CLASS SUMMARY WEEK 1 OCTOBER 2, 1996




The focus on social theories and "relational" approaches to theory and data, understanding the sources of inspiration and stimulus or seeds of social network studies, are starting points of this course. A diversity of research methods (e.g., comparative historical, ethnographic, questionnaires, census, economic and business decisions), techniques of analysis, and scopes of study, is a strength of social network approaches.

We will try to look at studies of social networks both in the broader frameworks of sociological, anthropological and historical studies, and those in allied fields, such as political science, economics, and business or management. What is common to many of these approaches is a concern with the patterns of social ties between diverse elements of society, and the consequences for social transformation and stabilization forces.

Some theorists and sociologists have denied the need for examining of social ties and networks as an element of theory and conceptual understanding of social processes. Networks may be simply derivative of social roles and categories. Peter Blau argues that the extent to which networks cross-cut different groups and social categories is purely a function of the relative size of social aggregates and the extent of their tendencies to coincide as opposed to cross-cut or segregate one from another. If theories like Blau's were correct, we might not need to study social networks: the study of social categories would be sufficient.

Many social science researchers, so-called 'network researchers' included, have argued that patterns of social ties do exist and do have significant effects independent of the social categories of actors. In order to test their ideas, they have formulated a number of basic social science concepts -- centrality, role or position, cohesion/solidarity, divisiveness, consistency, restricted versus generalized exchange, et cetera -- in terms of formal definitions that allow the phenomena identified with these concepts to be defined in structural terms. Thus, the formal concepts of network centrality, structural equivalence, network holes, balance theories, and other formal concepts allow investigations of a wide variety of phenomena to include questions about social structure and structural effects. This opens the way for comparative and interdisciplinary questions to be addressed, with comparable concepts being researched in fields as diverse as psychological experiments on social exchange, business or market organization, and comparative historical studies, to name but a few.

Social networks as a distinctive interdisciplinary approach linking different fields of interest has greatly expanded over the past twenty years or so. Due to the emphasis on finer-grained analyses and capabilities to handle large amounts of empirical data, Social network approaches also contain a critical theoretical edge in challenging some of the "dominant" paradigms in social science. One the one hand, they offer a broader approach, for example, than the commitment to "methodological individualism" as an explanatory framework in some of the social science disciplines. On the other hand, it is not a contender among the so-called "master (historical) narratives" since there is no substantive "network theory" of society or attempt at grand unification. Network theory per se is of the formal (non-predictive) variety aimed at conceptual clarification as a prerequisite to comparative analysis.

The use of social network approaches, however, is especially effective in looking at the dynamics of social transformation forces, or the role or significance of different segments of societies in the unfolding of these processes, without commitment to a normative grand narrative. John Padgett's work (e.g., with Chris Ansell) on the rise of the peculiar role of the Medici family in the separation of functions of judge and boss is a prime example of the power of network perspectives to illuminate a critical juncture in the formation of the Renaissance state in Florence. Several quotes are illustrative:

"Medicean political control was produced by means of network disjunctures within the elite, which the Medici alone spanned."

"Medici's multivocal identity as sphinx harnessed the power available in these network holes and resolved the contradiction between judge and boss inherent in all organizations."

"Methodologically, we argue that to understand state formation one must penetrate beneath the veneer of formal institutions, groups, and goals down to the relational substrata of peoples' actual lives. Ambiguity and heterogeneity, not planning and self-interest, are the raw materials in which powerful states and persons are constructed."

Steven Berkowitz's study of exchanges among emergent Florentine family business organizations provides similar network insights into the development of modern economies, highlighting the emergence of "high velocity trade" transactions within a social network fabric.

Similarly, Charles Tilly and Peter Bearman have tried to bring new insights through studies of social movements, and their network approaches dispute dominant mainstream representations of power, status, mobility, stratification, etc. Such studies may help to reveal more about the configurations of social realities that have shaped modern societies.

The class in general seeks to ask these questions:

1. What is it that network perspectives and frameworks bring to the studies of particular phenomena in the world?

2. How can these approaches benefit other scholars and those in society at large?

3. What does the network paradigm espouse do that others do not?

In pursuit of the goals of science, i.e., systematic modes of study and the ability to use testable ideas, and the need for dialogues and sharing of techniques and data, those in the social sciences, especially sociology and anthropology, have sought to develop techniques and methods that allow clearer and more explicit, defined, modes of inquiry. Social network analysis is one of these areas of development.

We also intend to ask:

1. How are network studies able to generate more sensitive, unique measures that offer a substantial advantage over other techniques and perspectives-to make substantive contributions to studies of societies likely?

2. How can network studies help to capture and translate insights about the dynamic, micro and macro, aspects of social structures?

3. How does it help to mediate or tie together micro and macro levels of analysis ?

4. How is network studies significant to general and comparative studies of social structures in different societies?

5. How can network approaches provide a source of a productive dialogue between researchers in diverse realms of the social sciences?

6. How can we generate unique ways of depicting or rendering the social world, so as to bring a fresh perspective to research approaches?

7. How is this perspective suited to pursue fine grained studies of the inner workings of social structures?