Social networks, commitment, and agency in community work participation in Vietnam: Civil society reconsidered

Pham, Lien (2014). 'Social networks, commitment, and agency in community work participation in Vietnam: Civil society reconsidered' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

Much is said about the potential of community work to solve social problems through collective action. The assumptions are that individuals' interests, goals and commitments to resolve social problems are dealt with or shared when they participate in community organisations. In reality, the ability of groups to deal with different values, objectives, people's commitment to the group and others in their own lives, depends on the way individuals perceive their membership within the group, the goal of the group and their own actions in relation to the group's achievements (Sen 1985). In this paper, I shall argue that the extent to which collective action can be achieved depends on two factors: the organisational structure of community groups to enable cooperation of individual agents within the group; and the commitment, trust and values shared between agents within groups to facilitate individual actions. The analysis will draw on the difference between formal organisations and informal networks, and relational aspects of individual agency within these networks. The discussion is based on findings from a case study of overseas-trained Vietnamese, who have returned to Vietnam and participated in some form of community work. Community work is discussed here as activities associated with social welfare and development goals.  The study involved 280 surveys and 48 follow-up interviews with survey respondents and members of their networks. The study forms part of a larger project about the transformative potential of overseas education for Vietnamese overseas graduates and their local communities.

The findings of this case study suggest that structures of Vietnamese community organisations impact people's perception of the goals of these organisations which affect their decision to participate in their activities. Formalised community organisations in Vietnam have a dual political-economic approach: for control and engagement by government to maintain political stability; and to encourage organisations to take on more responsibilities for social welfare and development. Leaders of these organisations usually have government affiliation or personalised relations with government. The model is thus very different compared to the autonomous operation and authority from the government that is core foundation of civic activities championed by the West. In addition to the lack of political freedom for democratic participation, the general scepticism of government to achieve real social change discourage participants in this study from engaging in community work through these formal organizations. These findings echo Sen's view that institutionalised mechanisms do not necessarily bring community organisations into policy processes to promote development and justice for humanity (Sen 2009). Rather, as this study shows, it depends on the structure of the organisation and the political, economic and social conditions surrounding the organisation.  

Participants in this study prefer to participate in community events promoted through their social networks. People's sense of community in Vietnam is built upon social networks extended from kinship and friendship. These networks create personal ties and trust, which allow people to take up activities because they see them as fitting in with their networks' membership. However, the objectives for doing community work differ for each individual. Some people approach community work with sympathy and empathy for the less fortunate, others feel that they are forms of networking and opportunities to develop professional skills. The community events are irregular and the networks are fragmented. Echoing Volkert (2013), the findings suggest that community participation through social networks lack regularity and people's different levels of commitment, sense of achievement and purpose lead to little collective action. In addition, individual decisions are often conflicting, thus working in these community groups often lead to conflicting claims and reasons. As noted by Deneulin (2009) and Sen (2009), without organised mechanisms to facilitate resolution of conflicts, it is hard for these types of informal networks to enable collective action.

To better understand the outcomes of community work, we should focus on individual agency (Sen 2002, Davis 2013). Whilst participants in this study have opportunities, through activities in social networks groups, to exercise their individual agency and improve their capability in skills development and networks building, it is hard to say that there is collective action. Collective action requires freedom as a group to promote or achieve valuable functionings to lead the lives that the group value and have reason to value (Alkire 2008, Stewart 2005). The groups in this study are too loosely structured with any coherent vision and values. They tend to operate in isolation, often struggling against government surveillance. As Volkert (2013) notes, people with similar values working together do not automatically mean there are shared values. This calls for understanding from the individuals' perspectives, how they share these values and cooperate with each other in order to decide to do the things that they collectively want to do. Agency is deeply relational in collective action and constituted by routine practices as a group member as well as purposive actions as individuals (Cleaver 2007). To conceptualise and evaluate collective action would necessitate examination into aspects like power relations within the group, external factors affecting operation of the groups such as political, economic or social facilities. This would allow us to understand if and why community work participation can empower all actors involved.

This paper calls for recognition of a plural idea of civil society beyond institutions operating independently from the government. Social networks also enable participation in community work.  However these can be fragmented and temporary with local impact rather than procuring sustainable social development. To consider the possibility of community work to shape social change, we need to understand people's choice, the conditions through which people can act best, and the balance between power empowerment and constraint in these actions (Crocker 2008). Such analyses thus need to focus on individual agency in light of their group membership, and the effects of group participation for different agents.

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