CRESH has been awarded a grant from the AHRC Connected Communities programme to look at The Big Society, a key idea underpinning the UKs coalition government. The work will start in January 2011
In a ‘Big Society’, citizens and communities take a vastly increased role in managing, shaping and delivering social and physical infrastructure. The idea is closely allied to notions of community activism and civic participation, and thereby to concepts of social capital and social cohesion. The idea behind Big Society is that not only do social and community problems get ‘fixed’ without direct state intervention; those involved draw social and health benefits from their roles. Measurement of community participation, social support, social capital and civic engagement is well developed at the individual level. However, Big Society places a focus on geographically defined communities such as ‘the neighbourhood’ or ‘your square mile’. Measuring and comparing community participation within neighbourhoods across the country is much harder and less well developed.
Existing literature provides compelling reasons for wanting to follow the progression of Big Society over time. The nature and size of social and environmental problems faced varies between communities. Some communities currently have greater levels of civic engagement than others, and some are probably better placed to begin or grow that kind of participation than others. If Big Society is to become a major route through which problems are solved and life in the UK is improved, it is essential that we understand who and where might benefit most, which communities might lead the way and which might need most help in adapting to the new policy. Monitoring where we start from, and where we go, is an essential component of this important change in the balance between citizens and the state.
If we want to learn whether a policy emphasis on Big Society changes participation in our neighbourhoods and communities, we need to know about how people currently participate. We also need to know this in a way which allows us to monitor how things may change. There is no contemporary picture of existing patterns of engagement, or indeed potential for engagement, across the UK. There is however, a range of existing methods for measuring and estimating levels of social capital or civic engagement within small geographically defined communities.
The objectives of the project are to
A) Identify sources of data on civic engagement, community participation, volunteering and community cohesion which either describe geographical variation in these characteristics across the UK, or which are suitable for producing estimates
B) Consider the candidacy for each of the identified characteristics as a contributor to measuring ‘Big Society’, and determine the small-area units best suited to capturing ‘community’ in this context
C) Identify the most suitable methods for deriving small area measures of community participation and action