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From activist networks (1990s) to social network sites (2000s)

September 14, 2008

In an earlier post I mentioned a number of anthropologists who in the 1990s ‘found’ networks in the field when working with transnational activists, NGO workers or technocrats who were enthusiastic about networks (e.g. Edelman 2005, Green et al 2005Juris 2008Knox et al 2006, Riles 2000). After all, it was in the 1990s that the network metaphor took off around the globe, especially in domains such as development, governance, and activism.

In the 2000s, a different type of network has caught the media and academic imagination, namely social network(ing) sites such as Friendster, Myspace, Cyworld or Facebook. What can anthropologists learn from the earlier wave of network studies as they join other specialists in the study of social network sites? My own hunch is that ‘networks’ (whatever these elusive entities may be) could turn out not to be the more significant social formations in these social worlds. Think, for instance, of the salience of university cohorts, peer groups, workplaces and fields of professional practice in a site such as Facebook. Yes, Facebook users certainly create and maintain a range of social ties through this site, but in doing so these users are operating within and across fields of practice, workplaces, cohorts and so on.

Or consider the fact that on the music sharing site there are two distinct categories of significant others, namely ‘friends’ (i.e. contacts) and ‘neighbours’ (people with whom you share a taste in music on the basis of your digital trail on the site). In other words, the builders of have recognised the crucial importance of two very different sociological principles: proximity in social network terms and proximity in socio-discursive space (musical taste). It’s as if these intrepid builders had attempted to reconcile social network analysis with Bourdieu’s theory of taste.


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

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)

Riles, A. (2000) The Network Inside Out. University of Michigan Press

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 16, 2008 11:46 am

    But let’s not forget those anthropologists who are rethinking the notion of networks even in ethnographic settings in which participants are not much taken by this metaphor, see previous post

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