Introduction: What's different about social network data?

On one hand, there really isn't anything about social network data that is all that unusual. Social network analysts do use a specialized language for describing the structure and contents of the sets of observations that they use. But, network data can also be described and understood using the ideas and concepts of more familiar methods, like cross-sectional survey research.

On the other hand, the data sets that social network analysts develop usually end up looking quite different from the conventional rectangular data array so familiar to survey researchers and statistical analysts. The differences are quite important because they lead us to look at our data in a different way -- and even lead us to think differently about how to apply statistics.

"Conventional" social science data consist of a rectangular array of measurements. The rows of the array are the cases, or subjects, or observations. The columns consist of scores (quantitative or qualitative) on attributes, or variables, or measures. A simple example is shown as figure 1.1.  Each cell of the array then describes the score of some actor (row) on some attribute (column). In some cases, there may be a third dimension to these arrays, representing panels of observations or multiple groups.

Figure 1.1.  Example of rectangular data array

Name

Sex

Age

In-Degree

Bob

Male

32

2

Carol

Female

27

1

Ted

Male

29

1

Alice

Female

28

3

The fundamental data structure is one that leads us to compare how actors are similar or dissimilar to each other across attributes (by comparing rows). Or, perhaps more commonly, we examine how variables are similar or dissimilar to each other in their distributions across actors (by comparing or correlating columns).

"Network" data (in their purest form) consist of a square array of measurements. The rows of the array are the cases, or subjects, or observations. The columns of the array are -- and note the key difference from conventional data -- the same set of cases, subjects, or observations. In each cell of the array describes a relationship between the actors.  A simple example is shown as figure 1.2, which describes the network of friendship relations among four people.


Figure 1.2.  Example of square array of network data

Who reports liking whom?

 

Choice:

 

 

 

Chooser:

Bob

Carol

Ted

Alice

Bob

---

0

1

1

Carol

1

---

0

1

Ted

0

1

---

1

Alice

1

0

0

---

We could look at this data structure the same way as with attribute data. By comparing rows of the array, we can see which actors are similar to which other actors in whom they choose. By looking at the columns, we can see who is similar to whom in terms of being chosen by others. These are useful ways to look at the data, because they help us to see which actors have similar positions in the network. This is the first major emphasis of network analysis: seeing how actors are located or "embedded" in the overall network.

But a network analyst is also likely to look at the data structure in a second way -- holistically. The analyst might note that there are about equal numbers of ones and zeros in the matrix. This suggests that there is a moderate "density" of liking overall. The analyst might also compare the cells above and below the diagonal to see if there is reciprocity in choices (e.g. Bob chose Ted, did Ted choose Bob?). This is the second major emphasis of network analysis: seeing how the whole pattern of individual choices gives rise to more holistic patterns.

It is quite possible to think of the network data set in the same terms as "conventional data." One can think of the rows as simply a listing of cases, and the columns as attributes of each actor (i.e. the relations with other actors can be thought of as "attributes" of each actor). Indeed, many of the techniques used by network analysts (like calculating correlations and distances) are applied exactly the same way to network data as they would be to conventional data.

While it is possible to describe network data as just a special form of conventional data (and it is), network analysts look at the data in some rather fundamentally different ways. Rather than thinking about how an actor's ties with other actors describes the attributes of "ego," network analysts instead see a structure of connections, within which the actor is embedded. Actors are described by their relations, not by their attributes. And, the relations themselves are just as fundamental as the actors that they connect.

The major difference between conventional and network data is that conventional data focuses on actors and attributes; network data focus on actors and relations. The difference in emphasis is consequential for the choices that a researcher must make in deciding on research design, in conducting sampling, developing measurement, and handling the resulting data. It is not that the research tools used by network analysts are different from those of other social scientists (they mostly are not). But the special purposes and emphases of network research do call for some different considerations.

In this chapter, we will take a look at some of the issues that arise in design, sampling, and measurement for social network analysis. Our discussion will focus on the two parts of network data: nodes (or actors) and edges (or relations). We will try to show some of the ways in which network data are similar to, and different from more familiar actor by attribute data. We will introduce some new terminology that makes it easier to describe the special features of network data. Lastly, we will briefly discuss how the differences between network and actor-attribute data are consequential for the application of statistical tools.

Nodes: Network data are defined by actors and by relations (or "nodes" and "edges"). The nodes or actors part of network data would seem to be pretty straight-forward. Other empirical approaches in the social sciences also think in terms of cases or subjects or sample elements and the like. There is one difference with most network data, however, that makes a big difference in how such data are usually collected -- and the kinds of samples and populations that are studied.

Network analysis focuses on the relations among actors, and not individual actors and their attributes. This means that the actors are usually not sampled independently, as in many other kinds of studies (most typically, surveys). Suppose we are studying friendship ties, for example. John has been selected to be in our sample. When we ask him, John identifies seven friends. We need to track down each of those seven friends and ask them about their friendship ties, as well. The seven friends are in our sample because John is (and vice-versa), so the "sample elements" are no longer "independent."

The nodes or actors included in non-network studies tend to be the result of independent probability sampling. Network studies are much more likely to include all of the actors who occur within some (usually naturally occurring) boundary. Often network studies don't use "samples" at all, at least in the conventional sense. Rather, they tend to include all of the actors in some population or populations. Of course, the populations included in a network study may be a sample of some larger set of populations. For example, when we study patterns of interaction among students in a classrooms, we include all of the children in a classroom (that is, we study the whole population of the classroom). The classroom itself, though, might have been selected by probability methods from a population of classrooms (say all of those in a school).

