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The Good Society 11.3 (2002) 17-24

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Community Networks and Civic Engagement:
A Social Network Approach1
Social Networks and Computer Networks

Andrea Kavanaugh


Census data, analyzed over the past three decades by Putnam (1993, 1995a, 1995b, 2000) show that collective attendance at meetings between 1973 and 1993 has decreased by 36%; attendance at town meetings is down 39%. The number of Americans working for political parties has dropped 56%; the amount of time spent in local clubs is down by half. Putnam links the decline in civic engagement to decreasing social capital and attributes both to the electronic revolution, especially television. He argues that we need to meet in groups face to face in order to strengthen connectivity and social networks; these help us become involved in the community and work together to achieve common social goals.

People generate and cultivate social networks, trust and norms of mutuality—what Putnam calls a community's 'social capital'—to meet human needs for companionship and individual as well as collective aid. Social networks evolve as people meet together in informal social groups (bowling leagues, bridge clubs, coffee klatches, carpool and childcare arrangements) and in formal groups (work, school, church, clubs and voluntary associations, such as the soccer league, Parent Teachers Association, and the Weight Club).

The analysis of social networks—which has roots in sociology and structural analysis—is important in understanding social capital. Social network analysis investigates the ordered arrangements of relations that are contingent upon exchange among members of social systems—whether people, groups or organizations (Wellman and Berkowitz 1988). Members of social networks garner or mobilize scarce resources through a process of exchange, competition, dependency, or coalition. The analysis of social networks examines concrete social relations among specific social actors.

The people, groups, or organizations that are members of social systems are 'sets of nodes' or networks, which represent social structures (see Figure 1). These 'sets of nodes' or networks can even represent institutions, nation states, or world systems. Social structures are also represented as sets of ties—or flows of resources—depicting members' interconnections. These ties or flows of resources typically involve symmetrical friendships, or aid transfers, including information. Patterns of ties suggest how members allocate resources in a social system.

In this paper, the author considers the social networks among individuals and small organizations in Blacksburg, Virginia, a rural university town in the foothills of the Allegheny mountains. Blacksburg is the home of the Internet project known as the Blacksburg Electronic Village, an initiative to reflect and connect online the local people, organizations, ideas and issues that exist in the physical community.

Computer networks can reinforce existing social networks. In fact, Wellman (1996) argues that when computer networks, such as the Internet, link people as well as machines, they become social networks. Not only do people and groups use the Internet, like the telephone, to maintain friendships. They also use the Internet to access resources, especially those related to information.

Social networks help to build trust among members. Social trust, also a feature of social capital, increases as people get to know each other, learn who is trustworthy, and through experience do things together (e.g., the bowling league, the PTA, and other informal or volunteer work). Williams (1988, p. 8) and Newton (1997, p. 578) distinguish between "thin" trust and "thick" trust in social networks. In small face-to-face communities (tribes, isolated islands, rural peripheries), "thick" trust is generated by intensive, daily contact between people. These tend to be socially homogeneous and exclusive communities, able to exercise social sanctions necessary to reinforce thick trust (Coleman 1988, pp. 105-108).

Thin trust is less personal, based on indirect, secondary social relations. It is the product of what Granovetter (1973) distinguishes as weak ties among members. Weak ties can link members of various social groups to help integrate them in a single social environment or geographic setting. There is evidence from the research reported in this paper that the Internet regularly facilitates linkages between groups or social networks, as members of one...


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