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Matthew Taylor has just posted a fascinating piece on the clustering of personality types in places. I'm not sure the 'science of networks' is quite there yet as a tool for policymakers. But I think we can draw a few general conclusions from thinking about well-being and social capital as transmitted along networks, in terms of epidemics and so on.

Matthew Taylor has just posted a fascinating piece on the clustering of personality types in places. I'm not sure the 'science of networks' is quite there yet as a tool for policymakers. But I think we can draw a few general conclusions from thinking about well-being and social capital as transmitted along networks, in terms of epidemics and so on.

 

1. (Something I've got from talking to Mark Earls.) Try to work out when a phenomenon (say, the clustering of creative people) is the result of some repeatable set of events, and not the result of a random process. Random processes produce different results each time they are repeated, so are useless for predicting behaviour etc.

 

2. Let's be fair about class: middle class successful people tend to think that they somehow possess greater willpower and self-control (e.g. they manage to save for their pensions etc.). Maybe they do, but they shouldn't attribute these characteristics entirely to their own efforts. They grew up with people around them who did and expected to be like that, and to a large extent they just imitated them. That is how we learn a vast amount of habits and attitudes – not through rational deliberation and willpower, but through imitating and forming social identities through relationships. This ‘herd effect’ is part of the driving force behind clustering, and it creates a rich-get-richer trajectory (successful people get successful by copying people around them, then surround each other with more successful people, so that success stays ‘in the family’). That is a completely natural process but it can be influenced if there are sufficient sources for working-class kids to imitate and identify with – either through culture, education, civic engagement.

 

3. When you want to influence processes of socialisation and relationship building, think about doing not thinking: set up projects/institutions/clubs/ and so on that get people doing stuff; copying, influencing, encouraging one another through activity. Changing behaviour is a matter of influencing and supporting the largely automatic processes of the emotional brain. The model should be that of an athlete training: lots and lots of practice makes what at first takes conscious effort into something that is automatic. Even if you are trying to enable people to use their rational brains (say, with a chess club), this is still best done by practice and training (inculcating what at first seem clunky and alien-feeling thought processes so that they become automatic).

 

3. Don’t interfere too much in the processes that produce success, wellbeing and social capital. Carefully observe them and tweak them. For example, don’t attack the Women’s Institute for being reactionary and mono-cultural. Engage with the organisation and try to see why it is so succesful (has longevity), then try to encourage lots of small changes through action rather than dictation.

 

4. If you are trying to start off new social processes, utilise the potential of what’s already there in slightly different ways. This is not just a principle of network theory, it is how evolution works: dinosaurs could evolve into birds because they were reptiles with scales. Scales had the potential to be elongated and lightened to form feathers. Pigs, for example, really couldn’t fly – they couldn’t possibly evolve into flighted creatures, they are just made of the wrong kind of stuff. In social terms, this principle holds too. Trade unions were successful as a social phenomenon because they built on worker’s guilds; parliamants built on councils of elders, and so on. Every now and then new phenomena take off with no precedent, like youth culture in the ‘50s and ‘60s, or African-American culture in the same period. But this is still building on something already there, just something that’s been previously blocked off.

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