Social science, networks and the secret individualist

Posted by on Feb 19, 2009 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Great piece in Science this week (HT Alex) by Steve Borgatti et al which reviews how the social sciences have adopted and (mis?) used network theory. Prepub version here or (if you have a Science Subscription) the published version here

One important section suggests:

"Social scientists have…been more concerned than the physical scientists with the individual node, whether an individual or a collective such as a company, than with the network as a whole. This focus on node-level outcomes is probably driven to at least some extent by the fact that tradtional social science theories have focused largely on the individual. To compete against more established social science theories, network researchers have had to show that network theory can better explain the same kinds of outcomes that have been the traditional focus of the social sciences"

Chimes closely with something I'm writing for ESOMAR at the moment about how evolutionary sciences can help us understand consumers and marketing (yes, really!).

The point being in that case that  we tend to look really closely, at this bird or that plant (often examining our own memories of our own experience to fill it out) but we struggle to see things at the level of large groups. Empathy for small numbers of people, disinterest for statistics – the Stalin syndrome, maybe?

Part of Darwin's genius was to be able to see through individual things to the population level and the processes which shape things at both levels. But the rest of us struggle.

Lots of implications here for marketing and management but the most immediate ones are:

1. Try to step back from the specific and the particular and to see things from the population level, in order to describe the processes that shape how things change – that's where the gold lies…

2. Be wary of the "individualist" bias embedded in social science derived tools, both in the analytics (e.g. network theory or commonsense behavioural models) and in the assumptions of the users of that data

Isn't this the source of many of the problems we've encountered around "influence" in social media? The wholesale dumping of social science's assumptions to "fix" the theoretical problem?


  1. John Dodds
    February 19, 2009

    It’s an interesting thought – the focus on the aggregated individual is fine in terms of macroeconomics since that looks at the individual revenue/cost points at which large numbers of individuals agree. It says nothing about how they actually reach that agreement – that omes not though the action of a lot of separate individuals but rather through a mixture of interactions between a lot of individuals. Methodologies must always be adapted to their context.

  2. rafael jimenez
    February 19, 2009

    Hi Mark,
    In case you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend “A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History”, by Manuel De Landa. You may draw some interesting connections from it.

  3. Robert Poynton
    February 20, 2009

    Philip Ball ( in Critical Mass, does an impressive job of applying ideas from particle physics to society, leapfrogging the social science focus on the individual and drawing conclusions about traffic jams and other social phenomena from the purely physical world. A lot of it may be counterintuitive, but it seems to make a lot of sense. I never knew that a “phase transition” could be quite so interesting….

  4. Reserves
    February 24, 2009

    That image is great…