Social capital and choirs


Four or so years ago, whilst I was working at The Children’s Society, my wonderful friend Lydia Raw and I had a madcap idea to set up a staff choir. It wasn’t an arts charity (we supported disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people across the UK) but some enthusiastic (and probably alcohol fuelled) evening, we decided this was a brilliant idea. She was the brains behind the outfit, and I waved my arms about and attempted to conduct.

What ensued was a group do people who met weekly (or at least were supposed to meet weekly, we’d regularly get an entirely different group one week to the next) in a local church hall which had a honky tonk piano. We made sure it was open-to-all with no requirement to read music. We enthusiastically recruited staff from across the organisation. And the result was a hotch-potch choir who regularly surprised people at performances by ‘actually being quite good’ and bugged people on the afternoon of rehearsal day by humming whatever we were rehearsing at their desks.

This week I was reading up on social bonding from a psychological and sociological perspective and came across a term that defines what I have always considered one of the most wonderful aspects of this choir. It’s called Linking Social Capital.

Amongst all the great research and writing about the emotional and social benefits of singing in a choir, this aspect - which is particularly apparent in an office choir - is often overlooked.

So what is social capital?

In order to define Linking Social Capital, please allow me a minute or two to define social capital itself. Social Capital is a term which has recently gained popularity, despite the difficulty it has in being pinned down. The OECD defines it as “the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together”. Fair enough.

Like any term, the more you apply it, the more you see possible derivations or special applications and as such, it has developed a number of related terms. Two of these are bridging social capital and bonding social capital. Effectively these two terms refer to social capital that allows for shared values and understanding between groups (bridging) or within groups (bonding). Robert Putnam describes bonding social capital as essential for ‘getting by’ and bridging social capital as essential for ‘getting ahead’.

[Robert Putnam writes this in his book ‘Bowling Alone’ which I have not read yet, but is referred to so often that I really can’t avoid it for much longer. It may need to be next on my list.]

And linking social capital? What about that?

Linking social capital, then, is a term credited to the World Bank. They suggest that it is a third type of social capital that occurs between people or groups at different levels of explicit or institutional power and authority.

In the staff choir, unlike a community choir where there are fewer existing explicit structures, choir members stand alongside each other as equals regardless of their position in the organisation. In The Children’s Society staff choir, the fundraising director stood alongside the post room assistant carrying out the same task, at the same level of authority, despite the fact that the fundraising director’s salary was probably four or five times as much as the post room assistant’s salary.

In this instance, they share an experience which requires some level of trust. They have to rely on the (often inconsistent) conductor for guidance, and on each other for support as they learn their part and to coordinate their performance. The skills they use are entirely separate to those being used back at their desks. And in the example of my staff choir, it has to be said that the post room assistant was more experienced a singer and had greater ability to take direction and blend with the wider choir - in this context, a distinct benefit.

What does this experience in a 45 minute rehearsal one lunch time do when the members of that rehearsal return to the office? The social capital built up between these two members of staff was replicated across the multiple permutations of dyads and groups between members in the choir. Staff came from different teams, different levels, different roles of responsibility. The act of singing together creating bonds and shared understanding which remained on return to the office and must impact working life in some way, if only to simply ensure that those traditional silos of departments are just a little less fortressed.

When Che needs to negotiate the use of James’ team’s time, the fact they have already built up trust collaborating in a choir has got to go some way to smoothing the negotiation. When Mark needs to gather information from Gwen in order to present the organisation in a news article, they have already had experience of performing together and representing the organisation.

Open access

I am all for open-access choirs which go to the people rather than require the people go to the choir. And this is one of the reasons why - until now I’ve just not been able to articulate what it is called. There are lots of great organisations out there doing this sort of thing, whether creating choirs on your doorstep like my wonderful friends at Pop Up Choir Amsterdam, the Pub Choir, or choirs, like this in offices run by Music in Offices run by the entrepreneurial Tessa Marchington.

I am now working primarily freelance or for arts organisations and my opportunity to get staff working together in this way in larger more mainstream organisations is diminished. But to all of you out there who have toyed with the idea. I say… DO IT! It’s flipping hard work but absolutely worth it.