Two anthropological approaches to networks
In my spare time I’m working on an article on personal networks and social fields among grassroots leaders in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. I’ve been reading recent work on networks (since 2000) by anthropologists and am beginning to think that a useful distinction may be one between (a) those anthropologists who ‘found’ networks in the field, so to speak (e.g. when working with network-oriented transnational activists or technocrats, see Edelman 2005, Green et al 2005, Juris 2008, Knox et al 2006, Riles 2000) and (b) those anthropologists who wish to rethink this problematic notion of ‘network’ even though it is not a key folk notion in their own field sites (e.g. Amit 2007, Hinkelbein forthcoming, Horst and Miller 2006, Moeran 2003).
I belong to category (b), for the people I worked with in Kuala Lumpur, although very familiar with the idea of ‘networking’, were far more interested in so-called community building than in networks. In the article I explore the uses of the concept of ego-centred (or personal) network from the perspective of field theory, suggesting that no network operates in a social field vaccuum and that therefore we need to understand how fields work in order to undertand personal networks, and vice versa. Like most anthropologists, I am very dubious of the idea that there is such a thing as an increasingly dominant ‘network logic’ (Castells) or ‘networked individualism’ (Wellman) diffusing across the globe, calling instead for closer empirical attention to the claims and actualities surrounding the network metaphor in different places and historical periods.
Amit, V. (2007) ‘Globalization through “Weak Ties”: A Study of Transnational Networks Among Mobile Professionals’, in V. Amit (ed.) Going First Class? New Approaches to Privileged Travel and Movement, pp. 53-71. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.
Edelman, M. 2005 “When Networks Don’t Work: The Rise and Fall and Rise of Civil Society Initiatives in Central America,” pp. 29-45 in Social Movements: An Anthropological Reader, June Nash, ed.. London: Blackwell.
Green, S., Harvey, P. and H. Knox (2005) ‘Scales of Place and Networks: an Ethnography of the Imperative to Connect through Information and Communications Technologies’, Current Anthropology 46(5):805-826
Hinkelbein, O. (forthcoming) Strategien zur digitalen Integration von Migranten: Ethnographische Fallstudien in Esslingen und Hannover. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bremen.
Horst, H. and D. Miller 2006 The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication. Oxford: Berg
Juris, J.S. 2008. Networking Futures: the Movements against Corporate Globalization. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Knox, H., Savage, M. & Harvey, P. (2006). Social networks and the study of relations:. networks as method, metaphor and form. Economy and Society, 35(1)
Moeran, B. (2002) Fields, networks and frames: advertising social organization in Japan. Global Networks 16, pp. 371-386.
Riles, A. (2000) The Network Inside Out. University of Michigan Press