Social network analysis studies in the public and private sectors: A cross-professional comparison


  • Barbara Schultz-Jones,

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Library and Information Sciences, University of North Texas, P.O. Box 311068, Denton, TX 76203-1068
    • School of Library and Information Sciences, University of North Texas, P.O. Box 311068, Denton, TX 76203-1068
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  • Janet R. Macpherson

    1. School of Library and Information Sciences, University of North Texas, P.O. Box 311068, Denton, TX 76203-1068
    Search for more papers by this author


Social network analysis (SNA) is a methodology and set of techniques for analyzing networks of people engaged in work and community situations. It developed from graph theory to a formal, conceptual means of providing statements about social properties and processes (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). Relationships within a network can be characterized by the flow of information and seen as “networks of resource routes between major and minor network actors” (Haythornthwaite, 1996, p. 324). Relational attributes differ in various situations and likewise, the assessment methodology of relational attributes will vary from situation to situation. It is the analysis of these relational attributes that results in a representation of the structure of the network, thus allowing for observations and conclusions about the network and its properties.

Applications of SNA have generated useful ideas about the nature and behavior of networks. As Nelson (1989) stated:

Network analysis is useful to the study of organizations because it provides detailed descriptions of phenomena hitherto addressed only in abstract statements. However, to realize its full potential, network analysis must move beyond mere description to make normative statements about what kinds of networks support organizational effectiveness and how such networks are formed and maintained (p. 398). Efforts to achieve such normative statements have driven research studies throughout the 1990s and continue today.


With this poster, we compare and contrast studies using SNA within private and public organizational settings. Stimulation for the examination of studies for this poster came from two dissertation studies, both utilizing SNA, but conducted in different organizational settings, one in the private sector and one in the public sector. At first glance, it appeared that the studies conducted within the private sector differed in technique and intent from those conducted in the public sector. A closer look was required to determine if in fact, differences between the studies conducted in the different sectors existed.

The research included in this study was peer-reviewed from a wide variety of scholarly publications. Within each article, we identified the specific participants to determine if the research fit within the criteria of appropriate organizational settings. Original studies conducted in the public and private sector that dealt with business processes, human resources, organizational behavior, intra-organizational and inter-organizational operations received consideration. To further clarify, studies that dealt with politics, education or educational settings, children or young adults, the mentally or physically challenged, the reuse of previous data sets, the elderly, the homeless, criminal behavior, or theory development did not receive consideration. Research published between 1999 and 2005 were included to get a current feel for the work being done in the SNA area.

For the purposes of this study, private organizational settings referred to businesses, privately owned or publicly traded, that usually have some form of board of directors responsible for the decision-making and direction of the organization. While these private organizations might do business with governmental organizations or other public organizations, which might require conforming to certain rules and regulations, these companies still fall within the private sector with a primary mission of earning a profit. The public sector included everything that is publicly owned and controlled, including government (national, state/provincial and local), state-owned companies, and nonprofit organizations.


We started this search with our own personal databases of articles that supported our dissertation work. After mining that resource, we searched additional databases and selected journals to find articles that included “social network analysis” somewhere in the article. This searching methodology intended to provide a good working sample of articles to examine rather than provide an exhaustive search. Next, we examined the articles to determine if they included information about specific participants. The enumeration of participants in an article usually indicates the recounting of a study, rather than an exclusive discussion of a new model or some other theoretical consideration. Then, examination of the participants occurred to determine if they fit into the specified areas of public or private organizational settings. If the article's participants did fit, further examination of the article occurred to determine its overall purpose, the research questions or hypotheses, the methodology, and the outcomes or conclusions. Examination of these items allowed for identification of common themes, practices, and outcomes within each sector, and then identification of common themes, practices, and outcomes between the sectors using a content analysis approach.


Our search discovered a total of 21 articles, 14 from the private sector (Assimakopoulos, 2000; Baker & Faulkner, 2004; Bell, 2005; Borgatti & Cross, 2003; Cross, Borgatti, & Parker, 2001; Krackhardt & Kilduff, 2002; Loosemore & Hughes, 2001; MacCanna, Brennan, & O'Higgins, 1999; Mackenzie, 2003; Mehra, Kilduff, & Brass, 2001; Mohrman, Tenkasi, & Mohrman, 2003; Morton, Brookes, Smart, Backhouse, & Burns, 2004; Rowley, Behrens, & Krackhardt, 2000; Tenkasi & Chesmore, 2003) and seven from the public sector (Flap & Volker, 2001; Gains, 2003; Isett & Provan, 2005; Keast, Mandell, Brown, & Woolcock, 2004; Lamertz & Aquino, 2004; Moore, Eng, & Daniel, 2003; Thurmaier & Wood, 2002). Based on an analysis of these articles, we found the following to be interesting and worth noting:

  • The majority of the time, both sectors exhibited research rigor by formally stating research questions and/or hypotheses (e.g., Krackhardt & Kilduff, 2002; Isett & Provan, 2005);

  • About half of the studies in both the private and public sectors used a single method of collecting data, such as interviews or questionnaires/surveys (e.g., Mohrman et al., 2003; Flap & Volker, 2001). The other half used two to three different methods of collecting data, allowing for triangulation of the data (e.g., Morton et al., 2004; Keast et al., 2004);

  • Of the different methods of data collection used, interviews and questionnaires/surveys were the methods used most often. The examination of documentation as a method of data collection (e.g., MacCanna et al., 1999) was used far more often in the private sector. Keeping a diary (Loosemore & Hughes, 2001), observation (Assimakopoulos, 2000; Moore et al., 2003), and conducting a focus group (Keast et al., 2004) were the methods used least often;

  • Only one of the studies included participants from both the public and private sector (Assimakopoulos, 2000);

  • In the public sector, about twice as many studies dealt with networks between organizations (e.g., Gains, 2003) instead of intra-organizational networks (e.g., Lamertz & Aquino, 2004). In the private sector, this tendency was reversed. About twice as many of the studies in the private sector dealt with networks within an organization or company (e.g., Mehra et al., 2001);

  • Both the public and private sectors were interested in positioning within the network and how it effected performance (e.g., Baker & Faulkner, 2004; Mehra et al., 2001; Rowley et al., 2000), job satisfaction (Flap & Volker, 2001), and cultural understanding (Krackhardt & Kilduff, 2002). Both sectors were also interested in how networks formed across groups of organizations (e.g., MacCanna et al., 1999; Thurmaier & Wood, 2002). Over half of the private sector studies were interested in information seeking behavior (e.g., Mackenzie, 2003) and change or crisis management (e.g., Tenkasi & Chesmore, 2003). These last two areas remain unexplored in the public sector.


SNA methodology is successful in both public and private sector research for examining the structure and behavior of organizational networks. In a public administration setting, the set of operational circumstances may differ significantly from those in the private sector. The public arena often involves the coordination and collaboration of disparate organizations and organizational units that work to common goals so it was not surprising that the incidence of inter-organizational networks was higher in this sector. Despite a common perspective that “much of the work on collaboration through networks that has been published in the business management literature does not apply wholesale and without revision to the public sector” (Mandell, 2001, p. 282), it would seem that there is value in a cross-professional exchange of network experience. For both sectors multiple behaviors and strategic abilities in networks, mobilized as an operational structure to achieve a specific purpose through common goals and objectives, have a common thrust.