Networks, control and the fear of loosing it

Talking with Nancy White and reading her last posts about community management triggered a whole network of thoughts around why the idea of a network organisation and network structures appeal to some people (and some organizations) while they make others shudder.

And I think this has a lot to do with the balance between control and trust. Network memberships can be temporary, the strength of links between nodes often depends on their own willingness and motivation to maintain them, linking unlikely parts of a network can lead to explosions of creativity and innovation (but also to uncontrolled flows of gossip), multiple connections in a densely knit network reduce the control that individual actors have (reducing their betweenness centrality), informal networks can outweigh the formal ones… etc. Scary stuff.

People who look at the world through a frame of mind that puts control in the center, will realize that a vibrant network is out of control. If you believe that people only do things because of fear of punishment or fear of being found out, again, in a complex network structure (such as “the real world”) it is even difficult to track down cause and effect.

But what happens if you use a different tint of sunglasses and look at your network as if you trusted that people have motivations that go beyond the fear of direct punishment? All of a sudden you can see the great opportunities that arise from pairing the unusual, from the speedy informal exchanges and those links that are maintained and backed by intrinsic motivation of the actors involved. And instead of the fear of loosing control and ending up in chaos you might start thinking in metaphors of growth (as in the way plants grow), add your contribution to the network and see what happens.

And all this reminds me of something I observed in Ghana, where my friends had a very long term perspective on the give and take in their social networks: One friend came out of a poor household and the other boy often shared his lunch with him when they were kids – which was in the hunger years of the 80ies and thus more than just a friendly gesture. Now 20 years later the poorer friend has a good and stable job while the other one floats in and out of employment and hits one hard rock after the other. So his old friend gives him money to open a little store – not because he thinks this is an economically sound investment but because what goes around comes around… one day. You don’t count the amount you give or how long it takes that something comes back to you but just invest into the network whenever you have something to give and hope that it will take care of you the same way.

While this sounds like a romantic story with a slight “noble savage” tint to it, I am sorry to inform you though, that my friend has transformed the shop into his bedroom – so while he is not earning any money with it, he at least has a place to sleep…

Now, what I am really interested in is what happens if you take a middle ground between trust and control, which deserves a lot of self discipline (as it is so much easier to see everything either black or white). I don’t know but I will think about it some more…

Response to “Do African villagers learn less from Net-Mapping than African policy makers?”

I’m happy that Prakash Kashwan takes up this question and adds his own experience, as you can see below, because the question is still out there and I have not found an answer that really satisfies me. I like his notion of community members actually simplifying matters for the researcher, who is a rather ignorant non-expert when it comes to matters of the community. I’m curious to hear more from Jennifer Hauck, who is just returning from the field (rural northern Ghana) where she used Net-Map in a second step (after the data collection) as a tool to facilitate group formation of local fishermen. And I feel the urge to go back to doing Net-Maps on the community level to figure out more about what they can do there…

Prakash Kashwan writes:

This is indeed an interesting puzzle. Influence mapping has a lot in common with Venn Diagram technique used in PRA techniques, where it is used side by side with mapping exercises. We know mapping is always a big hit with the communities – it really gets them going. Wood even used maps to discuss the impact of civil war on communities in El Salvador. Maps that her communities drew are available here <>. Coming back to the difference between mapping in general and influence mapping may really have to do with how community members process information and knowledge. These differences may go much beyond whether they relate to paper maps or not. After all, PRA maps are also drawn on paper sheets most of the times. I could quickly find at least one paper <> discusses how mapping was more helpful in developing farmer’s meta cognitive skills compared to Venn diagrams.

This reminds me that many a time, we researcher need to render concrete the information/knowledge that community members may have held only in abstract. This is rather counter-intuitive but there have been many situations where I have felt that I was forcing my respondents to simplify their thinking (for my consumption) in a flash. This may not be easy at all, and I suspect parts of influence mapping may also be affected by similar issues. Many a time, community members are often part of very complex networks. In any case, this is worth putting in some serious thinking and very important for all of us who interact with rural/indigenous communities in a variety of situations.

P.s. on chicken

This is not a chicken blog so I’ll finish my musings about the external vs the internal chicken in Ethiopia by providing one last link to Solomon Demeke’s paper “Growth performance and survival of Local and White Leghorn chickens under scavenging and intensive systems of management in Ethiopia”.

Pod-Cast for Net-Map and Knowledge Sharing for Development

You might remember that Nancy White asked for your help in trying out an online exchange of and about Net-Map. That was in the context of a knowledge sharing workshop of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). As the workshop is mainly an online activity (though with face-to-face meetings), the Knowledge Sharing team uses all different kinds of methods, to make different voices available to their participants.

Simone Staiger, Project Leader of the Institutional Knowledge Sharing Initiative of the CGIAR interviewed me about Social Network Analysis in general, our experiences with Net-Map in Ghana, the question how comfortable users are with this approach and the ways network analysis can benefit research for development. Listen here.

