Social Network Theory

The branch of sociolinguistics encompassing language and social groups is an expansive one (more like a vast forest than a mere branch!) with many subdivisions and contributing factors. Some of the most common of these factors include:

Social Network Theory Social Network Theory

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Table of contents
    • gender

    • age

    • ethnicity

    • social class

    This article will be looking at social network theory, a key term in both linguistics and sociology, and one of the cornerstone theories underpinning language and social groups. We'll also take a closer look at Milroy's Belfast Study for context. By the end of the article, you'll have gained some insight into this key sector of the language and social groups umbrella.

    If we are to begin understanding the nooks and crannies of this subsection of language and social groups, it's important that we get our key definition down - that is, the meaning of Social Network Theory itself!

    After all, where better to start than at the beginning?

    Social network theory: definition

    Social network theory focuses on the analysis of relationships, connections, and patterns of interaction among social groups.

    Theories surrounding social networks investigate how individual group dynamics can impact:

    • the transmission of information

    • behavioural and language changes within communities

    • the reasons for the dissolution of social relationships

    The 'information' mentioned above need not refer to anything specific – it could be anything from a casual conversation between friends, to the news relayed by different media sources. The key thing to consider is not what the information is, but rather HOW it is passed from one person to another (or indeed, from one or more people to whole populations).

    Social network theory also looks at how social relationships can alter people's language, behaviour and attitudes.

    Social network theory in sociolinguistics

    When we talk about a social network, we aren't referring to Facebook and Snapchat. Within a sociolinguistic context, a social network is essentially a community of language users. You will have many of your own social networks, and some really common examples of social networks include:

    • close or extended family

    • different friendship groups

    • sports teammates or people you practice hobbies with

    • colleagues

    • academic peers

    Social Network Theory Illustration of people with dotted lines between them StudySmarterFig. 1 - Every person we interact with becomes a part of our social network.

    These groups constitute 'social networks' because they are groups of language users that interact with one another. In other words, they are collections of people who connect socially and therefore speak to each other. These groups are also referred to as 'speech communities'.

    Remember the transmission of information we mentioned earlier? A social network can only exist in a space where people are interacting and where information is being shared.

    Sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between social factors and language. Social networks are required in sociolinguistic investigations in order to give researchers information on how social factors relate to one another and to different language features.

    Language and social network theory

    So we've seen that social networks are essential in sociolinguistic studies: without social networks, sociolinguists would basically have nothing to investigate. But how do social networks actually affect language?

    Social networks and language

    The answer to this question is multifaceted and will depend on which social factors are at play within the social network. These are some of the most significant social factors that can impact language use within a social network:

    • gender

    • ethnicity

    • age

    • social class

    • occupation

    Here are some brief examples of each of these factors:

    Language and gender

    Deborah Tannen (1990)1 explored how socialisation affects the language used by different genders. She believed that women are more supportive, understanding, intimate, emotional, and interested in compromise and proposals rather than men whose language tends to be more competitive, assertive, independent, informational, and commanding.

    Language and ethnicity

    Rob Drummond (2012)2 looked at two groups of Polish immigrants living in the UK: one group that intended to stay in the UK, and one group that intended to go back to Poland. He found that the group that intended to stay spoke with a less pronounced Polish accent than the group that wanted to leave the UK. This study illustrated how ethnic ties and the desire to integrate can conversely affect language.

    Language and age

    Jenny Cheshire (1987)3 observed that language across different age groups changed according to the life events, social attitudes, and other significant moments experienced by a person. For instance:

    • getting married

    • starting a family

    • reaching new career milestones

    • moving to a new city or country

    Language and social class

    Peter Trudgill (1974)4 investigated the relationship between social class and language variation in the city of Norwich. He concluded that people from lower social classes tended to use more non-standard language features and varieties when compared with people from higher social classes who often used language closer to prestige forms.

    Language and Occupation

    Drew and Heritage (1992)5 considered how hierarchies in organisations both impact and are impacted by language use. They found that colleagues often share implicit ways of behaving and interacting and that hierarchies can lead to asymmetrical language use that further cements the imbalance of power.

    Social Network Theory 4 Hands doing a fist bump above a desk filled wth work related papers and devices StudySmarterFig. 2 - Your work colleagues are an example of a social group.

