Friday, 31 January 2014

Poverty and social networks - key concepts

Social networks across the literature there is no single definition of social networks, they can vary from knowing a neighbour to say “hello” to, to having strong ties to kin and friends that individuals can rely on.

Social Capital the concept of social capital is used widely in sociology and political science. It focuses attention on social networks that offer benefits for members. There are two key conceptions; firstly derived from Robert Putnam’s work. This focuses on the extent of network membership and the amount of trust within networks. Societies with high levels of this sort of social capital are seen to be functioning more effectively than those without. The second is derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and critically aligns social capital with the unequal distribution of economic capital in society. It focuses on networks as means to gain influence and access to resources in society to accumulate further resources.

Poverty the report is based upon the JRF’s definition of poverty used to frame the research programme:
“when a person’s resources (mainly their material resources) are not sufficient to meet minimum needs (including social participation).”
In using this in data analysis we have chosen the consensual measure used in successive Poverty and Social Exclusion surveys in the UK. In secondary data collected for this review various measures of poverty and low income have been used, with varying strengths and weaknesses, including: UK income measure of two-thirds median equivalised household income, or equivalent; income-based poverty measures of other countries (US, Netherlands, Norway); the Market Research Association’s Social Grades; the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification; and commonly tenure, or employment status as a proxy for poverty or concentrated deprivation.

Weak ties/strong ties the sociology of Mark Granovetter focused attention on the strength of relationships within social networks. His early work identified large numbers of weak ties among professional employees that enabled them to access information about work opportunities and advancement. This has been contrasted with the limited networks of strong ties that people in less skilled labour markets rely on to change between similar level jobs.
Similarly a distinction has been made between the “bonding” social capital within less affluent communities that helps people get by, for example, being able to call on people for childcare, and the “bridging” capital of more affluent communities that helps people get on by, for example, being able to access work opportunities or advice.

Reciprocity many social networks are based on reciprocity – the return of favours or resources granted. Reciprocity can be individualised or generalised. Individualised reciprocity is the giving of resources to an individual with an explicit agreement that there will be a reciprocal exchange. Generalised reciprocity is the provision of resources to individuals within a group with the knowledge that someone in that group will return resources in exchange at some point in the future. Networks of generalised reciprocity are thus high-trust networks.

Neighbourhood effects is the theory that there is an effect on an individual’s outcomes from living in a neighbourhood with a concentration of people with a certain characteristic, above and beyond the individual’s own characteristics. To put it simply in this case, it is the theory that experiencing poverty in a deprived neighbourhood is worse as the neighbourhood itself reduces the chances of leaving poverty.

Mixed community there is no single definition of a mixed community, but across the literature reviewed mixed communities were either mixed in terms of tenure, particularly in the UK where this can be a proxy for household income; mixed in terms of the incomes of households; mixed in terms of ethnic diversity, particularly in Netherlands and US context. UK evidence on mixed communities is mixed between evidence from neighbourhoods built as mixed through regeneration programmes and similar, and communities that have become mixed through tenure diversity as a result of the Right-to-Buy policies.

Digital divide is a contested term, but is largely understood to be the divide between people who have ready access to information communications technologies and those who do not. Two digital divides are more commonly identified: a socio-economic divide where less well-off people cannot afford the up-front of on-going cost of internet access; and a cohort divide where older people are not comfortable using newer technologies.

Web 2.0 and social networking web 2.0 generally refers to websites and other resources that allow people to create their own content on the web include blogs, video-sharing sites, audio-sharing sites, noticeboards and micro-blogging. Social networking, through sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter is a subset of web 2.0 technologies that specifically allow people to share information with social networks.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Poverty and social networks...what works?

I’m now beginning to get to the stage the JRF want me to be at for my evidence review – thinking about what works; or what policy interventions might you used to develop social networks and social capital to help tackle poverty. In my previous post I used the mixed evidence around neighbourhood effects to question whether mixed communities policies might mean people in poverty might gain more links to more affluent people. Since then I’ve not read any evidence that counters that. In fact, evidence from the US Moving to Opportunity programme suggests that people who were given vouchers to move from deprived to more mixed neighbourhoods often then felt lonely and isolated from previous social networks. There was also depressing evidence from Dutch studies that although less affluent people wanted to mix with their more affluent neighbours, the latter did not reciprocate, or were not there to reciprocate.

