Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Social networks and organizations: Critique of theoretical foundations

My book report on Social Networks and Organizations, by Kilduff and Tsai. Part Three of a Series.

Chapter Three: Is There Social Network Theory? Kilduff and Tsai acknowledge this obtuse yet persistent question and explore the theoretical foundations of SNA.

Kilduff and Tsai lose me at this point in their book by being a bit too earnest in their treatment of this question. My objection to their earnestness has little to do with SNA and more to do with asking of anything, "Is this a method or a theory?" Using a favorite SNA metaphor to illustrate my point, imagine a serious conversation debating, "Is x-ray imaging a method or a theory?" This is a pragmatic question for academics deciding whether to grant PhDs and other awards to those working on x-rays. For the rest of us, who cares? I just want to know when x-rays are helpful and when they are not.

My personal favorite example of this sort of question is counting: "Is counting a method or a theory?" Most of us experience counting as a useful but humble technique, or method. But any fan of Georg Cantor can tell you that counting is also an extremely subtle realm of profound theory. Less mathematical readers may better identify with this example: "Is language a method or a theory?" If you're like me, this is a fuzzy question because we are equally bad at appreciating illiteracy (experiencing language as method) and Noam Chomsky (understanding language as theory).

I think one reason SNA battles the method vs theory question so hard is because its devotees are still trying to find a home. Just look again at this picture of "web science" by Tim Berners-Lee and you can see how this proposed paradigm has no single foundation from which to proclaim its theoretical rigor. To my eye, the picture has so many overlapping fields that it actually detracts from Berners-Lee's intention to create "web science."

At the end of this chapter, Kilduff and Tsai recommend further reading, including:

Burt, R.S. 1992. Structural holes: The social structure of competition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Granovetter, M. 1973. The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78: 1360-80.

Granovetter, M.S. 1985. Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91: 481-510.

Monge, P.R. and Contractor, N.S. 1999. Emergence of communication networks. In F.M. Jablin and L.I. Putnam (eds), The new handbook of organizational communication: Advances in theory, research, and methods, pp. 440-502. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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