About ten years ago in community development and policy circles there were lots of conversations about using social network analysis to get at understandings of 'community' and thereby contribute to policy. To their credit, folk at the RSA just got on and did it, and have now published the second report of their Connected communities project.
This one is called Power lines and looks at social exclusion in terms of isolation from networks of influence and power. The report suggests that
'people feel a greater sense of empowerment if they have a larger and more varied number of local connections and relationships.'
Social networks reflect the ways power plays out, so that influence accumulates from influential connections, and exclusion accumulates from weakness of social ties.
Hence the authors' recommendation that local public bodies should assess their funding for community groups on the contribution that groups make 'to building stronger, more diverse social networks.'
'In particular, initiatives should seek to connect those who are currently isolated or at risk, with others.'
The hard bit is working out how. There's plenty to build on, and firm justification. Asif Afridi, in a review for JRF published in March, suggests three main ways in which social networks can address poverty:
- They can enable the sharing of resources (time, expertise, support) and information (job opportunities, benefits advice, influence).
- They can provide mutual support and opportunities to learn or develop skills (support to start a business, for example).
- They can create strength in numbers and enable collective action or voluntary effort (improving a local area, for example, or social campaigning, or ensuring a voice in local affairs).
Understandably, the report does not dwell on what it means to have or not have a sense of influence and empowerment. But it provokes questions for me, which I'm not sure have been answered in previous work either in this project or for instance by MORI (Searching for the impact of empowerment) or in the important National Empowerment Partnership paper (which I discussed about a year ago)...
To begin with, who wants to have influence? What do we know about the sort of people for whom it does or doesn't matter to be able to influence policy?
And then I suppose I'd like to know, is wanting to have influence associated with believing you have influence? Are there survey data that tell us who says they want to have influence; and a comparable data set that tells us who thinks they have influence? Looking at that would be a start, after which we should maybe see if we can find out who actually exerts influence.
Finally, two quick reminders. Using social network analysis to help understand meanings of 'community' is not new. For instance, it's been used in the debate about the idealisation of late medieval English villages as harmonious close-knit communities. People were found to have manifold external connections, which tells us a little about our assumptions of levels of cohesion in the past - and maybe hints at unrealistic expectations in the present.
And it's worth remembering that Geoff Mulgan was writing about network poverty in relation to digital technologies as long ago as 1990, possibly earlier. Notwithstanding the pioneering work of people like Barry Wellman and Keith Hampton, and the important contribution that the Connected communities project is making, we maybe should have got further by now.