Voices in Education

What Inspired Me to Study Social Networks
I grew up in Boston, the first born in a working-class family with Irish roots. My family had all the stereotyped traits of the Irish working class in America: hardworking, gregarious, a commitment to “celebrating” with spirits at a moment’s notice, and a dedication to family in the broadest sense of the word. I had aunts, uncles, cousins, great aunts, second cousins twice removed, great uncles once removed, and the list goes on . . . . The fact of the matter was—although I didn’t realize this until much later in life, when I would share the litany of descriptors attached to “relatives,”— that most of these people were not related to me in any conventional meaning of the term.

The idea is that friends and neighbors became family: they formed the constellation of relations that was my universe. I recall my parents wanting to have some electrical work done, and all they had to do was call up my “great uncle,” Joe Sullivan, who had a “third cousin,” Michael McCarthy, who did good work. No one in my family looked things up in the yellow pages, there was no Google, and it would be blasphemy to call a complete stranger—you made do through your connections. I grew up understanding that the world worked through a series of direct and indirect connections to “family.”

In all of my positions in education, from teacher to psychologist to administrator, I knew the relationships I formed would be the currency through which I would be able to support learning, empowering families, or leading change. I recall as an administrator that when I needed something done in facilities, such as fixing a hole in the field or getting something painted, I would call the head of food service, who had a “cousin” she would call in facilities, and before I knew it the hole was filled or the bathroom had a fresh coat of paint. Relationships matter in a profound manner, and it seems the more focused we become on the technical elements of our work, the more distanced we become from the idea that the social connections are critical.

Like most academics I am also curious about the world. My curiosity is fueled by trying to better understand how the relationships between people form, are maintained, or dissolve, and how the pattern of ties individuals have with others has influence on personal and organizational outcomes. For example, because my mother had a great uncle to call, she was able to get electrical work completed. I always had a nice field and good paint at school because I had those ties in my network. These ideas imply that networks matter and that in some way I was “richer” than others given the ties in my network. I didn’t have to “know” how to do something; I just had to know whom to call that would actually support my request. Therefore, in some really important ways ties matter and have direct influence on one’s ability to accomplish goals. This core idea has driven my interest and passion in social network theory, and along with many other scholars, I am working to better understand the power and potential of relations for supporting and inhibiting the work of educational change.

As the “work” of learning and change is ultimately conducted by and through individuals in formal and informal social systems, social network theory offers a useful and promising lens for understanding and exploring numerous educational phenomena. The perspective and methods of the theory offer an additional way to understand the variation witnessed in change efforts apart from more human capital or bureaucratic explanations. Network theory offers a lens and methods to explore the access, diffusion, modification, control, and potential leverage points of any number of resources that flow through a network. The network perspective is well positioned to provide useful insights into complex phenomena through increasingly sophisticated and predictive methods and models, especially related to educational change and reform. In addition, network theory provides a robust and complementary theoretical lens to other approaches such as sense-making and organizational learning. The promise of network theory is in its ability to help us to better understand the social worlds we negotiate everyday as we make our way in this increasingly complex world.

About the Author: Alan J. Daly is an assistant professor of education at the University of California, San Diego and author of Social Network Theory and Educational Change (Harvard Education Press, 2010)

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