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SOCNET  November 2003

SOCNET November 2003

Subject:

NYTimes.com Article: Popular Mechanics

From:

Steven Sherman <[log in to unmask]>

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[log in to unmask]

Date:

Thu, 6 Nov 2003 07:31:15 -0500

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*****  To join INSNA, visit http://www.sfu.ca/~insna/  *****

This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by [log in to unmask]


I'm surprised I haven't seen this posted to this list.  Perhaps people don't read the style section?  Or did I just miss it in the general flood of emails I wind up deleting from day to day?

Stevne Sherman

[log in to unmask]

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Popular Mechanics

November 2, 2003
 By WILLIAM MIDDLETON





It's 8:10 p.m. in the bar of the Four Seasons restaurant,
its towering windows illuminated from below with dramatic
red lights, and Gwen Stefani is making a move. With her
sharply cut white pantsuit, pale skin, bright red lips and
wavy platinum bob, she's a rock 'n' roll Jean Harlow. Her
host, Timothy Schifter, the chief executive of the
accessory firm Le Sportsac, is guiding her through the
crowd. Guests introduce themselves or wait to be
introduced. An eager knot of people that had been clustered
around her banquette seems to move with her. During her
27-minute tour of the room, she talks with magazine
editors, fashion publicists, downtown stylists and uptown
socialites. All eyes are fixed on her. A sociometric star
is born.

Sociometry, little known outside the academic world,
measures social encounters. Conceived as nothing less than
what sociometry's founder, Jacob Levy Moreno, called ''a
science of society,'' sociometry is about people, numbers
and behavior. Theoretically, it can confirm that, in fact,
you are the center of the social universe -- or merely a
satellite. That is, if you believe that social environments
can be understood by science. Social beings, after all,
don't always play by the numbers.

Cut to the Four Seasons, where Dr. David Gibson, an
assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University, has
agreed to apply basic sociometric principles to a New York
party. He is up in the mezzanine, next to the D.J., looking
down on the event. Two cameras are firing away. One, with a
fish-eye lens to capture as much of the room as possible,
shoots every two minutes. Another is zooming in on the
sociometric action.

Sociometry was invented in the early 20th century by
Moreno, who also, remarkably enough, founded group
psychotherapy and psychodrama. While Freud's work delved
inward, Moreno spent his career looking out at the acts of
individuals and groups. In 1932, after working with inmates
at Sing Sing, he developed the first truly group-based
therapeutic program and even coined the term ''group
therapy'' at a congress of the American Psychiatric
Association in Philadelphia.

But it was sociometry that really captivated Moreno. At a
correctional facility, the New York State Training School
for Girls in Hudson, N.Y., he studied the interaction of
residents, using his findings to make better housing
assignments. He identified ideas like the social atom,
which is the nucleus around any one person, and sociograms,
complicated graphs that chart the connections of
individuals.

The concepts of sociometry have evolved into a broad field
called network analysis, a cross-disciplinary approach --
think of it as Sociometry 2.0 -- that incorporates hard
science as well as fascinating work like the 1967 study by
Stanley Milgram that suggested that the world is connected
through only six degrees of separation. ''Network analysis
is what sociometry grew into as sociologists became
interested in patterns at larger levels, not just people in
small groups,'' Gibson says.

Of course, sociometry yields more than just the kind of
complex sociograms, or charts, that, he says, ''as often as
not look like a plate of spaghetti.'' The information helps
scientists to evaluate and improve ''the kinds of things
that sociologists care about: careers, values, health and
so forth.'' So is there any value to analyzing a New York
party? Although Gibson seems to be missing -- to lift a
term from Moreno -- a social atom (''I don't really
understand the human impulse to congregate in loud, crowded
settings''), he is willing to give it a try.

The party, given by Timothy Schifter and his ebullient
wife, Helen, is to celebrate the recent release of the new
Le Sportsac line of bags designed by Stefani. With its
coveted spot on the social calendar just days before the
opening of New York fashion week, it's like the fashion
pack heading back to school. The party begins gradually at
6:30, with its first half-hour dominated by the host
casually greeting his guests. At 6:54, Peter Arnold, the
executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of
America, arrives. He moves around the room, speaks with a
great number of guests and is out the door by 7:15. At
7:55, Stefani is led in (after an hour downstairs running
the gantlet of television interviews) and seated on a
central banquette. At 8:10, she begins a tour of the room
that lasts until 8:37. At 8:43, she begins her farewells
and leaves by 8:50. The event winds down and ends at 9:20
with a burst of Barry White's ''You're the First, the Last,
My Everything.''

With the party over, the sociometric work can begin. More
than 300 digital photos are downloaded and sent to Gibson
at Harvard. After making a thorough breakdown of the
categories of guests, he rounds up some of his students to
make a preliminary analysis, focusing on the predicaments
that face every partygoer.

