Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Till Rockenbauch

Till Rockenbauch

Till Rockenbauch is a research associate / PhD candidate at Bonn University with a background in development and social-ecological system research. He is a geographer by training and has worked with Deutsche Gesellschaft für International Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) as an advisor on food security and agricultural policy. Within the TransRe-project he works towards a social network perspective on rural resilience to environmental risks.

Mar 8th 2017 by Till Rockenbauch

Towards a Translocal Network Perspective?

Social networks are an important source of resilience for rural communities. This is a popular claim across literature from rural development to climate change adaptation. But how can researchers who address the resilience of rural communities, fruitfully apply a social network perspective? This is a tricky question, as research on the role of social networks remains scattered between different strands of research and rarely has been integrated from a resilience perspective.

With our recently published review paper, “Social networks and the resilience of rural communities in the Global South. A critical review and conceptual reflections", we provide some guidance in this regard.

As an attempt to bridge the gap between disciplines, our paper reviews current case studies from three major strands of research and investigates how they conceptualize and operationalize social networks: i) natural resource governance, ii) agricultural innovation, and (iii) social support. We choose these strands because they all address the question of how social networks relate to the resilience of rural communities, but in regard to different aspects of resilience.

Natural resource governance tends to perceive of social networks as a “form of coordination” between different stakeholders involved in the management of natural resources. Rooted in natural resource management and social-ecological system research, a systemic perspective and methods of formal network analysis (SNA) prevail. Studies are powerful in providing insights into how networks can facilitate cross-scale adaptive management.. However, due to methodological constraints, many studies are limited to clearly identifiable management systems and tend to underestimate the role of human agency and power asymmetries within governance networks. In contrast, research on agricultural innovation networks tends to perceive of social networks as “pipes”, a mere conduit that connects farmers and extension actors through the flow of information and knowledge about improved agricultural varieties and practices. Informed by development economics, research in this strand provides a variety of econometric methods for assessing a wide range of actor characteristics relevant to the purposeful changes of crops and practices. However, these studies remain descriptive in nature and vague with regard to the impact of these changes on resilience at higher levels. Finally, studies on social support, rooted in vulnerability and disaster research, address the role of social networks as a means of coping with shock. By conceptualizing social networks as “social capital”, studies in this strand help to broaden the scope of vulnerability and livelihoods research. Nevertheless, they rather tend to focus on social networks as assets at the community level, thereby omitting the role of migration-induced feedback processes between communities at the area of origin and migrants in the area of destination.

Besides particular strengths and shortcomings, the paper argues, studies in all strands share particular tendencies that are problematic in the context of rural communities in the Global South. This includes the tendency to narrowly focus on the outcome of social networks, such as their influence on social behavior. Accordingly, network research tends to overemphasize network structure while failing short in taking into account the role of agency in shaping and reproducing social networks over time. Furthermore, network research tends to neglect spatial dimensions of social relations despite the highly mobile character of many rural societies. Hence, current network research is ill-suited to address temporal and spatial dynamics in highly mobile societies. Moreover, it provides an ahistorical and depoliticized perspective, which fails to account for inequality and power asymmetries in social networks.

What do these findings tell us with regard to our initial question of how a social networks perspective could be fruitfully applied for resilience research?

  • First of all, they remind us of the fact that researchers from different disciplines might have different ideas in mind when talking about the role of social networks for the resilience of rural communities. It obviously makes a difference whether I perceive of social networks as a mere conduit for the exchange of information and resources; whether I perceive them as social capital of particular households or as a mediating from of coordination and conflict resolution.

  • Second, it matters how networks are approached: From a metaphorical stance, it might be sufficient to know whether social networks exist or not. A descriptive approach, applying descriptive statistics and econometric methods, might lead to somehow different results than a structurally explicit approach that draws on methods of SNA for analyzing network structure.

  • Third, each conception and each approach has its pros and cons depending on the stance and objective of your research. A generic social network perspective, might make blind spots for particularly aspects relevant to your research objective. At least, as long as you don’t adapt it your particular context.

Towards a translocal resilience perspective?

Accounting for the complexity and dynamics of rural livelihoods in an increasingly connected world, a meaningful social network perspective would necessitate the re-assessment of the role of spatiality and human agency in social networks. As a means to this end, our paper concludes with a call for an integration with the concept of translocality. A translocal network perspective holds promise because it shifts the focus from locally bound entities, such as the village, a region, or a management area, to the connectedness between actors at different places. By taking into account mutual feedback processes between areas of origin and destination, it facilitates a dynamic understanding of complex rural transformations that cannot be understood by focusing on locally bound networks and actors only. Finally, a translocal network perspective would be suited to overcoming the apolitical tendencies of both resilience and network theory through re-assessing resilience and social networks from a critical sciences perspective.

By leveling the ground for the exchange between disciplines and by highlighting potentials and blind spots of current research on the role of social networks for the resilience of rural communities in the Global South, our review provides a first step towards a translocal perspective. How this translocal network perspective can be further developed and applied on the ground certainly has to be proven by further research.


This blog post was based on an article written by the author and Patrick Sakdapolrak, which was published in Ecology and Society in January 2017, “Social networks and the resilience of rural communities in the Global South. A critical review and conceptual reflections”.