Philosophy of SNA - Response Curation

Philosophy of SNA

Does anyone have articles, papers, pointers or opinions on the Philosophy of SNA? In particular, from a contemporary philosophical perspective, how does SNA create meaning and make sense? How do realism, nominalism, rationalism, empiricism, skepticism, idealism, pragmatism, phenomenology, certainty, existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, etc., influence, guide or otherwise impact SNA?


Ron Breiger, Sociological Insight of Great Thinkers, Baruch Spinoza: Monism and Complementarity, Praeger 2011

Boudourides, M.A. The Relational Ontology of Social Network Theories, Nessie 1 Fire-Works, Juin 2009

Boudourides, M.A. On Minimal Relations, Nessie 2 Vespusia, Juillet 2009

Boudourides, M.A. Hegel and Networks, Presented at the Sunbelt XXX International Social Network Conference, Riva del Garda, Italy, June 29 – July 4, 2010

Granovetter, Mark  Myth of SNA as Special Method Sunbelt (1990)

Mark is introducing pragmatism to sociology in his new book and Durkheim explicitly dissed it in a book he wrote, but that is sociology in general, not SNA. As Mark says in this paper, SNA is a method, sort of like bookkeeping and does not have any philosophical dimension. Granovetter, White and Tilly use networks as the bases for a description of social structure but White explicitly eschews any specific philosophical position and adopts whatever in useful for the particular thing he is looking at. He can switch from Nominalist to Realist in the same paragraph.

Donald Steiny


Each year, since 2007, the Sunbelt International Social Network Conference conducts workshops on the Philosophy of SNA. The 2012 conference, Sunbelt XXXII, is scheduled for March 12-18, 2012 in Redondo Beach, California USA.



I first came across SNA in 2003 as one of the first Cynefin practitioners. Dave Snowden introduced it as a methodology for use under complex conditions, where dependent on the nature of the SNA, it could be seen as an emergent methodology.

The central challenge for western trained thinkers is to use emergence under complex conditions; SNA's success, is based on the fact that it works where other things don't, that it is a help to make sense when the going gets complex. As the understanding of how the appropriate tool is needed for each of the five main systemic contexts - simple linear, expert linear, disorder, complex and chaotic - so the philosophy of systemics will be wider understood, and SNA has a central place in this view of the world.

- Julian Stiles
Complexity Science


I think this article raises a significant point for all to consider, whether one intends to use SNA for business or academic purposes. I know I have had numerous instances where I have considered whether the results I am seeing are realistic, valid, and compelling conclusions from the data or flights of fancy. Without positioning my efforts on a philosophical scale, can I reach sound conclusions? I know the math is accurate, but years of watching engineers fail to evaluate the results of a calculation make me conscious of the ability to overlook the obvious.

- Chris Hutchins
Social Network Analysis in Practice


I found the field of social network analysis by originally researching trust in organizations. The topic of trust led me to social capital. Without understanding these two constructs, the glue that actually makes the network hold together, social network analysis among individuals (most likely) has no real meaning. It does not mean that structural analysis of other concepts or connections has no meaning, however. I have seen SNA used for a wide variety of purposes. has some good examples.

- Nanette A. Cowardin-Lee
Social Network Analysis in Practice

As I remember it I argued back then (and would still take the position) that SNA is a good diagnostic tool if used between groups or identities but has dubious utility and ethical issues if used between individuals. My views can be found here:

- Dave Snowden
Complexity Science


I suggest Monge, P. R., & Contractor, N. (2003). Theories of Communication Networks. New York: Oxford University Press. I have found the field of organizational communication to provide rich sources for most of the -isms you mention.

- Susan Grant

The closest I've seen to a philosophic perspective on social network analysis is from Marin and Wellman (2009): "Social network analysis takes as its starting point the premise that social life is created primarily and most importantly by relations and the patterns formed by these relations. Social networks are formally defined as a set of nodes (or network members) that are tied by one or more types of relations (Wasserman and Faust, 1994). Because network analysts take these networks as the primary building blocks of the social world, they not only collect unique types of data, they begin their analyses from a fundamentally different perspective than that adopted by individualist
or attribute-based social science." (p. 1)

These comments go to the question of how SNA creates meaning: the meaning of SNA lies in the patterns of interaction it reveals.

Reference: Marin, A. and B. Wellman (2009). Social Network Analysis: An Introduction. Handbook of Social Network Analysis (due in 2010). P. Carrington and J. Scott. London, Sage: 23.

- Donald Philip
Social Network Analysis in Practice



Take a look at Herbert Spencer who is a positivist, a contemporary of Comte and one of the founders of sociology. He argues that individuals have no influence and that social action is always the consequence of the history of interaction. He felt that, in principle, society was perfectly predictable. Of course, our later understanding that there were "complex" systems makes that kind of determinism seem silly now, but that is a pillar of sociology (and of course, Comte, who invented both word "sociology" and the word "positivism').

The POINT of network sociology is to have some way of measuring social structure that does not reduce individuals to aggregate properties. Look at my Wikipedia entry on Harrison White. White's "Chain's of Opportunity" was a breakthrough because it demonstrated a way of doing this. Harrison is ill now and I can't discuss this with him, but though Mark does not read much philosophy but in his new book he argues that the philosophical practice of sociology is ultimately pragmatic (as, I would say, is the modern scientific method). I do discuss this with him and am reading the relevant chapters in his book and commenting. SNA then, is a way of acting that we can have a practical consequence that becomes our conception, we can do something and see the results of our actions and the aggregation of the results becomes "truth." This is subtly different than Empiricism because it is not making claims about "reality" except, perhaps, allowing for the construction of social reality.

SNA can be said to live within a philosophical context. Despite what Durkheim thought (he was a follower of Comte and an empiricist) I agree with Mark and Harrison and strongly support pragmatism as the philosophical underpinnings of SNA and sociology in general.

Peirce was a big fan of Thomas Reid who totally bypassed the epistemological problems that had bedeviled mankind since as far back as we have records, the Pyhrronic problem of regression. For any knowledge claim we can always ask the question "how do we know that is true?" We go into infinite regress or circularity. We have to pick some arbitrary point to stop and that is what differentiates various epistemological approaches. Reid picked "common sense." We have to be careful that we do not get sidetracked by equivocation on the meaning of "common sense" and I take it in Peirce's (CS Peirce, the founder of Pragmatism) formulation as the consensus that community arrives at as the result of an infinite number of trials over an infinite time. He is talking about interaction with something, not just thought experiments or "common sense" such as biases and lazy thinking. Reid was more fuzzy but that was closer to his meaning.

So back to the question, I suppose, when I think about it, that there is what could be called "philosophical" thinking about SNA. Ducan Watts discusses this a bit in his new book. The two poles are the idea that social structure is completely the result of independent agents interacting according to internal rules and the other is that there is some external social structure that influences the action of the agents. The hard version of this is Spencer's where the agents have not independent action at all. However, there is no difference philosophically, because both views are Positivist, Empiricist, and Solipsistic views.

Of course, White and Tilly both introduce the idea of networks as "stories" which would allow a completely interpretive view. However, they do not abandon them as measurement construct and White explicitly says that networks are "both phenomenological realities and measurement constructs" which introduces potential ambiguous interpretations in standard epistemological accounts.

There are people who have used in SNA in all of the above senses, so to find a "philosophy of SNA" does not seem possible.

Even considering SNA a "management technique" seems a bit odd to me. I can see how it would be adjunct to a management technique and provide information to make decisions about actions to take but it is hard to see how it would direct action in and of itself.


Donald Steiny




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