Fuzzy edges of social capital: the migration–mobility nexus through the lens of a local third sector organisation

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  • 1 University of Central Lancashire, , UK
  • | 2 Newcastle University, , UK
  • | 3 International British Business School, , UK
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Since the 2015 migration crisis, third sector organisations’ (TSOs’) involvement in delivering various social, humanitarian, political and cultural services to incoming populations has increased. The recent challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have not only intensified insecurity around economics and personal and communal safety, but also disproportionately affected vulnerable communities, movers and non-movers. By assuming human mobility as a structural feature of contemporary times, our intention in this article is to take a closer look at migrant TSOs to observe how social capital is generated and becomes available to individuals. Our aim is to elaborate on various dimensions of migration, social capital and the third sector, as at their intersection lies a synergy that is hardly ever explored. We appraise current literature and analytical tools to capture the role of TSOs in supporting the inclusion of migrants/movers, examine the intersection between migration, TSOs and social capital and, relatedly, consider the role of TSOs in effecting positive social change.

Abstract

Since the 2015 migration crisis, third sector organisations’ (TSOs’) involvement in delivering various social, humanitarian, political and cultural services to incoming populations has increased. The recent challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have not only intensified insecurity around economics and personal and communal safety, but also disproportionately affected vulnerable communities, movers and non-movers. By assuming human mobility as a structural feature of contemporary times, our intention in this article is to take a closer look at migrant TSOs to observe how social capital is generated and becomes available to individuals. Our aim is to elaborate on various dimensions of migration, social capital and the third sector, as at their intersection lies a synergy that is hardly ever explored. We appraise current literature and analytical tools to capture the role of TSOs in supporting the inclusion of migrants/movers, examine the intersection between migration, TSOs and social capital and, relatedly, consider the role of TSOs in effecting positive social change.

Introduction

The 2015 migration crisis has seen third sector organisations (TSOs) increasingly deliver various social, political and cultural services to incoming people (Dacin et al, 2011; Morgan, 2015). Furthermore, the recent challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have not only intensified insecurity around economics, food, health, the environment and personal and communal safety, but also disproportionately affected vulnerable communities, movers and non-movers,1 inducing governments to reconsider the terms of inclusion within the national community (see Stavrinou, 2020). Many TSOs have formed a central response at the community level, providing services and support that in the past might have been expected from the state. Indeed this model has been actively promoted through different governments, such as New Labour and its promotion of the Third Way or via the Localism Act 2011 of the coalition government. Inherent within the concept of ‘localism’ is that it is ‘something with uniformly positive force’ (Featherstone et al, 2012: 180). Yet critical approaches suggest that localism has taken a punitive turn. This has been revealed by the restrictive nature of successive welfare reforms, masked through a commitment to localism, and the increasing state retrenchment from its role as welfare provider (Featherstone et al, 2012; Dagdeviren et al, 2019). We situate our study within the space of the reduced state. While the wider context for our study is one of austerity localism (Featherstone et al, 2012), that is not the central focus of our inquiry. The aim of this article is to examine the intersections between the third sector, migration and social capital. As we set off, we wish to clarify that the lack of consensus on the definition of the third or voluntary sector (DeVerteuil, 2017; Mayblin and James, 2019), due to the composite nature of the entities that constitute it, hampers researchers’ endeavours to find a uniform approach to study migrant and refugee organisations (Mayblin and James, 2019).

There is clear growing interest in the role of migrant TSOs and their contribution in different realms, including development, health sciences, political science and the social sciences. This is evidenced in a range of studies, including those focusing on a ‘network of support’ for new migrant communities settling in peripheral towns of the United Kingdom (UK) (MacKenzie et al, 2012), the ‘immigrant-serving third sector’ mitigating the inequalities of post-welfare cities (DeVertuil, 2017), the tensions between migrant organisations and civil society in specific contexts, such as Sweden (Odmalm, 2004), or the recent collective efforts to examine forms of migrant solidarities and social movements (Della Porta and Steinhilper, 2020). On closer inspection, bringing together this broad variety of interests seems fraught with difficulties due to the lack of consistency in categorisation or systematic comparison. The same applies to the definition of social capital. Although social capital is held as an ingredient that can enhance individual and collective wellbeing, there is not an agreed definition to date (Fine, 2010). Studies are wide-ranging and examine poverty alleviation, labour market integration, the role of bridging/bonding networks, social exclusion, health and wellbeing, to cite just a few (see Fine, 2010; Garkisch et al, 2017). TSOs and wider social economy organisations (Moulaert and Ailenei, 2005) have been key in reaching out to vulnerable groups, movers and non-movers, during critical societal moments, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic or the 2015 migration crisis, helping to alleviate adverse conditions. Nonetheless, a seamless translation across disciplines is still out of reach. Additionally, important components of social capital may be lost due to the controversial nature and epistemology of social capital (Kapferer et al, 2017). This article sheds light on elements that cut across a specific migrant TSO microcosm, considering it not a causal argument, but a space of enactment. By integrating scholarship addressing migrant organisation and solidarity networks, as well as social capital and the third sector, we argue that migrant TSOs play a crucial role in building a stable and cohesive society and should be considered as such by the state, with broader social and political implications.

