We have written a number of times (1. Weak ties; 2. Nudges; 3. Public Health) about the importance of social networks for building social capital and resilience in the poorest communities. A report published last week by the RSA, as part of their Connected Communities Project, adds to the case.
In 2010, the RSA published Connected Communities: How social networks power and sustain the Big Society, which explored how social networks could contribute to community regeneration and had the potential to bring about significant improvements in efforts to combat isolation and to support the development of resilient and empowered communities.
They have now published a follow-up report Power Lines which look at networks of power and influence, and in particular those who are isolated in the community. The paper also argues that the government’s efforts to develop a Big Society are too focused on citizen-led service delivery. Instead the authors argue that an approach based on utilising and building people’s social networks, which largely determine our ability to create change and influence decisions that affect us, may prove more effective. The authors say:
Our work suggests that people feel a greater sense of empowerment if they have a larger and more varied number of local connections and relationships. This is because denser and more varied connections give people better access to information, opportunities and assets, and therefore make it possible for them to club together effectively on the issues that matter most to them.
The report looks at what happens when social networks are relatively weak:
As the key findings indicate, there are a number of factors which are correlated with being disconnected from local influence. These include
being unemployed, being retired, living in an area with low overall levels of connection, or having fewer local connections in general. While efforts to build better connected communities should include strategies to increase social connections and support networks, we also, of course, need to recognise and address the structural reasons why certain individuals are more likely to be disconnected.
These weaker links can have quite a significant social cost to individuals, to wider communities and to society as a whole:
Life course, population churn, unemployment or family changes can reduce networks that used to exist. Those over the age of 65 emerged as a particular at-risk group: contacts can move away or pass away, and without activities that foster connectivity (such as work and
having children in a local school) it can become difficult to replace those ties. An area that contains many people with few ties — an area with higher levels of unemployed people or retired people — will then reinforce few connectivity levels because there will be less chance meetings between people and their friends of friends. Less chance meetings, or ‘friend interaction’, will in turn reinforce the lower likelihood of these people getting jobs or joining clubs that might increase connections.
It then makes a number of positive suggestions as to how public policy can make the most of increased awareness of social networks suggesting wider network mapping, targeted interventions, networking services and use of the newly launched community organisers scheme to help much of this along.
There are a number of examples of public services that have already embraced this approach. A recent report cites the way that the Paxton
Green Group Practice use Timebanking to connect patients with each other. As well as reducing GP appointments this approach builds and
sustains new connections in the surrounding area. The Southwark Circle scheme is another example of this kind of social network inspired
approach to public services. The scheme’s main purpose is to help people get support for everyday tasks in their home. However, integral to the design of the scheme is the ability for people who benefit from these services to connect with each other. This has lead to a whole array of social events for people who would otherwise be quite isolated.
This report, whilst shorter than the 2010 one, is a much better exposition of the case for social networks. However whilst it identifies the many differences within a community, it does not fully address the impact of the relative density and type of social network and how that impacts on how individuals make sense of the world and the world views and narratives they adopt.
We would argue from our work in similar communities – especially around community cohesion issues – that understanding social networks is not enough on its own and one has to understand the values within a community which impact on people’s attitudes towards connection with others.
Let me give some examples. Those with sustenance, safety and security values may see very small closely social networks creating bonding social capital as reassuring, whilst those with inner directed values enjoy the weak links of widely distributed social networks generating bridging social capital and see networking as fundamental to what they do in life.
The report does implicitly cover the issue. The description below illustrates the potential Values Gap that we have previously blogged about between the highly networked and those whose values and subsequent social capital is more security and safety conscious:
More often than not, participation is defined too narrowly. Consequently, there is a focus on so-called ‘active’ citizens (typically labelled the ‘usual suspects’), identified through their contacts with local councillors, voting behaviour in elections, vocal membership of local groups, or written responses to local consultations. Such citizens represent our vision of what it is to be empowered and to have influence. This paper argues that to increase access to local power — understood as the ability to get things done and change one’s circumstances and local community — the focus must first be on fostering overall social connections and neighbourliness.
As well as the impact of values on social networks, at the same time the nature of a social network in a community may reinforce the prevalent values in a community. Thus there is likely to be an interplay between values and social networks with both influencing each other. The economist Paul Ormerod, who wrote the related RSA paper N Squared Public policy and the power of networks, made the point at his own RSA lecture of the importance of understanding both Networks and Values.
Clearly more research is required. It is possible that different types of complex social network (scale free, small world etc) might have an impact on the size of social network, social capital and values and their interplay, but not enough research has yet been done to test this hypothesis.
We hope the RSA and others follow-up on this research and seek to understand the interplay between Social Networks and Values to enable targeted public policy interventions to make the most of the limited resources that are available in the current financial climate.