not your father’s network analysis

Sean’s book (hereafter WtGCCSY) is in some ways what you’d expect from a sociologist at the University of Chicago business school and from someone who got his Phd at network-central, MIT. The answer to the question, why did Allentown fare so much better than Youngstown after the collapse of the steel industry, is a story about social networks. If you just skim through the book, you’ll notice lots of pretty network maps, comparing the interorganizational links in the two cities. Sean creates eigenvector centrality scores and uses the precise language of network analysis (at times it seems as if he’s channeling Ron Burt himself). The puzzle begins to come together when we learn that civic organizations, like the Boy Scouts or the Historical Society, are much more central in the interorganizational network of Allentown than they are in Youngstown.  It would appear that the differences between the two cities can be explained by the presence of network brokers in Allentown that helped transmit the information and resources that business leaders needed to plan the revitalization of their economy. Allentown recovered because it was interconnected in the right way. The story is elegant and structural – case closed.

But that’s not where WtGCCSY concludes. Rather than simply pointing out the structural differences between the two cities, Sean’s historical analysis digs deeper into the “why ” and “how” of the formation of the two networks. And this is where WtCGCCSY departs from the expected.  He discovers that Allentown’s interorganizational networks reflect a history of strategic attempts by business leaders to bridge social class divides in order to deal with ethnic fragmentation. Elite families invested their profits in the civic infrastructure of the city to muffle potential unrest and assimilate the various ethnic groups into the city. Over time, this civic infrastructure changed in purpose, becoming the foundation for the community’s identity and creating places where local citizens could engage in community building alongside the respected business leaders in the city. By contrast, Youngstown was relatively homogenous in its ethnic makeup early on and so the strong civic infrastructure and culture never developed. Inasmuch as Youngstown had civic organizations, they were not foundational to the community identity and they did not serve the same participatory function as they did in Allentown.

The result of these historical differences was that Youngstown was much less prepared to weather the storm of the steel industry collapse. Allentown had the institutional tools to deal with the crisis, which led to further investing in the community by business leaders. Youngstown business leaders, by comparison, became more isolated from the community. The community in Youngstown became a source of dependence for its business leaders rather than a source of identity and pride. One of the most vivid examples from the book of how alienated (for lack of a better word) these companies became is when the local university, Youngstown State, decides to give an award to a local business leader who has done well (hoping to create some civic pride) and half of the nominees for the award refuse to accept the nomination for fear of of becoming snared in the community’s webs of dependency.

Allentown was able to create a sense of community despite the troubles of the steel industry (and in fact, these troubles may have even strengthened their shared identity). The civic organizations became a location for the cultivation of common purpose and a forum for citizen involvement in the revitalization efforts. These organizations weren’t mere brokers. They had a distinct institutional function that enabled collective action among elites and the middle class. Sean states how his conclusions differ from the typical network analysis:

Rather than simply providing mechanisms for conducting information and resources or even trust, the value of organizations like the Boy Scouts or its descendant – the Lehigh Valley Partnership – has to do with being sources of participatory democracy. That is, just as important as the ability to address issues and resolve conflict is the fact that such organizations provide opportunities for engagement, the ability to interact, to have one’s voice heard and one’s identity as a citizen of a given community affirmed. It is this kind of dynamic interaction that has led to the continued participation of economic leaders in the social and civic life of Allentown as a community, and it is the absence of this kind of meaningful engagement that has led to the disintegration of Youngstown’s social fabric (149).

Because WtGCCSY is more interested in the civic organizations as institutions than as network brokers, the conclusion is more cultural than it is structural. The take home message is also very different from what you’d expect from a typical network analyst. Rather than going out and creating lots of brokerage ties in a community, the analysis suggests that community leaders ought to be more concerned about creating organizational forms that facilitate participatory democracy, grass roots organizing, and coalition building. Brokerage, in a sense, occurs in forums, like the civic organizations in Allentown, that sustain community identities. Networks are mere reflections of sustained interactions that carry meaning for their participants. The fact that Youngstown never developed those networks reflects the failure to create the right institutions. That is definitely not the kind of conclusion you’d expect from a network analyst.

Written by brayden king

May 8, 2009 at 1:47 pm

15 Responses

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  1. […] King reviews Sean Safford’s new book very positively: Rather than simply pointing out the structural […]


  2. Brilliant summary. I have very little interest in reading the book but what you wrote is probably exactly what I’d want to get from the book had i slogged through it.

    I especially like your comment “Networks are mere reflections of sustained interactions that carry meaning for their participants” which i say to myself in a much less sexy way on this [shameless plug] blog post:


    Byron Woodson

    May 10, 2009 at 6:58 pm

  3. er… its hardly a slog. it weighs in at less than 200 pages… and much as Brayden’s summary hits the spot on some key points, there’s plenty else to dig into… particularly if you are interested in networks. personally (one shamesless plug deserves another), i think the key thing i try to do is use the networks, less as the driver of the story, than as evidence supporting the mechanisms i discuss. i hope you’ll (all) check it out.

    One thing brayden didn’t discuss, but given the discussion we’ve been having about (ahem) Jerry’s new book, which I think is worth exploring further here is the relationship between organizations and the communities they inhabit. Jerry’s comments have been prefaced by the fact that employees no longer have the kind of attachment they once had to organization. A point I try to make in the book is that organizations no longer have the kind of relationship they once did to communities. The book is an extended effort to understand what that means for communities. I’m not alone in asking that question, but I am part of a relatively small group (Galaskiewicz asked the question long ago of course, more recently Marc Schneiberg, Marquis and others have picked up on it). Clearly I think its an important discussion to have…



    May 10, 2009 at 8:47 pm

  4. I’ll echo that Sean. The book is quite rich and a few blog posts couldn’t do it justice. And like Sean says, you won’t have to slog through it at all. He means it when he says that he’s writing in a relevant way.

