Tag: social networks

Academic Conferences: From “Networking” to Forming and Nurturing Social Ties

I don’t care much for APSA. Indeed, this year I am continuing my recent tradition of skipping it entirely. But it always occasions discussion in the political-science blogsphere. This year the focus of that discussion, at least as it pertains to conferencing as an activity, appears to be on “networking.”

Steve recently echoed the substantive part of Brian’s post in recommending a focus on meeting younger scholars rather than pursuing brief meetings with “big names” in the field. He also suggests a variety of social and professional events as good venues to meet people. Dan Drezner advises PhD students and untenured faculty not to get stressed about networking, and also provides some similar advice:

I would recommend that younger scholars realize the following when it comes to networking at APSA:

1)  The best kind of networking is always — always — to research, write and present really good papers.  Really.

2)  There is a small arbitrage opportunity to be had with the kind of networking that Rathbun is discussing.  You can try to make the Milners and the Keohanes and the Lakes of the world remember you.  That’s a very crowded market, however, and they are bombarded with people trying to Get to Know Them.  Instead, connect with the people who seem to be writing/presenting the work that you find to be the most interesting.  That’s how you’ll improve your own ideas — and then see (1) above.

3)  You don’t have to network at all.  It likely helps your professional development a little bit on the margins, but not nearly as much as you would think.  The opportunity costs are small compared to researching and publishing good work.  Pour your manic energy into the latter far more than the former, and don’t fret that you’re missing all the cool parties if you don’t feel like schmoozing.

Erik Voeten agrees with Dan:

I think this is both right and potentially useful for mental sanity. Small talk at conferences is not going to get your article accepted in that prestigious journal nor will it land you a job at that university you always wanted to be at. It is important to get to know the people in your field but that is a gradual process much of which takes place after people start inviting you because they like your work. Stay focused on meeting people with whom you share intellectual interests and don’t be too worried if some other grad student manages to line up coffees with all the “big people.” If you have to spend time in lobbies at all, consider playing bingo rather then seeking opportunities to have small talk with “VIPs.”

This is all good advice. But I have a slightly different spin: don’t “network” at all. Continue reading

The New Structuralism in International Relations and its Discontents: Prefatory Remarks

Some years back I participated in a series of workshops that culminated in a book on New Systems Theories of World Politics (value priced at $115). PM and I have been working, somewhat haphazardly, on a review essay dealing with contemporary imperial formations that deals with what I’ve called the “New Hierarchy Studies.” There’s also a draft blog post hiding somewhere or other on that subject. But I think that renewed interest in hierarchy might better be characterized by, for lack of a better term, the “New Structuralism” movement in International Relations.

Thomas Oatley’s recent posts exemplify a major trajectory of the new structuralism. The first revisits his “Reductionist Gamble” article in International Organization. In his account of why he feels compelled to devote blogspace to explaining his argument, he notes:

It has been met with some puzzlement and it has been misunderstood. I can understand both reactions, as the paper asks people to think differently about the world, and yet it does so by using terms and concepts in ways that depart from more typical usage. I say reductionism, and people hear Waltz. I say system, people here system level.

The problem, as I see it, isn’t just a matter of Waltz’s use of terms like “system,” “structure,” and “reductionism” dominating analytical discourse in the field. Waltz’s use of these terms aren’t even very well understood. They’ve been ripped from their historical and intellectual context. They’ve become fetishized, such that Waltz’s interventions in older disputes now enjoy ex ante definitional status. The importation of social-theoretic alternatives during the 1980s and 1990s should have improved matters, but in the end they’ve only muddled the conceptual waters.

Continue reading

Notes on Hegemony and Symbolic Capital

This is of interest only to international-relations theorists and fellow travelers.

A long-standing claims about hegemonic orders is that they are normative ones: that a dominant power uses a wide variety of power resources to create a set of international rules and regimes conducive to its ideological and material interests. After World War II the United States worked actively to promote norms and institutions consistent with a broadly “liberal internationalist” environment, albeit ones refracted through the prism of Cold War competition. After the Cold War the United States enlarged the order, however unevenly, and during the Bush Administration it sought, but generally failed, to recast that order along neoconservative lines.

The two most importnat “mainstream” pieces to focus on the normative dimensions of hegemonic orders are probably John Ruggie’s “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order” and G. John Ikenberry’s and Charles Kupchan’s “Socialization and Hegemonic Power.”

Continue reading

Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Methodological Tools: Social-Network Analysis Alert

Is the society depicted in this film historically accurate?
Let’s perform a social-network analysis!  

Here’s a helpful hint: the “realism” of social networks in the Iliad, Beowulf, and the Tain tell us squat, zero, nothing, zilch, not a bit about their historicity.

