Social networks as aggregators

We think of social phenomena as “relational” in some important respect. Individuals contribute to social outcomes through structured and dynamic relationships with other individuals. So outcomes are not just heaps of aggregated individual behavior; rather, they are the filigreed result of interlinked, coordinated, competitive and sometimes unintended actions of people who have intentional and structural relationships to each other. And we think of these relationships, often, in terms of the metaphors and analytics of social “networks.” So it is worthwhile giving some thought to how the machinery of social network theory can help us in better understanding the ways that social processes unfold. Here is a nice passage from Mario Diani’s introduction to Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.

It is difficult to grasp the nature of social movements. They cannot be reduced to specific insurrections or revolts, but rather resemble strings of more or less connected events, scattered across time and space; they cannot be identified with any specific organization either, rather they consist of groups of organizations, with various levels of formalization, linked in patterns of interaction which run from the fairly centralized to the totally decentralized, from the cooperative to the explicitly hostile. Persons promoting and/or supporting their actions do so not as atomized individuals, possibly with similar values or social traits, but as actors linked to each other through complex webs of exchanges, either direct or mediated. Social movements are in other words, complex and highly heterogeneous network structures. (1)

This passage emphasizes quite a few themes that have been important throughout UnderstandingSociety — the heterogeneity of social phenomena, the difficulty of formulating a clear understanding of social ontology, and the challenge of representing the processes of aggregation through which individual social actions contribute to mid- and large-scale social outcomes.

So how do the analytical resources of network theory contribute to a better understanding of the ways that actions aggregate into outcomes?  Diani emphasizes several ways in which network analysis has contributed to the study of contentious politics.

Network analysis as it is best known developed with reference to a ‘realist’ view of social structure as networks which linked together concrete actors through specific ties, identifiable and measureable through reliable empirical instruments.  This view represented an alternative to both views of social structures as macro fores largely independent from the control of the specific actors associated with them …., and views of structure as aggregates of the individual actors sharing determinate specific traits (5).

So if we take it as a plain fact about the social world that individuals have a range of meaningful and material relationships with other individuals, both proximate and distant, then it is plainly important to understand the effects that those relationships have on their consciousness and behavior.  These causal relationships are likely to extend in both directions — from the network to the actor, and from the actor back into the network.

What kinds of social relationships are most relevant to understanding social processes like contentious movements?  Particularly important are “personal ties linking prospective participants to current activists or dense counter-cultural networks affecting rates of mobilization in specific areas” (3).  Diani mentions “personal friends, relatives, colleagues, and neighbours; … people who share with prospective participants in some kind of collective engagement, such as previous or current participation in other movement activities, political or social organizations, and public bodies” (7).  To this list we might add membership and interaction within the kinds of civic and communal organizations that Robert Putnam emphasizes in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Here is the key point: different people find themselves in very different networks of social connections, and these relationships contribute to their social and political consciousness in diverse ways.  If we are interested in the spread of militant civil rights activism, as Doug McAdam is in Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970, or in the spread of fascist activism and mobilization in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, as Michael Mann is in Fascists, it is highly relevant to discover the relationships and organizations through which individuals come into contact with each other and with the ideas of the nascent movements.  Likewise, if we are interested in the proliferation of support for the Deacons of Defense in the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, as Lance Hill is in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement, then it is important to identify the personal and organizational linkages through which ordinary people became aware of this response to white supremacy and violence.  Communication of ideas and political emotions requires a mechanism connecting the “signallers” and those to whom the messages eventually percolate, and this is not a depersonalized, homogeneous process.

Recruitment and mobilization is one aspect of contentious politics where social networks are plainly important.  Relationships in the workplace, the neighborhood, or the church or mosque are a likely location for the diffusion of a range of socially relevant material — news, gossip, indignation, shared views about politics.  And these relationships are a potential vector for the recruitment of followers and activists for a range of new political ideas — from civil rights to Tea Party to fascism.

Identifying coalitions of collective actors is another area of current research.  Once a topic has gained some degree of visibility and salience, it is likely enough that multiple groups will begin to focus on it.  Anti-tax activism is a good example — dozens of “citizen-based” organizations emerged in California in the 1950s and 1960s with the overall goal of limiting property and income taxes in the state, and it is useful to track the emerging relationships that developed among these organizations and their activists.