Context for the study: the UK and the emergence of the ‘hostile environment’

Since 2012 it has been an explicit aim of the UK government’s migration policy to create a ‘hostile environment’ for anybody unable to demonstrate their migration status on demand (Kirkup and Winnett, 2012; Jones et al, 2017). From the ‘Go Home’ vans driven through ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, to passport checks in hospitals and schools, the government has worked to create a climate of hostility, passing off social problems as the responsibility of individuals rather than recognising the structural causes and consequences of poverty and social exclusion. Further, focusing state intervention on individual self-improvement has served to criminalise and impoverish those who may find themselves without status (Jones et al, 2017). To give a more precise idea of the environment in which migrant TSOs operate, successive UK governments over the past two decades have sought to decrease the number of people on the move; this has meant restricting the welfare and working rights of movers in order to reduce economic ‘pull factors’ (for example, ending the free movement of EU workers and introducing a point-based immigration system as a result of Brexit). Moreover, a series of legislative Acts2 have been passed, to the detriment of asylum seekers, to remove or restrict their access to the labour market while also moving them out of the mainstream welfare system. The Acts have also steadily decreased available levels of financial support. As a result, people are liable to become destitute while in the asylum system and after being granted leave to remain (in legal terms this translates into a ‘refugee status’, which is currently only five years’ leave to remain) (Mayblin and James, 2019). Controlling access to formal citizenship as well as social services constitutes a significant tool within the armoury of the state’s migration governance, yet there are examples in the UK and across the globe of groups and individuals joining forces to disrupt states’ formal citizenship agenda on the grounds of universal human rights. From the UK City of Sanctuary movement’s mobilising tactics of taking sanctuary rather than seeking sanctuary, to Toronto’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ campaign and New York’s ‘Right to the City’ initiative, we can see social capital at play where, not only new forms of interaction are practised, but also a shift in ideas around community, knowledge, norms and trust has evolved.

In this article we investigate a specific migrant TSO in London within the context of a hostile environment to examine the way in which social capital circulates among users of the service and the benefits, if any, that it brings to both individuals and communities. The vagueness of the social capital conceptualisation and the lack of systematic dialogue across disciplines have not been fully explored. For these reasons we focus on the links between migrant TSOs and social capital and observe how TSOs provide support at the grassroots level, creating networks in places where the state cannot reach. Aware of the diversity of civil society associations, which represent a wide range of interests and ties (for example, community-based organisations, indigenous people’s organisations and other non-governmental organisations, to name a few; see Anheier, 2005), we recognise that the lack of uniformity across disciplines has resulted in incongruities that hinder comparison (Della Porta and Steinhilper, 2020). The same holds true for the conceptualisation of social capital. Social scientists study social capital in almost all subject fields and ‘in its ambiguity, it seems to serve as a useful theoretical place-holder. Ubiquity, however, does not equal theoretical consistency’ (Moody and White, 2003: 107). Instead of describing social capital as a sizeable ‘thing’, we show how it is an ongoing, non-linear process whose key operational categories need to be revised. Moreover, the links between third sector organisations, migration and social capital are rarely examined together, especially as they are experienced ‘from below’. We take these lacunae as a starting point and through a bottom-up qualitative approach we gather rich data to add to the broader theoretical debate (Mayblin and James, 2019; Della Porta and Steinhilper, 2020).

Positive connections between social actors are considered a normal condition of society, whereas the absence of cohesion or a degree of common values is undesirable as it may lead to conflict (Durkheim, 1984 [1893]). It is therefore of little surprise that social capital features heavily in government policies and ensuing strategies related to social cohesion and community building (CJD Eutin, 2007). Policy makers use the concept of ‘integration’ in the broadest sense without necessarily understanding the intricacies involved, not least that it assumes integration into a cohesive society whereas societies are typically stratified and complex (Anthias, 2013). Integration can emphasise differences at the expense of commonalities, creating boundaries of inclusion and exclusion that are ‘underpinned by binary and essentialised constructions of these very divisions’ (Anthias, 2013: 324). As Kindler et al (2015) point out, policy makers attempt to nurture bridging social capital via direct integration-oriented policy intervention at the local level, without fully appreciating that bonding social capital is a prerequisite to achieving bridging social capital. In so doing, an implicit assumption is that social capital is achievable by an external stimulus, that it can be mobilised at will and so is less of an organic process.

In the early 1990s, some scholars noted that government could not, on its own, solve the array of social and environmental problems it was presented with. By working in partnership with the third sector, though, it could fulfil a range of roles and address manifold issues (Milbourne, 2013). Many critiques have been made of an alleged relocation of power away from government as part of this process, but it is often recognised that this is more of a foil for the retreat of the state (Jacobs and Manzi, 2013; Dagdeviren et al, 2019). Third sector organisations, which include a diversity of associations around which civil society voluntarily organises itself, represent a wide range of interests and ties and can help to build social capital. This is an active intent of austerity localism, as it seeks to empower communities, among other objectives (Clayton et al, 2016), although the impact of this has been widely questioned (for a fuller discussion, see Dagdeviren et al, 2019). With regard to migrant TSOs, elements additional to this policy and funding context intervene to complicate the picture: structural constraints, including the positionality of staff and clientele (for example, migrant-led or pro-migrant), the repertoire of practices (informal self-help groups or formal service provision), frames and orientations, as well as the axes of social stratification that cut across the social fabric (citizenship/legal status, language barriers, gender and race/ethnicity, to name a few), need to be taken into account to provide a thorough picture of dynamics (drivers/obstacles). Caution regarding dynamics at play is recommended since ‘[t]he devolution of power promised by austerity localism does not, by design, increase opportunities for the empowerment of those facing hardship. Its refusal to deal with locally based inequalities and power asymmetries means that it inherently favours “those with the resources, expertise and social capital to become involved in the provision of services and facilities”, and thus embodies a “middle-class voluntarism” which is especially problematic for deprived areas’ (Featherstone et al, 2012: 178–9 cited in Dagdeviren et al, 2019: 47).

