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The RSA’s strapline is 21st century enlightenment, a phrase that resonates with the Society’s founding enlightenment ideals and its desire to bring innovative approaches to contemporary problems. Thomas Neumark, argues that understanding the potential role that networks could play in building resilience is central to this idea.

The enlightenment is a historical period but it is also a set of values and ideas about human nature. As Kant wrote “enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's understanding without guidance from another.”

As this quote makes clear one of the key enlightenment values is autonomy. In his last annual lecture and pamphlet, Matthew Taylor argued that autonomy has traditionally be understood as meaning that “every individual should be able to make their own choices about their own life free from overbearing religious and political authority”.

Building on this traditional understanding, he argued that a 21st century enlightenment required “a self-aware form of autonomy, informed by a deeper appreciation of the foundations, possibilities and frailties of human nature.” Contemporary understandings of autonomy must take into account new insights into human nature derived from academic disciplines as diverse as neuroscience and epidemiology.

Today the RSA publishes a new pamphlet entitled Power Lines in which we develop this idea of a contemporary interpretation of autonomy drawing on new insights into human nature. Specifically, we focus on the role that an understanding of the power of social networks could play in assisting people to exert a degree of control over the decisions that affect their lives. This speaks to work by economist Paul Ormerod, in the second in the series of RSA pamphlets exploring the meaning of 21st century enlightenment.

This might seem counterintuitive. Anyone who has seen Nicholas Christakis’ speech on social networks at the RSA will have been taken aback by the evidence that he presented. He showed that the behaviour of people in our social networks (our friends, family and colleagues) impacts on our own behaviour in a vast range of domains, from obesity to smoking to divorce. Indeed, we know from our own research with people with problematic drug and alcohol use that recovery is more likely to be successful if people are in ‘recovery communities’.

As Christakis acknowledges, these observations raise the troubling suggestion that we are simply members of a herd, mimicking the behaviour of those around us. How do we square this evidence with the idea of autonomy?

Part of the answer comes from reflexivity; the idea that it is possible to see ourselves as we relate to the world, and that this has a powerful effect on us. The RSA has been exploring this concept through our Connected Communities project which demonstrates the value of viewing communities through the lens of social networks.

If we can start to understand the power of social networks, then we can start to exert greater control over our lives. For example, creating a map of our connections can help us to see the vast range of resources that are available to us should be want to bring about change in our local area. This is part of what we mean by self-aware autonomy.

This enlightened reflexivity is of value to us as citizens. It holds out the potential that we could be less influenced by the vagaries and whims of the social currents that we exist in; rather we can consciously utilise the power of these forces. Instead of feeling like other people and agencies are constantly doing things to us, by understanding the power that our social networks give us, we can better shape and control the decisions that affect us.

This perspective is useful for policy makers that seek to empower communities. As we argue in Power Lines,in the past too many government initiatives that seek to empower communities end up falling foul of the limitations nicely summed up by Oscar Wilde’s (possibly apocryphal) saying, "the trouble with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings."

Instead of inviting citizens to consultation events or to volunteer to run public services, policy makers could consider ways in which they can help us to understand, build, sustain and utilise our social networks. In practice this would mean paying particular attention to supporting those of us who have diminished social networks, for example people who are unemployed or retired.

The government will shortly be announcing a new fund that “will empower people in areas with high levels of deprivation and enable them to take more responsibility for their communities”. Our research has direct implications for this Communities First fund. For the fund to succeed in meeting its objectives (no mean feat) it will need to support people’s social networks and assist them to understand the power that these bring.

De Tocqueville wrote that, “in democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.” If this is true, then self-aware autonomy means realising the power that our social networks can have on us and using this knowledge without guidance from others. A view of autonomy inspired by social networks; what could be more 21st century enlightenmentthan that?

Thomas Neumark is former Associate Director for the Connected Communities project at the RSA.


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