Can groups and social networks cure social Ills?

Tina Rosenberg, has written a book Join the Club which gives insight into groups and the influence of peer pressure. It is being published in the UK in August, though the US version is available online. It was recently reviewed by the economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The book is a series of case studies that demonstrate the case for using group power to change communities and neighbourhoods, which may then have a wider societal impact. Rosenberg argues that from problems as serious as AIDS, alcoholism and crime to loneliness and weight loss, groups can solve the problems created by the decline in some types of community and can also be used to change both personal and political behaviour.

Sachs is right to question how impact can be maintained in the long-term as often the research does not go on for long enough periods. However there is a great benefit in personal well-being in belonging to a community and that too is a worthy goal. David Brooks in his book The Social Animal says, “Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection…Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income.” 

TCC would argue that as well as understanding the power of groups, one also needs to understand the more informal social networks and their values that exist alongside more formal groups. These all contribute together to create social norms, social proof and peer pressure. We have blogged about that here, saying:

We would argue from our work in similar communities – especially around community cohesion issues – that understanding social networks is not enough on its own and one has to understand the values within a community which impact on people’s attitudes towards connection with others.

Let me give some examples. Those with sustenance, safety and security values may see very small closely social networks creating bonding social capital as reassuring, whilst those with inner directed values enjoy the weak links of widely distributed social networks generating bridging social capital and see networking as fundamental to what they do in life.

The RSA has done some pioneering work mapping social networks, but more insight is clearly needed. TCC is now taking this research further and is currently working with a local authority in the north of England on mapping social networks and understanding how values work within them. We will report further on our findings.

Understanding the power of groups, social networks and values should provide a wider set of policy tools for public, private and voluntary bodies to engage with and promote pro-social behaviours with a wide range of communities in an increasingly diverse and complex society.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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