An Engagement Strategy for Community Network Research and Design

An Engagement Strategy for Community Network Research and Design

Peter Day (University of Brighton, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-264-0.ch006
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This chapter introduces the community engagement strategy of the Community Network Analysis (CNA) project and considers its significance to research and practice in socio-technical design and social networking systems within the context of community technology. CNA uses a participatory action research (PAR) methodology grounded in community development principles. Employing the Community Development Foundation’s “involvement ready” model, the project adopted a mixed methods approach to data collection and analysis—community profiling, social network analysis, participatory learning workshops, and community communication space prototyping. The immersive nature of the project’s engagement strategy was designed to facilitate an interpretevist understanding of the complexities of West Hove community ecology. The project’s community-based participatory research approach is described together with the project’s contribution to knowledge, some of its significant outputs and outcomes and the tensions between the practices of community research and community development actions.
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...we must always put people before machines, however complex or elegant the machine might be.

—Cooley (1996, p. 69)



When considering issues of import to socio-technical design and social networking systems within a context of geographic community or neighbourhood, one of the first issues facing a researcher and/or designer is the question of engagement. As outsiders to the community or neighbourhood, how do researchers and designers engage with geographic communities to design effective socio-technical systems and networks? This paper introduces the community engagement strategy of a participatory action research, (Wadsworth, 1998; and Tacchi, Slater & Hearn, 2003) project and considers the implications of introducing a community development orientation to the research and practices of community networking.

The project in question, the ‘Community Network Analysis (CNA) & ICT: Bridging and Building Community Ties’ project, was funded to explore potential uses of ICT in developing and sustaining community network ties and social capital in the Portland Road and Clarendon Neighbourhood Renewal area (West Hove). The community development perspective was adopted by the CNA team because the main areas of research focus —enabling community communications and strengthening community relationships and building social capital —are significant components of community development work, (Gilchrist, 2004a).

The population of the Portland Road and Clarendon Neighbourhood Renewal1 area is just under 11,000 (Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, 2003). Of these, 54% are women and 46% men. 56% of the local housing stock is owner-occupied, with an increasing proportion of this stock being bought by London-based commuters. This has had the resulted in forcing house prices beyond the reach of many locals—ironic in an area where the majority of accommodation was originally built for artisans and factory workers. However, the recent construction of ‘social housing’ and a fairly large sector of privately rented accommodation (29%) means that the socio-economic profile of Poets Corner ranges from comfortable affluence to social deprivation and poverty. West Hove is a multi-ethnic neighbourhood characterized by its social and cultural diversity.

Despite significant community activities —such as reclaiming Stoneham Park and the annual summer festivals and family fun days —and the best efforts of community development agencies, the grass-roots community and voluntary sector witnessed a weakening of social relationships between organizations along with an apparent growth in territorial tensions. Priorities within the community are often unclear and some local residents and community groups have been critical of the work of a number of the local community groups —perceiving them as ‘closed’. In the main these perceptions arise from poor communications within the community infrastructure. Shrinking resources have meant that dialogue with the community at large is at times close to non-existent. Whilst it is fair to say that some community organizations are inward looking and inimical to new ideas and new people, significant numbers of groups are keen to engage with community citizens in a more effective and communicative manner.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Network Analysis (SNA): A methodological approach used to analyze the nature of the relationships and ties between ties in a variety of social networks. In this case the nature of communication ties and relationships existing in a geographic community.

Community Research: A methodological approach in which knowledge is generated for practical community purposes (as well as academic use) and in which community ‘ownership’ of the research process(es) is/are encouraged.

Community engagement: Processes by which academic researchers develop relationships with community partners; and community partners engage and identify with, eventually developing a sense of ownership of, a community initiative, project, activity or action.

Community Profiling and/or profile: Community development tools used to describe a process or processes of community knowledge generation about a specific area or community.

Participatory Learning Workshops (PLWs): A range of community learning techniques developed by the author as part of the CNA project. PLWs afford contextualized learning spaces (static, mobile and scenario) in which community participants engage with and learn about a range of communication technologies in a collaborative and dialogic environment for the purpose of building and sustain community networks.

Community Communication Space (CCS): is a community website that supports and contributes to the social communication ecology of a geographic community. The community communication space blends the social and technological networks of a community together as tools, spaces and processes that support community development.

Community Development: A process of capacity and skills building, through which individuals and groups are empowered to deliberate, shape and effect change in their own communities.

Participatory Action Research (PAR): A methodological approach involving ‘users’ in all stages of the research cycle.

Community Network Analysis (CNA): Grounded in the ecology of community life, CNA is a research and development project that investigates potential uses of ICT for community development purposes.

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