Network data are defined by actors and by relations (or "nodes" and "edges"). The nodes or actors part of network data would seem to be pretty straight-forward. Other empirical approaches in the social sciences also think in terms of cases or subjects or sample elements and the like. There is one difference with most network data, however, that makes a big difference in how such data are usually collected -- and the kinds of samples and populations that are studied.
Network analysis focuses on the relations among actors, and not individual actors and their attributes. This means that the actors are usually not sampled independently, as in many other kinds of studies (most typically, surveys). Suppose we are studying friendship ties, for example. John has been selected to be in our sample. When we ask him, John identifies seven friends. We need to track down each of those seven friends and ask them about their friendship ties, as well. The seven friends are in our sample because John is (and vice-versa), so the "sample elements" are no longer "independent."
The nodes or actors included in non-network studies tend to be the result of independent probability sampling. Network studies are much more likely to include all of the actors who occur within some (usually naturally occurring) boundary. Often network studies don't use "samples" at all, at least in the conventional sense. Rather, they tend to include all of the actors in some population or populations. Of course, the populations included in a network study may be a sample of some larger set of populations. For example, when we study patterns of interaction among students in a classrooms, we include all of the children in a classroom (that is, we study the whole population of the classroom). The classroom itself, though, might have been selected by probability methods from a population of classrooms (say all of those in a school).
The use of whole populations as a way of selecting observations in (many) network studies makes it important for the analyst to be clear about the boundaries of each population to be studied, and how individual units of observation are to be selected within that population. Network data sets also frequently involve several levels of analysis, with actors embedded at the lowest level (i.e. network designs can be described using the language of "nested" designs).
Populations, samples, and boundaries
Social network analysts rarely draw samples in their work. Most commonly, network analysts will identify some population and conduct a census (i.e. include all elements of the population as units of observation). A network analyst might examine all of the nouns and objects occurring in a text, all of the persons at a birthday party, all members of a kinship group, of an organization, neighborhood, or social class (e.g. landowners in a region, or royalty).
Survey research methods usually use a quite different approach to deciding which nodes to study. A list is made of all nodes (sometimes stratified or clustered), and individual elements are selected by probability methods. The logic of the method treats each individual as a separate "replication" that is, in a sense, interchangeable with any other.
Because network methods focus on relations among actors, actors cannot be sampled independently to be included as observations. If one actor happens to be selected, then we must also include all other actors to whom our ego has (or could have) ties. As a result, network approaches tend to study whole populations by means of census, rather than by sample (we will discuss a number of exceptions to this shortly, under the topic of sampling ties).
The populations that network analysts study are remarkably diverse. At one extreme, they might consist of symbols in texts or sounds in verbalizations; at the other extreme, nations in the world system of states might constitute the population of nodes. Perhaps most common, of course, are populations of individual persons. In each case, however, the elements of the population to be studied are defined by falling within some boundary.
The boundaries of the populations studied by network analysts are of two main types. Probably most commonly, the boundaries are those imposed or created by the actors themselves. All the members of a classroom, organization, club, neighborhood, or community can constitute a population. These are naturally occurring clusters, or networks. So, in a sense, social network studies often draw the boundaries around a population that is known, a priori, to be a network. Alternatively, a network analyst might take a more "demographic" or "ecological" approach to defining population boundaries. We might draw observations by contacting all of the people who are found in a bounded spatial area, or who meet some criterion (having gross family incomes over $1,000,000 per year). Here, we might have reason to suspect that networks exist, but the entity being studied is an abstract aggregation imposed by the investigator -- rather than a pattern of institutionalized social action that has been identified and labeled by its participants.
Network analysts can expand the boundaries of their studies by replicating populations. Rather than studying one neighborhood, we can study several. This type of design (which could use sampling methods to select populations) allows for replication and for testing of hypotheses by comparing populations. A second, and equally important way that network studies expand their scope is by the inclusion of multiple levels of analysis, or modalities.
Modality and levels of analysis
The network analyst tends to see individual people nested within networks of face-to-face relations with other persons. Often these networks of interpersonal relations become "social facts" and take on a life of their own. A family, for example, is a network of close relations among a set of people. But this particular network has been institutionalized and given a name and reality beyond that of its component nodes. Individuals in their work relations may be seen as nested within organizations; in their leisure relations they may be nested in voluntary associations. Neighborhoods, communities, and even societies are, to varying degrees, social entities in and of themselves. And, as social entities, they may form ties with the individuals nested within them, and with other social entities.
Often network data sets describe the nodes and relations among nodes for a single bounded population. If I study the friendship patterns among students in a classroom, I am doing a study of this type. But a classroom exists within a school - which might be thought of as a network relating classes and other actors (principals, administrators, librarians, etc.). And most schools exist within school districts, which can be thought of as networks of schools and other actors (school boards, research wings, purchasing and personnel departments, etc.). There may even be patterns of ties among school districts (say by the exchange of students, teachers, curricular materials, etc.).
Most social network analysts think of individual persons as being embedded in networks that are embedded in networks that are embedded in networks. Network analysts describe such structures as "multi-modal." In our school example, individual students and teachers form one mode, classrooms a second, schools a third, and so on. A data set that contains information about two types of social entities (say persons and organizations) is a two mode network.
Of course, this kind of view of the nature of social structures is not unique to social network analystst. Statistical analysts deal with the same issues as "hierarchical" or "nested" designs. Theorists speak of the macro-meso-micro levels of analysis, or develop schema for identifying levels of analysis (individual, group, organization, community, institution, society, global order being perhaps the most commonly used system in sociology). One advantage of network thinking and method is that it naturally predisposes the analyst to focus on multiple levels of analysis simultaneously. That is, the network analyst is always interested in how the individual is embedded within a structure and how the structure emerges from the micro-relations between individual parts. The ability of network methods to map such multi-modal relations is, at least potentially, a step forward in rigor.
Having claimed that social network methods are particularly well suited for dealing with multiple levels of analysis and multi-modal data structures, it must immediately be admitted that social network analysis rarely actually takes much advantage. Most network analyses does move us beyond simple micro or macro reductionism -- and this is good. Few, if any, data sets and analyses, however, have attempted to work at more than two modes simultaneously. And, even when working with two modes, the most common strategy is to examine them more or less separately (one exception to this is the conjoint analysis of two mode networks). In chapter 17, we'll take a look at some methods for multi-mode networks.