Posts Tagged ‘class assignments’

If You Want to Test a Man’s Character, give him power–Abraham Lincoln.

This week’s readings made me realize a basic fact of the study of social networks, it’s all about power: access to it, maintaining it, struggling to get it and gatekeeping newcomers to the power circle.

In the beginning, there was Grannovetter’s Strength of Weak Ties (1973). He said that the social network ties that joined people are strong or weak. Strong ties form a dense network. Ron Burt would say these networks are full of redundant information because if A has strong ties to B and C it is likely that B and C share a tie as well; the information would just roll around those three actors. He went on to describe a situation where A might also have a tie to Z who isn’t connected to B or C and is situated within their own network. Granovetter called this a weak tie and likened it  to a bridge. Whereas a cluster of strong ties share similar information among their network, the weak tie serves as a conduit for information and innovation that might be otherwise unavailable. He illustrates this point by demonstrating that political power of community groups attempting to preserve their neighborhood. While networks of strong ties imply high levels of trust, weak ties carry a level of trust which is earned over time by the sharing of timely and helpful information (Burt 1993). It is the networks that had weak ties to others outside of the community that received and shared the information necessary to seize power, mobilize and take action. Those without those ties had insufficient information to form powerful coalitions, were hampered and lost their fight.

In 1993 Burt expanded on this with the concept of structural holes in an article about the social structure of completion. Competition for what?  Power, which can take the form of information, resources or finances. He connected the concept of tie strength to economic power by positioning it as an element of structural holes. Structural holes look at the superstructure, the junction where networks connect.  Structural hole theory says that where there is a hole, two networks that have no connection to each other, there is an opportunity for someone to position themselves as an intermediary between the two networks and serve as a bridge to that chasm. The person who bridges that structural hole also positions themselves to enhance their personal social capital. Lin’s definition of social capital reinforces the power dynamic of social networks: investment in social relations with expected return” (p.6). Later he cites Coleman’s definition, of social capital being the resources embedded in a social structure which are accessed and /or mobilized in purposive actions. Social capital is mutual and dynamic, both parties bring something to the table. The social capital of the individual nodes, enhance the social capital of the group.

Social Capital. What is it? What does it do? The 4 elements to explain the need for social capital are completely about retention, enhancement and control of societal power:

  • Facilitating the flow of information that can aid in finding opportunities and choices not usually available
  • Exerting influence (putting in a good word for someone lower on the social scale)
  • The certification of social credentials
  • The reinforcement of identity and recognition

Lin provides an understanding of social capital by beginning with definitions of capital put forth by economic theorists such as Marx and sociologists such as Bourdieu who discuss capital as a tool of the dominant class to incent and control the working classes. (Whereas Marx saw it solely as an oppressive tool, Bourdieu conceded that the working class might adopt and become invested in meanings of the symbols used by the dominant class for their own benefit.) According to Lin, Marx presented capital as being about antagonistic class struggle and neocapitialists presented it as a layered series of discourses.

So how do weak ties, social capital and structural holes all come together?

Weak ties provide the basic structure that spans structural holes in a network. The motivated individual can cultivate a weak tie in a disconnected network and by sharing information that is timely and relevant to the interests of his or her weak tie’s network, build individual social capital that adds to the social capital of the group. The weak ties close the structural hole. In closing that hole social capital is built.[1]

That this becomes about power is evident in Cote and Erickson (2009) where they look at the role of social capital in how Canadian ethnic minorities are viewed. One of the findings was that people with more education and people in higher socio-economic strata were more tolerant of minorities. One of their comments is that the tolerance among these groups is that racial minorities pose no threat to their societal, political or economic power. I would add that another element of power is the ability of these groups (which carry a great deal of overlap) is the power to determine which individual members of a given minority group can “cross over” to more powerful strata through actions including college admissions, the distribution of scholarships and grant money, promotions, letters of recommendation, etc. These actions serve to enhance the social capital of the individual who is a member of the dominant culture by bringing new blood into the dominant network and in the dominated culture by positioning them as a friend and ally of the group.

