'I've Always Managed, That's What We Do': Social Capital and Women's Experiences of Social Exclusion

by Victoria K. Gosling
University of Salford

Sociological Research Online 13(1)1

Received: 17 Nov 2006     Accepted: 27 Sep 2007    Published: 21 Mar 2008


It is evident that the concept of 'social capital' has recently come to the forefront of many governmental strategies aimed at combating social exclusion. In particular the interpretation of social capital used by many authors and agencies is one that emphasises the importance of not only social networks and contacts, but also a social responsibility to one's local community and wider society. Most notably it is poor people and poorer neighbourhoods that are seen to be lacking in these forms of social capital, and therefore emphasis is placed upon individual and community responsibility for tackling their own (and other's) exclusion. Drawing on in-depth interviews with women living on a deprived inner-city housing estate in the north of England, this research considers existing practices, forms and gendered nature of social capital for these women. The paper concludes that contrary to popular beliefs, many of these women already possessed forms of social capital, and specifically, that this was beneficial in helping them cope and 'get by' within their everyday experiences of social exclusion. This research highlights the potential exclusionary nature of social capital for certain individuals and the limitations of social capital in helping excluded women to escape their poverty.

Keywords: Coping Strategies, Poverty, Social Capital, Social Exclusion, Women


1.1 This paper draws on doctoral research into women’s experiences of social exclusion and urban regeneration on an inner city housing estate in the North of England. It focuses on the role that social capital plays for women in managing their poverty and social exclusion on a daily basis.

1.2 Social capital has recently come to the forefront of New Labour’s[1] discussions and strategies aimed at combating social exclusion. Though this governmental focus on social capital has been criticised by many, this paper argues that social capital is important in enabling women to cope on a daily basis with poverty and social exclusion. The paper illustrates that the women in this research were not passive victims to blame for their poverty, but rather that they actively utilise social capital. However, these strategies merely allowed the women to ‘get by’ rather than ‘get on’ and escape their poverty.

1.3 This paper begins with a consideration of New Labour’s emphasis on social capital and a discussion of the limitations and gendered nature of this approach. Following an outline of the research methodology of this project, it moves on to consider the different forms of social capital that existed for the participants on the estate where the research was undertaken. These include mutual support networks, reciprocity and feelings of trust. Then some of the benefits of the regeneration of the estate are discussed, such as the formation of local community centres and groups. It is argued that these advantages may be limited as they do not provide individuals with the right type of social capital needed to escape poverty. These benefits may also be short-lived due to the relocation of many residents to other estates due to the regeneration process. Finally, the exclusionary nature of social capital is explored; as although social capital may provide support for some, it is not inclusive of everyone. This highlights an important limitation of a social capital approach to combating social exclusion.

Social Capital and New Labour

2.1 Several authors such as Kearns (2004), Lowndes (2004) and Blackshaw and Long (2005) have suggested that New Labour’s strategies aimed at combating social exclusion are becoming increasingly focused towards the role of social capital. In Particular, Lowndes (2004: 45) suggests that ‘a version of the social capital thesis…lies at the heart of…‘Third Way’ politics’.

2.2 Put simply, social capital refers broadly to ‘the ways people connect through social networks, common values within these networks such as trust and reciprocity, and how this constitutes a resource that equates to a kind of capital’ (Edwards 2007: 4353). In other words, this refers to how people use social networks, mechanisms of trust and mutual help, to ‘better’ their social position. Social capital has been defined by several different authors including Loury (1977), Coleman (1988) and most notably Bourdieu (1986). Bourdieu defines social capital as:

The sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:119 in Field 2003:15)

2.3 This then refers to the benefits that can be gained from knowing people with similar values who are mutually able to help and support each other. As with Young and Willmott (1957), Bourdieu emphasises the important role the family plays in creating and maintaining social links and networks (see Reay 2004). Crucially for Bourdieu, social capital is only one of numerous forms capital, such as economic, cultural and symbolic capital, which work together in determining a person’s social (class) position.

2.4 Most notably it is the American political scientist Robert D. Putman (1993, 2000) who has popularised this term in recent years. Putman defines social capital as ‘features of social organisation, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions’ (Putman 1993:167 in Field 2003:31). Putnam identifies the two main components of social capital as ‘bonding’ and ‘bridging’ capital. Bonding refers to the interactions between like-people or people on a more level playing field and is therefore inward looking and is more likely to enable people to get by. For example this may include the support of a friend or neighbour on an estate which enables a person to feel safe in their local neighbourhood and go about their daily business. Bridging refers to the vertical links between a person and other outside groups and is more likely to enable people to build links that allow them to get on (Blackshaw and Long 2005). For example this may involve connections to people in an organisation away from the immediate locality and may provide opportunities or connections to employment, hence enabling a person to get on.

