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SOCNET  February 2005

SOCNET February 2005

Subject:

Re: Physics and Sociology

From:

Ajay Mehra <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Thu, 10 Feb 2005 17:22:00 -0500

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text/plain

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text/plain (123 lines)

*****  To join INSNA, visit http://www.insna.org  *****

I think Professor Scott may be overstating the case. Both Watts and Barabasi
have acknowledged the "debt" they owe to earlier work on networks, including
the work done by sociologists. That they may have done so somewhat belatedly
is a different matter.

All this agonizing over who came up first with what, of course, is nothing
new in the sciences. I am persuaded by Whitehead's observation: "But to come
very near to a true theory, and to grasp its precise application, are two
very different things, as the history of science teaches us. Everything of
importance has been said before by someone who did not discover it."
Sociologists may have been aware of scale-free distributions, but it was the
(recent crop of) physicists who saw the relevance of these distributions for
understanding phenomena such as the WWW, and who have turned the study of
these distributions into a fruitful research program.

Ajay Mehra
University of Cincinnati

-----Original Message-----
From: Social Networks Discussion Forum [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On
Behalf Of Bienenstock Elisa
Sent: Thursday, February 10, 2005 4:28 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Physics and Sociology

*****  To join INSNA, visit http://www.insna.org  *****

Well said. Thank you.

-----Original Message-----
From: Social Networks Discussion Forum [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On
Behalf Of Scott, John
Sent: Thursday, February 10, 2005 6:24 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Physics and Sociology

*****  To join INSNA, visit http://www.insna.org  *****

In all the recent discussions about the relationship between physics and
sociology in the study of social networks, the fundamental issue seems
to have been lost sight of. The important issue is not whether the two
disciplines can or should cooperate. That is essential and it happens
frequently. Contributors to the discussion have pointed out many
fruitful and important cases, and the history of sociology is full of
many others. The big problem arises when academics from one discipline
move into the area of another discipline without trying to discover what
work has already been done by its practitioners. At best they reinvent
the wheel. At worst they antagonise people with their intellectual
arrogance.



This is what has happened with much of the recent work on small worlds:
physicists have argued that their methods and theories can illuminate
social networks but have failed to realise that a whole community of
sociological network researchers already exists and has done exactly the
kind of work that they are pointing to. Their books claim to have made
startling discoveries about the social world and advocate the
development of new research programmes on these topics. Their reviewers
take these claims at face value and so a reputation for intellectual
novelty is built up.



It is surely a basic failure of normal scholarly research procedures
that these books can be written and published without the author
undertaking any proper literature search. The author of one recent book
expounding the novelty of the 'power law' does not seem to realise that
sociological work over many years has documented the existence of this
kind of distribution in many real social networks. None of this is
cited. Its author does not seem to have discovered the existence of
journals on social networks, nor does he seem to realise that INSNA
exists and that the cover design of its newsletter shows a network with
a power law structure. This same book is based around the author's
research into internet search engines, but it doesn't seem as if he has
ever typed the words 'social networks' into Google or any other search
engine.



If I were to come up with the idea that familiar theories from sociology
could illuminate problems in physics, the first thing I would do would
be a literature search to see if anybody, in physics or elsewhere, had
already worked on the issue. Physicists who followed the same strategy
when they wished to contribute something to social analysis, might find
that they would be welcomed more warmly by their social science
colleagues.



________________________________

Professor John Scott
Department of Sociology,
University of Essex
Colchester CO4 3SQ

Telephone: 01206-872640
Web site: <http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~scottj>





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_____________________________________________________________________
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