A now classical result of the sociology of social networks is the distinction between formal social structures defined by kinship, inherited hierarchy or companies’ organisational charts, and informal structures arising from nets of friendship, trust, solidarity, similarities and dissimilarities. As far back as 1954, John A. Barnes (who incidentally, is credited with coining the wording ‘social networks’) in a renowned study of a small community of fishers in a Norwegian parish demonstrated that exogenously defined positions such as those arising from political administration, economic activity or family are insufficient to explain the social structure of the community, which largely depends on less codified relationships of friendship and acquaintance. In organisational studies, it appeared that the formal chart of a company and the actual networks of advice, trust or communication of members may differ widely, and surveys aimed at eliciting network ties (with ‘name generators’ for example) became a privileged means to bring to light the ‘company behind the chart‘ (Krackhardt & Hanson 1993) and to make ‘invisible work visible‘ (Cross, Parker & Borgatti 2002). Social network scholars advised managers on how, by using employee questionnaires, they could generate network maps and get to the root of many organisational problems. Another major finding was about the emergence of informal roles – the leader, the deviant, the broker – and their important contribution to driving the behaviours and outcomes of human groups, beyond all prescribed, formal authorities (Johnson, Boster & Palinkas 2003).
The research and consultancy activity that built on these ideas had a strong impact on organisational culture worldwide, especially as companies tended to flatten and rely on teams and cross-divisional, project-based work, so that managers’ authority mattered less and understanding these informal networks became a potential key for success. Many would admit today that the organisational chart is the fantasy of the employer, not an actionable tool, and even less so a reliable reflection of reality. But then, what are the advice, trust, and communication networks mapped by the researcher – shouldn’t we say they are the fantasy of the sociologist? These networks are built from questionnaires and therefore rely on the subjective responses of participants; and it is well known in the area of survey design research, that question wording orients responses, that different cultures and groups tend to interpret questions differently, and that people may give biased answers due to forgetting, deliberate concealing of sensitive information, ambiguity of definitions, and diversity in perceptions. The survey is the traditionally primary tool of investigation of the social networks scholar, but brings with it its limitations and distortions.
One may think that the formal organisational chart and the informal advice (or trust or communication) network are just two different ways of construing social structure and objectivating it. They are informed by different political and epistemological orientations: those of (old-style) employers for the former, those of social researchers (and perhaps enlightened employers) for the latter. The resulting formal-informal dichotomy would then be the result of a cleavage between two competing approaches to the management of organisations (and more generally of human groups or communities), one more hierarchical and functional, the other flatter and more collaborative.
Today, however, the very nature of computer-mediated networked interactions challenges the way this traditional dichotomy is construed. Only apparently spontaneous, digital networked interactions are in fact codified, ritual, and often systematically traceable. Connections are no longer only in the minds of people, and barely depend on their perception, but are objectivated by the very technological tools they use, and by the design of online networking services. To ‘friend’ someone on Facebook, or to connect to someone on LinkedIn, involves sending out an explicit request and receiving an equally explicit answer, that has hardly any equivalent in oral, face-to-face communication (one wouldn’t ask someone ‘do you want to be my friend’, at least not in adult age). The ubiquitous use of text messages and emails has largely superseded phone calls, making written communication prominent. Everything is more explicit, and virtually every action is recorded and feeds a database. Thus, one no longer finds the ‘invisibility’ often attributed to informal networks in the classical literature. Social structures are now in the data, and these data are not elicited by questionnaires with all their subjective biases, but are digital traces of the actual outcomes of people’s behaviours.
Thus, an internet network obtained, for example, by mining data from an online service such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, or an organisational intranet, is not of the same nature as the questionnaire-based network of classical sociology, not to mention the organisational chart. It may reflect aspects of both, and perhaps recombine them in new, yet unknown ways. Perhaps we can call this the fantasy of the engineer – the technician or owner of the online social platform (Facebook? Twitter?), who designed the underlying data management system, and whose priorities and beliefs will inevitably shape the way the resulting network will look like.
It is perhaps too early to say, and the extent to which the fantasy of the sociologist resembles that of the engineer is still unclear. What is clear, is that it is time to rethink the old formal-informal dualism. Digital social networks and data mining from the web require re-examining our understanding of what a network is, its apparent objectivity, its heuristic validity, and the very place of the researcher in its definition and implementation.
Barnes J. (1954). Class and committees in a Norwegian island parish. Human Relations, (7): 39-58.
Cross R., Parker A. & Borgatti S.P. (2002). Making invisible work visible: Using social network analysis to support strategic collaboration. California Management Review, 44(2): 25-46.
Johnson J.C., Boster J.S. & Palinkas L.A. (2003). Social roles and the evolution of networks in extreme and isolated environments. Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 27(2-3): 89-121.
Krackhardt D. & Hanson J.R. (1993). Informal networks: the company behind the chart. Harvard Business Review, 71(4): 104-11.