Wednesday, 21 December 2011

What is social participation? ‘Social participation comprises three dimensions: neighbouring, trust, and interest in politics.’ This comes from a chapter of early findings from the ESRC’s Understanding society programme (the new household longitudinal study, described as ‘the world’s largest household panel survey’). The sentence is regarded as sufficiently important to be given a large-font margin box all of its own, so they must have meant it. It’s certainly different. Those who construct these large national surveys have to make a few questions go a long way, which ain’t easy; but it’s quite hard to see how you could get to this 3D reduction from the mix of concepts covered for example in this mindmap which I knocked up a few years ago. And we need the survey makers to get their structures right because they will set in train a whole lot of subsequent research, policy and practice for years to come. We can compare and contrast the Understanding Society framework with, for instance, the framework offered in the recent Pathways through participation report. Distinguishing social, public and individual participation, the PtP summary report suggests that social participation includes 'being involved in formal voluntary organisations, informal or grassroots community groups, and formal and informal mutual aid and self help.' The PtP project put a lot of intellectual effort into the topic, and the tag cloud on their site boasts an enticing array of terms; but I don’t see the words ‘neighbouring’ or ‘trust’. There are just two items for ‘politics’. So here we have two national level initiatives offering quite different frameworks for a concept that affects all of us and has increasing salience in policy. The Pathways approach is more thorough and altogether more convincing, but unfortunately the Understanding Society approach is likely to have influence for some time as the next waves of data build up and get used. In their effort to explain their framework, the Understanding Society authors trip themselves up quite quickly: ‘Neighbouring captures informal social participation, while general trust and interest in politics capture participation in formal organisations.’ Well no, they don’t, not by a long way. I’m not an academic so I don’t know what the protocol is, but I suspect that if this was an undergraduate essay you’d send them off to start again.
Just trying to be sociable "Previous research suggests that U.S. residents may use holiday decorations on their home's exterior to communicate friendliness and cohesiveness with neighbors. In the present research, we examine whether strangers (naive raters) can accurately identify the more friendly residents, and what aspects of the homes' exteriors contribute to their impressions. We also examine the possibility that residents who decorate for Christmas but who have few friends on the block may be using the decorations and other cues as a way of communicating their accessibility to neighbors. Participants rated residents based only on photographs of their home and front yard. Stimulus homes had been preselected to represent the four cells of a two by two factorial design crossing the presence/absence of Christmas decorations with the resident's self-rated social contact with neighbors (low/high). As expected, a main effect for the decorated factor indicated that raters used Christmas decorations as a cue that the residents were friendly and cohesive. Decoration interacted with sociability in a complex but interpretable way. In the absence of Christmas decorations, raters accurately distinguished between the homes of sociable and nonsociable residents; in open ended comments, they attributed their impressions to the relatively more 'open' and 'lived in' look of the sociable residents' homes. When Christmas decorations were present, raters actually attributed greater sociability to the nonsociable residents, citing a more open appearance as the basis for their judgments. The results support the idea that residents can use their home's exterior to communicate attachment and possibly to integrate themselves into a neighborhood's social activities." Werner, C et al (1989), Inferences about homeowners' sociability: impact of Christmas decorations and other cues. Journal of environmental psychology, 9, 279-296.

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