Two recent blogs have stimulated me to put down my thoughts about creating the case for want of a better term I call ‘Big Society Study’.
The first was a challenge to the social policy and social science community to be more useful and policy relevant (which interestingly has created a bit of storm in academic circles).
The second was a piece about who was about the sector taking leadership on learning.
The link for me is that there is a strong chance that we will miss the chance to really learn from the current ‘big society’ experiment. Whatever one thinks about the political motivations of current localism agenda, it is undeniably a powerful chance to promote what many of the sector have been saying for a long time – that giving residents and communities more power and involvement in how their neighbourhoods develop and function will make a big positive difference.
There are a lot of comment pieces, and there are also some excellent small scale studies and initiatives, but no overarching evidence base to understand whether and how communities can function better through a more bottom-up approach. Indeed, there is no strong evidence base that also explores the complexity of how neighbourhoods and their communities develop over time. Yes, there are lots of statistics but proper rounded studies are rare – the best example is probably the JRF long-term tracking of 20 estates
Another JRF- sponsored study has taken a view the big society as a whole – Big Society Audit recently produced by Civic Exchange. There is also a large scale research programme being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, called Connected Communities
However, these appear to me limited in a number of ways, for example by being reliant on a set of existing indicators, taking a very theoretical approach to the issues, or a not being coherent as a whole. Only a strategic investment in the sector will help us know how far communities in areas are (or are not) being strengthened by current policy and social changes.
What could such an approach look like ? We could look overseas for examples, perhaps the work in Chicago on collective efficacy or Putnams detailed work on social capital. It can’t be done through household surveys – it needs new methodologies, like those developed by the RSA on social networks. It would need to measure levels of engagement in local services and civic life, the extent of neighbourliness and social networks – and how all these interact with economic and social positions (employment, health, education and so on).
Clearly it is unfashionable to be proposing new research funding in the current climate. However, I would propose this is best seen as a process of ‘rebalancing’ (to coin a current favourite word). Millions are currently spend on a vast range of household surveys. For example there is the £50m ESRC ‘Understanding Society’ project alone, but that is arguably misnamed – it looks at society solely through the lens of household characteristics, not how people interact in their community or are affected by local markets for labour, housing and education. The Citizenship Survey has been cancelled which look at some of these questions but perhaps a survey wasn’t the best way to provide the answers.
For this to happen, it will need a range of interests coming together to develop and make the case: research funders, those with an interest in communities, the academic/research community, and practitioners and policy makers. I hope this offers some food for thought about how current resources could be used more effectively.