What is Social Network Analysis?

The post this month comes from Sebastian Stevens and Rebecca Baines from the University of Plymouth, who have developed the Social Network Analysis component of the HAIRE toolkit.

What is a social network?

The term ‘social network’ is often used to describe online and offline connections between people. For this project, we use the term social network to mean the connections people have with one another in their local community. This could be people you enjoy spending time with, call upon for help and support, or share hobbies with.

What is social network analysis (SNA)?

Social network analysis (SNA) is a method often used in social research to measure, understand and visualise connections between people and organisations. It has many applications including mapping friendships, exploring health advice seeking behaviours and tracing contact patterns during disease outbreaks such as COVID-19.

Why are we interested in social networks?

There is increasing evidence to suggest that the size and make-up of a person’s network plays a vital role in their health and well-being. For example:

“Existing research has demonstrated the significance of social networks in relation to physical and emotional wellbeing” (Heenan: 2011)

However, creating and sustaining these networks in a rural and ageing environment can be particularly difficult:

“Aging adults living in rural communities have less access to and lower utilization of health care services; they rely heavily on available peer and family networks. Although social networks have been linked to positive mental and physical health outcomes, there is a lack of understanding about social networks in rural-dwellings” (Gannon et al: 2016)

Working together to map people’s networks, identifying potential gaps and finding ways to build new connections can therefore be incredibly important in supporting peoples health and wellbeing in a rural setting.

What role does SNA play within the HAIRE toolkit?

As part of the HAIRE toolkit, we have developed a SNA ‘tool’ in collaboration with community members and project partners that will:

  • Empower individual community members to review, reflect and discuss their own social networks and consider ways of growing and/or strengthening their connections with other people
  • Allows community organisations to understand how connected people feel to one another
  • Explore how social networks may differ between settings, countries and cultures.

Combined with the neighbourhood analysis and guided conversation tools, the social network tool will help provide a holistic understanding of an individual’s social connections, loneliness and isolation.

How will we capture the social networks of community members and what will we do with this information?

We will capture peoples networks through a series of short questions. These questions will be asked by a HAIRE enabler during each guided conversation with community members. Responses to these questions may then be used to inform the action plan that is created in partnership between the HAIRE enabler and community member.

In time, community members will be able to see a visualisation of their social network. This visualisation may help individuals to identify and reflect on the strength, gaps and opportunities within their social network.

We look forward to sharing insights about social networks in rural communities across Europe with you all very soon!

Seb and Rebecca work on the HAIRE project in collaboration with project partners and pilot sites. Led by Dr Arunangsu Chatterjee, Associate Professor of Digital Health & Education and Head of Digital Education at the University of Plymouth, Seb and Rebecca are providing academic support to the HAIRE project to help explore and understand the impact of social networks on health and wellbeing. To find out more about their research or The Centre for Health Technology, please click here.  

What’s in a Place?

This month we are showcasing our place illustrations, which will be used during Guided Conversations in individual pilot sites during the research…

Depiction of the Parish of Feock, Cornwall, UK

Parish of Feock, Cornwall (UK)

A cow peers over a wooden picket fence close to a Celtic cross, one of the waymarkers in Cornwall that still stands on ancient rights of way. A ship drifts in the sky, which is punctuated with trees and cliffs, farm buildings and a Spar shop. A lone dog walker stands on the quayside, looking out across the water towards the village hall. A village signpost nudges a fairylike stone tower that sits on the edge of a National Trust garden. The Docks, an icon of Falmouth’s modern shipping industry, melds past and present, overlooking the third deepest natural harbour in the world…or is it? Maybe, to you, it’s the ferry chugging across the river; perhaps the fairytale tower brings to mind your local church and community, or the dog walker is actually not on a quayside at all, but in your local park (and just out of sight is the dog walking group you have been longing to join).

The images have all been created to bring to mind local elements in each of our project pilot sites. This image was designed for participants living in the Parish of Feock in Cornwall, which spans several villages. Some depictions, such as specific landmarks, are unmistakable; others are more malleable – in fact, the story changes depending on who is doing the viewing. That’s exactly what we want. These images are able to elicit unique responses that are beyond top of mind thoughts and feelings as participants are asked what it’s like to live in their community. They may trigger ideas and experiences that give a deeper insight into what life is like in the community in which they live – and what might be changed or added to make it better for them as they age.

