Discussion of readings:

(1) Emirbayer, Mustafa and Jeff Goodwin: "Social network analysis, Culture, and the Problem of Agency", American Journal of Sociology 1994, Vol. 99: 1411-54.

The discussion concentrated on two points: (a) the history of social network analysis and (b) the question of the existence of a "theory" of social network analysis as opposed to the descriptive character of many network studies.


The content of the article by Emirbayer and Goodwin is a review of the development of the field of social network analysis until today. Therefore during the discussion the seminar's participants summarized the history covered in the text and evaluated the contributions for the advancement of social network analysis of the research work mentioned in the article.

One important statement of the article is: "social network analysis is not a formal or unitary 'theory' but rather a broad strategy for investigating social structure" (p. 1414). There can't possibly be a single theory, because network types vary and show up in multiple ways. The variety of networks can't be covered by one unitary model. Researchers in the field of social network analysis face the special and difficult task to build a theory which is and remains open. (because networks are exposed to continuous change).

The development of social network analysis was a dialectic process. Scholars from different fields contributed to the establishment of the field of social network analysis. In the beginning social scientist from the Chicago school as well as the British social anthropology explored basic questions like "How do groups form?" "How are norms formed?" They were followed by mathematical formalists who focused on measurements of structural equivalence and on adaptation of graph theory for the study and visualization of social networks.

In order to understand the history of social network analysis it is necessary to recognize the sequence of developments in the approaches to study linkages between entities and individuals. First was the behavioral approach - to study how people behave vis-a-vis each other is a way to trace what people actually did (see work by Lin Freeman, Kim Romney and others). The notion of concepts and motivations which influence the formation and shape of social networks was the second step - researchers explored how people perceived their positions (see Krackhardt and others).

In the 70's the main concern of the field was: "How to bring our concepts of structure to a level where structural effects can be studied in different contexts?" This led to the study of positions, relations, groups and subgroups. Contributors to this advancement were Francois Lorrain, Harrison White, Scott Boorman and Ronald Breiger, followed later by Lin Freeman. At the same time researchers explored descriptive and theoretical questions as well as questions of measurement.

In the 80's scholars, having developed measures of structures and tested them with new and existing data, were confronted with the question "What is reliable data?" and the search for the validity of empirical results. Many researchers realized the existence of a problem during data collection on behavior patterns: data from interviews provide the fieldworker only with personal cognitive responses of interviewees on an action. Their content might differ from the actual behavior. The recognition of the fact that cognition is biased was followed by improvements of research design and comparative studies which tested the relation between behavior and cognition.

Most recently social scientist working within the social networks framework have been exploring questions on "How to visualize, operationalize, and measure new types of social variables?", and "How to capture the dynamics of social networks formation over time?" Another recent development is the influence of attributional approaches on network studies (see Harrison White's recent work on interaction at the market level). Even though one of the initial characteristics of the social networks framework was to focus on relations instead of categories and attributes for explanations of social structure the reconsideration of attributional explanations advances the study of social networks. Additional attributional analysis of actors involved in a network facilitates a more holistic understanding of the network formation processes (especially in terms of group identity and agency).


During the course of its development as a field and until today social network analysis was and is subject to many critical comments on the merits of the new framework. But the criticism that most studies using social network analysis are merely descriptive and fail to build a theory isn't well grounded. Certainly the field of social network analysis is known for the production of descriptive studies, but these descriptions are based on theoretical questions and assumptions which influence the researcher's approach to obtain data in the first place.

A lot of anthropological "descriptive" work (case studies based on empirical research) deals actually with process. Social network analysis can serve as a tool to mirror processes which take place over time. Its capable of giving a process description of how change operates, and how forces which cause certain effects work/worked (see for example research done by F. Barth). It is a common phenomenon that studies which establish a new paradigm (social network analysis) are followed by studies which use this paradigm and therefore turn out more descriptive in nature. Knowing what to describe is already a way of implementing theory.

The tendency to deny the existence of theory in work based on the presentation of fieldwork findings is unfortunately quite common. A one time "phenomenologists" or "interpretivists" were considered an "outgroup" to the field of social network studies because they didn't use formal analysis in spite of the fact that these researchers have actually studied networks but with a different set of tools. The borders between "theory" (or theoretical studies) and "descriptive studies" are a bit "made up," and vary with changing paradigms of what we take for granted as description versus what is new (or paradigm-breaking) as theory. 

(2) Brym, Robert: "Structural location and ideological divergence: Jewish Marxist intellectuals in turn-of -the-century Russia" in: Wellmann, Barry and Stephen Berkowitz: Social Structures: A Network Approach Cambridge 1988: pp. 359-379.

The main contribution of Brym's article is his approach to the explanation of the participation of middle-class intellectuals in left-wing social movements. By using the social networks framework he provides readers with a different form of interpretation of the various forces in Russian society at the turn-of-the century.

[ Roughly speaking, Brym's article introduces the historical development of the Jewish community in Russia and the participation of some university educated Jews as well as those from entrepreneurial families in the revolutionary movement (Bolshevik, Menshevik, Bundists) as opposed to the Zionist movement. Once Jews became members of the former political groups they opposed mainstream values of the Jewish community. He explains membership with the Bolsheviks (followed by Menscheviks and Bundists) as based on the weaker involvements of individuals with the mainstream Jewish community (due to different educational background: university) and lack of strong ties to the Russian society as well. Isolation created an opening for action or different orientation and a strong affilation with the Bolsheviks. ]

Instead of arguing about the social rootlessness of intellectuals (conventional wisdom locates Jews "on the margin of two cultures and two societies" during the early stages of capitalist development) he explores the social rootedness of intellectuals. He votes for research which emphasizes intellectuals' embeddedness, their shifting social ties to changing social groups and the structures among group members as well as their evolving careers. By studying the social locations of people his research is able to show how social positions of intellectuals determine their ideas.

The seminar's participants came to the conclusion that Brym apparently didn't use the whole range of network tools but his analysis was driven by the network conception. An outstanding achievement of his research on political participation is the development of a multilevel model (4 levels) of actor's degree of embeddedness with society during the events in Russia at the turn of the century: - embeddedness in the Jewish community - embeddedness in the class structure of the Russian communities/ mainstream society (led to secular education and to an identity of thinking of oneself more Russian than Jewish) - degree of disconnection between the parties (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Bundists, Zionists) and the mainstream society - ties to the working class and people in the country side

An interesting question to pursue in the future is: "what are the necessary properties of political parties for their "success" during the course of a revolution?" in general and "why did the Bolsheviks of all political groups end up in the leading position?" in particular.