How much money? How much trust?

After my Net-Map presentation in Beijing, a colleague remarked: “But it does make a difference, how much money I get from someone, not only if I do or don’t.”

My colleague is right: it is interesting to know how strong the links in my network are: Who is my biggest supporter, who is my most trusted source of advice, who is responsible for the most powerful disturbance?

In social network analysis these questions are approached by assessing the weight of links. Basically you pose the above questions to your interviewee. There are different ways how you can pose the question and note down the answers on your Net-Map.

  • You can ask your interview-partners to rate the links according to importance and note a “1” next to the most important link, a “2” next to the second most important link and so on. This is especially useful if the links describe a flow that is not easily quantified (e.g. advice) and you will get most useful data if you look at ego-networks, asking: “Which link is most important for you?” And not: “Which link is most important for the network?”
  • If something easily quantifiable flows through the links (e.g. money), you can ask the interview-partner to quantify how much flows between the actors in a specified period of time (e.g. US$/year) and write the amounts next to the links. The same is possible if the link refers to regular interactions and you want to know e.g. “How often do the actors meet to exchange information?” This however requires an interviewee that is very knowledgeable about the network and might otherwise lead to a lot of guesswork.
  • If you want to get a general understanding about primary and secondary links, without going into too much detail, you can choose different colours, e.g. dark green for most important/most trusted flows of advice and bright green for less important/less trusted ones. Or you can vary the thickness of lines.

When visualizing the results with the available computer programs, you can either add the weight as a figure next to the links or vary the thickness of lines according to weight.

However, let me issue a word of warning: Rating is a rather time-consuming endeavour, especially in complex networks. Another colleague told me that in her group exercises the participants enjoyed drawing networks and rating links but were exhausted and lost interest, when she asked them to put actors on influence towers. This might be due to the fact that both rating of links and putting actors on influence towers asks for very similar information about the importance of actors in the network.

So as a rule of thumb I would recommend always keeping the exercise as short as possible and either rating links or putting actors on towers. If you, however, decide that you need both kinds of data, look for other ways of condensing the mapping: E.g. limit the map to one or two crucial kinds of links. Or limit – and pre-define – the actors you want to include.

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