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Innovative whole community engagement through network building and social context analysis

Ken Keith1, Jason Huggins2 and Helen Ross1

1The University of Queensland, Gatton, Queensland 4343.;
Condamine Alliance, c/ DPI&F Pittsworth, Queensland 4356.


A study involving community mapping and social context analysis of two communities on the Darling Downs was governed by the premise that sustainable communities harness energy through effective community networking, and that connecting rarely-used (weak) ties between groups can enhance willingness to tackle natural resource management issues collectively. Following community mapping with key informants, we invited organisations from a range of community interests to a ‘workshop’. Activities included clarification of links between organisations (for social network analysis) and a brief social context activity to identify implications of changes in factors such as demography, family, education, economy and natural and built assets. Common ‘resolves’ that could become the basis for collaboration between organisations, including those with previously quite weak ties, were discussed.

Analysis indicated that both communities studied (Pittsworth and Warwick) have many organisations and levels of voluntary activity, but very little of this connects with the environment - natural resource management bodies are on the periphery of the networks of community organisations. Potentially unifying natural resource management activities that would strengthen links between these sectors included ‘whole-community efficient water use’, and activities to increase awareness of lifestyle farmers about local community ethos and natural resource management practices such as weed and fire management.

Media summary

Innovative methods to explore connections between rural communities and natural resource management actions indicate that the considerable voluntary activity in the communities studied is not well connected to environmental management actions.


Community networks, social context analysis, natural resource management.


Condamine Alliance, as the peak body on the eastern Darling Downs for generating action under the regional approach to natural resource management, is charged with the development of a long-term strategic plan for catchment management. It has identified a need for engagement with its whole community in order to achieve effective natural resource management. A collaborative project between Condamine Alliance and the University of Queensland explored an innovative process to understand how Darling Downs communities are connected to natural resource management actions, with prospect of becoming a model for use elsewhere.

The principal objectives were to understand rural communities as social systems interacting with natural systems and provide a basis for the community to develop strategies for sustainability, integrating natural resource management with economic and social considerations.


The approach combined research with community development. Through two case study subcatchments (Pittsworth and Warwick) we facilitated a process to identify the structure and networks of each community, then explore trends that impact on each community’s sustainability.

The approach for each case study was:

1. Form a working group comprising the researchers, representatives of key organisations and other stakeholders who can identify community networks and personnel.

2. Conduct community mapping to identify social organisations, identify key people in each organisation and understand the overall social context.

3. Invite representatives from each organisation to take part in a community workshop aiming to identify networks, trends in social context and organisational goals that might be strengthened through alliances on activities that benefit natural resource management.

5. Carry out additional interviews as necessary to capture the views of organisation leaders who were not at the workshop and who were considered key links in the network.

6. From social network analysis, identify strong and weak linkage patterns and provide feedback to the community on opportunities for alliances.

7. Support community follow-up on ideas for cooperative natural resource management actions.

For each study area, a comprehensive list of organisations covering wide community interests was compiled and then used to prepare invitation lists. Before the Pittsworth workshop, a pilot workshop was held in the neighbouring village of Mt Tyson to test the process. This was valuable in allowing us to make adjustments to ensure the most important ground was covered in the time available.

There were two main parts to the workshop process:

(i) identification of linkages between organisations. This was done in two ways: qualitatively by having participants show links to other organisations on a large sheet of paper spread on a table, using felt pens of different thicknesses and colours to represent the strength of linkage; and quantitatively by asking participants to rate (on a 1 to 4 scale) the frequency, importance and mutuality of contacts with other organisations.

(ii) Social Context Analysis. This used a modification of a process described by Earle and Fopp (1999) that enables a holistic overview of trends and their implications in the various structures or institutions (shapers) that make up community. In the modified version (developed as a community participation tool), we asked participants to work in small groups to select some of the Shapers of concern and discuss Trends, Implications and Resolve (what can be done by community). (Participants completed STIR sheets for population, natural assets and then some of the other options – economy and local industry, technology, education, family, religion. social class, beliefs and attitudes, leisure). The small group reports were discussed in a plenary session and common themes sought. A summary of conclusions drew together thoughts on what could or needed to be done. (It is noted that this process allows for a community to move in directions they think need attention for sustainability, be it social, economic or environmental without confining the agenda to environmental issues.)

Participants received a record of the workshop output soon after their workshop.

