If Parsons had Pajek:  The Relevance of Midcentury Structural-Functionalism to Dynamic Network Analysis


Share / Export Citation / Email / Print / Text size:

Journal of Social Structure

International Network for Social Network Analysis

Subject: Social Sciences


eISSN: 1529-1227





Volume / Issue / page

Volume 20 (2019)
Volume 19 (2018)
Volume 18 (2017)
Volume 17 (2016)
Volume 16 (2015)
Volume 15 (2014)
Volume 14 (2013)
Volume 13 (2012)
Volume 12 (2011)
Volume 11 (2010)
Volume 10 (2009)
Related articles

VOLUME 17 , ISSUE 1 (December 2016) > List of articles

  • |

If Parsons had Pajek:  The Relevance of Midcentury Structural-Functionalism to Dynamic Network Analysis

Benjamin Cornwell * / Edward O. Laumann

Citation Information : Journal of Social Structure. Volume 17, Issue 1, Pages 1-29, DOI: https://doi.org/10.21307/joss-2019-010

License : (CC BY-NC 4.0)



Social network analysis has been one of the most influential scientific revolutions of the past century. Its success has been due, in part, to its methodological sophistication and the emphasis it places on identifying and clearly depicting features of social structure. As such, social network analysis is often viewed in stark contrast to the structuralist paradigm that dominated the social sciences prior to its rise – structural-functionalism – in the mid-20th century. In this paper, we highlight important connections that exist between the key assumptions of social network analysis and the key tenets of some of the most influential structural-functional theories – especially those of Robert K. Merton and Talcott Parsons and their collaborators and followers. We reveal a substantial affinity between some of their most influential ideas and contemporary analysis of social network dynamics, in particular, and several ways in which their work could inform promising advances in this line of research. Our ultimate goal is to highlight the prospect of using these theories to guide future analyses of the dynamics of large social systems and the sequences of real-time action that compose them.

Structural-functionalism and social network analysis are two of the predominant paradigms of the social sciences within the past 75 years. However, following an almost complete paradigm shift in structural sociology, they are generally seen as unconnected. Especially, as expressed in the writings of its most famous architects, Robert K. Merton and Talcott Parsons, structuralfunctionalism is highly abstract and overly generalized. Discrete data on individuals and events were rarely used in structural-functional work, and statements about social structure and processes were almost entirely conjectural. Social network analysis, on the other hand, is concrete and empirical. It hinges on the identification and systematic examination of actual actors and the relationships that exist between them. The two approaches to understanding society were developed by different sets of scholars, were developed in different eras, and established entirely different vocabularies to describe the way society works.  
In these respects, the two paradigms seem, and are generally regarded, to be wholly incompatible. Structural-functionalism was widely criticized and had fallen out of favor by the 1970s. It was around this time that social network analysis began to emerge as a unified structural paradigm. This approach grew partly out of social-anthropological and social-psychological efforts to trace the micro-connections that exist between individual actors in small groups – a practice that was known as sociometry (e.g., Mitchell 1969; Moreno 1934). These methods were soon expanded to include analyses of relationships in larger groups, which involved the organization of data in matrices that could be interrogated mathematically (with the aid of computers) to uncover patterns of relationships. This included formal techniques for studying small groups, such as blockmodeling, as well as graph-theoretic analyses of larger populations (Freeman 2004). Social network analysts, thus, came to underscore the differences between their approach and that of midcentury structural-functionalists (see Granovetter 1990, as discussed below). The explosion of empirical network analysis that followed – with its new vocabulary of precise mathematical terms and its immensely useful visual aids – has, in retrospect, made the tenets of structuralfunctionalism look ungrounded and lifeless.  
The main argument of this paper is that, despite apparent differences between structuralfunctionalism and social network analysis, there are also numerous and instructive affinities between these two paradigms, especially when considering Merton’s middle-range theories and Parsons’ systems-level structural accounts. The first, preliminary, goal of this paper is to highlight some of these affinities (as outlined in the following section). Both of these paradigms emphasize the omnipresence of a social structure that conditions individual agency. Further, both approaches assume that social structure has consequences for actors. While midcentury structural-functionalist scholarship tends to take this structure for granted, social network analysis actively attempts to detect and describe it systematically (Wellman 1983). Both paradigms share similar concerns, and, therefore, ask similar questions about the nature of social structure and agency, with a particular focus on describing those regular connections that are capable of supporting system-level processes, such as diffusion. In addition, both paradigms share an emphasis on the inherently relational nature of society (see the brief discussion of Parsons in Emirbayer 1997). In general, both spend considerable time addressing: 1) connections that exist among social actors and the larger structures or systems that emerge from these connections;1 2) the importance of social roles in shaping the nature of transactions that occur between actors; 3) the dynamics of social structure and the importance of time in understanding social action; and 4) regularity or patterns of social action that occur within social structures. Both paradigms are concerned with actors’ linkages to each other in the context of a larger system consisting of dynamic social relationships.  
The second, and main, goal of this paper is to utilize some of the more valuable insights from these aspects of structural-functionalism to develop theoretical resources for contemporary social network research. One reason to document and revisit the affinities that exist between social network analysis and Merton’s and Parsons’ brands of structural-functionalism is that there is an opportunity to use them to advance social network analysis itself. We argue that this is most evident in the study of social network dynamics. There has long been a fascination with social network change, though the empirical analysis of this has developed somewhat slowly. That society is inherently dynamic – and that the key to understanding how systems work is to observe them in action, over time – is the most critical point on which both paradigms agree. Only by acknowledging this can scholars understand how different actors manage their interactions in real time in a complex world. We, therefore, close this paper by discussing the potential value of Parsons’s and Merton’s mid-century work on dynamic social systems for informing analyses of social network dynamics. Ultimately, our goal is to close the “theory-gap” in social network analysis (Granovetter 1979), especially as practitioners address more complex, dynamic topics.
We begin by reviewing some of the themes in Merton’s and Parsons’s work that are particularly relevant to social network analysis. We will focus on elements of their work that provide insight into dominant issues facing social network researchers in the 21st century. We do not conduct an empirical analysis in this paper, and we do not aim to develop or test specific hypotheses. We appropriate “Pajek” in the title of this paper primarily as a metaphor for the larger body of contemporary network-analytic techniques and tools that were not available to midcentury scholars. We do not refer to the relevance of midcentury scholars to specific commands or other functions of that software, specifically. Rather, by means of theoretical exposition and extensive literature review, we identify several strands of research in the broad area of social network analysis to which midcentury structural-functionalism will provide meaningful theoretical guidance in contemporary applications of social network analysis. Because of its rapidly growing relevance to the field, we focus in particular on the issue of the analysis of social network dynamics or change. Our ultimate goal is to show that some aspects of midcentury structural-functionalist theories provide valuable theoretical foundations for questions and hypotheses that are emerging within the field of social network dynamics.


