Agency and Social Networks: Strategies of Action in a Social Structure of Position, Opposition, and Opportunity

Article excerpt

This study uses social movement concepts to explain the success and failure of actors in a network of relationships trying to influence policies on environmental issues in a small city. Results show that strategies to take action and mobilize others in a network of interorganizational relationships can vary depending on the social context, which consists of the political opportunity structure defined by government regulators, whether the actor faces opposition, and the actor's position in the network. Decisions to engage in strategies to try to influence government regulators directly, to use a broker to reach agreements with the opposition, or to form a coalition with actors in other organizations to influence government decision makers are affected by this social context. Results also show that even peripheral actors, usually assumed to be powerless in network studies, can influence policy if they use a direct-contact strategy and the political opportunity structure is favorable. [*]

Increasingly, studying networks has become an accepted way of understanding organizational life. Researchers have studied the networks of actors in the informal structure within organizations and have found, among other things, that connections to others in networks have effects on turnover (Krackhardt and Porter, 1985), power (Brass, 1984), and the adoption of innovations (Burkhardt and Brass, 1990). The network perspective has also been used to study relationships between organizations. We have become aware that economic relationships between organizations are embedded in networks of social relationships (Granovetter, 1985; Uzzi, 1997), many organizational activities now take place in joint ventures and alliances (Miles and Snow, 1986; Jones, Hesterly, and Borgatti, 1997), communities take action through interorganizational networks (Laumann, Galaskiewicz, and Marsden, 1978; Galaskiewicz, 1989), and public policies at the local (Laumann and Pappi, 1976) and the national levels (Laumann and Knoke, 1989) are negotiated through interorganizational networks of businesses, government agencies, interest groups, and lobbyists.

Nevertheless, research on networks has, by and large, failed to connect the actions of individuals to their network position (Galaskiewicz, 1985; Emirbayer and Goodwin, 1994). Although a number of studies have established that a central network position for an individual or an organization is correlated with influence in a network of relationships (e.g., Brass, 1984), we do not know how these centrally located people use or do not use their influence in social situations. We do not know the strategies of action that have allowed them to become centrally located or maintain their central locations. Perhaps more importantly, we do not know what strategies the peripheral members of the organizational network use to take action. Here, we begin to fill these gaps by borrowing concepts from the sociological social movement literature to consider the actions taken by individuals in an interorganizational network in terms of their position in the network, whether they face opposition in the network, and whether the p olitical environment is favorable to their position or not. We explain the strategies used to take action within this social structure of opportunities by analyzing the struggle over four environmental issues in a small city over time. By tracing the involvement of actors embedded in a network of relationships among development interests, government, and environmental organizations, we explore the strategies that connect action to position.


Many network researchers have operated from a set of assumptions, partially implicit, that has led them to neglect the possibility of agency, the capability of actors to "innovate upon received cultural categories and conditions of action in accordance with their personal and collective ideals, interests, and commitments" (Emirbayer and Goodwin, 1994: 1442). …