Social Networks Then and Now

I was named after my paternal grandfather. John Connell was just two days short of his 64th birthday on the day I was born in 1957. He was then thirteen years older than I am now. He died aged 80, our lives overlapping by just sixteen years.

He was a highly intelligent but largely uneducated man – not an unusual combination in working class communities in those days, but preferable, then and now, to the converse. He took a lifelong interest in politics, was a self-read socialist and a union man, scrutinized every word of his daily newspaper, and listened to the BBC Home Service on his big wooden-cased valve wireless set. He was a coal miner who toiled all his working life in the pits that harvested the rich Lanarkshire and Wilsontown seams of central Scotland.

I have recently been pondering the quite different lives lived by myself and my grandfather, and in particular the scope and nature of our respective social networks, a phrase that he would neither have used nor heard.

I can still remember John, while I was growing up, as a quiet, gentle and reflective man. Already retired, of course, when I knew him, he seemed to me to observe the lives of those around him with a kind of benign disinterest as he sat in his armchair with a newspaper open on his lap. I am sure I am a much more cussed character than he ever was, but I like to think that I inherited at least some of his reflective qualities. Like John, I have had a lifelong interest in what makes society tick. Unlike John, however, I have been able to stretch and enrich that interest through an extended education and, as a consequence of that education, a relatively varied working life.

John’s 80 years on this planet spanned what was, arguably, humanity’s most profound period of turmoil since we first stepped down from the trees: the end of Empire; two catastrophic world wars; revolution in Russia and, later, China; the hungry ‘Thirties; the march of the fascist boot across Europe; the rise of two confrontational super-powers; the descent of the iron curtain and the global nuclear stand-off that was the Cold War; the burning cauldron of the Middle East; and the many and continuing instances of genocide in so many parts of the developing world. Raymond Aron felt that anyone who has lived through the long expanse of the twentieth century from its earliest years must feel that, “he has lived through several epochs of history.”

For most of his working life, John’s existence would have revolved around a fixed set of fairly immediate social structures. As was normal at the time, especially in a Scots-Irish Catholic community, John and Elizabeth, my grandmother, had a large family. Seven children survived into adulthood: four boys, including my father, William, and three girls. John’s life would have had a repetitive cadence for most of his adulthood, each week following a familiar pattern – church on Sunday, maybe a pint or two in the Miners’ Social Club afterwards, home to read the paper and have his Sunday dinner. Monday to Friday, depending on the shift he was working, would have been five days of getting up, toiling down the pit and dropping back into bed. On the Saturday, of course, he got up just like any other day, but he was able to rise out of bed knowing he would be back home in the middle of the day – time enough to catch Shotts Bon Accord FC playing at home or, if he could afford it, a bus through to Parkhead to watch the Celtic. A few more pints at the club after the match and back to bed. Sunday was the day of rest, a family day when his loved ones gathered around after church. By Sunday’s close, he would have had to prepare himself once again to start the working week.

Week in, week out, year in, year out, John’s network of family, workmates and pals would have been relatively unchanging, a slow social heartbeat pulsing sedately with the shifting generations – older people dying off to be replaced by their children and grandchildren. Occasionally, a pit closure somewhere might mean an insurge of miners and their families from other parts of Lanarkshire, or perhaps even from as far afield as Ayrshire or the Lothians or Fife. Equally, a local closure could mean a slice of his network disappearing off to those other parts, rarely to be contacted again. But, through the deliberate rhythm of his life, the web of acquaintances would have been both relatively unvarying and closely intertwined. The men who worked down the pit beside him were the same men he drank with in the club; a proportion of them would have been the same men who, with their families, would have sat through Mass every Sunday beside his family; that same sub-group would have contained those who might get on the supporters’ bus for Celtic Park (while others might be getting on the Rangers’ bus); and all those same families would be found at weddings, funerals, and at New Year parties (Christmas was a working day in Scotland until the 1960s, and even into the 1970s in some industries), year in and year out.

Having passed my fiftieth birthday, I am old enough to remember clearly some elements of John’s life and lifestyle. Fauldhouse, where I grew up, was still a pit village when I was a child, a place that, over the decades since the end of the Second World War, has taken the brunt of de-industrialization, of the feast and famine effects of regional policy in the 1960s and 1970s and of Thatcher’s vindictively unnecessary destruction of the mining industry. Just three miles from John’s Shotts, my home village of Fauldhouse shared much of the fate of that town, along with the fates of the many mining towns and villages scattered across the Scottish coalfields.