Content not available PDF Share



Albert, Réka, István Albert, and Gary L. Nakarado. 2004. “Structural Vulnerability of the North American Power Grid.” Physical Review E 69.2:025103.

Bakeman, Roger, and John M. Gottman. 1997. Observing Interaction: An Introduction to Sequential Analysis, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bales, Robert Freed. 1951. Interaction Process Analysis: A Method for the Study of Small Groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Bales, Robert F., and Fred L. Strodtbeck. 1951. “Phases in Group Problem-Solving.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 46:485-495.

Barabási, Albert-László, and Réka Albert. 1999. “Emergence of Scaling in Random Networks.” Science 286(5439):509-512.

Boorman, Scott A. and Harrison C. White. 1976. “Social Structure from Multiple Networks. II.Role Structures.” American Journal of Sociology 81:1384-1446.

Bott, Elizabeth. 1957. Family and Social Network. London: Tavistock.

Box-Steffensmeier, Janet M., and Dino P. Christenson. 2014. “The Evolution and Formation of Amicus Curiae Networks.” Social Networks 36:82-96.

Burt, Ronald S. 1992. Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

------ 2005. Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Butts, Carter T. 2008. “A Relational Event Framework for Social Action.” Sociological Methodology 38:155-200.

Carnegie, Nicole Bohme, Pavel N. Krivitsky, David R. Hunter, and Steven M. Goodreau. 2015.“An Approximation Method for Improving Dynamic Network Model Fitting.” Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics 24:502-519.

Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.  Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton, NJ: Princeton.

Cook, Karen S., and Joseph M. Whitmeyer. 1992. “Two Approaches to Social Structure:

Exchange Theory and Network Analysis.” Annual Review of Sociology 18:109-127.

Cornwell, Benjamin. 2013. “Switching Dynamics and the Stress Process.” Social Psychology Quarterly 76:99-124.

------. 2015. Social Sequence Analysis: Methods and Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cornwell, Benjamin, Timothy J. Curry, and Kent Schwirian. 2003. “Revisiting Norton Long's Ecology of Games: A Network Approach.” City & Community 2:121-142.

