Social capital and the lockdown (2): how isolation is affecting our social bonds

Recently I posted a brief summary of research into social capital’s consequences for our current pandemic. We know much less, at this stage, about the way the pandemic, and particularly social distancing strategies, is reshaping people’s social ties. So here’s my attempt to summarise briefly what we do know; be warned that some of the evidence comes from snapshot survey findings and is therefore more limited than I’d like.

We certainly know that loneliness is seriously bad for one’s health, and I assume that social distancing on your own is a pretty lonely experience – possibly even a frightening one. Equally we know that mixing with family and friends is good for health and well-being, and presumably distancing can damage that. And studies of the SARS pandemic concluded that social isolation combined with extreme uncertainty had created severe psychological stress.

Some researchers, drawing on data from China, have linked isolating with anxiety, sleep disorders, and depression; similar findings are reported for Italy. It isn’t clear, at least to me, how far these patterns are a result of lockdown and the loss of social support systems, or are a consequence of fear of infection. Still, there clearly is a down side, with isolation depriving people of the social anchoring that they depend on.

Then there is the impact of the pandemic on fragile or exploitative social bonds. A number of countries report a rise in home-based violence (usually, but of course not always, male on female or adult on child). Whether we will also see a longer-term rise in family break-ups as a result of confinement combined with anxiety is yet to be seen.

And anecdotally, while most of us appear to be willing to protect the community by distancing, all of us have seen cases of selfishness bordering on crass stupidity, like cyclists and jogger insisting on exercising their overtaking rights in narrow footpaths. Is there also an up side?

One way to look at this is to focus on social media and our ties. While we might moan about Zoom meetings, they allow us to see and engage with workmates, family, and friends in a way that was unimaginable in past times. Yes, of course a virtual hug with grandad isn’t the same as the real thing, but it’s a hug; and many of us are becoming ever more adept at communicating in new ways.

Second, at least in the UK, there has been an upsurge in volunteering. Much of it is informal and unseen, from women sewing face masks to people phoning an elderly neighbour. One survey estimates that a fifth of UK adults have started volunteering in their community since the pandemic broke; two-thirds of all UK adults reported that their community was stronger as a result of the pandemic. Mutual aid groups have sprung up across the country, and are increasingly linked together as a movement.

Third, there have been highly visible symbolic expressions of mutual solidarity. The best example was the weekly public applause for key workers, which in our street was led by an increasingly proficient piper playing Highland Cathedral. Some of my Facebook friends sneered at the people who came out to applaud, but not one of them is a nurse, hospital porter, bin collector, care assistant, soldier, or delivery driver.

Public solidarity with low-paid and largely disregarded workers is a rarity, and not something I can view with contempt. And certainly in our case, lockdown has seen increased interaction with neighbours, whether in the aftermath of the Thursday applause or in the form of book exchanges, distanced coffee mornings, or chatting among wild garlic gatherers.

Like other forms of social capital, symbolic solidarity has consequences: recent survey data show a massive rise in the number of key workers who say they feel appreciated by the public. This is a body of goodwill that needs to be nurtured if it is to be sustained.

And then there is the converse: public contempt in the UK is largely reserved from those who break the lockdown. A particular fury greets public leadership figures who ignore the rules that they themselves have made. While the Scottish government seems to have got away unscathed with its botched (or worse) handling of its hypocritical Chief Medical Officer’s behaviour, the UK government’s handling of the Cummings scandal seems to have cost it dearly: trust in government information fell sharply in its wake, among people of all political persuasions and none. On the other hand, the communal solidarity of people who have observed the rules for those who seek optouts has been deeply impressive.

One conclusion I draw from the research studies is that our online behaviour is providing social scientists and others with an awful lot of valuable data. These raises ethical issues which will be familiar to many of those who use data from social media and mobile device records.

But my wider conclusion is that the pandemic really is reshaping our social bonds. The early signs suggest trends that might simply be short term responses to particular circumstances. However, while lockdowns may come and go, social distancing will be around for some time. If so, it likely will have longer term effects on our behaviours which will include our interactions with others. My expectation is that there will be some negative impats on social capital and some positive, but at least as important will be some deep-rooted changes in the ways that social bonds are made, reinforced, and broken.

Compulsory national civic service: the French experiment

Active citizenship has been a prominent theme of the Macron presidency. I posted recently about the way in which the French government is using adult learning accounts to promote civic participation. And it is now piloting universal national civic service for young people.

Macron launched the idea of a service national universel during his election campaign in March 2017.  His aim, he said, was to ‘recreate a meeting-point for the whole nation’, to be undertaken by all young people in the same age group regardless of faith, class, ethnicity or gender. It replaces military service, abandoned twenty years ago by the Chirac government, and the French military has no desire to see it return.

Currently, the newly-established service national universel (SNU) is being piloted by 2,000 16 year old volunteers in 13 departments. After a two-week induction phase they spend 12 days working in settings such as retirement homes, voluntary association, or voluntary fire brigades. Participants wear a navy blue uniform, with a tricolour roundel, and must start each morning by singing the Marseillaise while the French flag is raised.

