Local community collective action has been identified as a key ingredient in community response to change. Network theorists suggest that the social network structure of a community impacts local capacity to adapt to change. This paper summarizes network theory and then draws upon a case study of a Western community where a proposed coal-fired power plant has created conflict over the environmental, aesthetic, economic, and quality-of-life implications of the proposed development. Within this context we examine empirically the influence of social network structure on positions taken by local leaders in supporting or opposing the proposed energy plant. The findings illustrate that perceptions of economic development and its impact on the environment as well as network structure influence the positions taken toward the proposed coal-fired plant in the community.
Keywords: network theory, community, energy, development, conflict, coal, power plant
How rural communities organize themselves and respond to a rapidly changing environment is becoming more important as global competition increases the tension between locality and the world. Knowledge of local organizational and individual relationship structures within local communities may provide insights for rural residents as they deal with such rapid change (Sharp, 2001). Community structure and how it relates to economic and community development has long been an area of research within the social sciences (Allen & Dillman, 1994; Crowe, 2006; Lloyd & Wilkinson, 1985; Sharp, 2001). These scientists suggest that community changes and adaptations in local organizational and individual relationship network structures should be operationalized.
To examine the influence of social network structure on a community's response to rapid change driven by a proposed coal-fired power plant, we examine attitudes toward local economic development, the environment, and the networks in which individuals are embedded. We also conduct content analyses on in-depth interview data and place it in a hierarchical regression modeling structure to statistically test the role that attitudes, individual attributes, and networks play in predicting whether individuals are supportive or in opposition to a proposed coal-fired power plant in their rural community. In this research, network theory will be used as the analytical framework which may provide important insights into how the social structure of a community responds to change. The case study community is currently facing a proposed plant siting, and the concurrent discussions and activities have created a high level of debate and community conflict.
In this paper we will discuss previous research on community response to change and/or stress, summarizing network theory as it relates to such change. We will then graphically present and analyze the community network structure. In addition, attitudes toward development and the environment, and demographic characteristics of community leaders will be identified to test the ability of network structure variables to enhance the predictability of how a community responds to a specific energy development stressor.
The Challenge of Collective Action
Community collective action has been seen as a key component in rural development for many years (Albrecht, 1998; Green & Haines, 2002). Yet research suggests that localized action is unpredictable and difficult to initiate (Falk & Lobao, 2003). Collective action at the community level involving economic development has recently focused on local assets of natural resources, often placing advocates in conflict with traditional economic development models (Cordes et al. 2003; Crowe, 2006). The notion of drawing upon local natural amenities as a potential economic development strategy is gaining momentum, especially in the western United States. Yet, it is unclear whether the enhancement of amenity development focusing on tourism provides a long-term economic base for a local community (Krannich & Petrzelka, 2002). The tensions over amenity development, energy development, and local manufacturing continue to persist.
One example of research that has focused on how communities respond to externally driven stress is that of boomtowns in the West. This research has often identified declines in perceived well-being and safety, and increases in crime and other forms of deviance as communities structurally respond to rapid change (Smith et al., 2001, for an excellent summary of previous boomtown literature). Much of the previous research has been criticized for using weak methods and lacking theoretical rigor (Wilkinson, 1982). More recent work using a longitudinal analysis has shown that Aalthough social disruptions occur in several dimensions of social well-being during boom growth periods, their effects are not permanent@ (Smith et al., 2001, p. 446). Other researchers have focused on the role rapid energy development plays in local development and quality of life. Early research findings presented a "gloom and doom" picture of energy development's impact on rural places (Gold, 1974; Krannich, Berry & Grieder, 1989). Later research findings, written under the umbrella of "boomtown" literature, illustrated that researchers often overemphasized the negative social impacts to a community and its residents (Smith, Krannich, & Hunter, 2001). Yet, these stressors of rapid growth did create tension among local residents and had the potential to reduce alternative economic activities and to disrupt, at least short-term, the quality of life of rural residents. It is plausible that social network structures of the community provided a mechanism for mitigating some of the negative consequences of rapid boomtown growth.
Additional research has also begun to emerge suggesting that knowledge of social network structures at the local level may be a valuable resource for communities as they respond to rapid change (Putnam, 1993; Sharp, 2001). These and other authors point out that the relationship structures at a local level have the potential either to support local development or to sabotage development efforts (Allen, 1993; Bridger & Luloff, 1999).
Sharp (2001) argued that social structure is related to a community's capacity to initiate specific forms of local development. Crowe (2006) added additional variables including local natural amenities in her analysis. She found that organizational networks and the proximity of natural resource amenities, such as mountains and ocean beaches, influence a community's ability to participate in self-development and collective action, and how the community is able to follow through with these new development alternatives.
While some research has focused on the role social structures play in facilitating specific forms of local development and others have examined the attitudes and beliefs of residents as rapid change occurs, it is still unknown how local relationship structures change due to these stressors.
Network Theory and Community
Network theory focuses on the ties or connections within and between social groups. According to Turner (2003), two important goals of network theory are, first, to identify and create an array of the pattern of relationships among social units and, second, to explain the processes of the patterns of the unit connections. Turner states (2003), "... the nature of the tie can be diverse: the flow of information, money, goods, services, influence, emotions, deference, prestige, and virtually any force or resource that binds actors to each other" (p. 504). Social structure from a network perspective is viewed as the pattern of ties among positions. These can be viewed as individuals relating to one another or to large entities, such as corporations. The patterns of ties have been …