

Last week, though, ASV Köln won a prize. Three women players launched a project last year under the name of Rugby United with the aim of exploiting rugby’s reliance on team building to bring people together, and foster what they described as the game’s ‘central values’ of ‘Disziplin, Respekt und Fairplay’. They also used what in Germany is called ‘the third forty minutes’, and in the UK is an opportunity for a pint, as a time for discussion and interaction.

The project took time to get under way. Unsurprisingly, the idea of rugby itself isn’t exactly familiar to many people living in the refugee hostels (which range from old barracks to sports halls), let alone rugby involving girls as well as boys. The project’s supporters have to raise money for playing kit, and for the shared meal after sessions.

Thirty people, between the ages of 3 and 46, turned up to the first training session. The project’s mid-term goal is to integrate the refugees gradually into the standard club training sessions, with a view to eventually recruiting the best players into ASV’s teams. The prospects look reasonably good, with 20-30 refugees turning up to sessions. And as well as attracting the attention of the city’s mayor and sporting community locally, three of the younger refugees were selected as mascots for the German national side.

I have no idea what Cologne’s wider refugee communities make of this development. Parents must be slightly bothered when their children come home with bumps and bruises and tales of on-pitch arguments, and I imagine that not all communities welcome the very idea of women’s rugby. On the other hand, children’s lives in the refugee homes can be mind-numbingly boring, with few facilities and a high turnover of social work staff. And as in many German towns and cities, the rugby club is part of a wider sporting association – in this case Athletik Sportverein Köln – with a history of community engagement (including participation in Cologne’s gay pride celebrations).

Of course this is a relatively small project. With the best will in the world, an amateur rugby club cannot involve more than a handful of the estimated 12,000 refugees living in Cologne. And you could argue that the recruitment of potential players, along with the accompanying publicity, is very much in ASV’s interests (interestingly, some village soccer clubs in Germany are able to field a team mainly thanks to their connections with refugee communities).

All the same, hats off to the Athletik Sportverein Köln, and high respect to the three players who made this project possible. And to the rest of the rugby community, especially in the cash-rich Six Nations: more of the same, please. Meanwhile, I wish ASV Köln Rugby every success this season, on and off the pitch.