Ingram & Torfason (2010). Organizing in the In-between: The Population Dynamics of Network-Weaving Organizations in the Global Intense Network

Paul Ingram – Columbia Business School
Magnus Thor Torfason – University of Iceland

Paola Zappa – University of Italian Switzerland at Lugano
Julia Brennecke – Swinburne University of Technology Melbourne

Article link:

Question 1. Your results point to the existence of competition among IGOs, suggesting – not surprisingly – that countries can be member in a limited number of IGOs at the same time. Do your data provide any anecdotal evidence on how multiple affiliations should be selected for an IGO to be successful? For instance, is an IGO more likely to be founded (or less likely to fail) if its members are already members in other IGOs active in related or in completely unrelated fields?

Your question asks about IGO success, and exemplifies success as increased likelihood of founding, or decreased likelihood of failure. It may be useful to differentiate between IGO success in terms of positively impacting its member countries, and success in terms of organizational founding and persistence. That distinction probably matters for determining whether overlap of members by IGO field affects success.

We have published a number of papers on the effects of IGO membership, and the network that IGO membership creates, on states. We see two striking generalities that tie together these empirical studies. The first is that IGOs have substantial and positive impacts, on economic outcomes such as trade and FDI, and political ones such as the diffusion of democracy and the reduction of war. The second is that those positive impacts don’t depend much on the function, or as you put it “type”, of IGO. That is to say that cultural, political and economic IGOs all contribute to produce both economic and political benefits. When success is seen as the benefits an IGO produces for member states, the type of IGO doesn’t matter all that much. All IGOs contribute to stronger interstate relationships, and these are positive for those states in many ways.

Because IGO type doesn’t matter that much for IGO outcomes, we didn’t focus on type when we came to study IGO founding and failure. Although we haven’t studied membership overlaps by IGO type, we do see it as potentially relevant for founding and failure, because while IGO impact doesn’t depend on type, the financial and human resources that animate IGOs are attracted to specific missions and functions. Our hypothesis would be that a study that looked at member-overlap by IGO type would find type-localized density effects. Cooperation between a set of states in, say, an environmental IGO, may prompt the founding (decrease the failure) of other environmental IGOs containing those states because it legitimizes collaboration by those states around environmental problems. At the same time, as a set of states come to participate in more and more environmental IGOs, we would expect the founding rate would decrease and failure rate increase, as it gets harder and harder to mobilize resources for yet another organization to deal with similar issues among similar states.

Question 2. You underline the advantages of the use of social network analysis to investigate questions pertaining to population ecology. Could you elaborate a little more on this point? In which cases would you recommend young scholar like us to address population ecology issues from a social network perspective?

The rapid rise of attention to platform strategies, where organizations thrive by serving as meeting places for other organizations and individuals, is ripe territory to combine networks and population ecology. Network concepts could be used to define strategic opportunities in such markets, and ecological methods could be used to explain organizational dynamics based on those insights. Networks and population ecology could also be fruitfully combined in social movement research. There is a well-established tradition that explains the mobilization of individuals using network concepts. The same ideas could be used to explain the ecology of social movement organizations (SMOs), with the key idea being that SMOs will be founded in contexts that represent certain forms of social capital.

Question 3. Your paper suggests that network-weaving organizations are important also for inter-organizational and interpersonal relations. In these contexts, however, network-weaving organizations have received significantly less attention than other mechanisms of network formations – i.e., emergent informal relations or formal bilateral agreements. Could you tell us a little more on the role of network-weaving organizations for inter-organizational and interpersonal relations? Which aspects of the phenomenon should be better investigated? Finally, what would scholars have to consider or have to do differently if they were to investigate organizations weaving networks between individuals or organizations?

The foundational idea that mobilized us to write the network-weaving paper is that networks very often emerge from organizations. Friendship networks emerge from schools and clubs. Joint-ventures emerge from industry associations, consortia, executive education programs, etc. And of course, bilateral collaboration between states emerges from IGOs. That observation matters for understanding networks, because organizations have their own dynamics. So, for example, racial homophily in friendship networks may be a function of organizational inertia affecting schools. Given this, we think that scholars should look harder for the organizations that stand behind dyadic relationships, and study those organizations directly.

In some cases, this could involve population ecology approaches similar to those we utilized in this paper. But it could also involve an examination of how the various functions that network-weaving organizations perform translate into the creation and maintenance of network ties. In the case of IGOs, the importance of bureaucratic structure suggests that effective network-weaving organization need to move beyond simply providing a venue for interaction and towards helping their members maintain, organize and interpret the information related to their interaction. It would be valuable to examine how these functions are performed by other network weaving organizations.

Question 4. We are both very interested in multilevel network research. Your study relates to this area of research by transferring network theoretic constructs such as structural holes or proximity – which are commonly studied at the level of individuals or organizations – to the level of the state and showing how they affect the founding and failure rates of IGOs. In your view, can network theoretic constructs generally be applied to different levels of analysis or are there limitations to their transferability across levels? How could network theoretic constructs differ in their function across levels and what might be reasons for these differences?

Network measures have proved extremely helpful in understanding interaction at different levels and both we and others have found parallels between levels. In our view, the key in such multilevel approaches is to step back from the measures and build the theoretical argument based on mechanisms that apply at the appropriate level. In many cases, the mechanisms have relatively direct parallels. For example, in the paper we examine how similarity leads to greater ease of production for network weaving organizations. At an organizational level, similarity of organizational structure simplifies interaction; at an individual level, arguments about similarity simplifying interaction are based on psychological effects. The effects of competition and limited resources similarly have parallels at the individual level. When the interactional patterns and mechanisms are similar across levels, the ability to build on structural results based on network measures strengthens the conclusions of papers and is a benefit of the multilevel approach.

At the same time, there are important differences across levels. Some differences arise from the fact that organizations are not unitary in the same way that individuals are. An example is that when viewed as a single actor, an organization may have ties with two different organizations. The ties, on the other hand, may originate in different departments of the focal organization, and the communication between departments may be very limited. In other words, a structural hole may exist within the organization and affect how the inter-organizational network functions.

Question 5. Six years have passed since you have published your article in ASQ. Can you briefly sketch how you have built upon your findings since then? For instance, how has your (and our) understanding of network weaving organizations or their role for network evolution developed since then? Moreover, thinking of published extensions (if any) of your research, which of your findings did not get picked up sufficiently yet and in your view could be the basis for future inquiries?

The idea that various actor characteristics facilitate or impede the formation of more or less formal network-weaving organizations, which subsequently have an impact on the network ties between those actors, has influenced our research on in areas including social movements and venture capital. We believe that the mechanisms that we document in this paper are quite general, even though not all contexts lend themselves to as detailed examination of those mechanisms as the context of IGOs.

As an example of research where these ideas apply is the paper by Jandhyala and Phene (2015) on the role of IGOs in cross-border knowledge transfer and innovation. They document evidence that membership in particular IGOs raises the level of innovation within member states and trace this to the way in which IGOs support the development of international ties and partnerships. Jandhyala and Phene focus on state-level (monadic) effects of memberships in IGOs; a research program that demonstrated empirically how IGOs contribute to bilateral ties between states (dyadic effects) would be a great way to build on both our and their papers.


Jandhyala, S., & Phene, A. (2015). The role of intergovernmental organizations in cross-border knowledge transfer and innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly, 60(4), 712-743.

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