While participation in the pilot phase is voluntary, the scheme is intended to become universal and compulsory from 2022-23. According to a recent survey, 67% of French 18-24 year olds support the idea, while the majority of the adult population sees it as a valid way of achieving its goals of strengthening civic culture, increasing national cohesion, promoting social mixing, and encouraging the young to value the national patrimoine culturel.

The French scheme forms an interesting contrast wth Britain’s National Citizen Service. Part of David Cameron’s Big Society initiative, and launched in 2011, participation in the NCS has always been voluntary. Like the SNU, it is massively expensive,  reportedly accounting for 95% of the government’s youth service budget, and NCS recruitment continually falls below target. I’ve heard no reports of flag-raising or anthem-singing, and there is no standard uniform.

Evaluations of the NCS are at best mixed. However, one study of participants found that the exerience led to an increase in affective inter-ethnic ties, with growth in inter-ethnic friendships being particularly strong among participants from the least multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. I suspect that this will also prove one of the main positive outcomes of the SNU in France. But couldn’t the same goal be achieved just as effectively in both countries by investing in high quality youth services?

What I’m reading on World Book Day

It’s World Book Day, which seems a suitable time to reflect on your own reading habits, as well as to think about literacies and their uses across our planet. Unless you’re a kid, of course, in which case your mum and dad will dress you up and put your photo on Facebook.


I usually have two books on the go at any one time: one fiction, and one non-fiction. Ian Rankin is among my (many) favourite crime writers, so I’m currently catching up on the latest doings of his great anti-hero, Inspector John Rebus. Rather be the Devil has Rebus well into his retirement, though like me Rebus is treating retirement as a “phased transition”, and is constantly poking his nose into the dark corners of Edinburgh. Having given up smoking and cutting down on his drinking, Rebus is grumpier and more obsessive than ever. Scotland’s Capital is, as ever, a central character in the new novel, as are two other senior detectives and assorted Scottish ne’er-do-wells. Great fun.

I’m also reading Christine Krüger’s study of youth voluntary service in 20th century Britain and Germany. Krüger’s main focus is on the period after 1945, though she says enough that is interesting and new about the earlier decades for me to wish I’d read it before writing my own study of work camp movements. In particular, she traces the origins of contemporary youth voluntary service to female responses to male military service, arguing that female social service formed part of a repertoire of claims to legitimacy and recognition (a trend that she sees as rather conservative). She finds clear contrasts between the two countries, as well as some strong similarities; I’m finding it a fascinating study, and would like to see an English language edition soon.

After that what next? For non-fiction I am going to tackle a biography of the influental but largely forgotten write and political thinker Thomas Carlyle, which was recommended to me by a colleague at Dublin City University. And I’m finally going to read one of Sebastian Fitzek’s novels; he is more popular in Germany than Dan Brown, so at least I’ll find out what the fuss is about.

And what better day could there be to pay tribute to all those tutors and mentors who work so hard with adult literacy learners all year round? Hats off to them all!


Shakespeare, the scouts and the work camp

Janet Suzman, the distinguished actor, recently poured scorn over claims that Shakespeare’s output was in fact the work of the 17th Earl of Oxford. Good on her: Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance are only the latest in a long line of thespians who cannot believe that great art could be created by a middle class midlander. In a remarkable twist on a drab old conspiracy theory, Jacobi even compared the Earl to the victims of the Stasi in Communist East Germany, achieving two pieces of historical idiocy in one go.

This is, of course, all nonsense, however entertaining. But what does it have to go with work camps? Well, Castle Hedingham, the family seat of the Earls of Oxford, hosted one of the more unusual work camp schemes of the 1930s. In 1929, working with the Scouts, the Castle housed what its owner called a ‘Reconditioning Employment Camp’, training unemployed scouts as chauffeurs, gardeners, grooms, cooks and butlers.

Further camps followed in future years, at Hedingham, Quendon, Cirencester and Christchurch, training about 300 men a year. Members of the Rover Scouts were recruited to lead the camps. The camps themselves were run on scouting principles, with financial support from the Ministry of Labour and a number of charities, with the aim of turning the unemployed – who subsequently included a range of young jobless men as well as scouts – into active citizens as well as workers.

The camps were the brainchild of Hedingham’s owner, Miss Musette Majendie, who was keen to help unemployed scouts find work. An energetic philanthropist and scoutmaster, she and her close friend, Doris Mason of Eynsham Hall, launched a movement in 1929 to provide training camps for unemployed scouts from the distressed areas who wished to emigrate. Within months, though, the global economic crisis brought an end to male emigration, and the two women turned their minds to domestic servant training.

Musette Majendie inherited the Castle from her ancestors, the De Veres. As the name suggests, they had been granted the land after the Norman Conquest, acquiring the earldom of Oxford a century later. For three months, the men lived in an old army hut on the estate, undertaking a work placement with the neighbouring gentry combined with physical training sessions and lessons in scouting.

The camps ran well into 1939, closing only when war became inevitable. Majendie became a Dame of the British Empire in 1935, in recognition for her work with unemployed scouts. She died in 1981, but the Castle stayed in the family, who now run it as a tourist attraction.

Unemployed scouts training as chefs in Hedingham Castle