Vered Amit on rethinking networks
The social anthropologist Vered Amit (Concordia, Montreal) has in recent years conducted research among geographically highly mobile consultants who are nominally based in Montreal and frequently travel to developing countries. Drawing from Granovetter’s (1973) classic notion of ‘the strength of weak ties’ (i.e. the idea that friends of friends and other such contacts rather than close kin or friends are more useful for certain purposes such as finding a job or a partner), Amit argues that these itinerant professionals’ occupational networks are shaped through the dispersal of reputations and ‘episodic mobilisation of instrumental and frequently transient relationships’ (Amit 2007: 57), i.e. through the mobilisation of weak ties.
This case study, she suggests, has important implications for migration studies in that scholars working in this field have tended to emphasize strong, emotive ties of kinship and ‘community’ at the expense of weak ties (see also Postill 2008 on the same phenomenon occurring in local ICT studies), unwittingly perpetuating an old discredited ‘ethnic template’ by understanding migrant networks to be coterminous with ethnic groups. For example, for a young West Indian man thinking of emigrating to New York City, having an aunt there means having a potential ‘bridge’ (Granovetter) to a large range of future contacts and resources. This is not unlike a Montreal-based consultant reactivating via email dormant ties in Jakarta in preparation for a revisit five years after her first project in that locality. The ties may have a greater or lesser emotive and kinship content, but they are both essential bridges to other personal networks and resources.
Amit encourages anthropologists to realise the original 1950s promise of the notion of network as a device that allows us to follow individuals across more enduring sets of social relations (groups, organisations, etc) and resist both pegging it to any particular methodology (Hannerz 1980) or a priori category (e.g. ‘diaspora’) and jumping on the bandwagon of networks as ‘the architecture of institutional links between organisations, cities, states and technologies’ (e.g. Sassen, Castells). The trouble with much of the literature on technology and media, she adds, is that it often presumes ‘very self conscious and deliberate attempts at constructing networks as a particular kind of architecture of social connections’ (personal communication). (I would go further and suggest that for many media and technology scholars networks have in fact become the defining social architecture of our era, e.g. for Castells, Wellman, Wittel).
Amit, V. (2007) ‘Globalization through “Weak Ties”: A Study of Transnational Networks Among Mobile Professionals’, in V. Amit (ed.) Going First Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and Movement, pp. 53-71. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.
Granovetter, M. (1973) ‘The strength of weak ties’, American Journal of Sociology 78 (6), 1360-1380.
Hannerz, U. (1980) Exploring the City: Inquiries Toward an Urban Anthropology. New York: Columbia University
Postill, J. (2008). Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks. New Media & Society, 10(3), 413-431.