How social capital can help deal with the pandemic better

Santhosh Babu | Updated on November 04, 2020

Social capital is the interpersonal relations, social networks, shared sense of identity and trust within a society

“Community connectedness is not just about warm fuzzy tales of civic triumph. In measurable and well-documented ways, social capital makes an enormous difference in our lives...Social capital makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy,” said Robert D Putman, Prof of Public Policy at Harvard.

Some countries have managed to fight the pandemic better than other countries and some States in India have managed better than others. There could be many factors behind the success and failure of countries and States. Some of the influencing factors could be population density, average age of the population, the migration to a State from other States and countries, etc.

But we have missed another important influencing factor, the social capital of the state or the country.

Had it been just about a model or a strategy, any state or country could have easily adopted that strategy. Had it been about certain specific actions of leaders, who were able to contain the situation to a large extent, other leaders could adapt accordingly. However, to really understand what lies beneath, we might have to peer deeply into the social fabric of the society to understand the success and failures we have had in dealing with the pandemic.

One of the factors that could influence the lower mortality rate or lower number of infections could be the social capital embedded in that society.

What is social capital?

Social capital is the interpersonal relations, social networks, shared sense of identity and trust within a society. In other words, social capital refers to features in a social organisation such as trust, norms and networks that can improve the efficiency of the organisation.

One way of understanding social capital is to understand its networked structure of the social capital. Networks are a way of understanding social systems, community or an organisation by focussing on the relationships among the entities that makes the social system.

“People with strong social networks experience faster recoveries and have access to needed information, tools, and assistance. Communities and neighbourhoods with little social capital may find themselves unable to keep up with their counterparts with these deep networks,” to quote from the book Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery by Daniel P Aldrich. While what Aldrich mentioned about post disaster recovery here, you can see this is also applicable in the case of a pandemic like Covid-19.

We saw the social capital and collective resilience in action two years ago when one of the worst floods hit Kerala. During the rescue and relief operations, Keralites displayed a high level of intra- and inter-community trust and networking. The tech-savvy people coordinated the rescue work through social media platforms, even though sitting in various parts of the globe. The local fishermen took their boats to flood-affected areas saving a large number of people. The local support groups that got formed specifically for the cause took care of food and accommodation of the affected people.

But it takes time to build social capital in a society or in an organisation.

The social capital in Kerala was not built overnight. According to a study conducted in 1997-98, jointly by Uppsala University of Sweden, JNU and Utkal University, Odisha, Kerala has the highest social capital compared with other States. The study also showed that 80 per cent of the people interviewed for the purpose, mentioned that they have a good understanding of issues India is facing and 50 per cent said that they would be able to change a wrongful decision by their government.

In 1985, when I was a first year graduate student, Kerala had 4,977 libraries, almost one library in every panchayat. People who visited these libraries formed their own networks and discussed about books and shared ideas.

One way of understanding the phenomena of social capital is through social network analysis. When this is done in an organisation, it is called Organisation Network Analysis (ONA). Social network analysis in general studies the behaviour of the individual at the micro level, the pattern of relationships (network structure) at the macro level, and the interactions between the two. This micro-macro link helps us to understand the way in which individual behaviour and social phenomena are connected with one another.

Human behaviour is a product of both individual dispositions as well as the social structure they seek to create. That’s why it’s not surprising to see such sayings in galore, “Tell me who you interact with, and I will tell you who you are,” or A man is known by the company he keeps”.

We use a short questionnaire to map the social networks in an organisation and generate insights on the current level of interactions between the employees. These insights then can help us understand the social capital of the organisations, the trust levels and the interconnectedness.

Linking social capital

Social capital can be divided into two subtypes: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding capital is the capital embedded in the network connections that link people of a similar kind, with the bonds being formed through common interests and mutual attraction. While bridging capital is the capital embedded in the connections that link people of different kinds, from different communities and backgrounds.

Within the bonding and bridging capitals, there are vertical connections across the power gradients in individuals, groups and organisations. These connections are often referred to as the linking social capital.

In an organisational context, the bonding capital will be the personal connect, feeling of psychological safety and trust the employees feel within their teams and the bridging capital is the relationships they have with members of other teams . We have often heard about leaders complaining about teams working in silos.

This could be addressed by actively cultivating bridging capital. The bridging capital helps in building more collaboration, influence and also gives a peek into how other teams operate, which can be very impactful in driving synergies and thus positive business impact. The linking capital is the relationships employees have with people who are in power and authority in their organisations so that their ideas could be heard and employees feel a sense of belongingness.

In a community where people have strong bonding social capital, bridging social capital and linking social capital, their collective resilience is higher compared to communities which lack social capital. Similarly, the leadership actions and strategy could easily be deployed through these networks when social capital is high.

So the social relationships, trusted connections, support groups, membership in community organisations and social awareness, collectively called social capital, has helped some countries and States deal with the pandemic in a better way.

The writer is Founder of Orglens (www.orglens.com), an organisation that maps and visualises social networks and social capital

Published on November 04, 2020

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