In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Culture and Networks

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Networks and Culture as Co-Constitutional
  • Forms: Macro and Micro
  • Duality
  • Culture in Interaction
  • Personal Networks and Culture

Sociology Culture and Networks
Neha Gondal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0204


Social networks are a measure of relationships between entities (such as persons, organizations, states, and even concepts), and social network analysis (SNA) is the systematic study of those relations. Much of traditional social network analysis and large parts of contemporary work focuses on studying the structure of relations measured in binary terms as absent or present. While this approach is useful, particularly for discerning structure in large masses of data, it typically proceeds by bracketing the meanings of ties as well as the broader historical, political, and cultural context surrounding the creation and maintenance of those relationships. Starting in the 1990s and burgeoning over the last couple of decades, a new area of scholarship has emerged in the field that takes processes of interpretation and meaning-making seriously. This “cultural turn” in social network analysis has a wide range, including research on the construction of actor identities, relationship between tie-meaning and network structure, association between tastes and network positions, diffusion of cultural materials through networks, emergence of styles through and in interaction, and much more. Another facet of this move toward culture is the explicit or implicit application of social network tools and methodologies to the study of cultural phenomena such as texts, institutions, and narratives. Even though research in this area is flourishing, the literature has not quite coalesced into a distinguishable, institutionalized field. Consequently, there are a variety of ways of cutting into it. One is offered here.

General Overviews

Culture is still relatively new to social network analysis (SNA). Consequently, there are few overview texts. Emirbayer and Goodwin 1994 is an early, rather critical piece on the structural assumptions and focus of SNA highlighting the ways in which actor agency as well as cultural and historical context are missing from the field. Harrison White’s tome Identity and Control, a complex but definitive text in the field, was first published in 1992 (a subsequent edition was released in 2008) (it is discussed in greater detail in Networks and Culture as Co-Constitutional; see White 2008). White focuses on the discursive creation and maintenance of ties rather than assuming their existence. His framework is also useful to think about the cultural context within which networks form and operate, thereby addressing many of the concerns raised by Emirbayer and Goodwin as well as Emirbayer 1997. Pachucki and Breiger 2010 and Mische 2011 provide much more accessible summaries of the state of the field a couple of decades after White’s original work. It would be helpful to read the latter two pieces before reading White, as they provide context and handy summaries of White’s thinking. DiMaggio 2011 is helpful for understanding how SNA might be utilized to study cultural phenomena and processes. Finally, Erikson 2013 distinguishes between what the author calls “formal” and “relational” SNA.

  • DiMaggio, P. 2011. Cultural networks. In The SAGE handbook of social network analysis. Edited by J. Scott and P. Carrington, 286–310. London: SAGE.

    Using numerous research examples, DiMaggio argues that SNA is a “natural methodological framework” for empirically testing theories of culture. He focuses on three areas in culture: production and distribution of culture, boundary creation and maintenance, and symbolic meanings. This article offers an excellent review of the literature in the field and forcefully illustrates why and how SNA is useful for studying cultural phenomena and processes.

  • Emirbayer, M. 1997. Manifesto for a relational sociology. American Journal of Sociology 103.2: 281–317.

    DOI: 10.1086/231209

    Although this paper is not primarily engaged with SNA, Emirbayer provides a solidly theoretical rationale for relational sociology. Distancing himself from methodological individualism, he urges a turn to a dynamical transactional relationalism where entities derive their significance from situations rather than essences. This is similar in spirit to White’s emphasis on identities rather than persons.

  • Emirbayer, M., and J. Goodwin. 1994. Network analysis, culture, and the problem of agency. American Journal of Sociology 99.6: 1411–1454.

    DOI: 10.1086/230450

    While appreciating SNA’s emphasis on relations rather than categories (what they describe as the anti-categorical imperative), Emirbayer and Goodwin critique both positional and relational approaches in SNA for overlooking the role of agency and culture in the context of social change. They categorize empirical research into three groups: structurally determinist, instrumentalist, and constructivist, arguing that each approach, though in reducing degrees, falls short of adequately conceptualizing the role of normative commitments, identities, beliefs, etc. on social action.

  • Erikson, E. 2013. Formalist and relationalist theory in social network analysis. Sociological Theory 31.3: 219–242.

    DOI: 10.1177/0735275113501998

    Emily Erikson draws a productive distinction between the relational and formal branches of social networks analysis. Historically situating the two approaches in Kantian and Pragmatist literatures, she distinguishes between them on the basis of how they deal with content, context, micro-macro links, and agency.

  • Mische, A. 2011. Relational sociology, culture, and agency. In The SAGE handbook of social network analysis. Edited by J. Scott and P. Carrington, 80–97. London: SAGE.

    Mische begins by discussing the intellectual emergence of the cultural turn in SNA. She next devises a fourfold typology showcasing the relationship between networks and culture: networks as conduits of culture, networks and culture as shaping each other, networks of cultural forms, and networks as culture. The typology is accompanied by numerous examples of empirical work especially attuned to literatures in social movements and political sociology.

  • Pachucki, M. A., and R. L. Breiger. 2010. Cultural holes: Beyond relationality in social networks and culture. Annual Review of Sociology 36:205–224.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102615

    The authors develop the heuristic of a “cultural hole” to (1) characterize the cultural bridges between areas of scholarship in the field and (2) challenge Ron Burt’s famous concept of “structural hole.” They provide a comprehensive review of historical evolution of the field as well as empirical scholarship organized by substantive themes in research areas.

  • White, H. C. 2008. Identity and control: How social formations emerge. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    White’s magnum opus is a highly complex treatment of the narrative construction of social networks (discussed in more detail in Networks and Culture as Co-Constitutional). A must-read for any scholar interested in exploring the intersection of social networks and culture. This later edition of the book makes for an easier read.

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