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>Bill.Richards asks...on behalf of...
>Kevin Sherman, a PhD Candidate in the Centre for Communication Research
>at the Auckland University of Technology:
>Is it possible to perform a social network analysis that is
>qualitative/ethnographic in nature? In other words, a network diagram
>that is created in cooperation with the participants of an ethnography
>in order to preserve and highlight above all else their own perceptions
>of their network?
>Please send a copy of your response to him at: [log in to unmask]
This question embodies many possible answers depending on how one defines
Is SNA a field, a technology, a discipline, or an area of interest? Most
would argue that it is a field of research I think.
As a field SNA has many great advocates some of whom regularly write on the
SOCNET listserv. These folks will be remembered as important theorists,
technologists, and thinkers, I'd guess. Many use qualitative techniques in
one form or another. Someone like Everett Rogers (a giant now deceased) did
much on diffusion studies using Tarde as a starting point. Tarde is also a
god of Bruno Latour--who I mention below. The link to both lines is
important. There are many other links between SNA and science studies and
qualitative approaches (if that means anything) yet to be learned of or
locked in the minds of Harrison White, Barry Wellman, etc., I'm sure.
According to a recent history on the topic by Freeman, a mathematical
approach was a sine qua non at the field's founding. That sort of
definitive boundary setting is not too fashionable now because work like
that of Bowker & Star who wrote a book called Sorting Things Out (2000) and
other works in Science Studies tend to cast a lot of doubt on strong
categorizations and singular perspectives on knowledge or "science". This
is putting pressure on disciplines. Other works cast doubt on
quantification as method--as a means of finding things out--not as a tool
but as an approach. This puts pressure on conventional methods for
quantitative social scientists, economists, etc. A lot is changing--almost
What I think it is fair to say is that things are messy right now and that
complexity means that perspectives, cultures, categories, methods, and
"science" as an ideal will never be straightforward again. Most scientists
could give a hoot because they have their labs, grants, etc., but that is
really changing in some quarters--medicine notably.
SNA predates that sea change and many of its older leaders might not care
much for the new thinking. Science culture in departments is often rigid
and people have longstanding notions of what constitutes knowledge and
proof. The idea that knowledge is situated (Donna Haraway) or
perspective-based (Michel Callon) is very upsetting to some even though it
need not contradict work they do.
Now it is taking for granted in some areas that all learning is situated
Etienne Wenger, Jean Lave and John Paul Gee among many others now). To some
that sounds like "relativism" or even "fashionable nonsense." Sometimes it
is, but mostly it isn't, in my opinion. You've got to decide what you think
and whether the organizations you need to work in can cope with that much
Sadly, active scientists are not that adept at understanding what they do in
their labs in anthropological or sociological terms--and are even less
prepared in epistemological terms. They tend to hold relatively dated
philosophical approaches (like Popperian thinking) because they have little
training in these areas. There are more and more exceptions. Science
studies and philosophy of science have changed a lot of views, and those
fields hold many great minds right now--Peter Galison, Ian Hacking, Bruno
Latour, Michel Callon, Donna Haraway, John Law, Larry Laudan to name just a
few bright stars.
Ethnography is not quantitative--it literally means writing about the
ethnos...which could be described as "world" or culture, etc. depending on
the translator. Of course postcolonial issues and other "critical" factors
have transformed ethnography and it has different meanings in film, in text,
and in mixed media than it did in a classic age of Malinowski, etc. Geertz
changed much with his approaches. A good book like Anthropology in Theory:
Issues in Epistemology, Blackwell, 2006 starts to get at some of these
issues and change and relationships in the terms of anthropology.
"Qualitative" is a messy term that means little in my opinion. John Law's
Mess in the Social Sciences (2005) is a good introduction there.
Other streams include Symbolic Interactionism which has roots to Chicago
School Sociology and to Simmel (perhaps)...as does elements of SNA. Recent
trends there include work by Adele Clarke like her Situational Analysis
(2005). Grounded theory is in this path. Could one do grounded theory of
networks? I don't see why not. Situational Analysis is just that under
In some respects that is what one might call Harrison White's Identity and
Control. Many of White's students have made contributions used in history,
One stream (I think) gaining attention is Bruno Latour et al's
actor-network-theory. ANT uses and espouses ethnography, but it is inchoate
and still forming even while some say it is passť. The most comprehensive
work to date is perhaps Bruno Latour's 2005 book called Reassembling the
Social (Oxford). It is part of an increasing stream of works in several
fields that intertwine with symbolic interactionist fields and with other
social sciences and humanities pursuits. For example, the work by Bowker
and Star mentioned above is dedicated to Adele Clarke. Bowker and Star is
considered pretty mainstream ANT by a lot of interested parties. In short,
a network links these fields across anthro/socio/behavioro, etc.
Beware! Those who promote these new threads often use shock to make their
points. They purposefully offend those who aren't as adept at dealing with
the arguments they have honed over time to get credibility and standing in
communities of practice (which is another way of describing SNA). That is
unfortunate because everyone loses out. I personally find Bruno Latour to
be civil in his recent writings but earlier on he was quite the rebel. The
same can be said of others. I myself have used shock and bluster on this
listserv to perhaps some help in understanding but also much reasonable
frustration and offense. That is a silly failing of the sort advocates are
prone to--at least this one.
So my answer to your question is that there are many methods to study
perspectives, groupings, relationships, etc. Some that have one historical
track are called SNA. It is up to you as to whether than term and its path
dependent developments is a venue for genuine research. I would argue that
an ethnography in the Latourian tradition of SNA is long overdue. I hope
you, me, or someone gets to it. The work matters. So I would argue for
ethnography of SNA rather than an ethnography as part of SNA. That may not
fit your interests at all, of course.
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