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Social networks are social relationships between two or more people (known as nodes) who have developed some kind of tie with each other (Wasserman and Faust 1994). “The social network perspective focuses on relationships among social entities; examples include communications among members of a group, economic transactions between corporations, and trade or treaties among nations” (Wasserman and Faust 1994, p. i). People use social networks to acquire new information, exchange information, find jobs, learn about new opportunities, and exchange new ideas, among other purposes. Individuals can acquire social ties in a number of social settings such as jobs, social organizations, religious organizations, political organizations, sports groups, a group of friends, and so on.
Wasserman and Faust (1994, p. 4) argue that the social network perspective should take into account the following:
- Actors and their actions are viewed as interdependent rather than independent, autonomous units.
- Relational ties (linkages) between actors are channels for transfer or “flow” of resources (either material or nonmaterial).
- Network models focusing on individuals view the network structural environment as providing opportunities for or constraints on individual action.
- Network models conceptualize structure (social, economic, political, and so forth) as lasting patterns of relations among actors.
In general, social networks are seen as providing individuals or larger groups or social entities with positive outcomes as a result of the information and social support the individuals who belong to a specific social network receive. Those who belong to a social network enjoy the advantages of social capital. The concept of social capital (Loury 1977; Bourdieu 1986; Coleman 1988) has been used to account for the advantages that network members accrue as a result of their inclusion.
According to the organizational literature, the position of the actors in a network or the network structure in which those ties are embedded would in most cases dictate the extent to which belonging to a social network can provide individuals with new information and opportunities that can help them perform better in society or facilitate their upward socioeconomic mobility. For example, central actors can influence how information gets distributed to other members in the network, referred as network centrality (Wasserman and Faust 1994). Also, a key actor could control the information that flows between two independent groups, a situation known in the organizational literature as structural holes (Burt 2001). Also, network homogeneity or structural equivalence (if ties are similar), or network heterogeneity (if ties are different), can influence the kinds of advantages or disadvantages network members might experience as a result of their membership in the network (Wasserman and Faust 1994).
Besides the structure and/or the position in the network, tie strength could also dictate the network’s effectiveness. Mark Granovetter, first in his work The Strength of Weak Ties and later on in his book Getting a Job, revolutionized the organizational literature by introducing the concept of the “strength of weak ties” (Granovetter 1973,
1995). He argues that belonging to an open network and having access to weak ties (or acquaintances) can provide individuals with new valuable information that can help them get better jobs. Even though one might not have a strong relationship with those individuals, they are able to share new knowledge and important information that otherwise would not be available in a closed network with mostly strong ties. Those who belong to closed networks with mostly strong ties are considered to be at a disadvantage given the limited amount of information shared by the members of such networks. Studies on racial segregation (Massey and Denton 1993) have suggested that members of closed networks or cliques have less chance to learn about new important information and that the information that flows in those networks tends to be redundant and inefficient.
According to Granovetter (1982), strong ties and closed networks could be advantageous only for those who face risk and high levels of uncertainty. However, studies of entrepreneurial networks among Asian immigrants in the United States have shown that for certain immigrant groups, having access to strong ties in a closed network of highly educated or high status individuals who share high levels of socioeconomic status tend to receive the social support necessary to be successful as new entrepreneurs (Light, Sabagh, Bozorgmehr, and DerMartirosian 1994).
Also, the distinction between kin and nonkin ties is fundamental to the understanding of how social networks operate (Adams 1967; Fischer 1982). While individuals can pick their neighbors, friends, or coworkers, they cannot pick the members of their kin (Wierzbicki 2004). In addition, kin ties are everlasting, while any other kind of ties can be dropped at any time (Wierzbicki 2004). Kin ties can be extremely important because they can provide assistance in times of crises, while any other kind of tie might not.
Neighbors can also be important ties in social networks depending on the relationship between neighbors. According to Fischer (1982), neighbors tend to be similar in race and socioeconomic status, and the individual has the freedom to develop or avoid strong ties with neighbors. Proximity is the most important factor in ties between neighbors. Such proximity can become important because it allows for social interactions that could be more difficult to achieve with other kinds of ties.
Today, technological advances such as the development of personal computers, Internet access, e-mail, and cell phones has provided advantages and disadvantages to the development of social ties. While individuals can communicate more often through e-mail and share more information, physical contact has become less frequent. People who are far from each other, even on the other side of the planet, can be in touch every day through the Internet, while those who work together next to each other can also communicate through the computer, limiting their physical and social contact.
Organizational and management literature also uses social networks as the basis for the distribution of information, which could lead to the spread of ideas and innovations and the development of new enterprises (Coleman, Katz, and Menzel 1957; Burt 1987).
Several topics have been studied using the social network perspective approach, including occupational mobility (Breiger 1981, 1990), networks of friends in urban cities (Fischer 1982), the world political and economic system (Snyder and Kick 1979), markets (Berkowitz 1988; White 1981), six degrees of separation (Watts 2003), social networks and international migration (Wierzbicki 2004), and the networks of elite Americans and politicians (Domhoff 1998), among many other. Most people around the world are now aware of the power of social networks and how knowing someone or meeting someone could change one’s future. Advances in technology are helping this task, greatly facilitating communication among actors from any part of the world.
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