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The Study of Offline Social Networks

Rod Munday | Friday May 01, 2009

Categories: Other Topics, Social Networking, Offline Social Networks

The difference between a social network and a group is that a group is a tightly-bounded set of people who share interests and whose activities are located in one particular place and time, whereas a social network is a more loosely bounded set of individuals whose activities range across a number of diverse interests and take place at various locations and times (Wellman 1999).

As Snyder, Carpenter and Slauson (2006) state, traditional offline social networks are conceived of in terms of meaningful connections that exist between people in a shared community. Consequently, as Lange (2007) notes a social network will look very different depending upon how a researcher looks at these connections; for example, counting the number of interactions between members will produce a different picture than placing a specific value on each interaction.

The lack of any physical object of study makes offline social networks difficult to define, because one person’s ideas about them may differ fundamentally from those of another. Therefore understanding what a social network is can be complex business, for while we can say with some certainty that online social networking sites represent offline social relations; scrolling through lists of friends on Facebook or MySpace tells us very little about what sort of human relationships exist behind those lists.

The academic study of offline social networks stretches back to the 1950s, although it grew out of several approaches that go back as the eighteenth century. There are two strands to this history, the first comes out of mathematical ideas about graph theory; the second out of sociological ideas about community (which are dealt with in the next section). Graph theory is the study of mathematical structures that are used to model relations between pairs or groups of objects. Much of the terminology of social network analysis – terms such as nodes and ties and path lengths—was either...

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