2.5 Putman’s argument is largely functionalist in that he believes that people need to be active in seeking out connectedness and shared norms and values and that generally social capital is good and ‘functional’ for society (Blackshaw and Long 2005). His main argument is that since the 1960s Americans have increasingly withdrawn from participation in civic life, which he believes could result in the collapse of society (Field 2003).

2.6 It is notable that in the UK the use of the term social capital has become increasingly fashionable within many discussions of the causes and consequences of social exclusion and policy responses to these. In particular, the Governmental Discussion Paper on Social Capital (2002) states that social capital can bring both economic and social benefits such as growth in GDP, better functioning labour markets, higher educational attainment, lower crime levels, better health, and better government. Also, in combating social exclusion, New Labour has declared its intention to ‘revive and empower the community’ (SEU 2000:5) with focus on eradicating anti-social behaviour and encouraging residents to work together as a community to help themselves (SEU 2000:10 cited in Kearns 2004:14). And according to Kleinman (1998:13), New Labour has emphasised that ‘social factors such as family structure and individual self-esteem, and personal characteristics such as punctuality, reliability and attitude are of equal or greater importance than ‘economic’ factors’ (cited in Kearns 2004:13). These are all factors that New Labour (and Putman) link to ideas of social capital.

2.7 The government does acknowledge that the evidence on the decline of social capital in the UK is ambiguous, with some indicators such as ‘trust’ declining and others such as ‘volunteering’ increasing (Governmental Discussion Paper on Social Capital 2002:6). Likewise, Putman has been criticised for the ‘questionable’ evidence he uses to support his arguments, which rely heavily on statistical techniques and description (Campbell 2001). Moreover, a social capital approach has been implemented without any real understanding of what can actually be gained in real terms from increasing poorer communities’ social capital and whether this benefits both women and men equally. It is also problematic that both Putman and New Labour seem to associate declining social capital only with the poor, when often many wealthier people also lack social capital — as increasingly it is the wealthy and middle classes who lead isolated and individualised lives (Bauman 2001). Individualism and lack of social responsibility are rarely viewed as problematic for the rich, in fact, these are often seen as necessary for capitalism to prosper. As Defillipis (2001) and Gillies (2005) argue, middle class values are presumed to be ‘correct’ and go unquestioned, while the working classes must be helped to help themselves and each other by building social capital.

2.8 Hence, viewing lack of social capital as a problem only for the poor focuses responsibility for combating social exclusion on individuals and local communities (Blackshaw and Long 2005). This then reflects a deeper and wider New-Right inspired ‘communitarian’ approach, which devolves responsibility to communities, without actually empowering them (Byrne 1999), and as Kearns (2004:15) writes: ‘social capital is a means to the end of getting people to do more for themselves, particularly improving and filling gaps in services’.

2.9 This application of social capital also lacks any understanding of social power relations (Labonte 1999, Muntaner et al. 2000). For Bourdieu social capital was just one form of many (including most notably economic and cultural capital) all of which fed into and supported each other. For Bourdieu therefore social capital is based within a class analysis, which is frequently overlooked in discussions of ‘social exclusion’. This approach ignores the constraints on poor people’s lives, and overlooks other wider inequalities such as those based of class or gender. Therefore, it is suggested that, social capital alone cannot overcome the problems of social exclusion, as it is wider social power relationships (including top down policy strategies and government attitudes) that need to be challenged (Kearns 2004:16). Moreover, as Smith (2001) argues, this attitude conveniently keeps redistribution off the political agenda.

2.10 Another key problem with New Labour’s focus on social capital is that it may be easy for the government to convince themselves (and others) that social conditions have improved as a result of their interventions; as measures of social capital such as the General Household Survey do not provide substantial information about social processes or the quality of social relations (Kearns 2004:29). Social capital is not an end in itself but a resource that people should have access to, therefore measurements of success need to focus on what has actually been achieved because of social capital.

2.11 Also, and of particular importance to this paper, is that gender relations and inequalities are often overlooked in many theorisations of social capital. That is not to say that gender is completely ignored by some theorists such as Bourdieu, but it is evident that for Bourdieu, and others, gender is often seen as a ‘secondary’ social influence (Skeggs 2004). However, it is evident that patterns of social capital are shaped by gender, and also in turn, that social capital has significant implications for women.

