Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Optional Readings: Network Analysis

If you read the four optional articles related to network analysis I would consider reading them in the following order: Emirbayer & Goodwin; Granovetter; Downey; and MacPherson. If you only read two then I would read the last two. They are the most insightful (and shortest).

Emirbayer & Goodwin provide an overview of the emergence and evolution of network analysis in sociology (with an eye toward the analysis of historical processes done by social theorists and historical sociologists). They critique three major approaches towards doing network analysis (structuralist determinism, structuralist instrumentalism, and structuralist constructionism). While recognizing that these approaches each bring something to the table, they argue that previous attempts at network analysis inadequately conceptualize the complex interactions between culture, networks, and agency. They argue that cultural formations can be analyzed autonomously (i.e., independent of their interrelationship with networks). Historical processes are structured in part by cultural and political discourses, as well as by networks of social interaction. In other words, while network analysis serves as a tool for social analysis by bringing to light the patterned relationships between historical actors, it fails to take into account the dynamics of the cultural moment – e.g., it ignores the actors (and their identity/identities) and the role of their ideals, values, beliefs in shaping networks and historical processes. They also ask, but don’t answer: how are networked relationships reproduced and reconfigured over time?

In his article for this week, Granovetter (1983) builds on his hypothesis that in many cases weak social/network ties are more important than strong social/network ties. He mainly does this by presenting research studies that use his 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties” as either their starting off point or as a theory to help explain emergent findings. Note that Granovetter does not cite research that contradicts his earlier assertions. He does, however, use the studies to make his original claims more nuanced. In the end, he concludes that context is important in analyzing weak ties and not all weak ties are created equally. He also suggests that network analysis needs to be concerned with developing more dynamic models that seek to understand how systems develop and change. It seems that Emirbayer and Goodwin would question Granovetter’s emphasis on conducting a structural analysis of networks at the expense of better understanding the cultural contexts and actors involved.

Greg reviews three books that have “Network Science” in their title. Why three books with this phrase in the title and why now? One, network analysis has found its way into numerous disciplines and “has reached a ‘critical state’ of its own”. Two, the books are an attempt to legitimize the network analysis as a science.

As part of his review Greg raises some of the same key concerns / themes that have been part of our class discussions. For example:

  • What is the purpose of network science – how can it help us understand the networked world, especially as they play out “on the ground” in a messy, heterogeneous world?
  • How do network scientists conceptual distance? The notion of distance is network analysis is static and de-contextualized and does not take into account new forms of mass communication. It also fails to account for cultural, social, and economic complexities (e.g., language differences, socio-economic class).
  • Be concerned about the universal claims of network science. Pay special attention to how it can be used to explain and naturalize power, hierarchy, inequality, exclusion etc.
  • What can other disciplines (read Geography) add to the critique and theoretical development of network analysis?

McPherson explores the online world of Neo-Confederates to challenge some of the beliefs about cyberspace as placeless. She also problematizes the notion that cyberspace provides a utopian playground where people experiment with and project multiple identities.

She is concerned about racial identity as it plays out online (especially as it ties to the neo-Confederate South) and claims that neo-Confederate sites are engaged in a process of cyberwhitening issues of race by shifting from traditional or overt discourses of race to more covert ones.

She also suggests that for the neo-Confederates, the web is not placeless. Instead, she argues that the web is a new battle ground where neo-Confederates are at work developing a cyber-mediated South (what I might call a New, New South). McPherson notes that the South (and the type of Southron) projected through the sites is not geographically bound, plays up Lost Cause sentiments, and promotes a specific version or vision of white, southern masculinity.

A few questions come to mind for me: 1) Wasn’t there already a more covert path taken by Southrons prior to the web? For example, Michael Grissom published Southern by the Grace of God (The Rebel Press) in 1988. If so, this challenges that claim that cyberspace was THE cause of this shift 2) My own quick review of 20 or so sites uncovered a lot more overt racism than I would have guessed from McPherson’s analysis. While I did find some sites that negotiated or sidestepped race “more covertly”, I also found many that were less concerned with being covert.

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