Emily Erikson Discusses Social Network Theory

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    • 00:05

      Social Network Theory[What is social network theory?]

    • 00:17

      EMILY ERIKSON: So what is social network?Social network theory is a complicated thing to define,because there's many different definitionsfor social networks, and there's many definitions for theory.But the way that I think about theory is, well, two.It's important to include two definitions of theory.One is an interrelated set of propositionsthat illuminates something about a social process.

    • 00:37

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: And the other is the logic that links those propositionstogether.So the logic, and then a set of propositions that illuminatesome specific social process.So social network theory is both the logic--the logic that links these propositions together--and then a number of different set of propositions

    • 00:58

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: that specifically illuminates either a relationship,or the way that a relationship affects some social outcomethat we're interested in, or the way that the structureof relationships affects some social outcome that we'reinterested in.So, for example, the construction of an ethnic group

    • 01:18

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: could be because of the relationshipbetween different ethnic groups, that the identityof these ethnicities is based upon the waythat they perceive others and their interactions with others.And that's a relationship that constitutes the identity.And so, it fits into social network, or social networktheory.But you can also think about the structure of the relationships,which is different than just the importance of the relationship.

    • 01:40

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: So it could be that it's either something about centralizationor social cohesion in a community thatproduces different patterns of political engagement.And so, both of those are encompassedin social network theory.[How has social network theory changed in recent years?]

    • 02:01

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: There's been a large influx of people and complexityin the hard sciences that have started to do a lot of workin social networks.And they've added a huge amount of methodologicalsophistication, and a lot of clarityin terms of how they think about social networks.So they did change the direction and gave it a new sort

    • 02:25

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: of an edge, I suppose.So some examples of that would be Duncan Watts's 6 degrees.The idea existed, but he proved that everyone in the worldis connected by fewer than six degrees.And this he proved mathematicallyusing these tools that he has from his background in physics

    • 02:47

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: and engineering.And it added so much to social networksand how we understand the world to be connected,and just how tightly connected everyone in the world is.So that was revolutionary in termsof how we think about what theory-- because he was doingsocial network theory-- can do to changeour empirical understanding of the worldand the connections between people.

    • 03:08

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: [What are some of the key challenges that arise duringsocial network theory research?]OK.So there's definitely a core challengein social network theory that I think exists, right now.And there's really two theoretical campsin social network theory.One is on the relational side, and oneis on the formalist side.

    • 03:29

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: The formalists tend to emphasize the importance of patternsof social networks configuration,such as, I mentioned, cohesion centrality, power lawdistribution, these kinds of things-- the overall patternof the network.And the relationalists really emphasize the linking functionsof networks-- so, for example, how civic associations bind

    • 03:49

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: together different communities in order to create the nationstate, or something like that.But is the linking function, and theydon't think a lot about the structure of the patternsof the networks.And then there's a formalists thatthink a lot, and care a lot, about the pattern.And there's a tension between the two,because you can sort of pick out the structure of relationships

    • 04:10

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: and use it across any number of different circumstances.But the relationship, it really matters on whichgroups are being linked.So it's pretty contextualized, and it's really hardto extract out of those specific circumstances.And they have opposing underlying logicsand philosophical roots, where one is very much sort

    • 04:31

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: of pragmatist, and one is sort of Kantian .So it's hard to combine them.But most of the really exciting empirical workin social networks does come by those two approaches.So I really think social network theoryhas to provide a foundation where they can be coherentlyand logically combined.

    • 04:52

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: So I think that's a big challengeis bringing these two together, and ithas to be done with theory.And I think it would help coordinate research effortsin this great way.[Are there current studies trying to bring the two campstogether?]Yes, there are.Absolutely.

    • 05:12

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: I mean, I've been working on thistrying to think about how the two can logically fit together.Other people, Woody Powell, John Padgett,they have a really impressive volume,The Emergence of Markets and Organizations.And they're finding theoretical foundationsoutside of philosophy, and instead

    • 05:33

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: in biology and chemistry.So that's one possible route.John Levi Martin has been incorporating a morestructuralist, and moving into more phenomenologicalkinds of approaches of thinking about combining the twodifferent larger theoretical frameworks.

    • 05:55

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: So people are trying.People are trying.[If a student could read one book, journal paper,or bulletin in this field to inspire them what would it beand why?]So if I could recommend only one article on social networktheory, now, I would probably recommend my own article.I hope it's not to horrible to do that.