Cluster analysis, carried out on the quantitative linkage data using the Win-PATN software, produced tree diagrams (dendograms) and three-dimensional maps of separation between groups (ordinations). The dendograms were the primary source of interpretation of strong and weak linkages among organisations, with the ordinations and felt-marker maps, along with discussion with key community members, used to qualify these interpretations.


Network diagrams constructed from participants’ felt marker efforts provided visualisation of links, without identifying close ties. Strength of ties was obtained by cluster analysis based on ratings of frequency, importance and mutuality of contact between organisations (shown in Figure 1 for Pittsworth). The dashed line identifies the point where the organisations included in the analysis aggregate into six clusters. Using this cut off of six groupings, four organisations were shown as not linked to any other group. A strong linkage exists between Landcare and Agforce, but these two groups were not linked to the rest of the community. This left all other organisations, linked in some way.

Applying Granovetter’s (1973) strength of weak ties theory to this cluster analysis, it might be surmised that the strong ties are already fully occupied doing what they now do and that we should look for latent potential for resources and skills to be linked by strengthening the weak ties. For instance

  • Landcare and Rural Fire Brigade – Establish fire prevention guidelines consistent with biodiversity maintenance and with soil protection requirements, then promote through jointly run landholder workshops.
  • Landcare and business – corporate days in the paddock to enhance Pittsworth greening and koala projects.
  • Landcare and churches –congregational support to specially arranged sustainability projects.

Figure 1. Organisation connections using PATN analysis of ratings by Pittsworth participants

Part of the STIR analysis, summarising butchers’ paper reports from small groups who dealt with natural assets is shown in Table 1. (Similar tables were developed for the shapers population, economy, family and education).

The ‘resolves’ or potential natural resource management objectives emerging from this seem to be –

a) United effort to deal with the impending water shortage – irrigators, rural residential and town-people to be linked in a program that saves water, makes most efficient use of the water presently available and finds new water.

b) Education aimed at lifestyle farmers in rural subdivisions – in property planning for fencing, roads, fire lines, water points etc; in weed control, soil conservation and biodiversity retention.

c) A planning group to investigate infrastructure and resource management needed over the next 20 and 50 years given current trends.

Table 1 Trends, implications and resolves about natural assets from small group reports.




Changing land use.

Very little dairying and increase in lifestyle properties in uplands.

More intensive agriculture (pigs, poultry, broccoli).

Increase in water use – particularly irrigation. - water reserves going down.

Environmental consciousness – increased knowledge about the natural environment

Increase in population in uplands but decrease on plains
Is the lifestyle farmland managed as well? – weeds, erosion, water - bores? Possibly more grass.

Greater efficiencies.

Water restriction – town and surrounds, because less water available; limits new business operations.

Political advocacy and lobbying.

Acceptance of change. Forward planning for 50 years.
Education for new farmers

Mechanisms in place to encourage commercial growth.

Water – community to be educated – understand water usage. New sources – recycled water; water use efficiency.

More funding – local, state, federal.

Innovation in community engagement

The two techniques for network analysis and the use of STIR sheets to establish new community goals were innovative.

The felt marker exercise was a useful thought starter about inter-organisational links but has problems: all groups need to be at the workshop for an accurate picture of their connections; it can get very messy; and there is strong chance that some people will mark a linkage because of personal connections rather than organisational connections.

The use of ratings of frequency, importance and ‘mutuality of benefit’ of links between organisations to develop a combined index for strength of linkages was also innovative. Although the rating sheet may have looked rather formidable and there was some variation in the effort put into completing the ratings for all linked organisations, the dendograms provided valuable visual information that could be used to discuss opportunities to strengthen linkages or to speculate on why things didn’t appear as expected.

The second part of the study process, the social context analysis, featured a new approach to community engagement to set goals for cooperative community action (the STIR process). It appeared to operate successfully at the workshops, without generating enthusiastic community action. Perhaps more key community leaders needed to be approached personally before the workshop to generate enthusiasm for further action, or perhaps more stimulus than a single workshop was needed. Even though we have focused on natural resource management in this paper, the process allows a community to choose to deal with social issues such as health, youth employment or aged care, or economic development issues rather than natural resources. It encourages all community organisations to participate in solutions even though the issue may initially appear to be only loosely linked to their core objectives.


Earle, L & Fopp, R 1999, Introduction to Australian society, 3rd edn, Harcourt Brace.

Granovetter MS 1973, ‘The strength of weak ties’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 78, no. 6, pp. 1360-1380.

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