So you think you’re so important?

The other day my colleague Regina Birner (IFPRI) asked me: “Do you think people generally overestimate their own influence (when drawing Net-Maps and setting up influence towers)?”

Hm, good question. It’s been shown by other social network analysts (plus, it’s somehow logical) that most people over-represent their own connectedness in a network: They know all of their own links but only some of the links other people have. So anytime you ask someone to draw a network that he or she is involved in, expect your artist to be in the midst of things and representing himself or herself as more central than other people would think they are (I have seen exceptions to this rule, though).

Now is the same true for influence towers? Do people in general think they are more influential than other people would think they are? From my experience I’d say it’s not that easy. There are those who think they are the center of the universe and consequently over-estimate their own influence. Then there are others who think it’s socially expected to be modest (or who actually are, for that matter) and they will underestimate their influence. One interviewee even refused to rate both, her own organization and that of the interviewer.

I have no quantitative analysis of this yet, so this is more of a gut feeling after doing a lot of interviews: Most interviewees seem to be rather spot on when rating their own influence and tend to agree with their network peers. I hope Regina and I find a way to launch a study big enough to do some more rigorous testing of this and other questions about reliability, replicability, interviewer bias and other aspects of Net-Map that make quantitatively oriented researchers nervous…

Social networks and XY

That’s the really interesting stuff, combining the analysis of social networks with the analysis of something else (XY): What kinds of networks are linked to greater innovations in companies (you need to collect indicators of innovativeness in addition to the network analysis), higher welfare in African villages (add welfare indicators) or being more effective terrorists (count successful acts of terrorism). That’s all about the question of how networks lead to something. And it get’s really mind boggling if you are able to link these results to specific structural issues of networks, such as centralization, flexibility over time, structural holes etc.

On the other hand you might also want to know what leads to people achieving certain positions within networks, what makes someone a hub in a hub-and-spoke network, why are some people so much better connected than others, act as boundary spanners or bottle-necks? Is it all about personality, income, geographic location, organizational structure, time spent in a specific field, cultural background or something completely different?

When people are exited about the new kind of data and understanding you can gather with social network analysis, they (and I am part of “they” here) often don’t realize that your understanding can move to the next level, if you combine network with non-network data.

Is there anyone out there who has combined social network and geographic data? I have this visual of a presentation in my head: First you show a social network map with the actors with highest centrality in the middle and the lesser connected nodes at the fringes (i.e. standard visualization of networks), on the next slide you see how these actors are distributed in space (e.g. where their farms are or where their offices are located) and then you put the social network on top of the geographic and the actors slowly move to their place in space while maintaining their network links. Not only would that look cool, but you would also be able to give your audience a very direct feel for whether or not the social networks are linked to the geographic position of the actors: Do they have stronger links with their immediate neighbors? Does the guy who lives in the middle of the village (or whose office is by the water cooler) really have the most dense network?

At the moment I neither have the data to play with nor would I know how to animate it, but maybe there is someone out there, who has already done that? Or, maybe you have the data and want to discuss how you could best visualize it? Or you are planning a research project and think: Wow, this is how I’m going to do it! But how am I going to do it? Drop me a line.

Search it in the library, ask the librarian (or ask everyone)?

I’m not that old (or maybe I am) but when I started to study, I was annoyed that they were making us take computer classes because I was convinced that I would never need to use a computer in my work life. This might be why a lot of my analogies that help me understand the world are still pre-computer and definitely pre-internet.

I’ve experienced again that the best way to find something or to find something out, is to ask someone who knows more about it than you do. Because a library (and even more so the internet) is a place where thousands and thousands of sources of information sit next to each other on shelves, not really indicating which ones are crucial. But if you walk up to the librarian, or ask the jellyfish expert (if that’s what you’re interested in) they’ll point you to the bible of jellyfishology and provide a structure to the overwhelming magnitude of jellyfish literature.

Now with the internet, this gets a new twist, because you can go out and ask everyone – or at least a sample of everyone, pre-selected by “who reads your blog”. So that’s like going to the library and while everyone is tiptoeing and wispering and bent over their books, you yell into the room: “DOES ANYONE KNOW WHICH ONE IS THE BEST BOOK ABOUT JELLYFISH?” Good thing though, they won’t kick you out of the internet for doing this (while they would most likely ask you kindly to leave the library).

What does that mean? You don’t know yet, who the experts are, they self select by reading your question and choosing to answer, you might not necessarily reach the “official” experts on something who have a title and reputation attached to their name and you might get some weirdo answers of people with a strange cause or plain old spammers. But, chances are, you get your answer. So, as to my question, who talked on TED about the fact that our profession is change, the answer is: Seth Godin

And I was wowed again when I listened to it the second time. Thanks for explaining to me what I do. And thanks Gauri for hearing me yell in the library…

What is your profession?

