Social networks, the tertius iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation

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Citation: David Obstfeld (2005) Social networks, the tertius iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation. Administrative Science Quarterly (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.2307/30037177
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.2307/30037177
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.2307/30037177
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Social networks, the tertius iungens orientation, and involvement in innovation
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) business (RSS), management (RSS), social networks (RSS), brokerage (RSS)


Obstfeld's paper introduces the concept of the tertius iungens or "the third who joins." Obstfeld suggests that while most of the literature on social network and strategy suggests that sparse networks and structural holes are ideal strategic positions ofr the creation of new ideas and for information flows, that this may be paired with the fact that these same networks are poorly suited to action and resource mobilization. He introduces a new concept of the iungens which can use dense social networks to marshall resources necessary to carry out innovation within an organization.

The importance of brokerage is important from Simmel's (1908) The triad with the introduction of the concept of the tertius gaudens who acts as a brokers, plays individuals off each other, and benefits from a structural position in the middle. This basic suggestion was given explicit form in Burt's (1992) Structural holes: The social structure of competition. Iugens, on the other hand, has a behavioral orientation toward connecting people in one's social network by either introducing disconnected individuals or facilitating new coordination between connected individuals.

Obstfeld argues that a brokers can engage in four types of action:

  1. Coordinating acting between two distant parties with no prospect of connection.
  2. Actively maintaining and exploiting a separation.
  3. Introduce or further facilitate pre-existing ties (which he calls brief iugens).
  4. Introduce or facilitate interaction between parties while maintaining an essential coordinative role over time (which he calls sustained iugens).

Obstfeld suggests that gaudens may generate more new ideas but that iungens will be more likely to be able to assemble the resources associated with innovation as defined in a basic Schumpeterian sense.

Obstfeld offers 3 explicit hypotheses:

  • Hypothesis 1: The greater an individual's tertius iungens orientation, the greater his or her involvement in innovation. (Supported)
  • Hypothesis 2: The fewer the number of structural holes (i.e., the higher the desnsity) in an individuals social network, the greater his or her involvement in innovation. (Supported)
  • Hypothesis 3a: The greater an individual's technical knowledge in his or her areas of experience, the greater his or her involvement in innovation. (Mostly supported)
  • Hypothesis 3b: The greater an individual's social knowledge across all relevant functions, the greater his or her involvement in innovation. (Mostly supported)

Obstfeld assembled a dataset from a study of of employees involved in design of automobile within a division of a Detroit auto manufacturer of automobiles tasked with designing a new car. He sent a survey to all 440 professional employees within the 1,000 person division and received a 35% response rate for 152 responses. He also engaged in ethnography within the same firm.

Obstfeld identified 73 (reduced from 81) innovations involved in the design process. He asked people if they, alone or were others, were involved in the innovation and asked them how involved.

He measured tertius iugens orientation both through survey questions which asked people and with egocentric network data to establish the presence of structural holes.

The first and second hypotheses received support in ordered logistic regression models predicting involvement in innovation (as measured by the likert scale questions on the survey). The third hypotheses received support on 3 out of four measures.

The key finding suggests that a limit or a contingency on the brokerage research findings from Burt and others. The iungens strategy may not self-sacrificing because it may be associated with indirect benefits in terms of a positions that allows someone to become more involved in the resource allocation necessary to create innovations. Obstfeld suggests that these connections may be related to the repeated games findings about cooperation in game theory.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Obstfeld's article has been cited more than 250 times since it's publication 5 years ago. It is particularly influential in the literatures both on social networks and brokerage and on innovation.