Social Interaction: Networks
Sociologists study social networks because networks provide the structural element of the mechanism of social interaction. Sociologists consider social interaction to be the basis of the relationship between society and the individual and have called it the central problem of sociology. This article will explore the sociology of social networks in four parts: (1) an overview of network types including informal, formal, social, and interpersonal networks; (2) a description of common methods for studying networks and social support such as social network analysis and social network inventories; (3) a discussion of the primary theoretical and historical foundation of networks; and (4) an exploration of the ways in which gender affects network relationships, experiences, and outcomes. Understanding the role that networks play in society is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of social interaction.
Keywords Collective Behavior; Embeddedness; Formal Networks; Group; Informal Networks; Interpersonal Networks; Network Type; Social Network Analysis; Social Network Inventories; Social Networks; Society; Sociology
Social Interaction in Groups
Networks, including their influence and language, are studied across the social, behavioral, natural, and physical sciences (Pescosolido, 2006). Within sociology, social interaction is considered to be the basis of the relationship between society and the individual, and many sociologists have called it the central problem of sociology. Sociologists study social networks because they provide the structural element of the mechanism of social interaction. Social networks are the connecting structures that build friendship groups, organizations, and global relationships. They serve multiple social functions including social support, social influence, social engagement, personal contact, intimacy, attachment, and access to material resources. Social networks hold information and content, and they can help form individuals' beliefs and action scripts. For example, a social network, such as families or friendship groups, might be liberal or conservative and influence its members' political thought or action. The social network perspective prioritizes the social ties surrounding individuals over sociodemographics.
Sociology, anthropology, psychology, and economics all study social networks. All of the social science disciplines were strongly influenced by Mark Granovetter's work on social embeddedness, which today is one of the most influential strains of contemporary social network theory. Exploring how social actors function within networks, he developed his theory of embeddedness, or the trust that is generated by personal relations and structures and networks. Granovetter's theory of embeddedness, which emerged in the 1980s, marked a shift from a quantitative focus on network analysis to a qualitative, case-based focus on network activity. His theory has helped social scientists study how social networks are initiated, coordinated, and terminated. It has lead social network researchers to study the quality of social networks and the structural properties of social networks to identify the factors that facilitate the building of trust relationships. The flexible, plastic nature of the networks concept has facilitated cross-disciplinary exchange on subjects of social interaction, social structures, and social groupings (Grabher, 2006).
Understanding the role that networks play in social life is vital background for all those interested in the sociology of social interaction. This article explores the sociology of networks in four parts:
- An overview of network types including informal, formal, social, and interpersonal networks
- A description of the common methods for studying networks and social support such as social network analysis and social network inventories
- A discussion of the primary theoretical and historical foundations of networks
- An exploration of the ways in which gender affects network relationships, experiences, and outcomes.
Network type refers to the particular structures of the interpersonal groupings in which people are embedded. Different network types have different effects on their members; they provide different levels of social support and opportunity to their members. According to Litwin and Landau (2000), network types are often characterized by criteria such as "size, composition, percentage of intimate ties, frequency of contact, duration of ties, and geographic proximity" (par. 7). Despite the differences between network types, though, networks share some similarities in structure and function (Litwin & Landau, 2000).
Sociologists have found a strong relationship between network type, range of support, and well-being outcomes. In particular, older people's social network types have profound effects on their medical treatment choices and medical outcomes. Social support refers to the range of interpersonal help that people require for daily functioning. Examples of social support include the sense of belonging, cognitive guidance, assistance in fulfilling tasks, love, and admiration. Different network types offer different levels of social support (Litwin & Landau, 2000). Networks types include informal, formal, social, and interpersonal networks.
- Informal networks often exist within formal organizations and practices. Informal networks are the webs of relationships through which people exchange resources and services. Informal networks differ from formal networks in the degree to which membership is voluntary and relationships are unofficial. Informal networks often lead to networking activities which build and nurture "personal and professional relationships to create a system of information, contact, and support" (Emmerik, et. al., 2006).
- Formal networks tend to be public, and officially recognized; they possess identifiable memberships and have explicit structures (Emmerik, et. al., 2006). Examples of formal networks include "narrow family-based and wide family-based networks, friend- or neighbor-based groupings, wider community-focused networks, and private restricted networks" (Litwin & Landau, 2000).
- Social networks refer to social structures comprising nodes connected by shared elements such as values, visions, ideas, financial exchange, friendship, and kinship. Social networks — whether they are families, religious groups, or nations — influence the problem solving approaches of their members. Social network types are diverse: they can be flat or hierarchical, dominating or supportive, and resource rich or resource poor (Pescosolido, 2006). Common social networks include kin networks, family-intensive networks, friend-focused networks, and diffuse-ties networks. Kin networks refer to what are usually small, intimate groupings of relatives. Family-intensive networks are less intimate groupings of relatives. Friend-focused networks are loose networks of acquaintances and friends. Diffuse-ties network comprise second-tier friends and relatives (Litwin & Landau, 2000).
- Interpersonal networks refer to social networks consisting of individuals who all belong to the same social category, such as an ethnicity or profession. Members of interpersonal networks view fellow members according to their social categories. Sociologists have found that shared social categories allow individuals to bond over their similarities. Social categories become the foundation for participation in everyday interpersonal networks. People tend to form their social identities through participation in interpersonal networks. Members in an interpersonal network agreed upon behaviors to define and reinforce their shared membership, social category, and identity. Members of interpersonal networks tend to have specific social roles within the group. Social roles are associated with meeting need satisfaction in groups and maintaining group processes. Individual and group self-worth is related to the standing of one's interpersonal network relative to other interpersonal networks. Interpersonal networks, which offer validation, support, and coordinated group action, meet needs related to self-identification such as self-insight, social comparison, in-group cooperation, and inter-group competition (Deaux & Martin, 2003).
Methods for Studying Networks
Social scientists use multiple methods for studying and measuring networks and social support. Two common methods are social network analysis and social network inventories. Social network analysis examines the social relationships of nodes and connections. Nodes are the individual actors, or clusters, within networks. Connections refer to the relationships between actors, nodes, and clusters. A social network map, which may be represented as a social network diagrams, details all the ties, nodes, and connections within a social network. Social network analysis involves documenting social network mapping and social interaction patterns. Research on social network mapping and social interaction patterns may gather quantitative and qualitative information on demographic background and personality,...
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