Countless TSO organisations in the UK and elsewhere provide vital support and advice to vulnerable residents, movers and non-movers, and have played an essential role in places where government structures were inadequate to accommodate the diverse needs of newly arrived populations (McAreavey, 2012; Garkisch et al, 2017; Mayblin and James, 2019). They have been important actors in bridging local communities and migrants, creating opportunities for exchange, inclusion and mutual understanding. The importance of TSOs in this process is recognised by the European Commission, as evidenced through explicit policies and funding programmes (see European Commission, undated). The systematic relationship between different TSOs and the multifaceted dimensions of migration is only starting to be understood in terms of service provision (McAreavey and Argent, 2018; Mayblin and James, 2019). Specifically, the extent to which migrant TSOs contribute to social capital is less well examined (Garkisch et al, 2017) and this is where we make a unique contribution.

This enquiry therefore will not only appeal to a wide audience, including specialists, civil society actors and readers of Voluntary Sector Review, it will also make available, for the first time, insights from different fields of study (social capital, migration and third sector studies), paving the way for a novel cross-disciplinary angle on areas of global concern, such as the contemporary migration–mobility nexus, social capital, equality and citizenship. The remainder of this article is organised as follows: we first describe the role of TSOs in UK, we then review current scholarship on social capital and we then zoom into the empirical enquiry before moving on to our concluding remarks.

TSOs in the UK

The role of TSOs in the UK as well as in Europe has often been to step in to fill gaps left by the state (Carella et al, 2007). Rather than strategic collaboration between the state and the third sector, the state seems unable, unwilling even, to fulfil its duties (Mayblin and James, 2019). This is evident, for example, through TSOs’ delivery of vital advocacy and support services to diverse groups, especially movers, including providing access to networks and information and more recently assisting them to navigate the complex welfare system in a context of job losses due to the global pandemic. In this way, TSOs fill an important role in nurturing and sustaining social capital, creating connections that are necessary to navigate everyday life and, in so doing, filling in spaces left by the state.

However, the relationship between TSOs and the public sector is not smooth. The process of assuming part of the state’s social functions has progressively transformed TSOs. Critical literature on civil society and civic engagement argues that ‘the revival of civil society’ has occurred at the same time as the neoliberal ascendance and TSOs are in danger of losing their collective orientation, focusing more on service delivery rather than advocacy (Shortall and McAreavey, 2017). Hence we see the institutionalisation of advocacy groups who work in partnership with government (Mosley, 2012). Meanwhile, groups that rely on private donors are less motivated to spend time advocating on policy and on using more adversarial advocacy tactics such as ‘fighting’ with government officials (Mosley, 2012: 19), engaging instead in frontline service delivery (Chetkovich and Kunreuther, 2007).

The extent of the reach and impact of voluntary organisations in the UK is illustrative of their importance in society: nine in ten UK households have accessed services provided by voluntary organisations at some point, with children and young people remaining the most common beneficiary group (Kruger, 2020). In 2016/17, the sector contributed a total of £17.1 billion to the UK economy, equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of a small country such as Honduras. The value of volunteering was estimated at £23.9 billion in 2016 (NCVO, 2020b). Of course TSOs are not all the same and their functions and reach differ considerably, including their relationship with social capital (Kindler et al, 2015). For instance, many refugee community organisations resist institutionalisation and generate social capital as a response to social exclusion, rather than a positive asset arising from the state or civil society (Zetter et al, 2005). As such, their interventions generate informal support networks, create a sense of belonging and stimulate social connections between different individuals and groups. All of these measures have been identified in the literature as constituting social capital (CDJ Eutin, 2007), although they largely remain under-theorised.

In a time of social and economic distress and enormous pressures on governmental budgets, TSOs face multiple challenges, be they working in collaboration with the government or operating in a more confrontational mode. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, the UK government implemented harsh austerity measures, which led to a progressive erosion of social care, with a great impact on charity users and charities’ budgets (Wigglesworth, 2012). Nonetheless, charities have continued to respond to significant demand for their services, especially in light of the economic and social impact of COVID-19 (NCVO, 2020a). Despite (or perhaps in light of) these challenges, migrant TSOs generate a unique type of ‘renewable’ resource, if properly sustained. Their intermediary role allows them to deliver a range of services complementary to or in collaboration with the state (Mayblin and James, 2019) or in direct response to the ‘hostile environment’ policy (Morgan, 2015).

Social capital

Social capital is held as an ingredient that can enhance individual and collective wellbeing and has been used to understand the facets of social life at the community level (Bourdieu, 1986; Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 1993; for a comprehensive summary, see Rostila, 2011; Claridge, 2018). However, empirical studies have demonstrated difficulties in establishing robust evidence for the relationship between participation and trust or the dynamics that generate social capital (Cheong et al, 2007). Often the analyses at the individual level are simply aggregated to offer a measure of welfare or involvement in community life. On the contrary, having proved the existence of high trust and participation rates in a community, the actual access of the individual to the community’s resources is simply inferred. There are many individuals who fall through the ‘cracks’ and fail to feel any benefits arising from social capital that are apparently evident at the community level (McAreavey, 2009).

