Open Access

Social Networks of Meaning and Communication


It is very uncommon to meet a social networks analyst worried about the role systems play in their developments. Of course, there was the work from Loet Leydesdor, Harrison White, and a few others. Still, Jan Fuhse had (and has) a particularity: he tried to disentangle the confusing Luhmannian terminology to simplify his concepts and adjust them to the possible combinations with the classical analysis of interactions in social network analysis.

A theoretical starting point for Fuhse was first interaction and culture. Unlike Loet Leydesdor, who starts his reflections from the descriptions of Luhmannian social systems, Fuhse begins his works on the problematization of human interactions entangled with meaning near Harrison White. His studies include acculturation and migration, political discourse analysis, political theory, social grouping, and other classical objects from the social sciences. From Fuhse's point of view, he improves these classical objects by crossing the concepts of meaning (from the point of view of systems theory) and interactions (from the classical vision of past-century structuralism). From my point of view, this book summarizes this trajectory from his last 10 or 15 years. That guarantee a severe reflection on this dialogue between networks and systems.

A different path for SNA

Against the classical definition of a social network as a pattern of relationships due to its number of relations, paths, and frequencies, in Social Networks of Meaning and Communication Jan Fuhse proposes a different approach. Social networks are produced by patterns of expectations always distributed in time. The explanation of the emergent pattern of relationships is meaning, translated as identities, roles, and expectations oriented by communication. That communication frames the interaction and explains the relationship patterns in frequency and number. Thus meaning is no longer an objectionable category to define the structure of social relationships.

The problematization of meaning as a category in the study of social networks is not new. Nevertheless, Fuhse introduces new content to the debate: a general theory of interaction based on social network features and meaning processing as communications. This rewrites classical concepts like frames, identities, groups, institutions, and culture using the social systems theory from Luhmann. Those concepts became the architecture of a new functional-structuralist approach to general social interaction.

Fuhse exposes the convergence between networks and systems. Classical literature speaks about them in-distinctively. For example, Giddens, in its Constitution of Society, presents systems and structures as the same object or the structural hierarchy of social systems proposed by Parsons in its social systems theory. The significant contribution of Fuhse is to present a solid differentiation between system and structure as co-dependents and different categories to describe social relationships: System as communications from Luhmannian tradition and structure as networks of interactions from social network analysis. He meticulously intertwines relationships between actors, the frames of interaction, the construction of identities and roles as communications and expectations, and the actual relationships built in the frame of those communications and expectations.

Unlike the theory of functional social systems of Luhmann, Fuhse proposes an interactional approach to describing the patterns and emergencies of situational systems as patterns of social behavior. His proposal brings in the multidimensionality of relationships. Emergent systems become explorable, as it is possible to map the frequency of interactions and exchanges and the different frames where those interactions happen. The result is a set of juxtaposed networks from various structures of frames. In these structures, actors act as hubs of different dimensionalities. From Fuhse's perspective, it is not enough to map the frequency of relationships in a group; it is necessary to observe the communication content within those interactions and find patterns.

Following interactionist concepts, Fuhse solves the relationship between macro and micro structures using ideas from institutional and cultural theories. This decision has a cost in the frame of the luhmannian systems approach. From a Luhmannian point of view, semantics play a cardinal role in the constitution of a social theory. He never problematizes culture as a concept to define stratified societies (Luhmann 2007). In the frame of a functional society, where communications describe the functionalities available as contingencies of social behavior, semantics belong to codified communications. Fuhse's proposal transforms the concepts of culture and institutions as expectations, not as solidified structures, and remarks on the double contingency between past codified communications and actors.

That is why Fuhse cares about the difference between his proposal's past and actual sociological frames. Particularly on the theme of meaning, he dialogues carefully with the tradition that sustains that meaning is an exclusive phenomenon from the subject and the subjectivity. In the practice of structural-functional analysis, he takes advantage of neo-institutionalism and proposes different levels of institutionalization of communications. In his theoretical proposal, all forms were redefined regarding expectations and communications from identities to roles and groups, ethnicity, gender, and organizations. Nevertheless, he is in debt of a semantic theory that could frame his interaction theory.

Communication networks

Fuhse presents a careful path to describe all possibilities of interaction and the concepts associated: groups and social boundaries, ethnicity and cultural differences, roles and institutions, love and gender, to arrive at his proposal of events and networks. His proposal differs from classical approaches to communication networks of Everett Rogers or Peter Monge and Noshir Contractor. Rogers presents an interactional model of information exchange that depends on the structures of interactions in the whole network, not so far from the classical structuralism of social network analysis. Monge and Contractor presents a model near the structuration theory from Giddens. Both avoid discussing the role of meaning in interaction development, and double contingency is still unsolved.

Fuhse structures communication networks in three levels of meaning processing: the first level is communication as micro-events, where the social network is ephemeral. From this network emerge the second level “through the attribution of communicative events as actions of identities” (p. 256). The third level “consists of the structures of meaning available within a given context, its culture” (p. 257). This approach acts as a Russian doll–containing interaction and communication as different objects but is imbricated in the permanent becoming of the production of temporary interactions. Those interactions become expectations for future interaction and new futures for identities and cultures under the same or different relationship frames.

This book is a new theory of interaction based on social networks and systems. Communication networks are served in a different shape. This shape allows different paths for proposing new research objects in the classical discussions on interactions. His proposal's success can only be assessed in the practical application of the challenges of the computational social sciences and the new developments in interactional studies.

Publication timeframe:
Volume Open
Journal Subjects:
Social Sciences, other