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«Materials for an explorator y theory of the network society1 ABSTRACT This article aims at proposing some elements for a grounded theor y of the ...»

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Manuel Castells

Materials for an explorator y theory of the

network society1


This article aims at proposing some elements for a grounded theor y of the

network society. The network society is the social structure characteristic of the

Information Age, as tentatively identi ed by empirical, cross-cultural investigation. It permeates most societies in the world, in various cultural and institutional manifestations, as the industrial society characterized the social structure of both capitalism and statism for most of the twentieth centur y.

Social structures are organized around relationships of production/consumption, power, and experience, whose spatio–temporal con gurations constitute cultures. They are enacted, reproduced, and ultimately transformed by social actors, rooted in the social structure, yet freely engaging in con ictive social practices, with unpredictable outcomes. A fundamental feature of social structure in the Information Age is its reliance on networks as the key feature of social morphology. While networks are old forms of social organization, they are now empowered by new information/communication technologies, so that they become able to cope at the same time with exible decentralization, and with focused decision-making. The article examines the speci c interaction between network morphology and relationships of production/consumption, power, experience, and culture, in the historical making of the emerging social structure at the turn of the Millennium.

KEYWORDS: Information networks; social structure; information age; social theor y; social morphology


The network society is a speci c form of social structure tentatively identied by empirical research as being characteristic of the Information Age.

By social structure I understand the organizational arrangements of humans in relationships of production/consumption, experience, and power, as expressed in meaningful interaction framed by culture. By Information Age I refer to a historical period in which human societies perform their activities in a technological paradigm constituted around microelectronics-based information/communication technologies, and genetic British Journal of Sociology Vol. No. 51 Issue No. 1 (Januar y/March 2000) pp. 5–24 ISSN 0007 1315 © London School of Economics 2000 6 Manuel Castells engineering. It replaces/subsumes the technological paradigm of the Industrial Age, organized primarily around the production and distribution of energy.

In this article I aim at clarifying the theoretical implications that can be induced from my observation of contemporar y social structures and social change, proposed in my trilogy The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture (see the updated, and revised ‘New Millennium edition’ of this work: Castells 2000a). Since, in my view, theor y is simply a research tool, and not the end product of research, the purpose of this exercise is to help the construction of an analytical framework that could inform, and better organize, further research. However, given the dif culty of the task, and the necessarily collective character of this endeavour, what is presented here should be considered, literally, as materials to be used in the building of a sociological theor y able to grasp emerging forms of social organization and con ict. This theor y is still in its explorator y stage, and should remain, like all relevant theories, as a work in progress open to recti cation by empirical research.

Because I am trying to distill theor y from observation, I will not discuss here the many important, and fruitful, theoretical contributions that exist in sociology and related disciplines, which could anchor the categories and analyses proposed in this article. I will present an argument as schematic, and simpli ed as possible, so that it could be useful to sociologists’ collective investigation, without spending space and time in reminding the reader of well-established theoretical contributions. A short bibliography indicates the works that have helped me in theorizing my investigation. Similarly, the statements on current social trends cannot be empirically substantiated in this paper: they rely on data and sources presented in the updated version of my trilogy (Castells 2000a).

For the sake of clarity, I will rst present the conceptual framework I use in my analysis of social structure. I will then proceed to enumerate the main transformations taking place in social structures around the world, in the Information Age. Since a trend common to many of these transformations refers to the prevalence of information networking as the organizational form of dominant activities, I will then de ne information networks, and elaborate on the implications of networking in social morphology. Finally, I will present how, speci cally, information networks affect social structures (as conceptualized in this article) to induce the kind of transformations we are observing. Within the limits of tentative elaboration, this exercise intends to open the way for a theoretically meaningful codi cation of current processes of social transformation, thus providing theoretical meaning to the ideal type of the network society. I hope the reader will be benevolent enough to use what s/he nds useful in this effort, and discard the rest. I also hope that we all end up adopting the notion of disposable theor y.

Materials for an explorator y theory of the network society


Human societies are made from the con ictive interaction between humans organized in and around a given social structure. This social structure is formed by the interplay between relationships of production/consumption; relationships of experience; and relationships of power.

Meaning is constantly produced and reproduced through symbolic interaction between actors framed by this social structure, and, at the same time, acting to change it or to reproduce it. By meaning, I understand the symbolic identi cation by an actor of the purpose of her/his/their action. The consolidation of shared meaning through cr ystallization of practices in spatio–temporal con gurations creates cultures, that is systems of values and beliefs informing codes of behaviour. There is no systemic dominance in this matrix of relationships. There are all layers of social structure and social causation, folded into each other, distinguishable only in analytical terms. Thus, meaning is not produced in the cultural realm: it is the cultural realm that is produced by the consolidation of meaning. Meaning results from symbolic interaction between brains which are socially and ecologically constrained, and, at the same time, biologically and culturally able of innovation. Meaning is produced, reproduced, and fought over in all layers of social structure, in production as in consumption, in experience as in power. What makes sense to anyone is de ned by the endless reconstruction by humans of the sources and purpose of their action, always constrained but never pre-scripted. So, production can be oriented towards glorifying God (and punishing the in dels), as well as religious belief can be twisted to the service of capital accumulation. What actually happens, when, and where (usually by random combination of social events in a preexisting, historically determined, social structure), makes speci c societies, such as now the ‘network society’.

