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Network realism is a theoretical framework for a collaborative effort to develop network models of social phenomena based on rigorous understanding of

  • social processes
    in relation to
  • human decision making,
  • information and environmental constraints, and
  • network structures that change through time as an outcome of past behavior.
    Network structures have a continuing effect on present and future behavior because they express the current momentum of behavior, norms, rules, and strategies in play at the present.

    Anthropological traditions in this approach trace back to E. A. Hoebel, Max Gluckman, and the Manchester school, and the effort to look at behavior and contexts of behavior and the interactions of difference components of culture to help understand differences between cultural practices, formal written laws and constitutions, and the variety idealized representations of culture that privilege a narrow range of perspectives. For Gluckman, this was a break from the psychofunctional theories of Malinowski in his later writings, and the idealized structure-functionalism of Radcliffe-Brown. Malinowski's fieldwork writings are closer to a realist and dynamical approach, however, as was Radcliffe-Brown's call for actual network studies.

    One of the early statements of how models could be combined and overlaid for social processes, optimization, the network composition of complex systems, and of the interaction between evolving or emerging structure was the subject of the chapter on Mathematical Anthropology published in 1974 by Douglas R. White, in the J.J. Honigmann edited Handbook of Social and Cultural Anthropology: 369-446. Chicago: Rand-McNally.

      Abstract. Mathematics shares with science the use of axiomatic reasoning. This sort of reasoning is crucial to the development of theory in that when consequences are proven mathematically to follow from a certain set of assumptions, this logic can be incorporated as a logico-deductive component of theory as contrasted to empirical tests of hypotheses. Stronger theories are often constructed by weakening the axiom sets to the point of greatest generality while still deriving theoretically important consequences. Four of six basic kinds of mathematical reasoning are developed and exemplified by applications to core anthropological problems. These four, treated in successive sections are: Processual Analysis; including probabilistic and deterministic models; Optimization Analysis, including decision and game theory; Structural Analysis, including graph theory and models of network optimization; and Ethnographic Decomposition, including natural information processing systems and abstract algebraic decomposition. Two major areas not treated here are Data Reduction via matrix analysis, including multidimentional scaling, and Measurement Theory, including quantification, statistics and probabilistic reasoning. The argument developed here shows how the four classes of mathematical reasoning that are examined, because they treat complementary kinds of problems, can be usefully combined in what might be called overlay models that treat, for example, social process, agency and choice, structural constraints, and the role of information in human behavior. The two areas that are omitted from consideration would apply to any and all of these for complementary types of models, simply because they are more generic.

    The most recent statement of network realism is given in Douglas R. White and Ulla C. Johansen's 2004 (paperback 2006) Network Analysis and Ethnographic Problems: Process Models of a Turkish Nomad Clan,, Boston: Lexington Press. Network analyst Alvin Wolfe states in his 2006 review in the International Journal of Middle East Studies that this is "what could be the most important book in anthropology in fifty years." It "begins with an introduction to network analysis in relation to ethnography, providing a succinct history of network thinking including very recent developments in various disciplines about network topology and dynamics." "In addition to its contribution to our understanding kinship theory in a quite new way, this book makes an outstanding contribution by reintroducing ethnographers to the network perspective." "The authors point out that 'taking a network path to coding and analysis' in ethnography leads to the ability to understand the emergence of social structural phenomena that would otherwise remain unobserved."

    In fact, the whole of the first two chapters and much of the rest of the book is concerned with showing, and indeed, testing hypotheses, through the approaches of network realism, that the fundamental processes of nomad life described by long-term ethnographer Ulla Johansen can be captured in a longitudinal network analysis of the effects of fractality in cohesion operating at many different levels in what is are scalable social principles and processes of segmentary organization. A succinct view of the scaling properties of a society organized by networks of trust reinforced by marital relinking and reciprocation among near and distant or even potential kin is given by Douglas R. White and Michael Houseman in their 2002 article in the journal Complexity 8(1):72-81 on "The Navigability of Strong Ties: Small Worlds, Tie Strength and Network Topology," These applications of network realist theory provide key insights into the self-scaling social organization of many of the societies of the Middle East based on processual principles that are not widely understood in European or American political or social sciences.

    White, Houseman and scores of European colleagues in anthropology and history are currently engaged in work under an Agence Nationale de la Recherche (French government) grant to study differences, from the complexity sciences viewpoint implicit in network realism, between the Euroamerican types of kinship and marriage system, in which families relink to form social classes, and other regions of the world, which bear very different hallmarks of complexity in their social processes.

