Part IV: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern

Annette Markham

Jan 17, 2012


(From network analysis to network sensibilities: Part IV)

Part I
Part II
Part III

Part IV here

The study of networks is not just the study of how things are connected. It is a way of rethinking what we identify as the object of analysis. Breaking it down to such a level may seem to oversimplify network analysis, but from a methodological perspective, this actually enables us to build the framework pragmatically from the ground up. Arguably, social media are changing the way we experience the world. What we consider self, structure, and ‘the social’ are far more temporal and ad hoc than fixed. Whether or not this is the case or anything radically new, social media help us see how our research contexts are not pre-existing milieus but an assemblage of elements “constituted through the connections or articulations among elements” (Balsamo, 2011, p. 15). These contexts of flow force social researchers to consider the way we have historically conceptualized the object and phenomenon and challenge us to focus on methods for making sense of constantly shifting globalized terrains of meaning.

When operating within a network perspective, it becomes easier to envision location in relation, or an idea of what it might mean to be “situated.” You can see where you are centered, but you can see how that makes everyone else look.  At its best, this stance facilitates strong reflexivity. Once we move past the goal of description, mapping becomes a way of highlighting certain aspects of a situation, a process that simultaneously hides or obscures other plausible or actual aspects. Every iteration frames the phenomenon, but also shapes our experience of the phenomenon. So while network maps can provide a way of seeing differently, they are also ways of locking in a particular view. This is only really a problem when we lose sight of the frame.

Playing with networks can help reveal ways of seeing otherwise. The key to maintaining internal consistency and contextual integrity is to constantly rebuild and shift the networks so that different elements can be studied and different nodes centered. Of course, this has the benefit of engendering a more robust analysis, but here, the salient point is that it can help identify the way that one’s analysis is privileging certain standpoints. This becomes crucial when we approach the final stages of the project, when we draw conclusions about what we’ve analyzed and build the argument for particular audiences. During this stage, we’ll emphasize particular connections, eliminating other options. Interrogating one’s own decisions, analyzing conclusions as networks in themselves, provides another level of ethicality.

In a very fundamental way, adopting a network perspective forces multiple and always-shifting perspectives on any phenomenon. Rather than reducing the scope, the methods of moving through and analyzing various elements of networks generate more data, more directions, and more layers of meaning. If one can embrace the challenge of dealing with such a messy and potentially uncontrollable process, the outcome can yield accounts of social phenomena that are sensitive to irreducible complexity. Because these emerge as a result of a series of decisions, there will always remain multiple possibilities and paths not taken. This may seem unsatisfactory to those of us trained to believe there are no limits to scientific knowledge, but on the flipside, removes the pressure to attempt to provide ‘the’ answer. Weaving an explanation and justification of one’s decision-making process into any final report adds transparency and credibility, whereby the researcher can identify and therefore help make the rationale more obvious to readers. It is important to emphasize, as does Grebe (2010), that the political and ethical power of our attitude and practice toward social inquiry “have profound ethical and political implications. …An epistemological stance that recognises complexity can inform a critical philosophy” (p. 4).

This essay is not about network analysis in the traditional sense. It is about how to broaden our conceptualization about what counts as “method” in the study of contemporary, that is, heavily networked, social life. I focus attention on selected concepts associated with network analysis approaches to describe a robust practice of qualitative inquiry that incorporates motion, movement, connection, and process.

To conceptualize the benefits of employing a network perspective, I have drawn on many other disciplines and perspectives. In doing so, I build sensibilities that work for me. `I find that experimentation with method is a useful, even essential practice, but not without bounds. Gregory Bateson remarked that “advances in science come from a combination of loose and strict thinking, and this combination is the most precious tool of science” (1972, p. 73). The ability to bounce between these modes of thinking enables flexibility and opens the door to following hunches while continuously requiring a sharpening of our disciplinary logics. Mindful engagement of this dualism creates the intellectual space to explore and glean data outside typical research parameters yet provides a mechanism for measuring this freedom against what remains epistemologically sound practice for social research.

A network perspective, loosened from the bounds of its primary disciplinary trajectories, constitutes a range of techniques and approaches that encourage researchers to move into the flow of culture to find meaning. These need not be tied to a particular theoretical position, but can be used as tools to think with, whether it be through drawing more pictures as a part of the systematic process of analysis or by challenging the very foundations of how we have traditionally conceptualized what we consider the research object. So, while I initially took this essay to be an opportunity to critique the traditions of this approach, I ended up finding new ways of grappling with complexity.

Works Cited

Balsamo, A. (2011). Designing culture: The technological imagination at work. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bateson, G. (1972/1987). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.

Grebe, E. (2010). Negativity, difference, and critique: The ethical moment in complexity. In Cilliers, P. & Preiser, R., (Eds). Complexity, difference and identity: An ethical perspective (95–111). Dordrecht: Springer. Available from: [Accessed 13.01.2012].