Welcome to Connected Practice

Hello and welcome to Connected Practice, the blog for a new research unit created to conduct studies into social services in the network society. The research unit is a partnership between the Glasgow School of Social Work (GSSW) and the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS). It’s staffed by Neil Ballantyne and Ellen Daly from the IRISS Learning Technology Team. Neil will be spending a day a week leading the research unit, and Ellen will work as the unit’s research assistant for half of her working week. We’ll both be contributing posts to the blog which we’ll use to share news about the work of the unit, but also to think aloud, and start conversations about some of the issues around social services in the network society.

So why do we want to study social services in the network society? What do we mean by the network society? If we’re really interested in technology and social work, why not just investigate the application of new technologies to social services? The network society concept is critically important as an overarching theme for the research unit. It draws attention to the relationship between new technologies – especially networked technologies – and transformational changes in economy, society and culture. It’s our contention that the social changes associated with the emerging network society bring new challenges and opportunities for social services organisations and practitioners, including new forms of social solidarity and social disorder. Manuel Castell’s is the pre-eminent theorist of the network society and in three volumes (The Rise of the Network Society; The Power of Identity; and End of Millennium) he described in great detail – drawing on a considerable body of empirical evidence – the emergence of the network society: a powerful meld of networked information and communication technologies and new network-based organisational forms.

“As a historical trend, dominant functions and processes in the information age are increasingly organized around networks. Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies, and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operations and outcomes in processes of production, experience of power and culture.” (Castells, 1996, p. 469)

If Castell’s work provides the overarching macro-economic and social context for the network society, the work of Barry Wellman and his colleagues at Netlab foregrounds the social affordances the network society for individuals, families and communities. For many years Wellman and colleagues have studied social networks in the contexts of communities, and the effects of computer networks on social networks. The idea of social networks – and the value of social networks to promote health and well-being – is very familiar territory for social services staff. Possibly less well known is the work of Wellman and colleagues in tracking the way that the Internet and networked technologies are being used by individuals to build and maintain social ties (e.g. Wellman, Quan-Haase, Boase, & Chen, 2003), or the very recent work for the Pew Internet & American Life Project (Kennedy, Smith, Wells & Wellman, 2008) on the impact of the Internet and mobile telephony on family life. There is a growing body of empirical evidence on the changes – both positive and negative – occurring in personal, social, family and working life associated with the emerging network society.

Some time ago Nigel Parton describing the historical evolution of social work argued that:

“The emergence of modern social work is associated with the transformation that took place from the mid-nineteenth century onwards in response to a number of interrelated anxieties about the family and the community more generally. It developed as a hybrid in the space, the ‘social’ (Donzelot, 1988), between the private sphere of the household and the public sphere of the state and society. It operated in an intermediary zone. It produced and was reproduced by new relations between the law, social security, medicine, the school and the family. (Parton, 2000, pp 455-456).

The relationship between the private and the public sphere is being transformed by the network society, and in the process the opportunities and challenges for social services are changing too. Issues of privacy, identity, surveillance and risk all impact on service users and carers making use of networked services, whether they are young people using social network sites like Bebo or MySpace, or older people using telecare services. There is tremendous potential for networked services to forge new and empowering relationships with service users and carers; and for social services staff to engage in networked learning and knowledge exchange.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll use the blog to discuss these issues, and to develop what we believe is a rich seam for social services research. We invite you to comment and contribute.