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

3 thoughts on “Cultural Holes: Bringing Culture and Social Networks Together

  1. I can’t begin to imagine how social networks could be considered independent of culture… or of cultural evolution… especially the role of bio-social drives… like the altruism problem in hierarchical networks…

    Selfishness has a powerful place… but in scaled decision networks, though a less-powerful force on the individual level… biological altruism has an even greater power to distort group decisions over-time… or more precisely because of its boundaries, though fuzzy related to natural human community size… (Dunbar’s Number)

    In fact, its the force behind groupthink and its distortions of reality…

    Ayn Rand & Alan Greenspan: The Altruism Fly in the Objectivist Ointment

    Compensation and the Social Network

    Which is precisely why any social body larger than a band of hunter-gatherers is going to trend toward unfairness over time.

    On Creating Communities (Part 1)

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