Image depicting Le Nord

Le Nord (France)

As one resident puts it: “The days of “grey” skies has arrived in the Hauts-de-France region. It may be a bit “challenging” sometimes but it is part of the cycle of nature. And, it’s a beautiful region, especially in the spring…” In this image are the ubiquitous Tabac and La Poste, familiar signage to all inhabitants, with some hints to urban life, such as the Merville town hall and the station at Hazebrouck. The more rural traditions are also visible: the dresses of Flanders, for example, which are well known, and the sight of a Bailleul windmill in the distance, a feature of countryside walks.

Depiction of East Sussex, UK

East Sussex (UK)

Historic landmarks that will be familiar to residents are here: a walker crosses the moat to visit Bodiam Castle; a street sign for Playden, a village first recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book, is at the centre; transport links are evident: the bus and the train station, with links into London, suggest its position out of the city. There is evidence of the water: a playground near Camber Sands, a famous stretch of beach, is alluded to – perhaps an opportunity here to recall trips with children and grandchildren. The oast houses are a familiar sight on the horizon.

Depiction of Laakdal, Belgium

Laakdal (Belgium)

There are four small parishes conjured up in this image: Eindhout, Veerle, Groot-Vorst and Klein Vorst in the municipality of Laakdal, Flanders. Laakdal was named after the valley (dal) of the river Laak. Key landmarks include the old town hall, in the upper left, in Eindhout; the water tower (bottom right) in Veerle; dotted about the image are figurines from the garden of a building housing adults with disabilities. A man leans against a tractor, similar to those found in Groot-Vorst.

Depiction of Goes, Zeeland, in the Netherlands

Goes, Zeeland (The Netherlands)

Goes is a city within the rural municipality, criss-crossed with waterways; you can see a typical boat, train and of course, someone riding their bicycle – in this case, commuting. There is distinctive street art on the sides of buildings, evidence of the new merging with the historic architecture. Many of the graffiti murals include geese as a symbol of the area (Goes is pronounced almost like goose or “ghoosh”, with a distinctively soft ‘g’.) Two towers are included as points of reference; the water tower south of Goes, and the TV tower in the North.

Depiction of Poperinge, Belgium

Poperinge (Belgium)

Last, but not least, residents will recognise the statue of Warme William, the local mascot, seated on a park bench in the town of Poperinge (he is usually blue). He is a symbol of community connection and resilience. Other familiar features of the town include the town hall and the library, (Letterbeek). There are public art installations in the local area; a monument to the Paardenmarkt, the old horse market, is alluded to in the bottom right of the image. The rural life surrounding the town is depicted by the tractor and foliage at the top of the image, and the Vleterbeek is a waterway, with trails along streams and grassy landscapes.

We worked with design company MAP Digital to create unique stimulus materials for each location. The images are supplementary tools in our Guided Conversations to help explore people’s experiences, needs and desires for healthy ageing. The response from participants will help shape the final toolkit (including visual designs) which is due for completion in March 2022.

 

Cross-border cooperation in action: early use of the HAIRE tool in the Netherlands

    

This month our research partner Kim Boes of Solidarity University describes the adaptation of the HAIRE tool in the Netherlands in the context of COVID-19.

The Social Work and Welfare Foundation Eastern Scheldt Region (SMWO) is a broad welfare institution in the Netherlands that provides services in the fields of social work, welfare and sports and exercise. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, SMWO social workers in Goes, a HAIRE pilot site, felt the urgent need to stay in contact with elderly and vulnerable people using our Guided Conversation technique. A vital component of the HAIRE toolkit, the Guided Conversation is a person-centred tool using a variety of different prompts and imagery that allows people to reflect on their own needs, desires, interests and aspirations, so it is ideally suited to getting to the heart of what matters to people at this extraordinary time.

Training in how to use the HAIRE toolkit is planned across the partnership for autumn, but the team decided to move this process forward and let social workers in Goes use the Guided Conversation tool for the contact moments they already had planned with elderly and vulnerable people. An English-language version of the Guided Conversation had been developed with the input of all partners, but it was vital to ensure it was adapted for the current Dutch context, so we worked in close collaboration with the social workers at SMWO, since they know their community best.

