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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


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


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



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

Telephone: 01206-872640
Web site: <> 



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