A synthesis paper

by Rory O'Brien


    in partial fullfilment of the

    Masters in Environmental Studies Degree Program

    of the Faculty of Environmental Studies

    York University


    December 1989


Everyone is involved in social relationships with other people. Whether it is with our family, our workmates, our neighbours, or our friends, we all belong to different, though sometimes overlapping, webs of affiliations. These patterns of interactive ties are often referred to as social networks.

A network has been defined by social scientists as "a specified set of links among social actors", with a link being "the total set of relations between any two actors - that is, the ways in which they are interdependent"

Networking, on the other hand, has been described as "people connecting with people, linking ideas and resources. ...One person with a need contacts another with a resource, and networking begins."

These definitions exemplify a subtle difference in approach between the scientific study of the phenomenon of networks on the one hand, and the art of creating and using them on the other.

Two conceptual frameworks that can be applied to the study of networks and networking were described by Aristotle - theoria and praxis.

Theoria referred to theory, to those sciences and activities that are concerned with knowing for its own sake. The rigour of scientific discipline in the field of network analysis can be traced to this idea. The study of networks and their central role in the emergent paradigm of Structural Analysis stresses the description and interpretation of social events from an objective viewpoint in order to develop an understanding for predictive purposes. Theory-oriented rearchers tend to look at networks that presently exist to discern patterns of social interaction based on established relationships.

Praxis was a focus more on the art of acting upon the conditionsone faces in order to change them. From this stream of thought comes the notion of the future being formable through intervention by the researcher. The idea of networking, of creating new networks for the purpose of social amelioration or problem-solving, can be linked to Action Research traditions. Its approach is prescriptive, focusing on the processes by which purposeful networks are established and maintained.

This paper is designed to give an overview of the concepts behind the theory and praxis of networks and their formation. It describes Structural Analysis and Action Research as the emerging frameworks in which the two approaches are imbedded.


Network concepts have arisen in many fields, including sociology, anthropology, psychiatry, psychology, administrative sciences, geography, city planning, and communications engineering. The concepts are generally consistent across these disciplines, even though there has not been much awareness of their use from one field to another. It has been the social sciences of anthropology and sociology, however, that provided the main avenues for the growth of network theory.

Historical development

British-trained cultural anthropologists studying normative rights and duties of specific cultural groupings in the post-World War II era used the metaphor of 'networks' to map interpersonal linkages based on kinship. Later, when difficulties arose in dealing with social systems in which ties cut across bounded institutionalized groups or social categories, the researchers moved toward analyzing networks in terms of social structure. This group of scientists differed from their 'structural-functionalist' colleagues in their emphasis on concrete social relations and not cultural prescriptions. 'Social network analysis', as it came to be called, derived the notions of social structure from the quantitative measurement of social relations.

At approximately the same time, the penchant of American social scientists for quantitative measurement and statistical analysis greatly added to the emerging research method of network analysis. Sociometrists researching small group interactions, epidemiologists studying the diffusion of disease, and information scientists developing concepts of communications flows, all contributed to the development of quantitative measures and analytical tools.

Since the end of World War II, technological, social and demographic developments have made social scientists more aware of the complex, inter-relatedness of social phenomena. The technical development of the computer and corresponding advances in mathematical modelling have allowed researchers to deal with the complexity of studying larger aggregates of networks.

The following are some of the changes in modes of research over the past forty years that have led to an increased interest in the study of networks, according to Sarason, et al. (1977).

1.    Emphasis on descriptive field studies

2.    Focus on intra- and inter-organizational studies

3.    Increased importance in understanding and evaluating social and human service change efforts.

Structural Analysis - An Emergent Paradigm

As the methods of network analysis improved in their employability as predictive tools, so too did the field's conceptual underpinnings. Network analysis was subsumed as the cornerstone of a new discipline called Structural Analysis, the central concept of which is that all social phenomena are best studied through methods designed to uncover basic social structures. Social structures consist of social networks.

A case has recently been made by Wellman and Berkowitz (1988) to have Structural Analysis regarded as a new paradigm in the social sciences. This assertion is based on the field having the following paradigmatic characteristics.

1.    Behaviour is interpreted in terms of structural constraints on activity, rather than in terms of innerforces within units (e.g., "socialization to norms") that impel behaviour in a voluntaristic, sometimes teleological, push toward a desired goal.

Structural analysts contend that accounting for individual motives is a job better left to psychologists. They suggest that sociologists should explain behaviour by analyzing the social distrubution of possibilities: the unequal availability of resources - such as information, wealth, and influence - and the structures through which people may gain access to them. They study the processes through which resources are garnered or mobilized - such as exchange, dependency, competition, and coalition - and the social systems that develop out of these processes.

2.    Analyses focus on the relations between units, instead of trying to sort units into categories defined by the inner attributes (or essences) of these units.

Structural Analysis is distinguished by the focus on the study of concrete social relations among specific social actors, both individuals and organizations, not on their attributes alone. Study of the morphology of a network can allow for categories and classes of actors to emerge based on the characteristics of their interactions. This is more meaningful than classification of attributes made on an a priori basis.

