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

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53 page PDF

781.5 kB

Social capital in Scotland: research study
3. Stories of Social Capital

53 page PDF

781.5 kB

3. Stories of Social Capital 

Social capital, as it refers to the wellbeing of people in their relationships and places, is included in the National Performance Framework as part of the vision for community wellbeing. 

This report now considers if and how qualitative data and storytelling approaches, can contribute to a common understanding of what this means, and how this outcome can be achieved.  

3.1 What is social capital?

Social capital as a concept has gained importance within research on communities and community wellbeing over past years[38]. It can be summarised as 

“(…) the relationships and networks of support that people experience, the interconnections within communities, and the involvement of people and communities in decisions that affect their lives.” [38]  

This focuses on the idea that social relationships matter – they help people to achieve their own objectives, and they are an end in themselves, and an element of wellbeing in their own right.

Using social capital as a policy goal raises questions for policy researchers, to think about the types of networks and relationships that help or hinder access to public services, community resources and how networks of support are able to promote participation and involvement in decision-making. 

Statistical indicators that are commonly used to assess the levels of social capital in society are usually grouped in some of the following dimensions: (1) social networks, (2) community cohesion, (3) social participation and (4) community empowerment. 

In the following section we will give a brief overview of additional processes that are commonly used to describe social capital. For a more thorough definition of the concept and a list of  the four indicators and their sub-indicators please refer to Findlay et al (2017) [1] and Dodds (2016).[38]

Dimensions of social capital

Social capital relates to both cognitive and affective processes (trust, feeling of belonging, feeling valued and accepted) and structural ones.[38]

Additionally, authors often differentiate between horizontal and vertical networks. Horizontal networks describe relationships between people that are equal and within those relationships most authors make a differentiation between the processes of bonding and bridging. Bonding refers to supports and relationships that are formed between people who are similar (e.g. in relation to age, religion, ethnicity etc.) while bridging refers to relationships and connections that are formed between people or groups that have different views and backgrounds  Vertical networks describe hierarchical relationships and address the role of power. [38] 

Findlay et al (2017)[1] connect  social capital and community wellbeing by promoting a perspective of social capital that explores people’s networks of support across local economic, physical and social spheres (or their absence). 

Statistical data are not enough 

The dimensions noted above highlight a potential complexity and multidimensionality within this concept that has consequences for policy researchers. 

Social capital is a complex and multi-layered concept. It is also rather abstract and it can be difficult to understand how this concept can be appropriately and consistently applied to everyday life and experience. To better understand how different processes interlink and how social capital influences people’s lives, researchers therefore advocate for the value of integrating quantitative and qualitative approaches[21]

Statistical data can provide a robust, general idea of social capital and highlight trends in different local areas[21]. Additionally, statistical data can be helpful to identify correlations between social capital and other areas (e.g. health, education, employment). However, while quantitative data will provide breadth, qualitative methods will be able to add depth to the government’s understanding of social capital. 

This depth is helpful because social capital describes complex relationships between individuals and groups of people and statistical data alone cannot adequately illustrate the nuances of the power and importance of those relationships and the contexts in which they occur.[21]

Value of stories to capture social capital

One of the main criticisms of current research around social capital is that accounts are too often stripped of context. [39] [40] As we have argued in the first part of the report this is one of the strengths of stories – to highlight circumstance and to situate abstract concepts within real life contexts. 

To give a contextual and in-depth account of social capital, stories will need to capture local economic, physical and social environments. Stories might refer to different levels of social capital: the personal level, neighbourhood level or city level and portray the uniqueness of different perspectives.

A focus on Inequality

Qualitative research on social capital often involves an analysis of patterns of inclusion and exclusion from support networks and an exploration of the distribution of social capital to highlight inequalities. [1], [41]

Findlay et al (2017)[1] write:

One of the key challenges in relation to enabling inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe communities going forward is tackling the persistent and increasing levels of inequalities between people and communities in Scotland. (…) Tackling inequalities and promoting equality of opportunity and outcome, therefore, remain a major challenge, and interventions and support are required to address this.

This means that social capital has the potential to highlight how inequality is created in the interaction between people and the resources available to them in different communities. Additionally, through a focus on inequality social capital will connect to a wide range of areas such as public service delivery, housing, employment, health, education. For that reason, our engagement with organisations and individuals to write stories of social capital had a strong focus on inequality from the outset. 

