Telecommunications Networks: A Technical Device, Sociological Concept, and Measuring Instrument for Sociability Researchers

Special Report: Key Aspects of Networks
By Patrice Flichy

Digital telecommunications networks are equipped with devices allowing the traceability of communications actions. Provided that the concerned individuals agree, this enables the constitution of exhaustive databases of communications activities. Technical networks can thus be used to study social networks: to make detailed descriptions of practices; to analyse precisely the scope, location and patterns of sociability networks; to understand the interactions between sociability and the various telecommunications devices available. It turns out that their are complex interactions between technical networks and social networks. The former provide actors with resources and constraints to develop the latter; but they also provide social scientists with tools to study social networks. For researchers studying sociability, networks are, at the same time, a technical device, a sociological concept and a measuring instrument.
In this paper, we first present various methods to study remote sociability. Then we describe the main features of fixed telephone use, based on the numerous data available. Finally we analyse the new telecommunications systems (mobile telephones, the Internet), the new forms of sociability that have emerged and the specific methodological problems raised by their study.

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