A Nationwide Survey of Small Groups in Britain
‘Personally I find it beneficial from a social point of view…’
There are plenty of data out there describing loneliness in Britain, social trust or how much time we (don’t) spend with our neighbours. But there’s precious little about small groups – clubs, societies, institutions and teams, to name a few. This was one of the problems I faced when I began to write Together. So midway through 2009 I launched my own nationwide survey of small groups to try and fill some of that gap.
Responses poured in from a stunning variety of groups, be they allotment societies, Young Farmers Clubs, WIs, or groups with a specialist interest in anything and everything from gladioli, motorbikes, rats, reading and dolls-houses. Here’s the part of this site that lists most of the groups involved and explains exactly how the survey was conducted (it also has a video clip that includes what is, for me, a great moment in the history of tv documentaries).
What Did The Survey Show?
There are three results that really stand out. They are:
– For 92.6% of the groups that took part, their membership numbers had either stayed the same in recent years or they had increased.
– 92.7% of those involved felt that they knew the people who belonged to their groups better than their neighbours.
– 88% of the respondents felt that the members of their groups also belonged to other groups.
Why is this interesting?
Why indeed. Because it flies in the face of a well-worn narrative that many of us have come to accept: the idea that we live in ‘broken Britain’, a place that is increasingly ‘fragmented’, ‘atomized’ and ‘lonely’ society. These results suggest that the idea of a nationwide revival of these groups is not to be dismissed.
That last sentence sounds a bit limp. I’m sorry. But it needs to be. Owing to the small sample size in this survey, and the fact that this is, well, a survey, this can only ever be a cautious projection. It’s important not to overstate the case.
If These Groups Are Flourishing, Why Now?
The principal driver has been the internet.
Over the last ten years a much broader demographic gained access to the internet and hundreds of thousands of small groups either acquired an online presence, they began to communicate by email, or they did both.
If for a fifth of respondents the internet had no real impact on their group, for the remaining eighty per cent the effect of the internet has been, as one respondent put it, ‘profound’. For the members of one group: ‘we depend on the internet for almost everything.’
Being able to send emails to the group ‘made communication easier and quicker’. It’s also a lot cheaper over time. Committee business and administration becomes much faster. Group email allows a different kind of communication, one that is much closer to replicating the free-form conversation of an actual group meeting.
Recruitment also becomes simpler and more effective. Thanks to the power of search engines, a simple online presence allows a group to be found more easily by those with a similar interest.
If there has been a revival of small groups in recent years then the internet appears to have played a major part in that.
What are these groups like?
– While some were groups formed in opposition to a perceived injustice or imposition – protest groups – the majority were bound by an amateur interest. Their aims were to improve the understanding of a certain art or skill, they were about furthering the knowledge of their members, about betterment, if I can use that word without sounding at all Victorian.
Again, for a full list of groups involved, head here.
– Average age of a group member was 47.
– Average attendance at a group meeting was 28.
– Average number of meetings per year was 27. That said, the most popular answer to the question about how often the groups meet was ‘once a month’.
– 92% of groups surveyed had some kind of annual celebration. Often these were Christmas parties or summer barbeques, and many groups liked to sugar the pill of an AGM with a party afterwards. Others had more idiosyncratic celebrations ranging from a ‘2 Day Steam Rally’ to a zoo outing ‘to meet our distant relatives in the evolutionary line’. Some groups didn’t see the need for an annual shindig – for one group ‘every day is a party’!
– 92% have a formal leader
– On average 50% of group members were in paid work, a reminder of the extent to which retired people tend to gravitate towards these groups.
– Less than 2% of the groups that took part in the survey felt that their group was aimed at a particular section of society defined by their ethnic, religious, or sexual identity.
– 11.1% of groups involved were single-sex.
And Finally, What Do These Groups Mean to Their Members?
Perhaps the most inspiring answers came to the last question – How would you say you benefit from belonging to this group?
(in the name of anonymity I’ve left out those parts of any answers that might identify the group too easily)
‘Comradeship, team-spirit, pure escapism, and hilarity’
‘It gets me out and about’
‘Making friends, learning, getting out from these four walls, doing something with my life and returning a little back.’
‘Personally I find it beneficial from a social point of view, having made various friends and acquaintances through it but also educational.’
‘Being able to meet with like-minded people’
‘It is like being part of a big family, albeit we have our differences and dislikes we all manage to get along.’
‘Meet people I wouldn’t come into contact with but with a shared interest.’
‘Learn a lot, have a laugh, go places I wouldn’t get to otherwise.’
‘It is my main social interaction away from the home.’
‘Too long to list. Friendship, social network, personal development, sporting development, travelling opportunities.’
‘It is a large social network, i have made many friends through it and everyone looks out for one another.’
‘Healthy, relaxing pastime’
‘Fresh air, exercise’
‘Learning in a friendly atmosphere’
‘Enjoyment, exercise, sense of well-being, belonging to a group, socialising, learning new skills, learning about nature, sense of ownership/civic pride’
‘Build confidence, meet new people’
‘Sharing a common interest’
‘Support and Friendship.’
‘It keeps me fit and stops me from getting bored or lonely.’
‘I enjoy the company and it makes me get things done.’
‘Very much so. Good company, making music that I enjoy, and meeting a socialising with like-minded people of all ages.’
‘I do things I wouldn’t otherwise think of or perhaps get round to doing’
‘Meeting genuine persons from all walks of life.’
‘Excellent community spirit, many functions for the Club and local charities.’
‘It keeps me from vegetating at home, and gets me to do things which stretch my abilities.’
‘Networking, overcoming isolation, fellowship, learned a lot about activities in our local area that I’d never have heard otherwise’
‘Health. Happiness. Freedom. Joy. Adventure. Community. Meet really lovely independent spirited people.’
‘It’s a great way to make friends in the area.’
‘By getting out into the world, sharing news and information, laughing a lot, visiting places – too many things to mention.’
‘Sharing knowledge, Comradeship and Socialising.’
For more, see the book.