[1] I suspect the Ron Burt would take issue with my use of the phrase “close the structural hole” but that is very much how I see it. The hole exists because of the absence of a weak tie. Let’s say you have two networks that share no connections. They are like two islands. The person who steps in to bridge that gap between the two is closing that gap (and putting him or herself in a position of power. They can control the content, flow and direction of information.

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Wellman asked the Community Question: How does the nature of a given community affect and are affected by the the community at large” How does the macro structure affect the composition, structure and contents of interpersonal ties and how does the constellation of social ties that form a network affect larger social structures (1999,p. 2). He, I think rightly, refers to Granovetter’s findings on the functions of weak ties vs strong ties[1]. In the Wellman quote I see Fischer nodding his head in agreement when describes the interpersonal bonds as creating society interaction. Everything, from getting advice to gossiping to falling in love, is another building block that forms (or hinders the formation of) network ties. Our interlocked network ties are what form the fabric of what we find community. This reminds me of Fairhurst and Putnam’s article on how discourse forms community (2004). And while they use the term “organization” this can just as easily reflect a community structure. In finding work in the community with people he knows and getting married and building his family in that same community, Mr N is at once being shaped by as well as helping to shape the community. Being shaped by in the manner in which the community serves as a template for his life and shaping it in his and his wife’s addition to the existing social structure, reinforcing its behaviors and attitudes towards things such as government agencies, for example.

Bott’s (1957) examination of the effect of spousal relationships on the social network they form and the networks those ties comprise. Succinctly, the greater the separation of the masculine and feminine domains was in the family, the denser, and more localized the strong ties were. This was also was also predictive of a higher degree of multiplexity, something that Haythornethwaite (2005) would point to as an indicator of greater tie strength. One of the things I extrapolated from her discussion of the N’s was that while weak ties can be helpful in getting employment, those weaker ties weren’t as important for employment in these network. I would put forth that because Mr N’s network was formed by men he had long standing ties to, when a young man looked for his first job (1957 being the age where one got a job and stayed with that company until retirement), he automatically followed his longtime friends (and probably elder men in his geographically close family) to the same factory or trade where they worked. While the strong tie didn’t necessarily pass on information to get the job, it did create an environment where a man wouldn’t have to give much thought to,” what do I want to be when I grow up?”[2]


Bott, Elizabeth. (1955). Urban Families: Conjugal Roles and Social Networks. Human Relations 8:345-83.

Fischer, Claude. (1982). To Dwell Among Friends. Berkeley: University of California Press. [Ch. 1, 7-10]

Kalmijn, M. (2003). Shared Friendship Networks and the Life Course. Social Networks, 25, 231-249.

Klofstad, C., Sokhey, A,. & McClurg S. (in press). Disagreeing About Disagreement: How Conflict in Social Networks Affects Political Behavior. American Journal of Political Science.

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review, 71, 353-375.

Price-Spratlen, T. (2008). Urban Destination Selection among African Americans during the 1950s Great Migration. Social Science History, 32(3), 437-469. doi:10.1215/01455532-2008-005

Sides, J. A. (2000, January). Working Away: African American Migration and Community in Los Angeles from the Great Depression to 1954. Dissertation Abstracts International, 2652.

Wellman, Barry, and Scot Wortley. (1990). Different Strokes from Different Folks: Community Ties and Social Support. American Journal of Sociology 96(3):558-88.

[1] I would identify this paper as the one that triggered my intense interest in social network ties. I found his basic theory an elegant way of explaining the different role played by the connections we have with the various people in our lives. I think so much of what has been written since then is a refinement or criticism of this initial work. I want to add to this by exploring how it is situated within the age of Computer Mediated Communication age, including email, message boards, blogs, and any other format that facilitates online communities.

[2] I see so much of my parents’ neighborhood experiences in the story of the N family.

