The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management

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 and Y. T. Maru B D
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

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:

The Rangeland Journal 30(1) 167-176
Submitted: 11 June 2007  Accepted: 21 October 2007   Published: 1 April 2008


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.

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


We wish to acknowledge participants of the series of workshops run by Mark Stafford Smith and Ryan McAllister, as part of the Desert Knowledge CRC funded project, the Science of Desert Living (see McAllister and Stafford Smith 2006). Many ideas we express here were developed through these workshops. The lead author was also funded by the Science of Desert Living project. Case-study contributions are as follows: Yiheyis Maru – pastoral networks; Toni Darbas – Queensland’s Murray–Darling Basin; Cathy Robinson and Carol Richards – Lake Eyre Basin; Brian Cheers and Debra Fernando – Far West Coast Aboriginal Enterprise Network; Jocelyn Davies – Aboriginal outstation networks; and, Mark Ashley – Aboriginal pastoralism. We wish to thank one anonymous referee, David Newth, Luis Izquierdo and Amy Thams for review comments. Much of the work reported here was supported by funding from the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres Programme through the Desert Knowledge CRC; the views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Desert Knowledge CRC or its participants. This is Publication No. 4 in the development of a Science of Desert Living.


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