3.    A central consideration is how the patterned relationships among multiple alters jointly affect network members' behaviour. Hence, it is not assumed that network members engage only in multiple duets with separate alters.

Dyadic relationships are imbedded within structural locations, generally involving social networks, such as the workplace, neighbourhoods, or kinship groupings. Structural analysts interpret all dyadic relationships in the light of the two individuals' additional relations with other network members, since the tie between them gives each indirect access to all those with whom their alters are connected. Social system members use a variety of direct and indirect ties to search for resources, often transversing several role relationships.

4.    Structure is treated as a network of networks that may or may not be partitioned into discrete groups. It is not assumed a priori that tightly bounded groups are,intrinsically, the building blocks of the structure.

Structural analysts feel that descriptions based on bounded groups oversimplify complex social structures. By starting with networks rather than groups, analysts can study ties that are not sufficiently bounded to be termed groups. Social systems are woven from the network members' crosscutting memberships in multiple social circles, not just from their inclusion in densely knit groupings.

5.    Analytic methods deal directly with the patterned, relational nature of social structure in order to supplement - and sometimes supplant - mainstream statistical methods that demand independent units of analysis.

The very assumption of statistical independence, which makes statistical methods in sociology so appropriate and powerful for categorical analysis, detaches individuals from social structures and forces analysts to treat them as parts of a disconnected mass. Researchers following this tack can only measure social structure indirectly, by organizing and summarizing numerous individual covariations. They are forced to neglect social properties that are more than the sum of individual acts.

Dimensions of Study

In order to study a network, researchers must first choose criteria by which to delineate it from the multitude of possible patterns of relationships in the world. There are several dimensions by which a network can be specified but these are defined in two critical ways: by the relational content or by the network's structure.

Relational content

The relational content is that which makes an individual choose to create particular ties with particular people. The dimensions most operative here are normative criteria (i.e., social roles) and exchange transactions (i.e., flow of resources).

Normative criteria refer to the expectations associated with a relation between social roles and yield distinctions most similar to those in common usage (such as "friend", "kin", "coworker", and"partner").

Exchange transactions have to do with the flow of resources between network members. More than material goods flow through ties and networks. Flows can include resources such as information about one's environment and resources that are themselves a part of the ties - such as gratification obtained through being liked.

Network Structure

Studies of the structure of social networks are based on the measurement of a number of properties of interdependence. These measures are generally formulated according to the mathematical theory of graphs and algebraic modeling. The following are some of the main properties studied in network analysis.

    Size    The number of different individuals with whom a person interacts

    Density    The ratio of actual connections each person has to the maximum number of potential connections, excluding the connections between the target person and other network members

    Clustering    The extent to which the network has subgroups of high density; members of clusters have a large number of connections with each other relative to the number of connections they have with persons outside the cluster

    Reachability, distance, or centrality    The distance between one network member and another measured as some function of the number of connections from one network member to another

    Overlap    The extent to which individuals who are members of one person's network are also members of another's; the proportion of network members held in common by two individuals who are connected

The study of networks by structural analysts has arisen due to the perceived inadequacy of traditional methods of inquiry to be applied to complex real-world situations involving individual and group interactions for the purpose of addressing social problems.

In this they share similar concerns with those interested in networking as a type of action-oriented research method for social problem-solving.


Networking, meaning the active, purposeful creation of networks, is as old as humankind itself. The deliberate study of the processes and strategies used to create networks, however, only seems to have been instituted in the past few decades.

This interest in network formulation can be linked to a recently developed research framework with a focus on praxis called Action Research.

Action Research

Action Research developed in the post-war decades as a response to the perceived inability of traditional positivist science to aid people in solving social problems. Unlike positivist science, which assumes value-neutral methods and emphasizes the control over its objects of study for the sake of predictability of experimental results, action research combines the generation of theory with changing the social system through the researcher acting on or in the social system. The act itself is presented as the means of both changing the system and generating critical knowledge about it.

Susman and Evered (1978) define six characteristics of Action Research.

1. Action Research is future oriented

In dealing with the practical concerns of people, action research is oriented toward creating a more desirable future for them. Human beings are therefore recognized as purposeful systems the actions of whichare guided by goals, objectives, and ideals.

2. Action Research is collaborative

Interdependence between researcher and the client system is an essential feature of action research, and the direction of the research process will be partly a function of the needs and competencies of the two.

3. Action Research implies system development

The aim in action research is to build appropriate structures, to build the necessary system and competencies, and to modify the relationship of the system to its relevant environment. The focus is on generating the necessary communication and problem-solving procedures.

4. Action Research generates theory grounded in action

In action research, theory provides a guide for what should be considered in the diagnosis of an organization as well as for generating possible courses of action to deal with the problems of members of the organization.

5. Action Research is agnostic

The action researcher recognizes that his or her theories and prescriptions for action are themselves the product of previously taken action and, therefore, are subject to reexamination and reformulation upon entering every new research situation. The action researcher also recoginzes that the objectives, the problem, and the method of the research must be generated from the process itself, and that the consequences of selected actions cannot be fully known ahead of time.