    The so-called "Natchez Paradox" of anthropological textbooks in the 1960s was the subject of the earliest application of network realism to problems of interpreting social organization in ways that contrast strikingly to biases introduced from European and American perspectives on indigenous kinship and social organization. This application, with Murdock and Scaglion as collaborators, built directly on White's methods of process modeling and network analytic models. The "paradox" rested on John Swanton's interpretation of the kinship system of the Natchez people in the historical period. His description of Natchez social organization made it seem illogical, because here was a ruling monarchy with a Sun King and royal lineage, one that had once ruled a larger area, that appeared to be locked into a set of illogical marriage rules. It is well documented that members of the Sun ruling lineage did intermarry only with commoners, but according to Swanton, the honorifics of descent in any degree of remoteness from the royal line would eventually convert everyone to nobility. C. M. W. Hart (1943) pointed out the "problematic nature of this arrangement in that eventually" the commoner population "would shrink to extinction since the marriage of [commoners] to aristocrats would slowly drain the [commoner] population beyond repair.Hart includes tables with this portion of his argument demonstrating the mathematics behind his claim.Based on this discovery, Hart suggests that the French must have missed details of the system. French texts all indicate that the [commoner] population formed the largest class in Natchez society, and always would be in the majority" (AA abstract for Hart 1943). Later commentators purported to "solve" what they took instead to be an actual demographic quandry of "The Natchez Paradox" in ways that denied Hart's view that the French must have missed details of the system. White et al. found ample evidence that Swanton's description was incorrect, that there were French observers who left sources that did correctly describe the kinship system of the royalty, and that there was in fact no "paradox," no demographic quandry, and no illogic to Natchez social organization or their elites.

      1971 Douglas R. White, George P. Murdock, Richard Scaglion, Natchez Class and Rank Reconsidered Ethnology 10:369- 388.

      This 1971 reconstruction of how individuals were actually linked historically in the social networks of the Natchez people provides a classic example of how processual and network modeling can reveal and clarify the study of social structure. The famous "Natchez Paradox" was discussed in virtually every introductory Anthropology text up to the publication of this article. See current accounts of the historical Natchez and the bibliography on the Natchez. Descendants of the Natchez today are recognized among the Southeastern American Indian groups and among mixed descendants of English colonists. Among these descendants, in turn, are today's recognized Natchez political leaders. Perhaps only the Encyclopedia Britannica is still remiss in describing Natchez social structure as a four-class system, as in Swanton's reconstruction of 1911. Swanton's reconstruction, however, implied a self-immolating social structure characterized by the Natchez Paradox as explicated in the abstract below. Only traces of this Paradox, compounded from several sources of ethnographic misunderstandings, are alive in urban legend and on the WWW today, such as Bennet's memory of discussions by Adam Przeworski (2004). The abstract that follows, simply because Ethnology publishes articles without abstracts, was written only in 2005.

    Abstract Textual analysis, comparative distributional evidence, and prosopographic network methods are used here to solve the Natchez Paradox first posed by C. M. W. Hart in 1943, expressed in mathematical form by Samuel Goldberg in 1958 and summarized, in terms of analytical dilemmas, inconsistencies, and possible 'solutions,' by Jeffrey Brain in 1971. The Natchez Paradox emerged from an ethnographer's reconstruction of four Natchez social classes, three of which -- Sun rulers, Nobles, and Honoreds, as opposed to Commoners -- had been assumed by the historical ethnographer, John Swanton, to be ranked exogamous matri-descent groups. While all nobility married commoners, the children of males would be expected to belong to their mother's group. Swanton concluded from his reading of the contemporaneous historical texts of the 18th century French colonists that the children of men in the Sun, Noble, and Honored classes did not revert to commoner status but only to one level lower in the social hierarchy. The paradox shown by Hart and demonstrated even more strongly by Goldberg in his mathematical model is that given equal reproductive rates of marriages of different types over successive generations, combined with Swanton's hypothetical social rules, the Sun lineage would constitute a stable proportion of the population, the Noble lineages would increase their proportion in each generation, and the Honored lineages would increase proportionally to the proportion in the Noble lineages, thus obliterating the commoner class in relatively few generations.