Cornwell, Benjamin, L. Philip Schumm, Edward O. Laumann, Juyeon Kim, and Young-Jin Kim. 2014. “Assessment of Social Network Change in a National Longitudinal Survey.” The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 69:S75-S82.

Desmond, Matthew. 2012. “Disposable Ties and the Urban Poor.” American Journal of Sociology 117:1295-1335.

Doreian, Patrick. 2002. “Event Sequences as Generators of Social Network Evolution.” Social Networks 24:93-119.

Doreian, Patrick, Vladimir Batagelj, and Anuška Ferligoj. 2004. Generalized Blockmodeling.

Cambridge University Press.

Doreian, Patrick, Roman Kapuscinski, David Krackhardt, and Janusz Szczypula. 1996. “A Brief History of Balance through Time.” The Journal of Mathematical Sociology 21:113-131.

Doreian, Patrick, and Frans Stokman, eds. 1997. Evolution of Social Networks. London and New York: Routledge.

Durkheim, Émile. [1893] 1997. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: Free Press.

Emirbayer, Mustafa. 1997. “Manifesto for a Relational Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 103:281-317.

Feld, Scott L. 1981. “The Focused Organization of Social Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 86:1015-1035.

Freeman, Linton C. 2004. The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science. Vancouver, BC Canada: Empirical Press.

Friedkin, Noah E. 2006. A Structural Theory of Social Influence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fuhse, Jan A. 2009. “The Meaning Structure of Social Networks.” Sociological Theory 27:5173.

Gershuny, Jonathan. 2000. Changing Times: Work and Leisure in Postindustrial Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gibson, David R. 2005. “Concurrency and Commitment: Network Scheduling and its Consequences for Diffusion.” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 29:295-323.

Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. University of California Press.

Granovetter, Mark S. 1973. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78:1360-1380.

------. 1979. “The Theory-Gap in Social Network Analysis.” Pp. 501-18 in Perspectives on Social Network Research, edited by Paul W. Holland and Samuel Leinhardt. New York: Academic Press.

------. 1990. “The Myth of Social Network Analysis as a Special Method in the Social Sciences.” Connections 13:13-16.

Hare, A. Paul., Edgar F. Borgatta, and Robert F. Bales. 1955. Small Groups: Studies in Social Interaction. New York: Knopf.

Heider, Fritz. 1958. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Heinz, John P., Edward O. Laumann, Robert L. Nelson, and Robert H. Salisbury. 1993. The Hollow Core: Private Interests in National Policy Making. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Heinze, Thomas. 2004. “Dynamics in the German System of Corporate Governance? Empirical Findings Regarding Interlocking Directorates.” Economy and Society 33.2:218-238.

Higley, John, and Michael Burton. 2006. Elite Foundations of Liberal Democracy. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Higley, John, and Richard Gunther, eds. 1992. Elites and Democratic Consolidation in Latin America and Southern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Homans, George C. 1950. The Human Group. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Kim, Sangmoon, and Eui-Hang Shin. 2002 “A Longitudinal Analysis of Globalization and Regionalization in International Trade: A Social Network Approach.” Social Forces 81:445-468.

Kleinhans, Reinout, Hugo Priemus, and Godfried Engbersen. 2007. “Understanding Social Capital in Recently Restructured Urban Neighbourhoods: Two Case Studies in Rotterdam.” Urban Studies 44:1069-1091.

Krivitsky, Pavel N., Mark S. Handcock, and Martina Morris. 2011. “Adjusting for Network Size and Composition Effects in Exponential-Family Random Graph Models.” Statistical Methodology 8:319-339.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laumann, Edward O. 1966. Prestige and Association in an Urban Community. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.

------. 1973. Bonds of Pluralism: The Form and Substance of Urban Social Networks. New York: Wiley Interscience.

Laumann, Edward O., John Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels. 1994. The Social Organization of Sexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laumann, Edward O., Joseph Galaskiewicz, and Peter V. Marsden. 1978. “Community Structure as Interorganizational Linkages.” Annual Review of Sociology 4:455-484.

Laumann, Edward O., and David Knoke. 1987. The Organizational State: Social Choice in

National Policy Domains. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press

Laumann, E. O., P. V. Marsden, and D. Prenskv. 1983. “The Boundary Specification Problem in Network Analysis.” Pp. 18-34 in Applied Network Analysis: A Methodological Introduction, edited by R. S. Burt and M. J. Minor. Beverly Hills: Sage.