6. Action Research is situational

The action researcher knows that many of the relationships between people, events, and things are a function of the situation as relevant actors currently define it. Such relationships are not often invariant or free of their context, but can change as the definition of the situation changes.

In general, because action research requires the researcher to work with the people involved in a situation in order to help them define the problems and implement strategies to solve them, interpersonal communication is the main method used. Within this broad area, there are a number of types of communication that have relevance, including: group gatherings such as meetings and 'search' conferences, media interactions such as radio forums and collaborative video studies, and artistic performances such as popular theatre and graffiti.

The basic principles of action research are shared by people who are involved in network building for social change purposes. These are principles of researcher intervention for whole group empowerment, and a learning-by-doing approach.


The concept of networks has only recently evolved into a more active one, with much more focus on the processes whereby the individual or group actually establishes interactive linkages in order to obtain a desired end. The noun 'network' has been transformed into the verb 'to network'.

Among those who have written about networking, it appears that there is a specific nature to the networks they are concerned with building and describing. These networks do not appear to be the more structured and institutionalized organizational networks within society.

There are, according to Lipnack and Stamps (1986), three essential qualities that differentiate them from hierarchical, bureaucratic social institutions such as business, church, school, or the military.

1.    They are composed of autonomous 'segments' that are organizationally self-sufficient, any of which could survive the elimination of all the others. A segment may be a person or a group.

2.    They are decentralized. Though individuals may exhibit differing degrees of influence at any particular time, no single segment can assume absolute control. This is because segments generally collaborate voluntarily. In networks, decision-making is distributed - networks are co-ordinated, not controlled.

3.    They are held together by shared values and unifying ideas. Network bonds tend to be subjective, rather than objective, more mental than physical. It is the underlying value set that differentiates one network from another.

Networking, they claim, has a number of advantages due to its value-based, loosely-coupled, weblike and non-hierarchical structure. It can encourage the full utilization of innovation, minimize the consequences of failure, promote the sharing of information across socio-economic barriers while preserving ethnic and vernacular values, maintain flexibility and adaptability in the face of new situations and developments, and emphasize egalitarian rather than authoritarian roles and relationships.

General Methods

The primary form of communication used in networking is face-to-face interaction. People seek out others who share their values and concerns. Through dyadic and small group meetings, often interspersed with telephone calls, letters, or electronic communications, members of the forming network develop a knowledge of their 'contacts'. This allows them to call upon specific people when a need for resources arises. Such resources may be advice, co-operation in an initiative, money, emotional support, or anything else that may meet that individual's needs. Groups can network with other groups in the same manner.

Social change processes are a good example of how networking can used as an excellent method of interaction. Networking is a way of forging links between individuals and groups that is all the more powerful in its effects because it is a voluntary act, one that is often intrinsically rewarding. People share responsibility for task accomplishment, with each person contributing what they can. Even within rigid, hierarchical organizations, informal networks of people are often found to be the 'glue' holding the enterprise together.

Many of the individuals and groups involved in social movements, especially in the past few decades, have turned to networking as a means of eliciting action when official routes to change have been blocked or too slow. The civil rights and women's movement, anti-Vietnam War protesters, anti-nuclear activists, and environmental groups have used this technique.

It is becoming more common in traditional areas as well. Political parties have always networked to solicit support but the European Green parties have raised it to a high art. Academics are beginning to network more seriously as their work shifts from theory to application. They need to stay in touch with many others whose work impinges on theirs, even though the respective disciplines may be different. As international development work changes from the large-scale to small, networking has become a primary instrument in the work of most non-governmental and community-based organizations. Such initiatives have adopted networking as a way of promoting involvement of the stakeholders in the change process. This empowerment is necessary for ensuring flexibility of innovation through willing and informed participation. Concern can thus be turned into action.

Networking is important to organizing social change. The participants must become acquainted with each other in order to understand how they might all work together to set and reach common goals. Networks can be the means by which those involved develop an action-oriented identity and are provided with the support and information needed to pursue their role in the collectively designed activities.


Structural Analysis and Action Research both are challenges to positivist science in their focus on pragmatic existentialism, i.e., real-world interactions. The former seems to be concerned with developing theory and methodology from a much more detached viewpoint than the latter. Unlike action researchers, structural analysts do not seem to have stressed the processes by which people empower themselves to solve their own problems.

Networks are seen to be the key concept in the research of structural analysts. Action researchers, though, do not seem to have given much acknowlegement to networking techniques in their methodologies even though such techniques are implicit in the interpersonal communications that are the main components of these methodologies.

In general, it appears that while there have been a number of published studies concerning the theory of networks, there have been relatively few documented studies of networking processes. The reason for this may have to do with the nature of the networks that the researchers are involved in. Network theorists tend to be academics, who have a professional mandate to publish their research findings. Those involved in networking, hovever, tend to communicate more at an interpersonal level, with their attention being focused more on developing procedures specific to their situation than on analyzing these procedures in the abstract.

In the continuum between theoria and praxis, the study of networks, with its ties to Structural Analysis, and the study of networking, with its links to Action Research, seem to have opposite orientations, with some overlap in the middle. Both orientations are needed to develop a richer understanding of the nature of human interactions in order to implement solutions to the problems currently facing the world today.


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