The use of whole populations as a way of selecting observations in (many) network studies makes it important for the analyst to be clear about the boundaries of each population to be studied, and how individual units of observation are to be selected within that population. Network data sets also frequently involve several levels of analysis, with actors embedded at the lowest level (i.e. network designs can be described using the language of "nested" designs).

Populations, samples, and boundaries: Social network analysts rarely draw samples in their work. Most commonly, network analysts will identify some population and conduct a census (i.e. include all elements of the population as units of observation). A network analyst might examine all of the nouns and objects occurring in a text, all of the persons at a birthday party, all members of a kinship group, of an organization, neighborhood, or social class (e.g. landowners in a region, or royalty).

Survey research methods usually use a quite different approach to deciding which nodes to study. A list is made of all nodes (sometimes stratified or clustered), and individual elements are selected by probability methods. The logic of the method treats each individual as a separate "replication" that is, in a sense, interchangeable with any other.

Because network methods focus on relations among actors, actors cannot be sampled independently to be included as observations. If one actor happens to be selected, then we must also include all other actors to whom our ego has (or could have) ties. As a result, network approaches tend to study whole populations by means of census, rather than by sample (we will discuss a number of exceptions to this shortly, under the topic of sampling ties).

The populations that network analysts study are remarkably diverse. At one extreme, they might consist of symbols in texts or sounds in verbalizations; at the other extreme, nations in the world system of states might constitute the population of nodes. Perhaps most common, of course, are populations of individual persons. In each case, however, the elements of the population to be studied are defined by falling within some boundary.

The boundaries of the populations studied by network analysts are of two main types. Probably most commonly, the boundaries are those imposed or created by the actors themselves. All the members of a classroom, organization, club, neighborhood, or community can constitute a population. These are naturally occurring clusters, or networks. So, in a sense, social network studies often draw the boundaries around a population that is known, a priori, to be a network. Alternatively, a network analyst might take a more "demographic" or "ecological" approach to defining population boundaries. We might draw observations by contacting all of the people who are found in a bounded spatial area, or who meet some criterion (having gross family incomes over $1,000,000 per year). Here, we might have reason to suspect that networks exist, but the entity being studied is an abstract aggregation imposed by the investigator -- rather than a pattern of institutionalized social action that has been identified and labeled by its participants.

Network analysts can expand the boundaries of their studies by replicating populations. Rather than studying one neighborhood, we can study several. This type of design (which could use sampling methods to select populations) allows for replication and for testing of hypotheses by comparing populations. A second, and equally important way that network studies expand their scope is by the inclusion of multiple levels of analysis, or modalities.

Modality and levels of analysis : The network analyst tends to see individual people nested within networks of face-to-face relations with other persons. Often these networks of interpersonal relations become "social facts" and take on a life of their own. A family, for example, is a network of close relations among a set of people. But this particular network has been institutionalized and given a name and reality beyond that of its component nodes. Individuals in their work relations may be seen as nested within organizations; in their leisure relations they may be nested in voluntary associations. Neighborhoods, communities, and even societies are, to varying degrees, social entities in and of themselves. And, as social entities, they may form ties with the individuals nested within them, and with other social entities.

Often network data sets describe the nodes and relations among nodes for a single bounded population. If I study the friendship patterns among students in a classroom, I am doing a study of this type. But a classroom exists within a school - which might be thought of as a network relating classes and other actors (principals, administrators, librarians, etc.). And most schools exist within school districts, which can be thought of as networks of schools and other actors (school boards, research wings, purchasing and personnel departments, etc.). There may even be patterns of ties among school districts (say by the exchange of students, teachers, curricular materials, etc.).

Most social network analysts think of individual persons as being embedded in networks that are embedded in networks that are embedded in networks. Network analysts describe such structures as "multi-modal." In our school example, individual students and teachers form one mode, classrooms a second, schools a third, and so on. A data set that contains information about two types of social entities (say persons and organizations) is a two mode network.

Of course, this kind of view of the nature of social structures is not unique to social network analystst. Statistical analysts deal with the same issues as "hierarchical" or "nested" designs. Theorists speak of the macro-meso-micro levels of analysis, or develop schema for identifying levels of analysis (individual, group, organization, community, institution, society, global order being perhaps the most commonly used system in sociology). One advantage of network thinking and method is that it naturally predisposes the analyst to focus on multiple levels of analysis simultaneously. That is, the network analyst is always interested in how the individual is embedded within a structure and how the structure emerges from the micro-relations between individual parts. The ability of network methods to map such multi-modal relations is, at least potentially, a step forward in rigor.

Having claimed that social network methods are particularly well suited for dealing with multiple levels of analysis and multi-modal data structures, it must immediately be admitted that social network analysis rarely actually takes much advantage. Most network analyses does move us beyond simple micro or macro reductionism -- and this is good. Few, if any, data sets and analyses, however, have attempted to work at more than two modes simultaneously. And, even when working with two modes, the most common strategy is to examine them more or less separately (one exception to this is the conjoint analysis of two mode networks).  In chapter 17, we'll take a look at some methods for multi-mode networks.

Relations: The other half of the design of network data has to do with what ties or relations are to be measured for the selected nodes. There are two main issues to be discussed here. In many network studies, all of the ties of a given type among all of the selected nodes are studied -- that is, a census is conducted. But, sometimes different approaches are used (because they are less expensive, or because of a need to generalize) that sample ties. There is also a second kind of sampling of ties that always occurs in network data. Any set of actors might be connected by many different kinds of ties and relations (e.g. students in a classroom might like or dislike each other, they might play together or not, they might share food or not, etc.). When we collect network data, we are usually selecting, or sampling, from among a set of kinds of relations that we might have measured.

