The Social Creation and Transfer of Knowledge

Nothing for me has been more fecund of ideas or joy than merely sitting down with someone I trust to discuss ideas we both care about.

Are you looking for ideas?  Maybe it’s time to have a talk with a friend who shares your passions.

Even so, how hard it can be to pick up the phone to call someone who once blessed us with their conversation.  It’s just so much easier to continue moving in the direction we were going, than it is to pause and reflect with a friend.

Ironically perhaps, such conversations are particularly fertile when participants come at an idea from different points of view.  If we can listen to each other, and put aside our need to be right, then the conversation will begin to weave a beautiful dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and finally if we are patient, will at last give birth to synthesis; a new idea right before our eyes, unlooked for, surprising us all.

Too few times I’ve made notes from such conversations.  Boswell’s Life of Johnson was little more than a collection of such notes.  We accumulate possessions that clutter our lives with bother without collecting the true treasures that fall in our way.  We find a precious gem over coffee with a friend, and then lightly cast it aside when we’re done.

But I am learning.  God has been teaching me the true value of things, ideas, and people; and I have been listening.  The kingdom of heaven dwells within you, and between you.

My Quest for a Social Practice

It turns out there is little, if anything, more important to our happiness than our level of connectedness with others; both in terms of quantity and quality of our relationships.  Even so, I can’t say that I have a formal practice for broadening and deepening my network of social connections, nor do I know anyone who does.  If you have one, please share it with me.

For me, connectedness begins with interest in another person.  Some years ago I decided that if I met someone I had a good conversation with, that I would try to pursue that person in order to renew the conversation; or perhaps connect them with another person I think shares one or more of their interests.

After that initial interest, I need to be able to trust the person, and show myself to be trustworthy in turn.  Those who are unreliable, who don’t keep their commitments, or say things they don’t mean or believe don’t make very good friends.

If we share an interest, and build a solid foundation of trust, then perhaps the deepest level of connection comes from a willingness to be vulnerable with the other person.  Vulnerability implies revealing certain of those aspects of us that could cause great embarrassment or injury if the other person does not value and treat with some reverence those parts revealed.  Here are the greatest risks, and greatest rewards, of a relationship.

But perhaps the heart of a social practice is as simple and as complicated as staying in touch.  It takes time to stay in touch.  It takes some courage (we might be rebuffed).  And as our circle of acquaintance grows, it takes some creativity and diligence in order to keep those lines of communication open.  How do you stay in touch with 150 people?  Facebook right?

One thing I’ve noticed about my connections is that they tend to be clustered.  These clusters tend to exist at a certain level of intimacy across the whole cluster.  Hence I can send an email to everyone in that cluster at the level of trust and vulnerability of the cluster which everyone can feel safe responding to.  I think it’s hard to do that on a venue like facebook.  I still haven’t figured out how to use it.

Basic Concepts of Social Capital

Following is from Social Capital: Prospects for a New Concept by Paul S. Adler and Seok-Woo Kwon, The Academy of Management Review. Vol. 27, No. 1 (Jan. 2002), pp 17-40. Via JSTOR.

Social capital has at least two perspectives: 1) the social relations existing within a group, such as the members of a church or the employees of a business (internal social capital); and 2) the social relations bridging one group to another, such as the relationships between churches or businesses (external social capital).

Social capital is capital in the sense that it has value, it persists, it can be accumulated or diminished, and it has a contingent future value.  The value comes from both the structure and the content of the ties between persons or groups.  That is, being well connected is generally better than being isolated, and being connected to resourceful, capable, trustworthy persons is better than being connected to persons without resources, ability, or trustworthiness.

The closure of a group is the degree to which the connections of an actor in the group are themselves connected with each other.  The more closed a group is, the more trust there will be and the more enforceable the norms of the group will be.  On the other hand, the brokers (those who are known and trusted) in a more open or sparse group will tend to have more power than they would otherwise have in a closed group (because they control the flow of information and resources between disconnected nodes or groups).

The benefits of social capital include access to information, both internally and externally; influence, control, and power in the form of political IOUs or bridging disconnected groups; and solidarity, i.e. strong norms and beliefs combined with a high degree of closure that leads to lower monitoring costs and higher commitment.

The risks involved with social capital include investment of time and resources in establishing and maintaining relationships that may bear little fruit; project teams with strong ties may be less productive than those with weak ties because they are less costly to maintain; bridging capital becomes less valuable as the actor’s contacts become more connected themselves; solidarity can become a liability when an actor lacks any external ties to the group, or other nodes in the group become dependent on the actor.

Constraints on Conversation and the Size of a Group

Have you ever been in a group, and wondered why that group never grows beyond a certain limit?  It begs the question, ‘How many persons can be in a group before a conversation in which everyone participates becomes nearly impossible?’

