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Ubuntu: How social networks help explain theories of change

Roxanne Bauer's picture

This is the second post in a series of six in which Michael Woolcock, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, discusses critical ideas within the field of Social Development.

There is a Nguni-Bantu phrase, “I am because we are” which arises from the Ubuntu philosophy of community. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee translated it in her TED Talk as “I am what I am because of who we all are.” At its most basic understanding, Ubuntu means “human kindness toward others,” but its meaning is much greater, expressing ideas of connection and community. It is a concept known to cultures around the world. The Maori of New Zealand say “We all in the same boat”, and the North American Sioux tribe believes that, “With all things and in all things, we are relatives.” Globally, cultures around the world know and use the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”. 

Modern philosophers have taken these axioms and developed social science research to explore them. Social capital refers to the interpersonal interactions we all participate in to create economic and cultural resources. When social capital is functioning well, social relations are marked by reciprocity, trust and cooperation and individuals can produce goods and services not just for themselves, but for the common good.  Relatedly, social cohesion describes the degree to which a society works toward the wellbeing of all its members, supports inclusive practices, and allows individuals to work for upward mobility.

These theories are essential to international development because, as Michael Woolcock points out, “Development changes who people interact with, and the terms with which people interact.”  Whether you think of these ideas as Ubuntu or social capital, they encompass the way in which people deal with power structures, like the state, and with other people who are not like them. 
Michael Woolcock


Book Review: Social Physics: How social networks can make us smarter

Duncan Green's picture Christmas reading included a book called Social Physics – yep, a party animal (my others were Lord of the Flies and Knausgard Vol 3, both wonderful). Here’s the review:

Airport bookstores are bewildering places – shelf after shelf of management gurus offering distilled lessons on leadership, change and everything else. How to distinguish snake oil from substance? My Christmas reading, based on a recommendation from someone attending a book launch in the US last month (thanks whoever you were – all a bit of a blur now) was Alex Pentland’s ‘Social Physics: How Social Networks can make us Smarter’. I must confess, as a lapsed physicist, the title swung it for me, but I learned a lot from this book. At least I think I did – let’s see if I am still using the ideas in a few months’ time.

Social Physics is not a new idea. Auguste Comte, the founder of modern sociology, coined the phrase back in the 19th century. Comte and his crew aspired to explain social reality by developing a set of universal laws—the sociological equivalent of physicists’ quest to create a theory of everything. As with economics, that kind of physics envy has proved largely delusional. Now though, Pentland argues that the arrival of Big Data means we can aspire to a ‘thermodynamics of society’, where behaviour is governed by discernible mathematical laws. It does not deny free will – Pentland does not claim to be able to predict individual behaviour, but finds a high degree of certainty in mass behaviours, which appear to follow particular patterns (like atoms in a gas).

How Social Connections and Business Ties Can Boost Trade: An Application of Social Network Analysis

Anasuya Raj's picture

The Nigerien city of Gaya is booming. Sitting on the banks of the Niger River not far from the borders of Benin and Nigeria, Gaya has grown from a quiet village to a hopping new hub. Its population is five times what it was just a few decades ago. So what has Gaya on the go? 

To some extent, it's a trade story. Price differences across its nearby borders, helped by a ban on imports of second-hand clothes in Nigeria, and an avoidance of tax collection by customs officials have all been important factors in explaining the boom of trade in the region. Yet, combining these with an analysis of the development of transnational networks gives a more complete picture.

This is where Social Network Analysis sheds new light on the story of Gaya, by looking at these interactions to help improve our understanding of the dynamics involved.