Publication - Research and analysis

Social capital in Scotland: research study

Published: 14 Feb 2020

A study to consider how stories and case studies can provide insight into the nature of social connections and places in Scotland.

53 page PDF

781.5 kB

53 page PDF

781.5 kB

Social capital in Scotland: research study
1. Introduction

53 page PDF

781.5 kB

1. Introduction

Scotland’s National Performance Framework (NPF, 2018), presents a vision of the purpose, values and outcomes for Scotland, including a range of desired outcomes for Scotland across all aspects of life. It also includes a range of data that will be used to assess if the outcomes are being achieved over time.  

One part of this national vision is focused on Scotland’s communities, and a vision of living, to a greater extent, “in communities that are inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe”. 

‘Social capital’ is used in this context, as a term that helpfully captures the wellbeing that is associated with the networks of support within people’s local social, economic, and environmental contexts. 

In the NPF, the measurement of outcomes involves the monitoring of statistical data, to show whether or not progress is being made. In the case of ‘social capital’, a range of statistics are relevant and available for showing the levels of social capital in society. 

This piece of research was commissioned to consider if these statistics are enough, or if there are ways to add value and meaning to these quantitative data, through qualitative approaches and storytelling techniques. And if there are ways to communicate the information about social capital – that is, the wellbeing of people, places, and relationships - in more compelling and engaging ways.

The aim of this report is therefore to focus on realising the ambitions of the national outcome on communities. It builds on existing work to continue to add to an understanding of what we mean by ‘inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe communities’[1], and what stands in the way to achieve this outcome. 

National Performance Framework

The project developed from an awareness that the use of statistical data alone is not always enough to inform policy responses. Statistical data carries the danger of reducing the world into separate data points and failing to include the complexity of people’s lives, how people experience their communities and how people’s physical, social and economic realities impact on wellbeing and shape outcomes. Therefore, the project attempted to explore if stories (if used carefully) may help to uncover links between phenomena and capture interdependence and process.

The report

The project consisted of two parts (1) first, to consider and offer recommendations of how to use stories within policy-making generally and (2) second, to apply this learning to capture social capital in a qualitative and compelling way. 

Chapter 2 of this report, will be of interest to those interested in the role of stories in policy and research generally.

Readers who are most interested in stories of social capital that were collected might find it helpful to move forward to Chapter 3, which illustrates how stories can be applied to a specific area of policy research, and includes the stories that were collected. Although this report does aim to provide a detailed theoretical overview of social capital, we recommend that the stories are discussed in combination with the other statistical evidence that exists in the Scottish Household Survey, and in other sources, so that both qualitative and quantitative data can be integrated into a more developed understanding.   

When reflecting on the use of stories and what they can add, we will make the point that stories might be a first step into an analysis that allows researchers to explore the complexity of interconnected influences and processes that shape people’s lives and result in wellbeing or its absence. Starting from the experience of a person or community allows researchers to start from lived experience. It is a first step that can help researchers to start with the experience of a person and then work upwards to trace wider influences that shape outcomes.


For the project, the author – a PhD researcher working on an internship in the Scottish Government - met with third sector organisations and academics to explore both the use of stories and the concept of social capital. Additionally, the first part of the project involved a review of the literature and conversations with academics and researchers to discuss the benefits and limitations of using stories, offer a theoretical overview of what stories are, how to develop them and collate striking examples.

The stories of social capital were developed from conversations with organisations and people. Drafts of these stories were sent to relevant participants for validation, and for the re-writing of parts in collaboration, in cases where participants felt that stories were not accurately portraying their experiences.  Organisations that participated in the project were: Cyrenians, The Eric Liddell Centre, Faith in Communities and Link Up (Inspiring Scotland). All of these organisations have a social capital focus within their work which aims to tackle inequality and promote community wellbeing. For further information about the various projects and work that each organisation is involved in please refer to the further reading section at the end of the report. 

The people who were interviewed for this report are anonymous, but some were associated with the organisations named above in some way, as a volunteer, staff member, or visitor. 

The Researchers that contributed to the report were:  Dr Alistair Fraser (University of Glasgow); Dr Niall Hamilton-Smith (University of Stirling); Zoe Ferguson (Carnegie Trust) and Dr Alette Willis (University of Edinburgh). 

The images for the stories of social capital were drawn by Candela Sanchez, and are used with her permission. 

We would like to thank each organisation and all individuals for their involvement in and contribution to the project.

The structure of the report

The report starts by considering the use of stories within policy research and discuss benefits and limitations. 

The second part of the report reflects on the research project and presents ‘stories of social capital’. This includes a short introduction to what social capital is, and then presents both ‘big’ and ‘small’ stories of social capital. This is followed by a discussion of the stories and recommendations for future research. Details about the research process and data analysis can be found in the end of the report. 

One of the aims of this project was to produce something that would feel and read differently, to make clearer reference to human experiences and to draw readers in. The report is written in the first person to help present the stories of social capital, and to help convey the reflections on the research process from the perspective of the researcher. 

We hope that this approach will feel like a welcome change from traditional reports.