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Wednesday, May 14, 2003

On the Importance of Weak Links

So what's going on today over at Farrell Land ? Well Henry has an interesting post about the 'Survivor' and network theory. This all goes back I think to the undervalued Mark Granovetter , and a key idea, the importance of 'weak' ties. Now the unstoppable Ben Hammersley has just written a piece on the mysteries of Blogging, but I don't know if he caught up with this one: when you're blogging it's the weak links that matter. Brad links to me, I link to Brad , but this, while it's interesting for discourse and dialogue, isn't really interesting for growth and complexity, because we're both talking to the same people. The more intersting links are the 'out of specialism' ones: maybe this is why I go to Henry and Maria. (I certainly do do plenty of zigginga nd zagging with them). No that isn't true, I'm interested in what they have to say. (Same with frans , same with Eamonn etc.........). Ambiguity and open-endedness is also important as part of a strategy, the objective only emerges are the process moves forward. I remember years ago in some old library stack finding a book by Karl Jaspers entitled 'the idea of the university'. Roughly paraphrasing, one line jumped out of the text at me: 'he travels farthest who knows not where he is going'. That's the one for me I thought. Incidentally Granovetter is currently working on a book entitled the social construction of economic institutions, which implies to me that Henry may in fact be wrong, there may well be a way to harmonise the economic and the sociological perspectives. Don't worry, I'm working on it!

Now clearly, you have to behave strategically to prosper in the game. But what does "strategically" mean? Game theorists and sociologists have very different answers to that question. A game theorist would assume that everyone would have a clear map in their head of the different kinds of players that she might encounter, the different kinds of strategies that she could use (perhaps dependent on which kinds of player she is dealing with), and the different kinds of outcomes that will likely result from different kinds of actions. There's room for some uncertainty in the game (random acts of "nature" can intervene here and there), but everyone knows that if they are at point x in the game, their interest is best served by strategy y (I'm simplifying a little here for the purpose of popularization). Here, it's a matter of playing within a fixed structure (the parameters of the game), which you completely understand, and where your interest is dictated at any particular moment by the specific point of that structure you're at.

Sociologists tend to take a different approach to social structures. By and large, they're interested in networks rather than games. Network theory suggests that a player's power and influence depends on her position within the network of social interactions that she finds herself in. Again, simplifying wildly, some actors can be at the centre of a spiderweb of relations; everyone comes to them in order to get things done. Others may be gatekeepers or intermediaries between two groups of people who don't otherwise have much contact with each other; these actors too can be quite important. Here, strategy is all about positioning yourself well within the network, and then manipulating information and resource flows in order to maintain or improve your position. It's much more open-ended than game theory - the universe of possibilities isn't fixed at the outset, but changes over time, and can be affected by the conscious action of the players.

Which of these conceptions of strategy best fits Survivor? I think that the answer is obvious to anyone who watched the series. It's the second, sociological conception. Pretty well everyone who saw this series of Survivor would agree that Rob was the smartest and canniest player. He didn't win; but this was in large part because he was quite unlucky at the end (Jenna, who did win, survived by a fluke). Both of the two finalists agreed that he should have been there instead of them.

How did Rob play? Not by having a rote set of strategies at the beginning of the game. Instead, as he explained it, he was always at pains to keep his options open; he maintained friendly relations with as large a group as possible (and was rather good at convincing others that he had their best interests at heart, even when he didn't). He then chopped and changed his strategy as circumstances demanded. When he needed to zig, he zigged, and when he needed to zag, he zagged. He didn't seek to lead alliances, but instead made himself into the pivotal player, who could move from one alliance to the next, and thus swing the vote in one direction or another. By so doing, he shaped the strategic context which everyone else had to play in.

Compare his behavior with that of Cosimo de Medici in early Renaissance Florence, as depicted in John Padgett and Christopher Ansell's classic piece, "Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici." Padgett and Ansell are sociologists, who want to argue against rational choice notions of strategic behavior, by offering their own notion of "robust action." Robust action is all about trying to maintain your own flexibility and freedom of choice over as wide a range of options as possible, while narrowing the options of everyone else. It implies that there aren't any fixed interests - all interests are positional and actors are less interested in pursuing specific goals at any point in time, than in maintaining discretionary options against the day when they do have a definite end to pursue. Thus Cosimo positioned himself at the center of a web of influence, without ever wanting fully to commit to anything or anyone...........

Don't get frozen into a group with a specific agenda; instead, try to be a key player (or potential key player) for every possible group. You're more powerful (in the sense of maintaining options and contacts) as a swing vote than as tribal chief. Keep your end-goals and specific strategies mysterious - try to be all things to all men and women. Maintain flexibility at all costs. And then go for broke when the opportunity arises.

I reckon that two important lessons flow from this. First, that sociological approaches to the understanding of human behavior capture certain things that economic approaches can't. They're much better at dealing with fluid situations, where the future is unknowable, and people want to keep as many options open as possible for dealing with unanticipated problems. And many other things besides, I'm sure. Second, that an academic with time on his hands during the summer break is a dangerous thing indeed.
Source: Gallowglass

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