From the New York Times (h/t Daniel Solomon):

Archaeological evidence suggests that at least some of the societies and events in such stories did exist. But is there other evidence, lurking perhaps within the ancient texts themselves? 

To investigate that question, we turned to a decidedly modern tool: social-network analysis. In a study published in Europhysics Letters, we use a mathematical approach to examine the social networks in three narratives: “The Iliad,” “Beowulf” and the Irish epic “Tain Bo Cuailnge.” If the social networks depicted appeared realistic, we surmised, perhaps they would reflect some degree of historical reality. 

 Social networks have been widely studied in recent years; researchers have looked at the interconnectedness of groups like actors, musicians and co-authors of scientific texts. These networks share similar properties: they are highly connected, small worlds. They are assortative, which means that people tend to associate with people like themselves. And their degree distributions are usually scale-free — a small number of people tend to have lots of friends.

Shorter version: “if the social networks depicted in a cultural epic appear realistic, then the social networks depicted in that cultural epic appear realistic.”*

Once upon a time, Cosma Shalzi wrote an excellent post on physicists and social-network analysis. However, in this case, the problem seems not to be a failure to familiarize with the existing literature, but idiocy.

*For theoretically specified values of “realistic.”

How the US is Slowly Cultivating the Conditions for a Renewed International Order

Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk in Parliament in London this week offered useful insights into how the Obama administration and foreign policy analysts around it are thinking about shaping international order. As Director of Policy Planning in that administration from 2009-11 she spoke from experience about the mechanisms being used to implement international change. While she touched on Syria, drone strikes and other newsworthy issues, her wide-ranging discussion was more important for the glimpses it gave of the theoretical assumptions underlying how US policymakers understand change. There is a tremendously ambitious agenda at work. We must scrutinise the theory driving that agenda if we’re to understand US foreign policy.

Slaughter began by saying that structures are being put in place whose effects won’t be visible for some years. The structures the US is building are informed by the assumption that the biggest development in international relations is not the rise of the BRICs but the rise of society – “the people” – both within individual countries and across countries. The US must build structures that harness societies as agents in the international system. Slaughter returned to Putnam’s (1988) two-level game, the proposition that it is in the interaction of international and domestic politics that governments can play constituencies off against one another to find solutions to diplomatic and policy dilemmas. Slaughter took up this framework: the US administration must see a country as comprised of both its government and its society, work with both, and enable US society to engage other countries’ governments and societies. The latter involves the US acting not as “do-er” but as “convenor”, using social media and organising face-to-face platforms for citizens, civil society groups and companies to form intra- and international networks.

Critically, these two levels are flat. This took me by surprise. At the society level, citizens, civil society groups and companies are connected horizontally. No particular group or individual is afforded a priori centrality. Why is this a surprise? Public diplomacy experts have spent the last few years trying to target ‘influencers’ in societies. Influencers are political, religious or cultural figures who are listened to by others. This idea is informed by network analysis, marketing, and the idea that State Department messages are more credible in different parts of the world when mediated and delivered by a local influential figure than by Hillary Clinton on TV. Slaughter was not convinced by reliance on influencers, empirically or normatively. She argued that all the millions marketers have spent still hasn’t generated any clear knowledge about how influencers can be identified and utilised. Not only that, but it is surely preferable to try to engage whole societies and treat all individuals equally. That would flourish a greater democratic ethos than appealing to amenable clerics, companies, journalists and intellectuals in the hope they might spread the word downwards.

The long term goal of this foreign policy agenda is to create overseas publics who are receptive to the US in a low-level way, such that in a decade or two when the US might need to rely on these publics, it will at least be listened to. Slaughter quoted former Secretary of State George P. Shultz (1997). He suggested diplomacy is like gardening: “You get the weeds out when they are small. You also build confidence and understanding. Then, when a crisis arises, you have a solid base from which to work”. Slaughter praised the US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, who spends 20 percent of his working week on Twitter and his blog. Huebner writes about rugby and other issues of local interest rather than about US foreign policy. As a result, Slaughter said, he has a higher readership than New Zealand’s largest newspaper. The significance of this isn’t so much in quantitative metrics such as reach, but that he has built an audience by constructing a different quality of engagement. He is forming Schultz’s solid base.