By the end of May, we decided to start testing the Guided Conversation. Three social workers from SMWO were going to interview three people each in June. In early July we planned a feedback session to discuss their experiences. We were very pleased with the results. We decided the social workers would continue using the Guided Conversation over the summer since they felt these conversations really support the work they are doing. The social workers felt the Guided Conversation tool helped them get to know the participants’ needs very well, and both interviewer and participant were enthusiastic about using it:

“It was very nice and interesting to do the interviews.” (Social worker)

“It’s amazing how open people are in those conversations. Lovely conversations arise!” (Social worker)

We discussed the social workers’ first experiences and reviewed where things needed to change in the Guided Conversation as well as what aspects should be covered in the autumn training sessions. One important thing to consider further is the dependency relationship between social workers and the participant, meaning that as they get to know each other more, there is a risk that they will worry personally about each other. There is a need to make sure all volunteers have appropriate support and have clear boundaries – this is something that social work organisations have built into their practice, and we will need to ensure the volunteers are protected throughout the HAIRE network as the study moves forward.

Other partners are hoping to start working with Guided Conversations as early as they can. Our Belgian partners in Poperinge and Laakdal expressed their wish to start using the Guided Conversation tool in their communities and asked us to share our experiences with them. We have been knowledge-sharing with them as well as with our lead partner, the University of Exeter. As a result, Poperinge and Laakdal are looking into using our test version, which will need mildly adjusting to the Belgian context. We decided to have another experience-sharing session once they have conducted some Guided Conversations. This is also important for us since their experience could again help us in developing our toolkit.

The conversation is always open between all the partners as we develop and refine HAIRE’s Guided Conversation. The more they are tested and used, the more we discover how to really make the tool work best for the participants. The head start to the programme means that the learning can be incorporated into the Train the Trainers programme planned for September, and the stories of how the Guided Conversation has worked so far will be invaluable for all HAIRE partners. They can feel comfortable going out into the field.

Kim Boes is a researcher at the Solidarity University. She is involved in setting up the pilot sites in The Netherlands and works on developing the HAIRE toolbox together with all partners. Kim is also a PhD researcher at the University of Antwerp, focusing her dissertation on the micro dynamics of social innovation in rural areas. 

 

Working Together in Lockdown

This month, Dr Shuks Esmene, HAIRE Research Fellow, provides an update on research co-design and development through lockdown.

Despite the difficulties posed by COVID-19 and the restrictions of lockdown, HAIRE’s activities around co-designing research tools appropriate to our specific pilot sites is underway and progressing. With our target group, the over 60s, among the most vulnerable, we had – and still have – to be creative and open minded about alternative ways of reaching our participants and volunteers, and planning with our research and delivery partners has, of course, been restricted to online activity only.

Thus, in the absence of being able to meet with people face to face, we adapted our partner engagement activities and co-design workshops to run virtually. We’ve done guided conversation workshops developing toolkits, discussing cultural context and sharing stories about how people use their spaces in different countries. We are working with our partners in the Netherlands, France and Belgium in new ways all the time – evidenced by our tweets!

Lockdown poses challenges around sharing highly visual and participatory materials, but we were able to receive valuable feedback through our continued and open approach to communicating with our partners. Technology has allowed us to carry on with our research despite the barriers. To date, we have produced first iterations of conversational and visual prompts that we’ll be using with participants. Each location has both shared and unique issues to explore, and the way we use the images will allow each participant to make their own connections and stories and needs and ideas. We have been working on training guidelines so that volunteers will be confident using the visual materials and prompts.

This is an example of the initial imagery inspired and created with our partners in the Cornish pilot site at Feock, which will form part of the guided conversation with older people in the local area. These images are from a specific part of the Feock pilot site. Images from other areas of the pilot site will be added to the design before a final version is produced.

Our continued and open approach to communication has helped us respond to support some partners who have asked for additional tools in the face of Covid-19. We are currently working with our Dutch partners to scope the feasibility of rolling out a conversational tool that social workers in their pilot site can use now, while issues like loneliness are starkly evident. The aim of this is to try and understand the challenges individuals have faced due to the pandemic and how local resources can be used to support them to overcome these challenges. This will also provide our partners with insights into which local resources need development, or where there are gaps that could be filled.

Radar diagrams have been developed in which participants can plot how strongly they feel about certain issues – and even create radar diagrams of their own.

So it is that despite the limitations that lockdown sets us, we are finding ways to reach older people in rural communities who need support more than ever.

Dr Shuks Esmene, Research Fellow, is working with HAIRE’s pilot site partners in the UK, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, as well as digital design studio M-A-P to co-design guided conversations appropriate for each location. Dr Esmene is part of the University of Exeter’s Social Innovation Group (SIG). You can find out more about his work with SIG, his research interests and other SIG team members by clicking here.