Social capital: A rural perspective

Start date:
January 2009
November 2009

This project goes beyond headline statistics relating to social capital in rural areas and looks in more depth at differing experiences of rural social capital.

Our research on social capital and place has been published. The study, which contributes to Defra’s programme of rural research, explores placed-based social capital (social networks, values and norms) from the perspective of people living in both rural and urban areas. It contains a number of novel findings that are of particular relevance to current debates around ‘localism’ and ‘big society’.

Background and objectives
This project contributes to Defra’s programme of research designed to provide a more nuanced understanding of the needs of rural people and communities. The research was designed to go beyond headline statistics relating to social capital and quality of life and to deepen understanding of different experiences of social capital within and between rural and urban places.

This project contained an extensive piece of primary research employing Q methodology. Q uses both qualitative and quantitative tools to systematically explore subjective structures, attitudes and perspectives from the standpoint of the research participants. The method is designed to reveal both individual responses and patterns of shared understanding. Q was used within the following overall methodology:

Phase 1: Review
• Scoping, preliminary literature review and analysis
• Expert workshop with 15 experts from the fields of social capital and rural research
• In depth literature review, analysis and interpretation

Phase 2: Fieldwork
• Development of fieldwork materials
• Preliminary semi-structured interviews
• Pilot study
• Selection of case studies
• Original fieldwork using Q methodology in eight case study locations with 96 participants

Our research produced findings which led us to ask a number of challenging questions about the role of social capital in the development and delivery of policy - an issue of particular relevance for current debates around ‘localism’ and the ‘big society’.

In particular, the implications of our findings led us to question those policies which aim directly to engineer ‘more’ of a ‘better’ kind of social capital through focussing on the ‘formal’ community. This questioning encouraged us to consider the potential of policy interventions aimed at providing opportunities for people to develop their own social capital as they see fit.

The report argues that policy has the potential to influence place-based social capital, but largely indirectly and in particular through making it more attractive for residents to walk around the places where they live and to spend time in public and other shared spaces in their local areas. Such policies could provide the ‘friendliness infrastructure’ that our findings suggest is needed to foster widespread and diverse place-based social networks and ‘community spirit’.

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