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

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

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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)

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ABSTRACT

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.

 

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