So, the picture is much more complex than the idealistic concept of a less affluent person befriending an affluent person and suddenly being inspired to be less poor. What there does seem to be consistent evidence on though is the role of informal, unstructured meeting places in neighbourhoods which allow people to mix and build up trust. In particular the role of primary schools and parents bumping into one another when they drop their children off seem to be key in a lot of the studies of mixed communities for the development of social networks between affluent and less-affluent people. Similarly, good quality community centres and parks offer a similar, if more limited role.

Trust building is important. The US work on social capital, led by Putnam, puts a lot of emphasis on the development of trust in developing networks that help a society get on. I’ve not seen any convincing evidence of this in my review, but what does seem to be the case is that trust helps reduce stigma and prejudice against marginalised groups.

One of the markers for trust within groups is a high-level of generalised reciprocity – in a twitter discussion I referred to this as the sociology of buying rounds in a pub. Basically, if a group has very little trust and there are lots of you, people won’t buy rounds for the fear that they won’t have a drink bought for them the same drinking session. If you have trust and generalised reciprocity then rounds will be bought knowing that you will have a drink bought for you sometime in future. It would be really nice if the sort of trust developed by passive acquaintance in public spaces could lead to generalised reciprocity.

However, I doubt this would happen in a society as socio-economically unequal as the UK because poverty and low income reduce generalised reciprocity as people withdraw from reciprocal networks or are excluded because they cannot offer anything back.

Which doesn’t neatly bring me on the internet and libraries. Hey-ho. Anyway, let’s see if I can shoe-horn a connection back in. So, the JRF also want us to look into the “digital divide” and whether the affordances of new information communication technologies could help develop social networks, and social networks which can make a difference. So far in the evidence: use of email helps develop loose ties that help you get on; social media tends to help build strong ties that help you get by. Also, interestingly, people in poorer neighbourhoods who have less access to the internet at home, are not affected by distance to their local library in their internet use – they will overcome geographicalbarriers to use the internet.

Which got me thinking about the role of libraries in developing social networks within communities, and I found this rather nice evaluation of the Big Lottery Fund Community Libraries Programme. Reading through it I was immediately reminded of a quote from a former community worker I spoke to during my PhD who described the Ferguslie Park Community Library in the 1980s thus:

“I say the local community library who were…I’ve I mean the first time I’d ever been in a library in my life where they played really loud music during the day but it was great because it meant there wasnae this kind of, wasn’t seen as an educational establishment it was seen as a community establishment and that was a really important factor”

And I think this sort of library could be a really important resource for alleviating and tackling poverty through developing social networks: providing space for learning activities; provided cheap rooms for groups to meet; providing an access point onto services or the “bridging” capital (people that matter like Councillors or MSPs/AM/MLAS/MPs) to make changes in their life.

However, this is a big change is the nature of what a library is – moving a big way from the Victorian philanthropic ideal of the library as a space for self-improvement by immersing oneself individually in good reading matter. This is thinking about the library as a community space, seeking to foster community, and lend out books. The evaluation of the Community Libraries Programme highlighted how this change of use for libraries had a big impact on staff – some felt energised and developed a great deal, others thought something had been lost in their role as librarians.

This got me thinking about a good response I had to my first encounters with community policing in Scotland. The police in Scotland, and particularly the bits of Lothian Borders Police I saw in my PhD, did community policing really well – working closely in partnership to deliver preventative action against low level criminality. When describing this to someone, they agreed, but countered that there was a danger police officers would become social workers, which they definitely should not be. And is the danger that librarians become community development workers or social workers and libraries are just community centres with books, left after all the community centres are closed? Or, if we are going to radically reshape services to coproduce them, should every public sector worker be a community development worker with the requisite training and supervision support?

