Friday, 15 December 2017

Book Review - The Cement of Civil Society

A Twitter conversation has just made me realise I never published this book review on here. The proper version is available from the journal here. In sum - the book was so dull, I literally fell asleep on a train reading it. What the author managed to completely miss was that his analysis helped explain the decline of Labour in Glasgow and the rise of the SNP. 

The Cement of Civil Society: Studying Networks in Localities
Mario Diani
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015, 244+xxii pp, £64.99 (hbk)
ISBN: 9781107100008

Professor Marco Diani is a world-leading scholar on social movements. His book The Cement of Civil Society begins with the widely held proposition that the UK saw an unprecedented rise in protest activity in the 1990s, with growth in visible protest activity on the environment, animal rights, poverty, ethnicity and human rights, and peace. This also included the spread of protest to ‘unusual suspects’ (p.26). This change was paralleled by the growth of opportunities for civic groups to be involved in policy-making within the local state, especially from 1997 onwards.

By focusing on what is termed the voluntary and community sector within two UK cities – Glasgow and Bristol – Diani argues that his study offers particularly novel contributions to the study of local government and urban governance. However, the text very much emerges from a literature on social movements from political science and political sociology, a literature this reviewer is not familiar with. The key innovation is methodological, driven by theory. In his analysis Diani focuses on relational data – that is network data – about the voluntary and community sector, not aggregative data, arguing that: ‘this conceptual and methodological shift leads us to reframe some basic questions about the features of political activism, participation, and civil society in contemporary Western liberal democracies.’ (p.1)

The book begins by setting out a three-fold typology of the voluntary and community sector based on how strong their boundary work is, and the level of resource exchange they engage in: organizational, social movement and coalitional type organisations. The two-by-two grid that leads to this analysis also includes ‘Subcultural/Communitarian’ groups, but these are not a focus of the rest of the book. The second chapter sets out the methodology and mixed methods approaches and the case study choice, arguing that Glasgow had been traditionally dominated by one left-wing party (Labour at this time) and a history of class-based protest whereas Bristol has been more politically plural, with a civil society dominated by middle-class groups associated with new social movements, such as the environment. It should be noted that within each city, Diani only looks at voluntary and community sector organisations in one particular neighbourhood. Thus, Diani suggests, we should see substantive difference between the civil societies if we were to use an aggregative approach to highlight the novel insights of his relational approach.

Chapters three to eight set out the findings of his fieldwork, carried out between 2001-2, in a series of tables and short quotes from the qualitative fieldwork. Chapter three begins the relational analysis by looking at who organisations in both cities form alliances with and why, suggesting that they work with groups that are organisationally similar but who have a higher profile in civic society. Chapter four then conducts a network analysis of civil society in both areas, looking at resource exchange between organisations and social ties. This neatly suggested there were three different networks in both cities, with different levels of resource exchange and embeddedness. Chapter five succinctly relates the findings of chapter four to how organisations viewed themselves, finding congruence and shared protest repertoires among the networks. Chapter six then brings in evidence of engagement in local events to show a continuity across types of networks, protest repertoires and the sorts of events groups were involved with, and the events that link organisations. Chapter seven looks at the centrality of certain organisations in both cities’ networks, with a surprising finding that umbrella councils for the voluntary sector in both cases were not very central, but also attracted different groups in the different cities: coalitional groups in Glasgow and social movement groups in Bristol.

Chapter 8, on the links to local urban governance is probably of greatest interest to readers of this journal. However it falls short on methodological grounds outlined below. The data presented shows that most organisations had contact with the local authority in some way – which should not come as a surprise. The extent to which organisations engaged with public-private partnerships was very high, but this could be down to how they were defined in survey questions, rather than involvement in formal, contractual partnerships. The qualitative data echoes the findings of the broader work on partnerships from this era, with Diana concluding that ‘[e]ach group’s specific experience with council departments and/or partnerships seemed very much mediated by intervening factors such as quality of the civil servants concerned, or the nature of the issues addressed.’ (p.181) A good, and amusing, example of this was the close ties between peace protest groups and the police in Glasgow; the former had to rely on the latter to organise their disruptive protests including providing the police with a handy guide of how many people they expected to be arrested!

The theoretical and methodological innovations of this book will be invaluable to scholars of social movements and civil society in an urban context. As stated above, as a reviewer I am not one of these scholars, therefore the book has a number of weaknesses for a more general reader. Firstly, the data is now extremely dated. Writing from the perspective of Scotland, immense changes have occurred in the 13 years since these data were collected. The Scottish Socialist Party, who are so central to Diani’s analysis and went on to win six seats in the Scottish Parliament in the 2003 elections, are now a spent force in Scottish politics. Most obviously, the class-based politics focused on Labour has been replaced by an (arguably) class-based politics focused on the Scottish National Party, who have come to dominate politics in the west of Scotland. Thus, as studies of the two cities, Diani’s book is mainly a historical account, albeit fascinating at times because of this.

However, the analysis and theorisation offered by Diani does go some way to explain why such dramatic changes in political fortunes could occur so rapidly. The relational approach shows why these voluntary and community sector organisations are the cement of civil society because of the networks they are in. If a political party can successfully replace key nodes in these networks through working with these organisations – as the SNP and latterly the Yes referendum campaign in Scotland did – then a broader change in political outcomes is likely.

A second issue this reviewer has with the book is subjective and epistemological. Diani’s work is set within a tradition of quantitative political science and political sociology with its roots in the “normal” paradigms of North America. Here, it seems, that if a study does not include a regression model then it is not adequate as social science. I’m not fully qualified to comment on the adequacies of the statistical techniques Diani uses, yet for me when these are supported by the rich accounts of his participants the mixed methods really come alive. This is even admitted by Diani when he occasionally introduces a quote as making a point much clearer than the table of data that preceded it. While this reflects an unresolvable issue of epistemological difference, it is a shame that some more of the richness of the qualitative data does not come through in the analysis.

Finally, Diani argues that his relational approach offers new insights into local government and governance. There is no doubt that it does. However, as the discussion in the final chapter shows, suggests this is a product of research design and limitations, rather than intention. The social movement analysis the books sits in, judging by the bibliography, focuses on aggregative analyses of social movements at a national or even international level. As Diani admits in chapter two, the data for a relational analysis at a city-level would be too complex, let alone a national-level. The use of his analysis in specific neighbourhoods was thus a choice of convenience.

As such the analysis technique would be useful for people to replicate to understand the rich linkages between organisations in specific urban neighbourhoods. It would offer a richness of quantitative data to add empirical weight to what we already know about urban governance, and changes over the past 20 years. This type of work would also add to our knowledge the relationship between governance and social capital (c.f. Putnam). The insights of the book do not necessarily transform what we already know about the governance of urban contexts; rather it provides new empirical insights.

This is clear in the final chapter, which as stated draws lessons from the book for two more contemporary changes – the growth of online social networking and the wave of revolution that sped through the Middle-East. That these were national events, and international changes, testifies to the fact that this book speaks firmly to an international literature on national or global social movements. The book is therefore best suited to scholars interested in local government who wish to use its methodology to better understand the relations of governance. 

No comments:

Post a Comment