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The development of social network analysis

2009/10/21

As promised, I finished reading “The development of social network analysis“. The book, written by Linton C. Freeman follows the development of the field from pre-Moreno times and the introduction of structural thought into social studies up to the late 90s. According to the book cover it is based on the Keynote Lecture that Freeman gave in April 2000 at the twentieth annual meeting of the INSNA.

The study of social structure has come of age

This is the last sentence of the book. Before reaching it, Freeman takes us on a journey that roughly begins with the works of Auguste Comte who apparently planted the first seeds of structural thought. Since then the field of structural thought has been restarted a number of times, and for a variety of reasons, among them being megalomania, shift of interest, interdepartmental politics and job security, main scene politics (like the Jenner committee that essentially ended a whole group).

A whole chapter is devoted to the life of Jacob Levy Moreno, who many think of as the father of the field, although it is later shown that there were earlier studies with similar aims and results and that the systematic approach and development of his ideas is most probably owed to the work of Helen Jennings and Paul Lazarsfeld.

All the pioneers and heroes of SNA parade through the book, the flow of names and their interrelations is so vast that half way through the book I regretted not taking notes of the names and their relations in order to produce something like the TCS genealogy coupled with some visualization. Luckily, in page 131 such a pruned graph is presented by the author.

Professor Freeman characterizes social network analysis as an approach that involves four defining properties:

  1. It involves the intuition that links among social actors are important.
  2. It is based on the collection and analysis of data that record social relations that link actors.
  3. It draws heavily on graphic imagery to reveal and display the patterning of those links.
  4. It develops mathematical and computational models to describe and explain those patterns.

All the efforts of structural thought (almost all of them lacking combination of all four characteristics) are presented, most of them being in USA with a few in Europe, up until the great restart of the discipline by Harrison White and his team at Harvard. The central role that Barry Wellman played in unifying all the approaches to the structural thought, through organizing meetings with key persons, forming the INSNA and the Connections newsletter is covered. Plus the EIES system (of interest to those who seek fragments of Internet history) is also covered at some extent, showing the role that technology can play in forming both a discipline and (human) networks.

Late to the party?

The book ends just when the physicists enter the field, and namely when the Watts and Strogatz model and Barabasi and Reka’s work gained popularity. A question was born, for which two seeds had been planted to me sometime ago:

In August 2008, John Baras gave a lecture on Complex Systems and Social Networks to the NETMODE people (and friends) at NTUA. In it he basically claimed that “Complex Systems is our field and we are pressed from one side by the sociologists and from the other side by the physicists; we must play defense”. The second, was the question asked from my ex-supervisor at the closing session of HDMS09 while discussing Social Networks: “Are we [the database people] late for the party?” (I whispered “yes”).

So where are the “computer” people in this discipline? Appart from a few programmers that helped developing software, Computer Scientists are not mentioned in the book, although without computers the study of the field would not have been this extensive (thanks to software like UCINET larger networks were studied, approaches to the study of networks were unified and hidden relations inside networks were uncovered). I asked Professor Freeman and he was kind enough to send me a draft entitled “The Development of Social Network Analysis – with an Emphasis on Recent Events” where stuff after 1998 is covered. In his email he also said:

“Let me add that I was one of the three designers of the first cs curriculum at Syracuse University in the 1950s and that I was a computer science faculty member at Pittsburgh and at the University of Hawaii in the 1960s.”

From this draft it seems to me that physicists have dominated the field of complex systems and through that have built strong ties with social network analysis too. The middle that Professor Baras spoke of seems to be graph partitioning problems and better algorithms for such operations because of the vast scale of available data to be analyzed. Which also means that database people have come very late to the party- and if I am allowed to express an opinion by observing HDMS09, behaving like the physicists in 1998: ignoring work done by other disciplines on the field, rediscovering stuff and reinventing the wheel, leaving storage issues to “systems people” as one participant said (I wonder, is not a DBMS a system?). This attitude by the way explains the emergence of the NoSQL crowd. But I digress.

The book covers the work and lives of many prominent scientists coming from different origins: Sociologists, Psychologists, Psychiatrists, Mathematicians, Physicists who all saw structure patterns in social organization and decided to study them. As such it provides an extensive bibliography of papers and books that shaped the field, like for example:

I find a weird kind of scientific joy studying papers older than me. Plus, among other people I had never heard of, I found out about Ithiel de Sola Pool and his book “Technologies of Freedom” which describes the (future) Internet and was written at the same year as the Internet Flag Day (1/1/1983).

Instead of an epilogue, I leave you with the Festinger Graph:

The Festinger Graph

The Festinger Graph

Leon Festinger while at Michigan made contact with Frank Harary seeking help in order to explore mathematical techniques for behavioral sciences. Harary reports that upon seeing Festinger’s graph his whole career appeared before him like a vision. According to the book he still wears a picture of this graph on his cap to this day.

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One Response to “The development of social network analysis”


  1. Επειδή δεν βρήκα κάτι έτοιμο και τσαντίστηκα κάθησα και έφτιαξα τα παρακάτω: festinger graph in vector formats (svg,eps,pdf).


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