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Social Networks: Precarious or Robust?Social Networks: Precarious or Robust?

Social Networks: Precarious or Robust?

While some of the terms surrounding discussions of social capital and social networks are new, the concepts and practical outworking of the concepts, are not. Social connections have always existed. We are learning, however, that despite our great technological advances, we need sufficient density and diversity in our social networks for shared life to work well.

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Topics: Networking, Complexity
Social Networks: Precarious or Robust? July 7, 2011  |  By Milton Friesen
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Reposted from the Cardus After Hours blog (RIP).

While some of the terms surrounding discussions of social capital and social networks are new, the concepts and practical outworking of the concepts, are not. Social connections have always existed. We are learning, however, that despite our great technological advances, we need sufficient density and diversity in our social networks for shared life to work well. Wherever we become insular, self-referential and homogeneous, we can expect that we will significantly decrease our resilience, liveliness, health and even long-term economic success.

Social capital is, at one level, simply another way of talking about human community. The matrix of relationships, dependencies, benefits, obligations, opportunities and creative expressions that result from a vibrant collective life depend on diversity along a whole host of axis. Jeff Goldstein and Rodrigo M. Zeidan, have written a compelling paper on Social Networks and Urban Poverty Reduction (the volume it appears in is well worth getting and can be found here).

Their research reveals that slums (US) and favelas (Brazil) suffer, amid their known litany of problems, from a lesser known lack of social networks that connect them externally. The internal networks intensify over time and are extremely dense. But the needed external networks are very weak. In particular, there is a notable lack of institutional networks that could provide a series of steps for people to move between in overcoming poverty. In the case of one Brazilian favela, the magnitude of earning power from one side of the street to the other may be a factor of 14 or more and represents a very defined and well-guarded border with little variance between the extremes.

 

Being geographically proximate to people does not mean that social capital is shared. Social networks are impacted by geography but only when the network actually exists. If there is no diversification in those networks, geography will do precious little to improve it. Pictured above (pardon my handwritten notes) is the difference between a vulnerable network (top) and a robust network (below). Jane Jacobs made many of these same observations from a different angle back in 1961 when The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published. She did so without using the language of contemporary network theory, complexity theory and other fields that have exploded in the last couple of decades. As a result of these kinds of informed reflections, we have greater insight now into the roles that diversity, built environment, social institutions, and other network assets play in building vital communities.

Individuals might consider their personal lives as well in this regard. How much diversity exists in your social circle? What about your neighbourhood? Is it diverse from an income, business, culture, stage-of-life or other vantage point? Goldstein and Zeidan observe that if we ignore social networks, massive energy and money can be poured into isolated islands of need without any lasting changes. In considering renewal—our own, our neighbourhood's or our city's—we need to be attentive to the level of diversity and insularity that may be present. Where we work, who we spend time with, and the number of different settings where that happens are very important for our personal well-being. If the scale is moved up to businesses, neighbourhoods, cities, and regions, the particulars change but the same need for variance, nuance, alternatives and stepping-stones of connecting is present.

The apparent efficiency and security that comes from a commitment only to the things that reinforce what I already believe myself to be, leads to a deadening dullness that, paradoxically, makes me more vulnerable. The same appears to be true at all scales of social networks.

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