Informal knowledge exchanges under complex social relations: A network study of handloom clusters in Kerala, India

Robin Cowan & Anant Kamath


When agents use informal interaction to exchange knowledge, their production relations may develop as emergent properties of their social relations and may exhibit homophily. The Saliyar community cluster in India is an archetype of this. This cluster's experience is investigated on how its thickly homophilous networks have steered it from dominance to decline, in the market for a product which calls for constant improvement of know-how, under unchanging production technology. A network analysis of the Saliyars community cluster - in comparison with the networks of the communities in a cluster of a similar population at Payattuvila, which has surged ahead of the Saliyar Cluster in performance in handloom weaving - provides evidence that it is not simply social embeddedness alone, but the homophily in socially embedded links that are detrimental to clusters dependent upon informal knowledge exchanges. Hence, we provide evidence that social embeddedness is not as detrimental unless combined with homophily. The conceptual ambit of embeddedness has to broaden out to recognize that social relations come in various 'homophilies'. This has many policy implications too as it involves studying embeddedness and homophily in rural traditional technology clusters intensively involving community social capital; such clusters being ubiquitous in India and whose experiences have not been scrutinized in this perspective.

Keywords: Clusters, Handloom, Networks, Social Embeddedness, Homophily, Kerala

JEL codes: O33, Z13