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Franco Bonomi Bezzo and Anne-Marie Jeannet outline the findings of their recent study, which looks at the relationship between the deprivation of an area and participation in voluntary associations.

Why are voluntary associations important? Civic associations such as neighbourhood watch groups, parent-teacher associations, service clubs, environmental conservation groups, sports clubs, recreational associations, and cultural organisations contribute to enhancing social connections, fostering trust and cooperation, empowering residents, addressing local issues, and strengthening community resilience. These resources contribute to a sense of belonging, improve the overall well-being of residents, and create opportunities for positive change within the neighbourhood.

But studies have found lower participation in voluntary associations in deprived communities. If policymakers want to change this, it is first necessary to understand what brings a rich civic life about. This is the aim of our study ‘Civic involvement in deprived communities: A longitudinal study of England’ published recently in the British Journal of Sociology.

We use data from Understanding Society, a long-standing project which follows the lives of the same people in the United Kingdom over a long period of time. By doing so, we were able to study the same people and their civic participation even when they move to different places and their neighbourhood conditions change.

So, why might we expect neighbourhood deprivation to matter when it comes to participating in voluntary associations? In our research, we identify three mechanisms through which material deprivation can determine individual participation in voluntary associations.

We separate voluntary associations into three categories: civic, political and work. Political refers to whether a person is an active member of a political party or not. Work indicates a person is an active member of a trade union and/or professional organisation. Civic associations are more bottom-up, locally organised and flexible in structure. They frequently relate to leisure activities or have the aim of helping others, sharing common experiences, achieving a public good or solving a community problem.

We find that active membership rates in voluntary associations are consistently lower in more deprived neighbourhoods (as shown in the table below). This is especially the case for the civic and work associations. However, we do find a positive association between neighbourhood deprivation and participation in political associations.

Table of results showing that active membership rates in voluntary associations are consistently lower in more deprived neighbourhoods.

We posit three motivations for participating in voluntary associations and corresponding mechanisms through which material deprivation might impact participation.

First, individuals participate in voluntary associations because they desire to socially connect with others. On this account, residents in more deprived neighbourhoods are more socially isolated and less attached to their neighbourhood.  As participation requires an investment of time and energy, individuals may be less likely to invest these finite resources if they feel less connected to those around them.

Second, some people participate in various associations because they feel they ought to. On this account, residents of deprived areas may feel less normative pressure to participate in associations out of social obligation. In more well-to-do neighbourhoods, individuals can feel a duty to participate based on the expectations of their community.

We can think of an example of a neighbourhood that has a long-standing tradition of organising an annual charity event to raise funds for the local hospital. Many community members may feel a sense of obligation to participate in the event due to the social norm that emphasises the importance of supporting the hospital and the expectation that everyone should contribute.

Yet more deprived neighbourhoods have social norms which can diverge from the mainstream social norms in the broader society. These divergent social norms can discourage individuals from actively participating in community activities and engaging in civic life. If the prevailing norms in a neighbourhood deviate significantly from the broader societal norms, individuals who adhere to the societal norms of participating in voluntary associations may feel excluded or marginalised. This can lead to a reluctance to participate in community events, volunteer work, or collective initiatives, reducing overall civic engagement.

Finally, there is another perspective under which living in a more deprived context can, conversely, induce people to greater participation in order to improve their circumstances. This suggests that individuals join associations as a response to their discontent with ongoing societal problems, using membership in civic organisations as a means to address these issues. On this account, membership can be a defensive process, since participation in organisations can help members to solve their problems.

In our paper, we quantify and test the mechanisms outlined above which we suggest connect individual experiences of material deprivation and propensity to participate in different forms of associations.

Our results indicate that the social isolation that commonly occurs in deprived neighbourhoods is a strong mechanism for reducing participation. Social cohering plays a large positive role on civic and political membership, suggesting that the more people feel attached to their community, the more likely they are to participate in local associations as well as national ones such as political parties and trade unions.

We also confirm a cultural influence on civic participation. Our study finds that neighbourhood deprivation depresses norms of civic obligation which, in turn, lowers the propensity for engagement. Weaker norms about civic participation being the ‘right’ thing to do alter the incentive structure for participating. As there are fewer perceived social benefits from this behaviour, people are less likely to see value in such activities.

Interestingly, our findings show that experiencing deprivation can also be positively associated with some forms of membership. As mentioned above and shown in the table, we only find a positive direct association with neighbourhood deprivation for participation in political associations and not for the other types. This is important because it demonstrates that neighbourhood deprivation simultaneously exerts competing forces on the participation of its residents.

One possible explanation for this pattern is that when individuals live in an environment of collective deprivation, they spend more energy in forms of associationism which are dedicated to societal change and less in forms which are related to hobbies, leisure, or socialising.

Finally, we find that when it comes to the benefits of neighbourhood social life, people already experiencing material lack are doubly disadvantaged; both by their experience of individual economic hardship but also by the fact that individuals living in less cohesive areas are less civically involved and this produces further disadvantage since civic involvement builds social cohesion.

Communities that have scarce resources are those that would benefit the most from voluntary associations, although, in contrast, these are the places where these social activities tend to be less frequent.

By Franco Bonomi Bezzo, Research Fellow, and Dr Anne-Marie Jeannet, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Milan.

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