ACSPRI Social Network Analysis


This week I have spent locked up in a freezing cold computer lab at the ANU undertaking a course on “Social Network Analysis”. And, funnily enough, as we managed to better cope with the difference between the air conditioning and summer heatwave, we also managed to demystify the intricacies of SNA.

The course was presented as part of the ACSPRI suite of offerings and our teacher, Associate Professor Malcolm Alexander, absolutely knew his stuff and patiently spent five days teaching us the “ins” and “outs” of UCINET as a tool of analysis to interpret and understand data relating to social networks.

There was a diverse group of attendees and the week was worthwhile just to meet a few people who are doing interesting things in the research space: from those investigating the politics of legal systems; researchers in climate change; and others focused on public health and disease transmission. Apart from meeting interesting people my other main objective was to get a feel for where “social researchers” are in terms of using tools and technologies.

What I learnt, yet again, was that the distance between the social and information (technology) sciences seems to be as large as it has always been, and the awareness amongst social researchers about developments in ICT, and, in particular web technologies and web science, is minimal, if at all. The focus of the work was on one programme, which, though well recognised and widely accepted, was very much old school. It produced some interesting and useful outputs in terms of its analysis of research data, but what I kept on asking myself was how tools like these will fare in a research world of digital information systems, big data and powerful computing technologies, and the rapidly emerging “internet of everything“?

To take a step back for a minute I have been asking myself what the “social” sciences really are, and some words from Arthur Koestler come immediately to mind.

“The act of wrenching away an object or concept from its habitual associative context and seeing it in a new context is … an essential part of the creative process. … Every creative act – in science, art or religion – involves a regression to a more primitive level, a new innocence of perception liberated from the cataract of accepted beliefs. It is a process of reculer pour mieux sauter, of disintegration preceding the new synthesis, comparable to the dark night of the soul through which the  mystic must pass.” (Arthur Koestler, “The Sleepwalkers”).

If Sociology is “the scientific study of society”, and its objective is to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity, it therefore focuses on the influence of our relationships around us and how they affect our behaviours and attitudes. All spheres of human activity are affected by the interplay between social structure and individual agency, and the Latin words which make up the discipline include:

  • socius, “companion”;
  • -ology, “the study of”, and in Greek ?????, lógos, “word”, “knowledge”

The old Cartesian and divided mindset seems to persist, and perhaps is even larger with the focus of this course being a software that was developed over a decade ago, before “social media” was a recognised phenomenon.

There were some good discussions around power and influence networks, which linked to issues of leadership, group dynamics and group behaviours, but throughout the analysis really did seem to be disconnected from context, and was very static – i.e. point in time situation without any dynamic change or incorporation of the complexity that is the reality of everyday human existence.

I thought about the work of Danny Miller, Lucy Suchman, and Dana Boyd, who have for decades been researching the impact of information technologies on social systems and human activities, and my main criticism of the course that what was pretty much totally missing were two things:

  1. the impact of digital technologies with regard to the production, capture, and analysis of data – the discussion focused almost exclusively on the “paper and pencil” collection of data, without any inclusion of social media, or digital data sources such as geospatial data; and
  2. Digital influence”, or “how influence works within the social-digital space”.

I acknowledge and accept that “having digital in your veins” is not something that is as widely spread within the research community as I believe it should be, but these people were comfortable with data, they just didn’t seem to get the link to “digital”. In a world where some 34.3% of the global population has access to the internet, and with the emergence of “Web Science” as a discipline which is responding to that, I continue to find this both disappointing and amazing.

What would be wonderful would be to bring together the wealth of knowledge and experience of someone like Malcolm Alexander, gained from years of teaching and a very grounded approach, with some of the latest thinking in terms of ICT and Web Science, in order to make the study of SNA more dynamic and contemporary.