    • 06:15

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: But it does give a really good overview of the current stateof social network theory, and it outlines these two positionsthat I've discusses-- relationalist and formalistwork-- and, I think, not only gives a good overview of what'sgoing on in social network theory right now,but also can lead readers to the key works in bothof those traditions.

    • 06:36

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: [What first inspired you to start academic workin the field of social network theory?]I mean, I would say that there's two things thatfirst inspired me to work on social network theory.One was I was doing empirical work.I was doing empirical work-- they do social networkanalysis.And actually, my sort of background

    • 06:56

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: has a big emphasis on inductive data,generalizing out of the case, and sortof getting your fingers dirty in the databefore trying to move into highertheoretical approaches, or more abstract theoretical problems.But one thing that drove me crazy, though,

    • 07:17

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: was that there's a million articles thatsay that there's no social networktheory-- that social networks is justa sort of grab bag of methods, and that thereis no coherent way to fit them together,and that it's just an opportunistic way of explainingdifferent social processes.You just find the right method.And so many people think of it as just a method.

    • 07:39

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: And it's just the furthest thing from only being a method.It's a really deep theoretical ideaof what matters in the social world--that it's relationships and not individuals,and the relationships are sort of constitutive of groups,and people in a really important way.And there's so much deep theoretical thinkingthat goes into the field that it was just incredibly frustrating

    • 08:03

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: for me to see people saying that there was no theory, whenI actually think it's one of the most generative theoriesin sociology and the social sciences, right now.So I wanted to clarify how much theory therewas in social network analysis.And so, that's why I got into social network theory.

    • 08:23

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: [What other academic areas interest you and why?]Yes, absolutely.So I am actually a little, probably,too interdisciplinary, but I alsoam pretty deeply involved in comparative historicalresearch.And, for me, there's a strong relationship

    • 08:46

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: between comparative historical research and social networks,because social networks are so heavily implicatedin processes of social change.So if you think about it, most institutionshave a big impact on society.But institutions are formally-defined relationships.So in order to change institutions,you have to have informal connections--

    • 09:07

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: informal connections between individuals-- which are exactlysocial networks.Right?So they are sort of operating outside of formal institutions.The people inside the institutionsdon't want the institutions to change.They want the institutions to persist over time.So you have to have some other vehicle for peopleto cooperate.And social networks is essentially

    • 09:29

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: that coordination process or toolthat individuals in communities thatare excluded from the existing institutionscan use to transform them or create new ones.So they're heavily involved in processes of historical change.So I see them as linked together,

    • 09:50

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: these two different fields.[Which key thinkers have inspired you,and who continues to influence you?]So key thinkers in the field that have inspired me.First I have to say, I just had the most incredible mentorsin the field.Peter Bearman was the chair of my dissertation.

    • 10:11

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: He does such incredibly innovative and smart workon social networks.I mean, he essentially started the fieldof social networks and comparative historicalresearch.And Harrison White, I worked with at Columbia.Harrison White was instrumental to developing social networksas a field, and just has such incredibly rich

    • 10:36

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: theoretical work.He generated so many different insightsthat people just continue to pull these little gems thatexist in his work, and develop dissertations,and books, and incredibly transformative ideasfor economics and revolutions, [INAUDIBLE], everything.So both of them continue to absolutely

    • 10:59

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: have persistent influence on me, over time.And I already mentioned Duncan Watts, also,another incredibly influential person,and just also great people.[How has technology changed social network theory?]

    • 11:19

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: So technology's has had a huge impact on social networkanalysis and theory.It's transformative because it solvesthis long-standing problem that exists in social networkanalysis, which is that it's so hard to collect dataon everyone's relationships.So if you think about it, even from your own perspective,there's more than one problem.

    • 11:40

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: Right?One is try to remember all of the interactions you've hadtoday, so far.Right?And I can guarantee, even if you thinkthat you can remember them, you have forgottenseveral of those interactions.It's still kind of early, though it's possiblethat you might remember all of them.But usually, people really forget an incredibly largenumber of interactions that they have on a day to day basis.And so, it's hard for people to remember,

    • 12:03

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: but it's very hard for researchers to collect.And if you're trying to collect, also,all of the relationships that exist in a community,you have to solve the problem of collectingthat for each individual, and then, also get the full sample.And missing even one person can reallychange the structure of the network.