 

Sampling ties: Given a set of actors or nodes, there are several strategies for deciding how to go about collecting measurements on the relations among them. At one end of the spectrum of approaches are "full network" methods. This approach yields the maximum of information, but can also be costly and difficult to execute, and may be difficult to generalize. At the other end of the spectrum are methods that look quite like those used in conventional survey research. These approaches yield considerably less information about network structure, but are often less costly, and often allow easier generalization from the observations in the sample to some larger population. There is no one "right" method for all research questions and problems.

Full network methods require that we collect information about each actor's ties with all other actors. In essence, this approach is taking a census of ties in a population of actors -- rather than a sample. For example we could collect data on shipments of copper between all pairs of nation states in the world system from International Monetary Fund records; we could examine the boards of directors of all public corporations for overlapping directors; we could count the number of vehicles moving between all pairs of cities; we could look at the flows of e-mail between all pairs of employees in a company; we could ask each child in a play group to identify their friends.

Because we collect information about ties between all pairs or dyads, full network data give a complete picture of relations in the population. Most of the special approaches and methods of network analysis that we will discuss in the remainder of this text were developed to be used with full network data. Full network data is necessary to properly define and measure many of the structural concepts of network analysis (e.g. between-ness).

Full network data allows for very powerful descriptions and analyses of social structures. Unfortunately, full network data can also be very expensive and difficult to collect. Obtaining data from every member of a population, and having every member rank or rate every other member can be very challenging tasks in any but the smallest groups. The task is made more manageable by asking respondents to identify a limited number of specific individuals with whom they have ties. These lists can then be compiled and cross-connected. But, for large groups (say all the people in a city), the task is practically impossible.

In many cases, the problems are not quite as severe as one might imagine. Most persons, groups, and organizations tend to have limited numbers of ties -- or at least limited numbers of strong ties. This is probably because social actors have limited resources, energy, time, and cognitive capacity -- and cannot maintain large numbers of strong ties. It is also true that social structures can develop a considerable degree of order and solidarity with relatively few connections.

Snowball methods begin with a focal actor or set of actors. Each of these actors is asked to name some or all of their ties to other actors. Then, all the actors named (who were not part of the original list) are tracked down and asked for some or all of their ties. The process continues until no new actors are identified, or until we decide to stop (usually for reasons of time and resources, or because the new actors being named are very marginal to the group we are trying to study).

The snowball method can be particularly helpful for tracking down "special" populations (often numerically small sub-sets of people mixed in with large numbers of others). Business contact networks, community elites, deviant sub-cultures, avid stamp collectors, kinship networks, and many other structures can be pretty effectively located and described by snowball methods. It is sometimes not as difficult to achieve closure in snowball "samples" as one might think. The limitations on the numbers of strong ties that most actors have, and the tendency for ties to be reciprocated often make it fairly easy to find the boundaries.

There are two major potential limitations and weaknesses of snowball methods. First, actors who are not connected (i.e. "isolates") are not located by this method. The presence and numbers of isolates can be a very important feature of populations for some analytic purposes. The snowball method may tend to overstate the "connectedness" and "solidarity" of populations of actors. Second, there is no guaranteed way of finding all of the connected individuals in the population. Where does one start the snowball rolling? If we start in the wrong place or places, we may miss whole sub-sets of actors who are connected -- but not attached to our starting points.

Snowball approaches can be strengthened by giving some thought to how to select the initial nodes. In many studies, there may be a natural starting point. In community power studies, for example, it is common to begin snowball searches with the chief executives of large economic, cultural, and political organizations. While such an approach will miss most of the community (those who are "isolated" from the elite network), the approach is very likely to capture the elite network quite effectively.

Ego-centric networks (with alter connections): In many cases it will not be possible (or necessary) to track down the full networks beginning with focal nodes (as in the snowball method). An alternative approach is to begin with a selection of focal nodes (egos), and identify the nodes to which they are connected. Then, we determine which of the nodes identified in the first stage are connected to one another. This can be done by contacting each of the nodes; sometimes we can ask ego to report which of the nodes that it is tied to are tied to one another.

This kind of approach can be quite effective for collecting a form of relational data from very large populations, and can be combined with attribute-based approaches. For example, we might take a simple random sample of male college students and ask them to report who are their close friends, and which of these friends know one another. This kind of approach can give us a good and reliable picture of the kinds of networks (or at least the local neighborhoods) in which individuals are embedded. We can find out such things as how many connections nodes have, and the extent to which these nodes are close-knit groups. Such data can be very useful in helping to understand the opportunities and constraints that ego has as a result of the way they are embedded in their networks.

The ego-centered approach with alter connections can also give us some information about the network as a whole, though not as much as snowball or census approaches. Such data are, in fact, micro-network data sets -- samplings of local areas of larger networks. Many network properties -- distance, centrality, and various kinds of positional equivalence cannot be assessed with ego-centric data. Some properties, such as overall network density can be reasonably estimated with ego-centric data. Some properties -- such as the prevalence of reciprocal ties, cliques, and the like can be estimated rather directly.

Ego-centric networks (ego only): Ego-centric methods really focus on the individual, rather than on the network as a whole. By collecting information on the connections among the actors connected to each focal ego, we can still get a pretty good picture of the "local" networks or "neighborhoods" of individuals. Such information is useful for understanding how networks affect individuals, and they also give a (incomplete) picture of the general texture of the network as a whole.

