Understanding flow, performing society

August 13, 2007

A gripping paper session opened up this year’s meeting of the American Sociological Association. In a special session put together by Kevin Delaney, four notable social scientists have discussed the notion and meaning of financial circulation.

How do flows of money constitute society? That is the question that all four presenters confronted. Marieke de Goede, a political economist, discussed the use of bank data by American intelligence to establish the existence of terrorist networks. Money transfers, purchases of goods and travel itineraries reveals, according to her, the network of people. The flow, in her view, reveals the network.

Viviana Zelizer
took the opposite view. She delved into her complex notion of commercial circuits: immigrants send remittances to their families abroad. The money, of course, is much more than just a transfer. It helps the distant mom keep control over the daughters; it binds brothers together across the border, and sustains family relations of affect and shared identity. The flow, according to Zelizer, makes something stronger than a network.

Karin Knorr Cetina
brought back her concept of communities of time. The work of foreign exchange traders, according to her, entails watching the flow of prices and financial news through the visualizations that they construct. The shared experience of watching the market go up, down, left, right, creates a bond among traders that do not share a social tie. Thus, the visualized flow makes the community, regardless of a network.

Finally, Kieran Healy challenged the audience with an even more provocative argument. Digital flows perform network theory. Healy sees the current emphasis on networks by “social networking” web sites as the consequence of decades of sociological theorizing on networks. Metadata (the flows digital footprints that we leave when we buy online), is allowing users to see their network: their potential ties and relationships of similarity that were otherwise invisible. As these new affordances alter actors’ behavior, Kieran argues, we are going to start to see the performativity of social networks.

As it’s clear from the above, the organizer gets credit for one of the best put-together sessions of this year’s ASA. The four-pronged analysis invites two questions. First, if it is indeed true that network theory is being performed, what is the future of network analysis? Second, if social networking sites are performing network theory, are they the social counterpart of hedge funds? Could we see “social crises” just as we see financial crises? A recent joke by The Onion points to this possibility: MySpace Outtage Leaves Millions Friendless.

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