What does ‘social connectedness’ mean?

Spirit of 2012 has funded projects across the UK with the goal of increasing social connectedness. Here Renaisi's consultancy team explain the importance of having a shared language and definition, before exploring the definition they feel best describes the outcomes achieved by Spirit of 2012's social connectedness projects.

Language used for this concept

The language around the topic of social connectedness varies extensively, and there is no universally agreed definition to the term.

Academics and policy stakeholders use concepts such as ‘social or community cohesion / connection / integration’, as well as ‘social capital’. Some community organisations find more informal language such as ‘coming together,’ ‘fun and friendships,’ or ‘building trust’ to be more accessible for participants.

A crowd of people wearing hi-vis jackets, holding banners and streamers.
Image courtesy of Spirit of 2012.

Challenges arising from unclear language

Across our work, we have found a lack of shared language creates challenges. In this case, a lack of shared language around the concept of social connectedness could lead to:

Projects that have been commissioned to achieve the same goal (e.g. ‘improving social connectedness’) may seek different outcomes. These different outcomes can lead to varying indicators being used to measure social connectedness.

For example, if one project finds that pride in the community has risen, while another reports a decrease in social isolation, it might be confusing to claim that both have ‘improved social connectedness’ without further clarity on these different outcomes.

This makes comparing projects and drawing rigorous conclusions significantly more difficult.

Projects may vary their definition of social connectedness over time, leading to different outcomes and indicators used over the course of project delivery.

This makes it difficult to determine long-term impact.

Projects may find themselves talking past each other due to a lack of common understanding. For example, projects may find themselves discussing quite different outcomes when referring to social connectedness delivery.

This can lead to missed opportunities to share best practice and improve delivery over the course of the project because of the lack of clarity around specific aims.

Due to the difficulties in defining and measuring social connectedness, it may be deprioritised as an outcome compared to more tangible concepts such as improved wellbeing. For example, projects may simply conflate social connectedness with wellbeing outcomes related to loneliness and isolation. This can lead to social connectedness becoming an afterthought rather than a core part of project design and delivery, hindering the potential for achieving impact.

A group of Olympics volunteers wearing their blue jackets and lanyards. The woman at the front has pink hair.
Image courtesy of Spirit of 2012.

A new definition of social connectedness

Through learning from Spirit-funded projects in this area, and encountering first-hand of the challenges presented when trying to understand this concept, we have crafted a definition that includes three levels of social connectedness.

This definition is partly based upon Social Capital theory, distinguishing bonding social capital (social networks between homogeneous groups of people) and bridging social capital (social networks between socially heterogeneous groups). (Putnam, Robert, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community).

This interpretation of ‘the same community’ assumes that most groups are not homogenous but are united by at least one common characteristic. The definition is also partially based on Contact Hypothesis, (Allport, Gordon, The Nature of Prejudice, 1954.) which suggests that inter-community connectedness is facilitated through different groups coming into contact, which reduces prejudice and conflict.

Why this definition?

The benefits of this multi-tiered definition are numerous:

  1. The different levels capture the multitude of varying outcomes observed across Spirit projects. For example, the definition is broad enough to include outcomes around inter-community conflict, pride of place, and reduced social isolation.
  2. Rather than simply labelling these varying outcomes all as ‘social connectedness’, which would likely lead to confusion, the three levels included in Spirit’s definition help in articulating the differences between these outcomes.
  3. It addresses the problems cited earlier because comparisons can be drawn between different projects and learning can be shared on what works well in achieving and measuring these different social connectedness outcomes.
  4. This clarity can also make a messy concept seem easier to prioritise in project delivery.

What are the benefits of a shared definition?

Deciding on a shared definition of ‘social connectedness’ within one funder across multiple projects is hard enough. Is it possible to create a shared definition across funders and sectors? Is this even desirable?

It would not be easy but the benefits of having a common understanding – increased clarity in terms of outcomes and indicators, enhanced learning across projects and sectors, and ensuring that social connectedness is not deprioritised in delivery – surely outweigh the difficulty of arriving at a common understanding and will ultimately enable communities and individuals to feel more connected to each other.

How does this definition fit with your social connectedness work? Does it help you to describe your outcomes? If not, what’s missing? Let us know what you think.

Laura Dunbar Research Consultant

Drawing on our extensive learning from community and place-based initiatives, Renaisi has supported Spirit of 2012 to learn about their funding. The social connectedness report is one of three written in the past year, with the others on wellbeing and changing perceptions of disability.

Visit the Spirit of 2012 website to read more.