I want a Unifying Theory: Frustrations with Social Network Theory or Lackthereof
I’m spending the week at a conference focused on a subject called social network theory, which is more and more considered a topic under the umbrella of big data (it isn’t, but that’s another topic). I’ve been here before, and have been using and studying the subject for quite some time. One of the main problems in this subject is a lack of an overall governing theory at a high level – perhaps something on the order of Newton’s Laws of Physics.
I’m wondering, is it unreasonable to expect the level of structure that we see in the physical sciences in their counterpart, the social sciences? I mean imagine if we decided to hold the physical science and those who research it to what seems to be the expectations social scientists are held to. We would still not have computers, have gone to space, and invented the internet. I think its reasonable to hold them both to the same standards.
Social network analysis offers many powerful and useful metrics and algorithms to perform quantitative analysis on the workplace and beyond. That meta data analysis that the NSA is doing on that sexy call with your boyfriend – yep, that’s just social network theory, modern transportation system design that got you to that airport a little faster, social network theory, why you get that pesky ad, about puppies, right after you “like” a “Halo” fan page on Facebook, you guessed it, social network theory. With so many applications, and already visible and powerful effects in our lives, there is still no governing theory for social network analysis, which to me is absurd in many ways. The best we could do is come up with a theory called “the strength of weak ties” back in the early 70s, yes early 70s, and since then we’ve been bombarded with a bunch of research that basically provides variations of that research. One very well known researcher, took that original article, flipped its perspective over, and called it “structural holes”, and yes, the crowd went wild not knowing that its the same damn thing but with a different emphasis.
I don’t mean to undermine the hard work and genius put into this field by its informal leaders, but I just wish they wanted an overall theory as much as I do.
Without a unifying theory, this science has no chance of ever providing real improvements in people’s lives, which is essentially the goal here. What purpose should social science research exist for, if not to improve the lives of human beings? either directly or indirectly? Sometimes I think they don’t want it, and they don’t believe it can be done. They seem happy creating another algorithm to measure something that has no underlying proof or theory under the claim that it seems to work, and patting themselves on the back, knowing full well that the majority of algorithms, statistical methods, and mid range theories they use completely explode in specific circumstances, fail to answer basic questions in some, and add no real value in quite a large amount of situations.
Well, why don’t I do something about it, right? Well, I am not a researcher, nor do I have training in experiment design or implementation. My job and passion is to apply knowledge in order to solve problems and overcome challenges. I’m the other side of the research coin, and I’m a believer that everyone should have a place where they are most passionate, and talented. I know where my place is, and hope to make my contributions there, but that doesn’t mean that I won’t rant about the seemingly lack of ability of the leading social scientists to provide a unifying theory of social networks!
Even Granovetter himself, who is famed for the aforementioned strength of weak ties theory says that it “is a very limited step in the linking of levels… a fragment of a theory” in his original 1973 article, where he outlines his own theory. What else do we need to know to decide that fragmented theories with no underlying, and/or overarching unification cannot deliver or sustain any developments in this field?
The truth is, we have all become complacent. We’re perfectly happy letting Facebook, Google, and Twitter take the research lead on this subject. After all, they have all the data, right? The problem is, truly beneficial research is not usually based on narrow goals that are clouded by the seeking of profit. In fact, we all know from many researchers over the last 80 years, and from Daniel Pink’s famous business book, that monetary rewards have a tendency to reduce innovation, not increase them.
Perhaps that’s the problem with the social network theory research community: Lots of running after personal tangibles and intangibles (like prestige), and not enough creating. I know I generalize, but I think its fair under the circumstances. After-all, though it took 300 years to jump from Newtonian Physics to Modern (Einsteinium) physics, it only took 40 years to translate that into another major innovation (albeit a deadly one), and from the time it took to discover the useful properties of the semi-conductor, it took only 20-30 years to give us the world of today, with all its wonder and technology.
Well, we live in the modern world now and have a lot of tools and resources at our disposal – much more than ever before, why the hell are we more than 80 years after Jacob Moreno drew his first network diagram do we still have no structure to this field? Where is the seeking after theory unification? Dudes! you have the whole world right in front of you, on the internet. What more could you want out of a rich data source?
I think our friends in the social sciences need to take a lesson from our friends in the physical sciences: Aim for a unifying theory, or hit the road Jack and don’t ever come back. As one who is both physical, and social scientist and practitioner, I plan on helping in that endeavor in any way I can, or perhaps advise some colleagues to hit the road.