Big Society(3): shape and size matter

May 17, 2010 by
Filed under: Social Economy 

Is The Big Society toast?

Writing in Friday’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins suggests that it might be.  It has emerged that “The Big Society” idea was difficult to sell on the doorstep, and another report in the Guardian featured “a senior and normally loyal Tory MP” who complained that Cameron’s big idea for the campaign under which armies of volunteers would come together to tackle the country’s ills – was “complete crap”.

When the "Big Society" idea was finally tested on the electorate late in the campaign, it received a thumbs down

“We couldn’t sell that stuff on the doorstep”, he said, “It was pathetic. All we needed was a simple message on policy. We could have won a majority if we had not had to try to sell this nonsense.” This frustratingly anonymous source may have a point, given that when the “Big Society” idea was finally tested on a sample of the electorate, surprisingly late in the campaign, it received a thumbs down.

Time will tell whether Cameron’s Big Society, like John Major’s Back to Basics Campaign, will be a fleeting aspirational notion, or whether the  Liberal Democrats are willing to help resurrect an idea that, as Simon Jenkins and others have pointed out, may be perfectly sound in theory. As Mathew Taylor indicated, the RSA have been working to make society “bigger” for some time,  and when it comes to “bigging up” society, the Connected Communities Project in particular have some useful ideas on the kinds of size and shape that matter.

It is so easy to slip from talking about "neighbourhoods", to reminiscing about "communities", to lamenting the various ills of "society"

A big society needs good social networks, and “good” does not merely mean a ridiculously high number of friends on Facebook, but rather links to important source of information and power, and access to people and institutions that offer skills and resources that are relevant and meaningful to the groups and individuals who seek them out.

Such connections can be measured, and networks have sizes and shapes with  qualitative as well as quantitative aspects, but to get a feeling for what is “big”,  we need to be clear about what “society” means in terms of network scale. This clarity is particularly important in the discourse surrounding community regeneration and social renewal, because it is so easy to slip from talking about “neighbourhoods”, to reminiscing about “communities”, to lamenting the various ills of “society”. Such terms will always be fuzzy edged and contestable, but at each level of scale we need different kinds of measurement.

The Young Foundation appear to be focus their community work at the neighbourhood level of a few hundred people, our Peterborough Project is city-wide, relevant to scores of thousands and therefore closer to “society”,  while The Connected Communities project, currently focussed on New Cross Gate, aims to be relevant to the roughly ten thousand residents who live there, and to serve as an example or prototype for work at a similar scale.

David Cameron seems to have a vision of a society of reciprocal altruists, proatively seeking to help each other and seeking help through friends and neighbours, rather than the state. His innaugural Downing Street speech clearly reflects a view of people with a shared sense of belonging who are essentially cooperative and helpful. In this respect, when Cameron invokes the big society, he means he wants to rekindle “Gemeinschaft” in the classical sociological terms of Tonnies, in which people bond over shared social mores.

This is a curious point, given that Gemeinschaft typically translates as “community”, while Gesellschaft, in which people’s associations are motivated by self interest and controlled by legal sanctions, typically translates as “society”.  Even more curious is that Gesellschaft is problematic precisely because of its scale, which leads to the breakdown of shared norms, which is another reason to think that, as the expression of an important idea, “The Big Society” may be somewhat misconceived and poorly expressed.

Indeed,  it is possible that the underlying motive for the idea of the singular “Big Society” is actually multiple communities of various shapes and sizes, in which people are connected through interests, norms and mores, and not through contracts or the happenstance of geographical proximity. Our Connected Communities project will try to make this case clear in our report that will be released this summer.

See also:
Big Society(2): What’s Blue and Yellow and Red all over?
Big Society(1)


Comments

  • Matt

    Hi J,

    Nice post. Although I’m still not convinced that networks are all that interesting beyond what they tell you about what people do, and how they affect one another. There is nothing about network density, size, etc. that is very interesting in the Framingham study, what’s interesting is the reality of the ‘contagions’ that the network effects purport to display. This focusses us on the contagion as something important, the networks just being lenses to see that.

  • http://twitter.com/whymandesign ed whymandesign.com

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  • Matt

    Hi J,

    Nice post. Although I'm still not convinced that networks are all that interesting beyond what they tell you about what people do, and how they affect one another. There is nothing about network density, size, etc. that is very interesting in the Framingham study, what's interesting is the reality of the 'contagions' that the network effects purport to display. This focusses us on the contagion as something important, the networks just being lenses to see that.

  • http://twitter.com/whymandesign ed whyman

    Sounds interesting. How to empower the public is key.

    Also would it be possible to work with you to make a re skinned
    version of other existing software so we can help the public to solve
    othersocial issues (Ideally using that http://www.TRAIDmark.org business
    structure)? Maybe working with someone like
    http://www.ONEworldHEALTH.org or http://www.earth.org which
    is closing so maybe this is something I could help you take on so
    everyone can share local knowledge? Also can http://www.WEBiversity.org
    share video's and create http://www.TRUSTlibrary.org with your
    team?