A Social Relationship Response to a Proposed Coal-Fired Power Plant: Network Theory and Community Change

By Allen, John C.; Dawson, Susan E. et al. | Community Development: Journal of the Community Development Society, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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A Social Relationship Response to a Proposed Coal-Fired Power Plant: Network Theory and Community Change


Allen, John C., Dawson, Susan E., Madsen, Gary E., Chang, Chih-Yao, Community Development: Journal of the Community Development Society


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

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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).

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