Cultural Aspects of Networks Research Paper

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For individuals in complex modern societies, greater variety in the kinds of people one knows goes with greater variety in the kinds of culture one knows. Both network and cultural variety are useful resources, and both are related to socioeconomic status, hence both can be seen as forms of social and cultural capital. The nature of social and cultural capital depends on the wider structural context, and hence varies over time and space.

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Though there are many kinds of networks, this research paper only considers personal networks, or all the people that a person knows. Since people learn and use culture in social relationships, network analysis has much to offer to the sociology of culture, using powerful ideas that go back as far as Simmel (1955).

1. Network Variety And Cultural Variety

The variety in a person’s network is correlated with the variety in that person’s culture. Network variety means knowing many different kinds of people; cultural variety means knowing about many different forms or genres of culture. Each kind of variety feeds the other. On the one hand, people with a wide range of cultural tastes and knowledge can easily find something in common with many different kinds of people, and shared interests are attractive, so culturally diversified people make new acquaintances and friends of many kinds. On the other hand, if one knows many kinds of people they will stimulate interest in and knowledge of their many tastes. DiMaggio (1987) anticipated this relationship, while Erickson (1996) showed evidence for it.

Clearly this relationship hinges on suitable definitions of network and cultural variety: network variety must be some kind of variety that leads to contact with diverse cultures, and cultural variety must include forms of culture popular with people in different structural locations. This is always possible because boundaries between different social locations thrive on and maintain subcultural differences. Though possible, it is essential, and requires some care.

Research so far on network variety has focused on the extent to which a person has contacts in many different occupations. Given the importance of work in modern societies, and the known connections between occupation and taste, this is a useful though incomplete starting point. Reasons for occupational differences in culture include cultural selection in getting into an occupation, the role of occupational boundaries in maintaining cultural differences, and the cultural demands of work with others outside one’s occupation. First, people who enter different occupations have different cultures to begin with. Education, a strong predictor of tastes, is also a strong predictor of the kind of work people get. When employers select people with a type and level of education seen as appropriate for a job, they also select people who have the cultural profile that goes with that kind of education. People also try to get work that suits their tastes. People are more likely to get jobs in milieus where their kind of taste and style is prevalent (so that they show well in interviews, looking like people who will fit in and work well with those already in the occupational setting). Second, occupations have distinctive locations in the social structure of work, that is, niches in particular organizations, organizational subunits, sectors of the economy, labor markets, and so on. In turn, different segments of the working world develop their own subcultures, as can easily be seen by comparing the style of dress conventional for (say) a financial district, a hospital, and a bohemian artists’ quarter. Third, occupations differ in the kinds of outsiders that people have to work with, and hence the kinds of cultural displays people are encouraged to make in order to get along with outsiders. Peterson and Simkus (1992) divided occupations into ‘status groups’ with ‘the same job conditions and the same level of requirements for social and cultural skills’ (Peterson and Simkus 1992, p. 155), and showed striking differences in tastes for music and other leisure activities. Using a different occupational grouping, Bourdieu (1984) also showed substantial differences in the tastes of people in different occupational groups in France.

Since people in different occupations do have different cultural repertoires, contact with people in many different occupations should include exposure to many kinds of culture. But how can we measure the extent to which people have such occupationally varied contacts? It is surprisingly easy to do so. Following a format pioneered by Lin and Dumin (1986), Erickson (1996) developed a list of nineteen occupations, asked respondents whether they knew anyone in each of these, and counted the number of different occupations in which a respondent did know someone: this simple count indexes network variety. Though the strategy is easy to execute, the choice of occupations is critical. Since Erickson was studying the private security industry in Toronto, she selected occupations that varied in prestige and power (e.g., company owner, locksmith) and that were important to the industry in various ways (e.g., electricians, important as skilled labor for alarm installation, and insurance brokers, who are an important source of investigation contracts). Measured in this way, net- work variety was strongly related to knowledge of several different cultural genres, even controlling for several known correlates of culture (ethnicity, gender, family background, education, and class). Studies of other social settings would call for different, locally appropriate choices.

