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Kerstin, Emanuela,

Thanks to you and to everyone else who is pitching in and continuing this conversation. Here I would like to return to the key term in my initial question, "Is social network analysis like chemistry without molecules?" That key term is "molecules."

Why molecules? Why not thermodynamics or autocatalysis? These, too, are important ideas. They do not, however, directly address the issue that brought me to molecules, that so much of social life these days involves teams, and teams are not simply cliques of otherwise similar individuals who happen to like each other, share information, spread new ideas or diseases, engaging in the sorts of processes that network analysis models so well. 

Teams are 

  1. like molecules composed of different elements: Teams are constructed of individuals chosen because they are different; they bring to the team some combination of a distinct skills, talents, temperaments. Anyone who has ever formed a band, cast a play, or engaged in team sports should instantly know what I'm talking about.
  2. like molecules whose properties depend on specific combinations of elements: Teams are assembled deliberately to produce the right mix of people to cover all the necessary roles. The baseball team that needs a new pitcher doesn't go looking for a new right fielder. The band that needs a drummer doesn't' add a saxophonist. The play that needs an Ophelia doesn't cast a second Hamlet. 
  3. like molecules that only form if the right elements are available: Those who assemble teams not only know the kinds of individuals they want. They know that their choices are subject to availability and affected by competition with other teams. Your first draft pick may not be the one you get, if someone else picks her first. 
  4. like molecules that only form and display desired properties under specific environmental conditions, which often require complex processes to achieve particular results. Recruiting a team is just the beginning. Then come training, practice, rehearsal, "team-building" exercises, and finally performances that require specific facilities, playing fields, studios, theaters, concert halls, night clubs, etc.
We know that human beings are not simply elements. Unlike chemical elements they grow and change over time. For the moment, however, let's stop here and consider what an agent based model would look like if it tried to address some of the "molecular" issues sketched above.

It might start out like the NetLogo Team Assembly model, where agents are only differentiated as newcomers, incumbents or moribund. But then it would have to consider the space of projects that require differently structured teams and may, thus, be of different sizes. An example from my own data is the difference between teams that produce TV commercials (avg. size 10) and teams that product print ads (avg. size 5). It would have to start with a population of agents differentiated by talents/expertise (copywriters, art directors, producers, cinematographers, stylsts, for example) in which the skill sets are unevenly distributed. It would also have to account for institutional constraints on agent behavior (agency employee, production company employee, freelancer). More could be added, but let's stop here. There is already too much to do. But these considerations should suffice to explain why molecules are on my mind as I look for scientific analogies to push my thinking in new directions.

Sent from my iPad

On 2014/10/06, at 21:14, Kerstin Sailer <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

***** To join INSNA, visit ***** Emanuela and John (and all),
I'm following the debate with interest and Emanuela's description has just led me to think a bit more about the 'context'. I'm researching the spatial settings in which actors pursue relationships within organizations (for instance see: and and it strikes me that considering the context could actually enhance the idea of networks as chemistry. In chemistry, you don't only need certain atoms or molecules to be co-present in order for a chemical reaction to take place, but you also need the right surroundings (e.g. temperature, pressure, etc). So I would argue that
(physical) space is one of those context variables that shape how humans interact.
Keep us posted, John, this is really interesting!

On 06/10/2014 10:17, [log in to unmask] wrote:
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John (and colleagues),

My small contribution to this discussion is that

… on the ‘Model …. Muddle’ Continuum of networks, which John so eloquently described in previous e-mails, we face

the ‘Context’ of social interactions as moderating variable, which is another ‘Model … Muddle’ problem to articulate, where the context is shaped by

the ‘Content’ of the interactions between our actors=molecules (another ‘Model … Muddle’ problem), and the content of relationships and exchanges itself is shaped by

the ‘Actors Attributes’ (another ‘Model … Muddle’ problem – i.e. which attributes are enacted at what time period … what context … and what content outcomes have impact on the motifs and preferences of these actors=molecules).


