On Social Network Analysis in a Supply Chain Context

Article excerpt


In most social science fields, including management science, the default mode of explanation up through the mid-20th century has been based primarily on individual attributes. Whether the individuals were persons or firms or any other kind of entity, the standard approach has been to explain one attribute of the entity--for example, an outcome of some kind--as a function of other attributes of the entity, representing inherent characteristics of the entity. For example, at the person level sociologists have explained a person's status as a function of their gender and education. Similarly, at the firm level, organizational theorists in the Weberian tradition have explained the success of an organization in terms of its use of certain processes and structures, such as documentation of procedures, promotion based on qualifications, unity of command, and so on.

Over time, however, most of the social sciences (and, indeed, physical and biological sciences as well) have shifted to a more relational perspective that takes into account the environment around the actor in addition to internal attributes. For example, in the earliest days of contingency theory, attributes of an organization's structure (such as whether the organizational chart was deep and narrow or flat and wide) were seen as a function of other attributes internal to the organization, such as its size and its technology (Woodward 1958). Over time, however, contingency theory began to shift its emphasis to the organization's environment, supposing that successful organizations would adapt to their environments, often in a mimetic fashion so that, for example, organizations in highly differentiated environments would develop highly differentiated organizational structures (Lawrence and Lorsch 1967).

In these early views of an organization's environment, the environment was monolithic--a single "thing" characterized by attributes such as complexity or turbulence. However, starting with Evan (1966) researchers began to see an organization's environment as consisting of multiple individual players, interacting separately with the focal organization. Thus resource dependence theory is concerned with the response of one organization to dependency on another (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978), and some forms of institutional theory have seen organizations as influencing each other to adopt practices and structures (DiMaggio and Powell 1983).

With respect to this evolution, it could be said that supply chain management (hereafter, SCM) has had the jump on other fields, because it has long conceived of its subject in relational or dyadic terms. Moreover, SCM has not been just dyadic, as, say, most of resource dependency has been, but has--through the notion of chains--implicitly considered paths through a network of firms. Of course, for the most part, the focus has been on chains of just two links: supplier to focal firm, and focal firm to customer. Still, the concept of suppliers of suppliers and customers of customers and so on has always been there, and now the imagery and terminology of a supply network is beginning to supplant that of a simple chain. Furthermore, supply chain researchers are now actively importing concepts from the (primarily) sociological field of social network analysis (e.g., Carter, Ell-ram and Tate 2007; Autry and Griffis 2008). As a result, the time is right for a general review of key concepts in social network analysis that could be useful to supply chain researchers in further elaborating the potential of the network concept. This is the purpose of the present paper.

We organize the paper as follows. First, we give an overview of social network theory, as developed in a number of social science fields, including social psychology, anthropology and sociology. We take the opportunity to integrate several threads of network research into a small number of coherent bodies of theory. Next, we turn to how network theory might be applied to SCM. …