Sunday, 22 May 2011

Influence and local social networks 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...
'I didn't know I could': museums and young people looked after Last year I worked with Rebecca Linley and Martin Dudley on an evaluation of museum-based activities with children and young people looked after, and we were surprised by and impressed with the outcomes that we found. Our report (the MaCLA report) has now been published by Renaissance East of England, along with a summary and some case studies. The main points are these: The young people gained consistent benefits in terms of confidence, self-knowledge and identity; social skills; cultural capital; and learning. These outcomes can be attained reliably and sustainably, and can probably be accessed for considerably less than £30 per young person per hour. These are young people who either experience exclusion or are at risk of being excluded from many social and economic opportunities and benefits. The work is empowering because it targets young people’s options for empowering themselves. The observations and interviews were instructive in helping us appreciate some of the nuances of inclusion. In one instance a fairly withdrawn young man was ‘drawn in’ by the others in the group in sessions he attended. They arranged to meet up independently and invited him along. His carer told us that he did not mention it at the time and so he did not go. Her interpretation was that ‘inclusion has never happened to him before.’ These were initiatives designed exclusively for children or young people who are looked after. They were based in museums (although several initiatives involved extra-mural visits), and involved some kind of activity (usually both group and individual activity) such as drama, design, craft etc. The activities varied in number of sessions and duration, from a single to fifteen sessions and from 90 minutes to five and a half hours. The age range was 7-17 years. We argue that the activities are low risk and inexpensive; not addressing the young people’s needs is high risk and expensive.

Recent Comments