October 2016 | Studying Networks Over Time, By H. Brinton Milward

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One of the most frequently heard recommendations for network researchers from those who review interorganizational network papers for JPART and other top journals is “I wish you had studied this network over time.”  While this is sometimes possible based on finding detailed historical records (Padgett & Ansell, 1993) or we can occasionally replicate the study of a previously studied network (Milward, et al. (2010), the typical network paper sent to JPART is a study of one or a small number of public and nonprofit networks over a short span of time–typically the length of time it took the researcher to conduct the network survey.  Elite interviews with network participants can ask about the history of the network but when it comes to mapping the structure of the network to establish the nature of the connections between the actors/organizations in the network the questions are typically a variant of, “Have you engaged in any kind of joint activity in the last six months?”  Network research is a retail endeavor and very time consuming as it requires high response rates to adequately map the network.  The benefit of studying the life-cycle of a network is potentially great.  Does network effectiveness vary over time and if so how?  Are some governance models more effective than others for different stages of the network life-cycle?  Is there a process at work by which networks tend to differentiate and integrate? What is the role of human agency in the success and failure of networks?  Over time do networks become political actors in their own right that can forge a measure of autonomy (Carpenter, 2001)?

Assuming that we could map networks over time, there would still be a host of problems. As networks are viewed as flexible and temporary organizational forms, would you be studying the same network over time?  If there is a new governance mechanism, would that be the same network or a new one?  Moreover, networks can differentiate or merge.  How can we study the life-cycle of a network?  Could we observe the network over a long period of time or send out surveys during different phases of the observation (Isett, et al. 2011)?

This blog post is an attempt to begin a dialogue among public management researchers about how we might begin to design research that would capture the life-cycle of a network using methods that allow the researcher to capture exit and entry of organizations, new governance schemes, and shifts in the task or purpose of the network over time.  Let the dialogue begin!

References

Carpenter, D.P. (2001) The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928.  Princeton University Press.

Isett, K.R., Mergel, I.A., LeRoux, K., Mischen, P.A., & Rethemeyer, R.K. (2011). Networks in Public Administration Scholarship: Understanding Where We Are and Where We Need to Go. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 21(Suppl. 1), i157-i173.

Milward, H. B., Provan, K. G., Fish, A., Isett, K. R., & Huang, K. (2009). Governance and collaboration: An evolutionary study of two mental health networks. The State of Agents, a special issue of Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 20, i125-i141.

Padgett, J. F., & Ansell, C. K. (1993). Robust Action and the Rise of the Medici, 1400-1434. American Journal of Sociology, 98(6), 1259-1319.

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