    Social network theory: Milroy's Belfast Study

    In 1975, British sociolinguist Lesley Milroy set out to investigate how social networks facilitate language change in different areas of Belfast, Northern Ireland.6 Milroy stated that there are two main categories of social networks:

    • open social networks

    • closed social networks

    A closed social network is a network in which contacts generally all know one another, however, in an open social network, personal contacts do not necessarily know one another.

    Small, rural towns are more likely to have closed networks in which all inhabitants have strong ties to each other whereas a big city tends to have quite open networks with weak ties between individuals.

    All of us have a range of open and closed networks in our lives, and each one functions differently.

    Social Network Theory: Differences in Networks
    Closed NetworkOpen Network
    Often referred to as being high-density, meaning the closer the contacts within a network, the more power the group will have over language use.Tend to be lower density and have weaker links, meaning the contacts within the network have much less influence over each other's language use and tend to be under less pressure to conform to a group.
    Language is less varied.Language is more varied.

    A close-knit group of friends might experience language change whereby they begin adopting each other's mannerisms and linguistic choices, setting a new 'norm'.

    Language change occurs due to the language variations which are spread between weak ties.

    Multiplexity is also an important factor when determining the structure of a particular social network. Multiplexity refers to when contacts in a social network know each other in more than one way i.e. in multiple social groups.

    For example, if two people within a social network are colleagues as well as personal friends, their relationship will be considered multiplex and this will contribute to the density of the network (the more multiplex relationships within a social network, the denser and more closed the network is).

    Social network theory: Milroy's methodology

    Prior to starting the investigation, Milroy selected three communities in Belfast, all of which were from working-class areas with high rates of unemployment. These were:

    • the Ballymacarrett area (Protestant area in East Belfast)

    • the Hammer area (Protestant area in West Belfast)

    • the Clonard area (Catholic area in West Belfast)

    Milroy integrated herself into each community, posing as a 'friend of a friend' after an introduction by a mutual acquaintance to all the informants she interacted with. She was interested in how integration into a community affects language use, so she needed a way of measuring how integrated her informants were in their respective communities.

    She achieved this by devising a Network Strength Score comprised of how many other people in the community each informant knew, and how well they knew them. These scores ranged from 1–5 where 5 was the highest level of integration.

    As Milroy interacted with each of the informants, she would observe their language use as they spoke to her and other people in the community, and she noticed some distinct patterns.

    Milroy's Belfast Study results

    When Milroy compiled the data she gathered from her observations and drew up the resulting correlations, she found that people with higher Network Strength Scores tended to use more non-standard language forms. In other words, the more integrated people were in their communities, the more casual their linguistic choices were.

    Some of the key linguistic variables Milroy observed in the study include:

    • phonological variable (th) as in 'mother'

    • phonological variable (a) as in 'hat'

    Both of these phonological variables have both standard and non-standard or vernacular forms in Belfast English. Milroy's study showed that people used more non-standard forms of the observed variables when they came from lower social classes.

    When comparing men's and women's language use across the study, Milroy also observed that men used more vernacular and non-standard forms than women did, and again, this positively correlated with each group's Network Strength Scores.

    This illustrates that men in the study areas generally belonged to tighter-knit groups and had higher scores than women.

    There were some exceptions, however, as in the case of areas with particularly high levels of unemployment. In these areas (namely within the Clonard area and the Hammer area), men were required to look for work outside of their usual communities.

    This led to these men becoming part of less dense social networks, which resulted in fewer instances of vernacular forms of English being used.

    West Belfast is predominantly Catholic, making the Hammer area (which is Protestant) appear anomalous. How would this have affected the formation of social networks between Hammer and Clonard for example?

    It's likely that because Clonard is a Catholic area within the wider Catholic sphere of West Belfast, people from Clonard would have been more likely to socialise and build relationships with people from other working-class Catholic areas in the inner city, rather than people from Hammer.

    It's also possible that people from Hammer would tend to retain close networks with other working-class Protestants in the city. Belfast to this day has Peace Walls that separate Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods to prevent any inter-communal conflict – one of which is right at Clonard. Would this have impacted Milroy's study and findings?

    Religion would have played a significant role in defining how people from the different areas used language and would have tied quite closely with social class as well. Religion was not a factor that Milroy explicitly took into account, so this is one potential shortcoming within the Belfast study.

    Milroy also fails to acknowledge the weight of the Troubles that would have had on social networks. The Troubles (the Northern Ireland Conflict that lasted 30 years) saw a significant political, ethnic, and religious divide between the Catholics and Protestants which would have made it very difficult and/or unlikely that people from different religious areas would have socialised with each other.

