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Harrison Colyar White, born March 21, 1930, is the Giddings Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. White is an influential scholar in the domain of social networks.[1] He is credited with the development of a number of mathematical models of social structure including vacancy chains and blockmodels. He has been a leader of a revolution in sociology that is still in process, using models of social structure that are based on patterns of relations instead of the attributes and attitudes of individuals.[2] He has investigated and modeled persistent social formations like persons and organizations. White and his students have been able to observe and measure the patterns of relationships that appear as social constructs and have taken some of what we have known by common sense and measured it empirically. They have shown that some of our common sense notions are not correct.

The most comprehensive documentation of his theories can be found in the book Identity and Control, first published in 1992. A major rewrite of the book appeared in June 2008. White is currently involved in sociolinguistics and business strategy as well as sociology.

Early yearsEdit

White was born on March 21, 1930 in Washington, DC. At the age of 15, he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), receiving his undergraduate degree at 20 years of age; five years later, in 1955, he received a doctorate in theoretical physics, also from MIT.

After receiving his PhD in theoretical physics, White started his doctoral studies in sociology at Princeton University. At the same time he took up a position as an operations analyst at the Operations Research Office, Johns Hopkins University. While continuing his studies at Princeton, White also spent a year as a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, California. Upon an invitation from Herbert Simon, White then moved from California to Pittsburgh to work as an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration, Carnegie Institute of Technology (later Carnegie-Mellon University) where he stayed for a couple of years, between 1957 and 1959.

It was also during these years that White, still a graduate student in sociology, wrote and published his first social scientific work, "Sleep: A Sociological Interpretation" in Acta Sociologica, together with Vilhelm Aubert, a Norwegian sociologist. White carried out empirical research, which in May 1960 he submitted as his doctoral dissertation, earning a PhD in sociology from Princeton University.

It was also during these years that White met his first wife, Cynthia A. Johnson, who was a graduate of Radcliffe College, where she had majored in art history. The couple’s joint work on the French Impressionists, Canvases and Careers (1965) and “Institutional Changes in the French Painting World” (I964), originally grew out of a seminar on art in 1957 at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, led by Robert Wilson. In 1959, White moved to Chicago to start working as an associate professor at the Department of Sociology. At that time, both Peter Blau and Erving Goffman were there. During his stay at the University of Chicago, White finished An Anatomy of Kinship, published in 1963 within the Prentice-Hall series in Mathematical Analysis of Social Behavior, with James Coleman and James March as chief editors. The book received significant attention from many mathematical sociologists of the time, and contributed greatly to establish White as a model builder.[3]

The Harvard Revolution Edit

In 1963, White left Chicago to be an associate professor of sociology at the Harvard Department of Social Relations, where he became the leader of the “Harvard Revolution” in social networks. White’s research on “vacancy chains” was assisted by a number of graduate students, including Michael Schwartz and Ivan Chase.

The outcome of this was the book Chains of Opportunity. The book described a model of social mobility where the roles and the people that filled them were independent. The idea of a person being partially created by their position in patterns of relationships has become a recurring theme in his work. This provided a quantitative analysis of social roles, allowing scientists new ways to measure society that were not based on statistical aggregates.

Another of his graduate students, Mark Granovetter, studying how people got jobs, discovered they were more likely to get them through acquaintances than through friends. This, tied with earlier work by Stanley Milgram (who was also in the Harvard Department of Social Relations, though not one of White’s students), gave scientists a better sense of how the social world was organized: into dense groups with “weak ties” between them. This line of research is still actively being pursued by Jon Kleinberg, Duncan Watts and others.

