Personal Networks

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In this article I explore the idea of the personal network, first suggested, as far as I know, by Tim Heald in his book, Networks (1983). It is an idea which offers us the possibilty of understanding the totality of an individual's social relationships over time. In the present context, the term social relationships refers to friendships and other social contacts but excludes family and sexual relationships.

This exploration is part of my reaction to the claim made earlier this year that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein both had autism, one of the diagnostic features being that they had difficulty in social relationships [1]. Such a claim I find extremely hard to swallow. I believe that it is based on the altogether unwarranted assumption that the relationships of today's consumerist professional middle class are the basis for judging all human relationships, the touchstone of universal human normality.

Personal Private Networks

Heald actually proposed the term Personal Private Network (PPN) and used it mainly to explain upper class male networking of the period, as in the Old Boy Network (OBN). His crucial insight was to see that the OBN was made up of the interlocking personal networks of individual members of the upper class, that to understand how the OBN worked, you had to understand how the PPNs worked.

Family and Education

According to Heald, the bases of an upper class invidual's PPN are family and education. Firstly, your family relationships give you the nucleus of your PPN and a good family name is a recommendation to the kind of people you want to get to know. Secondly, you need to have been at a top public school, followed by Oxford or Cambridge.

It is at your Oxford or Cambridge college that you actually started developing your PPN, using the name you create there to build on the background of your family name and that of your top public school.

After that, it's a matter of making the most of your opportunities to connect with the right people.


Heald offers two general considerations regarding upper class networking. Firstly, upper class relationships are always entered into with a mixture of motives: friendships involve both profit and pleasure. Secondly, all this is second nature to the upper class: the calculation as to whether a person is worth cultivating and the ease with which cultivation takes place are reflexes attributable to upbringing and education.

Dining Clubs

Characteristic of upper class networking is the dining club, an institution particularly popular at Oxford and Cambridge. Dining clubs involve a group of upper class individuals getting together regularly for an expensive private dinner with heavy drinking. Presumably, these events provide members with the opportunity to display their conviviality, wit, connoisseurship and financial status.

Heald makes it clear that here, as in upper class life generally, business is always, but always, on the agenda: obviously, along with their eating and drinking, dining club members must inevitably discuss matters of mutual concern and advantage, pass on snippets of privileged information etc.


Heald indicates in passing that most people need a PPN to help them on their way because few have what he calls irresistible talent. We might question that: surely you have to make yourself known in the right circles, however talented you are.

What's more, we need to recognise the converse, that even with networking some greater or lesser measure of talent is needed for success. After all, not everybody with an impeccable upper class background is going to succeed. Thus, you need talent to make your initial mark at Oxford or Cambridge, otherwise you may simply become a Bertie Wooster, with a PPN of other Drones.

The power of the insights suggested by Heald becomes clear when we apply them to the understanding the life story of an upper class individual. I shall be doing that later.

Heald Generalised

But I think it important first to point out that Heald's insights may be generalised so as to apply not only to upper class relationships, but to those of people at every level of society. In fact, Heald recognised this himself, to the extent that he pointed to the existence of lower class networking as in an Old Lag Network of ex-convicts and suggested that redundant executives should network in order to restore their fortunes.

First of all, let's make the obvious point that people at every level of society have a PPN of sorts, a web of friendships and contacts. However, this phenomenon has never been studied systematically for any level of British society. [2]

Secondly, once we focus on the PPNs of people not in the upper class, it becomes obvious that they too are based on family and education. For all of us when we start out in life, the friendships and contacts we are capable of making initially are largely determined by our background.

Thirdly, some element of reflex calculation is involved in the construction of PPNs generally, not just those of the upper class. However, the lower down the social scale we are, the less we can choose our friends and contacts. There is likewise less career or similar advantage to be gained from them.

Clearly, while dining clubs are an exclusively upper class phenomenon, there are institutions for PPN building and maintenance lower down in society. Thus Heald examines Rotary Clubs, which he labels as booster groups. We may suppose that socialising of this sort always involves drinking and, one way or another, conspicuous expense such as that which dining club members lavish on their meals.

We are now ready to demonstrate the power of the idea of the personal network when applied to the life story of a particular upper class individual. In the second part of this article, I take the most famous British instance of all, Winston Churchill.


1 Social Relationships

Earlier this year, the BBC reported that it was being claimed by some British researchers that both Newton and Einstein had autism. More precisely, it was being argued that they had Asperger's syndrome. The BBC report was based on one in the New Scientist. The latter indicates that Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychologist, and Ioan James, an Oxford mathematician, looked for

three key symptoms of Asperger syndrome: obsessive interests, difficulty in social relationships, and problems communicating.

The BBC wording is

sometimes lack social skills, are obsessed with complex topics and can have problems communicating.

By social relationships, Baron-Cohen and James probably meant every kind of interpersonal relationship. As indicated, in this article the term excludes family and sexual relationships. [Back to Article]

2 No Research into Personal Networks

Heald mentions only Young and Willmott: Family and Kinship in East London (1957), for working class family networks, and has nothing for networks outside the family at any level of society. It seems very unlikely that anything has been produced since the early 1980s, when Heald was writing, given the collapse of sociology and anthropology around that time. [Back to Article]

(c) John Durham, 2003