Suppose, however, that we only obtained information on ego's connections to alters -- but not information on the connections among those alters. Data like these are not really "network" data at all. That is, they cannot be represented as a square actor-by-actor array of ties. But doesn't mean that ego-centric data without connections among the alters are of no value for analysts seeking to take a structural or network approach to understanding actors. We can know, for example, that some actors have many close friends and kin, and others have few. Knowing this, we are able to understand something about the differences in the actors places in social structure, and make some predictions about how these locations constrain their behavior. What we cannot know from ego-centric data with any certainty is the nature of the macro-structure or the whole network.

In ego-centric networks, the alters identified as connected to each ego are probably a set that is unconnected with those for each other ego. While we cannot assess the overall density or connectedness of the population, we can sometimes be a bit more general. If we have some good theoretical reason to think about alters in terms of their social roles, rather than as individual occupants of social roles, ego-centered networks can tell us a good bit about local social structures. For example, if we identify each of the alters connected to an ego by a friendship relation as "kin," "co-worker," "member of the same church," etc., we can build up a picture of the networks of social positions (rather than the networks of individuals) in which egos are embedded. Such an approach, of course, assumes that such categories as "kin" are real and meaningful determinants of patterns of interaction.

Multiple relations: In a conventional actor-by-trait data set, each actor is described by many variables (and each variable is realized in many actors). In the most common social network data set of actor-by-actor ties, only one kind of relation is described. Just as we often are interested in multiple attributes of actors, we are often interested in multiple kinds of ties that connect actors in a network.

In thinking about the network ties among faculty in an academic department, for example, we might be interested in which faculty have students in common, serve on the same committees, interact as friends outside of the workplace, have one or more areas of expertise in common, and co-author papers. The positions that actors hold in the web of group affiliations are multi-faceted. Positions in one set of relations may re-enforce or contradict positions in another (I might share friendship ties with one set of people with whom I do not work on committees, for example). Actors may be tied together closely in one relational network, but be quite distant from one another in a different relational network. The locations of actors in multi-relational networks and the structure of networks composed of multiple relations are some of the most interesting (and still relatively unexplored) areas of social network analysis.

When we collect social network data about certain kinds of relations among actors we are, in a sense, sampling from a population of possible relations. Usually our research question and theory indicate which of the kinds of relations among actors are the most relevant to our study, and we do not sample -- but rather select -- relations. In a study concerned with economic dependency and growth, for example, I could collect data on the exchange of performances by musicians between nations -- but it is not really likely to be all that relevant.

If we do not know what relations to examine, how might we decide? There are a number of conceptual approaches that might be of assistance. Systems theory, for example, suggests two domains: material and informational. Material things are "conserved" in the sense that they can only be located at one node of the network at a time. Movements of people between organizations, money between people, automobiles between cities, and the like are all examples of material things which move between nodes -- and hence establish a network of material relations. Informational things, to the systems theorist, are "non-conserved" in the sense that they can be in more than one place at the same time. If I know something and share it with you, we both now know it. In a sense, the commonality that is shared by the exchange of information may also be said to establish a tie between two nodes. One needs to be cautious here, however, not to confuse the simple possession of a common attribute (e.g. gender) with the presence of a tie (e.g. the exchange of views between two persons on issues of gender).

Methodologies for working with multi-relational data are not as well developed as those for working with single relations. Many interesting areas of work such as network correlation, multi-dimensional scaling and clustering, and role algebras have been developed to work with multi-relational data. For the most part, these topics are beyond the scope of the current text, and are best approached after the basics of working with single relational networks are mastered.  We will look at some methods for multi-relational (a.k.a. "multiplex" network data in chapter 16).

Scales of measurement: Like other kinds of data, the information we collect about ties between actors can be measured (i.e. we can assign scores to our observations) at different "levels of measurement." The different levels of measurement are important because they limit the kinds of questions that can be examined by the researcher. Scales of measurement are also important because different kinds of scales have different mathematical properties, and call for different algorithms in describing patterns and testing inferences about them.

It is conventional to distinguish nominal, ordinal, and interval levels of measurement (the ratio level can, for all practical purposes, be grouped with interval). It is useful, however, to further divide nominal measurement into binary and multi-category variations; it is also useful to distinguish between full-rank ordinal measures and grouped ordinal measures. We will briefly describe all of these variations, and provide examples of how they are commonly applied in social network studies.

Binary measures of relations: By far the most common approach to scaling (assigning numbers to) relations is to simply distinguish between relations being absent (coded zero), and ties being present (coded one). If we ask respondents in a survey to tell us "which other people on this list do you like?" we are doing binary measurement. Each person from the list that is selected is coded one. Those who are not selected are coded zero.

Much of the development of graph theory in mathematics, and many of the algorithms for measuring properties of actors and networks have been developed for binary data. Binary data is so widely used in network analysis that it is not unusual to see data that are measured at a "higher" level transformed into binary scores before analysis proceeds. To do this, one simply selects some "cut point" and re-scores cases as below the cut-point (zero) or above it (one). Dichotomizing data in this way is throwing away information. The analyst needs to consider what is relevant (i.e. what is the theory about? is it about the presence and pattern of ties, or about the strengths of ties?), and what algorithms are to be applied in deciding whether it is reasonable to recode the data. Very often, the additional power and simplicity of analysis of binary data is "worth" the cost in information lost.

