Shining a Light on Dark Networks

A Conversation with Dr. Brint Milward of the School of Government and Public Policy by Kyle Johnson, Student Science Journalist

While Brint Milward was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa in the late 1960s, he became fascinated with the social networks that dominated the structures of African tribes. After returning to the United States and earning a doctorate at the Ohio State University, Milward became an award-winning expert on social networks. He is now the Providence Service Corporation Chair in Public Management and the director of the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. Throughout his career, Milward has studied a variety of social networks—from those that are intertwined with governments to shadowy groups called dark networks.

What is the main topic you’re studying now?
Right now I’m fascinated with what I call dark networks—illegal and covert networks that penetrate all areas of the world. And when I say "illegal" and "covert," I don’t necessarily mean bad networks or good networks. The Claus von Stauffenberg plot in Nazi Germany to kill Hitler was a dark network, according to the laws of Nazi Germany. I’m looking at people who have to organize covertly, clandestinely, and because of that they have to make certain tradeoffs. To be successful, every network has to act effectively. But the more that dark networks want to act, the easier it is for their adversaries to attack them as they become more visible. They’re always trying to balance persistence with capacity, or the ability to act with the ability to exist.

What have you learned about dark networks?
Legitimacy is the most important thing. Whether the government or the insurgents win, victory depends on whether people in a particular country or region support one side or the other. There’s a saying in the counter-insurgency field that the side that kills the most civilians loses. If you look at the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela, which succeeded, all the fighters signed the Geneva Accord to behave according to the laws of war and limit collateral damage when they attacked South African army bases. The fighters did all kinds of things to look as legitimate as they could in the eyes of the local people and the international community. That legitimacy gave them a standing that very few insurgencies have. The problem that al-Qaeda has, if you’re critiquing them, is that they kill so many fellow Muslims.

What part of social networks has interested you the most?
For my entire career, the thing that has interested me more than anything else is the role that social networks play in allowing people to do both good things and bad things. I look at the relationships between individuals and organizations and how those connections allow them to do different kinds of things. There are social network studies of why people smoke. If your friends are smokers, or even if you’re friends of friends who are smokers, the probability is that you’ll be a smoker as well. It’s the community in which you immerse yourself.

What’s your most surprising finding?
I never thought that networks, for good and for bad, would be as pervasive as they are. They have really come to dominate a lot of the discussion about how you organize things in the social sciences. If you look at human beings, there are three ways they have found to organize things: markets, hierarchies and networks. Most of the ways in which we engage in activities is through hierarchy, through organizations that have a chain of command. Networks don’t have a hierarchy. People are in them because they find networks useful, because they’re getting something in return. Networks allow people to come together for common purposes.

Why did the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration and the American Society for Public Administration give you the Distinguished Research Award in 2010?
It was for the work I’ve done on networks for my entire career. I think it’s really funny because the award was “for a coherent body of research done over a career.” I said, “Well, at least that’s better than an incoherent body of research.”

Published Date: 

07/11/2012 - 20:24

Photo Credits: 

Photo by Kyle Johnson
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