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I’ve just been reading an article about ways of understanding and strengthening community connections in an article by Valdis Krebis. The idea is that you need to understand the relationships between people in a community, and the connections linking them to people outside the community through creating a map of the social network. The premise is that social networks influence a whole range of outcomes, as shown in research on the likelihood of obesity.

I’ve just been reading an article about ways of understanding and strengthening community connections in an article by Valdis Krebis. The idea is that you need to understand the relationships between people in a community, and the connections linking them to people outside the community through creating a map of the social network. The premise is that social networks influence a whole range of outcomes, as shown in research on the likelihood of obesity.

Creating a map of social networks can help you to track existing ties and design strategies to create new connections. These maps can also work as sparks for conversations about relationships and how they help people to achieve their ambitions. For example a map of the networks between a local school and businesses in Barnsley, highlighted how disconnects could work against the chances of students getting jobs in the area, and got people talking about how to change this. This is why creating chances for people to take part in documenting and talking about relationships is a key part of the Connected Communities programme.

If a community organisation knows where the connections are and are not, this may make it possible to influence local interactions. It could be more powerful to influence a small number of well-connected people, instead of just working through the hierarchy, or contacting people at random. Why might it be desirable to influence how people interact?

Without active facilitation, people can form into tightly knit groups with very similar members who are close to each other. While these circles can provide vital social support, they may not bring in new ideas and information. This leads to the argument for active facilitation of networking within and between communities, what they call network weaving. This is an integral part of effective community work, although according to RSA Fellow Alison Gilchrist this meta-networking role (supporting and transforming other people’s networks) is usually unrecognised and under-resourced.

This is about relationship building across traditional divides, and facilitating people working together, in other words, not just schmoozing. This speaks clearly to the collective action ideas in the discussions on social capital, especially the importance of ‘weak ties’, these links which act as bridges between groups can bring in new ideas and resources to help people change their lives, and community workers can play a key role in facilitating these links.

So this sounds very optimistic so far – create a picture of the network, then influence it so that you expand connections outside of narrow groups. There are lots of examples of how this process can work in organisations, highlighting disconnects and informal information channels, and we’ve talked about the value of Social Network Analysis with the RSA staff. What about when the networks are not anchored by an organisational structure, and the only thing members have in common is living in the same area. Will it be practical and useful to create a map of social networks? Can this reflect the intricacies and dynamics of relationships, including the negatives as well as the positive aspects? Very interesting comment from Max Hogg on a previous post - could ethnographic approaches and storytelling be  a more effective way of building a picture of informal social networks.

Furthermore, the way that funding streams operate can unintentionally drive competitiveness among community organisations and efforts to preserve exclusive access to networks. Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol is working on a Recession Fund, in which funding is tied to how well participating organisations link people up with different sources of practical support.

In New Cross Gate, the RSA is working with New Cross Gate Trust and the New Deal for Communities programme on understanding and strengthening social networks to support effective community development. The way that NDC programmes have worked has contributed to strong peer support links, or bonding social capital. We’re especially interested in identifying hubs and brokers (or meta-networkers) within the community, and the building of bridges. This means seeing the community as wider than just people living in the immediate area, but also how it links to Telegraph Hill and Peckham.

We’re currently piloting quantitative and qualitative methods to understand social networks among residents of New Cross Gate and linking them to residents of neighbouring areas, and will be posting more information as the research progresses.  Comments and suggestions  very welcome!

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