Gendering Social Capital

3.1 Much of New Labour’s emphasis on building social capital focuses on the connected actions of communities, and it is women who are most closely tied to their communities due to domestic and caring responsibilities (Forrest and Kearns 1999). These responsibilities tend to tie women more to ‘private’ spaces (such as their homes and local community groups), which often constitute the primary sites of local, social and community networks (May 1997). As suggested earlier, it is Bourdieu himself who recognises the important role the family plays in generating and maintaining social capital. It is therefore mainly women who are involved in building, using and relying on family and local community based social capital (Lowndes 2004). As Maddock (2005: 129) writes ‘you could say it is women who earn social capital and men who spend it (or benefit from it)’.

3.2 In particular, Gittell et al. (2000) suggest that women are better community leaders and are more effective at building social capital (and in particular local social networks) than men. For example in Campbell’s (1993) study of Meadowell (North Tyneside) it was predominantly women who were involved in the setting up and running of local community schemes and groups. Campbell (1993) suggests that men’s lack of involvement in community activities, was most notably due to many of these groups relating to childcare and not directly to employment. Community groups therefore provide ‘private’ and mainly ‘women only’ spaces for women to establish social capital and share their experiences with others (Rowlingson and McKay 2002). Therefore, any government policies aimed at increasing social capital directly impact on the lives of women.

3.3 Both Lowndes (2004) and Allard (2005) suggest that the very concept of ‘social capital’ overlooks issues of gender. It is not just that this is ‘gender blind’, but more that it is male biased, such as prioritising the social networks of men (such as those made through paid work) (Lowndes 2004). Moreover, the (supposed) decline/lack of social capital within poorer communities is often attributed to women. In particular, Putman identifies the rise of women’s employment as a major contributing factor to the decline of social capital (Field 2003). However, this overlooks how employment may improve women’s lives by providing them with greater access to economic independence and social capital.

3.4 Social capital also has different benefits and consequences for women and men. For example, communities can be both inclusive and exclusive, and are structured by patriarchy. This can therefore restrict women’s opportunities to build up certain forms of social capital (particularly bridging capital) that do not revolve around childcare and domestic work (Lowndes 2004). It has been well documented that women and men’s experiences of social and economic life differ in significant ways. For instance, women, especially older women and lone mothers are at the highest risk of, and suffer the longest duration of, poverty (Millar 1997, Duffy, 1994). Therefore gender is associated with different poverty risks, making it imperative that research highlights and considers gendered differences, and that policy initiatives recognise these.

Research Design

4.1 This research therefore aimed to highlight poor women’s experiences and to demonstrate that policies aimed at combating social exclusion must account for the specific needs of women as well as men. It set out to prioritise the personal experiences of women living on an estate undergoing regeneration, which to protect the participant’s anonymity I shall refer to as ‘Maple Hill’. Three main forms of research method were used in gathering data over the period of May 1999 to November 2000. The initial stage included participant observation, preliminary focus groups and interviews with women attending local community groups and community workers. These methods were used to gather background information about the estate and make contact with potential participants. The main method of data collection involved semi-structured interviews with twenty-one women, aged between 18 and 80 years old, exploring at length their personal understandings and experiences of social exclusion and urban regeneration. Each woman was interviewed once, and interviews lasted between one and three hours (though the majority exceeded two hours).

4.2 Data collection proved to be difficult and time consuming: women who were approached about the research often initially agreed to become involved but changed their minds when it came to the interview. The problems of accessing excluded groups have been well documented in the literature (see for example Bradshaw and Millar 1991). Nevertheless, the interviews gave rich accounts of the women’s experiences. I believe that my background as a white, working class woman enabled me as a researcher to build up a rapport with the women on the estate, all of whom were from a similar background. Adopting a similar approach to feminists, such as Oakley (1981), I found that on occasion disclosing personal information about my experiences was useful in encouraging the women to talk about their lives and experiences. Though, I recognised the potential hierarchical nature of interviewing methods throughout the research process.

