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Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 30(1)

Social networks in arid Australia: a review of concepts and evidence

R. R. J. McAllister A B F, B. Cheers B C, T. Darbas A, J. Davies B D, C. Richards A, C. J. Robinson A B, M. Ashley B E, D. Fernando B C, Y. T. Maru B D

A CSIRO, Sustainable Ecosystems, 306 Carmody Road, St Lucia, Qld 4067, Australia.
B Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, Alice Springs, NT 0871, Australia.
C University of South Australia, 111 Nicolson Ave, Whyalla-Norrie, SA 5608, Australia.
D CSIRO, Sustainable Ecosystems, Centre for Arid Zone Research, Alice Springs, NT 0871, Australia.
E Northern Territory Government, PO Box 1057, Alice Springs, NT 0871, Australia.
F Corresponding author. Email: ryan.mcallister@csiro.au
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Arid systems are markedly different from non-arid systems. This distinctiveness extends to arid-social networks, by which we mean social networks which are influenced by the suite of factors driving arid and semi-arid regions. Neither the process of how aridity interacts with social structure, nor what happens as a result of this interaction, is adequately understood. This paper postulates three relative characteristics which make arid-social networks distinct: that they are tightly bound, are hierarchical in structure and, hence, prone to power abuses, and contain a relatively higher proportion of weak links, making them reactive to crisis. These ideas were modified from workshop discussions during 2006. Although they are neither tested nor presented as strong beliefs, they are based on the anecdotal observations of arid-system scientists with many years of experience. This paper does not test the ideas, but rather examines them in the context of five arid-social network case studies with the aim of hypotheses building. Our cases are networks related to pastoralism, Aboriginal outstations, the ‘Far West Coast Aboriginal Enterprise Network’ and natural resources in both the Lake-Eyre basin and the Murray–Darling catchment. Our cases highlight that (1) social networks do not have clear boundaries, and that how participants perceive their network boundaries may differ from what network data imply, (2) although network structures are important determinants of system behaviour, the role of participants as individuals is still pivotal, (3) and while in certain arid cases weak links are engaged in crisis, the exact structure of all weak links in terms of how they place participants in relation to other communities is what matters.

Keywords: arid zones, culture, network analysis, pastoral society, rural urban relations, social structure.

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