By Daniel P. Aldrich – daniel.aldrich [at] gmail.com
Social networks matter. They help us find jobs. They influence whether or not we vote and if we gain weight or get buff. Long before last year’s nuclear disaster in Japan, electric power utilities worked with the central government to place atomic power plants in villages along the coast with weaker social networks.
Social networks will now determine whether damaged or destroyed coastal villages recover or fade away. Communities with deeper, tighter social networks display more resilience and their residents repopulate damaged areas more quickly.
Social networks and social capital work through three main mechanisms. First, they reduce the likelihood of exit from crisis-affected areas and increase the probability of working together as a community to make concerns clear to decision makers. We know that many citizens in Tohoku with strong connections to their area seek to return and rebuild despite very high costs.
Second, strong social ties reduce the barriers to collective action. For example, deeper connections make it easier to coordinate the clearing of debris and collect signatures demanding that utilities be turned back on in damaged areas. Towns in and beyond Fukushima, for example, have mobilized many volunteers to assist the elderly survivors in temporary shelters.
Lastly, deeper networks make informal insurance and mutual aid more likely. Neighbours and acquaintances help each other out by providing information, tools, and places to stay. In the 40 minutes after the tsunami warning sounded, many elderly and infirm residents were taken up hill to safe shelter by friends and family, rather than by official first responders.
Decision makers would be wise to help these social networks flourish. Not only should they ensure that they do not damage existing ties through their policies but they need ways to maintain and grow existing ties. One positive development is the provision of a community currency – money only for local stores and outlets – to those who volunteer. This reinforces bonds among citizens and businesses and provides incentives to those who donate their time and services to others.
The Tohoku disaster activated more than half a million volunteers to date, and has provided Japan with an opportunity to use the power of people as a critical resource for recovery.
Daniel P. Aldrich – Associate Professor of Political Science at Purdue University.
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- The Strength of Weak Ties, American Journal of Sociology, May 1973.
- The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years, The New England Journal of Medicine, July 2007.
- Site Fights: Divisive Facilities and Civil Society in Japan and the West, January 2008. (Book by Daniel P. Aldrich).
- Aldrich, Daniel P. Social, not physical, infrastructure: the critical role of civil society after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, Disasters, November 2011.
- Aldrich, Daniel P. Ties that Bond, Ties that Build: Social Capital and Governments in Post Disaster Recovery, Studies in Emergent Order, 2011.
- Aldrich, Daniel P. Fixing Recovery: Social Capital in Post-Crisis Resilience, Journal of Homeland Security, 2010.
- Becoming a Commercial Marriage Broker in Malaysia (Memo #133, by Chee Heng Leng and Brenda S.A. Yeoh)