Network Analysis and Its Limits, a Systemic Persistent Approach to China’s Reform Using Software for Historical Analysis

Brandon Sommer, Erasmus University

This paper critiques the litany of new studies on China in relation to elite studies that focus attention on the networks of power at the apex of the Communist Party, (Shambaugh, 2021, Shih, 2022). These and others offer valuable insight into the opaque nature of decision making at the highest levels of power in China. They are agency-led analysis that treat structures as background fodder, easily manipulated by strong authoritarian rulers such as Xi Jinping. This type of analysis is enabled because of the emergence of software to capture disparate relations between elite actors following on digital improvements in network analysis. However, by inadequately accounting for structures and their historical emergence in relation to actors and their networks, this type of software does not appropriately situate structures in their historical context nor the degrees-of-freedom agents have in navigating those structures. Thus, I will introduce another emerging class of software to complement a more complex account of structure and agency that recognizes the systemically persistent nature of certain structures, the investigation of which is necessary for an understanding of the opportunities and constraints with which even the most powerful actors must contend (Archer, 1995; Knio, 2020). I demonstrate how the two classes of software lead to different results whereby network analysis can say what networks exist and the spatial and/or organizational co-location of why certain actors are grouped together but says very little about why and how those organizations or actors matter in the larger structural context. Thus, I will explain the reasons certain networks are necessary for Xi’s power including those that may constrain his power and not simply that they exist.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 3. Capitalism, Neoliberalism, and the State in Southeast Asia