The Politics of Social Networks: Interpersonal Trust and Institutional Change in Post-Communist East Germany – Book Review

Jorg Raab

Astrid Hedin. Lund, Sweden: Lund University, Department of Political Science, 2001. 288 pp. $18.00 (SEK 200).

The Politics of Social Networks is a recent dissertation in the Department of Political Science at Lund University, Sweden. Publications based on dissertations can sometimes put too much emphasis on and give too much room to the theoretical prelude. The young scholar may feel that she must show that she can master the current theoretical discussion, bring the different arguments together, and develop her own analytic framework. The danger is that the theoretical framework is overly extensive in comparison to the empirical case and the subsequent interpretation and discussion. The advantage, however, if the literature review is done well, is that the reader can get an overview of everything that is currently in vogue in a certain area. This book is no exception in this regard.

In a hundred-page summary, the author gives a broad overview about what’s hot these days in the field of institutions, governance, and networks in the social sciences. She reviews the literature in policy, interorganizational and social networks, the new institutionalism in political science, economics and sociology, structuration theory and social capital. The integrative framework for these different theories and approaches is that of structure versus agency, e.g., what determines human behavior and how can we explain collective outputs? Is it conscious reasoning about values, ends, and means? Is action more or less determined by formal and informal institutions? And how do social relations that enable and constrain human action play into this? Or is it some combination of different factors, but if so, in what situations will we find what factors and what combinations? Especially, how do they work together in facilitating institutional change?

The author’s central and most important theoretical contribution in answering these questions is to propose a complementary third logic of decision making besides the “logic of consequentiality” and the “logic of appropriateness” proposed by March and Olsen (1989: 160ff). In the logic of consequentiality as they define it, “human behavior is driven by preferences and expectations about consequences. Behavior is willful, reflecting an attempt to make outcomes fulfill subjective desires, to the extent possible” (March and Olsen, 1989: 160). In the logic of appropriateness, in contrast, human decision making and action are very much determined by following formal and informal rules and routines. The decision process “involves what the situation is, what role is being fulfilled, and what the obligations of that role in that situation are” (March and Olsen, 1989: 160). Hedin critiques March and Olsen’s reduction of human agency to only these two logics and claims that “the most relevant social structure that forms individual agency is taken to be neither disattached or disassociated self-interest, nor ubiquitous institutional norms, but an individual’s ongoing social interactions” (p. 88). Therefore, the author proposes a third logic of decision making, the “logic of interpersonal trust.” In her view, agency following this logic is conditioned by (1) preexisting, trust-carrying social network ties (“Whom do I trust?”); (2) deliberation and social influence through these social network ties to others who are trusted (“What do they say?”); (3) mobilization of resources through social network ties (“Can they help me with that?”); and (4) the social network basis of collective action (“Cooperate with trusted others.”) (p. 83).

The author uses these basic theoretical concepts to answer the empirical question of how, after 1989, the former state socialist party (SED) in the German Democratic Republic (now East Germany), with an entrenched party bureaucracy of approximately 40,000 employees, a membership base of over two million people, a Stalinist ideological heritage, and considerable economic assets (p. 19), was transformed into the Party of Democratic Socialism, a leftist East German protest party of considerable strength. How was it possible that such a rigid organization, headed by an old, almost exclusively male oligarchy, was transformed into a leftist party with a strong feminist agenda and a predominantly female leadership? Hedin’s empirical contribution in this respect is an important one that we do not find very often. Studies on party organizations are a rare species both in organizational studies and in political science, despite their importance for modern democracies. But her empirical contribution exceeds the immediat e case. She describes how political entrepreneurs act in times of rapid institutional change and what role social networks play in that regard. Her analysis and her major finding that the transformation can be mainly explained by interpersonal trust relations should be interesting for scholars who study institutional and organizational change in other areas as well.

While the literature review is very broad, and therefore necessarily lacks depth in some instances, the subsequent application to the empirical case is somewhat unsatisfactory. The narrative description of the networks is very sketchy, and in the end, it is unclear whether interpersonal trust that was built up before the transformation is the key factor in explaining the party’s shift or simply the instinct of people thrown into frantic social, political, and economic changes to look for new allies that would help them survive the changes. It also does not become entirely clear how exactly, in this case, the logics of consequentiality, appropriateness, and interpersonal trust play into each other. For example, in what instances were the creation and the use of social relations clearly instrumental, serving as a means to a strategic end, and in what instances were they “social,” perhaps even constraining action? Another shortcoming is that conflict as a frequent characteristic of human interaction is hardly me ntioned. It is hard to believe that an organizational change of this kind came about without bitter–sometimes personal–political fights and disappointments.

All in all, this is an interesting study for organizational scholars, especially for those who focus on institutional change. It is well written and covers a lot of ground in the current discussion of institutions, governance, and networks. The study further confirms that the transformation of Central and Eastern European societies is still a fertile ground for research, not only for scholars who look at political, social, and economic macro-phenomena but also for organizational scholars.


March, J. G., and J. R Olsen:

1989 Rediscovering Institutions: The Organizational Basis of Politics. New York: Free Press.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cornell University, Johnson Graduate School

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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