Acorn Ideas

Issue No. 38, September 2015

Social Networks

Network theory helps us understand how interconnections between individuals and groups influence the development of friendships, decisions, formal/informal authority granting, voting patterns, and even epidemics. Path length, degree distributions and network structure are all important in determining the power of influence within a network, but specifically who we are networked with can also be very powerful1. History has shown us many important examples of the coevolution of behavior that is driven by social networks - the Medici family influencing renaissance art development, strategic alliances leading into World War I, likes on Facebook promoting public opinion on emerging issues, to name a few.

New applications of network theory and its algorithms for predicting social behavior are emerging daily. The most recent issues of the journal Social Networks2 include articles on applications ranging from linkages between ethnicity and educational performance, influence of power elite in international business, implications of shared leadership in sports and patterns of regionalization in intergovernmental relationships.

Acorn International is learning from these applications as we hone our ability to help industries and investors understand and manage social risks of their activities worldwide. Studying social networks and their applications help us to better:

  • Understand stakeholder networks for better mapping and planning3
  • Perform more informed and effective social risk evaluation and management
  • Design and implement more responsive, sustainable social investment programs

As we learn more about social networks, we see how they influence public impacts/benefits, opinions and decision-making in the communities that host development projects worldwide as well as our families at home. Understanding the mechanics that determine network behavior give us a better perspective on some of the challenges we routinely face to help clients minimize social risk and build social license to operate. Through this lens, we have more clearly seen, for example:

  • Individuals or small groups in rural communities in Colombia who are regarded as community leaders may not have highest power to influence overall community decision-making (influence was more related to individuals’ access [i.e., short path length] to the press or NGOs, or ability to deliver short term benefits/favors to other community members).
  • Family connections may be less important than work group/economic networks in influencing the opinions and communication patterns of fishermen in Ghana regarding government policy/regulation of marine resource use.
  • The “Free Tom Brady” movement failed to jump regional boundaries and gain broad national support most likely due to weak bond strength or “ties” in the paths between network nodes (distinct individuals or small groups within networks) rather than the clear justification and appeal of the cause4.

Understanding how the interests of key stakeholders can affect project viability and social license to operate, helps us better communicate and build trust with individuals and groups that can influence project outcome or operational success. Learning how to understand, predict and manage how social networks influence opinions and decisions will give us a deeper appreciation for social risk in host communities and better solutions for how to manage this risk.

Acorn International LLC delivers social and environmental risk management consulting services to the extractive industries and investors worldwide. We work with local partners in over 80 countries worldwide. Use of these local specialists is paramount, particularly in developing countries, where information is often scarce, second-hand, and unreliable. We look forward to engaging in continuous improvement for the industry and building capacity with our partners.


1 This and other observations in this paper are driven by a MOOC presented by Matthew Jackson, Stanford University. (See

3 See, for example, Robert Boutilier’s Stakeholder Politics (Greenleaf Publishing, 2009)

4 Moderate author bias noted.


Issue 37 -A Community Look-back on Ebola
Issue 36 -Ghana and the Voluntary Principles: Implementing the Human Rights Protection Framework
Issue 35 -Inundation
Issue 34 -Colombia: Local Hiring Requirement for O&G Industry
Issue 33 -Mature and Frontier Mining Geographies: Where does Greater Risk (and Reward) Reside?
Issue 32 -Local Content in Mining: Increasing Expectations and Potential Solutions
Issue 31 -Fast Money Beware: Non-Technical Risk Due Diligence
Issue 30 -Social and Environmental Performance - Considerations for Difficult Commodity Price Environments
Issue 29 -A Window into the Opposing View - Stakeholder Concerns about Oil and Gas in Mexico
Issue 28 -Why Non-Technical Risks Matter to the Mexican Apertura
Issue 27 -Equator Principles:Drivers of Sustainability in the Oil and Gas Industry?
Issue 26 -The Transparency Tightrope: Examining UNEP’s New Access to Information Policy
Issue 25 -July 2014: Bouston
Issue 24 - July 2014: Land Tenure and Property Rights - Where Legal Compliance May Not Be Enough
Issue 23 - May 2014: 3 Things I Learned in Mexico - Non-technical Risks in the Oil Industry
Issue 22 - April 2014: Capacity Building on Stakeholder Engagement
Issue 21 - March 2014: Above-ground Facilities and Stakeholder Engagement: Deploying the 'CAC'
Issue 20 - March 2014: A Starting Point for Shared Equity
Issue 19 - March 2014: What It Takes to Run a Great Consulting Firm
Issue 18 - February 2014: Considering Human Rights - Trends and Lessons in Oil and Gas Impact Assessments
Issue 17 - June 2013: Managing Environmental Health in International Development Projects
Issue 16 - January 2013: Integrating Environmental and Social Performance throughout the Project Lifecycle
Issue 15 - January 2013: The State of Shale Play in 2013
Issue 14 - August 2012: Building Environmental and Social Governance in Host Countries
Issue 13 - May 2012: Human Rights and Business: A New Era
Issue 12 - February 2012: Extractive Industries Confront Pressure for Greater Transparency
Issue 11 - January 2012: Key Updates to the IFC Sustainability Policy and Performance Standards
Issue 10 - June 2011: Oil & Gas and NGOs: New Rules of Engagement?
Issue 9 - February 2010: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 8 - January 2009: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 7 - May 2008: Top Ten Lessons Learned About Health Impact Assessment
Issue 6 - January 2008: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 5 - September 2007: Results of web forum with our International Partners
Issue 4 - January 2007: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 3 - May 2006: Suggestions and tips for safe international travel
Issue 2 - January 2006: Annual Study of Sustainable Development Priorities
Issue 1 - November 2005: The Top 10 “unspoken" criteria for determining the success of EIAs


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