Rutgers professor: Social networks influence economy

Brian Rindenau & Michael Huang

(U-WIRE) NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Most college students would probably agree their social networks play an important role in their everyday lives, but in some communities, social networks are a means of survival.

In societies with a struggling economy, the role of social networks increases greatly, said Robert O’Brien, a professor of urban anthropology at Rutgers University.

In an effort to improve these communities, governments step in to improve the quality of the area – to accomplish this goal, they renovate and rebuild houses, O’Brien said.

As a result, the value of the neighborhood goes up, but the inhabitants are left without homes, and middle-class investors move in.

This is what happened in Kensington, Pa., a working class environment where O’Brien’s research is centered.

“The city’s development efforts are destroying this community,” he said. “The city is supporting development for the middle class and investors rather than the poor people that they claim to be supporting.”

O’Brien said the local high school only has a 20 percent graduation rate, and no jobs are available nearby. Employment can only be found 45 minutes away, and there is a lot of competition even for those jobs.

“My question is – how do people survive this?” O’Brien said.

The solution is not as simple as building new homes and allowing people to move in.

“Even if you give people a decent amount for homes, they still don’t have the training or the work experience,” he said. “It’s not simply this neighborhood in Philadelphia, but it’s also how we think about development and how we think about communicating it in the United States.”

The passion for his research stems from seeing this phenomenon first hand. O’Brien himself was raised in Kensington.

“The lack of access to wealth in the United States is very real for me,” he said. “When I first started thinking about doing anthropology, it was because I was a community organizer and I wanted an academic position where I could continue to do that.”

O’Brien said it is this background that makes him a better teacher.

“(Anthropology is) a discipline that goes elsewhere to study those who we feel are different,” he said.

While poverty is a problem across the country, it is up to local individuals to make a difference.

“The best organizing happens locally. I’m not expecting everyone to go to Kensington,” O’Brien said. “The issues of poverty and access are not just academic. To be a good teacher you really need to encourage your students to think critically about the world around them so they will do something.”

O’Brien’s students have already begun to resonate his perspective.

“I’ve had graduate and undergraduate students work on community education programs, tutoring programs. While I can push to think critically, the passion really has to be theirs,” he said. “People have to follow their interests and hopefully follow their hearts and do something important to them.”