Social Capital at Work? The Role of Community-based Organisations in Deprived Urban Neighbourhoods in the Facilitation of Social Capital

  • Susanne Martikke

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis is a mixed-methods ethnographic study of social capital at two community-based voluntary organisations in two deprived urban neighbourhoods. It investigates whether these organisations play a role in facilitating social capital, how this is achieved and what the nature of this social capital is. These questions are important, because voluntary organisations have traditionally been associated with trust and community cohesion and hence social capital. They have also been seen as ideal settings to explore the formation of relationships outside of non-voluntary contexts, such as family, work and education. Nevertheless, this thesis argues that there are significant gaps in the literature with regard to how exactly voluntary organisations contribute to social capital. Instead of looking at organisations as entities and actors in their own right, as is often the case in traditional voluntary sector studies and indeed in much of the social capital literature, this study conceptualises organisations as settings for social relations to form and evolve. In this way, the thesis heeds the call for paying more attention to the processes involved in the creation of social capital and shifts the gaze away from only seeing the organisation as it presents itself to the outside world towards also seeing it as a function of the social relationships within it. The focus in this thesis are the relationships themselves, i.e. the social capital that is implicated in the everyday life of voluntary organisations and how it is shaped by structural, organisational and individual factors. The study investigates three different aspects of participation, i.e. entering the organisation; doing with others in the organisation; and the effects this has on the individuals involved and, indirectly, the community-at-large. In addition, it looks at different types of actors, e.g. volunteers, users and staff, taking note of individual and group processes. In doing so, the study delves deep into the processes and mechanisms at work in these settings, challenging the idea that voluntary organisations may be used as straightforward indicators for the existence of certain types of social capital. It shows that the social capital definition put forward by Putnam in Bowling Alone, despite the importance it allocates to voluntary organisations, is on its own not suitable for capturing the complexity of everyday relations at these organisations. The study also shows the importance of spatial organisational characteristics and hence a factor that has previously not been addressed in connection with social capital. Finally, it highlights the importance of culture in shaping voluntary organisations’ role in social capital relations. In examining the interplay between structural, organisational and individual factors, this thesis shows that although voluntary organisations are subject to the same structural constraints that are present in society-at-large, they do have some agency to create a more inclusive environment when it comes to shaping how people engage with and participate in them, leading to modest examples of social mobility.
Date of Award1 Aug 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorSue Heath (Supervisor) & Alice Bloch (Supervisor)


  • ethnography
  • mixed methods
  • social network analysis
  • voluntary organisations
  • communities
  • social capital
  • volunteering

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