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March 8, 2005

network mapping, civic education, & social capital

If you interview community members or leaders of local organizations and ask them what other organizations they work with, you can use software to generate a "network map" that shows all the linkages among organizations and allows you to identify any gaps in the network. For an example of such a map, see my depiction of major links in today's civic renewal movement. (I generated this image using TouchGraph's GoogleBrowser, so the connections represent links between websites, not reports of actual collaborations.)

Network mapping seems promising to me as a tool for community organizing: it allows you to see how your community could be strengthened by forging new connections among nodes that are not in contact. It also seems promising as a form of civic education. Students could perform network-mapping of their schools or communities and learn a lot about civil society.

Indeed, yesterday, three University of Maryland students began a network-mapping pilot project in Prince George's County, MD, under my direction. They are terrific students, but since there are only three of them, they probably won't be able to achieve more than get the process rolling so that others can follow after them. I am hoping that they'll generate at least an interesting preliminary graph that will tell us something about the place of the University in the County.

By the way, when scholars like Robert Putnam estimate "social capital" by asking people how many associations they belong to, whether they invite friends over for dinner, and whether they trust other people, I would say that they are using proxy measures to assess the strength and density of actual collaborations in a community. Thus I would say that a network map is a more direct (although more labor-intensive) measure of "social capital" than anything based on survey data. This is partly because I believe the purpose of social capital is to address social problems; I am not interested in connectedness or sociability for its own sake.

Posted by peterlevine at 9:38 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

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