Small town NetMapping: Can informal relationships be captured within institutional analysis? (guest post by Jody Harris)

My PhD research in Zambia is an evaluation of an NGO program that aims in part to align and coordinate certain activities within the Ministries of Agriculture and Health for improved nutrition outcomes (both food and health being essential elements of good nutritional status, of course!). A key piece of information, then, is how are different players in these sectors interacting right now, and how does that interaction change over the course of the project? Enter NetMap.

The key to the alignment strategy being used in this project is to start at District rather than National level, to create a model of coordination that can be used to advocate for scaling up to other areas or even other countries. Ministry staffing is minimal at District level, so I aimed to interview everybody employed in each District Ministry, from the Directors down to technical officers (around 5 people per ministry), and to snowball out from there to anyone else who came up in the interviews as crucial to the process.

This being the first time I had used NetMap, I was unsure how it would be received- how would people react to being asked to give up an hour or more of their day to draw pictures with an outsider? In anticipation of rejection, I made sure the process looked as professional as possible- putting together a regulation NetMap kit, sending formal letters of invitation to interviews, hiring a highly professional local assistant, and dressing as smartly as I possibly could in sweltering pre-rains temperatures. But the method held true, and just following the steps from actors to links to influence engaged everyone from the moment we started- as I had been promised it would!

Being on a smaller scale than much national-level research I have seen that uses social network analysis, I had wondered if I could use NetMap at the individual level; that is, could I map not only the formal interactions but also the informal interactions between individual players within each Ministry, since it is very likely that personal relationships shape collaboration, particularly in such a small population as in the district capital (a small, one-road town). One of my pre-defined links therefore was informal interactions, and my questions attempted to probe whether person X might have family ties to person Y, or whether person A drinks in the evenings with person B. But it turned out in pre-test that even small-town rural Zambia had too many players in this field for everyone to know everyone; people knew which organizations were doing what with nutrition, but not who was doing it, and the method defaulted pretty quickly back to looking at organizations rather than individuals. Still a very interesting picture, but I wonder if there might be something in this for my future research…

So, now I have a collection of beautifully colorful maps to process and a good idea of local views on the alignment of sectors for nutrition in rural Zambia, so watch this space…

2 Responses

  1. This article touches very much the idea we are exploring with the health Policy analysis after Eva so graciously commented on my request. only difference is we are including both local and national level actors at the extreme ends of policy cycle, but also those in the middle i.e policy makers, implementers and potential policy brokers.
    Hope we can find common ground for enriching each other.

    • Stephen,
      Thanks for your comment and I am already looking forward to your guest post 🙂 Please feel free to write up work in progress, open questions or interesting break-throughs or confusion in implementation so that we all can learn from what it means when different people apply Net-Map in different fields.

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