6. Stories of social capital – experience from people and places
The above findings from the Scottish Household Survey provide a helpful overview of changes in social capital at a national level, and indications of different experiences for groups in the population. This statistical analysis however doesn’t provide a first-hand understanding of social capital as it is felt and experienced in everyday life.
This section of the report provides two stories from a number that were collected by a researcher to highlight some of the possible ways that social connections and relationships are experienced by people in different situations and to help position some of these findings within a societal, organisational, cultural and historical context.
These stories were collected in a small qualitative study that took place over three months in 2018-19. It is not a representative account of social connections and social capital, but these stories are intended to illustrate some of the realities and challenges that are relevant to the context of social connection and how it is created and impeded - from the point of view of people’s experiences and the things they feel are important in their lives.
James’s story includes an account of social networks, participation and volunteering in an area that has experienced deindustrialisation. Descriptions of the local physical and economic environment are tied to the social and economic history of the place, and offer an understanding of how things had been and how they had changed. His story highlights affective barriers (feeling judged, stigmatised, ‘not feeling I matter’) as well as structural and material ones.
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.
Connections to social capital themes
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 refer to a wider range of other policy areas such as crime and safety, public services, inequality, regeneration, economic policy and urban planning.
The stories are written from the point of view of the researcher and author of the stories Paula Jacobs.
James’s Story - Black clouds and open skies
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 use, 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 are 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 where 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.
Kay’s Story – “The messy and the small”
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.