Sociological contributions Edit

A good summary of White's sociological contributions is provided by his former student and collaborator, Ronald Breiger:

White addresses problems of social structure that cut across the range of the social sciences. Most notably, he has contributed (1) theories of role structures encompassing classificatory kinship systems of native Australian peoples and institutions of the contemporary West; (2) models based on equivalences of actors across networks of multiple types of social relation; (3) theorization of social mobility in systems of organizations; (4) a structural theory of social action that emphasizes control, agency, narrative, and identity; (5) a theory of artistic production; (6) a theory of economic production markets leading to the elaboration of a network ecology for market identities and new ways of accounting for profits, prices, and market shares; and (7) a theory of language use that emphasizes switching between social, cultural, and idiomatic domains within networks of discourse. His most explicit theoretical statement is Identity and Control: A Structural Theory of Social Action (1992), although several of the major components of his theory of the mutual shaping of networks, institutions, and agency are also readily apparent in Careers and Creativity: Social Forces in the Arts (1993), written for a less-specialized audience.[4]
More generally, White and his students sparked interest in looking at society as networks rather than as aggregates of individuals.[5]

This view is still controversial. In sociology and organizational science, it is difficult to measure cause and effect in a systematic way. Because of that, it is common to use sampling techniques to discover some sort of average in a population.

For instance, we are told almost daily how the average European or American feels about a topic. It allows social scientists and pundits to make inferences about cause and say “people are angry at the current administration because the economy is doing poorly.” This kind of generalization certainly makes sense, but it does not tell us anything about an individual. This leads to the idea of an idealized individual, something that is the bedrock of modern economics.[6] Most modern economic theories look at social formations, like organizations, as products of individuals all acting in their own best interest[7].

While this has proved to be useful in some cases, it does not account well for the knowledge that is required for the structures to sustain themselves. White and his students (and his student’s students) have been developing models that incorporate the patterns of relationships into descriptions of social formations. This line of work includes: economic sociology, network sociology and structuralist sociology.

Identity and control Edit

White’s most comprehensive work is Identity and Control. The first edition came out in 1992 and the second edition appeared in June 2008.

In this book, White discusses the social world, including “persons,” as emerging from patterns of relationships. He argues that it is a default human heuristic to organize the world in terms of attributes, but that this can often be a mistake. For instance, there are countless books on leadership that look for the attributes that make a good leader. However, no one is a leader without followers; the term describes a relationship one has with others. Without the relationships, there would be no leader. Likewise, an organization can be viewed as patterns of relationships. It would not “exist” if people did not honor and maintain specific relationships. White avoids giving attributes to things that emerge from patterns of relationships, something that goes against our natural instincts and requires some thought to process.[8]

Markets from networks Edit

Harrison White also developed a perspective on market structure and competition in his 2002 book, Markets from Networks, based on the idea that markets are embedded in social networks. His approach is related to economic concepts such as uncertainty (as defined by Frank Knight), monopolistic competition (Edward Chamberlin), or signalling (Spence). This sociological perspective on markets has influenced both sociologists (see Joel M. Podolny) and economists (see Olivier Favereau).

White’s influence Edit

Identity and Control has seven chapters. The first six are about social formations that control us and how our own judgment organizes out experience in ways that limit our actions. The final chapter is about “getting action” and how change is possible. One of the ways is by “proxy,” empowering others.

Among social network researchers, White is a legend (One INSNA conference had a special “White Tie” event, dedicated to White[9] -- Emmanuel Lazega refers to him as “Copernicus and Galileo” because he invented both the vision and the tools). However, he is not that well known to most people, although his students and mentees have had a tremendous impact. Mark Granovetter, at Stanford, who provided the theoretical background for the Tipping Point, was a student of White’s. Other former students include Michael Schwartz and Ivan Chase, both professors at Stony Brook; Kathleen Carley at Carnegie Mellon University; Ronald Breiger at the University of Arizona; Barry Wellman at the University of Toronto; Peter Bearman at Columbia University; Bonnie Erickson (Toronto); Joel Levine (Dartmouth College), Nicholas Mullins (deceased), Margaret Theeman (Boulder), Brian Sherman (retired, Atlanta), Nancy Howell (retired, Toronto); David Gibson (University of Pennsylvania); Matthew Bothner (University of Chicago); and Ann Mische (Rutgers University).[10]

Current work Edit

White is still active with his major research in linguistics. In the new Identity and Control there is emphasis on “switching” between network domains as a way to account for grammar in a way that does not ignore meaning as does much of standard linguistic theory. His long-standing interest in organizations is still active, and he is working on how strategy fits into the overall models of social construction he has developed.

