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Living in Networks: The Dynamics of Social Relations

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This book, part of the Structural Analysis in the Social Sciences series, is not simply the report of research, it is a deep, complicated and comparative look into the nature of social ties. Based on their 2011 book published in France, the authors not only translate the wealth of knowledge from that original research on two French cities, they expand and elaborate on more research from the decade that followed. This includes a new chapter on the nature and impact of digital communication. This is not surprising because the research in one city, Caen, represents one of those rare longitudinal studies that took inspiration from Wellman’s pioneering East Yorkers Study which similarly evolved as human contact had a new technological option. In addition, the regional Toulouse study also drew from insights and approaches from Fischer’s groundbreaking study Northern California. Far from being a detriment, the brilliance of the research team to model their research in this way translates into some of the only directly comparable cross-national data that allow a unique look into the similarities and differences of social network formation and change in contemporary societies. As such, their focus is on “everyday sociability” as they call it, reminding us that it is not only these day-to-day contacts but the vestiges of these contacts that form the basic framework of social life. They are not usually not “one-offs”, can be either elective or obligatory, may be old and new, have different tones and colors, and present opportunities or constraints. Together they knit social circles together, imprint on memory, are situated between institutions and individuals, and influence everything from habits to life chances. The writing here is elegant, reminding us of the poetry in social structures and the dance required in the construction and reconstruction of personal networks.

With this theoretical reprise, the authors introduce the Toulouse survey that targeted just shy of 400 individuals living in that city and within an hour’s car ride away. The datasets in this study alone number four – from the targets, the nearly 11 thousand people they name as ties, the over fifteen hundred of those alters that were followed up, and the 249 “disappeared” ties about which more questions were asked of the respondents. The study of young people in Caen was quite different, targeting boys and girls just before a critical life event – the French baccalaureate – and drawing from traditional high schools, vocational schools, and training programs. With respondents from 17 to 23 years of age, 87 individuals were interviewed with a very broad sight on ties and followed for decades. Finally, the researchers drew from two national surveys, one which asked respondents about all non-workplace contacts over a week long period and another that asked about three best friends and any contact that resulted in at least a 5 minutes conversation that week.

The sections that follow provide a in-depth view of the nature of relationships. They describe the nature of social ties (e.g., 82% of important relationships are multiplex), the “anonymous swathe” of people that they might feel they can ask for help but are only known by their location or characteristics (e.g., ”the little lady who lives on the corner”), the difference between these ties and social circles (where individuals are aware that they are part of a group), and the contention that a real relationship occurs when the tie has a life beyond the social circle. As they note, answering basic questions about persons’ ties are not simple. With this, the authors delve into that nebulous space about how roles and relationships cross, as some structural symbolic interactionists like Sheldon Stryker have done, which neither fully make the translation between social networks and identity theory.

There is much in this book that is both striking and significant, including the documentation of the similarity in the “classification” of ties between the Toulouse region of France and the Northern California region of the US. Specifically, the percentage of ties that are family, colleagues, neighbors, etc. are eerily similar. Also, the elegance of the description of networks is impressive. For example, the authors describe a personal network as a “stock of skillfully constructed and maintained capital” (p.70) and social identities are “product of the various contexts in which socialization took place…“ which translate into social networks that “are the personification of various layers and contexts of their lives” (p. 71).

Punctuated by detailed stories and graphic depictions of individuals’ lives, Living in Networks offers a rich and unique view of social networks. Advances in theoretical types (e.g., dense, dissociated, or composite; the outline of four types of change dynamics) are coupled with data-based comparisons of how the durability of ties formed in high school versus higher education vary or how relationships that originate in circles tend to gradually detach, have their own dynamic, and often becoming more multiplex. The authors explore differences in rural and urban networks, the effect of life events on networks, and which types of people (e.g., those over 40, artists) profit most from social media platforms. Their findings challenge the claim of the “virtually automatic” tendency of triadic closure, point to gender differences in changes in network size, and mourn the “terrible tendency to forget people one no longer sees “(p.117) as they catalogue the set of reasons why network ties end.

No theory of networks is complete without a theory of culture, a theory of identity, a theory of stratification, and a theory of change. Perhaps this book does not quite get there – nothing has done this to date, and it may be beyond the reach of our ability to embrace the full complexity of social ties. However, Bidart and her colleagues come very close to that goal. Certainly some concepts are more successful (e.g., “soft segregation” as a consequence of homophily) than others (e.g., “network effect” as broken betweenness). The data have some problematic aspects – only 20 of the original 87 respondents remained by the end of the longitudinal study. And, there are places with missed opportunities to engage with concepts outside of network research (e.g., the concept of biographical disruption). However, such comments may be the necessary basis for a believable evaluation or requisite for a “balanced” review. But it is difficult to find fault with such a thorough report of a unique and vital research agenda that delves so deeply into the nature of human connectedness,. This book is a tour de force, addressing so many theoretical aspects of networks, providing data on so many facets of networks, and illustrating the texture of individual lives. Anyone who thinks about networks will find much in Living in Networks to like, to engage with, and to draw from for their own research on social networks.

eISSN:
1529-1227
Lingua:
Inglese
Frequenza di pubblicazione:
Volume Open
Argomenti della rivista:
Scienze sociali, altre