Posts Tagged ‘Diffusion’

ARIN6901: “Big Society” in the UK: tapping weak ties and the ‘influentials’ for results

October 9, 2010

In a situation remarkably similar to our own Australian federal election, the UK population were also on tenterhooks for weeks in May of this year as they waited for an outcome to their General Election. Eventually, a coalition was formed by David Cameron’s Tory party and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. One of the central policies of the Tories is “Big Society” – misunderstood during the election but still central and still in the planning stages. It is explained here by Tory team member Ian Birrell:

At its core, the big society is an attempt to connect the civic institutions that lie between the individual and the state – and these range from the family and neighbourhood to churches, charities, libraries, local schools and hospitals. It is born out of recognition that our centralised state has become too big, too bureaucratic and just too distant to support many of those most in need of help, and that it deters people from playing a more active role in public life.

In political terms, this means passing power to the lowest level possible: radical public service reform, so that schools, social services, planning and even prisons are more responsive to the needs of those using them; and social action, to encourage more people to play a role in society. Not just charities, but neighbourhood groups, workers’ co-operatives, social enterprises and, yes, businesses. (Birrell, 2010)

So, the general idea is to allow the execution of power to filter down to the lower, more connected levels of society, rather than just being something that is executed “up there” in the upper echelons.

Naturally, the question is: how can this be implemented?

It comes down to investigating the existing network structure of different communities, pinpointing those considered ‘opinion leaders’ or as ‘influentials’ in sociological terms or network terms, to create effective change, rather than maintaining superstructural agencies that are far removed from the reality and nuances in these varied communities.

Respected thinktank, the RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) has published a report entitled Connected Communities based on the findings from a year of research. The report makes detailed recommendations around Big Society, encouraging the use of social network analysis in addition to older approaches to public policy in order to achieve effective community regeneration (RSA, 2010).

The report identifies what are known as ‘linchpins’ in different communities that took part in the research, recommending that these people can play pivotal roles in new policy development and implentation. The linchpins may already be involved in their own community-building projects or may just be well connected enough to allow for the advancement of new policies and projects.  ‘Linchpins’tend to be well-connected, likely to be based on many ‘weak ties’ in Granovetter’s terminology,  and as defined by the RSA, appearing to fit neatly with the ‘opinion leader’ archetype originally proposed by Katz and Lazarsfeld in 1955 and described by Duncan Watts and Peter Dodds as “individuals who are highly informed, respected or simply ‘connected’” (2007: 442). In an article looking at how diffusion can occur much faster when initiated by opinion leaders, Valente and Davis identify many studies which indicate the importance of these opinion leaders in utilising the power of interpersonal contacts in influencing adoption behaviour.

So, there is a rich history of studying diffusion after the fact – it will be very interesting to see how successful a program will be that has been established from the start with a network theory approach to diffusion in a community setting.



Birrell, I. (2010) ‘Big society’? Let me explain
Accessed from:
Last accessed: 9/10/10

Rowson, J., Broome, S. and Jones, A. (2010) Report: Connected Communities: How social networks power and sustain the Big Society
Accessed from:
Last accessed: 9/10/10

Valente, T.W. and Davis, R.L. (1999) ‘Accelerating the Diffusion of Innovations Using Opinion Leaders’ in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 566, pp. 55-67

Watts, D. and Dodds, P. (2007) ‘Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation’ in Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 34

Williams, R. (2010) ‘Big society’ facilitators are found within communities
Accessed from:
Last accessed: 9/10/10