networks and social networking
Can’t get enough social network research? The September issue of the American Journal of Sociology will be a real treat for you. Three of the six articles in the issue deal with network dynamics. Henning Hillman examines how within-community ties sustain local solidarity during the state building process. Daniel Menchik and Xiaoli Tian look at the process of email exchange in ongoing social interaction. And Vincent Buskens and Arnout van de Rijt, in the precisely titled “Dynamics of networks if everyone strives for structural holes,” look at network evolution.
The latter paper builds on the premise that actors benefit from occupying brokerage positions in a network, i.e. filling a structural hole by connecting two otherwise disconnected actors/groups. Buskens and van de Rijt then ask, what happens to a network if everyone in the network tries to maximize the benefits attained through brokerage? Using simulation models in which the strategic calculation of “structural entrepreneurs” is to eliminate constraint – i.e., add or drop ties that so as to limit the number of alternative paths through which the information/resources you are trying to broker can travel – the authors show that a stable network emerges. A stable network is one in which no actor can add or drop a tie without increasing the constraint of some other actor in the network. The simulations also demonstrate a point that Burt had theorized – if all actors in a network are seeking to maximize the benefits accrued through brokerage, over time the network leads to to the evaporation of structural advantages for any given actor.
Of course, we know that real-life networks (like markets) are not Pareto efficient/stable. Individuals lack a great deal of information about their networks (which makes it difficult to eliminate constraint), have different preferences in forming relationships, have different relationship-building capabilities, etc. It is the heterogeneity in actors’ preferences, information, and capabilities that leads to opportunities for structural entrepreneurship. The model presented in this paper, however, usefully points out that as actors become more strategic in their social networking, any given actor in that network is likely to lose some of the advantages attached to their specific structural position.