(First of a four-part essay on my recent thoughts about using a network perspective in qualitative studies of internet-related contexts)
Maybe it’s the pretty pictures generated by big data.
Maybe it’s the impulse to unfocus the analytic gaze from location to locomotion.
Whatever. The question that prompted me to start thinking about network analysis went something like this: “Could network analysis offer something that another method or lens couldn’t?” My immediate response was to answer simply: “No.” As a tool for identifying elements of a system, network analysis works well. As a method for understanding meaning in context, it has always been inadequate, at best. From an interpretive or poststructuralist ethnographic standpoint, network analysis oversimplifies the complexity of social life. Since its inception, network analysis has focused on the presence of connections between people and the structural dimensions of relations rather than the content or meaning of these relationships as they are enacted and constantly negotiated in everyday communicative interactions. Because it seems so completely contrary to the premises of symbolic interactionism, social constructionism, and interpretive sociology, network analysis, especially as it has been constructed under the label of Social Network Analysis (SNA), I do not include it in my own toolbox of methods.
Despite my efforts to avoid thinking about network analysis, I have been drawn to many of the visual sensibilities it offers in the study of heavily mediatized social contexts. Social media environments are constructed and maintained almost exclusively by information transmission and exchange among networks of individuals. When divorced from positivist research goals, the visualizations emerging from network analysis techniques prompt a range of sensemaking not available through the analysis of text. When the tools are separated from the disciplinary parameters for which they were developed, they offer a beguiling method of extending certain approaches, such as grounded theory or ethnography, and specifying other approaches, such as actor network theory or practice theory.
I give this personal background to clarify that I came to this topic reluctantly. It represents the result of my effort to reconcile my (educated) dismissal of this method with my simultaneous (pragmatic) adoption of many techniques that could be considered part of the general practice of network analysis. To be fair, this essay may not actually be about network analysis, although I leave it to the reader to make this final determination. In what follows, I review some of the generative qualities of visual mapping techniques. I discuss the importance of moving away from objects in the study of internet-or technology saturated contexts. I describe the reflexive power of shifting our perspective constantly and radically. Everything in this essay, then, is something that in theory, if not practice, constitutes a fundamental element of network analysis.
Early Network Analysis
I understand network analysis from my background as an organizational communication scholar. From this discipline, network analysis is a mezzo-level lens, traditionally used as a tool for identifying and mapping communication patterns or structures of relations among individuals. Early network analysis emerged in workplace settings as a way of trying to assess odd variations in productivity that could not be explained through typical measures. Once management thought to look at informal communication among workers, they started to find answers. Network analysis helped identify these informal structures and relations among workers. Early on, the goal was to quell these informal networks, as these were seen to be irrelevant or counterproductive to the efficient functioning of the organization. Later, these same analyses were used not to strangle but to harness and utilize the valuable resources that emerged and played out in these informal networks of interaction among employees.
From Network Analysis to Network Sensibilities
One of the key elements of network analysis is that it maps individuals as points in space but then draws a link between people to identify some sort of relationship. The traditional goal of network analysis is to identify and analyze the structure of relationships in groups. While this has modified somewhat, the unit of analysis remains the pattern of relationships between people, rather than the individuals themselves or the meaning embedded in the individual lines connecting people together.
For researchers working within various poststructuralist or postmodern perspectives, network analysis doesn’t fit well, if at all. Even so, if we look more closely at the component parts (elements or focal points) of a network analysis approach, we begin to notice sensibilities that resonate strongly with the complexity of networked cultures. Let me offer a brief sketch of what is implied and invoked in a network approach, which takes us beyond the specific tool or method of network analysis.
Even the earliest network studies focused attention on the idea that interaction creates social structures. The premises of network analysis are grounded in general systems theory, whereby structures–whether biological, organizational, or social—are best understood as the result of ongoing and evolving processes of interrelation among various system elements. The concept of network implies emergent (rather than static) structures that shift along with the people whose connections construct these webs of significance. Capturing an image of a network is rather like taking a snapshot of an ever-moving phenomenon, transforming this flow into a somewhat arbitrary object. This aspect of network analysis is not generally highlighted in research reports, because the reader/viewer typically only sees the final capture, not the iterative process of creating it from multiple possibilities. In theory, if not practice, then, network approaches focus on action; connections rather than the products of connections.
This process-oriented view is reflected in the way that a network researcher might create, view, recenter, move, or animate network analysis maps throughout the course of a study. Although in many cases, the goal is to identify a structure (if not the structure) with some aim of explaining the general context, the process is much more fluid as the method is actualized. When taking apart the practice, the method becomes one that provides information about: the general shape of a network (in terms of actual or relational size, scope, and range); the position of various nodes (often individual persons), connection between these nodes (generally on/off, although this can also be strength of connection, if variables are combined), the relationship between nodes, to the extent that these can be identified by attributes of a line, and movement (over time or by shifting the focal point of the mapping). Notably, all of these aspects of a network approach are profoundly enhanced by animation technologies, which may account for the growing popularity of this method; it remains a compelling way to try to encapsulate large complex structures of flow in visually comprehensible ways.
When separated from the traditional goals of SNA, which can seem limiting for scholars who embrace a less formulaic way of exploring cultural phenomena, a more general network approach includes a natural inclination toward exploring culture-in-formation: Human and/or non-humans interacting and connecting within temporal frameworks to co-construct patterns and structures of meaning, whether ad hoc and temporary or habitual and highly structured over time. Particularly for complex ecologies characterized by convergence, globalization, multiphrenic concepts of identity, and constant shifts in local and global connections, network analysis tools comprise powerful tools for thinking and can disrupt research methods that are either too rigid or too vague, allowing one to incorporate more performativity, engagement, and movement with and through data. Indeed, in a quite literal sense, network analysis prompts the involvement of more senses in the inquiry process and activates different cognitive centers of the brain.
I haven’t finished Part II yet (now I have, along with Part III and Part IV), where I explore the ways social media researchers (working within qualitative, ethnographic approaches) can use network analysis sensibilities to enhance the analysis of complex mediated social contexts without adopting in whole the premises of Social Network Analysis: First, as a form of generative mapping; second, as a mode of shifting analytical focus from object to motion; and third, as an analytical catalyst for reflexivity. To note, I think there are some fabulous scholars doing this already. Case in point: Adele Clark, whose book Situational Analysis is an excellent combination of grounded theory, symbolic interactionism, and actor network theory.