Michael Wells
by Michael Wells
Mon Jun 22nd 2009 at 2:36pm UTC

Social Support

I’ve been thinking about social support networks lately and so pieces in recent books have stood out. Humans are social animals who are able to organize ourselves or act individually, but the family and small group networking connections are still more important than generally acknowledged. The implications for a creative economy is that how companies and cities are organized can be as important as what they do or make in their success.

These examples are mostly medical, partly because that’s where a lot of research goes on, but the implications for society are universal.

  • The first chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers talks about the town of Roseto, PA which was founded by Italians from Roseto, Italy in the 1890s. Doctors noticed that the residents were unusually healthy. But investigations showed little difference in diet, personal habits, the natural environment, etc. What they did find was that the social and friendship networks were unusually strong. This mutual support resulted in less heart disease and other maladies.
  • This reminded me of Dr. Dean Ornish’s work with treating heart disease with diet, exercise, meditation, yoga, and social/family support. When his success in not only stopping but reversing heart disease was reported, the medical establishment said, “Yes, we know that if our patients shifted to a low-fat diet, exercised, and reduced stress it would reduce heart attacks. But people won’t follow our orders so we just schedule bypasses.” The difference was the social and family involvement, which got people to change their behaviors.
  • In The Age of the Unthinkable, Ramos tells about AIDS patients in Tugela Ferry, South Africa who had extraordinary levels of medication compliance because rather than doctors just saying “take these pills” they explained the science and involved family members. People stuck to the regimen despite the extreme side effects, while groups who were just told to follow doctors orders would stop medication when they felt better.
  • A growing evidence-based practice in residential drug treatment is the “Therapeutic Community,” where peers are involved in each others’ recovery. It has better results than just staff-led treatment.
  • Then this article in the Portland Tribune tells about a program to have severely mentally ill people work real jobs rather than “sheltered workshops.” The job stress that was assumed to be too much for them to handle turns out to actually help them get better.

From quality circles to army platoons to extended families, people working together are healthier, more productive and more creative. How can this knowledge be used to build the creative economy?

6 Responses to “Social Support”

  1. Mike L. Says:

    Iran seems to be a great current example of “mutual support” through network connections.

  2. Scott Says:


    this is a very good post -thankyou! I am not sure what the answer/s are, but I do think that it would help if people were actually more awake to the power of networks.

    I think it may have been Malcolm Gladwell who talks about “the strength of weak links”. I have had several experiences where that has been really helpful, including in getting a University assignment about purchasing power parity completed a few years back.

    But more than that, I am becoming increasingly aware that this trend is really powerful. In moving to Canberra, I am now in contact with people and experiences that were not possible in outer service-class Melbourne. My friends, who are still there, generally only know people who live nearby, and it seems to take time for new ideas to penetrate, even though individual people are quite bright.

    My wife, who is Japanese, is also somewhat amazed/confused by some of the things I talk about with local friends. Part of it is the language gap, and some culture shock, but it’s also the fact that people question the way things are. She comes from the port area of Osaka, an area that often seems like the type of neighbourhood my mother talked about growing up in. People know their neighbours, and the shopkeepers and customers know each other too.

    This is the good side to this type of neighbourhood. The bad side? There are very few new businesses with anything new about them – they are just still cafes/barbers/fruit shops etc. And despite the slow and painful economic decline going on, the prevailing attiude seems to be to not do anything which hasn’t been done before.

    As a result, my wife is often frustrated by how quickly things change over here. Her old life was stable, and comfortable,if not exactly perfect, and it was all she knew – so when she talks about Japan, she assumes that her customs are common to all other Japanese people.

    My point? I was in the same boat until I travelled overseas a decade ago. Both that experience and my wife’s recent one have made think that information passes through different groups of people at different speeds – and sometimes it just stops spreading, eg it doesn’t penetrate down past a certain level of education/income.
    Or maybe, it just relates to a certain mindset – those maps which come occassionally about people who are “open to change” etc.

  3. CharlieHipHop Says:

    For the creative class, it’s essential to draw on our support networks. You could be the greatest writer in the world, but if you don’t have an agent, it’s tough out there. You could be the greatest musician in the world, but if you can’t get a gig, who cares?

  4. Michael Wells Says:

    “You could be the greatest writer in the world, but if you don’t have an agent, it’s tough out there. You could be the greatest musician in the world, but if you can’t get a gig, who cares?”

    This reminds me of Frank Lloyd Wright’s practice at Taliesin West, the architectural workshop/school he built in Arizona. He had the men bring tuxedos and the women bring evening dresses. If they played an instrument, bring it too. He would host dinner parties with varied guest lists — big time clients, celebrities and local ranchers. Half of the students would wait tables or perform, the other half would be guests. The idea was to have them learn how to talk comfortably with all kinds of people. He told them “You can be the best architect in the world, but if you can’t get clients and talk to them, all you’ll have is unbuilt drawings.”

    Scott, I know Richard talks about the strength of weak links. I don’t remember who did the original research.

  5. KIRSTI Says:

    I have just written a blog about enterprising creativity and the need for humans in general to ‘cluster’ or gather together. There is a reason why we all fear ’solitary confinement’, because being social contributes to our well being at some basic level. There is also strength in numbers and yet I am reminded by Clay Shirky’s work on online communities and the fact that every community has a core group of hyperconnectors and then a more distributed group of contributors. But without the critical mass, the core, the community falls apart. His work is really interesting because it uses both the concepts of strong and weak ties to build community….

  6. Deep Says:

    Recently on this blog, Richard Florida posted a link to a Brookings Institute study that discovered jobs were moving away from the city center and into the suburbs. On average 21% of jobs were located within 3 miles. Many anti-urbanists have used this fact as a reason why it is better to be in the suburbs than in the city.

    However, after reading the report, some interesting things arise. The jobs that are more likely to be located 10 or more miles outside of the city center tend to be more land intensive. Creative jobs are more likely to be located within 3 miles of the city center. What is really striking is that companies located in the suburbs are less innovative. Suburban-based companies generate fewer patents than urban-based companies.

    The suburbs cannot create the same spill over effect that cities can. Maybe in some areas, like Silicon Valley, but overall the interaction with others is still limited.