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. 

UNow 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? 

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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.

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.

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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?

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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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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.

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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.

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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.