David Lazer on the properties of network power

Live blogging from the workshop “From Social Network to Social Movement” at Harvard Law School. David Lazer from the Harvard Kennedy School is presenting on the properties of network power. You can also follow on Twitter: #HLSsocnetworks

Definition of network: a network is a set of units (be them people or organizations) and a set of attachments amongst those units. Definition of power: 1) Individual and group access to resources. Where you are in the network influences your access to resources. How does power flow from people who have power to actual formulation of policy? 2) Collective capacity to organize – how do networks enable or inhibit the growth of certain social movements?

Networks are both constraints and opportunities. In the short run the network constrains who can mobilize who. In the long run human agency transforms the network. Example of Cosimo de Medici – he collected an amazing archive of data on the transactions between Florentine families – the Medici had merged in a uniquely central position, because on a commercial side they were willing to transact with anyone, even the nouvelle rich, but they kept marital ties with old money. The opposition to the Medici had a denser network which prevented the creation of a real leader so they could not rally support. What this example shows is that: where you are in the network matters in terms of your capacity to mobilize others.Timing also matters. People who talk first have more influence.

The network is bottom up but it is also top down  – it is not all about self-organization – design really matters for social organizations. But even when designed, networks have unintended consequences. The Internet for example was designed to facilitate collaboration between academics.

Networks predate Facebook – we are built to be social animals. Technology is an enabler not a driver of social connection. It can faciliate social communication but it does not mean that if you build a site, people will come to it (see Lazer’s study of how members of Congress use the Internet – they put themselves online, but people did not go to the site, not much interaction with the public).

Three finals metaphors for networks: 1) networks as regulatory systems (networks provide opportunities and constrain behaviour – reputation systems built within a network to constrain behaviour) 2) as circulatory system (viral spread of communication through the network) 3) as catalytic system: people coming together to solve problems.

Author: Corinna

Corinna di Gennaro (BSc LSE; MPhil, DPhil, Oxon) is a sociologist and a professional in the printing industry.

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