Making Connections and Strengthening Ties

As I begin to wind down my time here at CCT, I often think about how I can reconcile my academic interests, ethical beliefs, and desired career plan. Often, these areas of interest seem disconnected – like separate, isolated worlds in my brain. In class, I am activating the part of me invested in the academy, yet at home I’m focused on re-doing my resume and job hunting.

This semester I am taking my first class with Dr. D. Linda Garcia, who studies networks. Networks, which Lauren Barnett has also blogged about, occur at all levels of the universe – from neurons firing in a brain, to the massive social network of Facebook. Yet what is key to any network are connections, and I am focusing on making those connections with the personal, academic, and ideological.

As an introduction to network theory, we began by reading Mark Buchanan’s Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Theory of Networks. The anecdote that connected with me the most was his analysis of the AIDS epidemic, as it was the only point in the book where he specifically addressed an economic development issue. In the chapter Breaking Out: Small-World Style he delves into a “disease network” and examines how AIDS became “tipped”, how the disease spread, and offers a possible solution.

Image: - How Disease Can Spread Through International Travel

Disease is one of the most pervasive problems in development, and as Buchanan notes, “before the AIDS epidemic has run its course, it is certain to have destroyed more lives than the Second World War” (Buchanan, 171). While development work focuses on containing and eradicating AIDS, it is important to understand how and why AIDS has spread – by examining the ties and connections within the “small-world” network. At first kept in check, a confluence of actions caused the disease to become “tipped” (war, travel, medical experiments), and “in a network of this sort, a disease is always ‘tipped’”, meaning that there is little hope for complete eradication, but only containment (Buchanan, 181). The AIDS tipping point, a concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, is the point where the disease breaks out of its isolation and begins to spread throughout a network, spreading via the connections.

In studying AIDS through the network framework, one is able to see how the epidemic has spread, yet a significant question remains – is there an effective solution for either eradication of the virus, or preventing further infections?  Buchanan offers the conclusion that “the recipe for stopping the epidemic is not mass treatment and education, but highly selective measure targeted intelligently toward the special few” (183). While he does go on to note that this would not be easy,  his analysis stops there, with no further explanation or solutions.

Image: from Flickr user swambo, licensed by Creative Commons

This example illustrates the point of tension I have often found between academia and development – and that tension is the lack of connective-ness of the two networks.  How can these connections be made and strengthened? How can ties between seemingly disparate ideas be strengthened? While theoretical understanding about the spread of AIDS is a necessity – how can that theory be implemented in on the ground projects? Buchanan’s solution is half-way there, but relies on the networks of academia and development organizations to have connections – to use theory in order to attempt significant change.

Note: Featured Image by Flickr user purpleslog, licensed by Creative Commons

Colleen Valentine

Colleen is a former CCT Graduate Student.