3.2 Stories of social capital 

The report now presents four ‘big’ stories of social capital. 

Two stories are written from the perspective of individuals, highlighting different aspects of inequality, one story explores the community level, written from the perspective of an organisation, and another story looks at the role of spaces. 

After the four big stories follow a number of smaller stories. While the ‘big’ stories were written by the researcher and include both reflections and direct quotes, the ‘small’ stories are direct extracts from conversations with organisations, individuals and researchers and have not been rewritten. 

While the ‘big’ stories try to create a holistic picture, the ‘small’ stories often illuminate specific processes and dimensions (e.g. participation, community cohesion). They differ from traditional quotes, as although small, they still describe processes and make connections instead of only illuminating one theme, or describing one feeling or view. 

The stories illustrate the complexity of people’s experiences. They have therefore been written to be read and used in full rather than being split into smaller sequences in other contexts. All names have been changed and pseudonyms are used.

They have also been written to complement the statistical data that exists, and it is recommended that, in practice, policy researchers present these stories in the wider context of social capital understandings and the quantitative information. 

Story 1: Black clouds and open skies – James’s story

I decided to follow James into this story by starting at his favourite place up where the clay pits lie. 

From there you can look over the whole of Glasgow, James says. And on a lovely summer’s day you can sit there for hours and if it was not for the fact that you have all the noise from the nearby highway you can get lost in your thoughts. So if you take people up there who are new to the area, who think it is this horrible, junkie ridden area then you take them here and they are so surprised. 

James is proud of his community. He cares about it deeply. I can feel that when I talk to him. I am not going to say that it is a dump, he tells me. Why always start with the negatives? I am trying to bring over the positives and what people are doing. 

This is James’s story of where he lives and of other people that live there. It is about how people try to make their community a safer and kinder place but it is also a story about the community and its social, physical and economic realities that can stand in the way and that can make living here difficult. 

James has always lived in the community and he has seen it change over the past decades. James says it used to be a community where you would leave school one day and move into a job right away. 

There was plenty of factories around. Then during the 80s it was as if a storm hit the community and all the big industries closed down. It was like a domino effect, one went down and then bang bang bang. 

James was a teenager through this and he remembers that things got bad very quickly. Unemployment went up and then the drugs hit the area. There was lots of violence, James says. But that was in the 80s and the 90s. It is different now, not like it used to be. Yes there is a drug problem, we got high alcohol, there is very little employment, there is a high rate of elderly and there is a high rate of people on sickness benefits, but there is a lot of good things happening now, he says. Things have changed but it is frustrating for James that it still got the stigma of what it was like in the 80s. So there are a lot of judgements made about you if you come from here. 

Family is important to the people here and it would not be unusual for parents, their children and grandchildren to all live close together. Just now we have members of the same family below us, above us and beside us, James tells me. There are groups of people who volunteer and who try to make spaces accessible for the community. They have raised money to get park benches and to put in goal posts so the kids can play football. People try to connect, to help each other but it can be hard at times. 

James thinks it has a lot to do with people’s self-esteem and during our conversation he mentions the feeling of a ‘black cloud’ hanging over the place several times. Sometimes you feel like there is a heaviness and a black cloud over the area. There is an expectation of things being done to you. What does he mean by things being done to people I ask. 

James starts to tell me about the facilities and services that have closed.

The local community centres have been knocked down, schools and doctor surgeries have closed and you just take it as that is what happens here so people develop this kind of attitude of this is as good as it is going to get. 

In the end of our conversation I ask James what community wellbeing means to him. He says, community wellbeing is when there is a vibrant feeling in the community were all people feel as if they are part and they want to be in the community. There are lots of groups and activity within the community that people have started and that they want to be part of. James is part of the local church and he volunteers with different groups. You find there is a core of people that volunteer at events, he says. It is always the same faces that turn up so the hard thing is getting people motivated to get involved. It is breaking the ice with people and asking if they can help

He feels that volunteering can be beneficial for both the community and the individual. He feels that there is so much potential within everyone but sometimes people forget. It is bringing it out and giving them value. Let them know that you want to hear their story, because they feel as if they are forgotten about. 

