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Resurrecting a Positive Role for the Much-maligned Notion of ‘Social Capital’


Wednesday, 2nd May 2018 at 9:03 am
Alan Kay
Alan Kay, from the Social Audit Network, makes the case for a rethink of what we mean by social capital.


Wednesday, 2nd May 2018
at 9:03 am
Alan Kay


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Resurrecting a Positive Role for the Much-maligned Notion of ‘Social Capital’
Wednesday, 2nd May 2018 at 9:03 am

Alan Kay, from the Social Audit Network, makes the case for a rethink of what we mean by social capital.

“Social capital describes the networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups”. (OECD, 2001)

I want to put out a call for the rehabilitation of what we understand by “social capital”.

Recent criticism of the essential concept of social capital has caused people to cast it aside – considering it a redundant approach. Several influential academics on the left of the political spectrum have written books and articles criticising social capital. Their criticism became particularly virulent at a time when the World Bank formed a social capital strategy in their assistance to developing countries.

In short, the main thrust of the criticism was that the notion of social capital was being used as a substitute for not materially helping populations. Communities were being told that: “We know you are poor, downtrodden and disadvantaged but you have ‘social capital’ and you should be using that more”.

In a way, the academic left was right in criticising the World Bank’s application of a social capital approach – especially if it was used as a reason for not providing material help. But I think that the criticism threw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Although many of my sympathies align with a criticism of the World Bank, I have a different view.

I think we have to take a less theoretical position regarding social capital and believe that it is very important if viewed in practical and pragmatic terms. It is more usefully understood by people working in social enterprises and third sector organisations when it is pulled out of academia and translated into real situations.

So why am I calling for a rethink of social capital now? It is mainly because I have been part of the CommonHealth Research Programme whose aim was to research the links between the activities of social enterprises and health and well-being within communities and amongst individuals. It is looking at addressing health inequalities and how social enterprises can positively influence the upstream determinants of health even when such entities say nothing about health in their mission statements. The main determinants of health being: family, friends and communities; housing; education and skills; good work; money and resources; physical surroundings (Keeping Us Well: How Non-Health Charities Address the Social Determinants of Health; Boswell, K., Joy. I., Lamb, C., 2017, New Philanthropy Capital).

The results of the CommonHealth Research Programme are just beginning to emerge and I am struck that many of the findings would appear to be linked to what I have always understood as being “social capital”. (More information on this research can be found in the Briefing Papers and journal articles.)

So, what are we talking about when we use the term?

I think that one of the best and most comprehensive definitions of social capital came from the CONSCISE Project (2000 -2003). This project defined it as: “Resources within communities which are created through the presence of high levels of trust; reciprocity and mutuality; shared norms of behaviour (values); shared commitment and belonging; and both formal and informal social networks all of which may be used productively by individuals and groups to facilitate actions to benefit individuals, groups and community more generally.”

This definition is more useful, in my view, as it emphasises that social capital is made up of a number of interlinking elements – not just one thing.

The CONSCISE Project then goes on to argue that understanding and applying social capital in one’s approach is heuristic – that is, you learn from doing, not by talking about what you think you are doing.

Returning to CommonHealth – the project’s main hypothesis is: are social and community enterprises, by their nature, approach and activities, good and effective at improving health and well-being for individuals and communities – either directly or indirectly?

On the community level here are some of the emerging findings:

  • Community enterprises can bring the community together through running a safe, community space as a focal point of the community, and something that offsets loneliness. In rural and remote areas, a community based social enterprise provides a hub or meeting place where local people can meet and expand their social networks. The more often they do this, relationships and friendships can deepen, strengthening trust between people make a more cohesive and stronger community.
  • The “good work” of the social enterprise, mainly working to benefit other people, further develops one’s sense of belonging to an area and sharing concern for a particular locality.
  • Sharing experiences and belief in what a social enterprise is trying to do strengthens the sense of belonging to an area and make the surroundings a better place to live and work.
  • Social enterprises provide opportunities to volunteer locally around the principle of mutuality and helping each other.

On top of this social enterprises – particularly those that are community owned – can provide a vehicle for local social change and development in the area. They can provide the role as a geographical “anchor organisation”. They may also boost the local economy through providing employment, helping with training and aspiring to be as self-sufficient as possible.

I feel there is currently a need to resurrect the role of social capital in our understanding around concepts such as community and individual health and well-being.

If we accept that there are correlations between elements of social capital and some of the emerging findings around the upstream determinants of health, then we are again confronted with the knotty problem of how do we account for, or “measure”, the changes in these elements.

I have argued in a previous blog that social enterprises should focus much more on the “social” side of what they do. Their existence should be geared to benefit people at the same time as not adversely affecting the environment and using economic activity to achieve these ends.

If this is the case, I think that social enterprises should be looking seriously and overtly at the degree to which they contribute to social capital. This would mean putting in place how they build trust between people and organisations; how they encourage reciprocal working and mutuality; how they state and then live up to their values; how they support a commitment to a community and a sense of belonging; and how they actively create connectedness through informal and formal social networks.

I would also take this further and say that social enterprises could, and perhaps should, take a social capital approach. This might mean separating out the composite elements of social capital and examining how what social enterprises do and how they do it can contribute to strengthening social capital.

Lastly, rather than attack the notion of social capital and try and replace it with other less contested terms, such as community cohesion, connectedness, social inclusion, anti-loneliness, and so on, we should arguably be embracing social capital making it a central tenet of what social enterprises are all about.

About the author: Alan Kay has more that 30 years of experience in community development and social enterprise support in the UK and overseas. His background is in overseas development and he has lived and worked in East Africa and South East Asia attached to a variety of different organisations including HelpAge International, Action Aid and VSO. Since returning to Scotland in 1988 he has mainly worked with community-owned enterprises and social enterprises. He is an associate lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University and assisted them to establish a Diploma and MSc in social enterprise. He is also a director of CBS Network, is the treasurer for the Community Development Journal and is a member of the Institute for Economic Development. He has worked with social accounting and audit for many years and helped to found the Social Audit Network. He co-authored the 2005 Social Accounting and Audit Manuals and more recently wrote the New Guide to Social Accounting and audit.


Alan Kay  |  @ProBonoNews

Alan Kay is a founding board member of the UK’s Social Audit Network (SAN).


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One Comment

  • Gavin Melles says:

    Dear Alan. Good piece. There is a tendency often to throw out concepts for some new novelty. A bit like chucking a hammer because it has been used. Social capital remains a key concept for sustainable livelihoods and also the five capitals model and helps keep and eye on the different kinds of capital within development models that make a difference. The fact it has been misused, e.g. purportedly WB, does not change its value for practical work. People have degrees of social capital as a product of the particular histories and socio-cultural etc structures in which they live, e.g. caste, class, gender are important ‘institutions’ that affect what we have and how we can use it (as Amartya Sen taught us).

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