    • 12:25

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: So then, the sampling solutions that work for other methods,don't work in the same way for a social network.So it's been a really difficult problem to solve.How do we get accurate data on allthese different relationships?And the solution is, really, Facebook,in a sense, and other social media sites,because they provide a comprehensive database of all

    • 12:48

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: of the interactions that people havein these online social environments.So they track social networks in this incredibly accurate waythat we've never had access to before.And there's just so much that we can learn from that now.So it's a revolution, really, in social network analysis.We probably have to do a little bit more work in order

    • 13:09

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: to see what exactly the relationship isbetween these online networks, and the actual relationshipsthat we exist within on a day to day basis, in the real world.But it's been incredible.It's made such a difference.[How important are research methodology and methodfor a rigorous analysis of social network theory?]

    • 13:30

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: Are methods important to social network theoryis an interesting question.And I would say that, certainly, the close relationshipbetween methods and theory is alwaysa little bit underestimated.But I think it is particularly important, perhaps,in social network theory, because one of the things,of course, is we don't have a faculty for observing

    • 13:53

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: relationships.Right?You can't see.I don't see a link between you and another personthat you're related to.I can't see a line there.We have to infer from all of these other thingsthat we can observe.Right?I mean, we can ask someone, or wecan see how they seem to interact with an individual.Do they hug them?Do they shake their hand?

    • 14:14

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: But whatever our underlying conceptualizationis of what that relationship that actually is,it will change the kinds of methodsthat we use to measure it.And it's also true that the methods that we use in orderto try to observe this thing that we can't directly observewill change our theoretical conceptualization of it.So the methods and the theory are very tightly

    • 14:37

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: bound up within social network analysis, I would say.[Does the fact that families are changing impact social networkanalysis?]So does the fact that families are changingimpact social network analysis?Well, absolutely, relational structuresinclude family structures.

    • 15:01

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: I mean.probably more time should be spenton thinking through the impact of the changing patterns.Certainly, if there's less internal cohesionwithin families, it's going to increasethe number of weak ties that individualshave outside of their families.And that should have an extremely large impacton a number of different social outcomes.

    • 15:23

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: I mean, people tend to think about family structureas outside of social network analysis.But social network analysis capturesall patterns of relationships.So it's probably something that should be pulled into the fielda little bit more, since it is so central to everyone'sexperience.[Where is the direction of the research headed?]

    • 15:47

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: Yeah, so exciting new research directions.I think there's lots of exciting new research directionsin social network analysis.I think, particularly, there's lotto do, of course, in bridging history and social networks,exactly because social networks are so important to processesof institutional transformation, and that they're also

    • 16:09

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: this source of collective action that's so transformative.And the other thing is that, one of the reasons thisis so particularly exciting is that there's now--and this is another effect of the changingtechnological infrastructure-- all of this data online, allof this archival data online, that now exists,

    • 16:30

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: and we can pull it.And actually, it's great, too, because it's behavioral datain a lot of instances.So it gives us, again, a sort of a new comprehensive, systematicway of thinking about relationships and communities,and community structure, and the social networksthat span communities.And so, it's giving an entirely new way

    • 16:52

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: of thinking about how social networks have been agentsof change throughout history.And so, I think that's extremely exciting,and that there's lots and lots of work that can be done.And we can get a much better ideaof the role of social networks in processeslike economic development, the transition to capitalism,

    • 17:16

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: fomenting revolution, mobilizationemerges-- so lots of different exciting avenuesfor further development.I also think, in particular, that the relationshipbetween events and networks is extremely interesting.And there's been work that thinks about network dynamics.

    • 17:39

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: And then there's work on neighborhoods.There's work on the way that people interactin different social settings.But I think that those could all be sort of woven togetherin a really interesting way that thinks about events.These are moments when you come into contactwith lots of different people, information diffuses.Often, if it's a big important event,

    • 17:59

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: then there's a feeling of sort of collective effervescencethat could provide some durable foundationfor these relationships that makes themmore important or more lasting than a relationshipthat you construct, or encountersthat are more transient, or outside of group settings.

