Civic Involvement in Deprived Communities

Profile picture of Franco Bonomi Bezzo Profile picture of Anne-Marie Jeannet

Franco Bonomi Bezzo and Anne-Marie Jeannet, from the University of Milan, share their research looking at the role voluntary & civic organisations have in deprived communities.

The significance of voluntary associations cannot be overstated. Civic entities like neighbourhood watch groups, parent-teacher associations, service clubs, environmental conservation groups, sports clubs, recreational associations, and cultural organisations play a central role in enriching social connections, cultivating trust and cooperation, empowering residents, addressing local issues, and fortifying community resilience.

These collective efforts not only contribute to a sense of belonging but also elevate the overall well-being of residents, offering opportunities for positive change within the neighbourhood. However, studies (e.g. Lim & Laurence, Jahoda & Zeisel and Bakke) have identified a concerning trend of reduced participation in voluntary associations within deprived communities.

To address this disparity, policymakers must first grasp the dynamics that underpin a robust civic life. This understanding serves as the focal point of our recent study, ‘Civic Involvement in Deprived Communities: A Longitudinal Study of England‘. By delving into the factors influencing civic engagement in less affluent areas, we aim to shed light on the mechanisms that can potentially elevate participation and foster a more vibrant civic life in these communities.

Given this context, it prompts the question: why is neighbourhood deprivation likely to influence participation in voluntary associations? In our research, we pinpoint three mechanisms by which material deprivation can play a crucial role in shaping an individual’s involvement in voluntary associations.

Despite our current residence and work engagements in Europe, the Understanding Society survey stands out as an invaluable resource for us to answer these questions, due to its unparalleled quality and depth in survey data, making it a unique and indispensable tool for our research endeavours. Consequently, we continue to actively utilise it in various projects that span a wide range of domains.

Understanding Society, tracks the life trajectories of individuals in the United Kingdom over an extended period. This approach enables us to examine the civic participation of the same individuals, even as they relocate to various places and experience changes in their neighbourhood conditions.

We distinguish three different forms of voluntary associationism: civic, political, and work. The political category pertains to active membership in political parties, while work involves participation in trade unions and/or professional organisations. Civic associations, on the other hand, exhibit a more grassroots, locally organised, and flexible structure, often revolving around leisure activities, mutual aid, shared experiences, the pursuit of public goods, or the resolution of community challenges.

Our investigation reveals consistently lower rates of active membership in voluntary associations in more deprived neighbourhoods, particularly evident in civic and work associations. Intriguingly, a positive correlation exists between neighbourhood deprivation and participation in political associations.

We propose three motivations for involvement in voluntary associations, each linked to mechanisms through which material deprivation may influence participation.

Firstly, individuals join such groups to establish social connections, and residents in deprived neighbourhoods may experience greater social isolation and weaker neighbourhood attachment, discouraging investment of time and energy in participation.

Secondly, participation may stem from a sense of obligation, and residents in deprived areas may perceive less normative pressure to engage in associations based on social obligations prevalent in more affluent communities. Moreover, the social norms in deprived neighbourhoods may differ significantly from broader societal norms, potentially discouraging participation and fostering reluctance among individuals who adhere to societal norms. This discrepancy can result in reduced civic engagement, as individuals may feel excluded or marginalised.

Conversely, living in a deprived context might spur greater participation as a defensive response to improve circumstances. Individuals in deprived areas may join associations as a means of addressing societal issues, turning membership into a defensive process.

Our research quantifies and tests these mechanisms, highlighting the impact of material deprivation on participation in various association forms. We find that social isolation in deprived neighbourhoods strongly reduces participation, emphasising the role of social cohesion in civic and political membership.

Cultural influences are evident, as neighbourhood deprivation diminishes norms of civic obligation, reducing the inclination for engagement. Interestingly, our findings reveal a positive association between deprivation and participation in political associations, suggesting that collective deprivation may redirect energy towards associations dedicated to societal change.

The dual challenge confronting individuals in deprived neighbourhoods extends beyond economic struggles to encompass profound social disadvantages. The scarcity of resources in these communities intensifies the importance of recognising and harnessing the potential benefits offered by voluntary associations, even in the face of their relatively lower prevalence. This paradox underscores the intricate role that these social activities can play in cultivating community well-being within contexts of material deprivation.

Economically, individuals in deprived neighbourhoods contend with financial constraints that limit their access to essential resources and opportunities. This economic hardship compounds the difficulties they face in meeting basic needs, obtaining quality education, and securing stable employment. Consequently, the residents find themselves ensnared in a cycle of disadvantage, where economic vulnerabilities contribute to a myriad of challenges that perpetuate and exacerbate their social struggles.

Socially, individuals in these neighbourhoods grapple with the pervasive effects of isolation, marginalisation, and weakened community bonds. The limited access to resources and opportunities fosters an environment where social cohesion becomes increasingly elusive. Residents may face barriers to social integration, leading to fractured community ties and a diminished sense of collective identity. The resulting social fragmentation can contribute to heightened stress, mental health issues, and a lack of communal support systems.

In the face of these intertwined economic and social challenges, voluntary associations emerge as potential catalysts for positive change. While the prevalence of such associations might be lower in deprived neighbourhoods, their significance becomes magnified precisely due to the scarcity of resources. Voluntary associations can act as vital conduits for resource-sharing, knowledge transfer, and mutual support among community members.

Moreover, these associations serve as platforms for collective empowerment, enabling residents to address common issues, advocate for their needs, and amplify their voices in the broader societal context. By fostering a sense of belonging, social trust, and shared purpose, voluntary associations contribute to the creation of resilient and interconnected communities.

However, the lower prevalence of voluntary associations in deprived neighbourhoods amplifies the challenge of leveraging their potential benefits. The paradox lies in recognising the essential role these social activities play in fostering community well-being while simultaneously acknowledging the barriers that may hinder their establishment and growth in resource-deprived environments.

Addressing this paradox necessitates a multifaceted approach, involving targeted community development initiatives, resource mobilisation efforts, and the creation of supportive frameworks to encourage the formation and sustainability of voluntary associations. By understanding the intricate dynamics at play and acknowledging the resilience inherent in deprived communities, policymakers, community leaders, and residents alike can work collaboratively to unlock the transformative potential of voluntary associations and pave the way for holistic community development in the face of material deprivation.

About the authors

Franco Bonomi Bezzo is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Milan and Research affiliate at the French national institute of demography (INED) and at the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town. Franco’s research focuses on the analysis of socio-cultural determinants of inequality at the meso-level. He studies how the physical and cultural context in which individuals are embedded in shape their opportunities across the life-course. Franco has investigated this theme by looking specifically at neighbourhoods, communities, and cultural norms as meso-level determinants of inequality.

Anne-Marie Jeannet is the principal investigator of  “Deindustrializing Societies and the Political Consequences” (DESPO), a project funded by an ERC Starting Grant (2020-2025). She is associate professor of sociology at the University of  Milan where she studies how changes in the social structure, such as deindustrialization or immigration, alter political life. She is interested in how the public perceives these social phenomena and the role of the socio-political context in shaping the public’s response to these occurrences.

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