Net-Map facilitation pointers: Links

After a recent Net-Map practice sessions a colleague asked a number of very pointed questions which inspired me to start a series of Net-Map facilitation pointers which help Net-Mappers improve what they do, by focusing on specific aspects of the method, building on my 8 years of experience since I developed Net-Map. Let me start sharing them with you too – starting with everything I know about links:

Net-Map Facilitation Pointers: Links

This series of facilitation pointers is aimed at practitioners of Net-Map who want to improve their implementation and are looking for specific guidance on aspects of implementation.


Deciding on the most informative links is a challenge. It can either be done with the participants, asking them: “In which ways are actors on the map connected which has an impact on the result?” or by pre-defining a list, which is then given to the participants to adjust. In general it is recommended to pre-define more in situations where time is limited and you have a good understanding of the situation (or the possibility to pre-test) and to pre-define less where you have the time to discuss with participants, you are working in a situation you are less familiar with and working in a cultural context sharply different from yours.

Pre-testing (even if it is just a simulation without actual participants, the Net-Mappers map what they think it might look like) is very powerful in helping you understand what different links can do.

The general instruction is to look for links which are very different from each other, to allow you to learn about as many different dynamics of the system as possible. When choosing links, reassess your personal and professional biases and stretch beyond them (e.g. some researchers want to only map knowledge flows, without looking at funding or hierarchy; if you personally are uncomfortable with tension in the room you may want to avoid mapping negative links; if you are cynical you may want to only map formal and negative links, but don’t believe in the power of informal positive links etc.).

Picking diverse links can often mean including some formal links and some informal links. Also, it can be very powerful to include at least one negative link (i.e. a link which has a negative emotion attached to it – it might or might not be negative for the functioning of the system). In some cases you want to include a material flow as well, because it is crucial to the system. See below for examples for these link categories. Please don’t use “informal link” as the name of a link on your map. As you can see below, there are many kinds of informal links, and if you don’t specify it is not clear whether this link means for example friendship or conflict. Also, you will never be able to map all links in a system, so be comfortable with mapping just enough. The rule of thumb is that 4 different links is a healthy medium (not too many or too few). In practical experience we sometimes allowed for a 5th link which was a subcategory of one of the initial 4 links, most commonly “informal money flow” or “bribes” in a network which had formal money flow already.

Typical Links in the different categories

Formal links:

  • Formal hierarchy
  • Formal reporting
  • Formal flow of funds
  • Contract relationships

Informal links

  • Being friends
  • Giving Advice
  • Loving
  • Having conflict
  • Being in competition
  • Executing pressure
  • Giving information
  • Trusting
  • Lying to
  • Giving bribes
  • Respecting

Negative links (links with negative emotional content)

  • Having conflict
  • Being in competition
  • Lying to
  • Torturing
  • Fearing (Who fears whom?)

Material flows

  • Giving funds
  • Giving money
  • Flow of contraceptives/improved seeds/shea nuts etc. (a thing which is crucial in the project)
  • Flow of infections (e.g. Who transmits HIV to whom?)

On terminology and misunderstandings

Defining links (and defining the overall Net-Map question) is where we observe the biggest risk for misunderstandings which are not clarified and either lead to a lot of conflict during drawing the map or a lot of misinterpretation of results afterwards. As an example, in Ethiopia, while working with a local implementer we intended to ask for lines of formal authority. In the maps we received nearly no one had drawn any formal authority links, stating: “We don’t do this kind of thing anymore, we are a democracy now.” Somewhere in the process of translation the meaning had shifted towards “authoritarian links”. But even while staying within the same language, one word can have many meanings, e.g. in Ghana the term “motivation” is a material link, as it describes the money you receive before you start your work, to motivate you. To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, it is useful to ask participants for examples: “If you and I have a link of “support”, what does that mean, what do we do?”

When working through interpreters, this becomes even more difficult as they are an additional bottleneck for misunderstandings. Ideally you draw a Net-Map with your interpreter (where they are the case giver) before going to the field, so that they understand what to expect and you can go over the terminology and expectations as well. The best interpreters in Net-Map are those that have developed the ability of being co-facilitators.

What is a link, what is not a link?

A link is a connection or flow between two actors. You can imagine a connection like a pipe and a flow like the water flowing through the pipe. Both can be drawn as links, e.g. “friendship” is a connection (pipe) and “giving advice” is a flow (water). As a rule of thumb, often the links that are connections go both ways, while in the links that are flows, the direction of the link (arrowhead) matters. It makes a difference whether I give you money or you give me money…

However, while it is important to understand what a link is, it is nearly as important to understand what is not a link, to avoid confusion.

Actor attributes are not links!

An actor attribute is everything that merely describes one actor (e.g. being rich, making legislation, being against the proposal, being male or being French) but not the relationship to other actors. It is easy to confuse attributes and links, especially with regards to the membership to groups.

Group membership is not a link!

Being a member of a party, a tribe or a religious group does not, as such, mean that you are connected to everyone else who belongs to this group. It might make your connection to other group members easier and to non-group members more difficult. But it is not a connection as such. If it is important to indicate group membership on a Net-Map, either use the color of post-it (actor category) or write abbreviations next to each actor card.

A link that connects one actor to everyone else (or everyone to everyone) is not a useful link to map!

On some maps there are actors such as “The Media” and participants wish to draw an information link from the media to each and every other actor on the map. Doing this will take up 15 minutes of the group’s time and create additional mess on the map, without giving you any additional information (beyond: “Everyone listens to the radio.”).

Rather note this information in one sentence in your qualitative notes, and limit the links on the map to those which can tell you something distinctive about the structure of connections, which you wouldn’t know without mapping it.