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From Newtonian Physics to Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis in Action

Yesterday we had a brief mention (by Steve Borgatti) of the fact that networks are gaining importance because we are beginning to understand that network make up nature.

I spent the last day or so unpacking that and thinking back on what got me into social network analysis in the first place. As a physicist and a former engineering working in manufacturing I recognized early on that influence—what I called politics, at the time, was a dominating force in the workplace. And, almost always, influence came down to networks.

The whole discussion reminded me of why I got into social network analysis and organizational network analysis in the first place—it was to try to understand the link between the social sciences and the physical sciences. The thinking went as follows: My job is to design better processes through analytical and quantitative methods, and a few qualitative frameworks/models that have been proven over time, and yet, the number one issue I faced was the human variable and the lack of control over it. “How am I supposed to design precise processes, when the human element craps all over it?”—I would ask myself.

There had to be a strong link between the social sciences, and the physical sciences—after all everything is made up of mass and energy, so why not? Why couldn’t the governing dynamics of social interaction follow, and abide by, the universal rules of physics—of nature?

That was my thinking prior to learning about SNA.

Later, I discovered social network analysis, and thought that I’d began to see the link. Of course, when I got deeper into it, I really didn’t see the link anymore—or at least it wasn’t so clear, until I found out a few months ago, that there are groups of consultants and researchers that use an energy question in their survey questionnaires as part of a network study geared towards private firms.

They would ask the participants “Who energizes you?” or something along that line. BAM!!! The question of the social sciences being subservient to the physical sciences was back on in my little, slow head. I think their hope was to measure engagement or good feelings of some kind in the network, but they were talking about energy. The energy I learned from Newton and Einstein—maybe?

Yesterday, Steve reminded me of it once more as he was explaining why SNA matters more now than ever before. My thought returned—“Nature is made up of networks, thus networks can make up nature,” was voiced over and over as I listened to the workshop on UCINET.

So then it came to me, what if common physical concepts such as energy were actually real and transferable from physics, structural properties of networks from chemistry (organic), and network evolution (change, OD etc.) from Biology (mirroring genetic evolution etc.). I’m sure I’m not the first to think it, but when I look at a small network I remember my Statics class (in physics undergrad) where I would analyze trusses that make up a bridge (like a real bridge, that people and cars drive over, not a network broker).

One thing that’s interesting about trusses is that they obey Newtonian mechanics. That is—the sum of all forces acting at a point must equal zero if the bridge is to remain at rest, and the sum of the forces must be equal to mass times acceleration if it is in movement.

Or perhaps we can think of social capital as potential energy (in physics potential energy= mgh or mg x(Delta D) where D=change in distance, and g=9.8m/s^2 [gravity]), and the movement of social capital as a change in the form of that energy into other forms. Social capital is closest to potential energy because it describes the potential value that an ego can draw from any given set of alters—not far from the standard definitions…

What if social structures obeyed the most fundamental law of physics in existence—THERE IS NO LOSS IN ENERGY, it is only transferred from one form to another.

By that assumption, perhaps the sum of all social capital in a network which is in a state of equilibrium equals zero?

If we are paying more attention to social network today because we as-a-people are seeing that the world is made up of networks—that networks mimic nature, could we look at this more literally and make even larger assumptions that guide our theory. Would anyone that does so even call it a discovery? Is transferring methods from one science to another science even considered research??

Anyhoooo….the comment by Steve made me unpack thoughts I’ve accumulated over time, and if I wasn’t short on time, I’d love to unpack this some more—maybe another time.

About The Author
Dr. Joseph A.E. Shaheen
Computational Social Scientist with a twist of network science, social network analysis, data science, and random thoughts.
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