The interplay between social capital and loneliness: Reflections from a scoping review
26 September 2023
Loneliness stands as a pervasive issue that has garnered significant attention due to its detrimental effects on physical and psychological well-being. The concept of social capital, representing resources inherent in social networks, offers a potential avenue to address this concern. Community initiatives, such as clubs and neighborhood activities, have been heralded as avenues to foster social capital and alleviate loneliness. This blog considers the vagaries surrounding definitions of social capital and loneliness, the lack of coherence in linking these concepts, and underscores the need for greater clarity and research in this field.
We recently conducted a scoping review to examine community-based initiatives in the UK centered on well-being, with a specific focus on studies that offered insights into the interplay between social capital and loneliness. The search encompassed key databases, including Medline, CINAHL, ASSIA, and Embase, resulting in 1,184 references. The review's inclusion criteria were systematically applied, and 87 references were read in full, leading to the identification of just five references that successfully met the review’s inclusion criteria. These studies collectively indicated that community initiatives held the potential to cultivate social capital through mechanisms like trust-building, group cohesion, and reciprocity. Participants in included studies frequently depicted their involvement in such initiatives as akin to forming a surrogate family, leading to a sense of belonging and diminished feelings of loneliness. The following infographic was developed and provides further details of our scoping review.
Defining social capital and loneliness
Despite the potential synergy between these concepts – social capital and loneliness - their divergent definitions across papers included in the review limited a cohesive understanding. Some of these papers did not provide a clear definition or reference for these terms, limiting our understanding around how authors intended to use them or how they had shaped the research.
Social capital's inherent variability, based on cultural context and individual perceptions, complicates standardization. Similarly, loneliness presents itself in diverse forms, making a universal definition elusive. In some of the papers, loneliness and social isolation were treated as synonymous terms, although a distinction can be made between them. Loneliness refers to a sense of being alone or not having the amount or quality of social contact wished for, meaning that people can feel lonely even if surrounded by others. It is a subjective feeling that relates to perceptions individuals hold about the gap between interactions they have and what they desire in this respect. Social isolation refers to a lack of or infrequent social contacts. It can lead to feeling lonely but does not necessarily cause this to occur, as some people may spend lots of time alone and be perfectly content with this.
Measuring social capital and loneliness
Ambiguity surrounding the terms social capital and loneliness stems from their complex and multifaceted nature, making them difficult to define precisely. Quantifying social capital and loneliness can be challenging. Researchers often use proxies or measurement scales that may not capture the full complexity of these experiences. This leads to variations in how the concepts are defined and measured in different studies. Social capital and loneliness are studied across various academic disciplines, including sociology, psychology, economics, public health. Each discipline may emphasize different aspects of these concepts, leading to variations in their definition and measurement.
Considering both concepts together
The separate examination of social capital and loneliness in research may be attributed to theoretical, methodological, and disciplinary factors. The theoretical frameworks surrounding social capital have traditionally emphasized its role in enhancing social cohesion and community resilience. Loneliness, while related to social connections, was not always explicitly integrated into these theoretical perspectives. Researching the complex interplay between social capital and loneliness can be methodologically challenging. Measuring these concepts together and untangling their intricate relationship may require specialized research designs, which not all studies are equipped to employ. As mentioned previously, different academic disciplines have distinct approaches to studying social capital and loneliness. Researchers from these disciplines may not always interact or collaborate, leading to the separate examination of these concepts within disciplinary silos. Furthermore, the ambiguity surrounding these terms is likely one of the factors contributing to the sparse exploration of these concepts in tandem. Researchers may hesitate to delve into the complexities of studying these phenomena jointly due to potential methodological challenges, and the intricate nature of their interplay.
Given this clear gap in the literature, we hope to study social capital and loneliness together in future projects. Studying these items jointly offers several valuable benefits, providing a more comprehensive understanding of the complex dynamics of human social interactions and well-being. For example, loneliness is associated with a range of negative health outcomes, from mental health issues to cardiovascular problems. Research that incorporates social capital can elucidate how social connections influence these health outcomes and provide insights into preventive measures. Policymakers can benefit from research that examines social capital and loneliness in tandem. This research can inform policies related to community development, healthcare, social services, and mental health support, leading to more effective strategies. In relation to social prescribing, incorporating social capital and loneliness assessments may have the potential to lead to better health and well-being outcomes.. Studying social capital and loneliness together has the potential to inform the development of more effective interventions, policies, and support systems aimed at reducing loneliness and enhancing social connections and overall quality of life.
The review referred to in this blog was funded by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration Oxford and Thames Valley. Views expressed in this blog are those of the author; they are not necessarily those of the funder or their host institution. The review has involved colleagues from the Oxford Social Prescribing Research Network, Cherwell Collective and Oxfordshire County Council.
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