Based on the incredible amount of media coverage, many people might believe that social networks are a recent discovery – a phenomena resulting from consumer participation in web sites such as Myspace, LinkedIn and Facebook. However, research, analysis and theories on the subject began over a century ago. I recently read "The Development of Social Network Analysis" (Freeman) and thought I would draw attention to several individuals and point out some key impressions. The list below serves only as a brief illustration. There have been dozens of notable contributions from a variety of researchers, academics and practitioners across multiple disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, and mathematics):
1853, Auguste Comte (1798-1857): Comte applied structural terms to argue that people within a social system are interconnected, a concept core to much of the research that emerged in the 1930’s concerning social networks.
1908, Georg Simmel (1858-1918): Simmel offered a structural perspective on the association between individuals that include concepts related to “social circles”. These concepts were refined later by Charles Kadushin (1966) and by Douglas White (i.e., social circle network models).
1923, Jacob Levi Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974): Moreno is considered the father of sociometry, a term he coined in 1934. His study of social structures likely took shape in 1923. From 1932-1938, Moreno’s work crystallized, due largely to the influence of his research associates Helen Hall Jennings and Paul Lazersfeld. In a book published in 1934 (Who Shall Survive), Moreno described or alluded to many concepts that eventually defined social networks and their analysis.
1932: W. Loyd Warner (1898–1970): Warner’s involvement in two key research studies highlighted the need for structural analysis, graphical representation and analysis of social patterns to understand the influence of informal links, cliques and relationships. In one, the Yankee City project, Warner and his associates analyzed social stratification in a New England industrial town. In another, a project for Western Electric (1931-1932), Warner and his associates analyzed interactions and relationships across individuals in a bank wiring room.
1937 Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955): In a series of lectures that were not published until the late fifties, Radcliffe-Brown articulated concepts regarding how social relations linked and arranged people in social systems into certain orders. He is credited with as being an early spokesperson for the structural analysis of social networks.
1950, Alex Bavelas: Bavelas and his colleagues in the MIT Small Group Network laboratory at MIT, conducted research and a series of experiments that shaped concepts related to communication patterns (e.g., chain, wheel, star, all-channel and circle). He is also credited with originating concepts related to the role of centrality within a social network.
1958: Ithiel de Sola Pool and Manfred Kochen: Pool and Kochen undertook what is now considered pioneering research related to contact networks and the role of influence. Much of this research supported what later became referred to as the “small world” problem. These insights were documented in a manuscript Pool and Kochen authored and circulated for some time before formal publication in 1978.
1965 Harrison Colyar White: White is a highly regarded thought-leader in the field and perhaps represents the beginning of the more modern age of social network analysis. While at Harvard, White taught what has been considered a memorable course on social relations. Although the course was taught at the undergraduate level, concepts related to social networks had immense influence on students, many of which went on to be leaders in the field themselves.
1977: Barry Wellman, Wellman founded the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSA) which helped bring a fragmented collection of different disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, psychology, econommics, geography, computer science, education, mathematics and communications) into a more coherent field of study. Wellman also was well-known and respected for his own research which examined interpersonal networks and communities as social networks. His research contributions however have continued and he is widely regarded as a thought-leader today.
Until the late 1970’s, the analysis of social networks should be viewed as a very fragmented field of study. Groundbreaking research was often lost or not leveraged by other groups working in parallel at the same time. Fortunately, some efforts were rediscovered decades later by other researchers but in some cases, theories and practices were re-invented (duplicating - but validating - earlier work). Heading from the seventies into the eighties, a transition into what might be called “modern-day” social network analysis, the field has continued to progress and mature as a respected field of study. Below are several important points articulated between the 1850’s and 1970’s that I considered worth calling out:
- Society can be examined through structural connections between actors (e.g., people or other entities such as organizations and nation states)
- Studying patterns of interaction within social structures can reveal a networks of relationships that join those actors
- Actors are linked by a web of primary and secondary connections (e.g. strong and weak ties)
- Relationship structures can be visually rendered (e.g., what was once referred to as a sociogram is now labeled a social graph)
- Social structures influence diffusion of information
- Certain actors can dominate communication networks (leading to concepts later referred to as “centrality”)
- Social networks can include sub-groups (e.g., cliques, clusters, blocks)
- Social structures are dynamic and continually go through stages of coupling and de-coupling as participants focus on particular activities
- Although a network is comprised of relations between two actors, its overall essence can continue indefinitely (e.g., small world concept)
It should be noted that many social network stories we read about today give the impression that they reflect recent developments arising from consumer sites or from technology vendors. In some instances, certain topics are even hailed as original thought (e.g., the social graph). I think it is important, and respectful, that we understand (and learn from) historical precedents in the field of social network analysis. Much of the ideas and concepts presented today can trace their lineage back to the remarkable work and accomplishments of earlier researchers.