Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Reading :: Unanticipated Gains

Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life
By Mario Luis Small

Many studies that use social network analysis are a bit bloodless: They connect actors through reported relationships, they create interesting network diagrams, but they don't delve deeply into the qualitative data that explain why people connect. Unanticipated Gains is not one of those studies. Small does a really exceptional job here of both conducting a multimodal study and leveraging the different modes to provide a nicely contextualized analysis.

Here's what Small argues:
This book argues that people's social capital depends fundamentally on the organizations in which they participate routinely, and that, through multiple mechanisms, organizations can create and reproduce network advantages in ways their members may not expect or even have to work for. ... Understanding people's connections - and how much connections generate social inequality - requires understanding the organizations in which those connections are embedded. It requires conceiving of people as organizationally embedded actors, as actors whose social and organizational ties - and the resources both available and mobilized through them - respond to institutional constraints, imperatives, and opportunities. (pp.5-6)
To develop this argument, Small describes a study of parents whose children are in childcare centers. In such centers, parents who may not have other ties come together, develop relationships, and are connected to various other institutions - even if they have a "hi-and-bye" relationship with other parents in which they simply drop off and pick up their kids!

Small argues that this study helps us to answer a question that social network analysis (SNA) often ignores: How do people make social ties? (p.8). After all, "How a person forms and sustains a tie can affect the social capital to which she has access" (p.10). So Small draws on qualitative and quantitative data at individual and organizational levels, including a well-being study, a survey, 67 in-depth interviews of parents (mostly mothers), and 23 center case studies (p.23).

The results are fascinating. In Ch.2, Small demonstrates that childcare centers act as effective brokers: most mothers made new friends, and these new friends led to lower mental and material hardships. That's very good news, given the precipitous rise in clientele for daycares (p.29). Even mothers who didn't make friends in daycares found that their hardship was eased (p.43); those who made friends reported less depression (p.46). In Ch.3, Small demonstrates that the childcare centers actually made it much easier for mothers to make friends, since these centers offer multiple opportunities and inducements for parents to interact (p.51). These opportunities and inducements take the form of activities such as holiday productions, field trips, and fundraising - activities that Small explores nicely through case studies. It's not just motivation, it's opportunity that causes these friendships to develop (p.62) - something that really struck me as I continue to review my own data on coworking spaces.

How strong are the ties between parents? In Ch.4, Small examines strong vs. weak ties among mothers, and finds that strong ties are associated with support, while weak ties are associated with resources (p.85). But he also found, surprisingly, that some strong ties were both intimate and domain-specific - that is, some ties were "compartmentally intimate" (p.87). (Standard SNA assumes that strong ties are intimate, but weak ties are domain-specific.) He continues this theme in Ch.5, exploring how some mothers' support networks were larger than their friendship networks: Childcare centers both "facilitated trust among parents" and "established obligations that mothers felt compelled to follow, thereby creating a network of support" (p.108).

Childcare centers also brokered relationships with other organizations (Ch.6), allowing parents to access information, services, and material goods (p.135). Interestingly, Small says (Ch.7), this brokering meant that "childcare centers may either contribute to or buffer against the negative consequences of neighborhood poverty," depending on their lack or possession of appropriate links to other organizations (p.158).

In a nicely supported conclusion, Small argues that "the brokerage of organizational ties arises from the highly bureaucratic nature of contemporary society, where exchanging goods and resources constitutes much of of what business, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations do" (p.185).

Overall, this was a fascinating book for me. Small does a great job of arguing for and demonstrating his multimodal methodology; his case studies are rich and illustrative; his conclusions are intriguing and well supported. And of course the whole thing is fascinating. If you're even a little interested in SNA, social capital, or ties, take a look.

Reading :: Reputation

Reputation: A Network Interpretation
By Kenneth H. Craik

I've been reading a lot of social network analysis lately, mostly in sociology and related disciplines. But other disciplines have picked up elements of network analysis, including psychology. Kenneth Craik is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Berkeley, and Reputation involves a networked understanding of reputation from a psychological viewpoint.

Such an understanding isn't new - but, Craik tells us, the study of reputation has suffered "an interrupted mode of development": although Mark May and Phillip Vernon "advocated the study of person's reputation as centrally informative regarding an individual's personality" in the 1930s, that line of inquiry was dismissed in the late 1930s (p.126).

Craik aims to make up for lost time with a great deal of framework-building. He begins the book by defining reputation: "Reputation is not located on or in a person, like a left elbow or a knack for languages. Reputation is a dispersed phenomenon that is to be found in the beliefs and assertions of an extensive number of other individuals. ... Reputation is part of the social environment but uniquely referenced to a certain person" (p.xvii). Given the above, Craik defines the reputational network as made of two dimensions:
  • Person knows other
  • Other knows person
and these dimensions form a matrix of people in an individual's reputation network:
  • Social network members (Person knows other; other knows person)
  • Local and public figures (Person knows other; other does not know person)
  • Unseen audience (Person does not know other; other knows person)
  • Everybody else (Person does not know other; other does not know person) (p.xviii)
The reputation network is the focus for Part I of the book - not what's actually true, not how it affects the individual, but how a reputation network develops and works. Part II turns to the individual whose reputation is under discussion, examining how the network interacts with her or him. For my readers who study rhetoric, think of this understanding of reputation as an extended systematic exploration of ethos.

