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Conceptualising social capital for health promotion in small local communities : a micro-qualitative study

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This paper reports on a micro-qualitative case study of peoples’ experiences of local community life in a south east English town. This material is used as the basis for a critical discussion of the suitability of Putnam’s notion of social capital as a conceptual tool for the design and evaluation of ‘community strengthening’ policies and interventions. The study was motivated by a concern that too much debate about social capital has been conducted by academics and policy-makers in a top-down manner, with inadequate attention to the realities of life in the local communities that they refer to. Three-hour semi-structured interviews were conducted with 37 residents in two less affluent wards in our town of interest. Informants - half men and half women, and spread across the 15-75 age group - were encouraged to talk about their personal experiences of local community life. Interview findings are presented within the 'norm' categories of trust, neighbourliness and reciprocal help and support, and the 'network' categories of participation in informal networks, voluntary groupings and community activist groupings. Our case study points to a number of ways in which Putnam's concept needs to be refined if it is to inform 'community strengthening' policies and interventions in England. Far more notice needs to be taken of the role played by informal networks of friends and neighbours in the construction of local community life. Attention also needs to be given to the complex and shifting geographical spread of peoples’ significant social networks. Putnam’s conceptualisation of cohesive local communities and his unitary notions of trust and local identity may also be unduly essentialist. In our particular communities of interest, they failed to capture the fluidity of local community norms and networks in a rapidly changing society. They also failed to do justice to the extent to which social distinctions – such as age, gender, ethnicity and housing tenure - shape and constrain the way in which people create, sustain and access social capital.

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