Facts are Facts – Perception is Reality

A colleague said this to me yesterday and after I stopped laughing it got me thinking.

Because with a method such as Net-Map you basically record people’s perceptions. Some of them are rather easily consolidated with what we could call hard facts (e.g. flows of funds, formal lines of command).

But if you ask: Who puts political pressure on whom? Or: Who is how influential? The answers will differ and there is no external omniscient author to this story, who we could ask to verify the answers. Everybody sees their own little corner of the network and imagines the parts that they cannot see, just like ancient cartographers, who were rather correct in mapping their direct surroundings but added three-headed monsters to the margins of the world as known by them.

Sometimes it pays to be on the safe side and only ask for the irrefutable facts. But it is important to be aware that: Perception is reality. What do I mean by that and why is that so important for social scientists?

Decisions are made and executed based of perceptions. So even though they are elusive and difficult to measure and may change every time the wind blows from a different direction: If we don’t deal with perceptions, we will not understand how social processes work.

And: The three-headed monsters that people imagine at the fringe of their networks can impact on decision-making just as much as the happenings in the well-known parts of the network. This is one of the reasons why collaborative network mapping can be such a strong social development tool: It’s like bringing cartographers from different continents together and thus one can fill in the blank spaces of the other and the resulting cognitive social structure is more closely connected to the facts. And less populated with three-headed monsters.

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