My recollection of my home community as I grew up is of a time and a place where social networks were narrow and deep. The interweave of family, church, work, politics and sociability consisted of only slightly varying and highly meshed subsets of a relatively small and largely unchanging wider social grouping. People came together in tight networks in which each was dependent on everyone else, often for the basic necessities of life, including the core needs for human warmth, conviviality, humour, music, sex and marriage. It is a matter of fact, and not a sentimental fiction, that friends and family sustained each other within their community through the good times and the bad times. Networks were, in that sense, more than merely social – they were mutually-supportive, mutually-validating and convivial at the deepest levels of human need. The people of John’s community, and of the community in which I spent my early years, bounded as they were by geography, industry, poverty, class and, to a lesser extent, religion, had little in the way of material wealth – in such circumstances, social networks take on a quite different hue from the kinds of networks that I inhabit today. Coal miners tended to be tough, sociable, political, protective of their own, and protective of the hard-won advances of their class over the years – so the purpose of their social networks, if purpose is even the right word, would have been much more elemental and stark than tends to be the perceived value of social networks today in the developed world.

The differences between the lives of grandfather John and grandson John are profound, I believe. Today, I live a life that, in some senses, is about as far away from my grandfather’s as it is possible to imagine. I no longer live in the community into which I was born, although I have remained in Scotland most of my life. While still in my teens, I grasped, and therefore divested, the foolishness of religious belief and realised that a universe without purpose does not necessitate a life without direction. Unlike John, I managed to get a formal education of sorts, with university degrees in politics, education and business gathered over the years, as well as a teaching diploma. With these trivial bits of paper, I have been able to work as a teacher, a headteacher, a local government officer, a policy analyst in the Scottish government, and as director of a large-scale technology project in Scottish education. Most recently I moved to the private sector, travelling all over the world as an education specialist with Cisco, a high-tech US global corporate. Where my social networks remained limited in the first few years of my life, following much the same contours as had my grandfather’s throughout his life, they began to expand from the moment I went to secondary school. At each stage in my life, my social universe has expanded along with my intellectual and professional universes.

And, of course, today my own social networks are no longer the narrow and deep ones that John inhabited – they are certainly much broader than his, in many ways more complex, but just as certainly much shallower. I am able to regard as colleagues, acquaintances and friends people from all over the world, many of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting often, some I am able to meet with only occasionally, and many that I have yet to meet face to face (and may never meet in the physical world). My social networks cross boundaries and borders that John would only have been vaguely aware of, if at all – geographical boundaries, belief-based boundaries, professional boundaries, ethnic boundaries, political boundaries, social class boundaries and, of course, virtual boundaries. My networks are less organic, much less fixed and vastly more fluid than his ever were.

Like John, I depend on my social networks, but not for the basic needs that his community shared with each other as a matter of course, as matters of necessity. My social networks provide me with sustenance of a quite different kind. Most of all, my networks – distributed, diverse, dynamic – provide me with my current means to earn a living in the way that I do, the means to continue to learn, unlearn and re-learn, and the means, therefore, continually to expand and extend my knowledge of this tangled, boundless world in which we now live. Only the tiniest portion, though a critical portion, of my social networks provide me with anything like the basics of warmth, love and intrinsic validation that were the prime blessings of my grandfathers’ close and constant community. They remain critical to who I am, but as a kernel around which the rest of my world revolves.

I realize therefore that my social networks today are primarily the means by which I learn. They have nothing – or at least very little – to do with formal education, and yet they are my principal instrument of education, my essential route to new knowledge, the virtual and physical, and very human, landscape against which my consciousness tests incessantly my understanding of the subjects, people, interests and happenings that my capricious mind takes an interest in. What little wisdom I can claim rests only falteringly on the reading of texts, from whatever sources – who I am, and who I am constantly becoming, is determined predominantly by the complex interactions I enjoy with the many-headed, and largely benign, Hydra that comprises my personal set of social networks. Learning is what makes us human – and that deliberate and conscious search for wisdom, however flawed, however futile at times, will remain stunted unless we have a rich, diverse and active network of fellow-learners to call on.

I derive delight, on so many levels and in so many ways, from my social networks. I feel, somehow, that John Connell, my grandfather, would have taken a similar delight in the world I inhabit, had he been given the chance.