I just read Frédéric Godart and Ashley Mears’ article in Social Forces, “How Do Cultural Producers Make Creative Decisions?: Lessons from the Catwalk.” The article is based on both ethnographic work and an interesting network analysis of fashion design firms “linked” by contracts with the same models.
While designers use a language of authenticity in which they claim to use judgment and inherent taste to select models, the article reveals that there is an “option” system in which designers can place options on contracts with models. These options are free and do not bind designers, but they are communicated. This, the authors reason, is a signaling mechanism that allows designers to seek models that other designers like them are using, thereby adjusting their taste to the preferences of significant network alters.
The claim is plausible, and of course appealing to a sociologist. We’d always rather explain social patterning in terms of social structure (networks) than in terms of shared preferences (tastes), because the latter just feel more like a sociological explanandum than an explanation. But in this case I don’t see it as demonstrated. The null hypothesis, IMHO, ought to be that designers really do use their own taste, their immediate judgment, to select models. We could expect observed patterns that taste to be the result both of exogenous taste with selection bias (people with similar taste select into the market) and of learning (people learn what “good” taste is from years in the business). In other words: the fact that designers could use the options system as a signaling mechanism to adjust their selections of models according to the networks is not in itself evidence that they do use it that way.
I bring this up not to pick on the article, which was interesting, fun to read, and innovative, but more to ask about the general question. Network approaches, however appealing, often seem to suffer from selection effects problems. Maybe networks are the result of the selection of network positions because of properties of the individuals selecting in–again, not that I think that’s the case, but it’s a suitable null hypothesis for the general claim of network effects, that is, that social structure, represented as a social network, has effects beyond whatever can be explained by properties of the people in that network.