There is a burgeoning scholarship on social capital: a broad search with the keyword ‘social capital’ on Google Scholar retrieves more than nine million records. Attempts to narrow the search fail to significantly reduce the number of results; for example, a search on EBSCO or SAGE databases with the keywords ‘social capital’ and ‘migration’, on articles published between 2000 and 2020, retrieved more than 16,000 and 33,000 records, respectively. This is because almost any form of personal and social interaction has the capacity to be understood as social capital, up to a point that it seems possible to attribute ‘mutually contradictory metaphors to social capital’ (Fine, 2010: 20). Indeed it is noted that ‘the term has been used so often to mean so many different things that it has become the equivalent of an empty container, readily filled with whatever meaning the user or the listener or reader brings to the conversation’ (Servon, 2003, cited in McAreavey, 2009: 71).

Nonetheless, the rhetorical power of social capital ‘can be a blessing and a curse’ (Moody and White, 2003: 107) and has been used as a catch-all to address many social ailments. Setting aside the negative aspects of social capital, at least for the moment, the leading social capital scholars (Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman and Robert Putnam) provide some of the most prominent, although somewhat divergent, notions of social capital. Bourdieu defines it as ‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possessions of durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’ (Bourdieu, 1986: 248–9, emphasis added). Bourdieu’s elaboration links to a wider analysis of different forms of capital (economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital) and is centred on materiality and power relations, highlighting differential power relations and social hierarchy (Wall et al, 1998). Others follow in the tradition of Coleman (1988), connecting economic rationality to social action and viewing social capital as ‘a variety of entities with two elements in common: they all consist of some aspect of social structure, and they facilitate certain actions of actors, whether persons or corporate actors, within the structure (Coleman, 1988). For Coleman, then, social capital occurs due to relations between individual actors. Putnam, meanwhile, in elevating the concept to the community level, identifies its connection to creating economic value, thus shifting it into the gaze of cash-strapped policy makers. He condenses social capital as ‘the features of the social organizations such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions’ (Putnam, 1993: 167, emphasis added). Should those actions occur within a group, they are considered bonding social capital and reflect thick trust and very strong ties, in other words bonding social capital is good for getting by (Wilson, 1997; Williams et al, 2021). The development of strong links between different social groups is referred to as bridging social capital and reflects a situation where trust is weaker but creates conditions to allow individuals to get on (Wilson, 1997; Williams et al, 2021).

Coleman and Bourdieu argue that the benefits of social capital flow back to the individual, with Coleman additionally identifying a public good dimension, while for Putnam the benefits are the property of groups and are thus a community resource with important links to economic capital. One of the problems with this is that communities effectively become responsible for their own ‘civicness’ as there is an inherent message that if local actors get involved in local organisations and networks, their community will thrive – they will become rich because they are civic (McAreavey, 2009). What is more, the looseness of terms such as ‘aggregate’, ‘variety of entities’ and ‘features’ is reflected in how the term ‘social capital’ has been inconsistently operationalised. This leads to terminological confusion as to the analytical purchase of the categories. To add to the conceptual elusiveness, the information on how social capital may actually become available to individuals is also quite fragmented (Van Der Gaag and Snijders, 2005).

Kapferer et al (2017) offer a remarkable summary of the vast social capital literature, including its discrepancies, although without fully grappling with the theoretical limitations. The way in which social capital is understood influences the types of measurement employed. Often the analyses at the individual level follow some variance of Putnam’s approach and offer measures of welfare or involvement in community life (that is, the aggregated level). Cohen and Sirkeci (2011) argue that social capital (as represented by networks, associations and so forth) works to reduce insecurities for migrants in their early arrival stages, especially around employment, housing and legal affairs. Despite this positive perspective, the benefits emerging from high trust and participation rates in a community, that is, bonding social capital, do not necessarily flow to all individuals equally: the actual access of the individual to community resources is simply inferred. The latter case can be considered a classic example of an ecological fallacy where individuals may share values or take part in activities, but that does not necessarily mean that there is effective access to community resources or social capital (see Puntscher et al, 2016). There is a clear need to distinguish between community and individual resources. In other words, the ‘intangibility’ of social capital somehow thwarts a unified definition of the concept. Whether the approach adopted privileges the perspectives of Bourdieu, Coleman or Putnam, we ought to be aware that ‘each reflects a different set of assumptions and values which inevitably influences the choice of indicators, the methods employed and the interpretation of results’ (Wall et al, 1998, cited in Christoforou and Davis, 2014: 41). When it comes to methodology and measurement, this may lead to a situation of being unable to see the wood for the trees, that is to say, mistaking the proxy indicators for the concept. Econometric analyses, for example, involve reductions and assumptions that may mask the intricacy of social capital relationships. Bourdieu (1986: 241) himself criticised the risks of economic reductionism of the capital concept. On the other hand, social capital when defined as an aggregate variable uses the proxy variables to measure its manifestation rather than social capital itself, muddling the individual and the collective aspect. Thus, analysis requires a strong multi-level qualitative interpretation of the proxy indicators for social capital. We understand social capital as ‘the ability to obtain resources through membership of or participation in social networks or structures. It relates to trust, norms and relationships that facilitate this action’ (McAreavey, 2009: 68); as such, it allows individuals to avail of the benefits of bridging and bonding social capital. In light of this definition, we try to dissect components that future research should develop further.

