Social enterprises looking to build social cohesion in communities may find economic logic a useful starting point in program design, but for long-term gains, they should embed programs in a cultural context, Australian National University (ANU) research has found.
College of Business and Economics researcher Dr Babita Bhatt and her team worked with 20 social enterprises that focus on community projects across Australia to examine the mechanisms each was using to foster social cohesion in their jurisdictions.
One of the most successful mechanisms researchers discovered was where social enterprises had created a community enterprise or community asset that is owned and operated not by individuals, but by the community as a collective.
An example was a café run by community members from many different cultures. In proposing the project, the social enterprise pitched it as an economic activity for the community to earn income, not as an overt way of 'building' community.
Researchers found that this 'neutral' economic language is crucial, particularly among polarised or marginalised groups who may not want to be identified as needing 'social cohesion' or community integration.
However, researchers also warned that in using economic incentives to bring community members together, social enterprises need to be careful not to create negative behaviours, such as increased competitiveness among community members.
They found that leveraging culture as resource to embed economic activities remains an important ingredient in any program's success.
After the café opened, the social enterprise asked the community members to consider making food from their respective cultures that could be sold to customers. Subsequently, the members felt that their culture was appreciated and they connected more deeply with the project.
This, combined with people feeling ownership of the café and gaining a sense of belonging, contributed to the program's success. It also gave community members increasing reasons to interact with each other and to build trust.
This cultural bricolage approach researchers say avoids the limits of focusing solely on an economic approach or solely on a cultural approach, both of which could simply replicate existing challenges and inequities.
Dr Bhatt and her colleague's research is a cornerstone of the ANU's Australian Social Cohesion: Exploring New Directions (ASCEND) program. As part of the program, Dr Bhatt is also researching how food-based social enterprises in Victoria are creating sustainable, long-term community cohesiveness.
To learn more about Dr Bhatt's ground breaking research, or to connect with other ANU researchers, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.