Social Network Theories

I have often been confronted by colleagues with the argument that social network analysis is only a method. Over time I became more annoyed with that point. Social network analysis goes beyond this. Yes, it is a method, but it is also a perspective, a framework, with which the world can be analyzed. To underline this point below are a couple of theories that can (or should) only be viewed from a relational perspective, hence social network perspective:

Social Exchange Theory

Initially, social exchange theory only dealt with the exchange of goods, services, or favors between two people. It can be summarize with “I scratch your bag, you scratch mine”. The flow of goods, services, or favors is normally reciprocal. Take any item you purchase: You get the good (e.g., freshly baked sour dough German bread with sunflower seeds) and the baker gets your money. But also when you grant your friend a favor (e.g., pet sit their dog), you’ll remember that, and when needed ask your friend for a favor (e. g., baby sit your toddler).

When taking this concept of social exchange one step further, we can see an exchange of favors among different people (general exchange theory). Hazing is one, albeit negative, example: As a young undergraduate joining a student association the seniors will haze you (at least in the Netherlands or Belgium this will happen). As a freshman you can not reciprocate this, meaning you can not be mean to seniors But you can pass the ‘good’ of hazing to the next wave of freshman in a couple of years. In this way you are participating in the exchange, and spread the ‘good’ through your network. To use a more positive example, my husband and I used to hitch hike when we were young (public transport in Swiss mountain region isn’t great). To reciprocate the kindness we experienced, we pick up hitch hikers. Of course we can not ‘pay back’ the people who picked us up along the routes in Switzerland, but we are participating in the exchange of kindness within the community of ‘hitch hikers & hitch hiker pick-ups’.


Emerson, R. M. (1979). Social exchange theory. Annual Review of Sociology, 2, p. 335 – 362

Academic Bullet:

  • Help-seeking should be repaid by offering help.
  • Don’t just ‘take’ the knowledge and insights from others, also offer your own.

Power (Dependency) Theory

Power or dependency theory can be seen as the flip side of social exchange theory. While social exchange theory focuses on equality of information and resources among partners in a network, power theory rests on the notion of inequality among individuals. An individual’s position in the network then becomes representative of his or her status relative to others.

Triadic structures, or the amount of links between three people (the triad), are very important to understand hierarchy. For example, imagine Paul, Peter, and Patrick share an office, and Paul bosses Peter around, while Peter bosses Patrick around. Based on these two power relationship, it would be strange to see Patrick boss Paul around, as Patrick is at the bottom of the status hierarchy. Power can also be visualized through the network structure representing the interaction among people. Power in this case is derived from the network position (while in the former case it was assumed to be a characteristic of an individual). For example, if Patrick is the only link between group 1 (Paul and Peter), and group 2 (Mary and Martha), Patrick is in a powerful position to play off the two groups (Paul and Peter, and Mary and Martha) by hiding information or spreading only certain pieces of information and withholding other.


Park, P. S., & Kim, Y. (2017). Reciprocation under status ambiguity. Social Networks, 48, 142 – 156

Academic Bullet:

  • Your power depends on your network. Consider what you can offer in relation to those around you.
  • Your power gives you the possibility to delay reciprocation of favors and gifts.

Social Capital Theory

The social capital theory is popular among educational and management scholars. You can view Human Capital Theory as its predecessor. In Human Capital Theory the knowledge and skills a person possess are perceived to be critical for performance. It all depends on what you know. In Social Capital Theory the emphasis moves away from you to your network. This theory acknowledges that humans are social beings and we go and ask for help (or at least we have the potential to go and ask for help). Therefore, the performance of a person is not only dependent on his or her skill set, but also on what resources the person can draw from using his or her network. This means it is who you know that is important for completing tasks and achieving goals.

When considering your network and the resources other people can offer, aspects such as diversity of individuals play a role, but also the trust that exists, the strength of your relationships, and of course, what you can offer to your network (see above section on social exchange theory). Theories about homophily, cohesion, social identity, trust etc. explain if you can access certain resources. Finally, the neat things about networks is that we don’t only have to look at our connection and what they can offer, but can also take a step further and look at the connection of our connections, or even further and consider the resources of the connections of the connections of our connections (and so on). Of course as with physical distance, relational distance matters. Social capital that is part of connections far away from you is harder to get, even if you are connected.


Hollenbeck, J. R. & Jamieson, B. B. (2015). Human capital, social capital, and social network analysis: Implications for strategic human resource management. Academy of Management Perspectives, 29, 370-385

Academic Bullet:

  • Build relationships with people who are different than you. Those who possess  different expertise, and whose experiences diverge from yours.
  • Think further ahead than your immediate connections. Your social capital goes beyond your local neighborhood of links.

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