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Social capital in the UK

15 June 2015
by Guest author

BLI InitiativeDr Veronique Siegler, Senior Research Officer at the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS), who works in the Measuring National Well-being team and currently leads the project on social capital.

“Social capital is the glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human well-being” (World Bank, 1998)

In general terms, social capital represents social connections and all the benefits they generate. High social capital means a “happy society”, where people are connected, tolerant, help each other and spend time for the “common good”. They have trust in others and in institutions, and are empowered to shape the society they live in. This has positive impacts on a range of areas, such as personal well-being, health, employment or crime.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) is currently looking at how to measure social capital and its importance to the well-being of people, as part of the Measuring National Well-being Programme, launched in 2009.

There are 4 main aspects of social capital that the ONS aims to measure. These are personal relationships, social network support, civic engagement, and trust and co-operative norms. We have developed a set of 25 headline measures across these aspects. So what do these measures tell us about social capital in the UK?

Personal relationships and the support they can provide are important for people’s happiness, mental and physical health. This includes relationships with friends, family and neighbours. In the UK in 2011/12, most people (95%) reported having at least one close friend but 11% reported feeling lonely all, most or more than half of the time.

The support we give and receive with our family, friends or neighbours also matters. For example, the different generations within a family can support each other and this can be especially important in difficult economic times. Most people in the UK in 2010/11 reported being able to rely a lot on their partner (83%) and on their family (62%) but less than half people (45%) felt they could also rely on their friends in case of a serious problem.

We also look at whether people spend time to shape the society they live in, by voting, or through activities such as volunteering, organising a street party or signing a petition. People who are engaged in such civic and political activities tend to be happier, healthier and have a greater sense of purpose of life. They are more likely to trust other people and have a diverse circle of friends. In the UK, in 2012/13, more people donated money (67%) than time (19%) to organisations or charities. Around one-third (34%) of people in the UK in 2011/12 reported having been involved in at least one political action (the most common being signing a petition). However, a quarter (23%) of people also reported not being interested at all by politics in the UK 2012/13.

The trust people have towards each other, but also the trust in their institutions, such as their government, is important for the healthy functioning of democracy. Only a third (31%) of people tended to trust their national government in the UK in November 2014. Low trust in politicians and governments is an ongoing concern in the UK and across Europe. The standard of living and the economic situation of a country have been shown to be important factors affecting how people rate their trust in government.

Values such as honesty, solidarity or tolerance, enable people to co-operate with each other. At a neighbourhood level, these values help people to live together harmoniously in local communities. In the UK in 2011/12, nearly two-thirds (65%) of people felt people in their neighbourhood can be trusted, and nearly three-quarters felt that people get along with each other (72%) and are willing to help their neighbours (71%) in their local area.

ONS is continuing to develop and refine its measures on social capital, based on feedback on how they are being used. ONS is also planning to look at changes over time and inequalities in social capital. This all feeds into the wider ONS work on sustainability, where the different forms of capital stocks are explored: social capital measures will supplement information already collected on human, natural and economic capital.

Useful links:

OECD Better Life Index

For more information on the ONS Social Capital work, see the Social Capital guide

For more information on the ONS Measuring National Well-being work, see Measuring National Well-being

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