As we posit the intangibility of social capital as a concept, this has repercussions for measurement. ‘Social capital is difficult, if not impossible, to measure directly; for empirical purposes the use of proxy indicators is necessary’ (Grootaert and Van Bastelaer, 2001: 9). Proxy indicators are usually introduced as easy variables, that is, ‘either being already measured or easy to measure’ (Paldam, 2000, cited in Vilhelmsdottir, 2012: 631). Yet the problem with them is validity, namely whether they actually measure what they are supposed to measure, creating a corresponding division in terms of proxy indicators used (Vilhelmsdottir, 2012). The concept seems to suffer from the reification of social capital as a ‘thing’, as if it had some determined, a priori social existence that can be captured, missing the underlying process when it is in fact relational and reliant on social interaction. Therefore we contend that social capital should be investigated as a ‘contextual social field’ (see Bourdieu, 1986). This inductive approach will assist us better in determining the forces of these social worlds for individuals. Eventually this will advance understanding of equivalences in experience and positionality (see hooks, 1984; Fitts, 2011), which may unite subjects across contexts or cultures.

Methodology

At present, TSOs are largely understudied as they represent ‘a significant methodological challenge as the third sector is hard to map because migrant and refugee TSOs are often small, local, volunteer run, and operate “below the radar”, filling gaps where capacity exists’ (Mayblin and James, 2019: 376). A qualitative design was adopted to address this lacuna and, simultaneously, ‘retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics within some real-life context’ of a problem-oriented approach (Yin, 1981: 59; see also Harrison et al, 2017). Observation and secondary data were collected over a year (2018), in a specific migrant and refugee TSO based in London (henceforth m&r TSO). One of the authors was involved as a volunteer caseworker (every Thursday, from 10am to 1pm). Although the nature of the qualitative enquiry does not allow us to generalise the outcome of the findings, it does allow us to gain insights about a ‘place-beyond-place’, problematising the invocation of spatial terms or vocabulary such as localism or place used in public discourses (Featherstone et al, 2012). We endeavour to examine ‘how the city interacts with other places’ and to do so ‘it is necessary to follow also the lines of its engagement elsewhere’ (Massey, 2007: 13). By extending the geographical imaginary of a place/context, we also extend the reach of our understanding, apprehending dynamics and asymmetries within and between settings.

With the consent of m&r TSO, information was gathered primarily through observation and written memos (for example, theoretical notes and analytic memos to jot down thoughts regularly as soon as possible after an encounter) following the weekly drop-in sessions (30 sessions were held over one year). The participation in meetings, training and events organised to promote socialisation (for example, a Christmas gathering and summer outings) complemented the research materials and gave further opportunities to expand conversations with clients and staff beyond casework duties. According to Van Donge (2006: 181), ‘the main focus of ethnography, is everyday life’ and effectively the intention was to observe the flow of mundane, daily life and unearth what may be taken for granted. This was the deciding factor in employing non-obtrusive observations. Documentary data (promotional and informative materials) were also collected and analysed, and often these are the direct voices of users of m&r TSO’s services, as cited later in this article. The director of the charity, as well as the volunteer coordinator, were both informed of the project and, because of its preliminary and exploratory nature, not directly involving any respondents, total anonymity and confidentiality could be maintained. A few clear limits of the dataset and the conclusions that can be derived from the analysis need to be specified. Qualitative interviews with staff and clients would have provided a more fine-grained picture. Also, the small-scale, exploratory nature of the study provides only a preliminary investigation of practices and forms of interaction related to social capital and TSOs never attempted before. We acknowledge the need for further quantitative and qualitative analysis to clarify aspects that were not included in the current research.

Background to m&r TSO

The present m&r TSO provides advice and support to refugees, asylum seekers and settled migrants, and is located in south London. It is a medium-sized TSO, as per National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) rankings. It is run by salaried staff (14 members of staff – part time and full time) and a board of trustees that oversees the charity’s operations and provides strategic direction (seven members). In addition, 68 volunteers (either one-off or short-term roles or recurring/long-term roles) help provide services, including 1,783 hot lunches during the drop-in sessions (2018). As a local charity with a limited outreach, it relies on external financial support from donors. These have included renowned trusts and foundations as well as community groups and individual donors, which makes it a competitor among similar organisations to secure resources to continue to provide statutory services. The m&r TSO does not strictly fall under the category of one of the ‘below the radar’ (Mablin and James, 2019) types of organisations as, since it started in 1991 supporting the work of small faith groups to challenge exclusion, it now runs a number of regular projects (the details of which are listed below). Yet this medium-sized TSO still faces difficulties as a result of successive governments’ moves towards awarding contracts rather than giving grants as part of public service reforms. This has brought with it new challenges for small- and medium-sized TSOs, particularly in terms of financial skills and resources to allow them to bid for and deliver commissioned work, along with greater expectations of professionalism and the ability to demonstrate measurable outcomes from their work (see House of Lords, 2017).

Against this background, the aim of the m&r TSO is to support those who aspire to a settled, safe life in the UK yet face numerous obstacles in realising the security they dreamt of. Through its services, the m&r TSO assists individuals to feel empowered and confident to overcome barriers themselves, where possible, and to access services and understand rights. This is done through projects providing both group and one-to-one interventions, including:

  1. an adult and family casework and advice service (which usually occurs in the office via appointment);

  2. advice drop-in sessions (providing support for clients who find themselves in situations of crisis);

  3. health and wellbeing activities (yoga classes, a women’s social group, English practice and conversation classes);

  4. a targeted youth support and advocacy project;

  5. weekly positive activities and educational tuition sessions for young people along with residential trips and group outings (at a youth drop-in and youth club).