Production is the action of humankind on matter (nature), to appropriate it and transform it for its bene t by obtaining a product, consuming (unevenly) part of it, and accumulating the surplus for investment, according to socially decided goals. Consumption is the appropriation of the product by humans for their individual bene t. Analytically, it is a component of the production process, seen from the reverse side.

Experience is the action of humans on themselves, determined by the interplay between their biological and cultural identities, and in relationship to their social and natural environment. It is constructed around the endless search for the ful lment of human needs and desires.

Power is the action of humans on other humans to impose their will on others, by the use, potential or actual, of symbolic or physical violence. Institutions of society are built to enforce power relationships existing in each historical period, including the controls, limits, and social contracts, achieved in the power struggles.

More particularly, production is organized in class relationships (or relationships of production) that de ne the process by which some 8 Manuel Castells humans, on the basis of their position in the production process decide the organization of production, the sharing and uses of the product vis-à-vis consumption, and investment, as well as the differential appropriation of the product (consumption). The structural principle under which surplus is appropriated and controlled characterizes a mode of production, such as capitalism or statism. The concept of mode of production belongs exclusively to the relationships of production. In this view, the notion, for instance, of a capitalist state, is void of theoretical meaning, although it can usefully characterize an empirical observation, when a given state is primarily geared toward the preservation and promotion of capitalist social relationships of production.

Experience is structured around sexual/gender relationships, historically organized around the family, and characterized hitherto by the domination of men over women and children. Family relationships and sexuality are the foundations of personality systems, understanding by personality the individuation of social relationships in speci c brains, in interaction with the brain’s biological features.

Power is founded upon the ability to exercise violence. Historically, it is the monopoly of physical violence, embodied in the state, which has been the main expression of power relationships. Outside the direct sphere of the state, the exercise of power within production organizations or in apparatuses of experience (such as the family) ultimately relied on the ability of these apparatuses to call upon the state (or para-states, such as the Church) to enforce violently the dominant rules on restive subjects. However, symbolic violence has always been a fundamental dimension of power, and it increases in importance over time, as societies make progress in establishing institutional limits to the arbitrary exercise of physical violence. By symbolic violence I mean the capacity of a given symbolic code to delete a different code from the individual brain upon whom power is exercised.

Symbolic communication between humans, and the relationship between humans and nature through production/consumption, experience, and power, cr ystallize over histor y in speci c territories, thus generating cultures which go on to live a life on their own. Individuals may adopt/adapt to cultures, so building their identities. Or else, they may construct their own, individual identities through the interaction between available cultures, and their own symbolic recombinant capacity, in uenced by their speci c experience.

There is another layer that is folded in production/consumption, experience, power, and culture. This is technology. By technology I mean ‘the use of scienti c knowledge to specify ways of doing things in a reproducible manner’. Technology is embodied in technical relationships, which are socially conditioned, so in itself it is not an independent, non-human dimension. In principle, because it is the application of knowledge to obtain a product of some kind, it could be assigned primarily to the process of production, in which we could then distinguish social relationships of production, and technical relationships of production, as proposed in the Materials for an explorator y theory of the network society Marxian model, and as I had proposed in my own work. I now think this is

questionable. Because technology is as decisive in the realm of power (military technology, for instance) as in the realm of production. Similarly, technology plays an essential role in framing the relationships of experience:

for instance, human reproductive technology frames family relationships and sexuality. Therefore, we must integrate technology, on its own ground, as a speci c layer of the social structure, following an old tradition in human ecology. I would like to use for conceptualizing technology as a layer of the social structure, the Tourainian concept of ‘mode of development’ (also consistent with Bell’s analytical framework), that I will de ne, in my own terms, as: ‘the technological arrangements through which humans act upon matter (nature), upon themselves, and upon other humans’. By technological arrangements I mean the set of tools, rules, and procedures, through which scienti c knowledge is applied to a given task in a reproducible manner. Modes of development are de ned by their central technological paradigm and by their principle of performance. Following, and adapting to sociology, Christopher Freeman’s de nition of a technoeconomic paradigm, I would characterize as a technological paradigm a cluster of inter-related technical, organizational, and managerial innovations, whose advantages are to be found in their superior productivity and ef ciency in accomplishing an assigned goal, as a result of synergy between its components (1982). Each paradigm is constituted around a fundamental set of technologies, speci c to the paradigm, and whose coming together into a synergistic set establishes the paradigm. Thus, energy for the Industrial Paradigm, Information/communication technologies (including genetic engineering) for the Informational Paradigm.

Technology as a material tool, and meaning as symbolic construction, through relationships of production/consumption, experience, and power, are the fundamental ingredients of human action – an action that ultimately produces and modi es social structure.


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