Social capital: Then and now

This year I am co-organising the NCVO/VSSN Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference new researcher sessions. I am very excited by this.

Although it is the first time I am organising these sessions, I have always found them to be one of the highlights of our annual research conference. You get to hear from people researching new topics, often using innovative methods. So many of these new researchers go on to present at the main Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference in subsequent years.

Helping to organise the conference has brought memories of my own PhD studies flooding back. Also my PhD subject, social capital, is beginning to garner interest again. So I thought it might be useful to outline my own studies and why social capital was seen as so important.

This is my own voluntary sector research journey…

Social capital

It makes me feel old when I realise that it is 20 years since I first encountered the notion of social capital. This was broadly defined as the relationships between people, the trust between them and norms that govern social behaviour.

It was something that would change my life, not least spending my late twenties writing a PhD on the subject. Like trying to remember the moment you first fell in love with someone after you have long since broken up, it is sometimes difficult for me to recall the excitement when first reading about social capital. But the excitement was certainly there – the late 1990s/early 2000s were heady days in this seemingly new research area.

Bowling alone?

Robert Putnam’s original work on the subject, Making Democracy Work, which looked at Italy, became the most cited social science work of the 1990s. Yet it was only when Putnam studied social capital in his native America in Bowling Alone that he captured a wider audience.

He wrote of the frontier spirit, of neighbours getting together to raise a barn, of the rise of voluntary associations in the nineteenth century, and their dramatic decline since the late 1960s.

Few works have changed me and the way I view the world like Bowling Alone. Many of the social ills of America, and by extension the UK, such as declining political engagement and the breakdown of communities, were attributed to the loss of the elixir of ‘social capital’. It caught the attention of politicians too. Putnam’s work was cited in Bill Clinton’s 1995 state of the union address, and he would later advise Tony Blair and George W Bush on the subject.

Social capital studies today

However, social capital is very much a concept that goes in and out of fashion. In the early 2000s it was argued to offer some kind of answer to, well, just about everything.

Then people spoke about social capital less and new exciting conceptual toys came along, such as nudges and spirit levels. In addition, the financial crisis and subsequent austerity meant that there were other more pressing matters on the political agenda.

However, there appears to be something of a revival in social capital studies. In November 2016 NCVO hosted Understanding Society’s conference on social capital, part of the ESRC’s festival of social science. It was a fantastic day, full of interesting ideas and research findings from diverse disciplines, as well as hearing evidence from practitioners. The presentations from the day are available online.

I am pleased that social capital is being discussed again, not least because it means all those years of studying were not in vain.

Join us at the new researchers’ conference

Researching and completing my PhD was difficult at times, but I am proud of the achievement. In 2009 I left academia and have worked as a researcher in the voluntary sector full-time since.

I always found the opportunity to share my research in its early stages incredibly useful. So perhaps those researchers at the beginning or in the middle of their studies, or in the early stages of their career, will think about submitting to the conference. Hopefully see you there!


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Avatar photo Andy Curtis was senior research officer at NCVO's Institute for Volunteering Research.

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