Collaboration in schools: between networks and institutions

Author: Gil Viry


In two previous blog articles, Marc Sarazin and Tuire Palonen discussed the importance of studying collaboration networks in schools. The fundamental idea is that the collaborative relationships between actors in schools (teachers, administrators, parents, counsellors, etc.) and the patterns they form make a difference in the school outcomes and experiences of students, including those from migrant backgrounds as we postulate in the TEAMS project.

This network approach is more radical than it seems.

The field of social network analysis (SNA) claims that we can comprehend the structure of social groups and how it affects social behaviours by focusing on actual or meaningful relationships between actors rather than on relationships based on institutional categories, such as teaching in the same school. In the late 20th century social science, the notion of social networks was used precisely as an alternative to pre-defined categories and social roles, such as social class or professional communities (elementary school teachers, for example). In education, this approach contributed to going beyond the conventional assumption that students or teachers form distinct and homogeneous groups. Attention predominantly focused on structuralist explanations and the system formed by the links between the various elements of a network (Burt, 1982; Wasserman & Faust, 1994). Particularly in quantitative network studies, this contributed to increasingly considering networks as detached from their social and institutional contexts.

More recent debates in SNA have, however, emphasised the importance of cultural, institutional and material contexts in network formation and its consequences for social behaviours (Crossley, 2010; McFarland et al., 2014; Small & Adler, 2019). First, informal interactions proved to be strongly shaped by formal membership to constituted groups and institutions, so that social divisions revealed by SNA often reflect ‘standard’ role structures (Eve, 2002). Second, and more fundamentally, social networks co-evolve with the system of social institutions in which networks are embedded and that have their own histories (Kadushin & Kotler-Berkowitz, 2006). Social networks are not only about interconnectedness. They also constitute a context of shared meanings, identities, symbols, etc. that cannot be properly understood outside of the institutional contexts (Crossley, 2010). In turn, new norms and institutions are created through informal social networks. Institutional and network contexts are intertwined with each other.

In the school environment, parent-teacher relationships are subject to social and cultural norms, support for migrant students in schools is responsive to immigration policies and discourses, and collaboration among educators vary by school- and country-specific legislation, for example when these collaborations are formally encouraged through school meetings and training. Likewise, while social networks in schools can display hierarchies (with a central core and more peripheral actors), power relations are also exogenous to networks, particularly in relation to how the authority is distributed in the school organisation (bottom-up or top-down school management, for example).

While contexts clearly matter for the formation and dynamics of collaborative relationships and networks in schools, which contexts matter and how, however, often remain unestablished.

In the TEAMS project, we employ three main strategies to examine these questions. First, we combine SNA with ethnographic and participatory methods in the school context, analysis of policy documents, and in-depth qualitative interviews with students and staff members in schools. This mixed-methods design allows us to analyse collaboration networks in their cultural and institutional contexts. Second, the project takes a comparative case study approach across schools and three countries to analyse the influence of school and national contexts in shaping collaboration networks. Finally, the project examines how key features of the pedagogical and school environment are related to collaboration networks through the conceptual lenses of inclusive pedagogy, professional agency, and teachers as policy agents.

Analysing the network structure of collaboration under different pedagogical, school and national contexts helps us unravel the intricacies of network and institutional contexts in school collaboration.



Burt, R. S. (1982). Toward a structural theory of action (Vol. 10). Elsevier.

Crossley, N. (2010). The social world of the network. Combining qualitative and quantitative elements in social network analysis. Sociologica, 1(March-April), 1–34.

Eve, M. (2002). Deux traditions d’analyse des réseaux sociaux. Réseaux, 5, 183–212.

Kadushin, C., & Kotler-Berkowitz, L. (2006). Informal social networks and formal organizational memberships among American Jews: Findings from the National Jewish Population Survey 2000–01. Sociology of Religion, 67(4), 465–485.

McFarland, D. A., Moody, J., Diehl, D., Smith, J. A., & Thomas, R. J. (2014). Network Ecology and Adolescent Social Structure. American Sociological Review, 79(6), 1088–1121.

Small, M. L., & Adler, L. (2019). The role of space in the formation of social ties. Annual Review of Sociology, 45, 111–132.

Wasserman, S., & Faust, K. (1994). Social network analysis: Methods and applications (Vol. 8). Cambridge university press.


Published 1 February 2022