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?