Structural Holes and Expertise

2 minute read


Structural Holes and Brokers

In my career, I have found myself at the intersection of intellectual fields. My undergraduate degree (Go Cougars!) is in English literature. My current work is at the intersection of sociology and computer science and organizational research and communications. My academic career is at the intersection of many different “structural holes”.

Structural Holes
The figure on the left is a network with structural holes and a broker (from Wikipedia)

Structural holes are areas in a social network where different groups have few connections between them. Ron Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, has shown that people who are at the intersection of otherwise disconnected groups–“brokers”– receive higher compensation and have better ideas (Burt, 2004).

This all sounds great (and I certainly hope that those outcomes accrue to me!) but I wanted to talk autobiographically about one downside of being an “interdisciplinary scholar”. And that is that I often feel like an idiot.

Ever a Fool

I am often exposed to scholars who are more firmly within a discipline – computer scientists developing social network analysis algorithms or organizational scholars developing theories of group interactions. They have a much deeper understanding than I about topics that I care about and use in my research. I often come away from these interactions feeling like a lazy academic and thinking things like, “How can I do work on groups and not have read Weber?” or “How can I do social network analysis when I don’t understand eigenvectors?”

And then I try to do those things. I sign up for classes and read more books. But I know that in the end, it is a losing battle. As long as I choose to remain an intersectionist I will never have the time to become a true expert in any of my subfields and will often feel the fool.

Maybe I’m just a bad structural hole broker. Perhaps the successful brokers are able to become true experts in a few disciplines. On the other hand, perhaps brokers are people who are willing to be a fool and to feel lost and that foolishness is actually the source of creativity and insight. I sure hope so!!

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