Vulnerability is the core criteria for accessing the service. Clients usually refer to the charity when they face extreme difficulty. One of the popular services is the drop-in sessions.3 Overall, the charity provides holistic practical and emotional support in the areas of housing, migration, welfare benefits, debt, employment, education and volunteering, by running services that recognise the aspirations and agency of individuals, and offering them support to challenge the exclusion they experience (see Table 1).

Table 1:

m&r TSO advice and casework summary, 2018

Table presenting summary of casework according to ten categories. Categories are: immigration, destitution, housing, asylum support, family/personal, welfare benefits, debt, health, education/training/employment and homelessness.
Immigration23.11%Welfare benefits22.00%
Destitution11.46%Debt9.89%
Housing9.70%Health5.55%
Asylum support5.08%Education/training/employment4.81%
Family/personal4.25%Homelessness4.16%

During 2018, 981 people representing 62 different nationalities accessed the TSO’s services. Of of these 981 people, 550 were supported with advice or casework to resolve their issues, mostly about immigration (23%), welfare benefits (22%) and destitution (11%). Of the issues clients came for, 74% were partially or completely resolved. The advice staff and volunteers provided 3,173 hours of advice at the drop-ins.

The role of civic associations in aiding participation – intended here not in its normative sense but as practices of de facto residents/inhabitants regardless of their status – is well established in social and political theory (Isin, 2008; 2017; Nyers, 2010). For movers, charities enable the circulation of sociocultural resources and the creation of ties, networks and membership that may not happen otherwise (see Benson, 2020). In this regard, the m&r TSO provides a space that naturally elicits a sense of commitment and facilitates day-to-day acts of citizenship (Isin, 2008). The examples provided below add to the current debate about movers’ agency. The stories of Lia and Adel demonstrate how citizenship, conceived in its multi-layered significance, can be enacted daily despite protagonists’ legal status and the limitations of formal citizenship (Isin, 2009; Nyers, 2015). The excerpt from Lia’s account condenses the ‘aggregate of actual and potential resources’ in action that amounts to what Bourdieu would identify as social capital:

I was a teacher in Syria, then I came to the UK and I wanted to try to work here and to help people. At [m&r TSO] I work on reception. We take the names, ask them about their problem and see how we can help and talk with them. … For the future, I am looking for a receptionist job. I feel myself now, a lot of improvement, not like when I arrived: then I felt scared, now I feel a little bit confident. I feel that all the volunteers we are like a big chain together, we all do what we can, it is an amazing team, like each one complete the other. I love this. (Lia’s story, documentary materials)

Furthermore, as the charity offers a setting to facilitate the dissemination of social and cultural capital, this engenders a surplus that is more than the sum of individual assets brought in by participants – movers and non-movers. Indeed, the projects carried out by the charity actively involve service users. Adel, for instance, arrived in the UK from Somalia and got in touch with the m&r TSO to get help with his migration status. He then actively joined as a volunteer because:

I was doing nothing at home every day and I felt useless. Now I volunteer at the drop-in two days a week. After doing interpreting for a while I started giving advice to people and [m&r TSO] sent me on some training courses. My long-term goal is to get a job in management or administration but I love helping people so I want to continue volunteering. (Adel’s story, documentary materials)

This excerpt shows how the charity not only represents a point of reference but also generates structures that have significant capacity to provide information (Bourdieu, 1986). It also serves the function of ‘bridging’ social capital (Woolcock, 1998; 2001). Put differently, it illustrates the public–private good aspects identified by Coleman (1988). For example, it helped Adel to expand his web of connections. Moreover, a link emerges between perceptible as well as imperceptible acts of citizenship (see Tsianios, 2007) and social capital: the flows of information and the ties created (a form of social capital) exert an influence and modify the social structure. This challenges the discriminatory effects of normative citizenship and gives back to residents their ability to perform the ethics of citizenship as envisaged when the concept of democracy was first conceived (see Caruso, 2018). The same holds true for another user, Yanis, an unaccompanied minor from East Africa:

Yanis fled forced military conscription in his country of origin and experienced gross human rights violation at the hands of traffickers en route to the UK. He was eventually brought to London from the so-called ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais to stay with an extended family member. Yanis was initially referred to the m&r TSO for support. Once he established trust with the caseworker Yanis was able to disclose that he was being subject to emotional and physical neglect by his extended family. It also became clear that he was struggling with the psychological impact of traumatic events, which made him particularly vulnerable. The m&r TSO made a safeguarding referral to Children’s Services and in line with Yanis’ expressed views and the professional concerns, m&r TSO successfully advocated for him to be accommodated in a foster placement. Yanis reports that he feels much safer and happier now that there are people who are caring for him appropriately. He has also begun attending the m&r TSO Youth Club and he is much more confident and hopeful about his future. (Documentary materials)

