Friday, September 16 – 3:00 p.m.
Center for Social Complexity Suite
Third Floor, Research Hall

Title: Social Networks and Collection Action

William Ferguson, Professor
Department of Economics
Grinnell University

Abstract: Social networks underlie social capital; they are the grid upon or through which all manners of social, economic, and political exchanges occur. We may even think of institutions as networks of information flows and shared understandings, or as complex conduits of cognition, information, and motivation. Networks thus constitute the social foundation for both the existence and resolution of collective action problems (CAPs). Certain CAPs, such as traffic congestion, are fundamentally network problems. For all CAPs, networks influence agents’ understandings of problems and solutions, available information, and their motivation. Network architecture and relationships may underlie CAPs, exacerbate them, and affect possibilities and motivation for resolution. As an underpinning of social capital, social networks can foster trusting relationships—themselves foundations of trade and other exchanges. Moreover, network positions affect the ability of specific individuals, to influence opinions, ideas, and organizational policies: network positions confer power.

Discussion in this chapter is necessarily limited. The field of social networks is both complex and rapidly evolving. Our purpose is to offer essential background with application to political economy and CAPs. Discussion proceeds as follows. Section 1 discusses basic network concepts. Section 2 addresses the impact of localized network structure on the ability of agents to exert influence: network position as a source of power. Section 3 addresses networks as searchable conduits of information. Agents can use local knowledge of network attributes to uncover information about distant individuals and groups. Section 4 discusses information cascades across networks—sequences of rapid adoption of ideas or practices associated with phenomena like fads, financial contagion, or revolution. Section 5 concludes.