On networks and eating rice with chopsticks
(École Normale Supérieure Lyon)
Paper short abstract:
Paper long abstract:
There is little doubt about it: our culture has fallen in love with networks. In part this fascination derives from the role that electronic networks have come to play in our collective life. Yet, reducing our romance with networks to the Internet and the Web would not be fair. Our love for networks largely overflow the sphere of electronic communication. Networks have been sprouting in every corner of popular and scientific culture and, in the last few decades, they have invested social sciences with a particular force.
There are several good reasons why networks have caught our sociological imagination. Networks are versatile tools, combining the affordances of graphs (computation), maps (visualization) and interfaces (manipulation). And networks are the natural format in which the emerging digital traces present themselves to social scholars.
But there is more: networks are fascinating because they promise to dissolve the rigidity of social structures without falling in an undistinguished complexity of interpersonal interactions. A trick that sociologists have found difficult to pull so far. Networks promise to analyze without aggregating; to cluster without categorizing; to order without structuring.
In this communication, I will discuss such promises by reading the description that Roland Barthes gives of the art of eating rice with chopsticks in his book on Japan, the Empire of Signs (1982/1970). By discussing the four functions of chopsticks in oriental culture, I will reflect on the possibility of digital social sciences to overcome the classic micro/macro and qualitative/quantitative distinctions without losing their discriminating capacities.
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