4.3 Interviewees were gathered from a number of different sources. Nine of the participants attended community groups in Maple Hill, one was recruited at a housing regeneration meeting, six were contacted through snowballing via community workers and participants, three worked for community organisations on the estate, one was contacted at a community event, and three were relatives of other interviewees. A potential limitation with gaining a sample in this way, is that it may over-represent the more active members of the community and does not necessarily reach those who are most excluded on the estate. However, this is a potential limitation encountered with many pieces of empirical research (Bradshaw and Miller 1991), and those participants currently active in attending or running community groups, discussed times when they had not been active in their community. Hence, these participants are not necessarily unrepresentative of the wider population on the estate and provide an important insight into the lives and experiences of the women interviewed. Furthermore, accessing local community groups helped to establish some level of trust with the women, which was necessary for interviewing the women about very personal issues such as poverty and family life, and allowed detailed and more open accounts of the women’s lives to be reached.

The Role of Social Capital in Combating Social Exclusion

5.1 As suggested, functionalist and governmental perspectives tend to see poorer communities as lacking social capital, and therefore see the creation of social networks, mutual support and a sense of ‘community’ as viable mechanisms in combating social exclusion (Government Discussion Paper on Social Capital 2002). However, this research suggests many of the women in Maple Hill already had and utilised a variety of forms of (bonding) social capital and were far from passive in accepting their poverty (also see Warr 2005). In particular, many of the women provided informal childcare, emotional and material support and a sense of security and safety for their neighbours, friends and families. It is suggested that the creation of new community centres and groups did provide some women with additional support in managing their social exclusion. However, as with existing forms of social capital, these did not help the women escape their poverty, and furthermore, this section highlights the limited and exclusionary nature of social capital approaches to combating social exclusion.

Existing Social Capital

5.2 Many of the women interviewed talked of long and well-established forms of social capital on the estate, such as mutual support networks, trust and reciprocity (Edwards 2007). In particular, many discussed the importance of the ‘local community’, emphasising their shared position and interests with those around them. Likewise, many highlighted the crucial role social networks played in enabling them to manage their poverty on a daily basis. As Warr (2005: 287) suggested: ‘in contexts of collective socioeconomic disadvantage, bonding networks can provide members [of a local community] with crucial resources, especially through material aid, service work and emotional support that family and friends supply’. In particular, more informal (i.e. friendship and family) based support networks did have real benefits for the women interviewed in this research, such as, in providing childcare.

5.3 Recent studies indicate that there has been little real change in men and women’s traditional roles, with women continuing to shoulder the majority of domestic and childcare responsibilities and doing four times more housework than men (Flaherty et al. 2004). Childcare was therefore a significant issue for most of the women interviewed and most were worried about issues of cost and safety.

5.4 Local support networks were important for some in providing free childcare. Two of the women said that they relied on family for childcare, which in both cases had allowed them to gain employment. Polly (resident, aged 57) said that she looked after her grandchildren so that her daughter could go out to work; however, this meant that she was unable to get a paid job herself and she highlighted how important that extra money would have been in enabling her to get by:

I let her [her daughter] go to work and…[2] I had me daughter’s kids, instead of me going to work ‘cause she needed to work… she got divorced so I had me grandkids and I think why did I do it you know? I could have done with money you know going out to work.

5.5 Local and family-based support networks therefore may allow certain individuals new opportunities, such as allowing Polly’s daughter to get paid work, but this is often simply a sharing of burdens, which allow some individuals to cope better with daily pressures and responsibilities. This was particularly apparent in the way that the women in the research discussed the emotional support friends and family can provide.

5.6 For instance, four women indicated that friends and family had supported them when leaving violent partners, while others highlighted the importance of local friends and neighbours in helping reduce feelings of isolation. In particular, Tracey (resident, aged 30) suggested that her friends and family helped combat the isolation she often felt as a lone parent caring for three children:

I’ve got all me friends [laughs], there’s just me friends, I mean in the day times, ya know, I’m ‘ere ya know, all by me self ‘...’, but I ‘ave friends comin’ in and out… It’s somebody comes, ‘oh I’ve come for a cuppa tea’ three hours later they leave, another lot come. I mean from school everybody’ll be ‘ere. We’ll all be sat ‘round ‘avin’ a cup of tea and a chat and then they’ll go home for their tea and then they come back again… so I don’t feel isolated or alone.

5.7 The presence of family, friends and neighbours who could be trusted played an important role in making many of the women on the estate feel safe. New Labour have placed firm emphasis on the importance of community links and responsibility in their rhetoric and policy statements, particularly in relation to tackling crime and urban regeneration (Levitas 1998). In particular Cook (1997) suggests that socially deprived inner-city areas suffered disproportionately higher rates of violence, criminal damage and domestic burglary. Cook also suggests that this figure is likely to be much higher than is actually recorded, as poor people are less likely to report crime (particularly criminal damage and household burglaries as they are less likely to be insured). This results in a strong fear of crime for those living in deprived neighbourhoods and can increase a person’s social exclusion as they may be afraid to leave their homes.

