Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

The Practice of Building Social Networks in Divided Communities: A Case Study of a Northern Ireland Border Region

Academic journal article Journal of the Community Development Society

The Practice of Building Social Networks in Divided Communities: A Case Study of a Northern Ireland Border Region

Article excerpt


Based on an interactional community model that suggests the importance of social networks, this case study examines ongoing community development projects in a border region between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Using interviews and official documents, local and regional development efforts that build social networks are identified. The findings suggest strategies for community development practice in divided communities, including facilitating open discussions of symbols and rituals, and utilizing schools, arts, and other non-threatening vehicles to initiate contacts.



This case study examines the practice of building social networks through ongoing community development projects in Sliabh Beagh, (1) a border region shared by two distinct political entities, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and marked by decades of conflict. In the interactional community model suggested by Wilkinson (1991), building social networks is primary in the process of community development. Wilkinson (1991, p. 92) defines community development as "a process in which local actors attempt consciously to create or strengthen the networks through which they can work together to solve their community problems and express their shared interests in the locality."

Unfortunately, there are many regions around the world where longstanding tensions, often traced back to political, religious, racial, or ethnic differences, have interfered with the building of social networks. To improve the efficacy of community development practice in these settings, a better understanding is needed of strategies that are successful in building social networks in divided communities.

This research addresses the following question: What community development practices are likely to be effective in building social networks that contribute to the community well-being in a setting with longstanding divisions? The Sliabh Beagh region was chosen to examine this question for the following reasons: (1) it has experienced a long history of political and ethnic conflict; (2) social networks contributing to the community as a whole have been in wide disrepair; (3) it has had documented signs of underdevelopment and has had active community development groups for many years; and (4) a recent change in the political landscape has allowed for new opportunities to build social networks.

Although the case study of Sliabh Beagh is pursued for its intrinsic value, the strategies identified that are effective in bringing divided people together and building social networks might be tested in similar settings (e.g., U.S. regions or communities with racial divisions). The ultimate goal is to support and improve community development practice in divided communities.

Community as a Social Interactional Field

Hillery (1955, p. 11) states that community "consists of persons in social interaction within a geographic area and having one or more common ties." Wilkinson (1991, p. 88) concludes that the community is a field of social interaction and "represents the capacity of local residents to work together for their own well-being."

However, a critical distinction exists between local activities that represent community phenomena and local activities that have marginal relevance to the community (Warren, 1978). Only if actions are integrated as indicated by a common set of actors and associations and if the goals of the actions are influenced by the conditions for greater social well-being is the community field engaged (Pigg, 1999).

Social well-being has economic, ecological, psychological, and social dimensions, according to Wilkinson (1991). He asserts that improved social well-being for community residents is the purpose of community development and is represented in efforts to develop the community field, that is, the network of social interactions that contains and integrates the variety of interests found in the local society. …

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