Friday, 2 December 2011

Assemblages - a framework for social networks

As I described last month, we are collectively engaged in networks that encompass social systems and populations (macro level) as well as individual action and uniquely occurring interactions (micro level). The problem of scale is how to hold the macro and micro together without reducing the macro to a series of micro epiphenomena or erasing the micro by reducing it to the functions of social forces. As Mark Granovetter observed:
A fundamental weakness of current sociological theory is that it does not relate macro-level interactions to micro-level patterns in any convincing way" (Granovetter 1973: 1360).
Granovetter’s criticism still applies to much of contemporary social and organisational theory. Many of the “solutions” to this problem simply defer the reductionism from the macro to the meso level such as with Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration (Giddens 1986), the concept of (transformative) praxis (Bhaskar 1997), the notion of the routine within the multi-level perspective (Nelson and Winter 1977) or by different forms of conflation based on act aggregation or agent orchestration (see Archer 1995: 93-134). Network theory might offer a promising alternativeand yet network theory itself possesses the same weakness. The problem of addressing the limitations of existing network theories can be coupled with this requirement to develop a theoretical solution to the problem of scale. It is for this reason that I have built on the concept of the assemblage as a theoretical framework for network theory. While many of the features of assemblages are found in existing network descriptions, unlike existing network theories, the concept of the assemblage was not developed from fragmented theories with different supporting ontological assumptions, but devised with a clear purpose and directed towards a specific problematic within a unified philosophical scheme, though one which is complex and requires a series of steps in order to be fully conceptualised (Deleuze and Guattari 1988: 323-337).

The term “assemblage” is derived from the Greek word sumbolon meaning the act of bringing together. Deleuze describes an assemblage (agencement) as a “multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establish liaisons, relations between them” (Deleuze and Parnet 1987: 69) and uses the term as a way of conceptualising a wide range of patterns that hold heterogeneous elements together. These collectives are therefore devised in order to serve as the unit of analysis in explaining events on the micro, meso and macro scale. An assemblage structure, which will be described in detail shortly, expresses network relationships in which synthetic processes or emergent properties are not reducible to the properties of a network’s individual parts and thus a means of engaging macro-level and micro-level configurations without recourse to reductionism. Unlike other approaches that suggest ontological distinctions between levels (for example, the way we are taught in school the difference between physics, chemistry and biology), the assemblage concept is used to explain the way in which each entity exists on the same ontological level, but differs in the scale in which it resides: “The minimum real unit is not the work, the idea, the concept or the signifier, but the assemblage … which is always collective, which brings into play within us and outside us populations, multiplicities, territories, becomings, affects, events (Deleuze and Parnet 1987: 52)”.

The concept of an assemblage, as developed by Deleuze and Guattari (1988) and later refined by DeLanda (Delanda 2006a; 2006b), was designed to explain the synthetic processes that sustain and modify the structures of entities such as formal and informal networks, organisations, industries or regions etc. in non dialectical terms. Unlike dialectical and organic wholes, the concept provides a non-reductionist and non-essentialist description for the properties of the entities it is applied to, enabling different intermediate scales to be represented in terms of appropriate units of analysis rather than epiphenomena. This is because unlike an organic totality with mutually constituted parts fused into a seamless whole, the components of an assemblage have a degree of autonomy from the whole, which allows them to be disconnected and reassigned to other assemblages. To use an example, an extended family is an assemblage comprised of, but not limited to, different components of a biological, organic, technological, spatial and informational nature configured into, and modified by, a range of socio-cultural assemblages such as languages, medicine, community and consumption. These emergent assemblages are themselves components serving larger assemblages, from small networks and organisations to nation states and global events. The ontological status of these larger assemblages becomes, in turn, “that of a unique, singular, historically contingent individual” (DeLanda 2006a: 40). In this way, the study of a specific cluster of assemblages is not prior determined according to a particular unit of analysis or pressure (such as individual agents, labour, utility and profit maximisation) as is often the case with network theories, but determining the scale, components and assemblages to be included in the description forms a part of the investigation, which recognises the impact of using these, rather than other components, in framing the analysis (Callon 1998). The power of the assemblage approach in capturing this variety of organisational dynamics, then, is that it presents an alternative to explanations based on organic totalities or descriptions based upon the organism metaphor. This is because unlike organic parts, the components of assemblages can be switched between assemblages while preserving their identity, as occurs on a daily basis in every organisation. Consequently, the properties of the components do not explain the relations which constitute the whole, as the properties of the assemblage are not the result of the aggregation of components properties but the exercise of their capacities.

In terms of the Borgatti and Foster typology described last month, an individual assemblage as represented by these features comprises both the structure and the flow of resources not as abstract aggregates, but as actual features of the narrative of the emerging network, i.e. the structuralist dimension identifies the components to be included in the assemblage, while the connectionist dimension dictates the patterns that the assemblage imposes on the components. An assemblage, then, is not driven by stable preference functions and their related constraints, nor is it driven by competing essentialist forces, but is generated and modified by a multiplicity of heterogeneous interests which only emerge with the unfolding of the assemblage itself in much the same way as a part of a network can switch from being an active part to a more passive part of a process as the organisation it belongs to evolves; for example, when a group of politicians vote to change the leadership of their party. Although this sounds pretty complex and perhaps pedantic, I think that using such a framework is the only way to begin the process of bringing different social network concepts together.

For more details about the concept, to see my attempt to operationalise the concept and for a complete list of the references used, see Haynes(2011) Conceptualising Networks as Assemblages, Revista Internacional de Sociologia 69(2) 417-437.

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