Story 2: Starting from social connections

I am meeting with the head of a Scotland-wide run community development program called Link Up. The program facilitates locally run projects that promote community wellbeing through participation and volunteering across a range of activities including sport, gardening, arts and cooking, informed by what local people say they want.

The program has worked with twelve different communities across Scotland over the past six years. They are in different parts of Scotland but all experience high rates of poverty and inequality. He tells me that this was the starting point of the program, a recognition that there were many communities in Scotland that were not getting lifted out of poverty. Poverty and inequality seemed to be prevalent in a lot of places, he says, but it was not just that they seemed to be persisting, in some areas they were growing. So, we asked ourselves, why is that the case? 

The organisation found that in most communities, issues seemed quite intractable and interdependent; intersecting education, crime, economic growth, mental and physical health. There were definitely structural problems, but what stood out when we first asked local people, and third and public sector bodies for permission to launch a project, was that almost every one of them said that the community had lost its connectivity. Things like gala days, these were events that used to happen, but not anymore. Communities had lost the connections that used to be there between people and for many of them, that was a fundamental barrier to them driving change, whether for themselves or their community. He feels this is an issue that spans generations and that the program is fighting against decades of breakdown in the local social infrastructure and a change in cultural environment.  I think this has several dimensions to it, he says. Whilst the program is open to all, many of the individuals that participate in it are vulnerable, struggling with the effects of trauma, bereavement and chronic violence. He tells me that recently it has become clear to the organisation that a significant proportion of people they work with have suffered adverse childhood experiences. I think the prevalence of ACEs is higher than what we believe in Scotland, he says. So we can see that many people experience poor mental and physical health, addiction and social isolation and in this sense some people are withdrawing from society. But it is not just the person that withdraws, in some communities it seems to be society that is withdrawing from people.  Arguably, you could say there is less kindness, compassion and neighbourliness in our communities, but people also disengage with some of the services that are there to help them, because they have perhaps had a negative experience, lack confidence to ask for help or see the service as stigmatising in some way. It’s a position which is compounded by a pulling-back of public service provision, making people feel removed from services. I think the barriers to people engaging with services is very complex and the experiences of engaging with agencies that are there to help them is not always positive. Staff don’t always have the time, they don’t always have the capacity to engage people in a human way. So it is about the quality of the interaction between people and systems and structures, but those structures have been eroded. 

Despite it all many people are engaging with the organisation and the local workers. If someone comes through the door to us, and that can be a difficult step, what happens is that they connect with other local people they would not otherwise have met had they not pushed that door open.

When that connection is repeated over time, the connections become relationships and friendships start to form. There is a fundamental shift as the person builds supportive relationships, confidence and self-esteem – but it all starts from the social connections. Local workers create conditions in which people can make changes. We don’t empower, he says, we create spaces in which people can become empowered.

He feels that some communities, like those the program works with, can find it difficult to start initiatives themselves.  They need help to get the thing going and in the same way that you have teachers, firemen, policemen, doctors and dentists, community builders should be an equal part of the infrastructure of communities.

Story 3: A tale of two spaces

The pyramid

It is a late Wednesday morning and I am walking to the Pyramid centre at Anderston from Glasgow Queen Street station. It is the beginning of December and it is raining and cold. It might not have been a good idea to walk. As I turn into Elderslie street I can see the turquoise pyramid towering over the blocks of flats. At first glance it is an odd looking building but it is a building that you won’t forget.

I enter the building with two elderly women. They are chatting and laughing and one supports the other to step through the door. As we enter there is an open kitchen behind a counter to our right where people are busy preparing a meal. They say hi to the two ladies, who lean on to the counter to ask about the menu for today. Then the two ladies turn to the left to enter a bigger room that has been transformed into a dining space. Half the tables are already full of people. I say hi to the kitchen staff and then make my way upstairs. I arrive at the top of the stairs and peek into the heart of the building, its big sanctuary space that opens up into the roof of the pyramid. The building has been used as a community space since the 70s. Upstairs is the sanctuary space and several offices and meeting rooms that are used by third sector organisations and local groups. The rooms downstairs are used for events and classes such as a karate for kids, language lessons or yoga.  I turn into one of the corridors and enter the offices of ‘faith in communities’, one of the organisations that is based here. I am meeting their staff to see if I might be able to learn more about the building and how it is used.