Issue No.1: Who should I talk to? With a total of 320
guests at the party, there are 51,040 possible pairs of
people, or dyads, as they are called (for any budding
sociometrists, the formula for computing dyads is N squared
minus N divided by two). With such an extraordinary number
of possible pairings, guests are faced with conflicting
goals: the desire to engage with others versus the desire
to seek out the most rewarding partners. ''You can go wrong
in either direction, jumping on the first chance to talk to
someone and finding yourself stuck with the wrong person,
or wandering around endlessly, looking for just the right
person and being seen as a sociometric isolate,'' Gibson
points out. ''So, early in the party we get this
phenomenon, evident in the photos, of everyone stealing
furtive glances around the room -- settling only later into
focused encounters, where they seem truly engaged.''

Issue No. 2: how to approach someone. Do I hurl myself at a
guest, or do I stay in the social shadows and wait to
pounce? The professor observes: ''We see photos in which
someone is lurking about the perimeter of a conversation,
seemingly waiting for the best opportunity to assert
themselves. The last thing you want to do is to step
forward at the wrong moment, when you won't be received
enthusiastically. We can expect people to deal with this by
gradually easing their way into the vicinity of whomever
they're looking to talk to, in the hope that that person
will then do the actual initiating or, failing that, step
in and start a conversation when the moment seems right. A
student of mine, Freda Lynn, pointed out that this would be
an ideal environment in which to examine how people weigh
immediate opportunities against long-range objectives. If
you don't know who's across the room, do you look in your
immediate vicinity for a satisfactory partner or risk a
long-distance hike with an uncertain payoff?''

Issue No. 3: Are you the center of the social universe or
just a satellite? One sociometric issue is centrality (or,
as we might have said in high school, popularity). Degree
centrality is simply the number of people you interact
with. Betweenness centrality is the contact you're making
with people whose only connection is through you. Prestige
centrality, the most coveted, is the extent to which you
interact with those who are most in demand.

''Because Gwen Stefani was the official center of
attention, she interacted with a lot of people, and thus
had high-degree centrality,'' Gibson observes. ''If we set
some minimum time requirement on an exchange before we call
it interacting, her degree centrality would drop
substantially, for while she exchanged kisses with a lot of
people, she had time to speak meaningfully with perhaps
none of them.'' Try not to become a sociometric butterfly,
flitting but not truly connected.

And the King of the Social Jungle Award goes to: the images
from the party show that Arnold, of the fashion council,
through his brief but intense engagement, might even be
more significant than the guest of honor. ''It's
interesting that Peter is so often found to be talking --
this wasn't someone who was merely content with pressing
hands,'' Gibson says. ''That he can be found to be having
serious conversations means he's probably more central than
even Gwen in the 'had substantial encounter with' network.
It's not the number of people you know but the variety of
nonredundant contacts you make -- that Peter met with so
many people isn't as important as whether he met with a
range of people, each different than the others in terms of
their knowledge of opportunities, gossip, etc.''

The analysis confirms another interesting phenomenon: a
late-blooming luminary. As the party winds down, a boldly
dressed young woman in a bright red tank top, cropped black
pants, spiky black hair and a silver studded black beret
appears. A group of equally trendy young men and women
surrounds her, and attention begins to shift in her
direction. She is Annie Younger, one of the designers
working with Stefani on her new line. ''We don't spot her
until near the end of the party, at which point we find her
with a number of young women who, like her, appear to be
broadcasting their membership in the fashion crowd,''
Gibson says, suggesting that he certainly knows a fashion
statement when he sees one. ''It's possible that this is a
sociometric formula for success: surround yourself with a
densely interconnected, supportive group willing to give
you their full attention, but don't try to compete directly
with the real big shots for attention.''

Although we may be onto something here (the posse approach
to sociometric stardom?), Gibson is serious about the kind
of analysis that could be achieved. The primary goal of
further research would be to connect the events of the
party with the background and future development of the
guests. That might mean using a questionnaire to see if
there is something in Stefani's background that pushed her
into the spotlight. It could chart a connection between the
number of guests Arnold greeted and the size of his bank
account or draw a parallel between the early sociometric
stardom of Younger and her fashion future.

Not to take anything away from the professor or the
discipline, but all the scientific analysis in the world
can't reveal how the magic of an evening is made, or the
power of invisible forces. Take, for example, Helen
Schifter's involvement in the central event, the tour by
Stefani. Seeing Schifter's husband and the guest of honor
sitting in their banquette, forcing guests to come to them,
she swings into action. ''I had to scream at them to get
them to walk around,'' Schifter remembers. ''They were just
going to sit in the booth all night. I said, 'You have to
get up and walk around!' Everyone wants a piece of a
star.'' Especially a sociometric one.




William Middleton, a former editor at Harper's Bazaar, is
writing a biography of Dominique de Menil.

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/02/magazine/magazinespecial/SESOCIOT.html?ex=1069121875&ei=1&en=1edda1ece20f654e


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