Summary: Social Networks Matter. But how? – Florence Passy

This chapter, number two in Social Movements and Networks – Relational Approaches to Collective Action, focuses on the role of networks on individuals’ participation in social movements/collective action.

Chapter 2 of this book

Reaons for analysing the role of (social) networks in social movements

  • allows for a better understanding of the whole process of individual participation in social movements
  • helps integrate structual and rationalist theories on social movements. “Structural approaches emphasise the role of identities, values and social networks as enabling or constraining participation, rationalist explanations stress the role of human agency.” In the decision-making process of individuals – whether or not to engage with the social movements, is in part based on the interaction with others.
  • “specifying the role of networks allows us to bring meanings and culture back into the explanation of individual participation. … social netowrks shape the individual preferences and perceptions that form the basis for the ultimate decision to participate.”

Three functions of social networks

  1. Socialisation function – social interaction with individuals within/close to a social movement define and redefine the interpretive frames, and facilitates increased identification with certain political issues of individuals
  2. Structural-connection function – beyond mere identification with a political cause, mobilisers are crucial. Networks are important mobilisers; they are the means with which potential participants can mobilise
  3. Decision-shaping function – push and pull factors shape the decision to participate. “The decision to join collective action is influence by the action of other participants.”

Social networks “are islands of meanings which define and redefine individual identities through their interactions with other actors or groups, but also by shaping more volatile perceptions or preferences. In other words, this conception of social interactions as networks of meanings brings culture, but also human agency, back into the process of individual participation.”

Method and testing

Passy tests these functions by focusing on two characteristics of movement organisations that bring about variations in the degree of participation: the action repertoire (legal vs illegal forms of action) and their public visibility (high vs low). Cross-referencingt these yields four types of organisation:

  • legal and highly visible (World Wildlife Fund)
  • illegal and highly visible (IRA, ETA)
  • legal and low visibility (Bern Declaration, aimed for more equal development of globalisation)
  • illegal and low visibility (mafia?)

Members of two organisations are the subjects of the empirical research conducted: The World Wildlife Fund and the Bern Declaration

Data collection: in-depth interviews with members of the Bern Declaration and surveys of WWF members and BD members as well.


The results of the empirical data analysis is in accordance with the three functions above. However, “the way in which [social networks] influence individual participation varies according to the nature of participation processes. … [T]he process of structurally bridging potential participants to an opportunity for mobilization manifests itself in different ways in highly visible organizations, which is not the case of organizations with low public visibility.”


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