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The idea of social networks is prevalent in everyday vernacular language, ranging from the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” where players identify how any one actor is linked to the actor Kevin Bacon through no more than six different people, to the way in which people ”network” with one another as an avenue through which they gain social capital, to how we describe our computers’ ability to talk” with other computers. The idea of social networks has an equally wide range of applications in sociology, from formal network theory to social network data analysis. The historical development of the sociological use of the idea of social networks originates with Durkheim and Simmel, and its breadth of use is reflected in contemporary theoretical and methodological developments and applications. In its different uses, from the vernacular to its historical development to its current developments, social network theory refers to the ways in which people are connected to one another and how these connections create and define human society on all levels: the individual, the group, and the institutional.
The historical development of social networks as a sociologically important idea is represented by two main stages: its origins in the sociological work of Durkheim and Simmel, and its early development in the areas of social psychology. While Durkheim does not use the phrase social networks, it is obvious from his writings about religion, suicide, and the division of labor that he focused on how changes in the social world, such as those brought about by industrialization and capitalism, affected the connections between people. More to the point, he aptly illustrated how connections between people serve as the basis for human society. For example, in describing the shift from mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity he focused on several criteria, including the quality and quantity of individuals’ connections to one another, as expressed by the idea of dynamic density, and by the level of the division of labor.
Simmel’s work can generally be described as examining different aspects of individual lives and individuals’ interactions. Similarly to Durkheim, while Simmel never directly used the phrase social networks, his writings focused on how interactions were affected by the way in which people are connected to one another in terms of an individual’s social status, as well as the dynamics that occur as different people engage in interactions with one another. For example, in discussing how group size affected interactions, Simmel examined the qualitative change that occurs in interactions when the dyad becomes a triad. In the dyad, actors are connected by their total interdependence, while in a triad it is possible for a coalition to develop between two of the three actors. Simmel’s focus on the different variables that affect our connections to one another is evident in a wide range of his discussions, from exchanges as a form of interactions, to group development, through a series of interactions among people, to the social characteristics (such as whether a person is a stranger) that affect the creation of connections between people.
The second stage in the historical development of social networks as a sociological idea occurs in the early work of sociologists specializing in social psychology. For example, George Homans highlighted the basic principles of exchange theory, which focused on how connections between people were based on the need for exchanges to occur to fulfill each actor’s needs. Peter Blau and Richard Emerson and his colleagues further developed Homans’s ideas by explicating the conditions under which exchanges proceed (for the former) and how such exchanges might then create collective action between actors through different types of exchange networks (the latter). While Emerson was the only early social psychologist explicitly using the phrase social networks, it is evident from the work of Homans and Blau that their underlying themes examined the creation and maintenance of connections between people. These themes, and the phrase social networks, are developed further by contemporary theorists and empirical research applications.
Cook and colleagues (1993), among others, extended Emerson’s original formulation of exchange theory to examine issues such as the distribution of power in social exchange networks, how bargaining in social networks is affected by power distribution, commitment formation, and coalition formations. Each of these theoretical extensions of Emerson and Blau’s work focuses on some aspect of social networks in terms of how connections between actors then affect further interactions and exchanges. Willer and colleagues (2002) developed network exchange theory (NET) to focus on exchange structures and power relations. NET provides explicit predictions about exchanges that may occur based on factors such as whether or not social networks are exclusively connected, the level of hierarchy and mobility that exists in any particular social network, and the order in which exchanges occur. These factors then allow Willer and colleagues to explore how collective action develops among actors in a social network.
Network theory is a broader term that represents theoretical developments in all areas of sociology by focusing on the key idea of actors and how they are connected, whereby actors can be individuals or groups or social institutions. In other words, network theory allows us to examine the objective pattern of interactions represented by how actors are connected to one another. By examining how actors are connected to one another, sociologists gain insight into the structure of social interactions on the individual level as well as the structure of groups and institutions. For example, Granovetter (1973) used social networks to explain the importance of weak ties among people and how these types of ties affected exchanges. His work served as the basis for further work in economic sociology, such as explaining organizational survival in particular economic environments.
- Cook, K. S., Molm, L. D., & Yamagishi, T. (1993) Exchange relations and exchange networks: recent developments in social exchange theory. In: Berger, J. & Zelditch, M., Jr. (eds.), Theoretical Research Programs: Studies in the Growth ofTheory. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, pp. 296-322.
- Granovetter, M. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 91: 481-510.
- Willer, D., Walker, H. A., Markovsky, B., Willer, R., Lovaglia, M., Thye, S., & Simpson, B. (2002) Network exchange theory. In: Berger, J. & Zelditch, M., Jr. (eds.), New Directions in Contemporary Sociological Theory. Rowman & Littlefield, New York, pp. 109-43.