2. What is social capital and why does it matter?
The National Performance Framework (NPF) is a vision for wellbeing in Scotland. It’s focus is on improving people’s quality of life and material conditions, now and in the future.
The framework sets out the purpose, values, 11 outcomes and 81 national indicators that collectively describe the kind of Scotland we want to see. One of the outcomes is ‘communities’ and this describes a vision for places that are ‘inclusive, empowered, resilient and safe.’
The importance of social connections
Research shows how social connections make a strong contribution to our personal and collective wellbeing in the present, and in the future.
They are a source of pleasure and satisfaction in their own right, but they also help people to cope with adversity, and enable changes in circumstances through employment and educational opportunities. They provide opportunities for meeting new people, and accessing the organisations and processes that have power and help people to make decisions over their lives. They can help safeguard important neighbourhood amenities and influence the design and delivery of public services to better meet people’s needs. Social connections enable the development of trust that supports the local and national economy, and reduces the costs of transactions in the economy.
‘Social capital’ is a term that is used by different organisations to capture the aggregate value of different types of social connections and networks. The OECD defines social capital as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups” and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) summarises it 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”.
There are common themes across most definitions of social capital, including the availability of supportive networks, community cohesion, and collaborative activities to improve the places where communities live, learn, work, and the full range of activities, and diverse communities, that people engage in through their lives.
Four themes of social capital:
This report looks at four inter-related aspects of social connections to consider how strong our social connections are in Scotland, how these are distributed in different places and sub-groups of the population, the areas where there are lower levels of social capital, and what might be the priorities for action. These are:
- Social networks – The quality of people’s friendships, relationships, and contacts; the provision of supportive help to people in their neighbourhood; and how connected and supported they perceive themselves to be.
- Community cohesion – How people feel about their neighbourhoods; their safety; how far they experience trust and kindness; the opportunities and infrastructure that enables people to meet others, and people from different backgrounds.
- Community empowerment – The control that people have, and feel they have, over their circumstances; their influence on local decision-making; and their actions to improve local issues. This form of capital helps people to link with government, authorities and sources of political power.
- Social participation – The time given up to support local clubs, groups, organisations, or improve the local environment, in a paid or unpaid capacity. This helps to increase connections and bonds within communities, and also to help build social bridges across and between communities.
A note on terms
The term ‘social capital’ is widely used as a measure of our connections and relationships, but there are some things to bear in mind.
First, describing social connections as a ‘capital’ is intended to highlight their importance and value to our societal wellbeing and social economy, but is not intended to suggest that these are primarily monetary or monetizable assets.
Second, social capital is not always positive and there are ways in which social connections may have a negative impact on society. Social connections that exist strongly within a single group identity may lead to friction with other groups and create ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. They can also create informal expectations and obligations that are unwanted by members of the group. It is therefore important to understand the extent to which there is a sense of belonging, cohesion and contact between different social groups.
Third, there are research gaps in understanding some of the more structural and long-term drivers of social connection and relationships, and the impact of market and government activity on these. Social capital needs to be understood in the wider context of the social and economic activities and events that help to work for and against it. The Glasgow Centre for Population Health have explained how the concept of social capital is a problem if it implies that communities are disadvantaged as a result of a perceived lack of social connections, as opposed to the real root causes of poverty and disadvantage.