When I read the articles by David Grewal and Amelia H. Arsenault, I could not help but think about what a great advance 20th century thinkers in terms of the social. If 19th century theorists provided us with the image of the atomized “economic man,” self-contained classes or institutions (like church), sovereign nation-states, or even different civilizations, now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we suspect that the relations among these units also matter, and that they are not neutral.
It seems to me that network theory is a powerful tool in the analysis of our present, as well as of our past and future (as ungrateful of a task as predicting the future can be). For example, given the idea that networks wield structural power over insiders and outsiders, we can trace and uncover the internal dynamics of the inception and growth of empires, the rise of powerful social movements (like the Bolsheviks in the Russian Empire), as well as the effectiveness of multilateral agreements. How did the growth of the Christian Church and the increase in the number of its followers predetermine its split and ultimate loss of power? Was the structural power of the Catholic Church too much to tolerate so that its individual members (like Henry the VIII or Martin Looter) instituted their own Churches-networks? How were the 20 people who gathered in a British pub, and called themselves Bolsheviks, first able to appeal to so many Russian people? As soon as the revolution progressed, so did the Bolsheviks’ perceived need for brutal suppression of the opponents, and the Bolsheviks experienced the wave of dissent from their party-network. In the long run how did this predetermine the collapse of the Soviet Empire?
Of course it would be too simplistic to approach these large-scale historic processes solely from the prospective of network analysis. However, it seems that human institutions do operate more like networks than like self-contained isolated units (even when they deliberately search to be quite isolated and exclusive, like freemasons for example). A latter given to one mason would definitely travel to another mason even if he lived in a different country, just like a secret message from one Bolshevik to another would find its addressee within the network. This internal connectedness facilitated the effective functioning and guaranteed the survival of networks throughout history. In this sense networks definitely are not a discovery of modernity or post modernity, but it has been in the computer age that their social significance grew dramatically.
In the conclusion of her chapter, Amelia H. Arsenault calls for greater integration in field of network theory, and this call seems to me very timely given the new scientific insights into network power. First of all, relations within networks—the subject of ANT theory—seem to be as important as the ones outside network (Castells). For example, modern-day civil society is defined as “the realm of autonomous group action distinct from both corporate power and the state,” (Robert W. Cox, “Civil society at the turn of millennium”)—thus civil society is a multiplicity of networks which are excluded from corporate or state networks. Given the expectations vested in civil society in democratic theory (and practice), the quality and quantity of networks within civil society as well as the fact that they have been excluded from certain over networks are equally important.
Second, network theory seems to capture the core nature of multiple processes in the realms of social as well as physical worlds. Just like in cosmos all stars, galaxies, and even universes are held together by the force of gravity and exist in the eternal condition of mobility, in the same way social entities spring from the eternal movement of social forces, mature, and (most importantly) dissolve only to form new networks with new qualities on the basis of new means of communication. In this regard, it would be interesting to analyze the internal dynamics within growing networks to trace their life cycle. In his article, Grewal only hints at the fact that networks “decline over time,” but never develops this idea. In the meantime a better understanding of network dynamics would help us to shed light on many social processes. For example, why after the dissolution of the bipolar world, did connections between allied anticommunist countries weakene considerably giving rise to the multiple local alliances (like NAFTA) and more parochial policies (R. Gilpin, The Challenge of Global Capitalism) in all parts of the world? Was this outcome a pure accident, or maybe it was a predictable consequence of the dissolution of two powerful networks? Or along the same lines, is the growing power of the “imperialistic” forces of globalization the beginning of the globalization’s end? For as history demonstrates, none of the empires was able to last forever, and the rise to dominance of one force is usually at the same time the beginning of its decline.
Sorry for the long post. For a diversion, here are two images: one of space, and the other a diagram of social network. These look kind of similar to me.