Network Society

activism by hajo de reijger

The term Network Society describes several different phenomena related to the social, political, economic, and cultural changes caused by the spread of networked, digital information and communications technologies. A number of academics are credited with coining the term since the 1990s and several competing definitions exist.

The intellectual origins of the idea can be traced back to the work of early social theorists such as Georg Simmel who analyzed the effect of modernization and industrial capitalism on complex patterns of affiliation, organization, production, and experience.

The term was coined in Dutch by sociologist and computer scientist Jan van Dijk in his book ‘De Netwerkmaatschappij’ (1991) (‘The Network Society’), and used by Spanish-American sociologist Manuel Castells in ‘The Rise of the Network Society'(1996), the first part of his trilogy ‘The Information Age.’ In 1978, British IT consultant James Martin used the related term ‘The Wired Society’ indicating a society that is connected by mass- and telecommunication networks. Van Dijk defines the network society as a society in which a combination of social and media networks shapes its prime mode of organization and most important structures at all levels (individual, organizational and societal). He compares this type of society to a mass society that is shaped by groups, organizations and communities (‘masses’) organized in physical co-presence.

Barry Wellman studied the network society as a sociologist at the University of Toronto. His first formal work was in 1973, ‘The Network City’ with a more comprehensive theoretical statement in 1988. Since his 1979 ‘The Community Question,’ Wellman has argued that societies at any scale are best seen as networks (and ‘networks of networks’) rather than as bounded groups in hierarchical structures. More recently, Wellman has contributed to the theory of social network analysis with an emphasis on individualized networks, also known as ‘networked individualism.’

In his studies, Wellman focuses on three main points of the network society: community, work, and organizations. He states that with recent technological advances an individual’s community can be socially and spatially diversified. Organizations can also benefit from the expansion of networks in that having ties with members of different organizations can help with specific issues. In 1978, computer scientists Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff’s ‘The Network Nation’ explicitly built on Wellman’s community analysis, arguing that computer supported communication could transform society. It was remarkably prescient, as it was written well before the advent of the Internet. Turoff and Hiltz were the progenitors of an early computer supported communication system, called EIES.

According to Castells, networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies. When interviewed by Harry Kreisler from UC Berkeley, Castells said ‘…the definition, if you wish, in concrete terms of a network society is a society where the key social structures and activities are organized around electronically processed information networks. So it’s not just about networks or social networks, because social networks have been very old forms of social organization. It’s about social networks which process and manage information and are using micro-electronic based technologies.’ The diffusion of a networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power, and culture. For Castells, networks have become the basic units of modern society. Van Dijk does not go that far; for him these units still are individuals, groups, organizations, and communities, though they may increasingly be linked by networks.

The network society goes further than the information society that is often proclaimed. Castells argues that it is not purely the technology that defines modern societies, but also cultural, economic, and political factors that make up the network society. Influences such as religion, cultural upbringing, political organizations, and social status all shape the network society. Societies are shaped by these factors in many ways.

These influences can either raise or hinder these societies. For van Dijk, information forms the substance of contemporary society, while networks shape the organizational forms and (infra)structures of this society. The space of flows plays a central role in Castells’ vision of the network society. It is a network of communications, defined by hubs where these networks crisscross. Elites in cities are not attached to a particular locality but to the space of flows. Castells puts great importance on the networks and argues that the real power is to be found within the networks rather than confined in global cities. This contrasts with other theorists who rank cities hierarchically.

Van Dijk has defined the idea ‘network society’ as a form of society increasingly organizing its relationships in media networks gradually replacing or complementing the social networks of face-to-face communication. Personal communication is replaced by digital technology. This means that social and media networks are shaping the prime mode of organization and most important structures of modern society. Van Dijk’s ‘The Network Society’ concludes that modern society is in a process of becoming a network society. This means that on the internet interpersonal, organizational, and mass communication come together.

People become linked to one another and have access to information and communication with one another constantly. Using the internet brings the ‘whole world’ into homes and work places. Also, when media like the internet becomes even more advanced it will gradually appear as ‘normal media’ in the first decade of the 21st century as it becomes used by larger sections of the population and by vested interests in the economy, politics, and culture. It asserts that paper means of communication will become out of date, with newspapers and letters becoming ancient forms for spreading information.

New media is the concept that new methods of communicating in the digital world allow smaller groups of people to congregate online and share, sell and swap goods and information. It also allows more people to have a voice in their community and in the world in general. The most important structural characteristic of new media is the integration of telecommunications technologies. The second structural new media characteristic of the current communications revolution is the rise of interactive media. Interactivity is a sequence of action and reaction. The downloaded link or the supply side of web sites, interactive television and computer programs is much wider that the uplink or retrieval made by their users. The third, technical, characteristic of new media is digital code. The new media are defined by all three characteristics simultaneously: ‘they are media which are both integrated and interactive and also use digital code at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries.’

In western societies, the individual linked by networks is becoming the basic unit of the network society. In eastern societies, this might still be the group (family, community, work team) linked by networks. In the contemporary process of individualization, the basic unit of the network society has become the individual who is linked by networks. This is caused by simultaneous scale extension (nationalisation and internationalisation) and scale reduction (smaller living and working environments). Other kinds of communities arise.

Daily living and working environments are getting smaller and more heterogenous, while the range of the division of labor, interpersonal communications, and mass media extends. So, the scale of the network society is both extended and reduced as compared to the mass society. The scope of the network society is both global and local, sometimes indicated as ‘glocal.’ The organization of its components (individuals, groups, organizations) is no longer tied to particular times and places. Aided by information and communication technology, these coordinates of existence can be transcended to create virtual times and places and to simultaneously act, perceive, and think in global and local terms.

2 Comments to “Network Society”

  1. One step further in a more political direction:
    Yannick Rumpala, Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project, 21st Century Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009,

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