A recent paper by Rebecca Sheehan and Jacqueline Vadjunec (Oklahoma State University) in Social and Cultural Geography (Volume 13, December 2012, pages 915-936 you will need an account to access the journal online) on communities in Oklahoma’s ‘No Man’s Land’ is a very good demonstration of how actor network theory can be used to analyse how communities are constructed and, importantly, how they behave under stress. Sheehan and Vadjunec note how residents work together on tasks such as branding in the spring, collecting necessities in towns that could be 30-150 miles away and travelling to hospital when a ranching or farming accident happens. This neighbourly behaviour and the relations it is based on underlies what they describe as a robust actor network of relations.
I was wondering if you could go further than this and suggest that the actor network is actually antifragile? The authors point out two examples that may back up this idea that the actor network actually gains strength from adversity. Medical expenses for individuals in the community were often covered by fundraisers or anonymous donations that were also made to cover funeral expenses. Likewise, these adverse events produced responses of kindness that ranged from phone calls of sympathy and understanding to practical help of meals and contributions to ranch work. In one case the death of a farmer at harvest time resulted in the unplanned, spontaneous reaction of several farmers turning up with their combines within 36 hours of his death to help the widow to collect the harvest.
Adverse, or what seem to be adverse events, activate relations in the actor network that produce behaviour that help individuals and seem to strengthen the sense of community and the actor network as a whole. It is only by the enactment of these relations in times of adversity however that this strengthening can occur.
If this argument is accepted then a whole battery of other issues arise that only the detailed analysis of actor networks in particular locations can answer. These actor networks need to be studied before during and after adverse events to analyse which relations are activated, how and if there is any pattern to these relations. Events are the only means by which relations can be identified and their role in strengthening the actor network understood. Similarly, it is through such detailed analysis that we can begin to map out the limits to such antifragile behaviour. The strengthening behaviour in this case seems to be an organic outgrowth from the underlying relations that define and bind the community. Eroding these relations will erode the ability of the community to define itself and to strengthen itself in the face of adverse events. Understanding the type of adverse events such actor networks can cope with, absorb the impacts of and gain strength from is also an important aspect that requires further research. Communities may be antifragile in the face of certain adverse events but be extremely fragile should the nature of the adverse event change. In the case of this community, if the adverse event is a general failure of all harvests then the capacity to respond and help other members of the network dissipates. If the encroachment of ‘new’ people into the area happens then this again may weaken the underlying relations that aid community definition, eroding the capacity to activate relations in crisis events and so gain strength from the community-based respond to a crisis event. Starting to map the contours of what an antifragile actor network looks like and the limits of antifragile behaviour could be an interesting area of research.