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Monday, December 27, 2004

By the light of the networked lamppost....

Can't avoid discussions about 'networks' these days. It's the flavor of the decade as far as political science is concerned -- unavoidable in the new 'governance' literature, especially among UK scholars who take their cues from R.A.W. Rhodes and others who seem to think that networks are the defining characteristic of the recent move from governing-through-government to governing-through-governance. I am now in the midst of reading the latest application of the 'network' narrative: Anne-Marie Slaughter's A New World Order, and I am beginning to wonder whether the hype and attention given to networks is really all that it is made out to be….

Well, the answer is yes if you ignore most of history as well as the development of modern graph theory (I am also reading Barabasi’s Linked, so suddenly I am into things like ‘graph theory’). What is most problematic about the work on networks-as-governance is the strong assumption that what is being described (or in Slaughter's case, also prescribed) are new and very recent developments (i.e., post-Cold War) in governing. What is being ignored or overlooked is the presence of network-like phenomena in everyday life as well as its relevance to understanding governing throughout history.

Then what is all the fuss about? I was reminded of the Abraham Kaplan's parable of the "drunkard's search" in his classic The Conduct of Inquiry. If I recall the story correctly, seeing a rather disoriented individual on hands and knees searching for something under a streetlamp, a passer-by inquires and finds that the drunk is looking for his keys. Was he sure that he dropped them at that spot? Not really, but this is where the light is....

What is new in all this discussion about networks is that we have finally been drawn to the illumination under the newly discovered network 'lamppost,' and we are feeling a bit giddy about what we are finding there. Slaughter seems to understand this, for she makes the point that the network "lens" is proving to be more enlightening that the old unitary "billiard ball" perspective that had long dominated international studies. But she also seems to be arguing that the reason we had not seen these illuminated phenomena before is that they are just now emerging as important factors on the global stage. I may be misreading her intent at this point (I have only read the introductory overview chapter to date), but if not then readers of this blog will find many additional reactions to Slaughter's book as I read further on....

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