Can ICT help community cohesion?

aberdeen Professor Claire Wallace, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences,

Director of New Europe Centre

 

We all live in communities, but do these communities enhance our sense of wellbeing? Social cohesion and creating a sense of place can be important for our quality of life.  For some people a community can be a vibrant set of social relationships, whilst for others it is just a place to live.

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) is regarded as an important resource to enable people to live in modern societies (communicating with friends, shopping, pursuing leisure, associations and clubs….).  But can it enhance community wellbeing?

The Aberdeen team have been researching wellbeing and ICT in rural areas for some years now as part of the EPSRC funded Cultures and Communities Network+.

We have found that whilst fast broadband delivery can help to enhance place-based social cohesion within an area it can  also serve to unconnect people from their localities.

The Networked Community. Video reflecting on digital connection on Cromarty

In one place that we looked at (Peninsula Village), ICT was used to build an excellent community website, a website for sharing historical information and a packed calendar of community events.  This helped to enhance local business, enrich social capital by providing information about community activities and communicate the many festivals, exhibitions and community events that were taking place to local as well as the outside world. In terms of social cohesion,  it therefore enhanced networks (social capital), a sense of belonging (identification with the village) and doing something for the common good (volunteering, community activities etc.)

However,  in the other village we investigated, fast broadband communications did not serve the same functions.  In Commuter Village people were very pleased with their superfast connectivity (which they put in themselves – but that’s another story).  Yet they used it to enable them to work from home, to work offshore or abroad in the oil industry but stay in touch with their family back home, to help children with school work and to link to wider and more dispersed networks and activities that were not connected with the locality in which they lived. There was no community website and no activities advertised, although people did communicate more privately on Facebook.   Hence, their lives were enhanced but not in a way that built place-based cohesion.

The conclusion of our study was that ICT can work in various ways. It is not a simple fix to community problems or community cohesion, but rather it enables more forms of communication and community – of being human in a modern world.  The activities of local actors in promoting a sense of local community is critical in making the difference and here ICT can help their activities but that kind of local leadership and commitment has to be there in the first place.

Article “Social Cohesion and ICT: a tale of two villages” Claire Wallace, Katie Vincent and Cristian Luguzan Journal of Rural Studies (forthcoming)

→How can we create community wellbeing in deprived urban areas? ICT Research