Understanding the Theory of Social Network

A social network is the construct or structure that exists between interacting individuals or organizations. This post explains the social network theory, which focuses on the nature of these interactions, and their impacts on the involved entities.
OpinionFront Staff
Last Updated: Feb 10, 2018
"Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop to pretend we are individuals that can go it alone."
―Margaret Wheatley
Social networks are the cumulative structures obtained by the interactions between different individuals, groups, and organizations. The interactions between these entities is based on social familiarity, ranging from casual acquaintance, colleague, professional relationship, to close friend, or familial bond. Each person is part of various social groups, which eventually culminate into a network. The interactions between such a network defines the nature of the relationship and the behavior of the involved entities. For the sake of convenience, any interacting entity is called a node, and it may be used to refer to an individual, group, community, or organization. The relationship between any two nodes is called a tie. Therefore, a social network is composed of various nodes connected to each other via ties.

Apart from the nature of tie or interaction, social network is also influenced by its own size and shape. This implies the strength of the tie between nodes, and the overall number of nodes involved. Smaller networks with strong ties behave distinctly different as compared to large networks with weak ties. Various studies have revealed that, the larger and weak networks are often more beneficial, in the sense, that it affords more opportunities and creative ideas to its members. On the other hand, small and tight networks compensate the lack of creativity by the presence of efficiency, which is the result of shared values, goals, and resources. The study of the dynamics of a social network is called social network analysis (SNA) or social network theory (SNT).
Social Network Theory
▣ This theory originated with Stanley Milgram's small-world experiment, which was aimed at discerning the average number of ties between any two random nodes in a population. To this end, he enlisted random individuals from the American cities of Omaha and Wichita, and charged them the task of sending a letter to a particular individual in Boston.
The letters were to be sent in the manner of a chain, i.e., if the random person did not know the recipient in Boston, he/she should send a letter to any acquaintance who was more likely to know the recipient, who would then pass it on to the recipient if they were acquainted, or pass the letter on to someone else who might know the recipient. On analyzing the results of the experiment, Milgram concluded that, in any population, any two random nodes are connected via an average of 6 nodes. These intermediaries are called the degrees of separation. Due to the recent advancement of communication technologies, and the development of social media, the number of intermediates or degree of separation has been reduced to 4. The results of Milgram's experiment are called the 'small world phenomenon'.
▣ Social network theory involves studying the various social networks in a population, and the way these networks interact with each other. Based on this theory, social networks can be divided into three distinct types:
Ego-centric Network: All nodes in the network are connected to a central singular node. For example, in a network of all your friends, each friend will be connected to you (central node).
Socio-centric Network: This consists of two overlapping networks, with at least one node in common. All the nodes are not directly tied to each other, but do not show more than 2 degrees of separation. For example, the social network of an employee combines his/her personal network with his/her social network at the office.
Open-system Network: Individual networks are not clearly defined, and the involved multiple networks are dynamic. These networks are the most difficult to study. The networks between various corporations of a particular industry, political leaders, etc., are examples of this type, since the ties between nodes are not fixed, but vary according to influences and decisions of the nodes involved.
▣ This segregation of different types of networks helps in understanding and examining the way each node is connected to another, and the nature of the tie between these nodes. A node with many ties would indicate the node to be centrally located in the network, while a node which shows only a few connections would be around the outer edges of the network.
An investigation or examination of the connection of each node with other nodes in the network is the basic premise of the social network theory, and can be applied practically for various purposes.
▣ This theory is often applied by social scientists and other individuals in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of a network, in order to achieve a particular goal. Marketing agents study their consumer base and target demographic in order to formulate a marketing strategy for their products.
This is nothing but a practical application of the social network theory. The same application can be carried out by job applicants in order to successfully secure a good job, by studying job opportunities and then presenting themselves, their skills, and experience in a favorable manner.
▣ In case of social media platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, the theory is applied to allow one to connect to people within one's social network, and then to expand that network by connecting to other related or unrelated individuals or groups. This theory has widespread application, ranging from understanding organizational behavior, employee turnover, to the networks of terrorists. This theory is also used to predict trends in various industries.
In conclusion, the theory offers an effective explanation of how people are connected, and how the groups that they belong to interact with each other. It also provides an insight into the prediction of trends and epidemiology of diseases. However, the theory falls short on account of it being unreproducible scientifically. Also, the interpretation of ties between nodes can be subject to the examiners biases, and hence, cannot be an objective representation of the reality.