Network as Metaphor

Mark Erickson


The metaphor of network (and its cognate terms node, lattice, inter-linkage, and so on) plays a prominent role in contemporary social science. However, network metaphors come in and go out of sociological fashion, and may be employed in incompatible ways even by sociologists examining the same phenomenon. Writing in the 1980s Wilhelm Baldamus considered it remarkable that a metaphor which had hardly any explanatory power to start with could maintain its popularity for long periods for no tangible reason. This paper will examine Baldamus’s critique of network metaphors by looking at some examples in contemporary sociology, specifically the work of Harrison C White, and Actor Network Theory (ANT). The paper argues that the use of metaphors is probably inevitable, and can enhance as well as diminish our understanding of social experience. However, the network metaphor often creates artificial objects and makes us think we have been precise when we have been vague. The paper calls for a more critical and reflective approach to using metaphors in social scientific analysis.

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International Journal of Criminology and Sociological Theory | ISSN : 1916-2782