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Vered Amit on rethinking networks

September 21, 2008

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).

References

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.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2008 4:35 pm

    Ironically, John, you probably know more of Vered’s work than I do, and know it better. There are some lines above that left me confused:

    “…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.”

    The first issue has to do with mixing kinship ties and ethnicity. As I understand it, ethnicity is defined in large part by fictive kinship. Your example is of actual kinship.

    The second issue concerns the West Indian example. Why is this man’s tie to his aunt considered to be a “weak” tie? Or is it that you/Vered meant that it is a strong tie that leads to more valuable future weak ties?

    Lastly, do you think that the concepts of community and diaspora imply “very self conscious and deliberate efforts” on the part of their members? Personally, I wouldn’t think so — what they seem to do more clearly is to accentuate certain dynamics of extension and membership. Community tends to evoke notions of place and affectivity. Diaspora tends to connote large-scale spread and linkages across space. Network in my mind often connotes calculated and instrumental strategizing, that has nothing to say about scale or identity. Personally, I don’t think we can do without any of these concepts.

  2. September 23, 2008 10:42 pm

    Thanks again, Max, very helpful questions.

    On the question of whether I’m mixing kinship ties and ethnicity, I think what I was trying to say in my attempt at summarising Amit’s discussion of networks was that, according to this author, many scholars of transnational migration have tended to overemphasise emotionally charged notions such as kinship, community and ethnic group (or diaspora) at the expense of other, more instrumental and less emotive ways of conceptualising sets of social relations, eg Granovetter’s strength of weak ties.

    So in the example of the young West Indian man thinking of emigrating to NY, the implication is that these scholars would see his relationship to Aunt Mable strictly or largely in kinship and ethnic terms (i.e. as an example of a tie of kinship being activated within a broader ‘ethnic community’ or diaspora of, say, Trinidadians in NY City). This ‘ethnic/kinship template’, if I can modify Amit’s notion of ‘ethnic template’, prevents us from seeing the ‘weak’ dimensions of the young man’s mobilising (or activation) of this transnational tie. Aunt Mable is not only his aunt, she is also a potential useful ‘bridge’ to new ties of various kinds: ‘real’ kinship, fictive kinship (incl. ethnic), occupational, friendship, etc. Yes, I agree with you, there is a kinship tie being activated here, but simultaneously there are weak dimensions that a ‘diasporic’ approach may miss out on.

    I should add that I’m not very familiar with the transnational migration literature. Here I’m merely trying to summarise Amit’s position as part of my review of recent anthropological efforts to rethink the notion of network. I’ll be posting summaries of other such rethinks in the near future.

    It’s late now – I’ll address your other points tomorrow!

  3. September 26, 2008 10:05 pm

    Sorry Max, it’s taken me a bit longer to reply than I thought it would. You ask

    “Why is this man’s tie to his aunt considered to be a “weak” tie? Or is it that you/Vered meant that it is a strong tie that leads to more valuable future weak ties?”

    This is a very interesting question. If I’ve understood Vered Amit correctly, the answer would depend on their distance in generational time and social space. Say his ‘aunt’ is a third generation NY City resident of Trinidadian descent distantly related to the young man’s mother but with whom neither of them has had any contact before. This ‘aunt’ could be considered a weak tie. Let us now imagine, on the other had, that she is the man’s mother’s sister and has only been living in NY City five or six years (before then she lived in Trinidad not far from the man’s own home and had regular close contact with him and his mother). In this case she would be a strong tie.

    Yet is both cases she can act as a ‘bridge’ (Granovetter 1973) to a whole range of new ties in NY – mostly to non-kin and non-Trinidadians who could be crucial for the man’s prospects for long-term residence in the US, should that be his aim. In other words, under certain circumstances a nominally strong tie can serve an instrumental, ‘bridging’ function that is logically indistinguishable from that of a weak tie.

  4. September 27, 2008 12:05 pm

    Max Forte asks:

    “Lastly, do you think that the concepts of community and diaspora imply “very self conscious and deliberate efforts” on the part of their members?”

    No, the reference here was not to those who regard themselves as a ‘community’ — say of Jamaicans in Nottingham, or Brits in Mallorca, or Chileans in Tokyo — but rather to those contemporary urban activists who use the notion of network self-consciously to promote their causes and explain to themselves and others how they organise themselves (a great example is found in Juris’ 2008 ethnography of Barcelona-based activists, many of whom appear enamoured with the notion of network and its emancipatory possibilities). Partly responsible for this uncritical idealisation of networks is the huge influence of Castells, Wellman and other public scholars on society at large – in part via undergraduate reading lists??.

    As for doing without concepts such as diaspora, community or network, I’m beginning to think that we social scientists should be far more wary of just how little we can do about the multiple popular associations carried by notions such as community and network, which may render these terms virtually unusable as conceptual tools. Community is such a vague, promiscuous word (it will engage in textual intercourse with just about anything, from your local neighbourhood to your organisation to Europe (think European Community) to the intelligence services (aka the intelligence community) that as an analytical tool with a tangible empirical referent I find it to be unusable – and I have tried.

    I fear it may be too late to salvage network as an originally technical term employed by social anthropologists (Manchester School and others, 1950s) from the ravages of popular idealism. We may have to abandon it.

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