Before Acting, Do Social Analysis

If you want to address systemic issues such as poverty, hunger, and the environment at the local level, some form of social analysis will be required. Social analysis is a method for describing the local community surrounding the church in terms of the social structures that shape it, such as the economic, cultural and the political systems. When done by church leaders, such analysis can help to diagnose the structural reasons for problems, such as poverty or environmental degradation, that they wish to alleviate. On the other hand, social analysis might serve a positive use, uncovering hidden features of the community that can lead to an improved life.[1]

            To engage in social analysis of your community, move through the following nine steps[2]:

  1. What do you notice about our situation here today? What are people experiencing? This step is primarily descriptive. We are trying to get a sense of the community without analyzing it too deeply just yet.
  2. What changes have occurred in the past twenty years? What have been the most important events? This question gets at the historical dimension of the situation.
  3. What influence does money have in our situation? This question addresses the economic system influencing the community.
  4. Who makes the most important decisions around here? This question addresses the political system, or how power gets exercised. In some cases the answer can be found by looking at the formal structures that surround us, such as the mayor’s office, the city council, the state capital, Congress or federal agencies. In other cases, we might look to informal structures, such as influential people or families in the community, networks of organizations, or ad hoc coalitions consisting of government and community groups.
  5. What are the most important relationships people have here? This question deals with those other social relations so important to nourishing our life together, including the family, the neighborhood, friends at work and school, and social media connections.
  6. What are the most important traditions of the people? This addresses the question of culture, including religion, the arts and music, and local traditions where we live.
  7. What do people want most in life? Analyzing a community does not mean simply uncovering its hidden problems, but also may be used to unearth people’s hopes and dreams for the future.
  8. What will things be like in ten years if they keep going in the same way? The future focus of this question aims spark reflection about what is happening in the present. A primary purpose of social analysis is to broaden our perspective to see all the various dimensions of our situation.
  9. What are the most important causes of the way things are today? This question encourages us to sift through and prioritize among the many causes for a given social reality.

            The purpose of social analysis is to describe the multidimensional reality of the communities in which we live. The process can help to shape a direction for our community engagement. Without a grasp of the broader context, our projects can feel like a game of Whack-a-Mole as we seek solutions to local problems in isolation. Additionally, we might miss the positive resources, such as dreams, economic resources, local traditions, and significant relationships, that can help us improve the community in which we live.

[1] Joe Holland and Peter Henriot, S.J., Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983), 103.

[2] Holland and Henriot, Social Analysis, 102.

Photo: Lazurite, 4.29.09. Flickr Creative Commons.

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