Formalist and Relationalist Theory in Social Network Analysis

Publication Date: 
November 2013


There is a widespread misconception in and about social network analysis that social networks are necessarily relationalist. In current social theory, relationalism has a specific definition. Relationalism is a theoretical tradition in sociology influenced by pragmatists. It rejects essentialism, a priori categories, and insists upon the intersubjectivity of experience and meaning, as well as the importance of the content of interactions and their historical setting. Formalism, however, is based in the theoretical works of Georg Simmel. Simmel based his theory on a Kantian program of identifying a priori categories of relational types and patterns that operate independently of cultural content or historical setting. Where relationalists insist on setting, formalists seek to identify patterns that transcend setting. Where formalists seek to identify the locus of social action in patterns devoid of content, relationalists focus on the intersubjective creation of meaning and content. Formalists are engaged in a project of identifying generalizable laws of social interaction, whereas relationalists are more interested in techniques for producing historically-situated explanations. Confusion between the two research programs has generated incoherent research agendas and a widespread misunderstanding of what the field can, should, or is attempting to accomplish. In this paper, I distinguish the two theoretical strains.