Future work should not only use carefully considered forms of occupational variety, but should also use entirely different kinds of variety with respect to other social cleavages. Each kind of cleavage goes with its own cultural contrasts. Both gender and ethnicity are important forms of inequality and division, and each goes with a pattern of cultural difference that is its own, different from the contrasts between classes or occupational groups (Hall 1992). Owners and managers know more about business magazines than simple employees; men know more about sports and women know more about novels; nonwhites and immigrants know less about locally famous artists than do native born whites (Erickson 1996). One could ask people whether they know anyone in each of a set of ethnic groups, chosen to vary widely in their cultures. It would be of little use to ask whether people know anyone in very large ethnic groups, or know men or women, since almost everyone will. It would be more useful to find out whether people know a wide variety of men, women, or members of large ethnic groups. Thus one might ask whether people know any men, any women, or any members of large ethnic groups in each of a set of occupations. Those who know (say) women in many lines of work should have wide and strong access to the kinds of culture women prefer. Whatever the details of the procedure, we need research on network diversity of nonoccupational kinds and the linkages of such network diversities with culture.

Research so far on cultural diversity has focused on liking of, participation in, and knowledge of various genres that people take for granted as being different kinds of cultural things. For example, Peterson and Simkus (1992) look at liking of different kinds of music such as classical or country music and arts participation such as going to museums, while Erickson (1996) looks at knowledge such as recognition of sports stars or successful artists. One issue here is the theoretically important kind of relationship to culture: should we be interested in what people know, like, do, own, or what? Probably all need attention, since many forms of culture reflect and maintain the boundaries between social groups (Lamont and Lareau 1988). Another kind of issue is the choice of genres to consider. Theoretically, the choice of genres depends on the cleavages and processes of interest. For example, Bourdieu (1984) gives extensive attention to taste related to the fine arts, because he thinks this is a crucial aspect of the high status cultural capital distinguishing elite people from others. Meanwhile, Erickson (1996) examined some genres correlated with class (art, business magazines) to explore culture related to domination between classes and a genre not related to class (popular sports) to explore culture related to coordinating the activities of people in different classes. She argues that company owners and managers need both to dominate and to coordinate as they work, and hence need a range of cultural resources. Examining other cleavages, such as gender or ethnicity, calls for attention to other genres that divide or unite different groups.

2. Network Variety, Cultural Variety, And Social Class

The relationship between network variety and cultural variety is important in part because both variables are strongly linked to class, as causes and as consequences. Again, however, it is essential to think carefully about which aspects of networks and cultures have strong and important relationships with inequality. One lively current debate concerns the importance of variety vs. the importance of high status in both networks and cultures. Research on France tends to emphasize high status, while research on Canada and the United States emphasizes variety, perhaps because of the greater centralization and hierarchy in France. For France, Bourdieu (1984) argues that the culture of elites becomes defined as superior, more distinguished culture. People with higher status family backgrounds learn higher status cultural resources; these resources help them to succeed in school and in work, and these successes reinforce cultural advantages. Higher status people not only have higher status tastes, but they disdain and reject the tastes of those with lower social standing. Bourdieu has less to say about how networks are related to social status, but tends to underline the extent to which people associate with others of their own cultural level, suggesting that social status is correlated with the status of one’s contacts as well as the status of one’s culture. Some research on social networks in France shows that people have friends who are very like them in occupation, education, and income (Degenne and Forse 1999, pp. 32–5).

Bourdieu’s model implies that culture is clearly ranked in status, that higher status people have higher status culture, and that higher status people reject lower status taste. Peterson and Kern (1996) argue that this ‘elite to mass’ or ‘snob to slob’ pattern may well have held in North America a century ago, when elite groups used high status culture to distinguish themselves from ambitious waves of lower status immigrants, but this pattern does not hold now. Instead, higher status people are ‘omnivores’ who like many kinds of culture, including a mixture of genres of high, medium, and low status. Lower status people are ‘univores’ who like one or a few genres. For example, lower status people often like just one kind of music, while higher status people like many; lower status people usually have a favorite kind of music, while higher status people often do not, valuing variety instead. Similarly, Erickson (1996) found that higher status people know more about each of several genres, whether these were cultivated ones like art or popular ones like sports. Thus North American research indicates that social status is correlated with the variety of culture people take an interest in, not with culture’s prestige.

