Apples and Pears

When you are setting up a Net-Map, at one point you will ask: “How strongly can these actors influence XY?” and you will request that your interview partner or group puts actor figurines on influence towers, their respective height representing the relative influence of the actor in this network and concerning the issue at stake (XY).

This is the moment, when nearly inevitably someone will say: “But you can’t compare apples with pears!” and support his or her point with examples: “The donor gives money, the earth priest is a spiritual leader, the district assembly is democratically elected, they all have different kinds of influence, how can you compare them?”

By asking this, your interview partner raises a very important and slightly confusing issue that points far beyond the question of influence towers and thus deserves some further deliberation. Because whenever we work together with other people we face exactly this situation: Everybody brings a different mix of sources of influence to the table, some of them formal (like the position in a hierarchy) others informal (like the “standing” someone has in a community), some of the influence might stem from their position in certain networks, another part of it might be based on their financial resources, intelligence or social skills.

If we follow the argument of our interview partner, we would expect to be paralyzed in most group efforts, trying and failing to figure out, who is how influential, how strongly the group members can lead, negotiate, hamper and change the course of action taken by the group. Surprisingly, while this does happen occasionally, in most social situations we seem to be able to weigh influence from different sources so smoothly that we don’t even realize we are doing it.

I must admit that the more I observe and consider this, the more impressed I am with this social skill that works so much faster and in more complex ways than we are aware of most of the time. By the way, working in a different culture is a good way to learn more about the indicators we use to assess the influence status of different actors. Because these indicators differ vastly between cultures and the resulting misunderstandings can sharpen our understanding of our own cultural influence indicators.

Now, how does all this feed into the way we use Net-Map?

Well, the above deliberations might give you some food for thought about how you can convince your more reluctant interview partners to try to set up the influence towers. But this is more than a trick for smooth “interview partner management”. We are touching the core of the matter here and to get most out of this exercise both for you as a researcher/facilitator and for your participants, you will want to go beyond just drawing maps and start using them as a basis for discussion. While or after setting up the influence towers, encourage your participants to explore and discuss where the influence of the different actors comes from, how it is expressed and negotiated in different actor constellations and concerning different tasks or conflicts. Making these implicit assessments explicit will help us to learn more about what (and who and why) drives your specific actor network and groups or societies more generally.

Upcoming events

The Net-Map toolbox will go on its first trip around the world in December and January. I will present and discuss the tool as the following venues and dates:

China, Beijing, Annual General Meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (2nd of December 2007)

Italy, Rome, International Fund for Agricultural Development (17th of December 2007)

Germany, Bonn, Center for Development Research of the University of Bonn, in collaboration with the German Development Institute (19th of December 2007)

Ghana, Bolgatanga, White Volta Basin Board (17th of January 2008).

Some of these events are more, others are less open to the more general public. So if you are a researcher, policy maker or implementer and interested in attending any of these talks, send me an email and find out if that is possible.

Two heads are better than one

As the old Ashanti saying claims. In Ghana you can find little bronze figurines with two or more heads that are made to remind people that you can reach greater heights if you put your knowledge and insight together.

Using Net-Map in the field we have seen that there are different possible approaches to putting two (or rather 17) heads together. Basically there are two options:

  • Draw individual Net-Maps with everyone involved and merge the data collected to develop a cognitive social structure (for more about concepts and procedures read Krackhardt 1990.
  • Invite everyone involved to discuss and draw a network together in a group session.

Now, how will the common network differ according to the approach to data collection? And what effects will these two approaches have to the group development and network learning of participants? Which one will make sure that the less vocal participants are adequately represented? How do you deal with contradicting opinions about who is involved, how they are linked or how influential they are?

In our work with the White Volta Basin Board (a new multi-stakeholder water governance body), we used a combined approach, where we started with individual interviews and continued with group mapping sessions. So now we can answer some of the above questions (for this specific case) by comparing the cognitive social structure (merged individual maps) with the group map.

However, this post is not intended to prescribe a certain procedure but to invite you to think flexibly about your own potential implementation. What will be the most appropriate way of putting more than one head together in your concrete situation?

It’s a box

The Net-Map Toolbox is a real, physical box. With little things inside that you can play with. It actually looks a bit like a board game. Which is not surprising, because the first field version was assembled out of pieces bought in a toy shop. I have realized that it is important to clarify that, because when I tell my colleagues that I have developed a toolbox, they immediately think of computer applications.