The building is owned by the church of Scotland but a number of years ago the church decided to give up ownership and sell the building. When people in the local community and those that use the building first learned that the church was thinking of selling the building, they were very concerned because the building is used almost every day of the year. It sparked a process of local people and organisations coming together to think about how to save the building. A new charity was established and the organisation now has 300 members and is in the end stages of securing funding through the Scottish land fund to take over ownership of the building.  Later on I meet with two members of the trust and both tell me that it has been interesting to see how people have grown in enthusiasm. Obviously there is quite a fear of being responsible for something like this but, you know, lots more people are coming on board and saying this is something we need to do. When an institution provides an asset people are glad that the asset is there, but when they have to take responsibility over owning and taking care of that asset they embark on a new journey and a new skill set is learned. It leads to a greater sense of participation. People are coming together and share their skills through the building. 

After some introductions in the office upstairs I ask about the group that is downstairs and I am told that this is the Wednesday lunch club that runs every week. I ask if it might be possible to join so we go down and ask and I am told that I am very welcome. So I go and join one of the tables. There are 36 people in total, mostly elderly people but also a few younger ones and a group of young adults with learning disabilities and their carers. At first I feel slightly out of place but I soon start talking with the group and the room is filled with lively chatter. I am made to feel welcome. While our three courses are served; lentil soup followed by chips, meat pie and baked beans and lastly jelly with canned fruit; I talk to the three people that sit next to me. ‘We have been coming here for years. We always sit at the same table’, they tell me. ‘The lunch is open to everyone but it gets busier closer to Christmas’. People tell each other about their grandchildren, who is ill, who could not come and about upcoming events. Some people I speak to are also part of the community trust. 

After lunch half the people leave to go home but the other half stays on to play bingo. I go to talk to Mary* who has been part of the team that runs the lunch club for over 20 years. She tells me the club was set up as an initiative between social work and the church. The pyramid lies between housing that was built for the elderly and a disability complex, so it is great for people to access. We do home visits as well, she tells me. I have been visiting one gentleman for over 18 years now. He used to come to the lunch but as his physical disability got worse he was not able to come anymore, so now I visit him in his flat. 18 years, it is a long time. We are friends now.  I ask her about her involvement in the community trust. It is great, she says. The lunch club will continue to run and we are happy that we can keep the building. There is really nothing else here. 

Eric Liddell Centre

One week later I am outside again on my way to the Eric Liddell Centre. It is not rainy but it is windy, very windy. I am walking from Bruntsfield towards Morningside as I approach the centre. The building is a former church that stands at ‘Holy Corner’ between Bruntsfield and Morningside. I enter the building and I am greeted by a big Christmas tree and the smell of fresh coffee. The building now hosts the Eric Liddell Centre, a charity that runs several projects and courses funded by both donations directly to the centre; and by grants and trusts who fund specific projects. The building has been converted inside and now has four levels. Downstairs there is a café and a bigger room. When I enter a yoga class is just about to start. Children’s music is coming from another room to the right and I can hear clapping and people singing along to nursery rhymes. To the back of the ground floor are rooms with second-hand toys, children clothes and books. I look up and I can see the other three floors that have been put in from the middle upwards. One can walk around each floor in a circle. On level 1 there is a day service for people with dementia, on level 2 there are offices and rooms that are used by different third sectors organisations and on level 3 are further offices and a bigger room where an exercise class is just taking place. While I am walking from level to level I can see the old stone walls to the side of the building and light is shining through the stained glass windows of the old church. 

I am here to meet two members of the centre that are involved in different projects, run in the building and outside in communities further away. The café downstairs and many of the classes are open to everyone, but the centre also provides a number of specific clubs and services for people with dementia and their carers. There are two lunch clubs, and a befriending service that is run through volunteers[42]. Volunteers also work at the café or sell at the stalls to the back. The centre works with a variety of programs, trusts and charities and has connections with both the University of Edinburgh and Napier University. It is felt that cross-collaboration and working in partnership with others has added to a rich exchange of experiences, ideas and resources.  

Additionally to what happens inside the building I am told about a recent project that works with three communities on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The communities are part of Edinburgh but because they border with the countryside many services that are active in the city do not cover them as it is difficult to find volunteers willing to travel.  I have found that there is a strong community sense, a lot going on and some very well used community spaces there, the head of the project tells me. But because everything is run by small committees they struggle to get new people to join and the people that are running them are in their seventies or eighties themselves. It is a fantastic set up but it is also vulnerable. They feel that it is difficult to keep it going and to get a new generation to take it on. 