The real degree of difference between France and North America is still a matter of debate. There is little strictly comparable research. Further, it is not clear what truly comparable research would be like. One cannot simply use the same research tools in different countries, since different cultural items can play equivalent roles in two different societies. For example, each national elite may follow a different prestigious newspaper with special attention, or may share a common knowledge of a different set of classic novels. Holt (1998) works on translating the spirit of Bourdieu’s work into theoretically, not literally comparable research in the United States. Lamont (1992) used in-depth interviews to compare the ways that middle class American and French men use culture to mark status boundaries. Much more of this careful comparative work needs to be done.

However, there is some agreement that the game of culture is at least partly different in France and North America, and that this is in part because of social structural differences. For example, Lamont (1992) found that her French respondents more often used culture (in the sense of cultivation) to separate themselves and their class from others, while her North American respondents used socioeconomic standing more. She attributes this difference in part to the greater centralization of the French educational system, mass media, cultural institutions, and informal intellectual networks, which all contribute to a much clearer and more socially consequential ranking of culture. Lamont also discusses the lower rates of geographic and class mobility in France, which contribute to greater cultural distancing between different classes.

Like culture, social networks are related to social status as both cause and consequence; as for culture, the important aspect of networks may be high status contacts or varied contacts. Lin (1999) provides a useful overview of research in North America, Europe, and Asia. Young adults from higher status families begin their working lives with more diversified networks including more high status contacts. Richer networks lead to better jobs. Higher status jobs then lead to still more diversified networks, since higher status jobs include contacts with a wider range of people, and to more high status contacts, since higher status jobs include work with others at high levels. Thus although higher status people do have more high status contacts, especially among those they are closest to, they do not restrict themselves to high status contacts. Instead, the higher the status the more wide- ranging the network, with contacts over much of the occupational prestige hierarchy. In turn, both high status contacts and contact variety can be useful in getting a better job: higher status contacts are gatekeepers for higher level jobs, and varied contacts provide a wide range of job opportunities, as well as being a job qualification for the kinds of upper level work that include extensive networking. Unfortunately France is not one of the countries Lin (1999) reviewed, so it is not clear whether high status contacts may have a relatively large role (compared to network variety) in the centralized French system as a whole, though high status contacts do play a major role in elite life (e.g., Kadushin 1995).

3. Variations Between Different Kinds Of Societies

Comparison of France and North America suggests that the large-scale organization of social structure and culture affects the interconnections of networks, culture, and socioeconomic standing at the level of individuals. DiMaggio (1987) provides a more general argument concerning these linkages. At the level of communities and societies, DiMaggio (1987) argues that the organization of culture mirrors the organization of social relationships. He defines organizations of cultural elements as ‘artistic classification systems (ACSs): the way that the work of artists is divided up both in the heads and habits of consumers and by the institutions that bound the production and distribution of separate genres’ (DiMaggio 1987, p. 441). A genre is one particular kind of culture, as defined by the people in a society or community, and an ACS is the total ensemble of recognized genres. ACSs vary on four dimensions, three of which are important here: differentiation, hierarchy, and boundary strength.

Differentiation is the number of distinct genres in an ACS. Using music as an example, people may just distinguish music from other arts like story telling; or may distinguish several varieties of music like jazz and classical; or may make finer subdivisions such as Baroque and other subtypes of classical music. ACS differentiation grows with the complexity of social structure, because each social subgroup is a distinct social setting in which unique tastes can develop, and members of each subgroup have some interest in developing unique tastes to express their distinctive identity and mark their group boundary. Complexity of social structure includes all socially consequential ways in which different groups form: heterogeneity (such as multiple ethnic groups), status diversity (many different levels of inequality), and multiple forms of inequality not well related to each other (so people share a similar level of education with one set of people, a similar occupational prestige level with another set, and so on).

