Social Networks and Macro-Social Change

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
235 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Emily Erikson, Yale University, New Haven, CT
Abstract: From the Arab Spring to Facebook, social networks in various guises are having an increasingly visible impact on large-scale social transformations occurring in contemporary society. Social networks are particularly central to social change as they are uniquely fluid and dynamic social objects. They can facilitate informal, decentralized cooperation that slices across or exists within the interstices of existing institutions. Thus networks are often at the genesis of new institutions or serve as vehicles through which groups mobilize to overturn existing institutions. A crucial step toward clarifying the relationship between social networks and social change is to first clearly establish how researchers define social networks. There are two important distinctions, one, between method and substantive phenomenon (i.e. tool of analysis or set of relations), and, two, between, a structural pattern and informal relations. A method that charts structural patterns of relations can help delineate exactly what has changed in a process of social transformation, but cannot be an agent driving that change. On the other hand, the substantive phenomenon of informal relations is a likely agent for change -- because those relations are by definition slightly decoupled from stable, reproducing, established institutional structures. Thus the article first sorts the relevant network research into works using networks to describe differences in social structures and works attempting to explain social change by reference to the empirical phenomena of informal networks.

Three characteristics of social networks have stood out as related to the process of and potential for social transformation: decentralization, coordination, and mapping. Decentralization is most often implicated in social change because it decenters power and allows marginal voices to introduce heterodox – i.e. innovative – ideas into existing systems. Thus, for example innovation has been linked to marginality (for a recent example, see Phillips 2013). Informal relations have also been considered a glue that coordinates actors and increases cooperation, making both social movements and even the development of formal institutions possible (for example, McAdams 1986 and Tilly 2005). Finally, researchers often emphasize the importance of networks as mapping agents – relations that bridge across and join otherwise discrete social groups. This aspect of networks is emphasized by researchers considering both innovation within organizations and the innovation of new organizational forms (for example, Burt 2004, Padgett and Powell 2012).

 This organization of the literature makes it possible to take stock of the existing state of knowledge on how social networks are linked to social change, can guide future research, and even provide a basis for thinking through the potentially crucial transformations of public and private occurring in the newly networked public sphere and shared economy. A particular emphasis is put on the relationship between social networks and economic development.