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Social networks and perceptions of power in the Mekong

Leong Ching
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore; ching@nus.edu.sg

ABSTRACT: Among researchers of the Mekong, there has been a call to incorporate local perceptions into governance regimes, both on social justice grounds as well as to improve policymaking; few studies, however, show how this can be done. This paper suggests a framework which combines quantitative mapping of local narratives onto social networks in order to enable us to understand how networks impact the public narratives which travel along them. We focus on a resettlement community at the Lower Sesan 2 Dam; we use social network analysis (SNA) to investigate relationship flows and Q-methodology to study the impact of the relevant narratives. Intriguingly, SNA shows that villagers perceive themselves to be highly influential in decision-making, whereas local leaders consider villagers to have little or no influence. While SNA classifies networks or groups into those which support dam construction and those which resist it, Q-methodology uncovers eight discourse factors which are far more complex; these include access to economic gains from hydropower development, coping costs from transitions, and non-economic costs such as cultural loss. This complex – and in some ways contradictory – narrative may explain the paradoxical perceptions of power observed between villages and local leaders. Overall, this framework allows policymakers to better understand complex public narratives as well as how and why narratives impact policy implementation.

KEYWORDS: Local perceptions, narratives, social network analysis, water governance, Mekong