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.

Rare opportunity: Learn Net-Map in the UK!

How about hanging out at the beach, learning Net-Map and meeting about 1000 highly intelligent social network analysis experts of every discipline, who do everything from crazy complex quantitative stuff to anthropologically observing network development on the ground? The Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) is an inspiring event, whether you are a beginner or a full-blown SNA genius and one of the great things about it is that it always starts with two days of training workshops, before the three days of 700 talks in parallel start. A great way of learning for example some of the complex software, which is painful to learn alone at home. Ah, and another great thing is that they insist on always finding a location close to the sea. They alternate between the US and the rest of the world and this year the conference will be in Brighton, UK.

This year Net-Map will be present there in a three hour hands on training in the first part of the conference and we will have two sessions for applied network knowledge which will be heavily leaning toward Net-Map. Though my talk will not be about Net-Map but about the new network pattern cards which I am developing. I would love to see you there. The last time I have taught Net-Map in Europe was the Summer School in Italy, and that was in 2011. A few spots are still available for the Net-Map training workshop, so if you are interested just go ahead and sign up and I will see you there. Together with a whole bunch of other Net-Mappers.

Join us: Largest international Net-Mapper meeting ever!

Wouldn’t it be great if Net-Mappers from all over the world could share their experience, learn from each other, build a common knowledge-base and just hang out and enjoy each other’s company? You might be working with Net-Map in your university, organization, consulting practice and maybe you are the only one excited by the participatory drawing of networks. Or, maybe a lot of your colleagues are excited, but they all have no clue how it really works, so you always have to be (or look like) the expert who knows everything. I am sure you have some great stories, lessons and results to share and together we might find the answers to your questions.

We (that’s Eva Schiffer, Jennifer Hauck, Amit Nag, Paolo Brunello and our Net-Mapping friends) are planning to have the biggest international meeting of Net-Mappers at the next Sunbelt Conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis in Brighton, UK (June 23rd to 28th, 2015). In addition to hosting one (or two) sessions which will be dedicated to applying network knowledge, we are planning to host a Net-Mapper get-together as informal side-event of the conference so that we can all get to know each other and each other’s work and start working together more closely.

We will discuss whatever questions are at the forefront of our minds. For me there are three things I am really curious about:

  • Learning more about all the great applications of the method to start having an extensive case collection.
  • Strategies for working together to make Net-Map interventions happen and grow the community of practice. This could lead to developing a database of international Net-Map consultants so if any of us wants to implement something that is bigger than one person, we know where to go.
  • Asking and answering questions about how to use and analyze Net-Map, moving the method forward and understanding it better.

To make this happen we need you. And you. And your net-mapping colleague too. If you are interested, please contact me directly. And submit an abstract for the Sunbelt Conference session on applying network knowledge.

Oh, and did I say that this is just the side-event? The main event is also pretty amazing. Sunbelt is the largest Social Network Analysis conference and it’s an great mix of the old gurus, the young geniuses, master’s students getting feedback for their half-done thesis, and everything in-between. Also, they have great hands-on introductory workshops on most of the common SNA software and approaches (including a Net-Map training) during the first two days of the conference. If you have never submitted an abstract to a conference and the task intimidates you, I am happy to talk you through it. And, surey, you can also come just as a participant, without presentation… but we would all be missing out, if you didn’t share your work. Looking forward to seeing you there!

Session on “Applying Network Knowledge” at the Sunbelt XXXV

by  at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research – UFZ / Department of Environmental Politics

Would you be interested in presenting your Net-Map work at the at the Sunbelt XXXV, Brighton, UK, June 23– June 28, 2015, the largest annual conference of Social Network Analysis, organized by the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA)?

Our proposal for a session on “Applying Network Knowledge” during the Sunbelt XXXV has been accepted and we are encouraging people with interesting presentations on the subject to submit their abstracts (see conference website for details).

A bit more about the theme of the session:
Governance approaches for example in public health, education or policy making typically involve many actors from different domains who are not all connected by hierarchy and whose behavior cannot easily be mandated. Thus, successful governance approaches rely on networks of actors who collaborate and on the quality of their collaboration. To understand success factors or governance failures and to improve existing structures it is thus crucial to understand the underlying formal and informal social networks. In many cases Social Network Analysis (SNA) has been used to provide answers to these questions. This session contains presentations of cases that made use of SNA knowledge in divers situations, using participatory, learning oriented network mapping exercises.

If you are interested:

Contact Jennifer directly ( and tell her about your possible session.

Check the Sunbelt website for their call for abstracts, submit your abstract and indicate that you want to be part of the “Applying Network Knowledge” session.

Net-Map training: Learn to map your career or torture networks…

drawing informal linksThe most interesting aspect of teaching Net-Map is that our participants bring their own cases to map, so that they can learn how to apply the method to their own problems. And I have had participants mapping torture networks in a South East Asian country (to improve the effectiveness of an anti-torture campaign) and I have seen many different versions of: “Who will influence that I achieve my career goals?” or, even more personal: “Who will influence that I am happy more often and unhappy less often?”. If you join us for our November 15th-16th training, it’s up to you: What are the burning, confusing, exciting and/or painful issues that you want to clarify, where you want to become more strategic and understand the major bottlenecks and opportunities? And yes, in the process you will learn all the nuts and bolts of the method and become a member of our growing community of practice. A few spots are still available. The training will be held at a beautiful event space in the Eastern Market area of Washington, DC. All the details are here and you can sign up here.