The RSA recently published another report in their Connected Communities series – ‘Power Lines’ – exploring: ‘How social networks power and sustain the Big Society’. My colleague Sarah wrote a post on the original paper back in September, which argued ‘that deeper and more sophisticated knowledge of social networks in local areas can lead to more strategic and effective interventions to address local problems.’
Social networks are emerging from our research as critical to shaping individuals and the resources and opportunities they have to participate. The RSA’s latest paper has some thought provoking findings that link very closely in places to our work.
‘Power Lines’ is based on an analysis of social networks in New Cross Gate in south London. A selection of the key findings included:
- ‘Those with fewer local connections in general were more likely to be isolated from local influence’;
- ‘Being retired, unemployed, and living in certain areas, all made it more likely that people would be disconnected from local influence’;
- ‘Even within the relatively small area [there was] considerable variation. Some areas had much denser social networks than others’;
- ‘Poorly connected areas are characterised by a few very well connected individuals, and many poorly connected people. Well-connected neighbourhoods are composed of individuals who have similar amounts of connections as others’;
- ‘Community networks are resilient when they have numerous connections both internally and externally’.
The report’s overarching argument is that the government’s current approach to the Big Society is focused too much on ‘citizen-led service delivery’ and not enough on ‘utilising and building people’s social networks’. These social networks – the authors argue – ‘largely determine our ability to create change and influence decisions that affect us’.
They suggest that participation is often defined too narrowly, focusing on ‘so-called “active” citizens’, who are regularly engaged in public participation and are often regarded as the ‘vision of what it is to be empowered and to have influence’. Rather, the authors argue that in order to increase individuals’ access to local power, the focus ‘must first be on fostering overall social connections and neighbourliness’.
This argument, I feel, fits well with both the approach of our research and our findings. It suggests that rather than focusing on trying to increase participation in narrowly defined activities, we must take a step back and look from the perspective of individuals at the factors and forces that shape participation as a whole, of which social networks are a key part. Then, by focusing on building these resources and opportunities, we can begin to empower citizens to feel able to participate – if and where they wish to – and to feel that their involvement will make a difference.