Hierarchy is ‘the degree to which genres are ordered hierarchically by prestige as opposed to perceived as different but of equal value’ (DiMaggio 1987, p. 447). Because genres gain prestige through association with high status groups, genres are more clearly ranked in prestige to the extent that a community has clearly ranked social groups: groups with a single kind of ranking, with great inequality from top to bottom, and with little interaction between different levels.

Boundary strength is the extent to which people treat cultural boundaries as important, for example by rejecting art works that are hybrids of distinct traditions. Cultural differences seem more important to the extent that social boundaries are important, with distinct groups having limited interaction across their borders. Deep social divisions encourage the separate development of cultures that can become quite different objectively. Strong social boundaries also encourage taking these cultural differences seriously, since culture expresses group identities and differences.

In these terms, the contrast between France and North America is one small part of a broader hypothesis: social status is more highly correlated with high status taste and high status networks, and high status tastes and contacts are more important to gaining social status in societies with ACSs and social structures that are less differentiated, more hierarchical, and have greater boundary strength. In such societies high status taste is cultural capital and high status contacts are social capital, where ‘capital’ is something one can invest in (for example, through education or astute networking) and from which one can gain returns in the form of class location. But in societies with ACSs and social structures that are more differentiated, less hierarchical, and have weaker boundaries, individuals must relate well to many different kinds of other people to succeed, especially at the higher social status levels where many disparate contacts are necessary. In such societies cultural capital is varied culture plus the ability to switch on the kind of culture appropriate to the circumstances, while social capital is a wide variety of contacts including but not limited to high status contacts.

Fully testing these idea would require extensive work on the social and cultural structures of many varied communities, a daunting task not yet performed (though see Blau 1989 for some comparisons of 125 cities in the United States).

4. Variations Over Time

Since societies vary over time, so should networks, culture, and their connections. The earliest theorist of historical change, and still one of the most interesting, is Simmel (1955). Simmel compares social structures of many kinds over many centuries; for simplicity, this research paper considers only the contrast between very simple societies and complex modern ones. In simple societies such as small, largely independent communities, each community contains people who vary fully in age, status, and other important social attributes. But each of these different people knows most or all of the others, so each has more or less the same network and is exposed to the same influences. Given a small population, each person must interact with each of the others a good deal in varied ways, so the shared influences are strong. Thus people can develop little individuality or differentiation in their social experiences or their tastes. In more complex modern societies, people can selectively affiliate with others who share their particular tastes and interests, as in joining a voluntary association dedicated to one’s profession or one’s hobby. Within a special interest group, relationships are narrow, focused on the special interest itself, so they strongly reinforce that interest without affecting other tastes or interests much. Each member can and often does have other interests which can be quite different from the outside interests of fellow members. Indeed, Simmel portrays the modern person as one who lives at the unique intersection of his or her own particular collection of formal or informal groupings devoted to a range of particular tastes. This uniqueness of social and cultural influence is the critical foundation of modern individualism. Though Simmel does not emphasize this, it is clear that this modern condition does not hold to the same degree for everyone in a modern society: the multiplicity of affiliations grows with social status. For example, research in dozens of countries shows that those with higher education or occupation prestige belong to a greater number of voluntary associations. Thus class predicts variety of affiliations and hence variety in networks, variety in tastes, and individuation, a pattern echoing the discussion of the North American pattern above.

Changes over smaller ranges of time are also of interest. Most strikingly, we know very little about changes over time in people’s lives, since there are no substantial studies of networks, culture, and class over time. This leaves us unsure of the causal connections among these; we suspect that each of the three affects the others, but have no evidence that this is the case, nor do we know the details of the mutual influences. For example, are some effects faster than others? Does a change in job alter networks immediately as former work colleagues are lost and replaced while a change in networks takes some time to lead to a new job? Is the pace of change faster at some times in life, especially perhaps in the turbulent and changeful transition from youth to adulthood? We also know little of the processes by which networks affect cultures, or culture affects networks, or each shapes and is shaped by class; most of our research shows strong and interesting correlations but only offers speculation about how these correlations develop over time. These are exciting directions for future work.


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