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Call for chapter proposals: After Regeneration: lessons for urban policy from connected communities

With Dr Dave O'Brien I'm working on developing a book proposal based on the work of the AHRC Connected Communities programme over the past few years. Here's the call for chapters: 

After Regeneration: lessons for urban policy from connected communities 

Connected Communities has funded over 280 projects and is working with over 400 community groups. The projects are diverse, reflecting different communities, different places and different academic traditions. A new book seeks to capture how these projects, given all their different aspects, have contributed to debates, discourses and practices of policy. In particular, the book seeks to relate Connected Communities to urban policy. Urban policy is undergoing rapid and major changes as the era of urban regeneration, associated with New Labour in the UK, has come to an end. The context for urban policy making is now uncertain, with cuts, austerity and financial retrenchment the overriding characteristic of policy, policy and local service provision. The new urban settlement has created many risks, but also many opportunities, for urban communities to determine policy and politics.

The book seeks chapters from Connected Communities researchers that focus on urban policy questions. Suggested topics may include:

The relationship between communities and urban regeneration policies or programme

The policy impact of Connected Communities research on local, regional or national regeneration policy

How urban policy is changing and how this is reflected in research by Connected Communities projects

The impact of working with less affluent communities on academic research practices

The benefits to communities and community organisations of working with academics

Critical accounts of urban policy derived from Connected Communities research

Critical accounts of the Connected Communities projects and programme based on reflections on working with communities

Empirical and theoretical considerations of social capital, social networks and connected communities

Theories of policy making based on Connected Communities research

Deadline for abstracts, of no more than 250 words, is Friday 28th February, with completed chapters expected November 2015. The editors are currently in negotiations with Policy Press for a book to be published in Autumn 2015. 

Feel free to discuss ideas with Dave O’Brien or Peter Matthews.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Facebook don't get social

I was a fairly early adopter to Facebook. As a Cambridge graduate I was one of the earliest group of people who was allowed to join in the UK and it helped me keep in contact with all my friends who had gone to live in That London. Over the years I've had a love-hate relationship with it, but my main social media is now Twitter. I'm still a Facebook customer, but you might include my story in the apocalyptic stories of Facebook's impending demise (more of that in a bit).

Fairly early on in my Facebook use, people who I really did not want to be "friends" with, particularly former bullies from school and university, were sending me friends requests. Also, still, I don't want everyone knowing that I'm gay before they even meet me. As a result, very early in my Facebook career I completely locked down my page and adjusted my privacy settings accordingly. You could not find me by searching Facebook.

The other day I received an email from Facebook (an actual one, not a phishing attempt) and now when I log in I get this warning:

This makes me very angry indeed and I am contemplating leaving. The reason given is that I am now find-able through tagged posts etc. And I have found I get some odd people commenting on posts on my timeline because friends with no/few privacy settings have put them there. But I've gone back to my privacy setting and locked them down yet further.

To go back to impending demise of Facebook (the more interesting story is this one) one thing in these stories I find very interesting is the assertion that teenagers stop using Facebook when their parents befriend them and then head off to use more anonymous social media like Twitter, Whatsapp and showing off their rude bits on Snapchat.

Now, to link all this to my anger and the subject line of the blog, for me this is because Facebook just do not get being social and this seems hard-wired into their business. It does not take advanced sociological knowledge to understand we generally do not just have one social identity. As Goffman explored, we have social roles, and we adjust how we present ourselves in those social roles based on the expectations of the context we are in. Facebook, it seems, presumes all social contexts are the same and therefore everyone will want everything known about them. At its most basic this presumes everyone lives a very pure and worthy existence at all times and never engages in perfectly normal social behaviours such as bitching or gossiping.

And this is essentially how I use Facebook - because it's not as public as Twitter I am very careful as to who I befriend and I use it vent in a way that would be wholly inappropriate in a group of people who were not my friends. One way I have increased my use of Facebook is as a member of a group linked to my sports coaching - there we mainly share facile comments about how much we are exhausted/aching after a training session. Slowly I'm letting this people into the rest of my Facebook universe where I moan and make very sarcastic comments which I'd otherwise keep quiet about.