After our conversation, the Dementia Support and Befriending Co-ordinator asks if I would like to be a guest today at the lunch club, including staying on for the movement session that will be the activity for the club today. The lunch club is held on the ground floor in a room to the side. I am introduced to everyone and then I go and sit at a round table with four others. It is a very lively group and there is a lot of banter and laughter. Two are from the local area but the other two live further away.

Everyone talks openly about dementia and how it helps coming here to stay active. We used to go dancing, one couple tells me. When we were younger. 

After lunch the tables are moved to the side and we all take our chairs to sit in a big circle. The movement class is run by the ‘Movement for memories’ outreach program[43].The music starts and while different pieces of music are played we follow the gentle movements of the tutor who is leading the seated exercise session today. There is a lot of laughter. A lot. After forty minutes the music stops and the class ends. But before the group moves on to have tea and coffee everyone starts to sing a song.  People are moving in their chairs, waving their arms in the air and singing loudly:

Never mind the weather, never mind the rain. As long as we’re together….

Here we go again, happy as can be. All good pals and jolly good company!

I leave both spaces feeling good. It is a warm feeling. Which is funny in a way because something both spaces have in common is that they are quite cold inside. While walking home I think about what the two spaces mean to people. That was my initial question. The people I talked to said it gave them the chance to socialise, to chat and laugh, to learn new things. And something that struck me, that most people said, was that it simply offered them another place to be. That it offered them a space outside of their own home where they felt welcome. 

Story 4: The messy and the small – Kay’s story

I talk to Kay on the phone and we end up speaking for almost two hours. She has a lot to say. At the end of our conversation I note down two words: Hope and Failure. I feel that there is both in her experience, experiences of failure, frustration and resignation. But there is also hope and the will to engage and help to make a difference. I ask Kay if she thinks both feelings contradict each other. She answers that her hope is that if you understand how you have failed me, you won’t fail me again.

Kay is disabled through chronic illness and has been ill for a long time. She is in her forties now. Kay has left the house 17 times this year, mostly to go to medical appointments or public engagement events. But I can only go when the right support is provided for me and this is not always the case, she tells me. 

My ability to go out and about is limited and I cannot go on public transport. A lot of people assume that your friends and family will provide support to access things, but if you speak to anyone with chronic illness you will hear a very common story:  In the first few years when you are ill people offer to help and then as it goes on and on and on and on and on you have fewer friends and they are less willing to provide help. So there comes a point where you run out of people and you turn to organisations and the state and say can you help me and the answer is NO. I keep being told I am the wrong age, I have the wrong type of disability, I live in the wrong part of the country. 

Kay feels that the level of support that she needs is not big but without it she is really stuck. For instance, there is a community centre within reach of my home, and I could go there if I took a taxi and knew that someone will meet me from the taxi and take me in, fetch me a chair, take me to the room where the activity is taking place, introduce me to people, make sure I knew where the toilets are, give me a mobile phone number to call in case I get into difficulty and  make sure I get home safely. But you can’t count on that, unless there was someone really nice, because it is not an official thing. It is an exception that they made. It is a kindness that they offered you. It is not a service. 

Later on she tells me about a public engagement she went to where she knew the organisers through email and phone contact and they knew her and how it made all the difference. It helped me to know that she was there and that she knew what support I might need and it helped me not to need the support. That is the other thing people don’t get. It is taking less energy from me because I am not so worried. I am not hyper vigilant to what is happening around me. So the more support I have the less support I need. 

Kay says that while she needs support to go out she feels that the biggest barrier is lack of information. To help me understand she asks me to look up her postcode. So after our call I go to google maps and type in her postcode.

I can see blocks of flats and a number of two story semi-detached houses. It is a large urban area with busy roads, busy traffic and a few green spaces here and there. She asks me to go and search for activities and events in her area.

Go through the pages, she says, and think to yourself as someone who lives here what did I just learn about the place and would I go there. I can see a hall on the map close to her and I click on it but it does not have a website. I find a few other centres and organisations close by who have websites with information about their programs and contact details but I can see what she means. There is little information about the accessibility of buildings. 