Laumann, Edward O., and Franz U. Pappi. 1976. Networks of Collective Action. A Perspective on Community Influence Systems. New York: Academic Press.

Laumann, Edward O., and Richard Senter. 1976. “Subjective Social Distance, Occupational Stratification, and Forms of Status and Class Consciousness: A Cross-National Replication and Extension.” American Journal of Sociology 81:1304-1338.

Laumann, Edward O., and Yoosik Youm. 1999 “Racial/Ethnic Group Differences in the Prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Diseases in the United States: A Network Explanation.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases 266:250-261. 

Lazarsfeld, Paul F., and Robert K. Merton. 1954. “Friendship as a Social Process: A Substantive and Methodological Analysis.” Pp. 18-66 in Freedom and Control in Modern Society, edited by Morroe Berger. New York: Van Nostrand.

Lewis, Kevin, Jason Kaufman, Marco Gonzalez, Andreas Wimmer, and Nicholas Christakis. 2008. “Tastes, Ties, and Time: A New Social Network Dataset Using Facebook.com.” Social Networks 30:330-42.

Linton, Ralph. 1936. The Study of Man: An Introduction. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Lusher, Dean, Johan Koskinen, and Garry Robins, editors. 2013. Exponential Random Graph Models for Social Networks: Theory, Methods, and Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Marcum, Christopher Steven, and Carter T. Butts. 2015. “Creating Sequence Statistics for Egocentric Relational Events Models using informR.” Journal of Statistical Software 64:134.

Marsden, Peter V., and Noah E. Friedkin. 1993. “Network Studies of Social Influence.” Sociological Methods & Research 22:127-151.

McClelland, Kent, and Thoma J. Fararo, eds. 2006. Purpose, Meaning and Action: Control Systems Theory in Sociology. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

McCord, Edward. 1980. “Structural-Functionalism and the Network Idea: Towards an Integrated Methodology.” Social Networks 2:371-383.

McPherson, J. Miller, and Lynn Smith-Lovin. 1987. “Homophily in Voluntary Organizations: Status Distance and the Composition of Face-to-Face Groups.” American Sociological Review 52:370-379.

McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and James M. Cook. 2001. “Birds of a Feather: Homophily in Social Networks.” Annual Review of Sociology 27:415-444.

Merton, Robert K. 1968a. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

------. 1968b. “The Matthew Effect in Science.” Science 159(3810):56-63.

------. 1984. “Socially Expected Durations: A Case Study of Concept Formation in Sociology. Pp. 262-283 in Conflict and Consensus: A Festschrift for Lewis A. Coser, edited by Walter W. Powell and Richard Robbins. New York: Free Press.

------. 1996. “Opportunity Structure.” Pp. 153-161 in On Social Structure and Science, edited by Piotr Sztompka. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Merton, Robert K., Patricia S. West, and Maria Jahoda. 1951. “Patterns of Social Life: Explorations in the Sociology of Housing.” New York: Columbia University, Bureau of Applied Social Research. 

Mische, Ann and Harrison White. 1998. “Between Conversation and Situation: Public Switching Dynamics across Network-Domains.” Social Research 65:695-724.

Mitchell, James Clyde, ed. 1969. Social Networks in Urban Situations: Analyses of Personal Relationships in Central African Towns. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Moody, James, Daniel McFarland, and Skye BenderdeMoll. 2005. “Dynamic Network Visualization.” American Journal of Sociology 110:1206-1241.

Moreno, Jacob. L. 1934. Who Shall Survive? Washington, DC: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Company.

Newcomb, T. N. 1961.The Acquaintance Process. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

Newman, Mark, Albert-László Barabási, and Duncan J. Watts. 2006. The Structure and Dynamics of Networks. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Papachristos, Andrew V. 2009. “Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and the Social Structure of Gang Homicide.” American Journal of Sociology 115:74-128.

Parsons, Talcott. 1937. The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill.

------. 1951. The Social System. New York: Free Press.

------. 1960. Structure and Process in Modern Societies. New York: Free Press.

------. 1963a. “On the Concept of Political Power.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 107:232-262.

------. 1963b. “On the Concept of Influence.” Public Opinion Quarterly 27:37-62.

------. 1970. “Some Problems of General Theory.” Pp. 28-68 in Theoretical Sociology:

Perspectives and Developments, edited by John C. McKinney and Edward A. Tiryakian. New York; Appleton-Century-Crofts. 

