Sunday, 20 November 2011

Social Networks and their Limitations

My research interests, as applied to assessing green innovation, technology, clusters, strategic alliances or policy development, etc. is based upon understanding the social networks that afford the relationships on which these new ideas or innovations emerge. This month I’ll introduce a few academic considerations about social networks, while next month I’ll try to explain how I’m trying to develop a corrective to the limitations that social network thinking needs to solve if it is to be an effective explanation of the interdependencies that it describes.

Attempts to describe and explain the social interactions that support organisations and other social phenomena make use of a variety of models and methods. There are, though, a limited number of paradigms that dominate the literature, and among these, emerging as the market leader, is that of the network. Stephen Borgatti and Pacey Foster illustrate the exponential growth of network-based research outputs with bibliometric data (Borgatti and Foster 2003: 992), arguing that the network paradigm forms part of a more general move “away from individualist, essentialist and atomistic explanations toward more relational, contextual and systemic understandings” (Borgatti and Foster 2003: 991). In this moth’s blog I will briefly examine some of the key features of network theory. The network paradigm does not represent a unified approach to research; network models are themselves diverse but share characteristics and assumptions. The use of such models in addressing the issue of innovation (the theme of this paper) seems a sensible choice as networks are able to capture a sense of the interdependencies of organisations and the channels of exchange that enable the relationships necessary for innovation to develop and be maintained (Freeman 1991). Equally, network descriptions can be applied to a variety of innovation-related phenomena. Examples include Powell, Koput and Smith-Doerr (1996), who use network patterns to describe the growth in corporate partnerships and external collaboration and the purpose such relationships serve, while Bengt-Åke Lundvall, with a very different approach to organisational adaptation, uses network descriptions to exemplify the process of knowledge transfer and learning between different firms (see Lundvall 1992).