“While a network, like a group, is a collection of people, it includes something more: a specific set of connections between people in the group. These ties, and the particular pattern of these ties, are often more important than the individual people themselves. They allow groups to do things that a disconnected collection of individuals cannot. The ties explain why the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And the specific pattern of the ties is crucial to understanding how networks function.” – Nicholas A. Christakis
At the Interaction Institute for Social Change, we have a collaborative change lens that includes the facets of (1) naming and building power and working for equity and inclusion; (2) seeing and advancing networks as the unit of action and analysis and (3) embracing love as a force for social transformation. With respect to networks, we have noticed that there are a lot of different takes on what networks are, why they matter, and how to “leverage” them for positive social change. Part of this may be due to the fact that network science and approaches span a variety of schools of thought and practice, including sociology, psychology, mathematics, political science, communication, anthropology, economics, and epidemiology.
I recently came across an article by Nancy Katz, David Lazer, Holly Arrow, and Noshir Contractor (2004) that names some of the commonalities that exist across these different schools and approaches that we’ve been experimenting with to advance social change networks, support resilience, and to shift patterns and flows in “systems as networks” to create regenerative communities and equitable wellbeing. The article, entitled “Network Theory and Small Groups,” refers to the work of Barry Wellman (1988), which lifts up five core principles of network theory that might provide some more coherence and alignment to “network approaches.”
People’s behavior is best understood and predicted by the web of relationships in which they are embedded. These webs present opportunities and impose constraints on people’s behavior. So working with connections and flows can facilitate, inhibit and shape possibility.
Nothing can be properly understood in isolation or in a segmented fashion. The focus of analysis should be the relationships between people or groups, rather than the units themselves or their intrinsic characteristics. So the quality of relationship matters and needs tending.
Methods of “analysis” should not assume independence, but rather interdependence. People should be understood relationally. So think in terms of “collisions and ripples” as one network we are working with likes to say, characterizing network effects.
The flow of information and resources between two people depends not simply on their relationship to each other but on their relationships to everybody else. Or in network science speak, “Understanding a social system requires more than merely aggregating the dyadic ties.” So focus not just on one-to-one exchanges, but one-to-many and many-to-many (scale-linking).
Groups have fuzzy rather than firm boundaries. The building blocks of organizations and communities are not discrete groups but rather overlapping networks. Individuals generally have crosscutting relationships to a multitude of groups. So focus not simply on the impacts of bonding within groups but bridging across, and what this manifests.
Webs, relationships, flows, interdependence, intricacy, scale-linking, bonding and bridging. This is certainly not a full list of what network mindsets make visible to us, but hopefully lifts up some of what can help us better understand and work with reality, in these and at all times.
Last week I participated in the Network Leadership Training Academy hosted by the University of Colorado at Denver’s Center on Network Science. It was wonderful to meet fellow network geeks and enthusiasts from around the country and Canada and to hear about diverse applications of network theory and practice, from public health to public transportation, from early childhood education to after-school programming, from housing to firefighting.
I was invited to share some of what we at the Interaction Institute for Social Change are learning as we work at the intersection of networks and equity, which included telling the evolving story of Food Solutions New England. There seemed to be resonance with and appetite for going deeper to unpack how networks can be forces for truly equitable liberation from dysfunctional and damaging systems.
And there were many other presenters over the course of the couple of days I was able to attend. Here are some of my take-aways.
In networks, less is often more with respect to personal connections. Given that people can only manage a certain number of social connections, a good question to ask is “How can we cultivate and maintain the fewest number of connections that are valuable?”
Closed networks do not lend themselves to novelty. For innovation (and presumably for both resilience and adaptability) it is important to pay attention to “structural holes” in networks.
Effective engagement rests on authentic listening, informal exchanges and meetings (lunch, coffee), identifying and honoring strengths and assets, thinking of people as people and not projects, constantly showing up and closing loops.
In order to activate a network you have to have established sufficient trust and reciprocity.
Effective networks for individual “leaders” are open (distributed), diverse and deep.
From conversation and reflection with participants:
Connection is a social determinant of health.
Increasingly healing needs to be viewed as a foundational goal of developing networks.
