Discussions with others over the last few weeks have prompted me to think about whether there is scope to use theories of social capital to address some of the challenges faced by public services in the future. It is also possible to consider the varying types of delivery and their relationship, in turn, to social capital thinking.
Robert Putnam’s book ‘Bowling alone’ on social capital is fundamental to thought about communities, localism and Big Society. In it he distinguishes between two types of social capital, ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’. Both describe different kinds of community linkage between people. Bonding social capital can be seen in closed communities such as villages clustered around mining industries. This can lead to tight reliance and deep levels of trust between people, but also mistrust of diversity and ‘otherness’. Bridging social capital is seen best in loose social networks, such as in international trade networks, it brings together people with a common interest in a particular issue and leads to rapid exchange of ideas and exploitation of diverse communities. However there is little that binds participants to each other and there is little development of mutual exchange and trust. Putnam argues that both are required for a healthy society, bonding social capital will equip it for longevity and depth, bridging for fleetness of foot.
The current focus on ‘Big Society’, growing out of community engagement needs to develop answers to social capital challenges. For example, the contributions of volunteers running a service could be quite successful but actually stay as bridging social capital and not help in developing deep, long term trust. Or in some situations they could become closed groups, one community serving itself to the exclusion of outsiders. The development of a vibrant civil society requires more than either, it needs to become a healthy mixture of tribe, club and mailing list if it is to be sustainable.