22 Jan

Communities and networks: Using social network analysis to rethink community and urban studies

Posted By Politybooks

KathyGiuffreforwebWe have lived in communities as long as we have been human, but do we really understand how communities work and what they do? Technological changes, especially the growth of the internet, have led researchers to reevaluate many of our assumptions about the nature of community and communal life – even to ask again foundational questions such as, “What makes a community?”

Social network analysis is a rapidly developing new way of apprehending the social world. Communities and Networkstakes a closer look at communities and communal life through the lens of social network analysis in order to better understand questions about how communities operate in our lives and how our lives operate in communities.

Some of the questions I address:

What is a community and where does it come from?
What do communities do for us?
How do they shape identity and foster conformity?
What happens when they become fractured?
How do communities mobilize for collective action?
How do they foster innovation?
How are new communities in the age of the internet different from traditional communities?

Each of these questions can be addressed in new and insightful ways by looking from the perspective of social network analysis. The goal of this book is to make social network analysis understandable and useful by tying it to real world examples and by providing clearly written and easy to understand discussions of network analysis techniques and operations.

Much of the writing about social network analysis is quite technical and can often be difficult for students to understand on first introduction. But the concepts used in social network analysis allow us to penetrate more deeply into the complexities of urban and communal life and to fruitfully rethink some of our basic assumptions about communal processes and issues.

Communities and Networks attempts to explain network analytical concepts clearly and concisely so that we can begin to use social network analysis to conquer some of these intriguing questions about communities.

Each chapter of Communities and Networks explores one central question of communal life by looking at specific examples through the lens of social network analysis. Each chapter also has a special section devoted to explaining exactly how to employ the techniques of social network analysis with real world data.

These special sections are tied to substantive issues so that students are able to understand why and in what circumstances different network analytical techniques are useful and can give us new (and sometimes startling) insights into the issues at hand. But perhaps more importantly than merely learning the techniques, this book helps to explore and explain the theoretical perspective of social network analysis, which is a specific way of looking at the social world, concentrating on the relations among social actors (whether they are individuals or groups) rather than on the individual characteristics of those actors.

For example, in Chapter 7 we examine the emergence of Apple computers in the 1970’s in Silicon Valley using the concepts of small world structures and structural holes in order to see how the particular structure of the social relations in that place at that time played a critical role in fostering the innovations that led to the personal computer revolution.

Using histories of the era, we can look through the perspective of social network analysis at the importance of employee movement among firms (like Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel) and among sectors (such as engineering and venture capital) as a method for forming weak ties that bridge structural holes.

We can take into account the importance of personal tie formation at specific sites like the Homebrew Computer Club meetings to see how individuals like Steve Wozniak were tied into the larger network structure. We can further use network analysis to explain how the culture that spurred innovative collaboration coalesced.

Other examples look at a diverse range of questions: How can understanding network centrality and marginality help us understand the Nazi takeover of German cities leading up to World War II? How can multi-dimensional scaling help us understand the effects of the internet on new community structures? How can we better understand immigrant assimilation in host communities by looking at balance theory and structural balance?

Communities and Networks uses the techniques and perspective of social network analysis to give students the tools to re-examine community and urban studies and provide a fuller, richer understanding of how our lives are shaped by the communities we make.

Katherine Giuffre is associate professor of sociology at Colorado College.