Dr. Nicholas Christakis on Social Networks

by Jon on November 29, 2008

in Networks

Excerpted from “Social Networks ,” by Nicholas Christakis on The Situationist Blog, which is a blog maintained by The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School. The excerpt is long, but well worth reading. Let me first posit this question – why do some communities develop disaster-resilient networks and organizations – and others not?

In social networks, there is an interdigitation between the higher order structure and the lower order structure, which is remarkable, and which has been animating our research for the last five or ten years. I started by studying very simple dyadic networks. A pair of individuals is the simplest type of network one can imagine. And I became curious about networks and network effects in my capacity as a doctor who takes care of people who are terminally ill.

* * *

For example, one day I met with a pretty typical scenario: a woman who was dying and her daughter who was caring for her. The mother had been sick for quite a while and she had dementia. The daughter was exhausted from years of caring for her, and in the course of caring, she became so exhausted that her husband also became sick from his wife’s preoccupation with her mother. One day I got a call from the husband’s best friend, with his permission, to ask me about him. So here we have the following cascade: parent to daughter, daughter to husband, and husband to friend. That is four people — a cascade of effects through the network. And I became sort of obsessed with the notion that these little dyads of people could agglomerate to form larger structures.

Nowadays, most people have these very distinct visual images of networks because in the last ten years they have become almost a part of pop culture. But social networks were studied in this kind of way beginning in the 1950s . . . . But all these were still very small-scale networks; networks of three people or 30 people — that kind of ballpark. But we are of course connected to each other through vastly larger, more complex, more beautiful networks of people. Networks of thousands of individuals, in fact. These networks are in a way living, breathing entities that reproduce, and that have a kind of memory. Things flow through them and they have a purpose and can achieve different things from what their constituent individuals can. And they are very difficult to understand.

This is how I began to think about social networks about seven years ago. At the time when I was thinking about this, I moved from the University of Chicago to Harvard, and was introduced to my colleague James Fowler, another social scientist, who was also beginning to think about different kinds of network problems from the perspective of political science. He was interested in problems of collective action – how groups of people are organized, how the action of one individual can influence the actions of other individuals. He was also interested in basic problems like altruism. Why would I be altruistic toward somebody else? What purpose does altruism serve? In fact, I think that altruism is a key predicate to the formation of social networks because it serves to stabilize social ties. If I were constantly violent towards other people, or never reciprocated anything good, the network would disintegrate, all the ties would be cut. Some level of altruism is required for networks to emerge.

So we can begin to think about combining a broad variety of ideas. Some stretch back to Plato, and thinking about well-ordered societies, the origins of good and evil, how people form collectives, how a state might be organized. In fact, we can begin to revisit ideas engaged by Rousseau and other philosophers on man in a state of nature. How can we transcend anarchy? Anarchy can be conceived of as a kind of social network phenomenon, and society and social order can also be conceived of as a social network phenomenon.

And what happens when we set out to deliberately create networks, rather than merely letting them develop?

For a useful model of how to organize a network in your neighborhood, check out 3 Steps.

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