Networks: Perspectives and State of Affairs

Special Report: Key Aspects of Networks
By Gabriel Dupuy, Jean-Marc Offner

The Research Group on Networks, in which the journal Flux originates, was created in France more than twenty years ago. Gathering researchers from all disciplinary origins as well as people from network utility companies, the group aimed at promoting cross-cutting research on technical networks: water and sanitation, energy, telecommunications and transport systems. Its intellectual origins were twofold: urban planning and urban history; science and technology studies (STS). Policy changes in the 1980s and in the 1990s led members of the group to study processes of liberalization of utility services. Interactions with the “large technical systems” research community proved very helpful in analysing the morphogenesis of networks. Conversely, methodological issues were not extensively discussed within the group. And paradoxically, geographers were less involved in the activities of the group than historians, sociologists, economists and engineers.
In parallel, the notion of network was experiencing a tremendous success within both academic and professional milieux. Notably under the influence of the spread of the Internet, all spheres of economic and social activities began to function as networks. Some analysts argued that the network was the paradigm of the contemporary world: they were denounced as ideologists. A methodological effort seems the only way to reappropriate the “toolkit” associated with the notion of network, which coould then be used to shed new light on the grand questions of social sciences. The elements needed to develop a robust socio-economy of technical networks are already available.

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