209. Identity and altruism in networks

There are two reasons why it may be useful to employ
concepts from network theory. One is to further analyse the notions of bonding
and bridging capital mentioned in the preceding item in this blog. A second is
that it may be useful to consider identity in terms of networks, as I suggested
earlier (in item 10 of this blog).

*Personal identity*is then associated with

*positions*in networks, and

*cultural identity*with the

*structure*of networks.

A central feature of

*position*is*centrality*. There are different types. One is*degree centrality*, defined as the number of direct ties one has. This yields power of influence. It yields*preferential attachment:*the more direct connections one has the more attractive one is as a contact, and the more new connections one gets. This is a*Matthew effect*: the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. That is one form of the*winner takes all*phenomenon that I discussed in item 203.*Betweenness centrality*is the extent that one sits on an intersection of paths between distant points (

*nodes*) in the network. This yields power of intermediation or brokerage.

The

*strength*of a tie has several dimensions: duration, dependence (which can be one-sided), investment in the tie, trust, and the number of activities involved in the tie
A central feature of network

*structure*is of course the*number of nodes*. A second feature is the*density*of the network: the number of direct ties between nodes. If density is complete, every node has a direct tie to every other node. Then all nodes have equal, maximum degree centrality.
Now what would one prefer: dense, strong ties, or
sparse, weak ones? Perhaps one’s intuition favours the first. And indeed: many
direct ties yield access to many resources, and strong mutual dependence and
trust yield stability.

However, there is the famous claim (proposed by Mark
Granovetter) of the

*strength of weak ties*: high density of the network, high centrality of position, and strong ties also carry disadvantages. They may tie one down, burdening capacity to deal with ties and limiting flexibility.
Communities with dense and strong internal ties, and
few ties with other communities, would most exhibit the

*parochial altruism*discussed in preceding items. Personal identity then is also strongly tied to group identity.
Economically, this yields a danger of stagnation, due
to a lack of variety. Over time, with strong ties

*cognitive distance*will become small, and members have little novelty to share. For novelty, there should be newcomers to the community, or there should be outside ties. That requires a limitation of the parochiality of altruism.*Structural holes*are gaps in network structure: batches of nodes that are internally but not mutually connected. A special case is the

*small worlds structure*, clusters with high density of strong internal ties and only few and weak ties between them. Ties between these batches require and stimulate altruism going beyond the parish. The internal ties yield bonding capital and the external ties yield bridging capital.

Those structures are ideal, both politically and
economically. They yield internal cohesion of a community, with a large degree
of trust, allowing for limited contracts, yielding low costs of contact and
room for informality and improvisation. At the same time, economically, external
ties yield impulses of variety to create novelty, and the diffusion and hence
utilization of novelty. Politically, the internal ties allow for communal
democracy, and the external ties yield a basis for the political scale
advantages of integration discussed in item 207.

Perhaps this should be the model for the EU.