12.2: Approaches to Network Positions and Social Roles
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Because "positions" or "roles" or "social categories" are defined by "relations" among actors, we can identify and empirically define social positions using network data. In an intuitive way, we would say that two actors have the same "position" or "role" to the extent that their pattern of relationships with other actors is the same. But, there are a couple things about this intuitive definition that are troublesome.
First, what relations do we take into account, among whom, in seeking to identify which actors are similar and which are not? The relations that I have with the university (such as "Professor") are similar in some ways to the relations that my students have with the university: we are both governed by many of the same rules, practices, and procedures. The relations I have with the university are very different from those of my students in some ways (e.g. the university pays me, students pay the university). Which relations should count and which ones not, in trying to describe the roles of "professor" and "student"? Indeed, why am I examining relations among my students, me, and the university, instead of including, say, members of the state legislature? There is no simple answer about what the "right relations" are to examine; and, there is no simple answer about who the relevant set of "actors" are. It all depends upon the purposes of our investigation, the theoretical perspective we are using, and the populations to which we would like to be able to generalize our findings. Social network data analytic methods are of little use in answering these conceptual questions.
The second problem with our intuitive definition of a "role" or "position" is this: assuming that I have a set of actors and a set of relations that make sense for studying a particular question, what do I mean that actors who share the same position are similar in their pattern of relationships or ties? The idea of "similarity" has to be rather precisely defined. Again, there is no single and clear "right" answer for all purposes of investigation. But, there are rigorous ways of thinking about what it means to be "similar" and there are rigorous ways of actually examining data to define social roles and social positions empirically. These are the issues where there are some ways in which widely used methods can provide guidance.