Thursday, December 08, 2005

Culture: Guanxi and social network theory

Pete Bond posted some articles in the yahoo com-prac discussion group, amongst others one by Hammond and Glenn called The ancient practice of Chinese social networking: Guanxi and social network theory. The chinese concept of Guanxi refers to a social network that contextualizes individuals within a highly collectivist society. It is defined as a mechanism by which individuals are able to achieve personal, family or business objectives. The essay argues it overlaps with Social Network Theory and that Western theorists could gain significant isights from Eastern thoughts. The three overlapping areas are:
1. Information and sustainability. Both imply that information is crucial for sustaining a social system.
2. Change and emergence. Relationships are characterized by constancy or change.
3. Order and chaos. (I only understood the overlapping areas when reading the full explanation)

I found the differences as interesting as the overlaps: the essay argues that Guanxi defines insider and outsider relationships, which may be compared to strong and weak ties in social network theory. Yet, whereas in the Chinese tradition of Guanxi the outsider is treated with mistrust and the insiders with trust and sharing of information, in social network theory, weak ties are seen as critical because they are a source of new information. Within Guanxi the collective identity is important and relationships are seen as permanent (as in other collectivist cultures).

The articles conclused that social network theory claims to be a new idea set, yet, the practices of social networking are much older (and more universal?). There will always be emergent rules to create coherence in social interaction. (I would add that the rules may vary in each cultural context).

To link this story to communities of practice; I'm still trying to think through possible differences of CoPs in various cultural settings. I guess it would be too easy to think that in collectivist cultures people are used to be in communities and hence it would be easier to nurture CoPs, as these social networks (like Guanxi) are not around practices. From the above explained differences in the essay I gather that outsiders might be regarded with much suspicion compared to insiders. Even though it is a risk in any CoP, the risk of CoPs becoming clique-ish in collectivist societies may be higher. These kind of clique-ish communities tend to stagnate and the close ties may prevent members from critiquing each other or from seeking to deepen their understanding of the domain. (p. 145 cultivating communities of practice, Wenger, McDermott and Snyder).

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