    This lack of inter-faith networking would also have had an impact on the Belfast study, although this is not referenced in Milroy's writing.

    Social network theory: the importance of language in social media

    Over the last fifteen or so years, social media has boomed into a force that has forever changed how we communicate with people over distances and has subsequently altered the nature of our social networks.

    With the likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok constantly evolving and adding new features, we are continually adapting our relationship with language on social media.

    Social Network Theory A close up image of a phone screen with social media apps on it StudySmarterFig. 3 - Social media has significantly altered the way we form and interact with our social groups.

    How has social media changed language use?

    With the innovation of instant messaging applications and short-form functions such as tweets on Twitter (which can only be 280 characters long), people have had to adapt to using language in more concise and purposeful ways.

    For example:

    • BRB – Be right back

    • IDK – I don't know

    • LOL – laugh out loud

    Acronyms like these have become so popular that many people even use them in spoken discourse rather than saying the phrases they stand for. Abbreviations have also become standard when communicating in digital spaces (for instance, 'approx.' for 'approximately' and 'min' for 'minute'), as they take up fewer characters but still get the same message across.

    Social media fosters a much more casual environment for communication than many real-life spaces, and this has also led to a lot of non-standard and colloquial language use online.

    As technological features get added and new functions are made possible, new words are also continually being added to the English language to reflect social media's developments:

    • emoji

    • selfie

    • unfriend

    Along a similar vein, the appropriation of existing vocabulary words to have completely different meanings is another way in which social media has impacted language use:

    • Catfish - someone pretending to be someone they're not on social media

    • Troll - a person who makes inflammatory comments about someone/something online as an attention-seeking device

    How has social media impacted social networks?

    Generally speaking, when you start a social media account, the first people you add to your network will be the people you know and speak to in real life (in other words, contacts from your actual social networks). These might include:

    • friends

    • family members

    • colleagues

    • teammates

    You might think that this sounds like a great way to carry your existing social networks into the online sphere, and in many ways, this is true. Social media has made it easier for people to keep in contact over long distances and has made information more easily shareable, which can strengthen social networks.

    However, when you begin adding more obscure people to your social media profiles, your online social networks begin to dilute, leaving you with a selection of social circles that are not dense at all, and therefore offer little social or linguistic value. The lack of privacy inherent in social media also puts added pressure on relationships.

    Social Network Theory - Key Takeaways

    • Social Network Theory is concerned with how social factors impact language use and change, transmission of information, and general attitudes and behaviours within communities.
    • Gender, age, social class, ethnicity, and occupation are all important factors when exploring social networks and the effects they have on language.
    • There are two types of social networks: open – where the contacts don't necessarily all know each other, and closed – where the contacts mostly all know each other.
    • Milroy's Belfast Study demonstrated that people integrated into close-knit communities use more non-standard language forms, and that men generally use more vernacular English than women.
    • Social media is constantly changing the way we use language and can have both positive and negative effects on social networks.


    1. Deborah Tannen, You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, 1990
    2. Rob Drummond, The Manchester Polish STRUT: Dialect Acquisition in a Second Language, 2012
    3. Jenny Cheshire, Syntactic Variation, the Linguistic Variable, and Sociolinguistic Theory, 1987
    4. Peter Trudgill, Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of Norwich, 1972
    5. Paul Drew & John Heritage, Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings, Issues in Applied Linguistics, 1994
    6. Lesley Milroy, Social Network Analysis and Language Change: Introduction, 2000
    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Network Theory

    What is Social Network Theory?

    Social Network Theory is a sociolinguistic theory focusing on how social relationships impact information transmission within communities, and how different influences affect personal attitudes and behaviours.

    What are the two networks Milroy defined in her Belfast study?

    Milroy defined open networks as referring to how a person's contacts might not all know each other. Closed networks mean all of a person's contacts know each other.

    What role do social networks play in language change?

    When people are integrated into a social network, their language may adapt to fit into the dynamics of the network. People in tight-knit communities tend to use language in similar ways whereas people with looser social networks might use language in more varied ways. 

    How is social media affecting the English language?

    Social media has led to an increase in vocabulary words entering the English language, as well as the appropriation of existing English words to have different meanings. Social media could also be increasing the generational gap in terms of linguistic use. 

    What type of language is commonly used in social media?

    The type of language that is commonly used in social media are abbreviations, acronyms, and colloquial language. This is often the result of certain social networks.

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