No one is providing information about the environment you will get when you arrive, walking distances and noise and light, how long the thing lasts and is there someone you can ask for help and where is the toilet. They just say it is fully accessible by which they mean they have a wheelchair ramp. So you phone people and you ask questions and people say ‘just pop along for a wee chat’  but people in my position do not pop. 

Another main barrier Kay mentions throughout our conversation is a focus on labels and fixed organisational practices. 

In terms of social care support it is mainly care agencies and the vast majority of them are geared towards the elderly and children, she tells me. What is in the middle tends to be labelled so you have addiction problems, or you have mental health problems or you have epilepsy or some other specific condition. So you can’t just say what service you need. You have to meet certain criteria and there isn’t a mechanism to report unmet need, to say there is no service for me.

I have £22 a week Disability Living Allowance and no service wants it. There is no service for £22 a week or even £90 a month and the way the organisations are set up they want you to book things in advance, so they can organise their rota, and they want you to book the same time every week. They want you to fit in with what suits them. Another option is to employ someone yourself as a PA, but it is not just that it is impossible to employ someone on £22 a week, it is the fact that I am not fit to do that. I don’t have the energy for all that comes with it. So you become more and more isolated and the physical barriers and the resulting isolation mean that you lose your confidence. I do not suffer from a mental illness, she says, but it has an effect on your mind. It has an effect on your confidence. 

Everything is overwhelming and actually leaving the house and going to something becomes in itself a problem, which you did not have before. And then there is no support with that either so it creates a level of disability in itself. I can hear her frustration when she talks. This is not a mental illness that I have but the circumstances that I am in create a mental health burden and you then find yourself reading websites about anxiety and being offered anti-depressants and it is not appropriate but that is where you end up.

Despite it all Kay continues to try and talk about her experience and to make suggestions how things could be improved but it is not always easy to get involved. You are asking local people to take a level of involvement that many people are incapable of and they are incapable not because they are stupid, not because they have no capacity to read and understand but because what is going on in their lives is taking all that they have. For some people the actual distress of being ill, or living in poverty, for instance, it just takes up so much energy. Which means that those voices are missing. Kay suggests that we should ask a lot more questions. Who did not come? Who is not there? Why are they not there? But she feels that people don’t like looking at what is not working. People don’t like failure. I am supposed to say everything is fine and I am supposed to say everything is great but I refuse to do so

Speaking to Kay I get the sense that what she is partly asking for is actually quite simple. She is asking for honesty - honesty about who remains excluded, about what cannot be offered, what cannot be provided and owning up to it.  For instance, if they say sorry we don’t provide transport and if they’d made it clear in the event information then that might be ok, but making me ask and then telling me no you need to provide your own transport makes it harder to even consider being involved in anything. It makes it my problem, not their failing, she says. It is now my problem again, like it’s my fault I need help. After our conversation I wonder if Kay is feeling that she is not listened to despite her attempts to get involved and participate. She does not say it when I ask her but I feel that this might be one of her main frustrations. Not being listened to, or maybe even more frustratingly being listened to but not being heard. 

When I ask Kay what community wellbeing means to her she says: I think the bigger picture for community wellbeing is information and support. Information to allow people to make choices about what to be involved in and adequate support to overcome barriers to participation, in order that things are genuinely person-centered.

And it will not be just about one thing, which makes it challenging because it's hard to get people to believe in complex solutions. People like straight forward projects but it's all messier and smaller than that.                              

Small Stories Of Social Capital

Community Empowerment 

“They asked me to speak on do you feel you have an involvement on a local level. What I was doing was explaining how you feel disempowered. As a government official it is ok reading the reports and the stats but if you’ve got someone in front of you who is saying ‘look universal credit does not work’. It is taking the stories to the people so they can see what the effects of their decisions and the policies are for people on the ground who are at the other end. I maintain that the majority of people on benefits have now got mental health issues. The system puts you in that role cause the fear, the stress everything that goes with it and you don’t understand what it is like unless you, I hope it never does happen, but unless you are part of the system. So it is good to bring it to the people who implement policies to actually realise that these decisions have this effect on people.”

