Learning by doing

I have just finished teaching my first 5 day “General Introduction to Social Network Analysis” course at the International Livestock Research Institute in Kenya. I must say, I was a bit nervous before I arrived, because I knew I would interact with a group of researchers interested to be trained in a method and (maybe) used to trainings where you learn a method as a method and that’s that.

How would they react to my approach to this? Would they understand, why I wanted to frame my “methods training” with the bigger and the smaller picture?

The bigger picture: For me social network analysis is not a collection of algorithms and network drawing, but I am convinced that it rests on a fundamentally different philosophy and that social network analysis must rest on network thinking to actually make sense. Otherwise it’s just playing with data.

The smaller picture: I don’t think it makes sense to learn a method in abstract terms without directly applying it to concrete problems that you want to solve. It’s like learning to swim without water, learning a language without speaking.

So, what I had planned was to invite my participants into the world of network thinking first and then help them to work on their own current or future research projects to figure out how SNA would fit into their research framework, develop data collection tools, pre-test them by using other group members as guinea pigs and use social network measures and social network software to make sense of their results.

Today was the last day of the training and I must say, from the get-go it was a great and exciting experience, with a group that got very passionate about learning new tools to answer their concrete research questions, a lot of feedback between group members, who had a diverse quantitative and qualitative background, and some very concrete plans of individual project teams to apply social network analysis within the next few months. I’m especially thrilled about the later because I am convinced that SNA has a lot of potential for the use in development oriented research and it is great to see a community of practice around these issues growing.

After this great experience I am looking forward to the next run of this course and am currently integrating the lessons learnt into this module.

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