Illuminating Gaps in Network Theory

In her talk on networks and network theory, “Commodities of Privilege: Citation Networks and Disciplinary Histories” Dr. Tarez Graban posited the notion that network theory allows us to see gaps in scholarship. I use this notion as a jumping off point for this blog post. What is that we don’t see? What are we trying to see? And how does network theory help us to see or to get closer to seeing the unknown? Is it a greater awareness of positionality?

Part of what might be obscuring visibility within the network is complications caused by human interactions and social hierarchies. While networks are fueled by human interactions, the nature of those interactions isn’t systematic and can be difficult to identify in terms of patterns.

In “The Small World Problem” written in 1967, Stanley Milgram offers us a glimpse of how human interactions obscure the fluidity of networks when he hints at social groupings influencing the results of his “small world” experiment that popularized the notion of “six degrees of separation” in popular discourse. In his study, Milgram tracked the ability of a letter to navigate persons through shared acquaintances. He writes “I would guess further that within certain ethnic groups in the United States, a higher proportion of familial lines would be found in the data.” (65-66). Milgram hints at the idea that social groups affect movement through a network, but glosses over it quickly. This glossing over of social factors is something that Judith Kleinfeld uses to fuel her 2002 critique of Milgram’s small world theory. Kleinfeld tries to mimic Milgram’s methods by setting up an email experiment to test the validity of Milgram’s study and notes that both class and race constrained the delivery of email messages through the participants. Kleinfeld states, “The results suggest again that, far from living in a small, inter-connected world, we live in a world with racial barriers” (6). Milgram’s and Kleinfeld’s texts point to the idea that human interactions constrain our understanding of how networks function.

Again the difficulty of navigating networks due to complex human interactions was underscored by Collin Brooke in his piece “Discipline and Publish.” Young scholars entering a field must map or visualize a network of publication in order to enter into a field and in order to create writing that contributes to that field. What it means to participate in that network is greatly obscured and what is to some degree apparent in the network are the publications connected through a citation network. How circulation happens within that network requires careful consideration of discourse practices, rhetorical gestures and peripheral academic texts. Brooke also brings us a helpful framework for describing connections within a framework when he cites a text written by Kathleen Carley and David Kaufer titled, “Semantic Connectivity: An Approach for Analyzing Symbols in Semantic Networks.” Carley and Kaufer introduce three terms to describe connectivity within a network “density, consensus, and connectivity” (100)—density being the number of citations within a node, consensus describing the lasting power, and connectivity describing the intensity of activity in a shorter time frame.

I think that Brooke’s terms point to the idea that a node in the network can feel central because of activity or seeming fixity of a node, but those nodes exists within a larger network so the idea of centrality is challenged. One of the guests in our group brought up a key question related to the problematic nature of centrality, when she asked how do we decide what gets held up or what gets focused on within the network? This might mean that the feeling of centrality may be more a matter of what is being focused on in a dynamic moment.

Screen shot 2015-10-16 at 4.53.18 PMIf we take a look at a website like TextTexture for example, the idea of a shifting center can be visualized. On the TextTexture website, keywords from texts or famous texts are arranged into a colorful and visual web that shows how the terms interact with other texts. When you hover over a specific term, you are shown how that term recurs in a chosen text. Any word could be the center. If you choose the Bible for example, you can follow a path through certain terms, but what the relationship between the terms means is obscured while the dynamism between the terms is held up, it is left up for interpretation. Maybe in this way, what we are not able to see is what our work as digital scholars is all about. What do the spaces mean? What do the relationships mean? Our studies can help us to illuminate those gaps.

Works Cited

Brooke, Collin Gifford. “Discipline and Publish: Reading and Writing the Scholarly Network.” Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media. Ed. Sidney I. Dobrin. New York: Routledge, 2012. 92-105.

Kleinfeld, Judith. “Could it be a big world after all? The six degrees of separation myth.” Society, April 12 (2002): 5-2.

Milgram, Stanley. “The small world problem.” Psychology today 2.1 (1967): 60-67.

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