Monday, 23 November 2009

social connectedness vs social justice

i was at an interesting talk on sunday by a manager of mental health services*. he talked about social connectedness and it's effect on well-being. he referred to the MSD's 2009 social report, which defines social connectedness [pdf] as "the relationship people have with others". it goes on to say:

Relationships give people support, happiness, contentment and a sense they belong and have a role to play in society. They also mean people have support networks in place they can call on for help during hard times...

Several studies have demonstrated links between social connectedness and the performance of the economy and positive outcomes for individual health and wellbeing.

Social connectedness is fostered when family relationships are positive, and when people have the skills and opportunities to make friends and to interact constructively with others. Good health, employment, and feeling safe and secure all increase people’s chances of developing positive relationships.

the speaker mentioned that well-being actually leads to good health, then went on to talk about aspects around social connectedness. one example he gave was of the roseto effect, which is basically the study of an isolated but close-knit community in america that had much better health stats than the average even though lifestyle factors such as employment, diet and exercise were pretty much the same as everyone else. the factors that explained this unusual health outcome were said to be communal rituals, social support and cohesion, shared values, a common aim, family meals, and a lack of uncertainty.

there was plenty more to the talk (including a mention of the roots of empathy thing), and it was really interesting. but the thing that struck me most is that, as an activist, the one thing you do is go against prevailing values and customs. because your views or your activities are designed to change the status quo, you often face hostility and lose that social connectedness. which, according to the above, will have negative consequences on your well-being and general health.

i did ask the speaker about this, and how to deal with it. i wasn't entirely satisfied with his answer, though it was pretty good. he said something along the lines of treating the people you want to change with respect, recognising that you yourself are not perfect just as they are not perfect. that i agree with, in the sense that i always think you kill more flies with honey ie i prefer to bring people along incrementally than to be confrontational and challenging. having an inherent respect for the people you're interacting with will always show in the way you behave and the words you choose, and is more likely to get them listening.

but. often the change that is required of people will mean that they are potentially less well-off, at least in the short term. in being an activist, you are actually challenging the power structures of society and seeking to change them. those who currently have the power aren't likely to give it up easily, no matter how polite and respectful you might be.

there are times when activism has to be direct and confrontational, when someone has to go out on a limb to stand up for their cause because progress just isn't being made. a relevant example for here is the suffragettes, many of whom suffered and were ostracised but without whom women in some countries would not have been able to vote.

it seems to me that social justice is more important than social connectedness. that there is no point in having personal wellbeing when there are people around you who are suffering and need help. when that help can only be effectively delivered through institutional and structural changes in society, then i think we have a moral duty to go out on a limb and challenge the shared values that allow marginalisation to exist. even at the cost of social-connectedness, although we can always hope that there will be other people who agree with us and can provide us with some positive connections.

*i haven't got permission to use his name, so the speaker will remain anonymous. would love to attribute though, as i was certainly impressed.


KimV said...

I was pondering on this recently, but only in the light of making friends, I hadn't made the link to social connectedness. Excellent point.

The only thing I could think of was seeking out other activists, but that's not really a satisfactory answer.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Have you ever considered that welfare has eaten away at 'social connectedness'? The quest for female independence (partially furnished through the DPB) has impaired the constructive co-dependence between male and female, and in turn, the constructive co-dependence of entire families.

Sure, state assistance may ease destructive dependence, but there are probably better solutions.

Re your own situation, different people seem to need different types and numbers of relationships but I have found the support of my immediate family immensely important. In fact I would go so far as to say I would give up my own activism if I didn't have it.

Psycho Milt said...

...the factors that explained this unusual health outcome were said to be communal rituals, social support and cohesion, shared values, a common aim, family meals, and a lack of uncertainty.

If the above is correct, then a political activist is a threat to the health and well-being of their community and that community should feel entitled to deal with activists accordingly. Not the cheeriest news I've heard all week...

stargazer said...

in fact, lindsay, welfare improves social connectedness by providing adequate housing and staving off starvation. i recall attending a speech from monsignor david cappo earlier this year in which he outlined how poverty and a lack of education lead to social isolation and disconnectedness.

re giving up activism in favour of your family, you are basically saying that it's ok for other people to be oppressed and suffer, as long as your family (and/or yourself) is happy. you are saying that it is better for you to be silent and keep them happy while they commit moral wrongs or hold destructive attitudes that perpetuate oppression. i'm sorry, but i disagree completely. if everyone did that, apartheid would never have been lifted, slavery in southern america would still exist etc etc.

psycho, well yes. communities all over the world deal with activists pretty harshly, even in the present day. aung san suu kyi, for example. nelson mandela and other ANC members from another time and place. we're very very lucky that in this country activism has very few serious consequences to our well-being, other than possible isolation.

moz said...

With activists I'd argue exactly the opposite - it's a way for the community to allow dissent without simply shunning people. Communities that lack mechanisms for change either die out or break (the easy example being religious communities like many of the US founding ones).

At a personal level, joining an activist community can often be very empowering and make people feel more engaged and social. Few things are more isolating than feeling that you're the only one who's not happy with the way things are.

For both reasons I'd argue that communities should actively encourage activists.

Psycho Milt said...

Communities that lack mechanisms for change either die out or break...

Well, according to Stargazer's speaker, the Roseto Effect says that community health and well-being is improved by communal rituals, social cohesion and a lack of uncertainty - ie, exactly the kind of stultifying conservatism that activists seek to overthrow.

If that's true, the issue isn't how activists should maintain their health and well-being while engaging in activism, the issue is why the community doesn't seek to eradicate activists as a serious threat to its own health and well-being. There's something unpleasantly totalitarian about this supposed Roseto Effect.

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Stargazer, It depends on your cause. I am not an activist for feminism, income equality or any other collectivist cause. My cause is individual responsibility. If I failed to look after my responsibilities first and foremost I'd be a hypocrite.

Welfare keeps many people poor by doing for them what they could be doing for themselves. It also keeps people uneducated by offering an income without skills or qualifications.

stargazer said...

um, lindsay, if they could be doing it for themselves, they wouldn't be on welfare. and education costs money. you need an income to pay the food and rent etc while you study. mechanisms that help people to get off welfare by educating themselves have been cut by this government eg the training incentive allowance, modern apprenticships.

also, fulfilling your individual responsibility to your family doesn't mean giving them a free pass on any and every issue. activism actually needs to happen within the family first, and you don't need to abandon their every other need just to make your point.

PM, that's how i read it as well. it's almost as if a well-structured authoritarian regime is good for your health. benign dictatorship, anyone?