Diani also highlights the role that concrete social networks play in “framing and tactical adaptation of action repertoires” (4).  Framing has to do with the ways that issues are understood by the participants; so this topic unavoidably has to do with culture and social interpretation.  But the ways in which cultural frames are conveyed to people through a population are material processes that can be studied empirically.  And social networks play a key role in these processes.  As people interact with their friends and associates, they develop their political and social representations of the society around them.  These interactions are the direct embodiment of their social networks.  Diani singles out “communitarian and subculture networks” for particular attention: “communitarian ties operate at a minimum to strengthen the identity and solidarity among movement activists and sympathizers. At the same time, though, they provide the specific locus of social conflict in those cases where the challenge is eminently on the symbolic side and where, in other words, the definition of identities and the preservation of opportunities for the enactment of alternative lifestyles are mainly at stake” (9).  These features of identity-based mobilization, through networks of like-minded individuals, are important in Michael Mann’s analysis of the rise of fascism in Fascists

 as well:

The fascist core consisted everywhere of two successive generations of young men, coming of age between WorldWar I and the late 1930s. Their youth and idealism meant that fascist values were proclaimed as being distinctively “modern” and “moral.” They were especially transmitted through two institutions socializing young men: secondary and higher education, encouraging notions of moral progress, and the armed forces, encouraging militarism. Since the appeal was mainly to young men, it was also distinctly macho, encouraging an ethos of braggart, semi-disciplined violence, in peacetime encouraging militarism to mutate into paramilitarism. The character of fascism was set by young men socialized in institutions favorable to moralizing violence and eventually to murder. Yet the similarity of values between paramilitarism and militarism always gave fascism a capacity to appeal to armed forces themselves, not to the extent of inducing military rebellions but to the extent of generating sympathy there that at its most extreme could immobilize the army. (26)

“Fascists” were not fully formed at the moment they entered the movement. People may formally sign up for a movement and yet possess only a rudimentary knowledge of it – sympathy for a few slogans, respect for a charismatic F¨uhrer or Duce, or simply following friends who have joined. Most recruits joined the movement young, unmarried, unformed, with little adult civilian experience. On them, fascist parties and paramilitaries were especially powerful socialization agencies. These movements were proudly elitist and authoritarian, enshrining a pronounced hierarchy of rank and an extreme cult of the leader. Orders were to be obeyed, discipline to be imposed. Above all, they imposed a requirement of activism. Thus militants experienced intense emotional comradeship. Where the movement was proscribed, clandestinity tightened it. Many activists lost their jobs or went into prison or exile. Though this deterred many of the more fainthearted, among those remaining active such constraints further tightened the movement. (28)

The social processes that Mann describes here have to do with all three aspects — recruitment, mobilization, and framing; and they depend on the networks of relationships through which the core fascist values and worldviews were transmitted to new recruits.  Institutions were key in this transmission — the military, the workplace, the youth organization — and a large part of their influence was their ability to create a significant cohort of young men with a specific set of set of social relationships.

The lens of social networks, in short, seems to be a very powerful tool for understanding the processes of aggregation — upward, downward, and lateral — through which ideas, grievances, and actors come together into major social upheavals and movements.

What is perhaps more difficult to see, though, is how to engage in empirical research on the concrete networks of social relationships that have important effects on outcomes we care about.  As the United States moved towards civil war in 1860 and 1861, there were hundreds or thousands of individuals in the U.S. Army officer corps who had antecedently mixed loyalties — Southern birth, family still residing in the South, but a tradition of education and service within the U.S. Army.  So what accounts for the choices that were made by various officers when they had to decide — North or South? It is intuitively plausible that each officer’s concrete social network played an important role in his decision — appeals from family and friends, business relationships in Virginia, long-standing relationships with senior Northern officers, an education and cohort at West Point.  But it is not entirely clear how to turn this plausible view into a feasible research plan.

This is one reason why the Diani volume is such a worthwhile contribution. Most of the contributors focus their work on specific empirical problems in the field of social contention. Maryjane Osa looks at activist networks in the Polish People’s Republic; Christopher Ansell looks at community activism in the San Francisco Bay environmental movement; Jeff Broadbent looks at social networks in the Japanese environmental movement; and Chuck Tilly and Lesley Wood look at networks in contentious episodes in British history around 1828.  These are concrete, empirical-historical efforts to take the guiding ideas of network analysis and discover some substantive insights into the specific ways that a variety of protest movements unfolded.  And they give a better understanding of the contribution that social network analysis can offer to concrete historical research.

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