Multiple-category nominal measures of relations: In collecting data we might ask our respondents to look at a list of other people and tell us: "for each person on this list, select the category that describes your relationship with them the best: friend, lover, business relationship, kin, or no relationship." We might score each person on the list as having a relationship of type "1" type "2" etc. This kind of a scale is nominal or qualitative -- each person's relationship to the subject is coded by its type, rather than its strength. Unlike the binary nominal (true-false) data, the multiple category nominal measure is multiple choice.

The most common approach to analyzing multiple-category nominal measures is to use it to create a series of binary measures. That is, we might take the data arising from the question described above and create separate sets of scores for friendship ties, for lover ties, for kin ties, etc. This is very similar to "dummy coding" as a way of handling multiple choice types of measures in statistical analysis. In examining the resulting data, however, one must remember that each node was allowed to have a tie in at most one of the resulting networks. That is, a person can be a friendship tie or a lover tie -- but not both -- as a result of the way we asked the question. In examining the resulting networks, densities may be artificially low, and there will be an inherent negative correlation among the matrices.

This sort of multiple choice data can also be "binarized." That is, we can ignore what kind of tie is reported, and simply code whether a tie exists for a dyad, or not. This may be fine for some analyses -- but it does waste information. One might also wish to regard the types of ties as reflecting some underlying continuous dimension (for example, emotional intensity). The types of ties can then be scaled into a single grouped ordinal measure of tie strength. The scaling, of course, reflects the predispositions of the analyst -- not the reports of the respondents.

Grouped ordinal measures of relations: One of the earliest traditions in the study of social networks asked respondents to rate each of a set of others as "liked" "disliked" or "neutral." The result is a grouped ordinal scale (i.e., there can be more than one "liked" person, and the categories reflect an underlying rank order of intensity). Usually, this kind of three point scale was coded -1, 0, and +1 to reflect negative liking, indifference, and positive liking. When scored this way, the pluses and minuses make it fairly easy to write algorithms that will count and describe various network properties (e.g. the structural balance of the graph).

Grouped ordinal measures can be used to reflect a number of different quantitative aspects of relations. Network analysts are often concerned with describing the "strength" of ties. But, "strength" may mean (some or all of) a variety of things. One dimension is the frequency of interaction -- do actors have contact daily, weekly, monthly, etc. Another dimension is "intensity," which usually reflects the degree of emotional arousal associated with the relationship (e.g. kin ties may be infrequent, but carry a high "emotional charge" because of the highly ritualized and institutionalized expectations). Ties may be said to be stronger if they involve many different contexts or types of ties. Summing nominal data about the presence or absence of multiple types of ties gives rise to an ordinal (actually, interval) scale of one dimension of tie strength. Ties are also said to be stronger to the extent that they are reciprocated. Normally we would assess reciprocity by asking each actor in a dyad to report their feelings about the other. However, one might also ask each actor for their perceptions of the degree of reciprocity in a relation: Would you say that neither of you like each other very much, that you like X more than X likes you, that X likes you more than you like X, or that you both like each other about equally?

Ordinal scales of measurement contain more information than nominal. That is, the scores reflect finer gradations of tie strength than the simple binary "presence or absence." This would seem to be a good thing, yet it is frequently difficult to take advantage of ordinal data. The most commonly used algorithms for the analysis of social networks have been designed for binary data. Many have been adapted to continuous data -- but for interval, rather than ordinal scales of measurement. Ordinal data, consequently, are often binarized by choosing some cut-point and re-scoring. Alternatively, ordinal data are sometimes treated as though they really were interval. The former strategy has some risks, in that choices of cut-points can be consequential; the latter strategy has some risks, in that the intervals separating points on an ordinal scale may be very heterogeneous.

Full-rank ordinal measures of relations:
Sometimes it is possible to score the strength of all of the relations of an actor in a rank order from strongest to weakest. For example, I could ask each respondent to write a "1" next to the name of the person in the class that you like the most, a "2" next to the name of the person you like next most, etc. The kind of scale that would result from this would be a "full rank order scale." Such scales reflect differences in degree of intensity, but not necessarily equal differences -- that is, the difference between my first and second choices is not necessarily the same as the difference between my second and third choices. Each relation, however, has a unique score (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.).

Full rank ordinal measures are somewhat uncommon in the social networks research literature, as they are in most other traditions. Consequently, there are relatively few methods, definitions, and algorithms that take specific and full advantage of the information in such scales. Most commonly, full rank ordinal measures are treated as if they were interval. There is probably somewhat less risk in treating fully rank ordered measures (compared to grouped ordinal measures) as though they were interval, though the assumption is still a risky one. Of course, it is also possible to group the rank order scores into groups (i.e. produce a grouped ordinal scale) or dichotomize the data (e.g. the top three choices might be treated as ties, the remainder as non-ties). In combining information on multiple types of ties, it is frequently necessary to simplify full rank order scales. But, if we have a number of full rank order scales that we may wish to combine to form a scale (i.e. rankings of people's likings of other in the group, frequency of interaction, etc.), the sum of such scales into an index is plausibly treated as a truly interval measure.

Interval measures of relations: The most "advanced" level of measurement allows us to discriminate among the relations reported in ways that allow us to validly state that, for example, "this tie is twice as strong as that tie." Ties are rated on scales in which the difference between a "1" and a "2" reflects the same amount of real difference as that between "23" and "24."