My mother grew up in a small town where her family had lived for many generations. Her grandfather ran the produce store and the town’s only taxi. They were working class people and my mother’s generation almost all grew up and lived their lives within a few miles of their home town. As a child I don’t think we ever had to drive more than 15 minutes in any direction to get to almost any family member’s home. The story of the tightly interwoven social network where people depended on family (because in this community almost everyone was related, however distantly) to each other was their story. Gender roles were proscribed and this is no more evident than in my grandmother’s advice to her daughters to, “marry a man who has a pension”. There was no thought that the women would have a job of any significance, it was up to the man to provide for the family from marriage until his death (because it was always assumed that they man would die first) and having a pension to supplement Social Security was one of the important ways of doing it.

My father’s family was part of the Second Great Migration of Blacks (roughly 1940 into the late 60s) when people moved out of the primarily still agrarian South to the Western states which were where the industry (especially for the aerospace industry) was booming. They relocated from New Orleans to the Bay Area of California in 1950 and my aunt tells the story of being a little girl and coming over the bridge for the first time (unfortunately, I’m not sure which bridge).  It was a structure far bigger than anything she had ever seen; something awesome. However, within this vast metropolis, the working class families that moved west, instead of adopting the behavior of the upwardly mobile families in Bott, moved into neighborhoods where people they already knew from their neighborhoods back home already lived. Often the move was prompted by a letter that said, “There are plenty of good paying jobs and I know where you can find a place to live. My aunt says that each street or two was peopled by people who knew each other from , “back home”.  In recreating the neighborhood, the roles and behaviors of the community were reinforced, as opposed to weaked, by the move.

By contrast, my generation of the family, (with my sister and I being the youngest of the group) is populated with people who, even if they live in a more wirking class environment, have a more egalitarian division of labor. We are better traveled and more open to different ideas and ways of comporting our families.  (And on a non-academic note, every time I use that moniker, I realize that Bott had *no* idea of the significance referring to people by the initial “N” would have today).

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In high school I remember being taught that some of the hallmarks of science are that it systematic and employed logic and rationality to organize ideas and concepts that can be tested and compared against each other. This week’s readings demonstrated that by its introduction not only the mechanics of social network analysis (SNA) but how it challenges the schools of thought about community and how it is applied in our day to day lives (albeit through a humorous lens as in Freeman, 2000).

The Borgatti, Mehra, Brass, & Labianca article sets the tone when it pegs SNA to one of the questions at the heart of social sciences like Sociology, Anthropology and Communications: how do autonomous individuals combine to create enduring, functioning societies? (Borgatti, et.al., 2009, p. 892). Wellman explains that as a tool, SNA provides scholars a way to measure aspects of social networks such as interrelationships among a given group, the roles individuals (or organizations if that is what’s being studied) play within the network (Wellman, 1999). Who are the central points who control the flow of information between members of the group: who connects the group to other groups and who is connected by a single tie? Monge and Contractor delve into this deeply by listing various key social network measures identified by Daniel Brass, 30 measures covering the measure of individual actors, network ties and the whole network itself (2003, pp.3-5).

That this is scientific is shown in part in that these measures can be extended by measuring the same group over time or by looking at similar or dissimilar groups to assess how widespread behaviors, actions and attitudes are among similar or dissimilar groups. An example of this is Grannovetter’s comparison of neighborhood reaction in Boston to the dismantling of a neighborhood. The network analysis showed that dense networks with few or no external ties were less successful then neighborhoods that had weak ties to others who had access to different information and resources. As described by Borgatti, et.al, social networks look at the person or group at the center of the network situated within its native context as opposed to an isolated entity, an actor without the influence of those tightly and loosely attached to them.

To get personal, I am a big fan of movies from the 20s through the mid 50s and Marin and Wellman’s example of the “Kevin Bacon Effect” is a perfect example of the influence social networks can have on the individual (2012). Dramatic movies made prior to 1951’s Streetcar Names Desire (think of Mildred Pierce), can seem affected and melodramatic to modern movie goers. This is because most of us are used to actors demonstrating emotions as you see them in everyday life. This is a direct result of Marlon Brando having studied acting with Lee Strasberg who trained many actors that we associate with that more naturalistic form of acting. His network of students went on to act, direct and teach other. This network exerted influence on all of the artists within in it (as well as, it can be argued, the mega network of American moviegoers).

