I’m wrestling with a question right now:
what is the difference between personal connections and a community?
And the answer is:
I don’t know!
Recently I have been reading Spencer and Pahl’s (2006) book ‘Personal Communities’, responding to a dominant narrative at the time which was professing that with increasing urbanisation and digitalisation the end of community was nigh. It’s an interesting book, which I read at about 100 miles an hour, and therefore may have misunderstood. However, from what I can tell Spencer and Pahl were trying to demonstrate that we did still have a sense of community, but they thought that community might look different in the 21st century than it had before.
To investigate community in the 21st century they drew a super low-tech, low-budget diagram of multiple concentric circles (we’ll call this a chart). The individual they were interviewing was at the centre of the chart, and they asked them to mark on it the individuals that were important to them, positioning them either close (literally in their inner circle) or further away dependent on their relationship with the person. It’s a pretty simple way of understanding a persons ‘personal community’ and I like it. Although I’ve not used this method (yet, maybe I will), I think it has the potential to facilitate good conversations about why you are close to particular individuals and to explore the manner in which they are important to you, all of which are things that I think will be important for me to understand as part of my PhD project.
This said, I am still left with my question: are those people identified as important to the individuals in Spencer and Pahl’s study members of their ‘personal community’, or are they simply their personal connections: their friends, family, partners, neighbour, and colleagues?
I’ve confused myself even more this week by (skim) reading Borgatti et al’s ‘Analyzing Social Networks’ (although yay! reading the things I planned to!). However, (and again maybe I’ve misunderstood their work) it seemed to me that their concept of a personal social network is one where the individuals in the network have some connections to one another, and not just to the individual at the centre of the network. Although useful to lots of work, I’m not sure that this is exactly what I need for mine (although maybe it is? Uncertainty is the recurrent theme in my PhD work).
So what do I need?
A good question! Social isolation is a risk factor that crops up again and again in research on suicidal thoughts and behaviours (STBs), and so I want to find out what role it, along with social connections, play in the development of LGBT+ young people’s STBs, and I thought that the term ‘community’ might capture this. But most basically what I want to know is what role the relationships with people you interact with have in the risk of, and the protection from STBs, and this is bigger than individual personal connections/communities. If you have a strong connection to your ‘local community’, attached in part to your geographical location, is that protective? What about an ‘LGBT+ community’ (whatever that might look like)? What about if you feel isolated from your school community? What if you have a strong sense of ‘personal community’? What if you don’t?
When I talk about this subject the term ‘community’ seems to slip in easily, and it seems to be useful. But then defining it becomes hard – does ‘community’ have such fuzzy boundaries that it maybe means a different thing each time we use it? I can definitely see why you might call our collections of close connections a community, but when I think of the word my immediate sense is of something bigger than a collection of individuals I am close to. It is perhaps in some ways closer to the idea I floated about personal social networks: that maybe there is a bigger structure, a sense that some of those connections might know and interact with one another without me, or something in common related to the nature of the ‘community’. Oh, I’m in a pickle! I am super interested to hear what other folks think about this (either from personal experience or from their research) so help a girl out and drop me a comment, or give me a shout, if you’ve got a sense of what community means to you.