    What we find in our prosopographic counting of individuals mentioned by name in the historically contemporaneous French texts is that the only persons with Honored status who were mentioned in these texts were men, and consequently, without Honored women, there were no Honored lineages and no Honored class. The textual sources are clear that Honored status was a social rank for men, so that Honored matrilines (and their female members) were clearly an invention of Swanton, possibly because he did not base his analysis on mentions of individuals in the French texts, which are numerous, but only on presumed categories. The other probable mistake in inference derives from the fact that while French words in the singular indicate gender, the plural term 'les Honores' applies equally to men in the plural and to both genders in the plural. Swanton overgeneralized, in our view, in drawing the inference that there existed a social class of Honoreds that contained both men and women. Women with that status simply did not exist. Honored, we show, was a term only for male rank, not a designation for social class or for a set of distinct matrilineages.

    The Natchez Paradox also arose from Swanton's erroneous rejection of a contemporaneous account given in one of the documents written by French colonists that delineated a consistent system of devolution of noble rank that depended on distance from the Royal line. By this firsthand account from someone conversant with the nobility, the children of Sun men (the royal lineage) devolved to Noble status for both men and women, but Noble status in the female line of descendants of these women devolved, after three generations, to Commoner status for women but for men to Honored rank. It was only the sons of men of Honored rank, in this account, who became commoners. Commoners, however, could also achieve Honored status by fame through their exploits in war. Part of the reason Swanton disputed this French account of Natchez nobility was because of the asymmetry of rank assigned to children of Noble men: even if such a man was a matrilineal greatgrandchild of a ruler, his sons were Honored while his daughters were Commoners. Such asymmetries, which Swanton mistakenly thought of as matters of asymmetric descent rather than of rank, seemed unlikely to Swanton. As described in one of Swanton's own publications, however, our distributional analysis of cases in the neighboring region identifies the neighboring Caddo as having asymmetric gender status of precisely the Natchez type. The Caddo and Natchez had long engaged in trade, so this asymmetric assignment of status need not be disregarded as a valid ethnographic feature of the Natchez status system. The Natchez paradox, then, was apparently the result of various compounded errors, including Swanton's assumptions about symmetries in rules of descent as concerns sons and daughters. Swanton did not differentiate clearly the different elements of rank, class, and lineage as they operated in Natchez society.

    We regard these multiple sources of evidence as providing a definitive alternative description of Natchez social structure than that proposed by Swanton in this reconstruction of 1911, roughly 180 years after the dispersal of the Natchez as a distinct and integral society. This was a complex society with an hereditary aristocracy and complex rules for the devolution of status and rank. Swanton recognized only certain aspects of this complexity. When it came to Natchez principles of devolution of rank in the Royal and noble matrilines, many of which are common to royal lines, Swanton was unwilling to recognize the similarity to those found in other monarchical polities. The Natchez Paradox re-emerges, then, as an example of the use of network and mathematical models both as a check on ethnographic interpretations in the reading of historical texts and as pointing the way to better solutions in the rereading of textual data. Textual data can easily be misinterpreted. In the present case Swanton evidently overrelied on categorical inferences that fit his prior assumptions. Errors of this sort can easily overtake even the best of ethnographers, a category into which Swanton, in his extensive published works and his many ethnohistorical and ethnographic contributions, has long occupied a place. It is a credit to the Natchez historical corpus, on which Swanton relied, that some of his errors of inference can be corrected based on a reexamination of the textual evidence.

    The appendix of the Natchez study provides a network and genealogical analysis of the 20 prosopographic mentions of Sun royalty and how ranking within the royal lineage related to the center-periphery occupation of political posts in the Kingdom. It is also shown how the center-periphery structure of the ruling lineage exacerbated internal political divisions in the war with the French, and the exodus of one branch of the Natchez population to merge with Southeastern groups and towns such as those of the Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee.


    It is in a new revision of his 1992 book, Identity and Control (Princeton University Press), that Harrison White introduces the term network realism in his heading for breakthroughs in a new paradigm present in the separate bodies work of Immanuel Lazega and five articles coauthored by Douglas R. White. These five articles are
  • White and Houseman 2001, reviewed above, and
  • Brudner and White 1997,
  • Moody and White 2003,
  • Powell, White, Koput, and Owen-Smith 2006,
  • Houseman and White 1998.
    Full-text pdf copies of these articles may be found at Articles in PDF - Douglas R. White