I was talking with a colleague over the summer about an upcoming work event. We were tinkering with whether or not to go, and I said it would be great for networking. “Networking,” he said wryly. “One of my least favorite words in the English language.”
It’s easy to conjure up the scene: a bar with colleagues at happy hour, trying to make conversation, towing the line of being interesting without being too personal. A cocktail event at a professional conference, awkwardly introducing yourself with a laundry list of your accomplishments. We all know networking can be a boring obligation, but we’re told constantly that it is crucial for professional development. We do it without asking why.
The “why” of social networks has been a question of social scientists for quite some time. While social network theory has come to light in the past few decades, sociologists have been wrestling for years with questions about how society is formed by social relationships. As we see with the popularity of books like Linked and Connected, this top-down perspective of how the world works is not necessarily common knowledge for the layperson. The main difference in the social network perspective is that instead of studying groups of individuals, the connections between the individuals and groups are studied. This is called relational data – data that looks at varying types of transactions between actors. Studying the patterns people exhibit in these transactions allows a researcher to delve into how and why certain outcomes take place. The meat of an analysis of this data is descriptive – this is what’s happening and these patterns may be able to show us why. Because these patterns exist and are being studied, it’s easy to use descriptive analysis in this research, but may be difficult to predict what may happen in the future.
Whether we’re using social networks on the internet, engaging in political activism and community outreach, or simply networking to further our careers, we are taking part in transactions to strengthen our network every day. Using social network analysis can be a powerful tool for examining both positive and negative outcomes in these arenas and more.