2.1 Understanding SNA in Educational Research

2.1.1 Three levels of considerations

In the previous video, I described three levels of considerations that educational researchers often need to be aware of. You could find more information in text such as (Niglas 2010) or some other research methodology courses. Please note that this framework was constructed to help us grapple with the complex terrain of research, and it is highly debatable.

Below, I try to re-iterate the key message of the video – but from the bottom up:

  • m, or methods/techniques: The “small m” in SNA constitutes methods or techniques we apply in SNA research. Imagine we are using SNA to investigate friendship of a network of high-schoolers (think about “Gossip Girls” if you’ve watched that TV series). A technique in this SNA research could be a questionnaire used to collect friendship data among students; it could be the force-directed layout we use to visualize this network; it could be the measure of betweenness centrality we use to characterize high-schoolers; it could also be a network modeling algorithm we apply to model the flow of gossips. In a nutshell, these techniques are more about what we concretely do in an SNA research.

  • M: When SNA is referred to as a “big M” Methodology, it is treated as a systematic approach of investigating a phenomenon. Beyond simply applying these techniques, a methodology is also concerned with why a technique gets used. In other words, understanding SNA as a methodology means learning to make informed decisions in any stage of an SNA project. For example, why using a questionnaire instead of observations or interviews? In which cases should one use a circle layout instead of a force-directed layout? Why a specific SNA measure is appropriate for addressing a research question? In a nutshell, the big M is concerned with how knowledge could be best gained by following many SNA methodologists and researchers have created so far.

  • P, worldviews, philosophical schools of thoughts, paradigms: In SNA, some scholars go further to argue SNA offers a unique way of “seeing the world.” In Carolan (2014) chapter 2 you will read about the relational perspective that represent a particular worldview that emphasizes relations instead of attributes. You will also read about relational realism that is referred to as an ontology grounding SNA. To a great extent, SNA offers a new research paradigm. As put by Barry Wellman, a guru in SNA from the University of Toronto, “It is a comprehensive paradigmatic way of taking social structure seriously by studying directly how patterns of ties allocate resources in a social system” (see, Carolan, 2014, p. 33).

In this course, we are mostly concerned with the “big M” level. We will not dive too deep into the P level, and we will not settle with specific techniques. Together, we will learn how to apply various techniques to systematically produce knowledge about a phenomenon.


Niglas, Katrin. 2010. “The Multidimensional Model of Research Methodology: An Integrated Set of Continua.” In SAGE Handbook of Mixed Methods in Social & Behavioral Research, edited by Abbas Tashakkori and Charles Teddlie, 215–36. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.