Monday, 26 April 2010

Will you still need me, will you still feed me? The amount of emotional or instrumental support that you receive from your social network, and the amount that you give, can be calculated and represented on a reciprocity scale. So you might give a lot of practical help to others and not need much yourself at the moment, scoring positively for instrumental reciprocity. You could have been going through a hard time and be needing more emotional support than you've been able to offer others, scoring negatively for emotional reciprocity. Back in 1992, as I've been reading, some Dutch researchers plotted these scales for a large sample of older people. As we'd expect, instrumental support given decreases sharply with age. The researchers found that instrumental reciprocity began to decrease at the age of 64, echoing that rather crummy Beatles song. More interestingly, they identified a turning point, where a relative surplus of instrumental support given changes into a relative deficit, at approximately the age of 66. Of course, you can expect your social network to decrease in size as you get older, and your reciprocity scale will also be affected by living in a care home where most of your instrumental needs are going to be catered for. The research seems to suggest that a sizeable minority of older people do deliberately seek to increase the amount of emotional support they give as their ability to provide instrumental support declines. Unfortunately, as a society we're not very good at providing contexts for emotional support, so that too many older people experience a sense of dependence rather than interdependence, submerged below the hoizontal line in the graph. I'm hoping there has been some follow up to this research: I've not found it yet, but would be keen to learn of it. van Tilburg et al. Flow of support. In: Living arrangements and social networks of older adults, VU University Press, 1995.
What makes a neighbourhood network? How do local connections between residents get fused into an effective communicative network that comes in time to underpin everything else that happens? I got into an interesting discussion yesterday at Balsall Heath in Birmingham, where I was lucky enough to be picking up wisdom from people like Paul Slatter and Hannah Worth from Chamberlain Forum, Ben Lee from NANM, Elke Loeffler from Governance International, plus Dick Atkinson and the folk from the famous Balsall Heath Forum. I'd heard and read plenty about Dick and about what had been achieved at Balsall Heath, and this was my first visit. It's a hugely reasuring place, unpretensiously displaying the commonsense of ordinary people getting stuff done locally. But I wanted to know, how come? There are active street 'stewards' (with or without the title) in 15 sets of 3-4 streets. I liked Dick's remark that 'With a bit of support and encouragement people do more than they think they can.' This gives the forum a firm foundation of local people who are continually ferreting away at issues. OK let's be clear: we're talking about unpaid, unelected active local citizens, who 'have emerged out of street life' (Dick's words) in numbers that are sufficient to cover an area with a population of 14,000, loosely linked through neighbourhood management and an elected forum. According to the website There are 22 residents groups, and 70 Street Stewards. So the whole neighbourhood is covered. Everyone knows someone and the sense of mutual self-help is fostered. So I'm slightly enviously think about why this hasn't quite happened in Shipley, where I've tried to help out every so often over the years. Having a resident-employed resident, Abdullah, who supports the street stewards and takes some of the pressure off them, must make a difference. He tells us about the advantages of living in the neighbourhood where you work - you get a better response, people don't think you have a hidden agenda: 'they don't see me as a threat'. And this can be very proactive work. We heard a story of two residents doorknocking because of an eyesore front garden, to discover a man on his own who badly needed, and was given, support. But none of this, nor the recorded history of Balsall Heath Forum, quite explains how local networks grow and strengthen in some places and not in others. Informality is obviously crucial. But how come the initial connections, presumably between a few willing, motivated, slightly uncertain folk, have ramified and come to underpin a significant amount of what can be done now without the clumsy machinery of the city's formal services? We didn't come up with an explanation, but I certainly came away with a clearer sense of the fundamental significance of an informal communication network in driving social change at neighbourhood level. For sure, if I'd been shown a unique ingredient I wouldn't have trusted it anyway.

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