Social Networks, Social Norms and Workers’ Resistance: A Computational Simulation Analysis


The aim of this chapter is to account for certain consequences of the embeddedness of workers’ behavior in informal social relations which are developed within a firm’s formal organization, thus extending Granovetter’s (1985) famous thesis of the embeddedness of economic actors in social structure. Granovetter (1985, 495) himself recognized in his seminal paper that “it seems plausible [...] that the network of social relations within the firm might be more dense and more long-standing on the average than that existing between”. A nice empirical example of this issue is provided by Leon’s (2011) game theoretical analysis of informal norms of resistance, which emerged within teams working in a firm of the automotive sector located in Barcelona’s industrial area. The goal of these norms was to lower the production quota, that is, the number of pieces to be produced per day established by the firm’s managers. According to Leon (2011, 78-79) the set of informal norms ruling the behavior of workers included: (a) the duty to hide skills while being timed, (b) the duty to work at the same rhythm set by other colleagues on the production line, and (c) the duty to hide from management the means of resistance and tricks that colleagues employ in managing the production rhythm. Leon convincingly shows how the incentive system among team mates works to back these prescriptions.

The topic of Leon’s empirical research has a long tradition in sociology, going back at least to the famous Hawthorne experiments conducted by Mayo (1945), who opened new venues of research in social psychology, the science of management, and the sociology of organizations. From a theoretical point of view, Leon’s approach is in debt to Coleman’s (1990) theory of the corporate actor. Coleman’s (1990, 423) theory made a strong criticism of Weber’s conception of organizations, “where only the central authority is treated as a purposive actor” and “the fact that the persons who are employed to fill the positions in the organization are purposive actors as well is overlooked”.

Following these guidelines, my goal is to show how different network topologies of informal relations (links which run parallel to the firm’s formal positions) can foster, or not, the emergence of social norms of resistance (in the sense of Leon’s article). In doing so, I will use a relatively infrequent tool of analysis among sociologists: an agent-based simulation model, which attempts to capture some of the main features of workers’ social interactions.

Recent revisions to the literature of organizations, social networks and worker resistance (Vaughan 1999; Brass et al. 2004; Roscigno and Hodson 2004) show that this topic has been largely overlooked by scholars. While literature on networks and organizations, as well as on organization and worker resistance, is quite large, I have been unable to find evidence related to the effect of network topology on worker resistance within organizations. It seems as if it is just assumed that, quite obviously, some social relations among peers must exist if workers are to produce any resistance action; but the details of how network topology should be to promote these relations are largely unexplored. For instance, in their rigorous examination of 82 workplace organizational ethnographies, Roscigno and Hodson (2004) conclude that strike action and other individual resistance strategies (such as work avoidance or absenteeism) are more likely to occur in workplaces characterized by systematic and ongoing interpersonal conflict with management, union presence and, sometimes, bureaucratic structure. Adding that “social relations on the shop floor play a meaningful role in prompting both collective and individual manifestations of class resistance” (Roscigno and Hodson 2004, 33). However, with the term, “social relations,” they are mainly referring to conflict (or the absence of conflict) between managers and workers. In a previous work (Dixon and Roscigno 2003), the authors specifically attempted to show the impact of social networks on strike behavior. But, again, the details of the network topology are missing since what is measured is the amount of union activity with variables such as the number of cardcarrying individuals.

The chapter will proceed as follows: First, because these resistance norms cannot be taken as a given (that is, they emerge at some point as a product of agents’ interactions) and because there is not yet a widely accepted sociological theory of the emergence of norms, a comprehensive definition of social norms and an account of how they are supposed to emerge are provided in this paper. Secondly, some basic notions of “complex adaptive systems” and the “new science of networks” are introduced. These notions are required to understand the agent-based simulation model and how it works. A brief exposition of the model is then provided, but details are left to the appendix. Next, the main results of the model are elucidated. The chapter ends with a concluding section, which discusses the results on which the simulations shed light.

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