Micro-structural foundations of network inequality: Evidence from a field experiment in professional networking


Sociological accounts of network inequality typically rely on the logic of preferential attachment, holding that individuals in a social network prefer to form ties with central rather than peripheral actors. We develop an alternative explanation for the growth of network inequality that does not require actors to have knowledge about the social position of others or to hold explicit preferences for partners based on such knowledge. Instead, we theorize that central actors benefit from being exposed to more opportunities for triadic closure, which confounds a quality- or popularity-based signal that their greater connectedness might also send. We test this prediction an observational study and a field experiment across multiple professional conferences. In the field experiment, we test whether network centrality is predictive of tie formation if the benefits that central actors receive through their disproportional exposure to second-order network neighbors are randomly suppressed. The findings demonstrate that for the same level of exposure to opportunities for triadic closure, central actors and less central actors are equally likely to be selected as network partners. We discuss how the proposed mechanism may be used to rectify social capital disadvantages among disadvantaged groups.

Social Networks