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.

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