Social Network Analysis and Political Phenomena: a contribution to the small world theory
Author: Ruisi, Francesca , email@example.com
Department: Department of Law, Social Sciences and Sport
University: University of Palermo, Italy
Supervisor: Fabio Massimo Lo Verde
Year of completion: 2014
Language of dissertation: English
social nework analysis
, small world theory
, social networks
, network theory
Areas of Research:
, Logic and Methodology
, Political Sociology
This research deals with as fascinating as complicate things. Things that are evanescent and uncatchable in a way. Things that every of us experienced even if never properly caught. This research deals with networks and social networks in particular. The latter are not negligible things but I believe that they represent the more profound social DNA.
Moving from the conviction that the entire amount of social phenomena are intrinsically relational due to the fact they do not arise within social vacuum, this research aims to provide an empirical contribution to the small world theory in terms of political participation considering that an important step for a desirable integration between apparently distinct fields and an occasion for social science to launch a post-disciplinary way of analyzing political phenomena. Despite the small world theory was originated within mathematics in graph theory it was borrowed by a huge amount of academic disciplines like physics, network economy, biology, transport engineering etc. even though with own peculiarities. This was not a case because, despite concerning phenomena are believed to be ontologically different, in depth they are all consisted of underlying network structures that network approach aims to unveil. At the time of writing literature lacks of a specific and exhaustive network analysis related to political movements or parties because, expect for financial corporations, innovation spreading, illegal networks, scientific partnership, opinion studies and relatives, only a few number of social phenomena have been encapsulated within a specific network frame like small world theoretical framework is. Surprisingly, most of influential scholars on the topic have based their reflection by referring to proper matters of political decision making and surrounding influence in voting decision. Despite a preliminary launch academic trend in studying political influence and network decreased until the last decades. Very little was found in the literature review on the question of whether political participation is determined by underlying social networks or its spreading might be lied on such underlying and invisible structure. This results so surprising if you think that a so massive literature on social network sites and political e-participation has spread since 1990’s even though research have usually employed mutually exclusive qualitative or quantitative approaches but not caring about social network structure the web consists of. Unfortunately few research have been addressed to reveal underlying social networks structures in creating and diffusing phenomena themselves like joining a political movement or spreading political information. Talking about small world network structure in terms of political participation does not represent merely a virtuously given research game but leads to a massive number of surprising insights, questions and implications for what it is concerned not only the rise of new political movements but also their spread and life. It is in fact showed that a small world structure is more likely able to withstand from external attacks resisting more than other network structures and then assuring a corporation to be successful and national economy keeping stable. Basically network is a set of relationships containing objects called nodes and relations called edges. An edge is posed when two nodes come to know and fix a relation regardless of qualitative nature of the relation itself. Sociologically speaking when you analyze networks it does not matter what these relations consist of qualitatively (friendship, co-working, neighborship and so on) but what will be analyzed is the final structure emerging by relations themselves. When you think about social acquaintances it looks like social world of new relations obey to a supernatural law random-based. Even though our life and beliefs can rest dominated by free will our likelihood of being connected with anyone in the world is not so casually done. This is why social relation organization is redundant and follow particular regularities like homophily, namely the tendency to associating with similar individuals in terms of habits, political belief, ethnic origins etc. In fact if anyone in the world know 1000 distinct persons did know mutually who in turn know other distinct 1000 people further not acquaintanced in few steps you can reach anyone in the world. But this is not so because social networks tend to be redundant because two friends of mine have a strong likelihood of being friends themselves and two acquaintances of mine are probably acquainted too. Small world network structure, despite a huge number of people-nodes apparently far from each other and barely directly connected, shows shortcuts in reaching everyone within such numerous network. This leads to relevant implications in terms of promoting political movement, spreading political belief, information circulation not to mention general cohesiveness of network as will be explained below. Other studies showed how such particular small world property is also of the world wide web and other types of networks I briefly hinted at above. This is the reason why social complexity research compels to investigate social and natural phenomena in the light of a new seemingly unified ontology done by emerging structural properties arising within so apparently different kinds of phenomena. In small world networks there are some relevant nodes detecting the most amount of relations of the entire network: they are individuals who know the most part of people. Lazarsfeld (1968) showed how those ones are opinion leaders able to influence political decisions of their acquaintances posing as brokers and intermediate actors (in network terms defined as betweeners) between politicians and citizens. Parallelly they spread fads and viruses too. These special nodes are called hubs keeping the most amount of relationships within the network and permitting the life of networks itself. The fact that even the so defined democratic web shows the presence of hubs in what mathematically is called power law distribution (few nodes detecting the most amount of relationships leading to a more likelihood of being reached within the network) forces us to review the apparently democratic nature of the web. In fact you can produce contents on the web but how many probabilities do you have to reach everyone in the world-web or spreading a new political information if you are not an hub?
However I just limit to illustrate how even a geographically limited local political movement I took in consideration for my research presents a small world structure leading to the need of reconsidering its robustness, spreading and life expectations in the light of underlying network structure.
Referring to methodological protocol I recurred to Facebook network data belonging to all the members of the political movement-case study. Particularly I collected distinct Facebook ego-networks of every single member representing the totality of “friends” every member has on own Facebook platform. This use is justified by the fact that every member claimed already knowing people added in own Facebook networks in line with previous researches: in this sense they can be considered a faithful representation of real networks regardless of their qualitative features. What it is investigated is in fact final rising network structure. After collecting all single ego-networks of every single member distinctly I proceeded to sew together those ones in order to get a complete visualization not only of relationships between the members themselves but also between all people every member knows alone and share with the other ones. Roughly speaking imagine your personal network of people overlapped with one of another person (i.e. a friend, a co-worker). Common acquaintances are not replicated but the not shared ones are further visible too. In this way you can visualize an exhaustive relational map of people-nodes within the political movement itself and external-not members nodes every member knows in turn and then that can potentially can determine political adherence processes according to cascade models. Obviously the willingness of joining a political movement cannot be deterministically considered only in the light of own contagious reciprocal acquaintances but certainly it can be affirmed that our personal network plays a determinant role in justifying political beliefs and belongings allowing a political movement to become successful or well known or to promote movement and preserving its life too. Interestingly as long as gluing process adds ego-network at the same manner of real entry order of members within the political movement (i.e. a funding member who invites another friend or acquaintance to join movement who in turn invites another one etc.) original hubs tend to enrich their relational power augmenting own degree value (degree is a mathematical value standing for indicating how many connections a node detect within a network) whilst people who are not hubs cannot became hubs despite a strong effort in terms of movement promotion and adding relations throughout movement expansion. This is the well known Matthew Effect Merton (1968) referred to for scientific knowledge and Pareto rich get richer effect. Hubs are determinant in keeping a network (in this case a political network) because it is like they sew together all members within assuring cohesiveness. If a node decide to abandon political network it is no matter because does not affect in general equilibrium; at the contrary if a hub-node cut off is likely to collapse portion of network and consequently the entire political movement. Such phenomena should arise questions for what it is concerned the real value of participation within political movements. The fact that also a political movement presents a small world structure in its underlying network is relevant in terms of scientific knowledge itself: in fact as mentioned above it seems that a common underling network structure is emerging in a massive number of fields from economics to physics not to mention cognitivism, and consequently inviting to a deep ontological reflection too.