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The social units of network analysis can be persons or small groups (micro level), organizations or fields (meso level), and larger entities such as institutions, cities, nations, or even the entire globe (macro level).
A convention of network theory is to use the term node to refer to a position, that is, a network location occupied by an actor (whether an individual, group, or organization). Actors in this sense are ”decision-making entities” that occupy positions (nodes) linked by relations (or ties; see Markovsky et al. 1988). Owing largely to the work of Linton Freeman (1979), one of the more important network concepts is centrality, namely, the extent to which an actor is centrally located within a network. Degree centrality is the number of direct links with other actors. Betweenness centrality is the extent to which an actor mediates, or falls between, any other two actors on the shortest path between those actors. In general, actors in central network positions have greater access to, and potential control over, valued resources. Actors who are able to control such resources are able to acquire power, largely as a result of increasing others’ dependence on them.
Perhaps the single most influential contribution to network theory is Mark Granovetter’s (1973) conceptual distinction between weak and strong ties. According to Granovetter, strong ties exist between persons who know one another very well (e.g., close friends and family members). Weak ties, on the other hand exist between persons who are merely acquaintances. Persons who are loosely associated may act as a bridge between clumps of densely tied friendship networks. These dense networks of strong ties would have no connections with other networks were it not for the occasional node weakly tied between them. Hence, in an ironic twist, Granovetter illustrates the strength of weak ties.
This idea has also been explored by Ronald Burt, with some modifications. Whereas the great majority of network analysis is concerned with the nature and strength of ties between nodes, Burt’s (1992) concept of structural holes turns attention toward the absence of ties. Because nodes in densely clustered networks tend to receive redundant information, some actors may seek to invest in connections to diverse others in order to receive novel information. These nodes must be disconnected from other nodes in order to ensure information is non-redundant. It is these disconnections between diverse others that are structural holes. For example, expertise in a particular field (such as the position of journal editor) allows gatekeepers to monopolize information and maintain structural holes. Similarly, ideas which are endorsed by more distant contacts (such as external reviewers) are more likely to be considered good or important than those endorsed by friends or other close acquaintances.
- Burt, R. S. (1992) Structural Holes. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Burt, R. S. (2004) Structural holes and good ideas. American Journal of Sociology 110 (2): 349-99.
- Granovetter, M. S. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78 (6): 1360-80.
- Markovsky, B., Willer, D., & Patton, T. (1988) Power relations in exchange networks. American Sociological Review 53: 220-36.