Discussion from Socnet on Organizing and Networks

Here is Blyden Potts’ response to a socnet query bout who first started refering to organizations as networks…

It seems to me that asking the question the way your friend does
misunderstands the nature of the issue.
Social organization means patterns of social relations, and any pattern of
social relations is — or at least can be understood as — a social network.
Social networks are not a “fundamental form” of social organization, they
are a way of conceptualizing any and all social organization.

If your friend’s desire is to argue that people are organized in social
networks no reference to any literature would seem to be needed. It is
essentially tautological to say that people are organized in social
networks, a bit like saying the weather is organized meteorologically, and
if it really needs to be demonstrated then why not ground it directly in
empirical examples? The “new era” discovery of social network research was
not finding a new way in which people were organized. It was in finding a
new way to conceptualize and analyze whatever ways people are organized.

I think your friend would do well to reframe his approach from understanding
social networks as a type of organization, which it is not, to understand
social networks as a way of thinking about social organization, which it is.

And I would think Barnes would be a good example of an early work that lays
the foundation for the network way of thinking about social relations:

“Each person is, as it were, in touch with a number of other people, some of
whom are directly in touch with each other and some of whom are not…. I
find it convenient to talk of a social field of this kind as a network.* The
image I have is of a set of points some of which are joined by lines. The
points of the image are people, or sometimes groups, and the lines indicate
which people interact with each other. We can of course think of the whole
of social life as generating a network of this kind. For our present
purposes, however, I want to consider, roughly speaking, that part of the
total network that is left behind when we remove the groupings and chains of
interaction which belong strictly to the territorial and industrial systems.
… what is left is largely, though not exclusively, a network of ties of
kinship, friendship, and neighborhood. This network runs across the whole of
society and does not stop at the parish boundary.”  (p.43)

*Barnes’ footnote for “network” makes clear he is talking about an “image”
and “convention” for depicting social relations, not some particular KIND of
social relation.

Blyden Potts

Its a great quotation to have of Barnes.

I thought Simmel did some early conceptual framing… but i never got around to reading Simmel.  :<)

Barry Wellman’s original query:


A friend just asked me what is the Original article stating that people
are organized in social networks as a fundamental form.

What would you say would be the original canonical article or work?
I’m leaning to J.A. Barnes, but any other thoughts.

Barnes, J.A. 1954. “Class and Committees in a Norwegian Island Parish.”
Human Relations 7:39-58.

Barry Wellman

I think Blyden may have misread the question.  But understandably so.  Lots of people (me included) talk about a network form of organization.  The ontology of the network form probably does need to be examined more carefully.  I agree that network is a way to describe what people are already doing, and so the study of bureaucracy or hierarchy is simply one set of relationships.   At the same time,  there does seem to be a rise in various forms of formal organizations with porous  and shifting boundaries and much less hierarchy.  These are also network organizations.

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Filed under economic sociology, Networks, Scholars, Social Networks, social theory

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