5.8 Nearly all (nineteen) of the women interviewed commented that they felt unsafe. Fear of crime can play an important role in shaping perceptions of housing estates and this reputation, whether justified or not, has direct material consequences in terms of policing strategies, insurance rates, housing tenure patterns, and turnover of residents (Cook 1997). In addition fear of crime is often grounded in an individual’s own experience and knowledge, and most of the women interviewed suggested that they knew people who had been victims of crime on the estate. Therefore, contrary to earlier British Crime Surveys findings, most anxiety about crime is not ‘irrational’ and factors such as income, class, age, gender and ethnicity can all accentuate anxieties about crime (Cook 1997).

5.9 Therefore, neighbours who could be relied upon were considered as very important by twelve of the women interviewed in making life on an estate liveable, and increasing women’s sense of security. Many said that their neighbours would ‘look out’ for them and ensure that they were safe. For example, Tracey (resident, aged 30) said that her neighbours were essential in enabling her to go about her day-to-day duties:

I don’t feel safe what-so-ever, I mean if I go to the shop somebody’s stood on back watchin’, I phone Jenny’s and go ‘I’ve gotta go to shop will ya stand on back and watch?’, which she will, I mean Jenny went to shop a couple years back and somebody shot her [with an air rifle] so, no way am I gonna walk down there at night time.

5.10 Social capital, and in particular, social networks, reciprocity and trust, were therefore very important to the women in enabling them to survive day-to-day. However, as well as providing emotional support and feelings of security, local social capital was also utilised by many of the women to provide material and financial support. For example, Donna (resident, aged 39) when asked whether she had ever classed herself as living in poverty, said that her parents had sheltered her family from the worst effects of poverty:

Relatives are fantastic you know like, I’ve only got to make a phone call… me mum and me dad… were on mobility and things and they’d got this bit of extra money what they used to have every month and, if ever I were short of anything, it were because me dad were poorly, that they could afford to do it for us but I mean me dad died now… and she’s [her mother] in same boat as us now.
Jenny (resident, aged 43) similarly said that friends had helped her out when she was refused financial help by the social services and reported that friends bought her son a new pair of trousers and gave her money to take him out for the day.

5.11 However, as most of the women in this research were being forced to move due to the regeneration taking place on the estate, thirteen expressed concern about losing friends. They also suggested that this loss of ‘community’ was the hardest part of coping with the regeneration of the estate. Policies aimed at regenerating the estate and its community (certainly in the short term) were breaking up the important social relationships and networks that these women had developed on the estate, by moving residents to different (often deprived) areas. This may have led to what Pahl and Spencer (1997) and Pahl (2000) refer to as ‘network poverty’ in which lack of social networks could further increase these women’s vulnerability to poverty and social exclusion (cited in Ridge 2002). However, the regeneration of the estate had also brought about some (though frequently short-term and limited) benefits for some of the estates’ residents.

Generating Social Capital

5.12 It is evident, following Bourdieu (1983), that social capital was not merely something that these women simply ‘possessed’, but rather it is something that they have worked to achieve and maintain. Although many women reported asking for help from friends, they frequently suggested that it had taken them a long time to build up support networks and admit to friends or relatives that they needed help. Social capital is not something that can be ‘created over night’. However, it is evident that the regeneration on the estate, and some government lead initiatives aimed at tackling social exclusion had brought some benefits, and increased levels of certain forms of social capital to the estate.

5.13 The regeneration resulted in the establishment of a number of community centres and groups on the estate, and in particular, most of the women interviewed suggested that local community groups provided excellent support networks, enabling them to make contact with other women, and provided them with information about benefits, helping them to get by and manage financially. At one community group women helped each other to manage their poverty by swapping second hand and unwanted items such as children’s toys at no extra cost. As Claire (resident, aged 30) said:

We do this thing where everyone brings stuff in that they don’t want and all people go through it. If they want something, they just take it… Someone actually just gave me a bag full of clothes… I know it’s classed as handouts you know but you’re in a routine and there’s no other way of getting anything.
This is an important example of how social capital can help women to manage poverty and it supports arguments made by Kempson (1996) that local community networks in poorer areas can play an important role in providing people with much needed resources.