Traveling in Europe last month, introducing my baby to the family meant: I was traveling in the real world, meeting bakers, nurses, administrators and car mechanics. The people who make the world go round and have never heard the word facilitator or thought about things being participatory. If you ask them what their job is, they name a profession and everyone has a more or less clear idea: The baker bakes bread, the nurse takes care of the sick…

My professional community on the other hand consists of people who do not bake bread or repair cars but… What? “Confuse people for money?” “Kick ass with a smile?” Sometimes, when I don’t want to explain, I say I’m a social scientist. They still don’t know what it is I’m doing but it intimidates or bores them enough, that they won’t ask any more questions.

If I really want them to understand what I’m doing, I share concrete stories about projects that I have done: I help a research institute understand how their research can have a greater impact on Nigerian politics. I hope to work on a project that tries to use personal networks to reduce obesity among Latinos. In a number of African countries we looked at the communication around avian flu outbreaks, how does the information about suspicious chicken deaths reach the authorities and how do they react?

These are things that people understand. And after thinking about these concrete cases they wonder what they have in common, why one person would be qualified to work in such different fields. Well, it’s all about how people work together (or against each other) – while there are chicken experts and nutrition experts out there, I’m in the team as the people expert.

That reminded me of a TED talk that I would love to listen to again, but can’t find… Do you recall which one it was that explored that our shared profession was “working on change”?

Thought of the day

It’s the d-tours that teach you about the lay of the land.

Business as usual leads to results as usual

As regular readers know, I love having guest writers on my blog who describe their network mapping experiences and who enrich the discussion about potentials and challenges. The question that Hippolyte asks below reminds me of a network mapping session with American/European researchers and African policy makers. We asked (after mapping out the policy network): “So where should we feed our research findings in what format to have the biggest possible impact and make sure information goes to those who need it?” The answer was:

“Write policy briefs and give them to the responsible officer in the ministry.”

That sounds reasonable and made the researchers happy. But how is it that we (i.e. the research for development community) have written research briefs and given them to so many “responsible officers” with very little impact on policy making and little flow of information to those on the ground?

Sure, I’m convinced that it can increase our impact, if we ask our partners, how they can use our information best and what they need, to make disemination and action as easy as possible. But if they don’t know what the different communication strategies and experiences are, which we can offer, they’ll tend to say:

“Well, just continue doing what you’ve done all along.”

And if we don’t understand their incentives for making use of the information or diseminating it, which are different in different economic, cultural and political systems, we won’t get far in terms of impact. Do you know any examples that can help Hippolyte answer his question?

Hippolyte Affognon (ILRI) writes: Implementing knowledge acquired through Social Network Analysis training

Eva Schiffer, an expert in Social Network Analysis (SNA), gave training on SNA on the campus of ILRI Nairobi, Kenya from 13 to 17th October 2008.

After the training we applied the knowledge acquired in many workshops in West Africa to identify relevant and effective pathways for disseminating research results on a BMZ funded project on trypanocidal drugs resistance in West Africa.

We found that SNA is a good diagnostic method for analyzing data on patterns of relationships among people or organizations.

We used workshops as means to gather the information necessary for the analysis and we noticed that the absence of relevant actors at the workshops may lead to serious gaps in the analysis.
One problem that we faced was: In a practical and sustainable way, how can those actors that currently show potential for disseminating knowledge and information, actually be provided incentives/capacity to perform this function?

Whose truth?

What do you do if you work with groups of people who tell you a completely different story about the same event? Do you choose one of them and decide that this one is telling you the truth while the rest are lying? How do you choose this one honest one? Because of his/her honest eyes? Because they were the ones you talked to first? Because they are socio-economically or culturally close to you? Becaues their story resonates with your view of the world?

Or can you live with the fact that there really are two (or more) different sides to the story? Can you truely embrace this notion and use the resulting tension to generate next steps that are acceptable for both sides?

Israeli and Palestinian teachers have found an inspiring way of dealing with the fact that the history of the Middle East conflict cannot easily be reduced into one common narrative. In their book “Learning Each Others Historical Narrative” each page has three columns: One for the Israeli point of view, one for the Palestinian one and one that is empty so that students can add their own notes.

I find this approach interesting, not only because students will be able to develop a more complete picture of this specific conflict – I think it’s even more important that it helps to develop the more general notion that your truth might not be the only one that’s true.