Saturday, 06 November 2010

Philanthropy, community action and 'economic activity' In the debate at yesterday's launch of nef's paper on big society there was a lot of confusion about philanthropy, mutual aid and community action. Each of these at some point seemed to be implied by speakers and comments from the floor in using the short-hand but inadequate term 'charities' (or 'small charities'); and sometimes covered by the term 'volunteers'. Each of these forms of involvement tries to compensate for the shortfall in formal support or otherwise complement the role of the state, and is assumed to be unpaid. However, they may differ very markedly - in political ideology for example and obviously in the degree to which they aspire to empower or in practice disempower. It's also obvious that they are unevenly distributed in localities across the country. As I've suggested before, in some places it will be relatively easy to mobilise philanthropic volunteering while in others it could prove very hard to sustain even the proudest tradition of mutual aid. Guardian Society editor Patrick Butler was the only one to come close to unpacking this in his short talk, sending me back to a seminal paper by Gabriel Chanan called Taken for granted, published in 1991. Taken for granted was important because it revealed the distinction between volunteering based on a philanthropic tradition (ie something which comes from the surplus that 'well-motivated people' donate to others who they see as less fortunate than themselves); and community action which arises from people's own life-support needs, being occupied in looking after children, elderly people, sometimes people with disabilities, and in doing the whole range of unpaid work which is taken for granted in the running of society - cooking, shopping, cleaning, maintaining social networks, 'emotional housekeeping', protecting local interests and the many other forms of essential activity which we take for granted as the basis for our common existence. Gabriel went much further, locating the cause of the confusion over the community and voluntary sectors in the economic value placed on unpaid work: All this tends to confirm the conventional definition of economic activity and to reinforce the image of the 'inactive' half of the population as being passive dependents of the 'active' half. Sounds sort-of familiar. Twenty years on, here we are contemplating a forced revision of that conventional definition of economic activity against a cacophony of complaints about the economically 'inactive'. It's not a good time to be blurring our understanding of the different agents who can bring about that revision. Patrick Butler warned yesterday of the possibility that before too long 'many of the charities that the big society will rely on will be dead, dying or missing in action.' This brings an urgency to the necessary examination of that word 'charities', and perhaps we have to move the big society emphasis away from philanthropy that disempowers, to mutual aid and community action that drives and makes possible the development of skills, confidence, trust, tolerance, co-production, and local economies that include caring.
Locality, diversity, and internet use A new study published by Keith Hampton and colleagues confirms that internet use has little if any negative impact on the diversity of people’s networks. There are now fewer and fewer voices claiming that internet use will lead to the rapid descent of the human race into dysfunctional incommunicative bestiality (religious leaders and academics like John Locke in his book The devoicing of society have tried to spread misguided alarmism). Things have settled down a bit lately and hopefully with this research, based on and reinforcing last year's Pew study (which I reviewed here), we can all get back to what we were doing. (Image from). The article assesses network diversity and technology use in relation to participation in traditional social settings including public spaces, semi-public spaces, religious institutions, voluntary groups, and through neighbourhood ties. It concludes that the use of social media primarily supports diverse networks through participation in these settings. On the whole, internet users have networks that are more diverse than those who do not use the internet, although causality cannot be demonstrated definitively: There may be bi-directionality; use of traditional social settings may drive some technology use, which in turn drives more use of the settings. The importance of local place is thoroughly re-confirmed, even without reference to neighbourhood online sites: The findings show only limited evidence that place-based relations have less resonance with Internet users; this was in one setting (neighborhoods) for one type of technology (social networking sites) – and an alternative explanation, as has been found in other research (Hampton, 2007), is that those with few neighborhood ties are more likely to adopt social media... Place is not lost as a result of the affordances of new technologies, but place-based networks are reinforced and made persistent. The authors go on to conclude that social networks may be more persistent now than at any point in modern history. ICTs afford relationship maintenance in ways that reduce the likelihood that ties will ever become completely dormant. Unlike in the past, when networks of high school and neighborhood ties were abandoned with marriage (Kalmijn, 2003) or migration (Hagan et al.,1996), it is increasingly likely that both the relation and the content of the relation’s messages remain persistent over time as “friends” on social networking services and as data stored and engaged with online. As our finding about the use of social networking services suggests, this directly benefits network diversity and access to social capital.

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