    • 18:20

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: And I think that a lot of exciting theoretical insightscould emerge out of thinking about the relationshipbetween the dynamics of relationships,transformative events, and the sort of interface

    • 18:40

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: between the two.[Can you give us an example of how events can change networkprocesses?]So I think a good example of the waythat events do change network processes is in DanWong and Sarah Sull's work.And they look at how different activists come together

    • 19:04

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: at protest sites.And that at these protests sites, when they're allprotesting together, is when there'sa diffusion of different tactics of mobilization and protestactivity, I suppose.Right?Are you going to take signs, or are you

    • 19:26

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: going to chant, or the different waysof getting the message out and capturingthe attention of the media.And people had thought, oh, it's relationshipsbetween these different groups.But actually, it turns out that it's not so muchthe relationships outside of the momentswhere they're all engaging in collective action together.

    • 19:47

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: And that's the real moment that changes the diffusion' patternsrather than a static conception of what'slinking the different groups.So it's more dynamic than we realize.And it's really these events thatare doing a lot of the channelingand a lot of the work.[Is the Olympics a good example of this?]

    • 20:12

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: So that's a great example.The Olympics are an event that certainly has sort of changedthe feel, probably-- for a lot of different people, at least--of community, a sense of community.And they do that on a regular basis.And they're a huge event, and the nation participatesby watching, and when they can, going.And then, of course, the athletes

    • 20:33

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: by actually engaging in all the different sports.But they're all there together, and a lot of usare there in spirit.And it does change.Having everyone there together, in one event,is a qualitatively different experience

    • 20:53

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: than having a set of different relationshipsbetween these athletes.Right?So all of the people could meet.But if it's spread out across a long period of time,or if it's spread out across different geographicallocations, all of these different dyadic interactionscan happen.

    • 21:14

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: But having them all happen in the same setting,at the same time, has a qualitative impact on the waythat we experience the importance of what's going on.Right?And it also probably does change.It doesn't just amplify the experience of it mattering,or making a difference.And it does do that.

    • 21:34

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: Right?It amplifies the importance.But it also probably changes what that experience is, to oneof sort of a community-building cohesion,increased commitment, and hopefullyincreased commitment to the ideals of diversity,particularly in the case of the Olympics.

    • 21:55

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: [Where would you like to take your own researchin the future?]Well, so I think of myself as workingon the development of institutions,particularly the secondary institutions of capitalism.So in the past I was working on how social networks were

    • 22:15

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: part of the process of building out corporations and companiesin the premodern era.And I've moved, now, into political economy,and the origins of political economy,and how the relationships between merchants and the stateare really constitutive of emerging discourseof pre-classical economics.

    • 22:39

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: And so, that's what I'm really engaged in,right now, in terms of my own work.I would like to push further into thinking more preciselyabout the impact of social networkson processes of economic development or economic growth,particularly in the development world--

    • 22:59

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: so in the developing-world context.And I think there's a lot to be done.So, right now, people think about social networksand economic development as these small cohesive groups,and the groups having an impact because theycreate safe spaces for people to engage in transactions.

    • 23:24

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: But the problem is is that builds outinequality over time, because the individuals thatare within the groups are privilegedrelative to the individuals that are outside of the group.But we think of them as being sort ofinstrumental to these early processesof economic development.I think it's possible that people are underestimatingthe importance of out-group ties and weak ties

    • 23:46

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: in expanding economic opportunity.And that we should think not justabout these little cohesive groupswhen we're thinking about social networksand economic development, but we should thinkabout weak ties and boundary-spanningrelationships, and that they probablyhave had a little bit more of an impact than we realize.

    • 24:08

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: And I think it would help us to unlinkthis kind of tight relationship that now existsbetween a small group process that we believe create progressbut also restricts the fruits of that progressto a small portion of the population.

    • 24:29

      EMILY ERIKSON [continued]: So in a sense, we're kind of linking inequalityand economic development if we onlythink about these small groups.And it hasn't even really been empirically examined.So if we could unite that, and thinkabout these other kinds of ties, and their impacton economic development, I think wemight have a better picture of what's actually occurring.

Emily Erikson Discusses Social Network Theory

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Abstract

Professor Emily Erikson discusses social network theory and the research she has done in the field. Social network theory is the study of how people interact with others inside their network. Erikson discusses the varying ideas about social network theory, how technology has changed the field, and research methodology.

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Emily Erikson Discusses Social Network Theory

Professor Emily Erikson discusses social network theory and the research she has done in the field. Social network theory is the study of how people interact with others inside their network. Erikson discusses the varying ideas about social network theory, how technology has changed the field, and research methodology.

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