Effective networks for individuals are not necessarily effective networks for collectives and social change. We have to be clear about what our scale and intentions are. (ON this front, check out this wonderful post by Christine Capra – “Networking Does Not Equal Network WEAVING“)
Additional resources to consult:
The Partner Tool, a social network analysis tool designed to measure and monitor collaboration among people/organizations.
Person-Centered Network App, for use by a provider to first screen a person to assess their gaps and strengths in their personal support systems and then, based on the results, link them to available community resources.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Michigan to do a presentation and discussion with representatives from a number of inspiring networks focused on local food production, food access and public health. I was invited by my gracious hosts at the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University to share a bit of network theory, tell a few stories and cover key concepts around network thinking and action to help advance and cohere some of the good work happening around the state.
Towards the end of that morning session, a couple of the participants mentioned that their heads were swimming and a few acknowledged that along with their excitement, they were struggling with how complex and difficult “net work” can be.
I felt their pain and was moved by their honesty, and offered something along these lines, with a bit of post-event embellishment. … Read More
This is a very exciting time for those of us who are working to apply the logic of networks to the work of social change. Our ideas are gaining traction as more and more experiments start to point towards success. Life online, the viral nature of meaningful stories and our human desire for deeper connection all serve to confirm our intuitive understanding of life in a network. However, as we step into this paradigm shift, as we start to approve of these ideas, we still have to contend with the constraints of the organizational and funding structures within which we currently work. Read More
I knew a few Barr Fellows before I started doing the kind of work I do today. I knew a few of them before they were Barr Fellows, and so I also knew them after. It was in this nonscientific way that I was able to observe some of the subtle and not so subtle shifts that were happening among my friends – the fellowship had an effect on them and on their work. Conceptually, the idea behind the fellowship was something that I could understand, network theory and the power of relationships already made intuitive sense to me.
Check out the Barr Fellows Program for a formal description of the effort. But to risk oversimplification, the fellowship is about taking a diverse group of amazing leaders in Boston’s social sector, rewarding them with a sabbatical, connecting them to one another and exposing them to social innovation in other parts of the world.
A colleague and I recently met with staff of a client organization to discuss their interest in crafting a regional “partnership” strategy. Leading up to the meeting there had been some discussion with folk about what it would mean to bring a network lens to their work, to perhaps approach this as a “network building” opportunity. Needless to say we were excited and came ready to dive deeply into the conversation.
My colleague and I decided it would be best to “start where the people are” and hear what their interest was in a partnership approach, how this had come about, and how they saw it as different than what they had been doing up until now. There was some very interesting discussion about the need and desire to break out of silos, change from being project-focused to creating more of a coordinated continuum of services, and develop stronger relationships among stakeholders in each of the regions in question.
Then the time came to pop the question – “What about networks? How do these fit into your work?” I was invited to say a few general comments about network theory and network building and how this might be different than general collaboration/partnerships/coalition building. On the heels of my brief presentation, there ensued commentary that is coming to be a bit of a refrain. “I still don’t understand how network building is different than what we are trying to do in terms of partnering.” “I’m not sure how we fit our work into that theory.” In some instances, there was palpable consternation expressed along with these comments – “Frankly, that just makes it all the more confusing for me.”
Okay, I said, let’s stop right there. If we are working too hard to fit our efforts into network theory or bending our brains too much to understand how networks are different than other kinds of collaboration, then we may not be headed in a very productive direction. I decided to add simply that partnerships have a lot in common with networks, that they may in fact be networks of a sort. The only caution is that partnerships can be overly deterministic in terms of who is in and who is out and how things get done, which might not move the needle as much as we hoped. If network theory can offer anything, it is the suggestion that we not make our partnerships too much like business as usual with the usual suspects. It might be of some benefit to hold space open for new ideas to emerge and make efforts to reach out to those to whom we might not otherwise engage.
To these comments, all heads around the table nodded. Brows unfurrowed. And we moved on. With each of these kinds of conversations I realize that we are all truly where we are. I am also reminded that practice often makes a more powerful lead than theory. The two must, of course, dance together, but the real star is what we make happen in the world. So I say, let’s not wait until we get it right, because there is no such thing. Let’s just remain open as we go, because there’s life in that.