Social Networks 

“Charities or community groups used to exist purely for the social side of things and it was fun you came along and you had a good time. Quite often funding now is attached to an outcome or a label and that completely changes the dynamic. It is very often time limited as well so you can’t work at people’s pace but you are forcing the pace. So often health professionals will refer people to our community groups because their groups are time limited. You are not going to shift somebody in a 12-14 week program and the person is going to that group because it is a mental health group, or a recovery group and that changes the dynamics completely for people. There is a real stigma associated around those types of interventions.”

Community Cohesion 

“We were working with one particular community where local health and social care services were relocated and are now located further away. This meant that it became very difficult for people to access social work and police services but what seemed to be even more of a concern was that people told us that they felt that professionals didn’t know their community any longer and they didn’t understand what it is like living there. For them it seemed as if it was all about the money and that they were not seen as a priority. So it is about both the geographical distances but also the social distances that are created

Community Empowerment

“It is important for people to be able to meet others so instead of living in a bubble you are exposed to difference. And through difference you find out things about yourself. That is the great advantage of difference. Difference is not a problem, difference is an opportunity. You do it this way and I do it that way. ‘Why do you do it this way?’ ‘Because my granny used to do it this way.’ It is about spaces where you express compassion and you learn how to express compassion because others do it for you and you build a connection at an inner level.”

Social Networks 

“Social capital is one of those terms, you might say it is a jargon term. But at the end of the day what it is about is people coming alive to make the best contribution that they can make and not to be held back or limited by circumstance. And then to create the connection with others who share their passion and their concerns about their community. I think the most important shifts are made in small groups of people coming together to make a difference. You know the quote from Margaret Mead: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’”

Social Participation

“In order for people to access services they have to be present and local and people have to be able to get to them in ways that meet their particular needs and the needs of their family. When the recent job centre closures where announced and around the city there was huge concern about how would somebody living in the north of Glasgow be able to travel to their new job centre which would be an hour away by bus and there was no way that they would get there on time. Services have to be local and accessible to people and one of the things that many local groups are doing with supporting people is how can a church hall be used for core location services such as citizens advice.”


“We have community meals that help to bring people together. There are so many micro communities. We have a big Chinese population, there is a big African population and a big eastern European population. So we had these community events to get all the different groups together. And you find once we come together the barriers come down and people start talking. We had a joint Chinese New Year Burns supper and it brings it home to you that actually we are not different.”


“The local housing association decided that they were going to move the focus of housing from tenements over to semi-detached housing. They knocked the tenements down  and moved everybody out with the idea that they build the semi-detached housing and for people to move back in. Then the credit crunch happened and the housing association run out of money. So when they moved people out they ripped a big chunk of the population and the community away. Now they are planning to build a lot of new houses in the next ten years. Some of them shared ownership, some social housing and bought housing. Interesting thing is they are not mixing the housing up. There are going to be bought houses here, shared ownership here and social housing over here somewhere. The bought houses, the ones that are expensive, unless you live in those houses you would not know they were there. They are as far removed from the main roads of the community. It is like we live here but we don’t want to be associated with that lot.”


“In the 1960s they build these whole communities with no community space and we are still doing it. And we say yeah you will have busses to go somewhere else whereas actually people need spaces to linger in the locality in which they live as much as they need the opportunity to come to the city centre to do things because the relationships in a community are built on the moments of informality. I think it is almost a spiritual thing in that sense. If you want a good community you need spaces where people can bump into each other and where you go not because of a problem that you have. It is a good reason why one of the most important building in a community in a lot of places is the bingo. They do much more than just bingo there. They have a conversation and they will know if someone is not there and then they go and visit them and find out what is going on.” 

3.3 Reflections on the stories

The following section discusses (1) how far the stories were able to capture social capital as a concept and (2) if the stories were able to capture process, complexity and build bridges to other policy areas. To conclude, it offers recommendations for future projects.

How did the dimensions of social capital feature in the stories? 

The stories offer insights into the dimensions of social capital from unique perspectives and contexts. 

James’s story includes accounts of people’s social networks, participation and volunteering. Descriptions of the local physical and economic environment are tied to a historic view, offering an understanding of how things had been and how they had changed. Additionally, his story highlights affective barriers (feeling judged, stigmatised, ‘not feeling I matter’) as well as structural and material ones. 

The Starting from Social Connections and the Tale of Two Spaces describe people’s social networks and include references to isolation, community cohesion, the importance of places to meet and possibilities for participation. 