Facebook, at its root, seems to fail to understand how people manage their sociability and social roles in this way. For me this has to be linked to its business model. It is trying to monetise social connections between people and therefore has to make them as transparent as possible. So, to give one fictitious example, a company will want to know that my friend has mentioned them in a Facebook post as a potential employer. They might start targeting advertising at you. But then your present employer might search for your timeline and quickly get you into a lot of trouble.

Compare this to Google's business model. I have an Android phone (in fact a brand new Fairphone, but that's another story) and a Nexus tablet and I use Chrome. Google could not know more about me if they sat me down and interviewed me for hours. In fact the only thing they seem to get wrong, is they pick up on my friends' posts about their babies on Facebook and occasionally targets adverts for baby products at me. I'm oddly comfortable about this. I find the alert on my phone to set off for a meeting quite useful (if not disconcerting at first). Everyone knows Google's attempts at social media have not been a resounding success - every time I log into Google+ my thought process is "wow, this is amazing. But there's no one here". But unlike Facebook they want to know you as an individual because that's what they can monetise. They don't want to force you to be sociable to monetise that. You can't keep a secret from Google, but Google isn't going to tell your friends.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Teaching philosophy statement

Someone has just asked for it, so I thought I'd put it up on here. I completed it in September 2011 before I'd had a full-on teaching semester here, however I still agree with it. I think I'd now probably just have a bit "bullshit detection" of the Postman and Weingartner sort. And in December last year I gave it to my first year class to comment on whether I achieved what I set out to and the general, positive view was that I did. So, here you are:

I want students to have those eureka moments of enlightenment. I want students to sit-up and be alert in lectures they’re enjoying; or at least not yawn too much. I want students to gain practical skills they can use as professionals in the workplace. I want student to gain skills of critical analysis to be aware of alternatives. I want students to gain deep understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of the subject.

These are high aims and I will be pleased if I meet them sometimes. The student body on urban studies courses is diverse and becoming increasingly so, presenting new challenges for teaching and learning. Students are beginning courses from very different disciplinary contexts, with differing ontological and epistemological assumptions, all of them valid in some way in urban studies subjects. Students also come from different learning contexts with very different expectations and learning outcomes. My role as a teacher is to provide a nurturing learning environmental where this knowledge and these skills can be brought out, challenged and developed into the deeper analytical skills required for the subject.

To do this in my teaching practice I will:
In lecturing – use an active lecturing style, with classes broken up with questions to the class and break-out sessions to apply learning immediately through practical application and reflection.
In tutorials – challenge and stretch students with theoretical writing and practical case studies that will develop deeper understanding and critical reflection.
In assessments – to use a range of assessment techniques appropriate to desired learning outcomes. Reports and presentation will develop practical skills, such as group working, report-writing, communication skills and practical problem assessment. Extended writing will develop theoretical knowledge and critical analysis and writing skills. Summative examination will be used to test relational learning outcomes, or used creatively – such as open book examinations – to develop deeper understanding of topic areas.
In technology-assisted and distance learning – to keep materials up-to-date and interesting and be brave in utilising new technologies and media when they are available, such as blogging, micro-blogging and social media.
In mentoring and supervision – to be attentive to individual learners’ skills and weaknesses and support them in develop skills such as academic reading and writing, literature searching and reviewing and research design and development.
In relating to students – treat them as adults and support them accordingly, providing prompt responses to queries whenever possible; provide positive, constructive and timely feedback on assessment, within the two week time limit of my discipline; and support them through their wider programme of learning.

To achieve this I will seek and use feedback from students, focusing as much on negative as any positive feedback. I will also work closely with colleagues to feed back to the collegial support I have already been offered in developing teaching materials and my practices. This might include peer observation, seeking moderation of assessment marking, and quality control on teaching materials. Through reflection in my Royal Town Planning Institute log book and PDR process, I will challenge my emerging approach to teaching and learning and adapt it to ensure I am meeting learning outcomes and providing a positive and challenging student experience. I see developing my teaching and learning style as a career goal. Students, society and technologies are going to change enormously over the next five years, let alone the next 40. Keeping abreast of changes and aware of student needs will keep learning materials and approaches fresh and accessible and ensure they will provide the learning outcomes I aspire to.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Dishing the dirt on local government in Scotland

So, I’ve managed to get the final paper out from my PhD - Being Strategic in Partnership – Interpreting Local Knowledge of Modern Local Government in Local Government Studies. It’s a paper I knew I could develop from the PhD but never thought I’d manage. As it turned out quite a few applications for research grants didn’t amount to anything so I had the opportunity to crack on with it. Also, the big empirical chunk of it was fairly easy to construct – it was one of the rare cases where I could just copy-and-paste lots directly from the thesis or earlier drafts.

