A social network perspective highlights the interdependence among social actors
Social networks are structures of relationships linking social actors and are omnipresent in contemporary society. People often obtain information about such things as job opportunities, housing, and medical care through interpersonal contacts rather than from formal sources such as the mass media. Networks provide emotional support in times of crisis as well as instrumental aid such as help with household tasks. Identities are constituted by locations in networks; opinions are formed and decisions are made in light of information and conformity pressures that flow through network linkages. Also, social networks are important channels through which both infectious diseases and innovations are diffused.
Ties among individuals in social networks give rise to important larger-scale social patterns. Levels of socioeconomic or ethno religious segregation in a society, for example, reflect the degree to which social ties such as marriage and friendship are confined to sets of persons with a common social status or heritage. Such characteristics become salient as markers of differentiation to the degree that they serve as bases for the formation of intimate social relationships. Networks that link individuals to supra individual units such as work organizations and voluntary associations may serve as modes of integration or separation. Thus, the study of networks contributes to the linking of micro and macro levels of analysis in sociology.
Many macro-level social phenomena can be understood as networks. Increasingly, systems of production for goods (such as automobiles) and services (such as care for the severely mentally ill) are located in multi organizational fields consisting of separate but interdependent units linked by contingent cooperation rather than in self-contained units administered through elaborate formalized sets of rules. Innovations in corporate strategy and governance diffuse through overlapping boards of directors and other inter organizational structures. Patterns of consensus and cleavage in community and national politics are shaped by alliances and conflicts in networks of governmental agencies, interest groups, and party organizations.
In international relations, network ties among nation-states and international organizations define geopolitical alignments. Emphasis on social networks grew as a result of substantive observations about contemporary society. Many early twentieth-century observers posited that large-scale transformations associated with industrialization—especially urbanization, bureaucratization, and the development of mass media— led to a ‘mass society’ of atomized individuals in which formal, special-purpose ties supplanted diffuse interpersonal relations.
Several lines of research, however, pointed to the continuing vitality of social ties. Industrial sociologists found that informal structures were crucial to the day-to-day functioning of work organization. Indeed, workplace social networks came to be seen as a solution to the inflexibility and excess formalization of bureaucracies and as important incentives for (or impediments to) the performance of individual employees. Urban sociologists found that friendship, neighboring, and informal assistance remained prominent in large cities, although technological innovations in transportation and communication reduced the extent to which the formation and maintenance of those social ties were constrained by spatial considerations.
Rural-to-urban and international migrants were not rootless citizens in a norm less society but tended to settle in districts populated by persons from their places of origin. In contrast to the expectations of theories predicting protest and activism among those marginal and peripheral to society, researchers found that those active in social movements tended to be drawn from among the persons best integrated into communities, and social ties proved to be important channels through which new members were recruited to social movements.
A social network perspective highlights the interdependence among social actors. This extends beyond the competitive interdependence of actors competing for shares of a stock of scarce resources to encompass obligations and commitments that accumulate as a result of past social interaction. Individual action is embedded in, and therefore continually affected by, preexisting ties between specific actors. In some theories, individuals are viewed as largely passive recipients of environmental pressure; in this structural emphasis, social networks constitute constraints that limit an actor’s discretion. An alternative view makes more room for individual agency, viewing networks as structures of opportunity or social resources. Assuming a context of constrained voluntarism, it treats individuals as proactive, self-interested agents who use networks to manipulate outcomes to their advantage.
Social scientists have used the term ‘social network’ metaphorically for some time. Beginning in the 1970s, however, scholarly attention to the analytic development of the social network approach increased. It is now seen as a distinct specialty within several social science disciplines, especially sociology and anthropology, and has many adherents in professional schools, particularly those of business administration and public health. Mathematicians and statisticians have participated in this work, especially the development of novel techniques for studying relations between interdependent social units. These methods are distinct from the conventional ones used to study relations between variables within presumably autonomous units. The theoretical assumptions of formal network models are often implicit and a distinct ‘network theory’ has not developed. Contemporary studies of social networks instead draw on diverse sociological and social psychological theories.
Different varieties of network theory make contrasting observations about network density. Density can integrate an actor into a subculture, provide a well-defined social identity, create and enforce norms, and promote the production of collective goods it simultaneously may subject one to conformity pressures and limit the diversity of one’s affiliations. Reconciling these seemingly conflicting effects of density represents a challenge in the contemporary study of networks. Understanding the manner in which networks channel and block transactions among the elements of society will remain a crucial and intriguing task for twenty-first-century sociology.