The Masters of Networks and me

Few days ago in Rome I have taken part in the meeting Masters of Networks II, as part of the Insite project.  Insite is an interdisciplinary research and collaboration project in which David Lane, Paolo Gurisatti and Alberto Cottica are involved: all people that I look at with a mixture of reverence and curiosity.  Many other friends and colleagues were there: Federico Bo, Fabiana Zeppieri, Matteo Fortini and  others that would equally deserve to be mentioned.

The idea behind this event, as I understand it, was simple and powerful: public policies nowadays recognize the importance of networks; sometimes they go as far as declaring their aim to use them as instruments towards their goals, or even to promote their development.  In practice they often do not undenstand networks much. On the other side we have analysts and researchers who have devised powerful tools to describe and analyze networks. The cultural ditch between the two groups – network analysts an policy-makers – is wide and deep.  The two days were meant to be spent by the two communities  to familiarize with each others and to find applications for SN Analysis in response to the problems perceived by public policy.  In our case, we were planning to use the open data released by the Italian Ministry of University Research and Education, the  database of collaborative research projects funded by the national program (PON R&C) funded between 2007 and 2013 by the European Fund for Regional Development.

How did it go? Did it work?  What did I learn about SN analysis and its possible applications?

What factually we ended up doing in the sub-goup I participated in, is reported here.  Let me here focus on a few points of more general interest.

< here a colourful image of the work we did was supposed to appear.  Unfortunately I do not possess a good picture and  honestly it adds very little to the points I am trying to make > 

From my point of view, it was a partial success  in the sense that I intuitively sense the potential for fruitful application of SNA and remain interested in this method, but I have yet to witness the production of any significant  result which  has real implications for policy evaluation or design.

To elaborate in a little more detail:

  • SNA is presented as a mathematical method, and it certainly is if one thinks of things like the indicators that describe the properties of nodes within the network.  However, the images it produces as outputs convey so much insight to the layman, and have the beautiful property of condensing in one snapshot some features of the network, that they seem to me to be more than simply one possible representation of the analysis. If the attention of the novice to SNA is directed almost exclusively towards the pictures, this must mean something. Looking at this method from the outside the images seem to be something more inherent to the method and its current popularity.  To many, the value of SNA is in the big picture comprehensive view more than in the capability to describe the details or the network dynamics.
  • In my opinion, despite the good intentions of everyone, the encounter between policy-makers and social network analysts does not start, and does not proceed, on an even ground. When only one of the two groups holds the keys to the inner workings of this method of analysis, which cannot be transferred in one or two days, then the exhange is necessarily unbalanced. It might be a problem common to any interaction between experts of methods and experts of content-problems, and thus inevitable. Whatever the reason, the feeling that permeates the meeting is that of a one-directional flow of knowledge from the social network field towards the policy field, as if the first form of knowledge were superior to the latter.
  • The degree of interest that such analysis exerts on me is largely determined by the quality of the information available on the links, or “edges” in the SN jargon.  This quality is inevitably, or has always been in the cases I have observed, quite low or in any case not satisfactory from my point of view.  When all links are the same, networks are dull objects to examine.
  • Network science exerts a cetripetal force on me in the sense that as I observe its results largely in the form of graphical outputs, I start becoming curious of the algorythms that are at work behind it.  How “real” is that network form, how sensitive to parameters arbitrarily determined by humans?
  • The gathering together in one room of policy-makers and network scientists has something disorienting in its first moments.  It lacks basic rules of functioning.  Most people don’t really know how to interact with each others because they don’t know why they are there and what they can ask, expect, contribute.  In general I find this aspect intriguing for its fundamental open-endedness.

In general I am a bit confused about what to expect from this work, my mind seems to stop short of fully understanding both the implications and the contours of this method of social inquiry.  That’s why I want to look into it more, and do it again.

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