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16. Mixed methods in Social Network Analysis

 

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One of the most powerful aspects of social network data is the fact that they can reproduce social relationships in a formal and comparable way. Relational matrices (which are mathematical grids representing connections) abstract from the hustle and bustle of everyday interaction, and systematise information about social relationships in terms of the presence or absence of ties.

But this strength of network analysis can also risk oversimplifying the complex nature of social relationships. To address these limitations, a prolific debate has ensued which focuses on reintroducing the cultural and discursive foundations of social network analysis, features which were central to its original development. Indeed, social network analysis can count on a long and established tradition of studies that, by combining mathematical methods and qualitative data, explore the contextualised nature of social relations.

This tradition can be dated back to the seminal work of the Manchester School of Anthropology, where the focus was on the study of social networks in natural settings. The Manchester School, which flourished in the late 1960s under the influence of John Barnes, Clyde Mitchell, and other scholars, relied mainly on the use of ethnographic observations as tools for data collection.

The inheritance of the Manchester school is kept alive in the Mitchell Centre for Social Network Analysis, whose scholars are leading experts in mixing the network approach with qualitative and ethnographic methods. Nick Crossley, for example, mixed qualitative archival material with formal SNA to study music scenes and art worlds. Gemma Edwards constructed historical egonetworks of suffragettes from their letters and diaries. Elisa Bellotti has used a variety of qualitative methods (interviews, observation, and archival material) in the study of friendship networks, youth gangs, and scientific networks, while also working on the epistemological and ontological aspects of mixed methods. Susan O’Shea has extensively studied feminist art worlds by combining qualitative, quantitative and network data.

 

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