Open Forum

Building social capital is crucial if we are to address the effects of socio-economic disadvantage, writes Lee Clark

Earlier this year, the prime minister said the drive for social renewal was not “restarting the search for the golden age” but rather “rebuilding the bonds of community”. Social workers recognise the government’s respect agenda and their key role in renewing society. But what is the theoretical base underpinning this agenda?

The notion of social capital is a useful framework for reclaiming public life. It refers to connections among individuals, and is the glue that binds society together: the trust, mutual understanding, shared values and behaviour that link members of communities and make co-operative action possible. The basic premise is that interaction enables people to build communities and commit themselves to each other.

The decline in membership of community-based associations and a corresponding increase in individualised activities have led some to conclude that social capital has undergone an inexorable decline.

In high social capital areas public spaces are cleaner, people are friendlier and streets are safer. Traditional neighbourhood risk factors, such as high poverty, poor housing, low educational achievement and poor parenting, are not as significant as many assume. Higher crime rates result in part from people failing to participate in community building, failing to supervise younger people and detachment from social networks. In short, striving to build social capital can help mitigate the insidious effects of socio-economic disadvantage.

Services targeted at those most of concern in society are not an effective answer. Rather, services helping those at risk of social disengagement and those with little sense of connection to wider society are the most likely to bring significant and lasting change.

Social work is well placed to build the bridge between the socially disengaged and the services that provide the connection for social capital to flourish. What we need are the resources to allow us to do so.

Lee Clark is lecturer in practice learning and social work at Goldsmiths College, University of London

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