Parsons, Talcott, and Robert F. Bales. 1955. Family, Socialization and Interaction Process. Glencoe: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott, Robert F. Bales, and Edward A. Shils. 1953. Working Papers in the Theory of Action. New York: Free Press.

Parsons, Talcott, and Edward A. Shils. [1951] 2008. Toward a General Theory of Action. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

Parsons, Talcott, and Neil J. Smelser. 1956. Economy and Society: A Study in the Integration of Economic and Social Theory. New York: Routledge.

Rogers, Everett M. 1962. Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press.

Sampson, S. F. 1968. "A Novitiate in a Period of Change: An Experimental Case Study of Relationships." Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.

Sasovova, Zuzana, Ajay Mehra, Stephen P. Borgatti, and Michaéla C. Schippers. 2010. “Network Churn: The Effects of Self-Monitoring Personality on Brokerage Dynamics.” Administrative Science Quarterly 55.4:639-670.

Simmel, Georg. [1922] 1955. Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliations, translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

------. [1907] 1978. The Philosophy of Money. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Skvoretz, John, and Thomas J. Fararo. 1996. “Status and Participation in Task Groups: A Dynamic Network Model.” American Journal of Sociology 101:1366-1414.

Small, Mario Luis, Vontrese Deeds Pamphile, and Peter McMahan. 2015. “How Stable is the Core Discussion Network?” Social Networks 40:90-102.

Snijders, Tom A. B., Gerhard G. van de Bunt, and Christian E. G. Steglich. 2010. “Introduction to Stochastic Actor-Based Models for Network Dynamics.” Social Networks 32:44-60.

Spiro, Emma S., Ryan M. Acton, and Carter T. Butts. “Extended Structures of Mediation: ReExamining Brokerage in Dynamic Networks.” Social Networks 35:130-143.

Stadtfeld, Christoph, and Andreas Geyer-Schulz. 2011. “Analyzing Event Stream Dynamics in Two-Mode Networks: An Exploratory Analysis of Private Communication in a Question and Answer Community.” Social Networks 33:258-72.

Stark, David, and Balázs Vedres. 2006. “Social Times of Network Spaces: Network Sequences and Foreign Investment in Hungary.” American Journal of Sociology 111:1367-1411.

Suitor, J. Jill, Barry Wellman, and David L. Morgan. 1997. “It’s about Time: How, Why, and When Networks Change.” Social Networks 19:1-7.

Travers, Jeffrey & Stanley Milgram. 1969. “An Experimental Study of the Small World Problem.” Sociometry 32:425-443.

Turner, T. S. 1968. “Parsons’ Concept of Generalized Media of Social Interaction and Its Relevance for Social Anthropology.” Sociological Inquiry 38:121-134. 

Wasserman, Stanley, and Katherine Faust. 1994. Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Watts, Duncan J. 1999. “Networks, Dynamics, and the SmallWorld Phenomenon.” American Journal of Sociology 105.2:493-527.

Wellman, Barry. 1983. “Network Analysis: Some Basic Principles.” Sociological Theory 1:155200.

Wellman, Barry, Renita Yuk-lin Wong, David Tindall, and Nancy Nazer. 1997. “A Decade of Network Change: Turnover, Persistence and Stability in Personal Communities.” Social Networks 19:27-50.

White, Harrison C. 1995. “Network Switchings and Bayesian Forks. Reconstructing the Social and Behavioral Sciences.” Social Research 62:1035-1063.

------. 2008. Identity and Control: How Social Formations Emerge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

White, Harrison C., Scott A. Boorman, and Ronald L. Breiger. 1976. “Social Structure from Multiple Networks. I: Blockmodels of Roles and Positions.” American Journal of Sociology 81:730-780.

Wiener, Norbert. 1948. Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Willer, David, ed. 1999. Network Exchange Theory. Westport, Connecticut: Preager. 

Willer, Robb, and David Willer. 2000. “Exploring Dynamic Networks: Hypotheses and Conjectures.” Social Networks 22:251-272.

Wrong, Dennis. 1961. “The Oversocialized Conception of Man in Modern Sociology.” American Sociological Review 26:183-196.

Xing, Eric P., Wenjie Fu, and Le Song. 2010. “A State-Space Mixed Membership Blockmodel for Dynamic Network Tomography.” The Annals of Applied Statistics 4:535-566.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1981. Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Zuckerman, Ezra W. 1999. “The Categorical Imperative: Securities Analysts and the Illegitimacy Discount.” American Journal of Sociology 104:1398-1438.



  • |