Cultural Holes: Bringing Culture and Social Networks Together

In developing my Biocultural Medical Anthropology grad syllabus, I came across an interesting 2010 article in the Annual Review of Sociology: Cultural Holes: Beyond Relationality in Social Networks and Culture. Here is the abstract:

A burgeoning literature spanning sociologies of culture and social network methods has for the past several decades sought to explicate the relationships between culture and connectivity. A number of promising recent moves toward integration are worthy of review, comparison, critique, and synthesis. Network thinking provides powerful techniques for specifying cultural concepts ranging from narrative networks to classification systems, tastes, and cultural repertoires. At the same time, we see theoretical advances by sociologists of culture as providing a corrective to network analysis as it is often portrayed, as a mere collection of methods.

Cultural thinking complements and sets a new agenda for moving beyond predominant forms of structural analysis that ignore action, agency, and intersubjective meaning. The notion of “cultural holes” that we use to organize our review points both to the cultural contingency of network structure and to the increasingly permeable boundary between studies of culture and research on social networks.

Mark Pachucki is the first author, and a recent Ph.D in sociology from Harvard and current Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar. Ronald Breiger, the second author, is a professor of sociology at Arizona.

The idea of cultural holes builds on Ronald Burt’s idea of “structural holes,” which Pachucki and Breiger summarize:

Burt’s idea refers to strategic bridging ties that may connect otherwise disjoint clumps of social actors; these ties are hypothesized to lead to enhanced information benefits and social capital for those who bridge holes.

Cultural holes fills a gap (yes, I couldn’t resist) by examining “cultural meanings, practices, and discourse” as part of social networks and social structures, basically positing that conceiving social networks as independent phenomena is wrong. Rather, social networks need to be recognized as “culturally contingent” even as we increasingly recognize the powerful impact of networks over the lifespan.

Here is their main justification in their essay:

The time is overdue for a conscientious shift beyond cultural explanations for social structure, and structural explanations for cultural outcomes, toward a more integrated vision of social scientific explanation. Social relations are culturally constituted, and shared cultural meanings also shape social structure…

[We] need to look beyond the structure at both the content of what is being transmitted—such as social norms and the credibility of information—and mechanisms of transmission, and more importantly how culturally meaningful individual action can result in drastic changes in the dynamics of social networks in which individuals are embedded.

I’ll finish off with the ending to their Annual Review article, which provides a good overview of the whole piece.


1. Culture and social networks can be usefully seen as mutually constitutive and coevolving, having grown from common sociological roots in relational thinking.

2. Much empirical analysis over the past several decades has tended to treat social networks and culture as discrete realms rather than together. Notable attempts at synthetic engagement are reviewed.

3. A body of recent work shows how culture prods, evokes, and constitutes social networks in ways that may be envisioned and modeled by new analytic methods. Prominent emerging research areas include narrative and textual analysis, the civic sphere, studies of organizing principles such as fields and actor networks, boundaries, and cultural tastes.

4. In dialogue with the influential concept of structural holes, we suggest that cultural holes captures contingencies of meaning, practice, and discourse that enable social structure and structural holes.

5. Four aspects of cultural holes are identified: (1) Bridging social ties often exist because they connect people who both share and reject tastes, as well as those with complementary tastes. (2) Boundaries as well as affinities among genres are productively understood as patterned around absences of ties among cultural forms. (3) The use of structural holes as distinct from other organizing principles may depend on culture at levels ranging from interpersonal, to intraorganizational, to transnational. (4) Incommensurability in institutional logics prods actors to generate new meanings and forms of discourse.

Link to Pachucki & Breiger’s Cultural Holes abstract & citation

Sites for Science and Humanities Exploration

So there is a great new aggregrator out there – Science Blogging! It provides a live feed on some of the best science content from blogs around, including, Discover Blogs, and Scientopia.

