‘Social participation comprises three dimensions: neighbouring, trust, and interest in politics.’
This comes from a chapter of early findings from the ESRC’s Understanding society programme (the new household longitudinal study, described as ‘the world’s largest household panel survey’). The sentence is regarded as sufficiently important to be given a large-font margin box all of its own, so they must have meant it.
It’s certainly different. Those who construct these large national surveys have to make a few questions go a long way, which ain’t easy; but it’s quite hard to see how you could get to this 3D reduction from the mix of concepts covered for example in this mindmap which I knocked up a few years ago. And we need the survey makers to get their structures right because they will set in train a whole lot of subsequent research, policy and practice for years to come.
We can compare and contrast the Understanding Society framework with, for instance, the framework offered in the recent Pathways through participation report. Distinguishing social, public and individual participation, the PtP summary report suggests that social participation includes
'being involved in formal voluntary organisations, informal or grassroots community groups, and formal and informal mutual aid and self help.'
The PtP project put a lot of intellectual effort into the topic, and the tag cloud on their site boasts an enticing array of terms; but I don’t see the words ‘neighbouring’ or ‘trust’. There are just two items for ‘politics’.
So here we have two national level initiatives offering quite different frameworks for a concept that affects all of us and has increasing salience in policy. The Pathways approach is more thorough and altogether more convincing, but unfortunately the Understanding Society approach is likely to have influence for some time as the next waves of data build up and get used.
In their effort to explain their framework, the Understanding Society authors trip themselves up quite quickly:
‘Neighbouring captures informal social participation, while general trust and interest in politics capture participation in formal organisations.’
Well no, they don’t, not by a long way. I’m not an academic so I don’t know what the protocol is, but I suspect that if this was an undergraduate essay you’d send them off to start again.