5.14 New local community groups and centres also provided many women on the estate with education and training opportunities, which are important elements in developing bridging capital. Three-quarters of the women interviewed reported that they had not received a good education at school and most had few, if any, qualifications. Lone parents in particular, often have low levels of education and training, which affects their chances of finding well-paid work (Rowlingson and McKay 2002). Utilising local community and training centres did provide some of the women interviewed with (re)training and education. For instance, Mary (resident, aged 29) had undertaken numerous courses and obtained several qualifications from attending local college courses, which she had been directed to via the estate’s community centre:

We started off thinkin’ about computer graphics… and [then] I started getting’ interested in sciences and so the GCSEs I were sittin’, were Maths, Physics and Chemistry… It were really enlightenin’ and I’d already got two Maths qualifications but it needed upgradin’ to a GCSE… I did the foundation, well the middle, the average… I was told if I didn’t ‘ave as many commitments at home I would ‘ave been better doin’ the advanced one but I plumped to do the foundation and I got two C’s, which was the highest I could get. So I were chuffed with myself.

5.15 Although many of the women were optimistic that training and participation in voluntary work would make them more employable, Helen (resident and community worker, aged 30), said that she had watched many women train and still fail to get a job. In particular, when referring to one woman on the estate she said:

She’s given up hope now. She is doing training but there she is looking at one of the [jobs] you know. She will do training for a year; get some placement work and then what happens after that? Its sort of like setting up people to fail.

5.16 Various factors such as lack of affordable and reliable childcare, domestic labour, lack of support from employers towards motherhood, lack of adequate transport, and the poor reputation of the neighbourhood (and its residents) were reported by the women as barriers to their employment despite them retraining (also seeWarr 2005). Moreover, Cameron and Davoudi (1998) highlight the frequent mismatch between the training of individuals and governmental investment in new business. They suggest training and education often focuses on generic skills rather than those needed by specific industries/occupations, and are not effectively matched to new business opportunities. In terms of social capital (as defined by Putman 1993), communities often continue to lack ‘bridging capital’ — the vertical links they would need with outside groups (such as employers) to enable them to get on and improve their social and economic situation.

5.17 In particular, the New Deal for both young people and lone parents, and local training and community centres, aim to provide education and training for individuals. However, levels of training and education are often limited (Gray 2001) and these do not address wider structural social problems. As Millar (2000) suggests the aim of the New Deal and many community based training initiatives is to find people jobs, rather than focusing on the suitability of those jobs or providing training that will result in improvements to people’s long-term earning or job prospects. This therefore locks many into low paid and insecure employment. Furthermore, this places responsibility (and ultimately accountability) in the hands of individuals, who are required to utilise local resources to help themselves. Though many of the women interviewed were active in utilising local training resources, facilities and networks, these did not enable them to get a job or raise them out of poverty.

5.18 Furthermore, as a consequence of the relocation of many of the residents off the estate to other areas (as a result of the estate’s ongoing regeneration process), the number of people living on the estate fell and those attending community centres and schemes dwindled. As Helen (resident and community worker, aged 30) highlighted:

The [community] centre are worried about volunteers at the moment… because of the decline of the estate and nobody moving on… The numbers are really dwindling and… we are struggling to find volunteers at the moment.

5.19 Though participation in community or voluntary work is highlighted by New Labour as one route to inclusion for those outside of paid employment, (Levitas 1998) the regeneration of the estate had real consequences for the continued viability of many local groups. In particular, the nature of community group funding, meant that groups and centres had to compete against each other for funding (see Mayo 2000). As groups were suffering from dwindling numbers because of residents being moved off the estate, the strength of funding applications for many of these centres was reduced, resulting in the groups losing their funding and many being cancelled. Again, this has a more significant impact and consequence for women who were the main users of these centres, and often relied on these community groups and networks for social interaction, emotional, childcare and financial support.

The Exclusionary Nature of Social Capital

5.20 This paper has already highlighted several key problems with a social capital approach to tackling social exclusion. It is a concept that is often poorly defined in policy, it is difficult to measure, it often lacks specific or targeted goals (such as providing short term and inadequate training), ‘lack’ of social capital is only seen as problematic for the poor, it is a concept that often overlooks gender differences, and ultimately it places responsibility with the socially excluded for overcoming their own exclusion. Further to this, Edwards (2007: 4354) suggests that social capital can be seen to possess a ‘dark side’— ‘marginalizing or confining people on the basis of their ethnicity, gender and age’. Social capital, is by its very nature, exclusionary. In particular, Bourdieu highlights that different forms of social capital operate in different social arenas (or ‘fields’ as Bourdieu refers to them), and also that these are hierarchical. Therefore, social capital is both inclusive and exclusive and some groups and communities will possess more than others. However, the government’s attitude to implementing a social capital approach appears to assume that local communities are inclusive. This tends to be based on an ‘ecological fallacy’, which wrongly assumes that the poor and excluded reside in easily identifiable locations (Pearson and Craig 2001), which can be tackled by local based initiatives.

