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Sometimes you need to back up a little. I have spent most of the last few days trying to get my head round the intracacies of social network analysis, and I fear I am losing sight of the bigger picture.

Sometimes you need to back up a little. I have spent most of the last few days trying to get my head round the intracacies of social network analysis, and I fear I am losing sight of the bigger picture.

Why bother with community? Who needs connections?

The first answer that jumps out at me is trust. Trust is closely related to connectivity and we want a trusting society, not just to reduce transaction costs, but because we feel better when we feel trusted and trusting. Anthony Seldon developed this point at length at a recent RSA event. So the connected community project is partly about trust, in particular about how to build it, and to better understand how it can be lost.

The second answer is loneliness. The first RSA speaker event I attended was John Cacioppo's lecture on lonliness, which detailed decades of interdisciplinary research into the pervasive feeling of subjective isolation, and details the deleterious effects of lonliness on health, wellbeing and, yes, trust. We care about social networks because we are looking for such patterns of isolation and exclusion.

The third answer is scarcity. What do you do when the money runs out? There may or may not be green shoots signalling the beginning of the end of the recession, but we know that the public sector typically lags two years behind the private sector, and there will soon be acute pressure on budgets for local public services. If that were bad enough for the short term, rising energy prices and an ageing demographic create enduring pressure on existing services. So what can you do when the local authority faces a funding shortfall of (on some estimates) around 30%? Well, you can look for money elsewhere, rely on enterprise, or you can seek to build social capital so that people make better use of their available community resources(time banks, car pooling, local currencies etc.)

The fourth answer is inequality. There is now good evidence that societies with lower levels of inequality tend to be happier, and we know that social capital is used to perpetuate patterns of inequality. The more we can understand the functioning of these networks, the more informed we will be in our efforts to create a mor egalitarian society.

The fifth and (for now) final answer is friendship. People are basically social creatures who we now understand to be conditional altruists. In other words, we are inclined to want to help others, but only insofar as we expect that help to be reciprocated. I walk past several people every day without saying hello, or asking how they are or who they are. Some of these people are random passers-by, but many I know I will see again, waiting for the same train, selling the same magazine. Understanding networks will not shift this sort of intertia, but it's a start. The more we realise the powerful impact of social networks on everything from health to wealth to happiness, the more value we will place on making these links and measuring these effects well.

I am glad I got that out of my system. Now I can go back to reading about alters, nodes, name generators, betweennesss, sample sizes etc without feelign completely disconnected from the real world!

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