True interval level measures of the strength of many kinds of relationships are fairly easy to construct, with a little imagination and persistence. Asking respondents to report the details of the frequency or intensity of ties by survey or interview methods, however, can be rather unreliable -- particularly if the relationships being tracked are not highly salient and infrequent. Rather than asking whether two people communicate, one could count the number of email, phone, and inter-office mail deliveries between them. Rather than asking whether two nations trade with one another, look at statistics on balances of payments. In many cases, it is possible to construct interval level measures of relationship strength by using artifacts (e.g. statistics collected for other purposes) or observation.

Continuous measures of the strengths of relationships allow the application of a wider range of mathematical and statistical tools to the exploration and analysis of the data. Many of the algorithms that have been developed by social network analysts, originally for binary data, have been extended to take advantage of the information available in full interval measures. Whenever possible, connections should be measured at the interval level -- as we can always move to a less refined approach later; if data are collected at the nominal level, it is much more difficult to move to a more refined level.

Even though it is a good idea to measure relationship intensity at the most refined level possible, most network analysis does not operate at this level. The most powerful insights of network analysis, and many of the mathematical and graphical tools used by network analysts were developed for simple graphs (i.e. binary, undirected). Many characterizations of the embeddedness of actors in their networks, and of the networks themselves are most commonly thought of in discrete terms in the research literature. As a result, it is often desirable to reduce even interval data to the binary level by choosing a cutting -point, and coding tie strength above that point as "1" and below that point as "0." Unfortunately, there is no single "correct" way to choose a cut-point. Theory and the purposes of the analysis provide the best guidance. Sometimes examining the data can help (maybe the distribution of tie strengths really is discretely bi-modal, and displays a clear cut point; maybe the distribution is highly skewed and the main feature is a distinction between no tie and any tie). When a cut-point is chosen, it is wise to also consider alternative values that are somewhat higher and lower, and repeat the analyses with different cut-points to see if the substance of the results is affected. This can be very tedious, but it is very necessary. Otherwise, one may be fooled into thinking that a real pattern has been found, when we have only observed the consequences of where we decided to put our cut-point.


Chp. 2 Why these formal methods: The basic idea of a social network is very simple. A social network is a set of actors (or points, or nodes, or agents) that may have relationships (or edges, or ties) with one another. Networks can have few or many actors, and one or more kinds of relations between pairs of actors. To build a useful understanding of a social network, a complete and rigorous description of a pattern of social relationships is a necessary starting point for analysis. That is, ideally we will know about all of the relationships between each pair of actors in the population.

The amount of information that we need to describe even small social networks can be quite great.  Managing these data, and manipulating them so that we can see patterns of social structure can be tedious and complicated.  All of the tasks of social network methods are made easier by using tools from mathematics.  For the manipulation of network data, and the calculation of indexes describing networks, it is most useful to record information as matrices.  For visualizing patterns, graphs are often useful.

Efficiency: One reason for using mathematical and graphical techniques in social network analysis is to represent the descriptions of networks compactly and systematically. This also enables us to use computers to store and manipulate the information quickly and more accurately than we can by hand. For small populations of actors (e.g. the people in a neighborhood, or the business firms in an industry), we can describe the pattern of social relationships that connect the actors rather completely and effectively using words. To make sure that our description is complete, however, we might want to list all logically possible pairs of actors, and describe each kind of possible relationship for each pair. This can get pretty tedious if the number of actors and/or number of kinds of relations is large. Formal representations ensure that all the necessary information is systematically represented, and provides rules for doing so in ways that are much more efficient than lists.

 

Using computers: A related reason for using (particularly mathematical) formal methods for representing social networks is that mathematical representations allow us to apply computers to the analysis of network data. Why this is important will become clearer as we learn more about how structural analysis of social networks occurs. Suppose, for a simple example, we had information about trade-flows of 50 different commodities (e.g. coffee, sugar, tea, copper, bauxite) among the 170 or so nations of the world system in a given year. Here, the 170 nations can be thought of as actors or nodes, and the amount of each commodity exported from each nation to each of the other 169 can be thought of as the strength of a directed tie from the focal nation to the other. A social scientist might be interested in whether the "structures" of trade in mineral products are more similar to one another than, the structure of trade in mineral products are to vegetable products. To answer this fairly simple (but also pretty important) question, a huge amount of manipulation of the data is necessary. It could take, literally, years to do by hand; it can be done by a computer in a few minutes.

 

Seeing patterns: The third, and final reason for using "formal" methods (mathematics and graphs) for representing social network data is that the techniques of graphing and the rules of mathematics themselves suggest things that we might look for in our data things that might not have occurred to us if we presented our data using descriptions in words. Again, allow me a simple example.

Suppose we were describing the structure of close friendship in a group of four people: Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice. This is easy enough to do with words. Suppose that Bob likes Carol and Ted, but not Alice; Carol likes Ted, but neither Bob nor Alice; Ted likes all three of the other members of the group; and Alice likes only Ted (this description should probably strike you as being a description of a very unusual social structure).

We could also describe this pattern of liking ties with an actor-by-actor matrix where the rows represent choices by each actor. We will put in a "1" if an actor likes another, and a "0" if they don't. Such a matrix would look like figure 2.1.

