network is the new group
Recently, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) issued a request-for-proposal that invited researchers to develop theory to predict when and where social networks would emerge. They want to know how “networks” like Al Qaeda come to be. This caught my eye because I think the idea of networks emerging only makes sense if you are confusing networks with groups.
Networks are clearly popular. Every new club, association, organization and website today wants to be called a network. Network is the new group. What might have been called the “Lexington Preservation Society” in the past would very likely be called the “Lexington Preservation Network” if formed today. The popularity of the term probably does reflect a greater awareness of interpersonal relationships, but I don’t think there is a fundamental difference between these uses of “network” and the now replaced “group”.
Let’s test your network IQ. Suppose I told you I was studying a network with no ties: just a set of individuals. Does this violate your sense of network? If so, I think you are thinking of a group. Groups (certainly in contrast to classes) have a certain degree of internal cohesion. What if I said my network had lots of ties, but they were organized into three fragments or islands, such that all ties were within the fragments and none between. Would you say I have three networks instead of one? If so, I think you’re thinking of a group. Groups have some kind of boundary. They may be fuzzy, contested, or dynamic, but the notion of a boundary is fundamental to the notion of group.*
Networks, in contrast, have arbitrary boundaries and no expectations of cohesion. They are analytical devices. I call a network into existence simply by picking a population of nodes I would like to study and selecting a type of social tie that may connect these nodes. For example, I could choose to study friendships among the set of students living on one floor of a freshman dorm at a university. At the start of the semester, the network may be completely empty of ties: no one is friends with anyone else. A few weeks later, I may find that there are many pairs of students who are friends, and maybe even one or two short chains where A is friends with B who is friends with C. By the end of the semester, I might find that nearly everyone is at least indirectly connected to everyone else by some kind of path, and I may also find that some groups have emerged in which members have more ties with each other than to outsiders.
Note that conceptualizing the network in this abstract way has certain advantages. For one thing, it makes it easy to talk about network evolution. A network doesn’t emerge fully formed out of the Void — it evolves. But what is “it”? If you let me define the network in my arbitrary way, I can watch how “its” structure changes over time from having no ties to the end-of-semester structure (and, over the ensuing decades, perhaps back to having no ties). For another thing, it unconfounds the network from its structure. The number of ties now becomes a variable, so I can do things like test the hypothesis that a team’s performance increases with the number of trust ties. The degree of fragmentation is also a variable. As a result, a counter-intelligence agency can measure the extent to which it has succeeded in fragmenting a terrorist network.
The abstract approach does introduce some limitations. In this way of conceptualizing networks, it no longer makes sense to ask what the best way is to uncover a network. Should I measure interaction or affect, or something else? The answer is: you can measure anything you like – whatever you do measure defines a network. You can study the interaction network, the affective network or even the network of who doesn’t know whom. In the abstract approach, it also doesn’t make sense to ask, as the Dept of Defense has asked, when will a network emerge? The answer is: whenever an analyst conceives it. The network is always there. It is only the structure that changes over time. It is not a thing in the same way that a group is.
*Ok, I know that the fragments bit is actually more about cohesion than boundaries. So sue me.