My humble attempt to focus on these recursive relationships is at


Best wishes



Dr. Emanuela Todeva
Senior Lecturer in Strategy and International Business

BCNED - Business Clusters, Networks and Economic Development
Surrey Business School - 64MS03
University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey, GU27XH, UK
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
tel: +44(0)1483 68 2056

View my research at:



From: Social Networks Discussion Forum [mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of John McCreery
Sent: 03 October 2014 02:43
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Is social network analysis chemistry without molecules?


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One colleague replying privately to my most recent message writes,


"dunno. i reckon we'd get on as humans. dunno what it would add to the busienss, but..."



The obvious response is the question, “Must it add to the business?” Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is not a bad thing, and there is always the possibility that someone else will find a way to apply the results of basic research. In this case, however, I think that we can do a bit better than that. 


To the best of my knowledge, which is limited, applications of network analysis to business usually come down to overlaying network diagrams on maps of the business units into which an organization or market is divided. It is then possible to quickly identify actors in bridging positions who may either facilitate or become bottlenecks to communication between the units in question. Alternatively, the overlay may reveal an absence of communication between units that is hampering business development. So far, so good. But suppose the question is how to staff a project team with the goal of creating something new, which entails creating relationships that do not yet exist either in the formal organization chart or in the network diagram. Choosing the members of a team is now a matter of art, in which the director of a project thinks of who might be good for a certain role, assesses the level of talent or skill that they bring to the table, checks their availability and then reaches out to them (or to their bosses, who must sign off on their new engagement). 


But let’s be more concrete. When I was working for the Japanese agency that once employed me, my clients were often large international companies with, however, only a small presence in Japan. When agencies pitched for their business, they were shown reels of exceptional work produced by the agency’s stars. Then, having chosen an agency, they find that the stars are not assigned to their team, except, perhaps, in a distant advisory role. If they ask why, the answer is clear. If their budget is only a tenth of what their Japanese competitor is spending and the stars are already committed to other projects, they must work with teams composed of second or third-tier veterans or newcomers who have not yet achieved a stellar reputation. The work that they produce is often second-rate.


Asked by foreign executives what they should do if they find themselves in this situation, I suggested that they look at the newcomer awards in advertising annuals and request that one or more of these rising stars be assigned to their teams. Now, having studied network analysis, I can offer another possibility. Identify successful teams, i.e., those whose work is judged worthy of appearing in an annual, then look for individuals who appear as members of several different successful teams over a span of years, who have not yet won a newcomer award. Since the usual practice in Japanese agencies is to circulate new employees among several teams to broaden their experience, these are likely to be highly competent people whose careers are on the verge of taking off. 


The NetLogo Team Assembly model suggests another potentially useful approach. The model is designed to relate creativity to one variable, the relative proportions of incumbents (people who have worked together before) and newcomers (people who have not worked together before)  assigned to teams. The underlying theory, which seems quite plausible to me as far as it goes, is that either too many incumbents or too many newcomers will reduce creativity. The same people doing the same things will fall into ruts, while people who are thrown together for the first time may never get their act together. There will be, however, be some ratio (or range of ratios) of incumbents to newcomers that maximizes creativity. Knowing that ratio would be good for business. 


You know, and I know, that this model is too simple. But as George Box famously said, while all models are wrong, some are more useful than others. Here we can think about what we would have to add to the model to make it more realistic. A great leap forward to a perfect solution is unlikely; but it still might be possible to make some progress step by step, by considering factors not yet included in the model. 

John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
Tel. +81-45-314-9324
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Dr Kerstin Sailer
Lecturer in Complex Buildings

Space Syntax Laboratory
The Bartlett School of Architecture
Faculty of the Built Environment
University College London (UCL)
140 Hampstead Road
London  NW1 2BX  UK

T: +44 (0) 20 3108 9031
E: [log in to unmask]
_____________________________________________________________________ SOCNET is a service of INSNA, the professional association for social network researchers ( To unsubscribe, send an email message to [log in to unmask] containing the line UNSUBSCRIBE SOCNET in the body of the message.
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