Community cohesion to develop social capital: A means of addressing health and well-being
20 December 2022
In this blog, Stephanie Tierney reflects on some conversations she has had with people involved in a community organisation set up during the COVID-19 pandemic. It complements her interest in social prescribing. Social prescribing involves connecting people to support in the community (e.g. voluntary organisations, charities, local groups) that can help with their ‘non-medical’ needs (e.g. loneliness, financial concerns, housing problems).
When reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic, your mind might turn to the challenges and fears it raised – being isolated from friends and family, struggling health services, uncertainty about job security. However, it also resulted in new social movements, through volunteering and community support schemes. One such initiative that was formed during 2020, the Cherwell Collective, continues to flourish two years on. It is based just outside of Oxford City Centre and has become a Community Interest Company. It consists of a number of components, including:
- The larder - supports people to access food and is focused on avoiding food waste
- Community kitchen - where people come and pay what they can for a meal (made from food surplus), which they are able to eat with others
- Waste innovation station - encourages people to share and reuse goods (non-food) for sustainability purposes
- Community growing - enables people to engage with nature, to learn new skills and to work towards a common goal
- Growing at home - gives people the opportunity to connect with nature in their own space
There are overlaps with the work undertaken at Cherwell Collective and our research team’s interest in social prescribing and supporting health and well-being through community projects, groups and initiatives. We consulted with people involved with this organisation to identify potential research ideas and priorities, as described below.
Patient and public involvement (PPI)
At the start of December 2022, we held two PPI discussion groups. The first consisted of nine people with experience of volunteering at Cherwell Collective. The second was attended by four users of the organisation and three volunteers. Conversation turned to how the Collective not only assisted people with their basic needs (e.g. through access to food) but was a place where they could feel safe, included and part of a broader network. Volunteers talked about providing emotional succour to those attending; having often faced their own difficulties in life, they could offer advice and provide solace from a place of personal experience. There were also examples presented of informal conversations between individuals that led to practical support (e.g. with transport, with laptop repairs, with recipe ideas, with information about claiming benefits). An ethos was described at the Collective of people looking out for each other, and sharing their wisdom and skills. It was suggested that being involved with the Collective could help with feeling part of the wider community; people mentioned meeting in the local area (e.g. at the shops, in the street, at the school gates) and being able to chat because they had this organisation in common. Topics raised in these PPI discussions made us think about the idea of social capital, which has underpinned our previous work on social prescribing.
People can get a range of benefits through social connections; this lies at the heart of social capital, which is described by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as:
“…the extent and nature of our connections with others and the collective attitudes and behaviours between people that support a well functioning, close-knit society.”
Research has reported that higher levels of social capital are connected with better health outcomes. It is something that can be modified – increased or depleted due to circumstances or through interventions. Measurement of social capital by the ONS in the UK suggests that over recent years it has been declining at a national level, as people engage less with those in their local area and more with social media, and feel less connected to their neighbourhood.
A recent rapid review on this topic showed that interventions targeting the development of social capital (e.g. through helping people to feel part of their community and as if they have access to social support) were effective. However, evidence reviewed was variable in quality and measures used. This is, in part, because social capital is a complex concept that can be considered in a number of ways.
Components of social capital
There are different approaches to defining social capital and its various components. One way it has been depicted is in terms of the following:
- Bonding – within a group, dense ties are developed between those who are similar in some way
- Bridging – social connections across social groups or boundaries (between people who seem to be different)
Both were in evidence at Cherwell Collective. Those involved in group discussions stated that through the Collective they met people facing similar challenges and in the same circumstances and felt united by their common experiences. It was also noted that part of the benefit of this organisation was it allowed people from different social spheres (e.g. in terms of age/generations or from different socioeconomic backgrounds or ethnic groups) to mix and learn from each other.
Another way in which social capital has been described is based on these components:
- Neighbourhood belonging – I feel like I am part of this community
- Social support – I have someone who is there for me if I need help
- Community cohesion – my area/community has people from a range of backgrounds who get on together
Again, all three were reflected in discussions held as part of our PPI work with individuals involved with the Collective. Hence, social capital appears to be an appropriate lens through which to understand and research the role of organisations like Cherwell Collective in the community and, potentially, as part of social prescribing.
There is interest in how the voluntary-community sector can complement health care provision at a time of economic crisis, following a global pandemic, as a means of tackling the consequences of health inequalities. This represents an opportunity for organisations like Cherwell Collective to continue growing social capital. However, research is required to understand how this can be best achieved and what is needed in terms of resources for this to be optimised. The rapid review mentioned above suggested that more research was required in terms of:
- Conducting a conceptual review on the idea of community cohesion
- Exploring what it means to belong and its connection with social capital in different settings
- Identifying measures that are appropriate for evaluating social capital
- Creating a theory of change that reflects outcomes related to social capital
We will be looking to explore these areas further through research in collaboration with staff, volunteers and users of Cherwell Collective. This will not only shine a light on the work of this organisation but also allow for broader recommendations to be made around social capital and its development through community organisations.
The PPI work referred to in this blog was funded through a PPI grant provided by the School for Primary Care Research. The views expressed above are those of the author and not necessarily those of the funder or her host institution.