Figure 2.1.  Matrix representation of "liking" relation among four actors

 

Bob

Carol

Ted

Alice

Bob

---

1

1

0

Carol

0

---

1

0

Ted

1

1

---

1

Alice

0

0

1

---

There are lots of things that might immediately occur to us when we see our data arrayed in this way, that we might not have thought of from reading the description of the pattern of ties in words. For example, our eye is led to scan across each row; we notice that Ted likes more people than Bob, than Alice and Carol. Is it possible that there is a pattern here? Are men are more likely to report ties of liking than women are (actually, research literature suggests that this is not generally true). Using a "matrix representation" also immediately raises a question: the locations on the main diagonal (e.g. Bob likes Bob, Carol likes Carol) are empty. Is this a reasonable thing? Or, should our description of the pattern of liking in the group include some statements about "self-liking"? There isn't any right answer to this question. My point is just that using a matrix to represent the pattern of ties among actors may let us see some patterns more easily, and may cause us to ask some questions (and maybe even some useful ones) that a verbal description doesn't stimulate.

Summary: There are three main reasons for using "formal" methods in representing social network data:

  • Matrices and graphs are compact and systematic:  They summarize and present a lot of information quickly and easily; and they force us to be systematic and complete in describing patterns of social relations.
  • Matrices and graphs allow us to apply computers to analyzing data:  This is helpful because doing systematic analysis of social network data can be extremely tedious if the number of actors or number of types of relationships among the actors is large. Most of the work is dull, repetitive, and uninteresting, but requires accuracy; exactly the sort of thing that computers do well, and we don't.
  • Matrices and graphs have rules and conventions:  Sometimes these are just rules and conventions that help us communicate clearly. But sometimes the rules and conventions of the language of graphs and mathematics themselves lead us to see things in our data that might not have occurred to us to look for if we had described our data only with words.

So, we need to learn the basics of representing social network data using matrices and graphs. The next several chapters (3, 4, 5, and 6) introduce these basic tools.

 

Chp 3: Introduction: Representing networks with graphs

Social network analysts use two kinds of tools from mathematics to represent information about patterns of ties among social actors: graphs and matrices. On this page, we we will learn enough about graphs to understand how to represent social network data. On the next page, we will look at matrix representations of social relations. With these tools in hand, we can understand most of the things that network analysts do with such data (for example, calculate precise measures of "relative density of ties").

There is a lot more to these topics than we will cover here; mathematics has whole sub-fields devoted to "graph theory" and to "matrix algebra." Social scientists have borrowed just a few things that they find helpful for describing and analyzing patterns of social relations.

A word of warning: there is a lot of specialized terminology here that you do need to learn. its worth the effort, because we can represent some important ideas about social structure in quite simple ways, once the basics have been mastered.

Graphs and Sociograms: There are lots of different kinds of "graphs." Bar-charts, pie-charts, line and trend charts, and many other things are called graphs and/or graphics. Network analysis uses (primarily) one kind of graphic display that consists of points (or nodes) to represent actors and lines (or edges) to represent ties or relations. When sociologists borrowed this way of graphing things from the mathematicians, they re-named their graphics "socio-grams." Mathematicians know the kind of graphic displays by the names of "directed graphs" "signed graphs" or simply "graphs."

There are a number of variations on the theme of socio-grams, but they all share the common feature of using a labeled circle for each actor in the population we are describing, and line segments between pairs of actors to represent the observation that a tie exists between the two. Let's suppose that we are interested in summarizing who nominates whom as being a "friend" in a group of four people (Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice). We would begin by representing each actor as a "node" with a label (sometimes notes are represented by labels in circles or boxes).  Figure 3.1 shows a graph with four labeled nodes, but no connections.

 

Figure 3.1.  Nodes for a simple graph

In this example, we've also indicated an "attribute" of each actor by coloring the node (black for males, red for females).  Coloring, shading, or different shapes and sizes are often used to represent attributes of the individual nodes.

We collected our data about friendship ties by asking each member of the group (privately and confidentially) who they regarded as "close friends" from a list containing each of the other members of the group. Each of the four people could choose none to all three of the others as "close friends." As it turned out, in our (fictitious) case, Bob chose Carol and Ted, but not Alice; Carol chose only Ted; Ted chose Bob and Carol and Alice; and Alice chose only Ted. We would represent this information by drawing an arrow from the chooser to each of the chosen, as in figure 3.2.

Figure 3.2.  A directed graph of friendship ties

To reduce visual clutter, a double-headed arrow has been used when the relationship between two node is "reciprocated" (i.e. each actor chooses the other).

Let's suppose that we had also taken note of a second kind of relation - whether persons share the relationship "spouse" with one another.  In our example, Bob and Carol are spouses, as are Ted and Alice.  We can also represent this kind of a "bonded tie" with a directed graph as in figure 3.3.

Figure 3.3.  A directed graph of spousal ties

Where a tie is necessarily reciprocated (see the discussion of "bonded ties, below), a "simple" graph is often used instead of a "directed" graph.  In a simple graph, relations are simply present of absent, and the relations are indicated by lines without arrow heads.

We can also represent multiple relations (multiplex relations) using graphs -- though with larger numbers of actors or many relations, the results may not be very easy to read.  Let's combine the graphs of both "friendship" and "spousal" relations, as in figure 3.4.

Figure 3.4.  A directed graph of multiplex relations (friendship and spouse)

In this figure, a tie is shown between two nodes whenever there is either a friendship tie, or a spousal tie, or both.  This helps us to see that Bob, Carol, and Ted form a "clique" (i.e. each is connected to each of the others), and Alice is a "pendant" (tied to the group by only one connection).

This particular way for drawing the multiplex relation, however, loses some information about which ties connect which actors.  As an alternative, one might want to superimpose the two single-relation graphs, and show multiple lines (or different color lines, or some dashed lines) to show the different kinds of connections.

