How can the ‘social capital’ inherent in social networks provide contacts through which older people access practical and emotional support? What is the relative importance of kin and non-kin, and of participation in organisations and informal ties such as contacts with neighbours? Following a brief contextualisation that draws on previous literature, this paper addresses these questions through analysis of British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) data. It examines the extent to which people feel they can count on emotional and practical support from friends and relatives. A dependent variable was created that measures the outcome of the ‘social capital’ residing in a respondent's social network. Relatively poor support was found amongst elders who were childless or had been continuously without a partner; relatively rich support was found amongst those who had frequent contact with other people, who interacted frequently with neighbours, and who regarded their neighbourhood as a positive social environment. Being active in organisations had less effect on social support than informal social contacts. Amongst many different forms of organisational activity, the only ones that had a positive association with social support were being in contact with others through religious activities, and engaging in sports clubs. The social support of working-class elders, even those ‘well networked’ in formal or informal ways, was strengthened less by their social capital than was that of the professional and managerial occupational groups.
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