    More on this later!



    May 11, 2009 at 3:29 am

  5. Sean and Brayden . . a few hours later i said to myself “self, if you liked the summary so much, the book can’t be all that bad, anyhow it sounds kind of interesting”, i went on further to talk to myself about how I love history, want to read more and love reading about networks . . .

    so it’s on my shortlist, right after “Apache, MySql and PHP” and “Professional PHP5”. I just hope some library has it already


    Byron Woodson

    May 11, 2009 at 3:01 pm

  6. Ohio isn’t out of the game yet!

    I just remembered that I’ve been following a blog ( by Valdis Krebs, June Holly and Jack Ricchiuto and remembered that June worked/works (not sure about both) in southern Ohio and may be a key if not the key to put Youngstown back in the running.

    More about her:

    she was the executive director of

    I just hope this isn’t redundant information to ya.


    Byron Woodson

    May 11, 2009 at 6:29 pm

  7. Well, I do think one of the key questions the book leaves me (and others) with is whether Youngstown is “doomed”? And more specifically, if I am fingering a poor network structure as the culprit, can those networks be fixed? My answer is essentially, yes, but not quickly. The book makes fairly clear I think that networks evolve in response to crises. Agengy plays a roll, but only after the network has been knocked off its moorings. So now is the time to act, but those actions won’t bear fruit for years–maybe devades–to come. I think people are committed enough to their communities to make those kinds of investments, but as voters (or homeownwer for that matter) they may not be that patient… They may vote with their feet before the community has a chance to see the networks pay off.



    May 12, 2009 at 4:04 pm

  8. I respectfully disagree with one of your points/arguments. I don’t think that networks evolve as a RESPONSE to conditions. Rather I think they are created as a result of natural connectors and passionate people. The people who are ‘natural connectors’ build organizations, throw parties, introduce people. They are the ‘lubricant’ that oils the machine of the network, they are the fuel for the engine and the steering wheel of the networks they live in. Structure is great, but structure is created by *someone* or some group. For instance (mind you I’m grabbing at straws because i haven’t read your book) Allentown ALREADY had a network of organizations on top of which it built its recovery effort!

    I find it funny how, now mind you I’m no avid reader of technical social network analysis books, the social network analysis books I have read (The Hidden Power of Social Networks, The Wisdom of the Crowds and to a degree Tipping Point) are completely ignorant of the rich metaphorical/literal distinctions of computer networking: network engineer, network administrator, user etc. I haven’t read any SNA talk about people who design networks (businesses, organizations, informal gatherings, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists) people who are network administrators (presidents of civic associations, volunteer coordinators, church deacons, etc) versus the users of the networks (consumers, attendees, volunteers, employees).

    But, what do I know? besides “sometimes your the fly, and sometimes you’re the windsheild”.

    Now my particular philosophy/view is that the whole of America is doomed, not just Youngstown, unless/until we start re-industrializing. It could be making more domestic hemp products, re-invigorating a crafts-based culture more ‘buy local’ or something. Having most of our economy floating on services . . . a dicey proposition at best. There’s only so much services that people can buy from one another until we actually have to buy food, clothing and imported cars, did i mention imported beer? The buy local aspect of the green movement seems to be the forefront of saving America from massive trade deficits.

    you’re still reading? thanks, or you must be bored.


    Byron Woodson

    May 13, 2009 at 1:03 am

  9. Great post! Sounds like really interesting book. I’ll have to check it out.

    Sean: I especially like your remark in comments that,

    “i think the key thing i try to do is use the networks, less as the driver of the story, than as evidence supporting the mechanisms i discuss.”

    This may sound simple but just doesn’t get the consideration it deserves! I am actually going to be giving a presentation to some fellow PhDs on this point soon so I’ll make sure to check your book out for examples!



    May 13, 2009 at 11:49 am

  10. […] this site… Some interesting characters and more importantly, ideas, lurk within, including a discussion of my new book as well as my polemic on Richard Florida (particularly relevant given Andrew’s […]


  11. […] a comment » As Sean reminded us in an earlier comment, one of the interesting themes of his book, Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown, is […]


  12. Slogging . .

    Sean, I am reading this wonderful treatise of yours (wtgccsy). Not sure what your quadratic statistics mean, but you expertly wield an analytical knife to explain that cross-cultural (ethnic/class) brokerage ties are the bread and butter of resilient communities.

    And, given some of the terminology you use (platforms, infrastructure, complementors), and your analytical framework you might be interested in the book The Keystone Advantage by Iansiti and Levien which talks about how some companies create roles for themselves as brokers in a business ecosystem.


    Byron Woodson

    June 3, 2009 at 7:11 pm

  13. Glad to hear it Byron. I will keep an eye out for Iansiti and Levien as well.


    Sean Safford

    June 3, 2009 at 7:23 pm

  14. Sean: more books!

    In response to the chapter how Allentown Got Its Groove back, Jane Jacob’s book The Nature of Economies has a great, though in a conversational format, exposition on how economies grow and contract. It to an extent says that local spinoffs are the way to go, much like Saxenian reports in Regional Advantage (thanks for the rec- from your amazon author profile)


    Byron Woodson

    June 5, 2009 at 5:36 pm

  15. […] This short summary obviously doesn’t do the book justice, and it’s definitely worth checking out yourself. It is a beautifully written book (even though it includes academic data, it reads like the sort of thing you could find in The New Yorker). It is also a very good example of how to put together a coherent research project, which PhD students can use as a model. The reviews of the book have been very positive. One thing that has struck me is that many people are pointing to the novelty of Safford’s use of network analysis. […]


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