(caveat emptor: this blog post is aimed at the academic research community. We’ll return to your regularly scheduled publicly-oriented blog posts shortly)
I received an interesting action alert in my inbox this morning. It came from “Natalie Foster, Rebuild the Dream,” and was titled “Mr. President: Fire this man.” Here are the important parts:
Meet Edward DeMarco. As director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, his job is to do everything in his power to help Americans avoid foreclosure. But DeMarco seems to think his job is just the opposite. In fact, in our fight to get justice for homeowners across the country, Edward DeMarco might just be enemy number one.
The link takes us to an online petition asking Obama to fire DeMarco and recess-appoint a replacement next week. If, like me, you find yourself on the receiving end of a lot of e-petitions, you’re probably wondering just what makes this action alert noteworthy.
The answer is in the author line. ”Natalie Foster, Rebuild the Dream.” Natalie is Executive Director of RebuildtheDream.com*. Before launching that organization, she was the New Media Director at the DNC/Organizing for America. When Natalie says “Mr. President, fire this man,” she is speaking as an outsider who used to be an insider. Many of the people who write online petitions for Obama’s operation remember her as their boss. These words carry a weight that a message originating from “Johnny Noname, Rebuild the Dream” would not.
I mention this because it is a dimension of the netroots as a professional field that too often goes ignored by the research community. When we study pressure campaigns by outside organizations, or coalition dynamics among advocacy groups, we never look at how the crisscross of career paths shape relationships. A big part of what makes Rebuild the Dream special is that it is led by Natalie, Billy Wimsatt, and Van Jones. Those individuals hold substantial reputational cache within the broader progressive movement. They’re well-known and well-respected on the basis of their previous career achievements.
We know that these professional ties play an important role within political networks. Social network theorists have developed a language for talking about them — “network brokerage,” “betweenness centrality,” etc. But I don’t think I have EVER seen a network analysis that included career path data. The closest that I’ve seen is Skinner, Masket, and Dulio’s paper on “527 committees and the political party network.” That paper does a nice job of considering the ties among 527s, but it doesn’t dig into the very real ties formed through staff careers.
I talk in my forthcoming book, The MoveOn Effect, about the partisan nature of organizational learning. ”The lack of network ties between netroots and “rightroots” organizations is one reason why conservative advocacy groups have failed to adopt the successful organizational innovations of the netroots. Within ideological coalitions, the transfer of knowledge occurs through staff-driven, vendor-driven, and conference-driven information exchange. Between ideological coalitions, those information exchanges don’t take place.” That’s just one example of what we can learn through Career Path Analysis. Legacy organizations have adopted new technologies through hiring people like Natalie, or by sending their existing staff to trainings and conferences where they can learn from her and her colleagues. In the process, a new professional field is formed.
Why aren’t academics already engaging in Career Path Analysis? The problem, I think, is simply rooted in data availability issues. It’s always hard to build a robust new dataset for social network analysis. Conducting career path analysis beyond a simple “hey, didn’t person X used to work at organization A?” would require gathering a ton of resumes, converting them into network data, and then anonymizing the data enough to pass IRB requirements. That’s far from impossible, but it sure ain’t easy.
I’ve become increasingly convinced that the future of research on topics like interest groups, social movements, party networks, and technology adoption lies at the intersection between network analysis and Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the professional field. Moving in that direction won’t be easy, but doing so will allow us to incorporate key eyeball-level findings (such as “hey, wasn’t Natalie a high-level staffer for them not too long ago?”) into our political theories and empirical studies.
*Full disclosure: Natlalie is also a friend of mine, a former colleague at the Sierra Club, and an occasional reader of this blog. Hi Nat!