Relational Sociology: Transatlantic Impulses for the Social Sciences

International Symposium, Berlin, September 25/26, 2008


Relational Sociology

Harrison White





Over the last 45 years, Harrison C. White has published works with an impressive range and depth. The center of his these works is a relational perspective on social structures, as laid out in Identity and Control (first edition 1992) and a number of subsequent papers. For White, social networks are not stable structures of pre-existing entities. Rather, they are dynamic structures laden with meaning. These structures incorporate 'stories' which actors narrate about and to each other. These stories construct the very identities of the actors - and their relations to one another. With these arguments, White weds the structuralist theory of networks with cultural sociology - networks are both structure and meaning. An important aspect of this is language which organizes networks on the symbolic level.

In the 1970s, Harrison White developed the concept of 'structural equivalence' and the mathematical technique of blockmodel analysis with Ronald Breiger, Scott Boorman, and François Lorrain. Blockmodel analysis aims at identifying sets of structurally equivalent positions of actors in networks. The methodological starting point is not the analysis of direct connections between actors, but the structural analysis of these ties, and their partitioning into blocks (with similar ties to other blocks). This procedure theoretically assumes that actors are ordered by categories - and these categories shape their relations. Today, blockmodel analysis is regarded as probably the most important technique for the analysis of networks.

Up to now, economic sociology is the central field of application of White's relational sociology, especially the sociology of markets. According to White, markets are not unstructured fields, but social constructs evolving from interaction and mutual observation of a small number of competitors.

White's works in the sociology of the arts similarly adopt the relational perspective. For example, styles are seen as the results of competition for attention between different actors and contexts. According to White, artist creativity emerges at the conjunction of previously unrelated styles - that is, at the intersection of separate networks.

With this relational perspective, Harrison White has developed a unique and innovative view on social structures, and he has influenced a number of important sociologists in North America. In spite of its prominence in the US, this approach has not been able to establish itself in Germany, yet. The conference aims at filling this void, and at both promoting and discussing White's theory with its applications in different fields.

For more information on Harrison White's work, have a look at the websites in the link section, especially at Ron Breiger's text on Harrison White in the Encyclopedia of Social Theory!