From Specific to General

While I used the (general) Net-Map tool to learn very specific details about the poultry and maize sector in Ethiopia, Dawit Kelemework, our Ethiopian research officer, experienced that working on these specific issues opened his eyes to a much bigger and more general field of research approaches. He writes:

“From specific to general

Few weeks ago, I was an alien to the whole world of social network analysis, net-mapping, Visualyzer or anything of that sort. I was just trying to acquaint myself with the method and how it can be applied to the innovation benchmarking in the context of Ethiopia’s agriculture. Luckily, I met Dr Eva Schiffer and she showed me how to do the net-mapping, enter data and basics of analyzing network properties and node centralities. I found it to be a very interesting tool of analyzing actors in a network, the relationships among the actors, the influence that each actor has in the system and much more. It is a very interesting way of learning about a given system and its characteristics in a holistic manner. On April 14, Eva wrote how net-mapping helped her know much about Ethiopia’s poultry sector in a day or two. I think it did the reverse on me. Just practicing the net-mapping has introduced me to the vast world of social network analysis and has created a strong interest in me to explore the methodology and its application to wide range of areas. Thank you Eva.”

Marathon Chicken up-date

I sent my musings about Marathon Chicken Support to my colleague David Spielman in Ethiopia and he assures me that our colleagues at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) do demand oriented research. He writes:

“Yes, ILRI is actually working to improve local poultry breeds, rather than introducing exotic breeds. Dr. Azage Tegegne with ILRI’s Improving Productivity and Market Success of Ethiopian Farmers (IPMS) project can provide more information.”

Glad to know that.

Local Materials

In his comment today, Prakash Kashwan asks, whether we have used local materials for doing Net-Map, which reminds me that I wanted to put together a slide show of “stackable things” that could be used as influence towers. So, the answer is yes, and things that we have used include local board game pieces, bicycle ball bearings, nuts (as in “bolt and nut” not as in “nuts and raisins”) and bottle caps.

We tried beans and pebbles but because you can’t pile them up neatly, it ends up looking like someone has thrown some stones on your net-map and doesn’t really help understanding the complex visual representation better.

Its nice to have actor figurines and especially when working with illiterate interviewees, it helps to distinguish the different actors but it’s more important to have something to build influence towers with. So if you don’t have actor figurines, Net-Map without.

One request: If you have pictures of influence towers from local materials, send them to me and I’ll post them. And, if you use Net-Map and want to share your experience in a (half page or so) blog post, or a longer case study (see case study section for inspiration), please send it to me, so that we can slowly but surely build this into a collaborative community of knowledge.

Marathon Chicken vs Whitebreasts

In Ethiopia people don’t care much for huge, tender, tasteless industrial style chicken. Everybody, from farmer to university researcher agreed: For good Ethiopian food you need tough and streetwise Ethiopian chicken. This poses a big challenge to the development of the commercial poultry sector: While there is a big market for eggs, farmers and extensionists alike tell us that producing broilers is just not viable because they are so difficult to sell.

Today I talked with my IFPRI colleague Clemens Breisinger about this and he asks: “Well, why don’t they develop a broiler industry that produces local chicken, if that’s what the market wants?”

I have no answer to this. And I have to admit that I had thought much more along the lines of: “How can you develop the market for international chicken in Ethiopia?” instead of asking this much more logical question. Maybe those involved in the chicken industry and agricultural development in the country have a similar bias that “innovation” always has to be the thing that comes from the countries of the developed world? Or is there another reason why it wouldn’t make sense to support the improvement of the marathon chicken segment?

Net-Map on Wikipedia

That’s the whole content of this post: Net-Map now has a Wikipedia entry. Check it out and change, add, contribute!

Do we really need to draw all these links?

When we were net-mapping the innovation systems in poultry and maize in Ethiopia, we wondered: What is the benefit of spending so much time, drawing different links and is it maybe enough to just name the actors and put them on influence towers? So we tried a two step approach: With the first interview partner, a researcher, we did a normal Net-Map, asking him: “Who can influence that the farmers innovate in the maize sector?”

Net-Map of the maize innovation system, drawn by Ethiopian researcherNet-Map of Ethiopian maize innovation system, drawn by Ethiopian researcher; Source: Schiffer 2008

For the next interview, that we undertook with a private entrepreneur who multiplies and markets improved varieties, we came prepared: We wrote all the actors that had been mentioned in the previous interview on actor cards for our interviewee to choose from. If he thought that some of these were not really important, he could refuse them, if he had others to add, he could do so. For the next step, we didn’t let him draw networks but just put the actor cards on a map that we had divided into four sections to represent different sectors (public, private, NGO/Civil Society, farmers). Then we asked him to put the actors on influence towers.

Actor Map of Ethiopian maize innovation systems as drawn my maize breeder, without network links (Source Schiffer 2008)

Actor Map of Ethiopian maize innovation system, drawn by Ethiopian maize breeder; Source: Schiffer 2008

This did speed things up a bit, but did it also serve our goals of getting a better understanding of the questions we had?

After the second interview I discussed this question with my colleagues Regina Birner and David Spielman and we agreed that we learned far less about the “system-ness” of the innovation system, if we didn’t look at the multiple links of the actors. Also, our interview partner seemed to be thinking on a less specific and concrete level. The answer to the question: “Is this guy involved?” is so much more general than following the flow of improved seeds or the lines of command that connect a system. It was through looking at the flows (“So where do the improved seeds go when they leave the laboratory, who has to move them where until the farmer can actually plant them?”), that our first interview partner came up with actors that he had first forgotten. And for us, the concreteness of the network allowed us to clear mis-understandings and preconceptions and evaluate how the system in the Ethiopian maize sector was similar to or different from Ethiopian poultry or from maize in other countries.