Albert Ocran

Albert Ocran
Albert Ocran is one of Ghana's most prolific authors and an award-winning motivational speaker

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Are We Not Walking Alone?

Why we must preserve social networks in spite of modernisation and urbanisation

I walked through my neighbourhood with the family last Christmas, knocking on doors, sharing hampers and fraternising with people that I should have known but didn’t. The most interesting experience was when my next door neighbour opened the door and looked at us with this curious look that almost said, “Yes, can I help you?” I could understand her consternation but the bigger question was begging to be answered. How could we live next to each other for over a year and not be acquainted with each other?

As I pondered over the impact of urbanisation on our social lives and the individualistic nature of modern society, I cast my mind back to my childhood in the early seventies in Takoradi and the contrast was clear. I particularly remembered the fun times we had staying in a four storey block with eight apartments housing different families. We could spend hours playing soccer, watching television, reading together, doing our homework or even eating in one flat or another without our parents being too alarmed or concerned. If you ever went out of order, the nearest parent or an adult passing by would take responsibility for meting out the required discipline. It was part of the unwritten social contract.  

"You'll Never Walk Alone" is a show tune from the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. The song is also sung at association football clubs around the world, where it is performed by masses of supporters as they remind themselves on match days about mutual support and togetherness. This tradition began at Liverpool Football Club in the early 1960s and later spread to several other clubs. These are the foundations the communal kind of socialisation birthed in us. Not surprisingly, there are a number of people in my professional network that can be traced all the way back to those childhood associations. It would however seem that the collective nature of the communities we grew up in is now a thing of the past.

Today, you may just have to learn to walk alone. Many have simply confined themselves to their homes, often complete with high walls and electric fences. The focus on the extended family has given way to an individualistic nuclear family outlook. The exigencies of urbanisation, traffic and economic diversity mean that even spouses could have their offices thirty kilometres apart in the same city. The growing child in many urban homes is often restricted to playing with his or her siblings and often finds solace in a laptop, videogame, television or pet.

This is not a solely Ghanaian phenomenon. If anything we have borrowed it from the fast-paced, developed western society. Robert Putnam, a Harvard University political scientist, famously argued in his 2000 book Bowling Alone that the average American’s social capital has declined steadily since the 1960s. Social capital refers to the collective value of all your social networks (the people you know) and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other (terms of reciprocity).

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the traditional medium of regular, face-to-face engagement in relationships cannot keep pace with the changing face of our world. Keeping in regular touch and growing relationships through continuous communication inevitably have to depend on technologies like mobile telephony and online platforms like the internet and social media.  

This brings my mind to a few loose coalitions I belong to comprising either friends, old schoolmates, business associates or fellows in one leadership programme or another. The most enduring and by far the most closely-knot is MOBA ’84, the association of old boys who were in my class in Mfantsipim School. The level of commitment and camaradie exhibited by members scattered all over the world and the ability to go the extra mile for each other is a typical example of social capital at work. Interestingly, the strongest cord that binds this unique group together is a group e-mail network that is kept alive through regular postings, discussions and arguments about all manner of issues. Not too long ago, I listened to Kojo Oppong-Nkrumah of Joy FM talking about the benefits of belonging to his coalition of brothers known as The Kaladan. It was simply a case of young men with shared interests and perspectives joined together in a social network glued together by a commitment to support each other at all times.

So how important are relationships and networks? Can we really say that people who walk alone are missing anything? Do we not attract a whole different set of problems when we open up to people? These questions flooded through my mind as I read the book, The Virtual Handshake, sent to me by my friend Kafui Dey (and by the way I recommend it for those who want to know how to build social networks online). As I read the book, I stumbled on some evidence of the benefits of social capital to people and to businesses. It was based on a book by Professor Wayne Baker of University of Michigan Business School entitled Achieving Success Through Social Capital. Baker summarized some benefits of social networks as follows:

1.      Getting a job: More people find jobs through personal contacts than by any other means.
2.      Pay and promotion: People with rich social capital are paid better and promoted faster at younger ages.
3.      Influence and effectiveness: People who are central in an organization’s networks are more influential than those in the periphery.
4.      Venture capital and financial stability: Seventy-five percent of start-ups find and secure financing through the informal investing grapevine: the social networks of capital seekers and investors. Similarly, bankruptcy is less likely for firms with well-connected executives and board members.
5.      Organizational learning and doing: As much as 80 percent of learning in the workplace takes place through informal interactions.
6.      Word-of-mouth marketing: Advertising increases awareness of products and services, but personal referrals and recommendations are extremely influential in the decision to purchase.
7.      Strategic alliances: The more strategic alliances a company creates, the more alliances it is likely to create in the future.
8.      Democracy: Robert Putnam found in his 25-year study of democracy in Italy that those regions with rich social capital enjoy stronger economic development and more responsive local governments than those regions with poor social capital.
9.      Happiness: Extensive studies in psychology and medicine also demonstrate that social capital can improve your personal quality of life. A stronger social network leads to greater happiness and a greater sense of meaning.
10.  Health: Robert Putnam writes, “People who are socially disconnected are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes, compared with matched individuals who have strong ties.”

A high level of social capital is critical for your professional and personal success. It is practically impossible to rely on personal face-to-face contact as the sole means of maintaining relationships or networks. In the light of rapid changes in our world and the ever-growing importance of the internet and social networks, it is imperative for each one to spend time crafting a strategy for using online platforms to preserve some of the benefits of social networks and relationships that we simply cannot afford to lose.

Peace & Blessings!!!


Aerial view of a high class urban community in Accra


  1. Yes, ALL outcomes depends on your associates. Like an Eagle with chicken, it will never learn to fly high. Thanks Albert!

  2. The quality of friends or close associates that you have determine the quality of life you live,thank you that i have you as a friend. Thank you.Ron.

  3. Well written piece, I should say that my social capital plus humility earned me a job without an application letter, no interview. One proposed and another person endorsed.
    the efforts can never be underestimated, hope more students read this.

  4. Insightful. The much-aligned "Who you know" syndrome is actually a potential force for good.

  5. Prior to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in the US, African-Americans among other indignities, had to live in designated areas in each town. You had the lawyer living next to the doctor living next to the factory worker living next to the thief. There was a certain cohesiveness. They looked out for each other and the successful ones were examples for the children. Then came desegregation. The successful blacks moved to the affluent parts of town, leaving behind ghettos.
    Go into most Black "hoods" these days and what hits you is the feeling of desolation and hopelessness. The examples of success they see are the pimps, drug dealers, rappers and ballers.
    The total breakdown of that social network has played no small role in the status of a lot of blacks today.
    No one wants those days of segregation back but one wishes there could be a way to show black kids in the hood constant examples of black success stories beyond the stories of rappers and ballers.

  6. Sometimes you need someone who has walked that road to show you the way,if you walk alone chances are that you may never cross path with the way opener.Do not be a hermit,associate with like minded individuals who are going places.Together we make a Difference