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I just posted a blog entry called "Isolated social networkers" that I
thought may be of interest to people on this list since it relates to
topics we've covered before.

I reproduce the post below, although I recommend viewing it on the blog so
you can access the embedded links and see the graph.  The comments are
open so feel free to add your thoughts there (or here, but if you add them
there, you'll be addressing more than the usual suspects).


Isolated social networkers
Posted by Eszter Hargittai on Crooked Timber

Some physicists have come out with a paper on the Eurovision song contest.
Of course, we at CT like to be ahead of the curve and thanks to Kieran’s
ingenuity reported similar findings _over a year ago_. So much for this
being “new research”.

There has been much excitement about and focus on social networks in the
past few years ranging from social networking sites to several
high-profile books on the topic.

Interestingly, much of the buzz about recent work covers research by
physicists. It’s curious how physicists have expanded their research
agenda to cover social phenomena. I thought their realm was the physical
world. Of course, since social phenomena are extremely complex to study,
as a social scientist, I certainly welcome the extra efforts put into this
field of inquiry.

What is less welcomed is watching people reinvent the wheel. Sure, partly
it’s an ego thing. But more importantly, it’s unfortunate if the overall
goal is scientific progress. Much of the recent work in this area by
physicists has completely ignored decades worth of work by social
scientists. If we really do live in such a networked world where
information is so easy to access, how have these researchers managed to
miss all the existing relevant scholarship? Recently Kieran pointed me to
an informative graph published by Lin Freeman in his recent book on "The
Development of Social Network Analysis":

People whose overall work focuses on social networks are represented by
white dots, physicists by black ones, others by grey circles. As is clear
on the image, the worlds exist in isolation from each other. It would be
interesting to see year-of-publication attached to the nodes to see the
progression of work.

I have been meaning to write about all of this for a while, but John Scott
from the Univ. Essex addressed these issues quite well in some notes he
sent to INSNA’s SOCNET mailing list a few months ago so I will just
reproduce those here. (I do so with permission.)

Originally posted on SOCNET by John Scott on Feb 10, 2005 under the
heading “Physics and Sociology”

"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."

Originally posted on SOCNET by John Scott on Feb 13, 2005 under the
heading “On the Shoulders of Giants”

"The contributions to the ‘physics and sociology’ debate have, as with all
the discussions on SOCNET, raised many interesting and important issues.
Many contributors have, quite rightly, focused on issues of citation and
priority, and how these affect issues of academic justice, and personal
career chances. One contributor, however, made the important point that
‘advancing the science’ is the crucial matter, not personal status. The
sociology of science shows that these issues cannot be separated, but it
is certainly true that ‘advancing the science’ should be our fundamental
concern. In this light, perhaps I can raise one crucial consequence of the
failure to undertake basic literature surveys in a research area?

    The failure to undertake a proper literature search leads researchers
to waste time that could be put to more productive use in advancing
the science. As is well-known, those who stand on the shoulders of
giants are able to see further. Those who do not bother to search out
the work of the giants are likely to spend a great deal of time
reinventing things already known and so delaying the point at which
they or others can see further. This seems to me to be the fundamental
point: build on what is already known rather than waste time
rediscovering it. It is in the individual researcher’s self-interest
to do the search, and it
    contributes to advancing the science.

    Some contributors have suggested that such counsel may be unrealistic
in an age of highly specialised scientific research, as the facilities
are not available to allow it. One contributor, for example, asked
whether easily searchable cross-discipline databases that cover both
physics and sociology exist. Well, yes they do: they are called
libraries, and their stock is accessible by catalogue and by browsing
the shelves. People who write books and contribute to journals should
have the necessary skills to use a library, and any decent academic
library makes basic literature searches very easy. I have checked the
library catalogue at the university of the leading physicist that I
referred to in my original posting and that library contains a run of
the journal Social Networks as well as the key texts and sources
produced by Barry Wellman, Stan Wasserman and Katie Faust, and others.

    By all means let’s try to forget artificial disciplinary boundaries
and join together to advance the science of social networks,
recognising the potential that all specialists have for contributing
to this. But let’s also remember the basic scholarly skills that make
it possible for us to advance the science and for all of us to try
stand on the shoulders of giants."

If you are interested in some of the classics from the social sciences,
feel free to take a look at the Social Networks reading list I worked with
in graduate school.

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