Conference Paper University of Sheffield
Social Capital in Rural Places: A Report to Defra
26 Mar 2007
The purpose of this study was to provide insight into how social patterns and processes in small rural places help to produce distinctive bases for social identities and social cohesion. In a phrase 'what makes small places tick?' Despite the huge array of social and economic indicators that are available, the way these all relate together in specific contexts has received relatively little attention. Given the stated Government policies of encouraging the principle of subsidiarity and encouraging the 'third sector' to take on more responsibility, this local holistic approach is particularly timely.
Four small places were studied qualitatively, using the notion of social capital as an umbrella concept. This fashionable if imprecise and catch-all concept is often adduced as relevant in various policy areas such as economic regeneration, better service delivery, greater support for vulnerable groups, more civic engagement etc. However, the notion is, of course, value neutral. Strong social capital can be highly dysfunctional - for example, strongly interconnected inward-looking groups such as the Mafia or certain kinds of terrorist organizations. Hence the importance of weaker ties linking bonded groups to others.
Comparing and contrasting these four case studies revealed a set of factors that constrain social development and cohesion and a set of factors that encourage it. The constraining factors included the domination of a small group of activists who inhibited or limited wider social participation. This was often associated with volunteering being the preserve of those over 60s. In addition, the negative effect of factions and close-knit cliques is well illustrated in at least one of our case studies and, more generally, there was substantial evidence of apparently excessive bureaucratic regulation and control. Rightly or wrongly it was perceived that the good intentions of a caring government were taking the fun out of voluntary activities through an increase in the 'hassle factor'.
On the positive side it was clear that a welcoming and open culture with good lines of communication and the support of external agencies could produce social cohesion. The more opportunity for informal meetings and social activities, the more likely people will get to know and trust each other. Joining together in activities that are fun helps to create a spirit of collaboration and trust that can be drawn upon in other contexts. Clearly, success breeds success and having an infrastructure of meeting places and social facilities certainly helps.
In addition to the focus on the four rural settlements, we were encouraged by Defra to draw inferences from similar work undertaken in urban areas, and information on two low income areas in Leeds and Sheffield is included. In some ways the conclusions were similar - for example, in pointing out how some interventions - such as demolition - could be insensitive to local needs and unwittingly destroy social capital. The urban studies also confirmed that 'fun' is a main driver for community-based social capital.
However, there were obvious differences between the rural and urban places studied, particularly in the scale of social housing which was approximately 70 per cent in the deprived urban neighbourhoods, which obviated any real basis for comparison. It is not therefore possible to contrast 'urban' with 'rural', since the 'urban' research was highly focussed on deprivation, whilst the rural places were considered more holistically.
It is clear that population size and density make a fundamental difference and the LSE parallel study convincingly demonstrates that policy differentiation between different places has to be developed and maintained. Despite the differences between the rural places in this study, there are more identifiable similarities among them than between them and the large urban neighbourhoods. Rural communities deserve a distinctive respect and appropriate policies to reflect their distinctiveness.