Findings from several of our past research projects have shed light on how persistent high levels of corruption are associated with the collective practices of social networks. These effectively engage key individual or collective actors to informally mobilise and re-distribute access to public resources.
Social networks can be positive forces...
Social networks can be found everywhere and can for sure generate positive social interactions. One of the most famous arguments in this regard was made by American political scientist Robert Putman, who argued that the success of democracies depends in large part on the existence of multiple organisations (such as guilds, clubs, choral societies and so on) that bring communities together.
… but can also be abused
Social networks, however, are also certainly behind patterns that yield less than desirable social outcomes. In fact, social networks and dark social capital could also represent the relational structures and substance that keep criminals, co-offenders and embezzlers together and permit criminal syndicates, conspiracy rings and corrupt associations to effectively and secretly work. Clientelistic and patronage practices rely on building networks, as are collusive behaviours by elites that lie behind white-collar crimes and grand corruption scandals.
The creation of systematic opaque relations between public (politicians, bureaucrats, civil servants) and private (businessmen, professionals, stakeholders) actors in the contemporary states also relies on relational networks blurring the borders between these spheres. Social networks, or dark networks, are behind the operations of traffickers and transnational organised crime.
Anti-corruption interventions should target networks, not just individuals
The pervasiveness of social networks helps us understand why conventional anti-corruption instruments have often limited impact. Mainstream anti-corruption instruments mostly address the actions and incentives of individuals; however social networks promote and perpetuate behaviour patterns that transcend the individuals who constitute the network.
Indeed, we know that dark networks are flexible and resilient structures not least because they can quickly replace arrested leaders, thereby avoiding the destabilising effect of a power vacuum which may follow law enforcement and judicial activities.
Thus, the logical question that stems from the above considerations is: what would anti-corruption practice look like if we shift the focus from individuals to networks? This is precisely one of the central topics we are exploring in our current research agenda.
Using social network analysis to understand trafficking networks
In our work as part of the cross-divisional initiative entitled Stop corruption from fuelling illicit wildlife trafficking along the East-Africa - Southeast Asian trading chain, we are exploring how social network analysis might be used to promote better strategic, operative and tactical coordination among law enforcement authorities of different countries.
We believe this to be of extreme importance given that transnational crime organisations and global dark networks lack recognisable headquarters, involve co-offenders and syndicates placed in a multitude of countries and organise their activities along a global/local axis. These traits seriously affect the effectiveness of investigative efforts focused on a single country.
Piloting network-based anti-corruption interventions
In our research project Addressing Bribery and Favouritism in the Tanzanian Health Sector we are developing and testing the effectiveness of a network-based intervention that will identify and work with social network leaders in selected neighbourhoods of Dar es Salaam.
The idea, which we will test experimentally with a randomised control trial, is that ideas about attitudinal and behavioural change have a better chance to be accepted and adopted when they are disseminated by trusted members from one’s social network.
At a more general level, we think that it is possible to develop a framework to help practitioners identify when social networks are linked to problems of corruption and to develop network-based interventions. We are exploring this idea in a follow-on informal governance project.