Craik develops three themes for reputation:
  • "the membership of a person's reputation network" (Ch.1)
  • "the ongoing social communication process through which news, observations, and impresions about an individual circulate along that person's reputation network" (Ch.2)
  • "the ways in which each member of a person's reputation network gathers and accumulates impressions, beliefs, and evaluations about that specifically identifiable person" (Ch.3; see p.xix).
These elements "generate two major aspects of reputation: the discursive facet, dealing with actively flowing information, and the distributive facet, dealing with latent stored information about the person" (p.xix). In Part I, Craik devotes himself to analyzing these, including how to measure the accuracy and validity of information flowing through a reputation network (p.77).

So that's an overview of Part I, in which Craik manages to "keep the person as agent out of our conceptual analysis for as long as possible" (p.71). In Part II, he turns to the person as agent, examining how that individual is affected by her or his reputation network. He develops a model in which the personality system and social system interact (Ch.7). He also leverages a couple of case studies, including defamation law and an examination of posthumous reputation, to further explore how these systems interact.

The book is far-ranging and develops a strong framework, which Craik details in the Conclusion. However, I found myself skimming through the second half of the book. I don't think this has to do with Craik's writing or analysis so much as the fact that I had trouble applying it to my research or background. I'll likely revisit the book if I become more involved in studying representation. But if that's your interest, I recommend the book.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Reading :: What's Mine is Yours

What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption
By Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers

[n.b., I'm reviewing the Kindle version, so I don't cite page numbers.]

"There is now an unbounded marketplace for efficient peer-to-peer exchanges between producer and consumer, seller and buyer, lender and borrower, and neighbor and neighbor," Botsman and Rogers tell us in the key statement of this book. "Online exchanges mimic the close ties once formed through face-to-face exchanges in villages, but on a much larger and unconfined scale. In other words, technology is reinventing old forms of trust." In their telling, social technologies have allowed more networked connections, and these connections point to "an emerging socioeconomic groundswell; the old stigmatized C's associated with coming together and "sharing" - cooperatives, collectives, and communes - are being refreshed and reinvented into appealing and valuable forms of collaboration and community. We call this groundswell Collaborative Consumption." Examples include services such as and, of course, coworking (which is what prompted me to pick up the book).

What distinguishes Collaborative Consumption from the other C's are scale and reach. The authors categorize their examples into "three systems - product service systems, redistribution markets, and collaborative lifestyles." These work through four principles: "critical mass, idling capacity, belief in the commons, and trust between strangers." The authors use many, many examples ranging from selling (craigslist, eBay) to connecting people with excess capacity (ZipCar, Freecycle, airbnb, coworking) to "dematerializing" formerly physical media into services (iTunes, Netflix).

In fact, it's this avalanche of examples that makes What's Mine is Yours so richly illustrative, and at the same time so embedded in a popular subgenre that includes works such as The Whuffie Factor and Wikinomics. Like those other books, this one skims lightly across the surface of a lot of different examples - and like those books, this one is necessarily going to have a relatively short shelf life because it relies so heavily on current examples in a fast-moving set of fields without doing a lot to deeply analyze those examples to produce principles. The range of examples makes us want to believe that the authors have discovered some basic principles. On the other hand, the authors often make causal arguments with very little proof - for instance, claiming that the Obamas' White House vegetable garden "evidently" inspired people to start their own gardens across the country. I noticed enough of these that I became quite suspicious of the authors' claims. Although I'm generally sympathetic to the authors' arguments about new ways of connecting, I'm also inclined to test propositions, and the authors don't seem to test them rigorously enough.

The authors can also be hectoring at times. When they tell me to "Think about your own credit card statement for a second (that is if you are not the one in four who has never looked at his or her own statement)," I roll my eyes because I cut up my credit cards years ago. When they tell me that "moving unused goods from nonuse to reuse is now practical," I think about how I've been moving my unused goods to thrift stores for years. And when they begin talking about a system for "banking" reputation - "In the same way that we can move our credit rating from one credit card to the next, our repository of trust will carry from one community to another" - I wonder what happened to decentralized and contextualized forms of trust.

Overall, What's Mine is Yours has some strong points, including a nice overview of coworking. I'd read it for a panoramic view of what constitutes collaboration in social media, as well as for some provocative thinking about the principles of collaborative consumption. But I'd supplement it with more rigorous research.