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Social Network Analysis. A Shifting Paradigm Investigated

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Nearly nothing, but then not nothing.  A something, be it at least a web of empty spaces and subtle walls.

Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, Bubbles


Apart from reasoning about Social Network Analysis in the sense of understanding their dynamics, I argue that analysis and understanding of social, human networks must also serve the purpose of feeding the concept of redefining the foundations of ‘living together’ in our society of networks in order to make life better. Obviously, these conceptions are arbitrary in how to shape the substance but clearly current discourse on the matter is expanding under the influence of dedicated debates in society. This paper investigates this shifting paradigm of Social Network Analysis with Peter Sloterdijk’s and Bruno Latour’s writings as manual as they have formed specific, to me, highly noticeable thought on the matter.


Barry Wellman and Alexandra Marin imply that Social Network Analysis is “a perspective or a paradigm. It takes as its starting point the premise that social life is created primarily and most importantly by relations and the patterns they form. Unlike a theory, Social Network Analysis provides a way of looking at a problem, but it does not predict what we will see. Social network analysis does not provide a set of premises from which hypotheses or predictions can be derived” (Marin & Wellman 2009). Fair enough but doesn’t this confine Social Network Analysis to a mere research tool? And then, what do we do with all that data that was carefully collected within the boundaries of the anatomy of social networks? Wellman indicates that we use that data to answer questions on a ‘what-if’ or ‘should-we-not’ level. But aren’t new social movements becoming visible in which for instance young creatives actively and innovatively form what Castells calls the Culture of Real Virtuality (Castells, 2010), referring to the integration of electronic communication, the end of the mass audience and the rise of interactive networks as new infrastructures of a new network society and so-called knowledge economy that often has more the appearance of a ‘who-knows-who’ – say social networks – economy?

Social network analysis can be regarded as the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows between people, groups and human organizations thus providing visual and mathematical insights in human relationships. Observing the current discourse on Social Network Analysis, we may distinguish different ‘levels’ of approach towards the matter, its indication and approach.

There are three levels of abstraction of descriptiveness of Social Network Analysis. Firstly there is the functional approach in which data collection and visualization of social networks are the primary objective of study and research. Sociologists like Barry Wellman and Alexandra Marin represent this level. Secondly we see an enriched vision on functionality, represented by Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory in which ‘Agency’ as a conception of operationalization of relationships is the core understanding of (human) behavior. And thirdly there is the reinvention of political order by “reshaping the relational ontology to escape from the tragedy of lonesome parts” as Huub Dijstelbloem (2010, p.112) interprets Peter Sloterdijk’s description of his Spherology.

Just like Latour, Sloterdijk refers to a relational ontology when he explains relationships between actors – lonesome parts – and their complexities (regarding this, Sloterdijk refers to people in their social environment as Latour refers to entities that perform a role in a network or are the network). Sloterdijk moves from individual social networks via communities of different size to universal social networks and from individuality to collectiveness. To Sloterdijk, Social Network Analysis is relevant in escaping the singularity of objects – lonesome parts, individual bubbled entities – that are getting more and more isolated thus making democracy and its adjacent essential politics impossible. Sloterdijk’s purpose of his theoretical Social Network Analysis approach is to elucidate the different levels of Plural Spherology; foam bubbles as metaphor for entities of different size and intrinsic volume (meaning a bubble being occupied by one or more individual entities (nodes) that have certain communality). These bubbles have, again a metaphor being looking glasses that, nowadays, consist of media technology, ranging from home intercom systems via television and radio to the Internet and her (global) social Media: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to mention just a few.

Is it not that Social Network Analysis is more than just the collection of relational data to answer questions like “relations within and between classes should matter, relations between organizations should matter, and health-related and -influencing relations will matter [?] Yet these questions and answers serve a function: “While they do not tell social scientists the answers to these questions, they provide guidance on where to look for such answers” (Marin & Wellman, 2009). But then, both Latour and Sloterdijk want to reshape social order and its proper political system and that involves further and deeper investigation that feeds new policy.

Wellman & Marin say that Social Network Analysis is a perspective, a paradigm that cannot predict but merely – humbly – opens doors to answer questions of a sociological nature. Social Network Analysis however should also serve as the gathering of insight for the dynamics of creating a better world. This, in its turn, requires a new sociological system that can only be formed by understanding the current. It also requires rethinking the discussion about Social Network Analysis and the discussion that has been pampered and fed by Barry Wellman and the INSNA, the International Network for Social Network Analysis, for over a decade or so; a discussion on a functional level not incorporating the ideas of a more fluid sociality of our society. Perhaps understanding the ideas of Sloterdijk and Latour may, as the latter says, will evolve to “Matters of Concern, not Matters of Fact”.



Primary sources
Castells, M. (2010) The Culture of Real Virtuality: The Integration of Electronic Communication, the End of the Mass Audience, and the Rise of Interactive Networks, in The Rise of the Network Society: With a New Preface, Volume I, Second edition With a new preface, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, UK.
Dijstelbloem, Huub, (2010). ‘Aardkloot in ademnood. Hyperventilerende democratie in de mondiale Sferen en netwerken van Peter Sloterdijk en Bruno Latour. In Krisis, 2010, Issue 1
Latour, Bruno. (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Sloterdijk, P. Sferen. (2009) Vertaling H. Driessen. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom
Wellman, Barry, Vincent Chua, and Julia Madej. (2011). ‘Personal Communities: The World According to Me’. In The Sage Handbook of Social Network Analysis, ed. John Scott and Peter Carrington, 101– 115. London: Sage.
Secundary sources
Douglas M., edited by M. G. Durham. Malden, MA: Blackwell
Friedland, Lewis A., Hernando Rojas, and Thomas Hove. 2004. ‘The Networked Public Sphere’. Javnost –The Public 13 (4): 5-26.
Knox, Hannah, Mike Savage, and Penny Harvey. 2006. ‘Social Networks and the Study of Relations:Networks as Method, Metaphor and Form ‘ . Economy and Society 35 (1): 113-140.
Willson, Michele. 2010. ‘Technology, Networks and Communities: An Exploration of Network andCommunity Theory and Technosocial Forms’. Information, Communication & Society 13 (5): 747-764.

Written by Kees Winkel

January 10, 2013 at 14:28

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