Definition

Network, perhaps appropriately, is linked to a variety of origins. According to the Oxford English Online Dictionary (OED), network stems from the Dutch word netwerk, German Netzwerk, Danish netværk, and Swedish nätverk. Its first use is from Exodus 38:4 and in pre-modern time, largely referred to work that uses intersecting sets of threads into net-like material objects. However, as society moved through macro changes in industrialization and urbanization, network began to expand its reference to include intangible concepts like parliamentary proceedings, commercial trade regions, and social relations (OED). As such, network is currently and usually thought of as a “web of connections which link objects, institutions, and/or people” (Webster, 2005, p. 239). Moreover, it was not until the mid-20th century that network was first used as a distinctive methodology of the social sciences and unique feature of social theory.


Network and Communication Research

Empirical research in the 20th century (for a detailed history, see Barabasi, 2003, p. 9-54; Scott, 2003, p. 7-37; Wasserman & Faust, 1994, p. 6-13) describe network as a set of nodes (the actors in a network) and links (the lines connecting actors together). This framework moves beyond methodological atomism commonly found in communication research by focusing on the relations between individuals (rather than attributes) and how individuals are embedded within network structures (Wasserman & Faust, 1994, p.4). Communication scholars have typically focused on communication as the relation between nodes and how these relations can explain phenomena relevant to different communication subfields (Poole & Walther, 2002, p. 22). Classical communication network research include Milgram’s (1967, p. 66-7) unconventional study showing the small-world aspects (a.k.a. six degrees of separation) of social networks and Granovetter’s (1973, p. 1369-73) work on the rich information opportunities of weak social ties. Following advances in social network analysis throughout the 20th century, many sub-areas of communication have begun to utilize network methods.


Network and Interorganizational Communication

Perhaps the most popular area of communication network research has been in organizational communication. This research “demonstrates that the patterns of relationships among actors are indispensable to understanding a wide range of organizational phenomena” (Kalleberg, Knoke, & Marsden, 1995, p. 3). In intraorganizational communication , research into networks has historically focused on how networks and network structure impact organizational performance (Flap, Bulder, & Volker, 1998, p. 110-113). Examples of research include how intraorganizational communication networks can become unstable (Danowski & Edison-Swift, 1985, p. 266), impact how managers handle conflict (Morrill, 1991, p. 888), and influence job-related opinions (Johanson, 2000, Table 2, p. 412). More recent work by Rank, Robins, and Pattison (2009) focused on how intraorganizational networks are structured and some of the mechanisms driving these configurations (p. 14-16). In a different vein, interorganizational communication typically uses network analysis to focus on how organizations are embedded in diverse environments with other organizations (Scott, 1987, p. 131). That is, organizations are usually the nodes and the relations are the communication ties between organizations.

Empirical interorganizational communication network research span such diverse areas as:
  • civil society movements (Doerfel & Taylor, 2004),
  • strategic firm alliances (Gulati & Higgins, 2003),
  • corporate manger professional networks (Chua et al., 2008),
  • diverse political organizations (Knoke, 1994),
  • non-governmental organizations (Atouba & Shumate, 2010; Shumate & Dewitt, 2008),
  • international telecommunication organizations (Kim & Barnett, 2000), and
  • the nation-state (Seungyoon et al., 2007).

An often cited attempt to explain interorganizational networks is Monge and Contractor’s (2003, p. 56, see Table 2.4) multitheoretical multilevel model (MTML), which summarizes different organizational networks according to different levels of analysis (actor, dyad, triad, and global) and variables. The variables can have endogenous attributes, referring to variables inside the network, and exogenous attributes, referring to characteristics and psychological variables of nodes. Thus, depending on the level of analysis and type of attribute, different motivations can explain the configuration of the network (or structural signatures) .

In health communication, network research typically focuses on the consequences of networks and how they affect health outcomes (i.e., Kana’Iaupuni’s et al., 2005, p. 1154, Table 3.). For instance, Pearson, Steglich, and Snijders (2006) show that adolescents were more likely to assimilate to the alcohol and cannabis behaviors of adolescents in their friendship-communication network (p. 60, Table 4b, p. 61, Table 4c). Recently, media studies typically have focused on the overall network structure of mass media flows. For instance, Tsan-Kuo’s et al. (2009, p. 151, Figure 2) research shows the uneven distribution of international news website’s hyperlink networks.


Network: Theory and society

Instead of network as a set of interrelated nodes, network as a theory takes a much broader form, referring to social, cultural, political, economic processes and changes in the human condition. Perhaps the most influential social theorist applying network concepts is Manuel Castells, whose trilogy on the network society has been translated into 22 languages. Following the move from the Industrial Revolution towards the Information Technology Revolution, Castell’s (1996) basic argument is that networks, activated by information and communication technologies (p.69-76), are the new social structures that make up society (p. 28-45). In the network society, Castells (2009) argues that communication is the key source of power because it is only through communication that individuals can perceive power (p. 4-9 & p. 416-427). Similarly, Juris (2008) argues that networking through horizontal and decentralized communication structures has become a new cultural and political value and “model for reorganizing society as a whole” (p. 15). In a dissenting voice, van Dijk (1999) argues that Castell’s and others have mistaken the basic unit of the network society, which is still individuals, groups, organizations and not society itself. What has only changed is how they are now linked by networks (p. 24). In a similar vein, Grewal (2008) posits a theory of network power in which diverse social, economic, political, cultural networks, by the sheer force of their size (p.31-35), can indirectly force individuals and groups to adopt their standards (p. 17-31) (e.g., the English language). Network is also associated with theories of structuralism in sociology (Wasserman & Faust, 1994, p. 14), which analyze individual statuses and positions in networks to explain social phenomena (Wellman & Berkowitz, 1988, p. 19-61; see also Friedkin, 1998). Finally, network is the foci of actor-network theory, which attempts to make sense of heterogeneous sociological networks, which include relations between tangible objects and semiotic concepts (Latour, 2005, p. 21-26) . Marijuana

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References

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