Residents of Tucumán, Argentina wait for medical care early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Ramón Teves.

In March 2021, a widely cited research paper came out that attempted to explain why some countries seemed to have been hit harder by the pandemic than others. The authors argued that societies with high levels of social cohesion and a propensity to follow authority figures were much more successful in fighting the pandemic. But one aspect of that paper struck Dr. Eric Carter, Edens Professor of Geography and Global Health, and his colleague Dr. María Laura Cordero, a geographer from Tucumán, Argentina, as slightly odd. 

The paper had lumped most Latin American countries into the category of societies that do not have very strong social norms or high levels of cohesion. For Carter and Cordero, this categorization didn’t align with their own experience in Argentina, so the two decided to look deeper, by conducting interviews, focus groups, and a large online survey about how people experienced the pandemic in Tucumán. Their research paperSalir Adelante: Social capital and resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic in Argentina” shows a more nuanced picture of how social capital and cohesion played out in northwest Argentina and was recently published in the journal Health & Place. 

Before diving into your study, it’s important to understand exactly what you mean by “social capital” and “social cohesion.” How would you define them? 

Social capital is a little bit more easy to define, and it’s the resources and networks that people can use to solve problems in their lives or to improve their prospects. 

An easy way to get a handle on a definition is to think about a few different kinds of social capital. One type is called “bonding social capital,” which is what would usually be tight bonds among family and kin networks. There’s also “bridging social capital,” which is ties among people who are more loosely connected across social differences, such as work colleagues and business associates. And then there’s “linking social capital,” which is connecting so-called ordinary people to those who are in power. 

The reason we make the distinction between these different types is that, in a society like in Tucumán, Argentina, we argue that bonding social capital – the reliance on family and kin networks for survival and for getting ahead – is really strong. But the linking social capital – the connection between ordinary people and the decision makers – is relatively weak. 

The best way to define social cohesion is actually one that overlaps with social capital. It’s about the degree of social connectedness and solidarity between different community groups in a society. Trust is also pretty important, too. How much can you trust your fellow citizen or a member of society to do the right thing? In highly cohesive societies, there’s a high level of trust in strangers, in particular. 

What made Tucumán an interesting place to look at how social capital and social cohesion played out during the height of the pandemic? 

Tucumán is interesting because it is a major city in Argentina, but by no means the biggest city. It’s in a peripheral region of the country, and is a city that has had really severe economic problems for decades. But despite all of the poverty and inequality, it’s also a place that continues to grow, with both local population increases and migrants coming from the countryside. So the city is very heterogeneous socially and economically, yet with very close-knit neighborhoods at the local scale, which I think is a big part of what made it so interesting.

In the paper, you and your co-author point out that there have been advances in research on social capital and social cohesion during the pandemic, but there are also gaps that can be addressed. What are those gaps?

Most of the research during the pandemic looked at how social capital leads to better public health outcomes, essentially looking at whether the rates of infection or hospitalization were going up, and what role social capital played in all that. That’s a really worthwhile kind of study, especially early in the pandemic, because you’re trying to figure out how to solve this public health crisis. 

By the time we were doing our study, the emergency phase of the pandemic was largely over for most countries, and so we shifted the frame of the question a little bit. We were partially interested in how social capital led to more effective public health responses, but we treated the pandemic as a broader, complex  social and political phenomenon. We were really interested in how social capital played into people’s ability to cope or to be resilient against the multiple challenges presented by the pandemic. 

Another big gap – and this is something that’s just endemic to social research during the pandemic – is that most of the research took place in places like the U.S., England, Italy, and other European countries. And it makes sense in a way, because that’s where most of the research money is, and maybe especially because of pandemic conditions, people are doing more research in places that they know. So we wanted to represent an experience from the Global South, and not only to publish in a Spanish language journal in Argentina or in South America, but actually to bring it into the realm of the English language literature about the social impacts of the pandemic. 

What are the study’s most significant findings?

One finding, and I don’t want to sound too upbeat about this, is that things maybe weren’t as bad as they seemed to be. At the very beginning of the pandemic, I think what a lot of us expected was something like panic in the streets, disorder, chaos. And in some places, that did happen. But one of the things that our study shows is that most people in Tucumán managed to get through the crisis using both their personal reserves of creativity and ingenuity and their connectedness with other people. 

One of the things we’re trying to convey is a more positive message that communities all over the world, not just in Tucumán, have the tools amongst themselves to be resilient in the face of these kinds of crises. We’re trying not to paint an overly rosy picture, but based on the responses that we got from the survey, most people said that, yes, the pandemic was very challenging, but they were able to move ahead with a more positive attitude. A general finding in the survey was that the people who did come out of it emerged much stronger than before.

The other really important finding is the role that social capital plays in increasing this capacity for resilience. What we found is that people who lived in places where they perceived high levels of social capital in their neighborhood, the outcomes in terms of coping and resilience were higher across the board. If we could find ways in the future, across the world, to improve community-level cohesion between crises – such as pandemics, but also other kinds of crises – it could have an overall positive impact.

What kinds of questions does this research surface that are ripe for further exploration?

A big lingering question for me and my co-author is how the experiences of grappling with one type of crisis translate into tools that people use to deal with other types of crises. In Argentina, people are used to dealing with crises, especially of the economic type, and they’re going through another one right now. The pandemic was really different from the usual run-of-the-mill economic crisis, especially because of the limits on social interaction and mobility that made for new kinds of challenges. And we think people adapted based on previous exposure to social upheaval, but it’s not totally clear how exactly that helped. Right. So we’re interested in leaving the pandemic behind and doing another study looking at coping strategies during the current economic crisis, and again, how social capital plays into that – how people can find support, or not, in their communities for dealing with these kinds of problems.

September 7 2022

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