Kay’s Story is about isolation, and describes Kay’s experience of public services and community empowerment. In her story the role of structural barriers and hierarchical relationships is central. Both Kay’s and James’s stories illustrate the connections between structural and affective processes and how inequality affects wellbeing. Listening to people’s stories seems to be able to highlight the affective consequences that come with inequality. 

It seems that current indicators and sub-indicators used to describe social capital are relevant. However, while all stories describe aspects of social capital, they also move outside of social capital and touch on wider areas.

Building bridges to other policy areas

The stories were written with a focus on social capital but because they are situated within people’s lives and within specific local contexts they move on to include other areas. This shows that social capital is not vast enough to grasp all that which constitutes and adds to inequality and wellbeing. 

James’s Story touches on drugs, crime, the infrastructure of community services and employment. Kay’s Story discusses accessibility, lack of information and service provision. Her story questions current service structures and reflects on a transactional model of services compared to a relational one.

Starting from Social Connections raises an awareness of trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), while, the Tale of Two Spaces covers funding streams and maintenance of buildings. Finally, the small stories connect to housing, health and social care, transport and cultural differences and inclusion. 

To contextualise each story and complement it with quantitative data, researchers will need to draw on wider evidence. References to statistical data limited to social capital indicators will not be enough. 

For example, while listening to James’ story I asked myself if there was information on the number of community facilities that had closed down in Scotland and I was interested to read about existing evidence on community infrastructure and trends. Is there evidence to support the claim that areas which used to experience high crime and drugs now suffer from lower investment by businesses? Are there links between mental health, growing demands on health services and housing, areas with fewer community facilities and poor transport links?

To contextualise Kay’s story it will be helpful for readers to have more information about accessibility data and how accessibility is measured (does it only include wheelchair access). Her story might benefit from a discussion around existing evidence on third sector funding trends, an explanation how services operate (specialist vs open to all; short term vs long term) and how public engagement works (including data on which groups are represented and who is not).

To put the other stories into perspective readers will benefit among others from evidence on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)[44] trends; uptake of community owned buildings and their success; data on housing to explore in how far the importance of spaces to meet and linger is included in current community planning.

What did the stories add to existing accounts?

The story format allowed us to capture the uniqueness of each individual account that the stories represent. The stories demonstrate that social capital is a fluid concept, which is heavily contextual and which connects to wider issues. Therefore, while statistical data will be helpful to contextualise each story and build bridges between policy areas, the stories also challenge the idea of statistical consistency. 

In contrast to a static, and fixed account of separate social capital indicators, the stories illustrate how different dimensions of social capital operate and connect in a person’s or communities’ everyday-life.  As Kay says in her story – in life things are messier and smaller and a lot more complicated. 

How to present the stories alongside statistical data in a report will be challenging. It will require careful consideration to ensure that the original reasons for choosing stories (to highlight complexity, fluidity and interdependence) will not be lost when trying to make the stories fit into existing report formats.


As argued by Findlay et al (2017)[1] a participatory approach to writing and developing stories will be the most relevant to promote participation and involvement of people and communities in the research and policy-making process. 

Future projects should aim to involve members of the public more directly than we were able to do in this project. 

We felt that the two stories that involved direct contact with local people (compared to the stories that only involved direct contact with organisations) were more powerful and provided a more nuanced picture. It will be crucial to include people themselves in the process of writing and communicating their stories and not only rely on the perspectives of organisations. However, we suggest that it will be helpful to work in partnership with organisations who have existing relationships to different communities to make contact with local people and to facilitate collaboration between researchers and communities. All organisations that took part in the project had previously run and facilitated creative methods and arts based activities for people to express their experiences. It was felt that there was a lot of potential to develop a participatory approach to narrative and storytelling in the future. 

For further reading on participatory and community based research, including the use of stories please draw on the following publications:

Higginbottom, G. and Liamputtang, P. (2015). Participatory Qualitative Research Methodologies in Health. SAGE publishing; 

Stoecker, R. (2005). Research Methods for Community Change: A Project-Based Approach. SAGE publishing;

Kurtz, C. (2014). Working with Stories in Your Community Or Organization: Participatory Narrative Inquiry. New York: Kurtz-Fernhout Publishing.