This excerpt demonstrates how being a member of a community is not enough to allow residents to access the benefits of living in the area – they may have to tap into an alternative network of resources from within the third sector. According to the staff, some clients have been attending the service ‘for almost ten years’ (observation). The welcoming environment (which includes a common room with free refreshments and lunch) offers a first point of access and a warm reception. Yet, how it enhances individuals’ ability to handle crises requires a closer look. Although how we define a ‘crisis’ is subjective and varies, it might encompass specific obstacles, such as language barriers, and more general self-efficacy issues, that is, a combination of unsatisfactory human interaction as well as relating to needs and expertise. Some clients, for example, use the drop-in service to seek ‘a better explanation’ (observation) than the one they have received from the council, while others use it because they feel they do not have the competence/skills to fill a form in or, on the other hand, because ‘nobody was listening to me as a person’ (observation). This is perhaps reflective of stretched public services and a hostile environment where there are few resources or little will to support residents. Evidently, the service users did not trust the service offered by the public body and this points to an asymmetry of power. Whether this is a by-product of a (conscious or unconscious) bias enmeshed in public service delivery would require further investigation. Literature shows that the socially excluding policies in place make mistrust a recurrent issue in the sector (Hynes, 2003). However, the actor’s attempts to overcome barriers and access forms of capital, shed light on imperceptible forms of agency that would otherwise be undetected. This also highlights the danger of continuous welfare retrenchment, which cannot be discounted from an analysis of structural constraints as ‘if communities can take care of their own health problems by generating “social capital”, then government can be increasingly discharged of responsibility for addressing health and health care issues’ (WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health, 2007: 41).

In the UK, some would argue that there is an ongoing decentralisation of ‘state policy in favour of micro-level communal projects which might serve as a buffer to market-generated inequalities’ (Malik, 2014: 8). The COVID-19 crisis has further pushed this shift as demand for services, traditionally delivered by the state, has increased significantly (Wright, 2020). The question of how these resources are generated and subsequently accessed within the community is critical, with many basic services apparently being beyond the purview of all community residents. A trustee of m&r TSO aptly describes the current climate:

The hardship faced by the vulnerable people we work with has deepened due to the ‘hostile environment’ policies of the 2016 Immigration Act, and the continued uncertainty of Brexit. It has become increasingly difficult for them to access services and to secure essentials such as housing and healthcare. In 2017 we saw a dramatic rise in the number of people who are destitute and homeless accessing our services. We also have seen the demand for casework support increasing in both volume and complexity. (Documentary materials)

This also resonates with the Windrush scandal, which can be exemplified in the story of Jocelyin, a long-standing London resident who felt she was ‘chased into self-deportation’:

Jocelyin arrived in London in 1963 at the age of four, travelling with her mother on a Grenadian passport as a British subject. She went to primary and secondary school in Hammersmith, west London, before working in hotels in the capital – including the Ritz and a Hilton. Some time around 2009, she lost her Grenadian passport, which contained the crucial stamp giving her indefinite leave to remain. … A Home Office leaflet encouraging people to opt for a voluntary departure, illustrated with cheerful, brightly coloured planes, said: “We know that many people living in the UK illegally want to go home, but feel scared of approaching the Home Office directly. They may fear being arrested and detained. For those returning voluntarily, there are these key benefits: they avoid being arrested and having to live in detention until a travel document can be obtained; they can leave the UK in a more dignified manner than if their removal is enforced.” … By that point, she estimated she must have attempted a dozen times to explain to Home Office staff – over the phone, in person, in writing – that they had made a mistake. “I don’t think they looked at the letters I wrote. I think they had a quota to fill – they needed to deport people.” (Documentary materials)

Jocelyin found it hard to understand why the government was prepared to pay for her expensive flight, but not to waive the application fee to regularise her status (Gentleman, 2019).

The data collected illustrate a range of dynamics (from the agency of individual actors to the forms of capital generated through interactions and connections) that need to be theorised within a broader framework. Scholars contend that one of the greatest merits of social capital is that ‘it provides a credible point of entry for socio-political issues into a comprehensive multi- and inter-disciplinary approach to some of the most pressing issues of our time’ (Woolcock, 1998: 188). Yet, disciplinary silos and a compartmentalised research agenda limit attempts to carry out much-needed interdisciplinary research (Holm and Liinason, 2005). The latter would allow us to account for the visible and invisible dynamics we have only been able to touch on in this article.

Conclusions

We started our discussion by questioning the fuzziness of social capital in a context of heightened mobility. The literature on the link between social capital and migrant TSOs is less than clear. The ongoing debate in the social sciences regarding the fragmentation between disciplines, whereby ‘disciplinary parochialism generates a multiplicity of self-contained literature’, is a case in point (see also Woolcock, 1998; Castagnone, 2011: 2; Vertovec, 2020). We have sought to begin to address this parochialism by zooming into a local migrant TSO and by adopting a different epistemological approach. This has also determined a change in language and categories, for example movers and non-movers as opposed to migrants, to avoid the risk of objectification – as this segment of the population were a distinct category of mobile humanity (De Genova, 2013). In this respect, interdisciplinarity is indispensable to detect the borders, material or symbolic, responsible for ‘institut[ing] the (postcolonial) division between one nation-state space and another, … thereby re-regiment[ing] the cruel inequalities that are the global heritage of centuries of colonialism’ (De Genova, 2013: 225).

