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Oct 6, 2022 | by What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Social capital: what works to improve belonging, cohesion and support?

Understanding and increasing wellbeing levels in diverse communities and societies is a key issue of our time. An important part of our collective wellbeing is ‘social capital’ which, in the UK, is used in the Government’s Community Life Survey and captured in the Measures of National Well-being Dashboard

For this work, we commissioned the Centre for Thriving Places to bring together what is known about improving neighbourhood belonging, social support and community cohesion in a rapid evidence review.

Here, we lay out the rationale for our Social Capital: Evidence Review and Synthesis work and the key publications we’ve created.

To improve individual, community and national wellbeing in the UK we need to consistently and robustly measure how we’re doing, and assess what works to sustainably enhance our quality of life.

This involves increasing our understanding of how individuals and communities can work together to achieve shared goals. 

Being well together: trust, cooperation and stability

The ability of different population groups to get on, live together safely and make collective decisions is important for productivity and wellbeing. As are relationships at an individual and community level.

This is defined as social capital, which, in the words of the Office for National Statistics (ONS), is; 

“…the extent and nature of our connections with others and the collective attitudes and behaviours between people that support a well-functioning, close-knit society.”

Research by the OECD shows that higher levels of social capital are beneficial and can be associated with better outcomes in health, education, employment and civic engagement. 

We have previously explored bridging aspects of social capital, such as volunteering, joint decision making, local decision making and community wellbeing, and the impact of social infrastructure changes, as well as bonding capital through our loneliness work. This work, our Social Capital: Evidence Review and Synthesis project, looks at bridging and bonding together.

Measuring social capital

Since 2012, the ONS has been collecting social capital data using a framework of 25 headline indicators that span domains of personal relationships, social network support, civic engagement, and trust and cooperative norms.

Social capital is now an interim harmonised standard developed and used by the Government Statistical Service. This offers an opportunity to track place-based goals and improvements at local, regional and national levels. 

What was done

With this recent evidence review, we were interested in getting a snapshot of who is using the harmonised measures, and across what kinds of intervention types.

We focused on three related, place-based aspects of social capital:

  • Neighbourhood belonging – ie. “I feel like I belong in this area”
  • Social support – ie. “Someone would be there for me if I needed help”
  • Community cohesion – ie. “My local area is a place where people from different backgrounds get on well together”

Neighbourhood belonging and social support are both types of bonding capital, operating within a group or community. While bonding capital is important, a downside of strong ties within groups can be a lack of cohesion between different groups. This can lead to conflict, as we’ve seen recently in the growing friction between sections of Hindu and Muslim communities in Leicester.

The relationships and institutional mechanisms between groups need to be strong enough to support disagreement in ways that are peaceful and constructive. This is why we think it’s important to look at bonding capital in conjunction with community cohesion, a type of bridging capital. Bridging capital is between social groups, social class, race, religion or other socioeconomic demographic or characteristic.

This is particularly relevant in a post-pandemic context, as we recover from bridging links being deliberately reduced due to self-isolation and social-distancing measures. 

What are we publishing today?

We have created a collection of digital resources to capture the insights from this work: a rapid review report, a briefing and an information page about social capital.

The rapid review provides a summary picture of the current research across three place-based aspects of social capital: neighbourhood belonging, social support and community cohesion. It covered 27 studies and assessed a variety of intervention types, setting the foundation for building a larger and more consistent evidence base. 

The report details the methodology, evaluation and findings. Information on the quality and strength of each evaluation has provided valuable insight into the conceptual and methodological challenges that need addressing to bridge key gaps in research.

> Read the full report

Accompanying the report, our briefing summarises the research using tables to outline findings across the three output, as well as a case study. It also includes specific practical recommendations for researchers, policy makers and practitioners.

> Read the briefing

Our What is social capital? outlines the general theoretical background to this work in more detail and includes a conceptual map of social capital.

> Explore the resource page

Insights from the research

While there were a multitude of measures and breadth of interventions across different fields of practice, one insight provided promising to moderate evidence that certain interventions such as regular group physical activity can improve social capital outcomes. This is consistent with findings from our evidence reviews of sport and dance for young people, and the role of space and place in reducing loneliness through sport, physical activity and participatory arts.

Six of a total 27 studies included in the review evaluated the National Citizen Service programmes of outdoor residential stays, life skills training and social volunteering for young people. Being relatively homogenous in terms of quality and study design, these offered scope for drawing robust conclusions across social support and community cohesion outcomes. This demonstrates that designing, delivering and evaluating a programme consciously and consistently can capture impact and produce useful, focused learnings.

What’s next?

For evidence-informed decision making we need real-world insights and more high-quality data around specific interventions. This can be achieved by:

  • using robust, trusted metrics – see our practical guide and measures bank;
  • addressing common issues in evaluation design –  we can help support this through advice surgeries and consultations.

It would be beneficial for future research to:

  • conduct a conceptual review on social support and measurement;
  • look further at studies that used social support as a means to another goal;
  • look specifically at other types of belonging other than to place, such as educational institutions or workplaces. 

Voluntary, community and social enterprises actively generate social capital of all kinds through their work. Large or small, they are uniquely placed to contribute rich, practical learnings to the narrative, filling a gap where academic research is limited.

Intentionally capturing and communicating insights is useful for those looking to strengthen communities. It also offers a way for charities to tangibly demonstrate their value and get recognition from decision-makers. 

We are always interested in hearing from organisations who have done, or would like to do, social capital evaluations. If you are interested to partner with us to capture your work, contact info@whatworkswellbeing.org.

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