Suppose you and I have a conversation.  Our communication is bidirectional: you have an idea, and I have a response; I have an idea, and you have a response, and so on.  I believe this is referred to as a channel of communication.

Now suppose Phil joins our conversation: you have an idea, Phil has a response, and I have a response; Phil has an idea, I have a response, and you have a response; I have an idea, you have a response, and Phil has a response, etc.

You have a channel of communication with me, a channel with Phil, and Phil has a channel with me; three channels of communication.

Suppose Gordon joins the three of us.  With four of us, you have a channel of communication with Phil, a channel with Gordon, and a channel with me (3).  Phil has a channel with Gordon and a channel with me (2).  And finally Gordon has a channel with me (1).  That is, with two people there is one channel of communication; with three there are three, and with four there are six.

What we are doing here is finding the number of combinations of N persons taken 2 at a time.  There is a formula for this:

N! / [ 2 * (N-2)] = N(N-1) / 2

This is a quadratic equation, which of course is nonlinear.  With eight people in a group, there are 28 channels of communication, or 4.5 times as many as there are with four.

In other words, we need to be very sensitive to the length of our conversational “bursts” as the size of our group grows.  With two persons in a one hour conversation, they could each talk for four fifteen minute bursts and still complete an entire conversational cycle (you have an idea, I have a response; I have an idea, you have a response).  With eight in a group, that maximal burst time is reduced to thirty seconds.  With twelve persons, that time becomes fourteen seconds.

Building Social Capital – a Thought Experiment

I am particularly interested in finding a way for kids to discover for themselves the joy of learning.  I think for me the joy of learning began with a book I enjoyed reading, and then finding another one like it; and then another, and another.  I wonder whether I could help a child do the same.

Suppose I work with a school to find three children interested in reading a book with me, or maybe let them read three different books.  Maybe we meet once a week to talk about the book(s), with me guiding them in a conversation, asking them questions and so on.

I could ask them what they can glean from the title of the book, ask them to state what the book is about in one or two sentences, what are the important ideas are, what they’ve learned from the characters, and so on.

Suppose I teach them what it means to be a talk dancer, and get them to practice talk dancing in our group.

After we read a couple books I ask them whether any of their friends might like to join us.  If we get say eight kids reading together, and there are two kids I think might be reasonably accomplished talk dancers, I split them up so that there is at least one talk dancer in each group.

Now instead of leading the groups directly myself, I encourage them to lead themselves knowing that each group has a talk dancer.  I linger outside the groups, listening to their conversation, encouraging them, and maybe interject a question if their conversation appears to languish.

If we can repeat this process over and over again, perhaps even inviting people outside the school to attend, such as kids from other schools, parents and grandparents, etc, what would be the resulting social capital?

With each division, the number of persons involved would roughly double.  They would be forming bonds, building trust, and discover how much can be learned and enjoyed from discussing books with other persons.  And every group that started from the root group would be connected to all the other groups; that is, at least one person from each group would know someone that could link them to all the other groups.  In just 6 such iterations, there would be over 100 persons involved.  That’s a lot of social capital.

Social Capital

Social capital is a fairly broad sociological and technical term that refers to the “value” of a social network.

Much has been written about the importance of social networks, both to an individual’s happiness and influence, as well as the health of the greater society in which she lives.  See for example, “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam, or “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky.

It therefore seems important to cultivate these networks, whether as individuals, or as institutions, or as societies as a whole.

It helps me to understand what social capital is, by understanding some of its measures.  The ones I want to discuss today are for an individual (following are taken from “Network Measures of Social Capital” by Stephen P. Borgatti, & Candace Jones, Connections v21(2)27-36, 1998 INSNA.  They try to ignore relational contents such as friendship, and want to measure neutral or positive relations such as knows or likes.):

  1. Size/degree: the number of persons that you are connected to.  Size has a positive relation to social capital, since the more people with whom you are connected, the more likely it is one of them has the resource you need.
  2. Density: the proportion of pairs of persons in your network that are themselves connected.  Density has a negative relation to social capital, since if all the persons in your network are connected to each other, then they are “redundant.”  That is, relational energy is a limited resource; don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
  3. Heterogeneity: the variety of persons with respect to relevant dimensions, such as age, sex, race, occupation, and talents.  Heterogeneity is positively related to social capital, except where it conflicts with compositional quality, since it is likely to bring a broader range of ideas.
  4. Compositional quality: the number of persons with high levels of needed characteristics (e.g., wealth, power, expertise, or generosity of persons).  Compositional quality is positively related to social capital, since the more connected to useful others we are, the more social capital we have.