concept borrowing

Via the Zero Intelligence Agents blog, I see that Linton Freeman, one of the original social network analysts in sociology, has an essay in the Journal of Social Structure in which he chronicles the use of the network centrality concept by natural scientists.  Social network analysis is no longer the sole domain of social scientists, that much is clear. Since the publication of the Watts and Strogatz (1998) article, phsyicists and biologists have taken up social network analysis and made it their own.  What’s interesting about this wave of interest in networks by the natural sciences is that it reverses the typical kind of conceptual borrowing that occurs across disciplines. Usually it’s the sociologists who borrow concepts from biology, and that makes this the “wrong kind” of borrowing.

Rather than being overtly hostile to the takeover of network analysis by the physicists, I was surprised to read a much more conciliatory tone in Freeman’s essay.  While there was some snarkiness in his observation that the early physics papers didn’t cite much sociology at all, he observes that this trend is changing and that physicists appear more willing to engage with sociologists.  Physicists are not just interested in our concepts; they’re also using and improving on network measures originally created by network analysts in sociology, including contributions made by Freeman. Sociologists should embrace the borrowing, he argues, rather than treating them as unwelcome invaders.

With respect to social network analysts, the physicists have given every indication that they want to build the same kind of cooperative relationship that they have with biologists. They have explored social network research problems, they have analyzed social network data sets, they have cited social network publications and they have even refined and extended tools for the analysis of centrality (e. g. Girvan and Newman, 2002).

There is every reason to believe that a cooperative relationship between these two fields would yield benefits for both. But, so far, a great many network analysts have tended to view the physicists as interlopers, invading our territory. I suggest, instead, that we welcome the contributions of the physicists and build on them. That seems to have worked for the biologists and it should work for us.

This is quite the olive branch that Freeman is extending to the physicists. I doubt that the same plea for cooperation would have been readily accepted five years ago, but Freeman and other SNA types in sociology are beginning to see the gains from fruitful conversation across discipline. Reintegrating contributions from physics has proven useful for my colleague Brian Uzzi, for example, who uses Watts’s “small world” method to study conceptual problems of interest in the sociology field.  The contributions appear to be going both ways.  Physicists, as Freeman notes, are now citing sociologists who created network centrality measures and, in some ways, are improving those concepts.  Sociologists are then reborrowing the concepts and the cycle is complete.

In my mind, this is the way that concept borrowing should occur (while noting that in the first few years of physicist network analysis it was not the case that sociologists were getting recognition).  Too often we in the social sciences have borrowed concepts and have failed to engage with the disciplines from whence they came.  It happens between social sciences as well, as when management scholars hijack a concept from psychology but fail to keep track of the current debates within psychology.  Unwise concept borrowing can lead to a proliferation of conceptual definitions and a failure to accumulate knowledge over time.  My sense is that this isn’t going to happen in social network analysis, which is perhaps a function of the ability the social network clique within sociology to self-regulate their concepts so tightly. It’s much easier to integrate new findings or new uses of methods when the original research group is sufficiently cohesive.

By the way, I have more to say about concept borrowing than just this.  Teppo Felin, Dave Whetten, and I have written a paper that should soon find a home in which we talk about the pitfalls of concept borrowing by organizational theorists.

Here are a few old posts by Omar (here, here, and here) about the “new science” of networks.


Written by brayden king

November 19, 2008 at 3:57 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I completely agree that this is the way borrowing should go, I suppose I read Freeman’s piece more ‘snark’ than ‘olive branch’. I guess a good test of your theory would be to compare the proportion of presentations by natural scientists at Sunbelt 2009 vs. that of social scientist at NetSci 2009.


    Drew Conway

    November 19, 2008 at 4:43 pm

  2. You know my beef by now. I’m not against borrowing, but I am against borrowing without credit. But its good to see that physics and sociology have to talk about.



    November 19, 2008 at 6:49 pm

  3. “Unwise concept borrowing can lead to a proliferation of conceptual definitions and a failure to accumulate knowledge over time.”
    Having just finished Mirowski’s More Heat Than Light, I couldn’t agree more.


    Dan Hirschman

    November 20, 2008 at 2:04 am

  4. I see significantly more active collaboration between “the two sides” (where on the physicist “side” I am also including mathematicians like me, computer scientists, etc.) than I did even a couple of years before. It’s excellent and exciting, and of course not all people are uniformly bad when it comes to the issue of not giving proper credit. Sadly, if enough of it happens (and continues to happen, though less than before), it still causes huge rifts that don’t need to be present. Assuming my abstract gets accepted, I’ll be at Sunbelt and I have been trying to convince my colleagues that we need to go to the conferences the social scientists run to continue to promote such collaboration. On that count, I still feel that more natural scientists are interested in attending in theory than in practice. I’ll see what I find next year (and subsequently) and cross my fingers that the trajectory continues to be positive.



    December 9, 2008 at 1:29 am

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