There are computer programs that help with the data analysis (for example UCINet or VisuaLyzer, both have free trial versions for download on the Internet). However to collect data or facilitate processes, you don’t need electricity but you have to take real things to the field, spread a big sheet of paper on a table or on the floor, write names of actors on little cards that you stick to it, draw colorful links according to how they are connected, build influence towers indicating how strongly the different actors influence the process and add symbols or abbreviations for other important information about them next to the actor cards, for example their goals.

Talking about “things to play with”: The physical toolbox developed at IFPRI makes it much more convenient to carry everything you need with you to the field. However, if you have a look at the manual (848 KB), you will see that you can also use the method with “tools” assembled in the field. In Ghana we tried out different options, checkers pieces went well but weren’t available locally, beans refused to be stacked so that idea was abandoned soon. Bicycle bearings were available on the local market and proved to be rather stackable so they performed as influence towers in Jennifer Hauck’s study on fisheries’ governance (see case study section).

Jennifer says: “I like using locally available materials when I’m in the field. And when I pulled out my bag full of bicycle spare parts, that always made my interview partners laugh. It proved to be a great ice-breaker, where a very sleek research tool might have intimidated the local fishermen.”

Who is the civil society?

That is a question that really concerned the district directors of the National Commission on Civic Education in Ghana. As part of the African Peer Review Process these district directors are supposed to set up district APRM supervisory committees comprising representatives of “the” civil society. The idea is that these committees will supervise the implementation of the local plan of action. They are supposed to keep track of whether a school or health center is really getting built, how the local communities feel about the process and blow the whistle if money starts leaking.

Sounds great. But “the civil society” is one of those catch all phrases that makes life easy for policy makers (“You have to involve the civil society!”) but hard for implementers, because if you go to the field, you will find a lot of people and groups active in their communities, but because “the” civil society basically includes everyone of them, it concept doesn’t tell you who you should involve.

Our colleague Douglas Waale in Ghana has started using Net-Map to help the district directors to make this term more concrete and find out who would be the ones who could drive the APRM to a success in their specific district. While we are still waiting for the final results, we already know that his interview partners were greatly relieved to find a way of structuring the decision making process. As the district director of the Jirapa District put it:

“It’s a very important tool, from the way we came out with the members. I was picturing how I was going to form this committee all alone, there was a big question mark as to who to choose, but through this method I have seen that certain groups are inevitable, looking at the coordination. The method has opened my mind and I would want to use it in my work”.

(I could write a lot about what the African Peer Review Mechanism Process is, but others have done that already. NEPAD’s up to date web-page about the process is an interesting starting point For Ghana, a critical appraisal of the process so far was done by the Africa Governance Monitoring and Advocacy Project (AfriMAP) (367 KB).

Where do new ideas come from?

In social network analysis there is a lot of research that tries to answer this question and one concept that comes up again and again is the strength of weak ties. That basically means: New ideas and inspiration normally come from those people you don’t know too well, who work in a completely different field, who come from a different culture and can tell you about things you never even thought of before. This is why travel is so great for the mind…

And this is why we will not only discuss net-map with our colleagues who we see every day in the office but put it out here in the open. This tool is so flexible that it can be used in any setting where people do something together (or against each other) to achieve goals.

In this blog we want to discuss as different applications as

  • Political pressure in legislative processes in Chile
  • Defining “civil society” for district oversight committees in the Africa Peer Review Mechanism Process in Ghana
  • Net-Mapping for strategic career network planning,
  • Fisheries governance in rural communities in northern Ghana
  • and… applications that we have never thought about before… (this is where you come in)

Introducing the Net-Map Toolbox

Net-Map is an interview-based mapping tool that helps people understand, visualize, discuss, and improve situations in which many different actors influence outcomes. By creating Influence Network Maps, individuals and groups can clarify their own view of a situation, foster discussion, and develop a strategic approach to their networking activities. More specifically, Net-Map helps players to determine

  • what actors are involved in a given network,
  • how they are linked,
  • how influential they are, and
  • what their goals are.

Determining linkages, levels of influence, and goals allows users to be more strategic about how they act in these complex situations. It helps users to answer questions such as: Do you need to strengthen the links to an influential potential supporter (high influence, same goals)? Do you have to be aware of an influential actor who doesn’t share your goals? Can increased networking help empower your disempowered beneficiaries?

For more information, download the user manual (260K).