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The Role of Social Networks in Community Engagement

Chapter 4 outlined four practice elements for development of a constituency (know the community, establish strategies, build networks, and mobilize communities) and used them to conceptualize the tasks of community engagement (Hatcher et al., 2008). In this chapter, we will use these four elements to describe the role and importance of social networks in community engagement.

Know Communities

Learning about a community, whether it is defined geographically or by a common interest (for example, a health condition or disease) means knowing the community’s cultures and institutions, its capabilities and assets, and its health needs and challenges. Typically, learning about a community requires a variety of approaches, including gathering existing data and generating new information, combining qualitative and quantitative data, and incorporating the perspectives of a broad spectrum of individuals, organizations, and groups.

Understanding a community’s social networks is essential because of their potential to affect population health. Social networks can also provide access to a community and generate knowledge of its characteristics. For example, traditional healers may be widely known within Hmong or Latino networks but unknown to those outside these social networks, including those working in health care institutions in the same community. It is only by bridging to the relevant networks that health care workers can learn about these traditional healers.

Social network analysis (SNA) is a method that can be used to evaluate commu-nity engagement and assess communities. By providing a way of describing the diversity of networks and a set of tools for visually representing and quantifying the characteristics of a network, SNA can help partners understand a community’s networks and track how they grow and change over time. This methodology is discussed further in Chapter 7.

Establish Positions and Strategies

Social networks represent important groups of constituents in any community health planning initiative. These groups can be engaged to provide feedback, identify priorities and opportunities, establish positions on issues and approaches, and plan strategies for intervention. Both obtaining knowledge about social networks and gathering knowledge from such networks are essential to the development of relevant strategies for health improvement. In addition, social networks are a means of communication, creating a platform for sharing and discussing potential positions and strategies.

Build and Sustain Networks

Building and sustaining networks of individuals and entities for community health improvement or research includes establishing and maintaining communication channels, exchanging resources, and coordinating collaborative activities. Existing social networks can be effective and efficient platforms for efforts in community engagement if they reach people who are central to these efforts and if their members share the goals of the engagement efforts. Through the community engagement process, new networks can be developed as well.

Mobilize Constituencies

Ultimately, partners and their constituencies must be mobilized to take the actions that will lead to improved community health, and mobilization must be sustained through leadership, communication, and motivation. As described earlier in this chapter, this is where the social capital embedded in social networks is of the utmost importance. Throughout the community engagement effort, relationships must be strengthened and new capacity for collective action developed. It is important to reach out and pull in key opinion leaders and community stakeholders.

In one example of how this can work, a clinician-researcher at the University of California, Davis, used social networks to help reduce dog bites among children. After noticing that a large number of children were being seen for treatment of dog bites, the investigator identified social networks such as dog owners, school crossing guards, and neighborhood associations and engaged them in understanding the problem, defining workable solutions, and mobilizing the community to put these solutions into action (Pan et al., 2005).

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