Science Blogging is the creation of Anton Zuiker, Dave Munger, and Bora Zivkovic. Here Bora describes the initiative:

The page will aggregate RSS feeds from all the major (and some minor) science blogging networks, group blogs, aggregators and services. As the site develops further, it will also encompass other online (and offline) science communication efforts, including Twitter feeds, links to major scientific journals and magazines, ScienceOnline annual conference, and the Open Laboratory annual anthology of the best writing on science, nature and medical blogs.

If you’re more inclined to the humanities, Sympoze might be more to your tastes. Sympoze has the tagline of “social bookmarking for academics,” and while it does have categories for the natural and social sciences, most of the content/aggregation seems focused on philosophy on present.

Here is what Sympoze is about:

Sympoze is a fast and easy way for academics to collectively share, promote, and find high quality online content.

How It Works

The process starts when an academic finds something online that they like (e.g, a blog post or a paper) and submits it to Sympoze.

Once a user submits a link, the rest of the Sympoze community (also academics) can promote the content by voting it up if it’s in their discipline. Popular submissions will automatically be promoted to the front page so everyone (including non-users) can see what’s popular in various academic fields.

Since voting accounts are limited to academics who have (or are currently pursuing) graduate degrees in the various academic disciplines, the popular stories reflect the opinions of actual academics. However, everyone will be able to view the content that academics vote up and down.

Link to Science Blogging.

Link to Sympoze.

Travel to Colombia!

I love traveling in Colombia – one of the best places I’ve ever visited, with so much to do and see. And a nice place to make home as well! So here are some travel articles to whet your appetite!

The beautiful photo to the right was taken by Carlos Andres Rivera, and is a shot of Popayán, Colombia – that’s where I taught for a semester a few years back. Sr. Rivera has an entire Flickr site of his photos on Popayán.

Seth Kugel, Old Friends, White Water and Roast Ants in Colombia
A trip to Santander, “known as Colombia’s adventure tourism hot spot”

Seth Kugel, In Colombia, Pillories and the Lonely Planet People
Next Seth heads to Popayán (one of my favorite Colombian cities, of course) and its beautiful surrounding region, from visiting the Guambiano indigenous people to the magnificent archaeological site San Agustín

Stephen Ferry, Showcase: It Couldn’t Be, but It Is
Photographic blog post on Sucre, Colombia – just some great shots

David Carr, Villa de Leyva, a Graceful Window on Colonial Colombia
A beautiful colonial town fairly close to Bogotá, one of the gems of the country.

Anand Giridharadas, Love and Cartagena
A guide to a weekend trip to Colombia’s best known tourist city, a spectacular coastal city complete with fortified walls. And if you want to know where to eat, see For Foodies, Cartagena Is Now on the Map

Anand Giridharadas, 36 Hours in Bogotá, Colombia
Touring the best of Colombia’s capital and largest city! Get the photo tour in A Weekend in Bogotá

Kevin Gray, Before Night Falls
A long meditation on a trip to Bogotá, going from a Cold Play concert to Sunday brunch in Usaquén while nursing a hangover

Juan Forero, Ex-Rolling Stones Manager Emerges In South America
From Rolling Stones to Ratones Paranoicos! Andrew Loog Oldham now works in Bogotá – nice piece from NPR, complete with the radio segment, online video, and more

Matthew Fishbane, Above the Clouds in a Secret Colombia
El Cocuy National Park – a place I’ve always wanted to visit. The roof of the Andes, including peaks above 17,000 feet

Alison Ince, A Volcanic Mud Bath in Colombia
Soaking in the mud at Volcan del Totumo near Cartagena

Beth Lizardoon, The Other Side of Colombia
A trip near Santa Marta, another great Colombia coastal city, complete with rafting trip

Grace Bastidas, A Drug-Runners’ Stronghold Finds a New Life
Medellín reborn!

Cali Travel Guide
The Wikitravel Site!

Mongabay.Com, Colombia – Highlights of 2010
A whole bunch of photos from people traveling to Colombia, slated to the nature side