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Of the responses to my question, “Is social network analysis chemistry without molecules?” two  have been particularly stimulating. One pointed me to a recent article by Emily Erikson in Sociological Theory 31(3) 219–242. The other from Edmund Chattoe-Brown pointed me to the NetLogo model Team Assembly (included in the model library for NetLogo 5.1.0). The following is how my mind moves from one to another, considering their possible relevance to network chemistry. I begin with Erikson’s article.

This fascinating and cogent review of recent literature argues that social network analysis incorporates two distinct theoretical positions, formalism and relationalism, which adopt radically different stances toward basic sociological issues: the nature of relations, context, agency and micro vs macro social phenomena. As someone with an amateur interest in the history of science, I cannot help noting the reemergence of the old quarrel that concerned A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World. Mathematically framed theories not only evoke the Kantian, ultimately Platonic, theory that the world is controlled by abstract forms that exist independently of the hurly-burly of experienced reality. They are so successful in their predictions about important aspects of reality that the approach they embody may seem to be the answer to all important questions. On the other side of the quarrel are those who insist that reality can only be found in the muddle and confusion of the meanings assigned to interactions that make up everyday life, and that mathematical models are, at best, simplistic. The map is not only not the territory; it isn’t even a very good map.

Thinking about what Erikson has written, I notice that while Durkheim and Simmel both appear, another important theorist is missing. No, I don’t mean Weber. I mean Karl Marx. I think, in particular, of Marx’s observation that, “Men make history, but not under conditions of their own choosing.” Which, oddly enough, brings me to my son-in-law, a Marine Corps pilot who once served as the safety officer for the squadron to which he then belonged. Thinking about his job led me to the following reflections on the relationship of mathematical laws to material realities.

  1. Given the law of gravity, aircraft should not be able to fly.
  2. Given Bernoulli’s principle, wings and rotors can generate enough lift to counter the force of gravity. Aircraft do fly.
  3. Sometimes, however, aircraft fall out of the sky. Why?
  4. Could be a mechanical malfunction, icing or other extreme weather conditions, pilot error, a bird flying into an engine, or terrorist sabotage. The law of gravity is only part of the reason why aircraft fall from the sky.

I consider my research project. Analyzing the networks for which I have data, I am startled and delighted to discover that the mathematical principles, the social physics, really works. Giant components, skewed distributions, unexpectedly large numbers of complete triads. Every single predicted result is right there in my data. Problems arise when I try to think about the relationship of those results to what I know about an industry in which I have spent much of my life. The results are real. No question about it. Their relationship to material realities, the media for which ads are produced, which affects the size and composition of teams, the oligopolistic structure of an industry, client sensitivities and previous commitments that create barriers between people who might otherwise work together, fluctuations in the economic environment reflected in changes of mood that seem polar in a clinical sense, oscillating from exuberance to despair and back again–these relationships remain obscure.

The temptation is to say, “OK, damn it, if forced to choose between being a formalist or a relationalist, I’d better call myself a relationalist.” But I can’t forget that, yes, those mathematical results are as solid as anything I have been tempted to call knowledge. So what to do? What to do?

That brings me back to Marx and my son-in-law. Let’s assume that the math is part of reality and so is the other stuff.And the other stuff isn’t just motive, and meaning, and social construction. Its material stuff, too. Which brings me to that NetLogo model called Team Assembly.

I find myself wondering how much of the stuff that interests me could be added to that very simple model, which considers only whether team members are newcomers or incumbents. Is it possible to write code that has a Creative Director turtle looking for a Cinematographer turtle to check whether the one he has just run into is available, accessible, even the best suited for the job at hand….Could we then insert variations projects, print vs TV and, another variable economic conditions and associated mood swings that shift the relative weight of desires for safety vs self-assertion and status seeking… .

The goal is not to solve the great questions once and for all. Just to build a slightly better model and then one better than that.

Feedback is welcome.


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