Social networks have been a hot topic in the past year, not least because of the buzz around the Oscar-winning film about the founding of Facebook. Even in countries with relatively low internet connectivity, use of social networking sites is on the rise – just ask Timor-Leste’s President José Ramos Horta and his 378 Facebook friends. But even before the internet empowered us to connect and communicate at the speed of a whim, we have all lived fully immersed in social networks. Social networks are the links between family and friends, classmates and teammates, coworkers and colleagues, enemies and ‘frenemies’. They are the relationships – around 150 meaningful ones, according to Dunbar’s number – that feed and bound our choices and actions, provide us with emotional sustenance and sounding boards, and provide structure to our lives. But beyond their intrinsic value, what do these connections mean – for individuals, for communities, and for development?
Finding meaning behind the networks
It is hardly groundbreaking to point out that we are all connected, however tenuously, to those around us. The more important question is, do these connections matter?
The answer is a resounding yes. Social networks play a role in what we know, what we learn, how we behave, who we trust. They influence our health choices and outcomes, from smoking and obesity to contraceptive use and even mortality. Recent research on the link between social networks and economic outcomes has shown that networks can influence entry into the labor market and initiation of corporate trading relationships, among others. Social networks can play a beneficial role by channeling information, bringing new ideas, or providing social support in times of emergency. Undeniably, though, they can also contribute to harmful or exclusionary practices such as nepotism and collusion.
Identifying networks in Timor-Leste
Networks exist, and they matter. But which networks exist, and how they matter, is different in different contexts. In many small towns, it is said that everyone ‘knows’ everyone. But some relationships – such as family – might matter much more when it comes to acquiring knowledge, achieving wealth, or accessing employment opportunities.
In Timor-Leste, particularly in rural areas, individual social networks can be very dense (that is, high numbers of people in one’s network know each other). Kinship and marriage ties link individuals across networks. The definition of ‘family’ extends beyond the nuclear household, encompassing both blood relations and family friends. More than in many ‘northern’ countries, Timorese are also linked to community authorities, traditional leaders, and local religious authorities. These and other networks are often reinforced through support and exchange - whether among relatives, connecting communities and their leaders, between creditors and debtors, or across ties of veterans of the resistance, expectation and obligation predominate in the discussion of Timorese social networks.
Low mobility and limited communication technology mean that while Timorese may have a high level of interaction with people within their networks, the network is often geographically bound. So these linkages are an important source of information and support – who you know can, to a large extent, determine what you know, and when you know it.
Studying network effects – are you in or out?
What role do networks, with their burden and benefit of obligation, play in the way short-term employment opportunities, communal resources, cash transfers, and other development benefits are communicated, held, distributed, and managed in the communities in which we work? To what extent are formal authorities embedded in the communities in which they work? How do spheres of influence change as new resources – human or financial – are inserted into communities? Which connections can open doors to new opportunities, and which further embed old patterns of access and exclusion? What role do powerful individuals and local institutions play in deciding who wins, who loses, and who gets to play? Questions such as these matter because understanding and appreciating networks helps us understand local level social and political dynamics, and these dynamics, in turn, impact the way development happens in practice.
In Timor-Leste, a recent social network analysis exercise in one rural community found that an individual who had a personal relationship with a village leader was eight times more likely to hear about a new cash transfer program in its first year (the social network analysis was conducted with financial support from the World Bank’s Governance Partnership Facility). Recent research  in Ethiopia showed that social and political connections mattered in the distribution of food aid immediately following a drought. Recently, the World Bank has used social network analysis techniques to inform work on topics such as social safeguards, community risk sharing, and microcredit.
Is there space for incorporating social network analysis to inform a broader range of research and operational activities? Does social network analysis provide the most ‘bang for the buck’, or are there other research tools or strategies that can better help us understand the dynamics of social networks? I’d welcome thoughts and ideas from the wide network of development practitioners on the value of social network analysis, as one among many tools that can help us to understand context, and predict its impact on project implementation. To my mind, it could be that social network analysis techniques can help us to understand the underlying dynamics of the communities in which we work. Or at minimum, perhaps a discussion about social networks can encourage us to evaluate how we are connected to those around us, and how those connections can and have impacted our opportunities, decisions, and lives.
Photo Credit: Pamela Dale