Selected booksEdit

  • Harrison C. White (2008), Identity and Control: How Social Formations Emerge Princeton University Press ISBN 0691137153
  • Harrison C. White (2002), Markets from Networks: Socioeconomic Models of Production, Princeton University Press
  • Harrison C. White (1993), Careers and Creativity: Social Forces in the Arts. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press
  • Harrison C. White (1992), Identity and Control: A Structural Theory of Social Action, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Selected ArticlesEdit

  • Harrison C. White, Frédéric C. Godart, and Victor P. Corona (2007), Mobilizing Identities: Uncertainty and Control in Strategy, Theory, Culture & Society 24:181-202.
  • Harrison C. White (1997), Can Mathematics Be Social? Flexible Representation for Interaction Process in its Socio-Cultural Constructions, Sociological Forum 12:53-71.
  • Harrison C. White (1995), Network Switchings and Bayesian Forks. Reconstructing the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Social Research 62:.
  • Harrison C. White (1995), Social Networks Can Resolve Actor Paradoxes in Economics and in Psychology, Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics, 151:58-74.
  • Harrison C. White (1994), Values Comes in Styles, Which Mate to Change, Chapter 4th in Michael Hechter, Lynn Nadel and R. Michod, eds., The Origin of Values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
  • Harrison C. White and Cynthia A. White (1993), Canvases and Careers: Institutional Change in the French Painting World, University of Chicago Press, Chicago (French translation, La Carriere Des Peintres au XIXe Siecle: Du systeme academique au marche des impressionistes, Antoine Jaccottet, tr., Preface by Jean-Paul Bouillon, Flammarion Press: Paris, 1991.)
  • Harrison C. White (1992), Markets, Networks and Control, in S. Lindenberg and Hein Schroeder, (eds.), Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Organization, Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press, 1992.
  • Harrison C. White (1988). Varieties of Markets, in Barry Wellman and S.D. Berkowitz, (eds.), Social Structures: A Network Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

On-line resources Edit


  1. Azarian 2003; Breiger 2005; Freeman 2004; Steiny 2007; Wellman 1988: 19-61.
  2. See White's original(hitherto unpublished) paper "Notes on the Constituents of Social Structure" (1965), plus a symposium on it in Sociologica 1/2008 [1]
  3. Azarian 2003, p.135-140.
  4. Breiger 2005
  5. Wellman 1988
  6. Samuelson 1979
  7. Coase 1990
  8. Steiny 2007
  9. Sunbelt 1997
  10. Mullins, Nicholas. Theories and Theory Groups in Contemporary American Sociology. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.


  • Azarian, Reza. (2003). The General Sociology of Harrison White, Stockholm, Sweden: Stockholm Studies in Social Mechanisms: 135-140
  • Breiger, Ronald. L. (2005). White, Harrison. Encyclopedia of Social Theory. G. Ritzer. Thousand Oaks, Sage. 2: 884-886.
  • Coase, Ronald H. (1990). The Firm, The Market and The Law. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • Freeman, Linton. (2004). The Development of Social Network Analysis. Vancouver, Empirical Press.
  • Samuelson, Paul A. (1979). Foundations of Economic Analysis. Antheneum, Harvard University Press.
  • Steiny, Donald. (2007). "H. White, Identity and Control (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (2008)." Social Networks 29(4): 609-616.
  • Wellman, Barry (1988). "Structural analysis: from method and metaphor to theory and substance," Social Structures: A Network Approach. B. Wellman and S. D. Berkowitz. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  • Event held in honor of Harrison White

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