As Pat Thomson reiterates it’s never as easy as just chopping up your thesis chapters and getting them published as papers; and most theses need a lot of work to turn into books. I didn’t know this when I developed my writing plan post-thesis, but I realised this anyway and chose themes across my thesis chapters for the various papers:
  •           Mind the Gap’ - A discourse analysis of Scottish urban regeneration policy (which was written concurrently with my fieldwork and write-up).
  •           Problem definition and re-evaluating a policy’ – A funny one as it was written in response to a conference CFP which turned into a special issue that never was. However, it gave me a good space to write out some of my interpretive policy analysis stuff and work through my insights in place-based stigma and policy-making.
  •           Have we lost the meaning of regeneration?’ – this one was pretty much the thesis in 9,000 words. This is what I add to the world’s stock of knowledge in what might work in urban regeneration policy.
  •           The difficulty theory paper.

These papers all are either critical/interpretive in their stance, or focus on the communities I was researching rather than the policy-makers. Being Strategic in Partnership focuses on the policy-makers and I like it. I enjoyed writing it and I think its insights are important. Unlike my other papers the case studies are quite anonymised in this paper because, as the title of this post suggests, I “dish the dirt” on the local authorities involved. As an outsider on my ethnographer’s balcony, some of the practices I watched were absolutely astounding, and the critical analysis wrote itself.

However, the paper does not blame the policy-makers and I hope that any of my participants who recognised themselves in it would not feel too hurt by the portrayal. The paper makes two key points. Firstly, although “strategic partnership working” is portrayed as a very modern way of working in local government, it actually dates back to the late 1960s at least and it is embedded in the ways of acting in organisations and by organisational actors.
I then go onto elaborate some of these meanings and practices as they happen in the Community Planning Partnerships I observed. For example, a common key metaphor used by local government officers was “partnership is a table” – this makes perfect sense, they often meet around tables. Nut it also then framed how actors approached partnership working – tables are something you bring stuff to and share it. Therefore if people did not share things all hell broke loose (as it often did).

What I highlight is how all these meaning and practices together form a sort of “strategic” cultural domain by which these officers understand the world – it’s a discourse, a spatial scale, and a broad system of meaning-making. They cannot help it; it’s the world in which they work. The trouble is, and the critical insight I offer is, it’s completely alien to community activists trying to make their neighbourhoods better. For them partnership working is one bit of the council knowing what the other bit is doing and not accidentally working against each other; it is not delivering strategic projects sat around a table. So, that’s the trouble with “strategic partnership working” is that by it’s very nature it excludes the community.

What I find very worrying is I can’t see this getting any better. I bang on at length about the National Performance Framework and the “what matters is outcomes” mentality in contemporary Scottish public services (another paper I want to write). Part of this is the idea that outcomes are easier for the “community” to understand compared to inputs or outputs. However, from my research I just see this as the latest development in the strategic domain alienating people from policy-making. What is more worrying is that because “outcomes” are seen to be a Good Thing in a quite unquestioned way, it leaves government at all levels to ignore, or just not bother, with community engagement as “it’s ok, we’re developing positive outcomes”. I found it very telling that a search for new research on community engagement and empowerment on the Improvement Service (for local government in Scotland) website I did yesterday found results on statistics for single outcome agreements, stuff focused on customer service, and reports from prior to 2006.

If we want to engage people with local service provision then it has to be focused on things that really matter to them. And with that we have to accept that this engagement will be tense, shouty, unpleasant and deeply political, because these things do matter to people so they get emotional about them (something else I want to write/research about). Local democracy can’t be about cuddly consensus and is about making hard choices about who gets what and what the justification for that is.