5.21 Forrest and Kearns (1999) highlight that members of local communities can often be very exclusionary, particularly of people who are viewed as ‘not like them’ or (so called) ‘problem neighbours’. This frequently sees the most socially deprived (such as lone parents) excluded from local social networks and relations. For instance, Polly (resident, aged 57) distinguished between who she viewed as ‘good and ‘bad’ neighbours:

They put this family in and… after three weeks they started… Well daughter were only thirteen and she were on the game… Parents were out everyday and every night boozing and son… stealing cars… Anyway I went down to council, told them, I wrote everything down, they got rid of them for me. They put all problem families like single parents and stuff on this estate.

5.22 Similar findings are reflected in Warr’s (2005: 295) research in Australia, where here, respondents distinguished between those they saw as ‘good’ neighbours, and those who were labelled as ‘no-hopers’ or even ‘ferals’ (i.e. those completely beyond the realms of ‘normal’/‘decent’ society). Residents’ campaigns to have these families moved on may exclude these families further, disrupting their lives, reinforcing their social exclusion and cementing the belief that they are not welcome anywhere. Therefore informal support networks that were helpful to some members may not be available to all residents on an estate.

5.23 Local community centres also provide another illustration of the (potentially) exclusionary nature of ‘community’. In particular, and as suggested earlier, it was primarily (and in some cases solely) women who used and ran community groups and centres. According to Campbell (1993), men are presumed to have closer links to the world of employment and this may make them reluctant to participate in local (often childcare centred) community networks which are presumed to be more closely tied to women. Campbell has been criticised, though, for essentialising women as ‘good’ and men as ‘bad’ (Brownill 2000) and it may be the case that men feel unwelcome in spaces predominantly occupied by women. As illustrated by Claire (resident, aged 30):

It was my idea to actually change the title mother and toddler group to parent and toddler group because there is single men out there with kids and not a lot of people think about ‘em… So I did this poster… In big letters I stated ‘fathers are welcome’… I think what it is they [men] see it as a female thing and they think well men are not going to be welcome… I got one father coming, he came for a few weeks and then he didn’t bother coming again. I don’t know why.

5.24 It is also evident, that although several community groups and centres existed on the estate, they were not used or attended by the majority of residents. In particular, Karen (resident and part-time child care worker, aged 35) said she found the lack of involvement of some women on the estate frustrating, but primarily blamed this on the high turn-over of residents and people often feeling powerless and unable to change their situation:

… it’s down to the high turnover. People comin’ on, they don’t ‘ave time to form friendships and… I’m just going by my personal experience… it is really difficult to get people to be motivated… I think ‘cause a lot of people ‘ave had to fight so hard for the little they’ve got, they just don’t want to bother any more.

5.25 It is also evident that poverty and social exclusion often involves high levels of social stigma and shame, and some of the women interviewed highlighted their embarrassment at seeking help, particularly from more ‘formal’ mechanisms, such as those provided at community centres. For example, Jenny (resident, aged 43) said that due to feeling embarrassed she did not ask for help from friends or family until she was ‘rock bottom’ with no money. Maddock (2005) suggests that policy makers and regeneration planners have the experience of planning and implementing physical urban developments (which can be easily planned and managed), but frequently have little understanding of the far more complex and long-term process, of building the confidence and skills that local people need to fully participate in this process. Maddock suggests that the aim of developing social capital is included in policy documents as only a ‘theory’, and there is little understanding or planning of how this might be achieved. As she writes: ‘in reality social and human capital development is seen as a local and community concern ignored by those involved in “master planning” who pay little “lip service” to the interests of local people or to the time it takes to build local relationships, especially in areas of conflict’ (Maddock 2005: 129).

5.26 New Labour’s approach assumes that social capital is created by active individuals, but does not recognise the social constraints that individuals face that restrict their access to resources (Cleaver 2002). This approach can therefore mean inclusion for some and exclusion for others who may not have the same access to quality social networks and relations. Again, this is also gendered as though it is frequently women who are more active within their communities; it is also women who are often the most socially isolated and excluded. In particular, women are over represented as lone parents and single older people, but also as those suffering from depression and domestic violence are more likely to withdraw from public life (Warr 2005).

