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Network fantasies

September 30, 2008

blogging on peer-reviewed research white.pngIn an earlier blog entry I suggested that it may be useful to distinguish between two main kinds of recent anthropological efforts at rekindling the study of networks within this discipline. First, we have those anthropologists who ‘found’ networks in the field, e.g. when working with political activists or social technology advocates. Second, there are those anthropologists who wish to rethink networks even though their research participants may not be particularly interested in this notion (e.g. see post on Amit’s 2007 article on occupational networks).

Green, Harvey and Knox’s (2005) Current Anthropology article, ‘Scales of Place and Networks’, belongs to the first category. These authors conducted ethnographic research in the second half of the 1990s and early 2000s among staff in various publicly funded digital projects in Manchester, UK. The main rationale for these projects, as seen by their champions, was to propel Manchester and its surrounding region to the forefront of developments towards a European Network Society. Everywhere they looked, the researchers found an ‘imperative to connect’, that is, an overriding ambition on the part of ICT policy makers and their allies to use the idea of networks to link European projects, organisations, cities, and regions across divides of geography, language and culture. The aim was not to create virtual spaces but rather ‘new networks of located connection’ (2005: 817).

What was new, argue Green et al, was ‘the fantasy of open, flexible, rapid, and implicitly “flattened” connection – connection with no centres, boundaries, hierarchies, or fixity – that would overcome diversity and incompatibility without requiring them to disappear’ (2005: 817). Yet this idealised imperative to connect (an imperative that regards disconnection as a problem demanding a solution, see also Hinkelbein 2008) overlooked the constraints, tangles and disconnects that invariably accompany all human endeavour. More specifically, the Castells-inspired idea of fluid, interlocal networks as the dominant social and economic logic of our era – Castells’ work was often invoked by informants – concealed the extent to which the digital projects in question were entangled in specific ‘place-making’ projects around entities such as ‘Manchester’, ‘Europe’ or ‘Britain’. It was not that project champions were technological determinists, conclude the authors. Instead they were driven by the hope and desire that all the various technical, personal and political incompatibilities besetting the projects would be somehow overcome. They were not.

References

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. (2008) Strategien zur digitalen Integration von Migranten: Ethnographische Fallstudien in Esslingen und Hannover. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bremen.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Elisenda permalink
    October 1, 2008 1:32 am

    Thanks, John for this post about networks. From my point of view, this concept has today a tremendous interest because of its use in a boarder sense than the anthropological definition of “social networks”. It is specially significant for those anthropologists that are dealing with “social networks” such as Facebook, etc…

    The question of social network theory is also related, I think, with the understanding of networks drawing as a kind of methodology that helps to visualize relationships among nodes, in which you can define the “nodes” and the meaning given to the links…

  2. October 1, 2008 9:41 am

    Thanks Elisenda. I think the argument that I’m beginning to formulate on the basis of my reading of recent anthropological discussions of networks (since Riles’ 2000 ethnography, The Network Inside Out) is that (a) we shouldn’t assume that networks will always and everywhere be of crucial importance to the social worlds we are studying ethnographically, (b) we should be particularly wary of claims by Castells, Wellman etc about the primacy of ‘network logic’ or ‘networked individualism’ in North America or elsewhere (see Horst and Miller’s response to Wellman in their ethnography of mobile phones in Jamaica), (c) in those field sites where informants or the social environment itself (e.g. in so-called social network sites) frequently signal the importance of networks, we should distinguish between networks as ideals and networks as ontological truths (Green et al 2005); more often than not, the ethnographic literature tells us that there is a great deal of wishful thinking invested in the ideal of fluid, non-hierarchical, of-our-time networks.

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