Wellman brings this all together in “The Network Community” (1999). I was particularly interested in this reading because he articulates a couple of key ideas that I have always believed on a heuristic level and addressed in a couple of papers that I’ve written:

  • The “Good Old Days” probably didn’t exist like you think it did. Tönnies concept of Gemeinschafte is based on a whimsical idea of “the good old days”. While Sociology foundational scholars such as Weber and Simmel saw some benefit to the industrialized way of life, they were also concerned that the urbanized life was eroding community and the strong ties that went with them. Reinforcing the idea of SNA as a powerful tool for social scientists, Wellman pointed out that study of groups disparate as early 20th century American immigrants, Eastern European medieval villages and the early 19th century milieu of the English upper classes, evidenced regular movement over wide cultural and geographical distances  often tied to work and marriage(1999, pp. 12-13). This brings us back to Granovetter and the function of weak versus strong ties. Wellman cites the fact that the adults in a 19th century village had small kith and kin networks, the strong ties that provide emotional (and usually other significant types of ) support. However, soldiers, newlyweds, and religious (monks, priests and nuns), brought information, new ideas and innovations to sometimes far flung locations. A historical example Wellman doesn’t site is the Protestant Reformation. Doctrinal conflict with the  Church of Rome began with Wycliffe in the 14th century. Took root in the early 16th century by Martin Luther, spread westward across Northern Europe, finally reaching England by the end of the 16th century. Those ideas were not carried by close knit communities (which would have reinforced community religious ideologies) but by individuals passing literature and information to other social networks through weak ties.
  • Community is an evolutionary process. While there was more fluidity in social networks then some thinkers would have you believe, there were obvious limitations. Whereas it took The Reformation the better part of a decade to change the religious life of Northern Europe, cultural messages as whimsical as LOLcats and serious as political uprisings can be transmitted internationally in a matter of minutes. Modern technology allows a relatively unskilled individual to record a video and post it online for public consumption in minutes. I liked Wellman’s statement that social networks are about the people, not the location. Changes such as the suburbanization of the west, the temporal compression of communication and travel, and the ability to connect with strangers over common interests online; have changed the way our social networks are configured. In the case of online communities, a person can have weak ties that they have never met face to face, something that would have been rare as recently as 20 years ago. While I bristled at his linking of gender to the idea of network types, I understand the imagery. The home (and by extension, the marketplace and church) was generally a woman’s domain and men generally had public spaces for example, the workplace, many bars, and public commuter spaces like trains. Community has not decayed first it transitioned from the agrarian society as people moved into urban centers, then the Jet Age changed it again as people moved to the suburbs. Today we are living through another change as portions of our communication and relationships move online.


  • Borgatti, S. P., Mehra, A., Brass, D. J., & Labianca, G. (2009). Network Analysis in the Social Sciences. Science, 323(5916), 892-895
  • Marin, Alexandra, and Barry Wellman (2010). Social Network Analysis: An Introduction. Pp. 11-25 in Handbook of Social Network Analysis, edited by Peter Carrington and John Scott: Sage.
  • Monge, Peter and Noshir Contractor. (2003). Theories of Communication Networks. Oxford: Oxford University Press (pp 29-45).
  • Wellman, Barry. (1999). The Network Community: An Introduction. Pp. 1-48 in Networks in the Global Village, edited by Barry Wellman. Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Freeman, L. C. (2000). See you in the Funny Papers: Cartoons and Social Networks. Connections, 23(1), 32-42.

(This post is the first in a series of blog posts adapted from a class blog I will be posting to during the Fall, 2012 semester)

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I am taking a course on Social Networking Analysis this semester. Part of the class involves writing a weekly blog post discussing our readings. As I did with my Mediated Communications class blog from last semester, I will be posting my blog posts and list of references here as well.

Since the posts for the class are limited to about 750 words, I generally have to edit out ideas to meet that constraint, however, I will be posting my entire post here. This will allow be to share my full thoughts with you as well as record them for myself for future reference.

I hope you find this topic as interesting as I do and, as always, please feel free to add your comments and questions.

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