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Is The Big Society toast?

Is The Big Society toast?

Writing in Friday's Guardian, Simon Jenkins suggests that it might be.  It has emerged that "The Big Society" idea was difficult to sell on the doorstep, and another report in the Guardian featured "a senior and normally loyal Tory MP" who complained that Cameron's big idea for the campaign under which armies of volunteers would come together to tackle the country's ills – was "complete crap".


"We couldn't sell that stuff on the doorstep", he said, "It was pathetic. All we needed was a simple message on policy. We could have won a majority if we had not had to try to sell this nonsense." This frustratingly anonymous source may have a point, given that when the "Big Society" idea was finally tested on a sample of the electorate, surprisingly late in the campaign, it received a thumbs down.

Time will tell whether Cameron's Big Society, like John Major's Back to Basics Campaign, will be a fleeting aspirational notion, or whether the  Liberal Democrats are willing to help resurrect an idea that, as Simon Jenkins and others have pointed out, may be perfectly sound in theory. As Mathew Taylor indicated, the RSA have been working to make society "bigger" for some time,  and when it comes to "bigging up" society, the Connected Communities Project in particular have some useful ideas on the kinds of size and shape that matter.


A big society needs good social networks, and "good" does not merely mean a ridiculously high number of friends on Facebook, but rather links to important source of information and power, and access to people and institutions that offer skills and resources that are relevant and meaningful to the groups and individuals who seek them out.

Such connections can be measured, and networks have sizes and shapes with  qualitative as well as quantitative aspects, but to get a feeling for what is "big",  we need to be clear about what "society" means in terms of network scale. This clarity is particularly important in the discourse surrounding community regeneration and social renewal, because it is so easy to slip from talking about "neighbourhoods", to reminiscing about "communities", to lamenting the various ills of "society". Such terms will always be fuzzy edged and contestable, but at each level of scale we need different kinds of measurement.

The Young Foundation appear to be focus their community work at the neighbourhood level of a few hundred people, our Peterborough Project is city-wide, relevant to scores of thousands and therefore closer to "society",  while The Connected Communities project, currently focussed on New Cross Gate, aims to be relevant to the roughly ten thousand residents who live there, and to serve as an example or prototype for work at a similar scale.

David Cameron seems to have a vision of a society of reciprocal altruists, proactively seeking to help each other and seeking help through friends and neighbours, rather than the state.

His inaugural Downing Street speech clearly reflects a view of people with a shared sense of belonging who are essentially cooperative and helpful. In this respect, when Cameron invokes the big society, he means he wants to rekindle "Gemeinschaft" in the classical sociological terms of Tonnies, in which people bond over shared social mores.

This is a curious point, given that Gemeinschaft typically translates as "community", while Gesellschaft, in which people's associations are motivated by self interest and controlled by legal sanctions, typically translates as "society".  Even more curious is that Gesellschaft is problematic precisely because of its scale, which leads to the breakdown of shared norms, which is another reason to think that, as the expression of an important idea, "The Big Society" may be somewhat misconceived and poorly expressed.

Indeed,  it is possible that the underlying motive for the idea of the singular "Big Society" is actually multiple communities of various shapes and sizes, in which people are connected through interests, norms and mores, and not through contracts or the happenstance of geographical proximity. Our Connected Communities project will try to make this case clear in our report that will be released this summer.


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