1.2.1 Description, Network Theories, & Theories of Networks

Historically, social network research has often pursued one of three primary empirical aims—(1) description, (2) explanation that focuses on “theory of networks”, or (3) “network theories” (Borgatti and Lopez-Kidwell 2011). Social network description, in and of itself, has a fundamentally different flavor than descriptive statistics provide for individually-oriented data. Perhaps most popularly, sets relational sociology up against what he labels as research that is more substantialist (or essentialist) in nature. Substantialist research assumes that the characteristics and processes that matter belong to (are the substance of) the units being analyzed (e.g., individuals).

Contrastingly, a relational sociology takes as its focus the patterns of the relationships between those units. This relational social science requires an entirely different set of analytic techniques—social network analysis (SNA). SNA often provides the first way scholars are introduced to social networks research.5 Networks are comprised of nodes and ties. As the focus of network research, the ties can consist of a number of different types of ties, theoretical orientations deriving from those ties, and ways for conceptualizing what it is about these ties that we want to capture as researchers. As such, these relational possibilities will be the focus of the theoretical ideas in the remainder of this chapter, and the methods presented in the next couple of chapters. But what about the nodes? It’s vitally important to recognize that network nodes can represent any number of entities. There is excellent research focused on the relationships between individuals, organizations, even countries. Here, I assume that SNA is equally applicable across these different types of nodes, but describe methods that generally only address one of these at a time within any given study—as this is the most common practice.

Figure 1.1: Example Simple Directed Graph
Figure 1.1: Example Simple Directed Graph

With relational patterns the focus of SNA, our descriptive tools provide the language necessary to capture the common and influential patterns observed in networks, settling on a few families of different types of relational patterns, each of which can be observed across a range of network types.6 As a few quick examples drawing on the graph in Figure 1.1, this type of network description provides the tools to account for the ways that nodes 4 and 5 differ from each other,7 or what the defining differences are between the groups of nodes {4,7,8} compared to {3,4,5}.8

Beyond descriptive studies—though it should be noted that some critics have suggested this comprises the bulk of the field (for counterarguments, see )—social network scholarship with explanatory goals generally has one of two orientations. Network theories ask how network structure shapes other outcomes of interest (i.e., networks as cause). For example this perspective can be used to examine disease flow through a population, success or failure of job searching strategies, integration of familial and economic resources). Contrastingly, theories of networks aim to identify the sources of network structure and change (Borgatti and Lopez-Kidwell 2011; Fuhse 2019)—e.g., who chooses whom as friends, how does one become a central arbiter of commodity exchange in a market, etc. (i.e., networks as effect). In either of these types of questions, network structure—whether as the primary explanans or explanandum—is a fundamentally relational feature. That which does the explaining or is to be explained derives primarily from the pattern of the relationships among the studied population’s actors. Scholars have recently sought to expand the variety of theoretical arguments available to provide explanations in empirical studies, and I encourage readers to explore this rich literature separately to enhance their reading of this book (see for example (Fuhse 2019; Erikson 2013; Valente and Pitts 2017)). While these sources can provide a more comprehensive view of the theoretical bases of social networks research, I briefly summarize two of the more prominent streams below. These turn from the types of (descriptive or analytic) questions that animate networks research to the potential mechanisms that feature in the answers to those questions.