5.27 It is apparent that the government has started to recognise certain problems and limitations with a community focused approach to social exclusion. In particular, the government to some extent, now recognise that local communities consist of overlapping social networks and therefore seek to include identifiable group interests through ‘mainstreaming’ (Jones 2003). However, simply shifting focus from including representatives of a local community to representatives from local identifiable groups within that community (such as women and Black and Minority Ethnic groups) does not necessarily lead to greater empowerment. As Jones (2003: 589) suggests, even in light of mainstreaming, power and planning continues to be controlled by ‘those already best placed to manipulate discourses for their own ends’, such as the government and policy makers. Hence, once again, it is unlikely that simply devolving responsibility, rather than real social power, to identifiable community groups will provide the resources needed to establish bridging capital and prove an effective mechanism for combating social exclusion.


6.1 It is evident that for many of the women interviewed in this research, social capital was very important as it helped them to cope with the daily pressures of living in poverty, such as providing them with emotional and financial support, a sense of safety and security and informal childcare. It is also evident that many of the women on the estate utilised more ‘formal’ social networks and community resources, such as local community centres, and educational and training opportunities. Many of these women did not lack all forms of social networks and were not passive victims or creators of their own poverty, but did all that they could to cope and get by. What New Labour policy seems to assume is that poor neighbourhoods and individuals lack social capital, when the roots of their social exclusion could be found much more readily and easily in their socioeconomic disadvantage (Warr 2005). Hence, simply emphasising the need to build social capital, something that the women in this research already possessed, may simply enable women to ‘get by’ rather than ‘get on’ and escape poverty.

6.2 In addition the research highlights the ambiguous and exclusionary nature of social capital. Some women on the estate did not participate in community life to the same extent as others and some were excluded by other members of the community, such as those deemed ‘problem families’. Therefore some individuals found themselves excluded from local community networks and groups, illustrating that simply building up a community’s social capital does not necessarily guarantee that all members of a community have access to it.

6.3 Both functionalist and governmental approaches appear to assume that simply increasing communities’ or individuals’ social capital will help counter and combat social decay/exclusion. However, there is little understanding of what can be achieved in real terms by increasing social capital. Viewing social capital as a resource that poor communities’ lack and need to access may devolve responsibility for tackling social problems, such as poverty, to the community without considering societal power relations. This approach also does not consider the extent to which poor people may be structurally excluded from access to social capital by social institutions and policy and practice. Therefore an understanding of social capital needs to be located within a wider consideration of other (structuring) forms of capital, such as economic and cultural, and hence therefore equated more to its usage by Bourdieu than that of Putman (and others).

6.4 Finally, what is also needed is a gendered understanding of capital, to ensure that the potential benefits of differential types of social capital (both bonding and bridging) and other forms of capital, for both women and men are fully explored. It is important that women’s and men’s differential access to different types of capital are examined to assess the role of social capital in enabling people to get on. We therefore need to work towards both a theoretical and policy understanding of social capital that recognises the differences between men’s and women’s social relationships and experiences. We require solutions that do not place responsibility, and hence blame, on local communities, as this has particular implications for women who are most closely tied to their local communities. Because of this close relationship it is most likely that women are the ones to take responsibility for creating and sustaining social capital within communities. Hence, if such policies fail, blame can easily be placed on women and their communities for this failure. Gaining an understanding of the benefits and uses of different types of social capital for women is a positive starting point, but action also needs to be taken that addresses and reduces the barriers that prevent women from accessing the kind of social capital that will enable them to get on and not simply get by.


1 New Labour refers to the modernised British Labour Party which shed it historic left-wing commitment to the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange with the abolition of clause IV under the leadership of Tony Blair from 1994. The party was elected to government in 1997 and has maintained leadership in successive elections in 2001 and 2005 (see Powell 1999). The party advocates a ‘third way’ in British politics which draws on both left and right political ideologies but at the same time claims to provide a new political direction and agenda. This involves a move away from the ‘old left’ ideologies of ‘state control, high taxation and producer interests’ and also a move away from the New Right’s treatment of ‘public investment, and often the very notions of ‘society’ and collective endeavour, as ‘evils’ to be undone’ (Jones 2000:198).

2‘…’ represents missing text.


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