The Generalized Other in Social Network Analysis

Invoked Temporary Objects Representing an Ideal Generalized Other

I am in the midst of a dissertation that forms an attempt to meet criticism of Sociology in a durable form — as a method that is simultaneously qualitative, quantitative, macro-, micro-, and meso-level.

This sounds like a lot but really, it’s pretty straight forward as methodologies are currently at a point that is little more than Social Network Analysis paired with time stamps, transcripts, and video. Much like Tournier’s Friday, or, The Other Island (link to Latour’s invocation of Tournier), instead of pre-formatting structures, pre-deciding the existence of power, or even accounting for anything other than ingredients, accepting the world as it is constantly made is more useful than attempting to model things that have existed before with the presupposition that they’ll continue to exist.

The quest for more resources

As I have written and coded my data for these things, I have encountered numerous iterations of a particular issue. It continues to fascinate me. During an activity, it doesn’t matter if it’s a game, a meeting, time at the gym, or even making food, it happens nearly every time — humans refer to generalized others.

Now, I don’t know if Generalized Other is really the right term. This concept from George Herbert Mead is generally defined as this sort of:

“ Any time that an actor tries to imagine what is expected of them, they are taking on the perspective of the generalized other.”

In many ways, it could be invoking this sort of “General Other” object. For example, consider this bit from a transcript:

R: Does anyone want to give me … If someone gives me a wood, I’ll give them a sheep.

There are a few things happening here. From one perspective, this player is asking all players simultaneously for input or response. However, in doing so they are also creating this sort of “general other” that they hope somewhere on the table exists. In essence, “I hope there is a person that will give me a wood.” and then this generalized other that is voiced, is invoked, is suddenly manifested as an object that might attract some new allies.

But it gets even weirder than that. Within Social-Network Analysis, does the existence of a non-human object that essentially represents a general other mean that this object actually exists? If it does, does it also have agency? Does it have nonhuman qualities? Or, to be blunt, does this object even matter?

The nature of social networks themselves are abstract. The usefulness of SNA is as such that an abstract series of relations can be made tangible, useful. But within each of these points, non-human or otherwise, they represent something specific. Within the monadology, these objects are the monads that are pulled upon, the ingredients that are used to assemble the whole.

In some ways, i feel that this type of general other is little more than a temporary object. It is called upon by others to serve as a shorthand for asking everyone at the table a question.

But it seems to be a little more than that at times. In fact, the invocation of such objects becomes more interesting as you take a little more of that quote above:

R: Does anyone want to give me … If someone gives me a wood, I’ll give them a sheep. 
W: You just wood. 
R: No. 
O: That’s me.
W: Oh, that’s you. 
B: Do you want to mend some broken bridges? Here you go. 
R: Seems good. 
W: I’ve got nothing from my first pick up. 
O: I want that robber off the eight. Watch, eight’s not going to be rolled for the rest of the game now. 
R: There’s normally not any game where I don’t have a nine, just a bunch of nines are rolled.

Within the 30 seconds this little clip takes part in, R creates a general other, W creates another one, and then B allies with W’s temporary general other. Right after this, the players begin to somehow anthropomorphize the game itself.

However, within this anthropomorphization we see yet another “general other” that will be invoked and if enough random dice rolls ally with this other, the game itself becomes a person. It is acting as though it agrees with this generalized other that has been called upon.

As humans, regardless of the power our objects have over us, our ability to speak to the general is something that seems to be essential to the networks that form. The general may be possible paths a network could take. They are not specific to human creators, but they do seem to be the creation of other types of incorporeal humans.

It may even be that this invocation of general others are moments wherein the agent, the actor, or the agentive entity, is formed. Hybrid objects that have achieved some sort of social moment of consciousness.

As a caveat, it should be noted that use and the above is altogether different than software being programmed for some generalized user. The act of design is imbuing a piece of software with some sort of ontology (or perhaps an epistemology) that is codified to the point of abstract black box. These are important for the most part as not every part of a piece of software should be known. The limitations of a piece of software are typically more important than the affordances.

However, it’s easier to study affordances and their impact. The way software is created makes academic inquiry difficult, if not impossible in most circumstances. Software is a representation of many decisions and a lot more history that is not connected to anyone who even made that piece of software in question.

Where I wish it were possible to go with research is to decompile, translate, and discuss the manner in which that generalized user that formed the basis upon which that software was built was actually born. Each new piece of software that has features that makes it in to another piece of software morphs the idea of what users are and what they can do. This in turn impacts the way that the generalized other is invoked — especially when that software is meant to bridge various kinds of distributed groups.

Within programming, the generalized user is further tempered by programming languages, hardware limitations, infrastructure, operating system, and what could probably be called the sociological imagination of software designers. Programming languages just aren’t studied that way.

One day I hope they will so that this level of detail can be placed within SNA as well.