Friday, 13 December 2013

Emerging thoughts on social networks, place and poverty

I’ve been very fortunate to have been awarded a research project by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, as part of their anti-poverty strategy, to investigate the evidence around social networks and poverty. In our expression of interest we stated our aims as:
  • Review recent international evidence (defined as from the last five years) on the links between social capital and place and household outcomes, particularly in deprived neighbourhoods;
  • Review recent UK statistical and international evidence on the links between equalities characteristics, place and social capital to provide a more nuanced account of the intersection between social capital, neighbourhood and community, and other individual characteristics and their impact on life chances.
  • Review recent evidence from grey literature and evaluations on the success of policy interventions in developing social capital to alleviate or tackle poverty;
  • Review recent evidence on the capacity of online social networking to develop social capital and any specific barriers to digital inclusion people experiencing poverty may have.

I’ve been working on the first and third aims and just thought I’d write-out my ideas so far to clear my head. 

The first bullet point is the crux of the work for me as, being a planner, I’m approaching this from a spatial perspective. So I’m particularly interested as to whether there is a neighbourhood effect on social networks for people experiencing poverty. To explain, a neighbourhood effect, is the effect that living around other people the same, or different, has on an individual’s outcomes. To sum it up even more simply, it’s the theory that it is worse to be poor in a poor neighbourhood than in a mixed neighbourhood, because characteristics of that neighbourhood mean your experience of poverty will be worse, and your chances of leaving poverty will be lowered.

This is a very controversial view, especially because it toes the line on the questionable “cultures of poverty” and underclass arguments that emerged into UK policy discourses with Charles Murray’s work in the 1990s. Tom Slater has written a strident critique of the work here, highlighting how the focus should really be on why do people experiencing poverty ending living in deprived neighbourhoods that are ill-served by markets and public services. I and all the other neighbourhood effects scholars I know would broadly agree with this too, but there’s still something about the neighbourhood that has to be of interest. It’s very telling that the JRF themselves use this stock photo to represent poverty, even though everyone knows the majority of poor people don’t live in poor neighbourhoods.


This has become particularly clear with a literature search I’ve carried out. I was only focusing on literature in the last five years, but searched Web of Knowledge for combinations of “social capital”, “social networks”, “poverty” and “low income”. It was striking how the vast majority of the results focused on communities of propinquity – the neighbourhood or similar spatial units. The other striking thing was how the vast majority (I’d say 80%) of the studies focused on the links between social networks and poor health and wellbeing. These were discounted from our review as the outcome the studies tended to mention was health and wellbeing, not poverty or social networks (although, of course, causation is a complex web here).

So, what do I know now I’ve done quite a bit of reading? Well, I found George Galster’s seven possible pathways of neighbourhood effects to be useful to start as a theoretical framework and have narrowed this down to three possible pathways by which place, poverty and social networks might be linked:
  •           Socialisation – norms and role models, essentially.
  •           Threshold socialisation – that norms and thresholds have to reach a certain level to have an impact
  •           Social networks – direct social contact may have an impact on opportunities to get on, or improve a neighbourhood.

I’ve included the first two, which are very closely linked, because they kept coming up in the research. It’s mainly because it’s very difficult to measure social networks in quantitative neighbourhood effects studies because of lack of data, so you end up researching social norms, really. But in a number of papers a link is made between social norms and sociability. For example, this interesting Dutch paper highlights how parents of children in deprived neighbourhoods cut their children off from local social networks to protect them from negative socialisation.

The socialisation stuff is also useful because of this bit of logic. The negative socialisation thesis, even though there is scant and mixed evidence for it, is used by policy-makers to justify “mixed communities” policies; basically knock down deprived neighbourhoods and introduce tenure mix. It makes your indicators look good, just ask Glasgow.

Now, the thing here is homophilly – not sure how you pronounce it, but it reads like a word meaning someone who really likes Philadelphia. Basically the theory that people like to be around, and socialise, with people like themselves. And it looks like it’s true. So no matter if you mix poor people with wealthier people, chances are they are not going to meet and talk to one another, except maybe at the school gate. There’s also the pragmatic reality of modern neighbourliness; as one respondent quoted in this research said:
“it has taken us two and a half years to get to know our neighbours . . . and we know our neighbour across the driveway very well because he is not very nice.”

So, even if we live around people and know them, it’s not as if we’ll necessarily get along anyway. Also coming up in the literature a lot is the fact that support networks in deprived neighbourhoods are vital for helping people get-by, particularly within kin. People will have smaller networks, but they will be able to rely on them less.

All-in-all, however, I’m already moving to a view that focusing on social networks within an anti-poverty strategy is not really worthwhile, as there’s plenty bigger fish to fry, particularly around maximising income. But we'll see. Still got a lot more to read...

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