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The Connected Communities programme is about understanding and using social capital and social networks for social and economic development. So we’ve probably already lost most people just in saying what the programme is trying to achieve. Social capital is a term academics and policy makers are always talking about, but it is often hard to be clear what they mean by it, how you would go about measuring it, and what can (and should) be done to influence it.

The Connected Communities programme is about understanding and using social capital and social networks for social and economic development. So we’ve probably already lost most people just in saying what the programme is trying to achieve. Social capital is a term academics and policy makers are always talking about, but it is often hard to be clear what they mean by it, how you would go about measuring it, and what can (and should) be done to influence it.

Social capital is the name given to describe the quantity and quality of people’s relationships. The premise is that these connections influence how well people get by - or the glue that holds communities together, (such as having someone to look after the kids for a day) and get ahead - bridges to new opportunities or ways of seeing things (for example, a contact who can tell you about a job opportunity). Studies have linked social capital to health, crime, happiness, almost every kind of development.

The most influential way of looking at social capital has been the one developed by Robert Putnam, looking at how much people trust and help their neighbours and how active they are in their local community, through volunteering in a local scouts group, for example. This approach lends itself well to surveys such as the General Household Survey, asking people how they feel about their area and their neighbours, and counting how much people do different things, such as volunteer, as a way of measuring social capital.

This approach has proved controversial, with critics arguing that you end up with a picture of social capital, based on numbers, but not an understanding of how social networks operate and what people get out of them. When researchers have applied Putnam’s way of seeing social capital to health in deprived areas, in studies in South-East England and Gospel Oak, they argued that we need to pay more attention to informal networks, connections that stretch outside of the local area, and how complex social networks can be. The differences between residents (age, gender, ethnicity) means that we can’t talk about social capital in an area as if people’s experiences were all the same. This means we need to look at who has most and least ability and willingness to make and use connections to improve their lives. We have to try and make sense of social networks.

Social network analysis is a way of creating a visual picture of social capital through drawing the connections between people and the characteristics of these connections. In trying to work out how to go about measuring social networks in a way that would be useful for orienting the work of local government and community organisations, we came across a number of different challenges:

· A lot of the research looks at the form of the networks more than their substance, you have an image of a network, but it is hard to know what to make of it

· Social relationships can be seen in isolation from the physical environment, economy and other factors – as if social relationships were the only influence on development

· The starting point of seeing social relationships as the basis for development can mean researchers underplay unsupportive or destructive social ties

· Relationships can be seen in an unrealistically rational way that we wouldn’t recognise in relation to our own relationships – as if people make and maintain connections purely for practical personal benefits, leaving out emotional reasons

So the direction we decided on was to look at social networks (what they are and how they work, including who benefits most and least) that provide access to resources and support, through a mix of methods, including surveys, interviews and workshops. This is to create a picture of social networks and try to understand what the networks mean for the social development of an area.

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