 

Kinds of Graphs

Now we need to introduce some terminology to describe different kinds of graphs. Figure 3.2 is an example of a  binary (as opposed to a signed or ordinal or valued) and directed (as opposed to a co-occurrence or co-presence or bonded-tie) graph. Figure 3.3 is an example of a "co-occurrence" or "co-presence" or "bonded-tie" graph that is binary and undirected (or simple).  The social relations being described here are also simplex (in figures 3.2 and 3.3).  Figure 3.4 is an example of one method of representing multiplex relational data with a single graph.

Let's take a moment to review some of this terminology in a little more detail.

 

Levels of Measurement: Binary, Signed, and Valued Graphs

In describing the pattern of who describes whom as a close friend, we could have asked our question in several different ways. If we asked each respondent "is this person a close friend or not," we are asking for a binary choice: each person is or is not chosen by each interviewee. Many social relationships can be described this way: the only thing that matters is whether a tie exists or not. When our data are collected this way, we can graph them simply: an arrow represents a choice that was made, no arrow represents the absence of a choice. But, we could have asked the question a second way: "for each person on this list, indicate whether you like, dislike, or don't care." We might assign a + to indicate "liking," zero to indicate "don't care" and - to indicate dislike. This kind of data is called "signed" data. The graph with signed data uses a + on the arrow to indicate a positive choice, a - to indicate a negative choice, and no arrow to indicate neutral or indifferent. Yet another approach would have been to ask: "rank the three people on this list in order of who you like most, next most, and least." This would give us "rank order" or "ordinal" data describing the strength of each friendship choice. Lastly, we could have asked: "on a scale from minus one hundred to plus one hundred - where minus 100 means you hate this person, zero means you feel neutral, and plus 100 means you love this person - how do you feel about...". This would give us information about the value of the strength of each choice on a (supposedly, at least) ratio level of measurement. With either an ordinal or valued graph, we would put the measure of the strength of the relationship on the arrow in the diagram.

Directed or "bonded" ties in the graph: In our example, we asked each member of the group to choose which others in the group they regarded as close friends. Each person (ego) then is being asked about ties or relations that they themselves direct toward others (alters). Each alter does not necessarily feel the same way about each tie as ego does: Bob may regard himself as a good friend to Alice, but Alice does not necessarily regard Bob as a good friend. It is very useful to describe many social structures as being composed of "directed" ties (which can be binary, signed, ordered, or valued). Indeed, most social processes involve sequences of directed actions. For example, suppose that person A directs a comment to B, then B directs a comment back to A, and so on. We may not know the order in which actions occurred (i.e. who started the conversation), or we may not care. In this example, we might just want to know that "A and B are having a conversation." In this case, the tie or relation "in conversation with" necessarily involves both actors A and B. Both A and B are "co-present" or "co-occurring" in the relation of "having a conversation." Or, we might also describe the situation as being one of an the social institution of a "conversation" that by definition involves two (or more) actors "bonded" in an interaction (Berkowitz).

"Directed" graphs use the convention of connecting nodes or actors with arrows that have arrow heads, indicating who is directing the tie toward whom. This is what we used in the graphs above, where individuals (egos) were directing choices toward others (alters). "Simple" or "Co-occurrence" or "co-presence" or "bonded-tie" graphs use the convention of connecting the pair of actors involved in the relation with a simple line segment (no arrow head). Be careful here, though. In a directed graph, Bob could choose Ted, and Ted choose Bob. This would be represented by headed arrows going from Bob to Ted, and from Ted to Bob, or by a double-headed arrow. But, this represents a different meaning from a graph that shows Bob and Ted connected by a single line segment without arrow heads. Such a graph would say "there is a relationship called close friend which ties Bob and Ted together." The distinction can be subtle, but it is important in some analyses.

 

Simplex or multiplex relations in the graph: Social actors are often connected by more than one kind of relationship.  In our simple example, we showed two graphs of simple (sometimes referred to as "simplex" to differentiate from "multiplex") relations.  The friendship graph (figure 3.2) showed a single relation (that happened to be binary and directed).  The spouse graph (figure 3.3) showed a single relation (that happened to be binary and un-directed).  Figure 3.4 combines information from two relations into a "multiplex" graph. There are, potentially, different kinds of multiplex graphs.  We graphed a tie if there was either a friendship or spousal relation.  But, we could have graphed a tie only if there were both a friendship and spousal tie (what would such a graph look like?). We also combined the information about multiple ties into a single line.  Alternatively, one might use different symbols, colors, line widths, or other devices to keep all of the information about multiple relations visible in a multiplex graph -- but the result can often be too complicated to be useful.

 

 

Summary: A graph (sometimes called a sociogram) is composed of nodes (or actors or points) connected by edges (or relations or ties). A graph may represent a single type of relations among the actors (simplex), or more than one kind of relation (multiplex). Each tie or relation may be directed (i.e. originates with a source actor and reaches a target actor), or it may be a tie that represents co-occurrence, co-presence, or a bonded-tie between the pair of actors. Directed ties are represented with arrows, bonded-tie relations are represented with line segments. Directed ties may be reciprocated (A chooses B and B chooses A); such ties can be represented with a double-headed arrow. The strength of ties among actors in a graph may be nominal or binary (represents presence or absence of a tie); signed (represents a negative tie, a positive tie, or no tie); ordinal (represents whether the tie is the strongest, next strongest, etc.); or valued (measured on an interval or ratio level). In speaking the position of one actor or node in a graph to other actors or nodes in a graph, we may refer to the focal actor as "ego" and the other actors as "alters."