Our cursory look at the social capital–migration–third sector triangulation reinforces a conviction that novel theoretical eclecticism is necessary and contemporary migration/mobility cannot be looked at in isolation (Castles et al, 2014). By the same token, we argue for the need to problematise the idea of borders entwined in classifications applied by scholars and practitioners when they adopt, wittingly or unwittingly, divisions such as ‘migrant’ versus ‘citizens’ (and by extension every essentialised other such as ‘refugee’, ‘BAME’ and ‘Muslim’). These are constructed figures created by public discourse more apt to maintain a categorical fetishism ‘into which people can be placed … like a small child putting bricks into a series of coloured buckets’ (Crawley and Skleparis, 2018: 49) than to capture the lived experience of the people identified as such (Anderson, 2019; Dahinden et al, 2021). In other words, the interlinked nature of asymmetries needs to be assessed (that is, the positionality of all stakeholders) to unpack how axes of power (that is, legal status, ethnicity, gender, sex, age and class, to name a few) inform and shape social formations and social relations (Hall, 1990; Mohanty, 2003; Yuval-Davis, 2006; Anthias, 2013). The experiences collected in this article show the ways in which ‘communities’ are formed around such associations. Yet, it is difficult to infer a holistic enhancement of the chances of success for the ‘community’ or what exactly is the role for TSOs that plug a gap left by a negligent state. Can we conclude that resources created by and with such TSOs are of the community? Is a community benefit created? (Muntaner et al 2000, cited in Malik, 2014: 9) remark that ‘[c]onflating the political, cultural and economic aspects of a community under the one umbrella of social capital, may mask important conceptual distinctions as to the origins of those group resources’ and this could conveniently overlook ‘the intimate and informal non-economic bonds of community in the cost-benefit calculations’ of a marketable idea of social capital. This is one line of investigation we would promote and encourage for further studies.

As Shortall and McAreavey (2017) argue, this shift practically erodes the role TSOs can play in the community. There are examples from around the world. Some TSOs have assumed the very stately role of partly processing asylum applications under the guise of helping the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and/or ministries. Is this how the public and third sectors should intersect? We tend to think that social capital is both a community and an individual resource/asset. Our analysis suggests that social capital as a mainstream resource has been seriously worn and is no longer very visible in state–citizen relations. Instead, it occurs largely within the third sector even though the sector does not have a universal obligation like the state (that is, towards all its citizens). It further raises critical questions for society if TSOs create an alternative to the state that perpetuates the lack of engagement by some groups of citizens. Ultimately, this could erode bridging social capital and create groups of citizens who rarely interact with one another even though they benefit from strong ties and trusting relations within their community. This warrants further investigation.

The need for individuals to be able to feel the wider benefits of social capital, or be part of the ‘glue’ that binds society together, and to enjoy looser relations across a wider network, becomes heightened in an era of austerity where rights and entitlements have significantly shrunk and social divisions are increasingly entrenched. Moreover, connecting with others has been a lifeline for many during the physical restrictions of the pandemic. In this respect, migrant TSOs, which have long been a natural environment for social capital, have expanded their reach to counteract the void created by a restrictive and unwelcoming state. Aware of the power of categories (Foucault, 1972) and the perils of reification that may inadvertently valorise some aspects and silence others, our goal has simply been to present a bottom-up approach to explore the social capital–migration–third sector nexus with a generative rather than a definitive purpose. This may eventually lead to a much-needed interdisciplinary, middle-range theory that can:

  1. help address blind spots and operationalise social capital in a multi-level manner, paving the way for the incremental accumulation of evidence of individual and collective forms of agency (or lack of);

  2. honour diversity and deepen our understanding of the intersectional nature of axes of social differentiation – this will eventually result in a fine-grained analysis of movers’ and non-movers’ acts of citizenship;

  3. shed new light on structural forces (that is, TSOs taking over responsibilities left by the state) as well as wider implications, thus enhancing dialogue, inviting refinement and ultimately producing sounder reports and research outputs.

Notes

1

For a discussion on the terminology of movers and non-movers, see Cohen and Sirkeci, 2011. See also De Genova (2013), Anderson (2019) and Cohen (2020).

2

Immigration legislation and the organisational structure of immigration control as well as its leadership have been subject to constant – and sometimes confusing – change. Just to name a few: the Asylum and Immigration Act 2004, the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, the UK Borders Act 2007, the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009 and more recently the Immigration Act 2014 and the Immigration Act 2016. In addition, the immigration rules have been changed 5,600 times since 2010, as a recent Guardian investigation revealed (Bozic et al, 2018). Furthermore, traditionally, British immigration control has focused on border security and entry controls; however, for two decades this has successively shifted towards in-country controls. By 1996, the Asylum and Immigration Act stipulated that the employment of immigrants who do not have permission to stay and/or to work was an offence, and therefore required employers to check prospective employees’ immigration status. The Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 granted immigration officers powers to arrest. The Asylum, Immigration and Nationality Act 2006 further strengthened employer sanctions (Yuval-Davis et al, 2018: 233).

3

The drop-in sessions serve people who often come in a situation of crisis. People can participate in the decisions that affect their lives, create relationships and shared meaning within and beyond the groups’ border, and work independently to provide goods and services that improve a community’s wellbeing.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to express their gratitude to the editor and the anonymous reviewers of Voluntary Sector Review for their valuable comments. Special thanks to the individuals and the organisation who generously shared their time and experiences, and made this study possible.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • Yuval-Davis, N., Wemyss, G. and Cassidy, K. (2018) Everyday bordering, belonging and the reorientation of British immigration legislation, Sociology, 52(2): 22844. doi: 10.1177/0038038517702599

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  • Zetter, R., Griffiths, D. and Sigona, N. (2005) Social capital or social exclusion? The impact of asylum seeker dispersal on refugee community organisations, Community Development Journal, 40(2): 16981. doi: 10.1093/cdj/bsi025

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  • 1 University of Central Lancashire, , UK
  • | 2 Newcastle University, , UK
  • | 3 International British Business School, , UK

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