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Social networks


A network involves the exchange of information or services between individuals, groups or institutions. Networks can be used for professional or social purposes or a combination of the two. The value of a network can come not only from the information we get from the network, but also from who we know. Knowing who can be as important as knowing what. Networking can involve the spread of the tacit knowledge that resides within practitioner communities. This links to the importance of finding ways to move from tacit to explicit forms of knowledge development and transfer. Combining who we know and what we know can have powerful effects. Networking offers opportunities to expand knowledge and contacts, through the development and maintenance of good personal relationships, active communication and the sharing of certain information, values and beliefs. Networks can also act as a source of support and encouragement.

For those interested in these ideas for research purposes it is possible to use social network analysis. This is an approach that focuses on investigating the relationships among individuals and groups, where social reality is conceptualised in terms of networks of social relationships occupying a wider social space. Social network analysis focuses upon information and communication flows and the role of information 'brokers.'

An interesting and accessible article on networking was produced by Bonnie Nardi and colleagues in First Monday, 5, 5 (May 2000)
It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know: Work in the Information Age. They discuss their 'ethnographic research on personal social networks in the workplace, arguing that traditional institutional resources are being replaced by resources that workers mine from their own networks. Social networks are key sources of labor and information in a rapidly transforming economy characterized by less institutional stability and fewer reliable corporate resources. The personal social network is fast becoming the only sensible alternative to the traditional "org chart" for many everyday transactions in today's economy.'

'In semi-structured interviews, we asked people about the work they did and how they communicated. We learned about their use of communication media including phone, cell phone, voice mail, conference calls, fax, Fed Ex, e-mail, e-mail attachments, videoconferencing, pagers, groupware, the Internet, FTP, the Web, chats, intranets, and extranets, as well as face to face. About 50 hours of interviews resulted in over 1,000 pages of transcripts which we analyzed for recurring patterns relating to the questions we asked about communication activities.'

'When we listened to our informants talk, they mentioned friendships and bonding, which suggested something akin to strong ties. On the other hand, they also talked about such matters as the mechanics of refreshing lists, remembering their networks, and choosing their language carefully, suggesting a complex relationship to those they worked with that goes beyond notions of strong and weak ties. Bursts of intimacy could be followed by months of lack of communication, rendering networks highly dynamic.'

'Although intensional networks are egocentric, portions of any individual network overlap with portions of others' networks, so they do not have the "one-off" character that the notion of an egocentric network might suggest. Within professions and activity systems, networks overlap, giving a sense of connection to workers even under the conditions of flux that characterize today's economy. Intensional networks are extended through the networks of others, as we saw with Jane recruiting partners through the networks of her colleagues. One of the most important resources we share with each other is access to those in our social networks.'

Bonnie Nardi also spoke about 'social networks and blogging' and a video of her talk can be accessed from the report of the TLRP / Kaleidoscope international seminar on March 22 - 24, 2004. Another resource on social network analysis is the broadcast lecture by Karen Stephenson on trust-based relationships in Social Network Analysis.

Social capital

There has been a lot written in the last ten years recently on social networks, especially as these are a core element of social capital – a concept that has been popularised by Robert Putnam. TLRP researcher John Field provides an overview of the links between social capital and lifelong learning in an entry (2005) in the Encyclopaedia of Informal Education, while his book on Social Capital (2003) provides a very helpful introduction to the literature on social networks, where he examines empirical findings on the role of social capital networks in education, economic well-being, health, and crime. The following link gives a review of this book by Robert Judge of the Canadian Policy Research Initiative. This book review is just one item in a whole issue of Horizons which is devoted to Social Capital: see, in particular the article on 'Social Capital: Building a Foundation for Research and Policy Development' by Robert Judge of the Canadian Policy Research Initiative.

For Putnam (2000), 'social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms and reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them' (p.19). Reciprocity and trust are therefore seen as central to social networks. As well as the value of bridging or inclusive social capital, there can be a dark side to networks and Putnam (2000) refers to exclusive bonding social capital that can reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups. Therefore it may be that, in some circumstances, as Granovetter (1973) has noted weak ties that link individuals to more distant contacts can be of more value than strong ties. Johnson (2003) looks at social capital formation in terms of individual actions to create or sever network links. Relationships can be both beneficial and costly, as being connected may benefit an individual, yet maintaining relationships has a cost. As a consequence, individuals limit the number of their active relationships. As network links are formed and maintained individuals begin to accumulate social capital.

  • Field, J. (2003) Social Capital, London: Routledge.
  • Granovetter, M.S. (1973) 'The Strength of Weak Ties.' American Journal of Sociology 78: 1360-1380.
  • Johnson, C. (2003) A Model Of Social Capital Formation. SRDC Working Paper Series 03-01. Ottawa: Social Research and Demonstration Corporation.
  • Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
TLRP showcase:
Example of use of networks in research


Learning and Professional Development: networks

by Robert McCormick: Paper made available at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Edinburgh, 11-13 September 2003.

This paper considers what we know about networks, the role of investigation of networks in the research design and the kinds of data we are collecting to answer our research questions. One particular instrument, a network mapping exercise, is described and analysed, and the implications for its development and use discussed. From the TLRP Learning to Learn project.

Technology, Learning Relationships and Networks: Actor Network Theory: Implications for Networked Learning and Education by Steve Fox, Lancaster University, as part of a TLRP Thematic Seminar Series on Technology, Learning Relationships and Networks: Actor Network Theory: Implications for Networked Learning and Education.



Example of operationalisation of social capital in research


An example of where social capital is operationalised within a TLRP project on Enhancing 'Skills for Life': Adult Basic Skills and Workplace Learning is given in the publication by Liam Aspin (2004) on 'Social capital and productivity: how might training affect a company’s social capital? Does the literature indicate how this might happen, and whether we might expect a significant impact on productivity? Can these effects be measured?'

See also: Lyn Tett and Kathy Maclachlan (2007) Adult literacy and numeracy, social capital, learner identities and self-confidence