Social Networks as Networks of Practices



People’s ability to enlist the cooperation of others to achieve their own individual goals in organizations is explained by two alternative frameworks. One is social network analysis which shows that an agent’s ability to engage others in the pursuit of their own goals is an outcome of the configuration of its network of personal relationships. This view has the effect of binding agents to their relationships, making them into agents of their position in the broader structure of social ties. The other is the political approach to organizations which shows that co-opting others to cooperate towards one’s purposes is an outcome of one’s persuasion skills. This view frees agents from any of constraints of social structure, making social ties into ephemeral arrangements that can be created at will. Both of these approaches illuminate some of the aspects of the process through which an agent enlists others’ help towards their own interests, but each approach on its own provides only a partial account of this process. This duality between structural and agentic explanations of cooperation is shared by other processes of shared action including those that explain how collective organizational outcomes are achieved through collective processes.

Recently, however, there have been both theoretical and empirical attempts to build an account of collective action in organizations that carves a role for agents in producing and reproducing social structures of personal ties and in using this position to enlist the help of others. These studies have provided a deeper understanding of the dynamics that ground shared action across a social network at two levels. Firstly, by surfacing the processes through which the structure of norms and meanings that supports cooperation in social networks is produced and reproduced in practice. Secondly, by showing how cooperation is a skillful accomplishment of agents, and not just a consequence of their position in a network. These theoretical and empirical attempts to integrate agency and structure into social network analysis have underscored the benefits of adopting a practice-based approach to social network analysis but have yet to exhaust its potential.

This paper joins this project by providing a practice-based account of the process of enlisting the cooperation of others towards an agent’s individual goals which is used to conceptualize social networks as networks of practices. In this view, networks are constituted by people linked together by relationships of appropriation of each others’ practices. This view of social networks is meant to complement, not to replace the approach that looks at these configurations as networks of relationships. Its purpose is to highlight the pragmatic nature of cooperation and provide a detailed account of its accomplishment in dyads of agents oriented towards each other’s practice.

This conception of social networks has its roots in the practice based approach to organizational phenomena. The conceptualization of social networks as networks of practice not only illuminates some of the less researched dynamics of this social configuration, but also opens the possibility of practices to enlist the cooperation of others without personal ties.The main contribution of this paper is to draw on this practice based approach to social network analysis to show that cooperation in organizations happens across a network of practices that may go well beyond the network of relationships. The goal is not to offer a full conceptual discussion of a pragmatic approach to social network analysis nor to provide the methodological apparatus needed to measure the properties of such networks and those of their nodes and ties. Instead I am using ethnographic data to build a grounded practice based model of cooperation across a network of practices that includes but goes beyond the network of relationships. At the core of this paper is an attempt to develop a grounded pragmatic approach to the process through which agents influence each others’ practices. This is similar to efforts undertaken by Giddens in his discussion of the regionalization of action space, by Goffman in his discussion of impression management and by Certeau in his discussion of appropriation.

This paper builds on and expands this stream of research in two fronts. First, it draws on ethnographic data from a 15-month participant observation of a desk sales unit to outline a grounded pragmatic model of cooperation that integrates the different existing accounts of cooperation. It does so by using these ethnographic data to build on the strengths of current theories while addressing the arguments of their most frequent critics. Specifically, the pragmatic model of cooperation presented in this paper is evocative of Certeau’s concept of practice appropriation without adopting a framework of resistance pointing instead to an approach closer to Giddens’ structurational view of the mutual constitution of agents’ practices while taking a more nuanced approach to the regionalization of action close to that suggested by Goffman.

Second, I show how this grounded pragmatic model of cooperation expands the type of practices available to enlist the help of others towards one’s own goals beyond those around building and invoking social ties. This points to the need of considering the whole range of cooperation practices enacted by agents which include but are not exhausted by those around establishing and using personal connections to map and understand cooperation in organizations. In a nutshell, whereas most of the agency based research on social networks thus far has provided a deeper view of cooperation, this paper wants to provide a broader view of this process.

To build this argument, I begin by presenting the empirical setting that grounds the theory-building research presented here, following with a detailed discussion of data collection and analysis procedures. I then provide a practice-based account of unprescribed cooperation at DeskSales, the organizational unit where I carried out the 15-month ethnography that grounds this research. I end with an outline of a pragmatic model of dyadic cooperation which is then expanded into an approach to social network analysis that conceptualizes these configurations as networks of practices – an approach that seeks to complement, not replace the insights provided by the approach that looks as social networks as networks of relationships. 

Contact information:
Niki den Nieuwenboer