An incremental, everyday-focused approach to engaging foreign publics might not strike up much publicity, but some US policy practitioners have been trying it for a few years now. In War and Media (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010) we discussed how since 2005 Capt. Frank Pascual and Capt. Eric Clark of the Media Engagement Team of CENTCOM, Dubai (the US Central Command base for the Middle East) had tried to engage Arabic-speaking audiences by becoming a regular presence on TV in the region, ’24 hours a day’:

Pascal: … We’ve had people come out from the Pentagon and look at this and say ‘wow’, really that’s been the word used because they realise how far forward we’re leading. There are times when, we basically have toothpaste and a toothbrush and not a lot more because things happen so quickly … I can’t allow Al-Jazeera or any other of the news media to get the high ground if we can seize it. Even if all I have is a piece of the information, or even if I don’t have anything to be able to say: ‘we’re investigating’, ‘we’re looking into that’ and at least give them something to go with, you know […] we will hold our people accountable for it and you can rely on that […] the American comedian Woody Allen said: ‘80 percent of life is showing up’, and that really is the word presence for us: being out there.

Unlike the ‘monks’ in their embassies, Pascal and Clark felt they were beginning to generate trust, initially with journalists but eventually with audiences. They acknowledged this was a slow process. Their temporal horizons for success appeared long term:

Pascal: There are a lot of people in our own government both on the military side and on the diplomatic side who would tell you: ‘what are you guys doing, you’re wasting your time with them’. It’s not wasted, the fact of the matter is that at least we got to say something on the air, live, and in fairness to them again it was not just 30 seconds, it was about five minutes of conversation, so it’s a real engagement, the ball gets moved very slowly sometimes and sometimes agonisingly slowly and I would argue that that’s the case here, but it’s moving.

This statecraft-as-gardening approach faces problems, Slaughter acknowledged. First, convening platforms for societies to communicate to each other and to foreign governments depends on a liberal faith that if you give people opportunities they will do more good than harm, and a quasi-Habermasian public sphere where everyone can and should have equal say. Slaughter conceded that the very technologies that allow publics to come together are the same technologies that allow states (and some non-state actors with particularistic agendas) to monitor and manipulate public debate, censor, and arrest dissenters. This was part of a “back and forth” struggle, Slaughter said, between people challenging their government using communications technologies that government can also use to restrict freedom – a struggle that long predates the Internet. So, there will be risks with this technology-led strategy and the open, free “townhall” model won’t emerge overnight.

Indeed, this approach assumes information is neutral and communication is a fundamental right. It is an approach that can easily slip into presenting a particular vision as natural and apolitical. Slaughter’s is a world where information should flow freely; it only gets political when people restrict it. If the US embassy in China tweets alternative air quality information to the Chinese government’s (LeVrine, 2010), “we were just tweeting information”, Slaughter said. No: information is being used to challenge Chinese state authority and make its expertise seem provisional and weak.

The second problem is that other major powers are trying to shape the international system at the same time. They may not share Slaughter’s theoretical premise that the fundamental relationships in international politics now involve the mutual interpenetration of numerous governments and societies. The EU and the BRICs have alternative ways of looking at the world, different levels of analysis, and their understandings of the individual, society and state can diverge fundamentally. It will take a lot of patience between foreign policymakers among these powers to identify conceptual and practical overlaps if the US approach is to be finessed with others.

Rival powers might also ask whether Slaughter’s approach is simply a new form of instrumentalism. Creating platforms for citizens and civil society groups to work together may seem attractive, but this is a means to the ends of US security. As Schultz said, the aim is to have a solid base of support overseas when crisis hits. And given that global pandemics, food and water shortages, terrorism and other security challenges depend on the responses of societies, “empowering” societies to address these issues may be a route to preventing crises and securing stability in the first place. Consequently, the classic tension in US foreign policy between pragmatism and idealism, documented again in Global Policy this week (Lilli, 2012), remains there to see.

It was generous of Slaughter to articulate so many of the assumptions and concepts underpinning US foreign policy and to provide detail on how those are being translated into policies and structures. US policymakers are aware of the problems identified here and it will be a long, patient process on their part to ensure those problems do not fatally undermine US efforts to empower citizens and cultivate support for the US around the world. Students of international affairs can expect to watch this renewed two-level game play out well beyond the current administration.

Cross-posted from the LSE journal Global Policy: http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/


Hoskins, A. and O’Loughlin, B. (2010) War and Media: The Emergence of Diffused War, Cambridge: Polity.

LeVrine, S. (2011) ‘China’s microblog furor over bad air days’, Foreign Policy, 10 November. Available at: http://oilandglory.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/11/10/chinas_microblog_furor_over_bad_air_days

Lilli, E. (2012) ‘Review: Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy by Martin S. Indyk et al’, Global Policy, 30 May. Available at: http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/30/05/2012/review-bending-history-barack-obama%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-martin-s-indyk-et-al

Putnam, R.D. (1988) ‘Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games’, International Organization, 42 (3), 427-460.

Schultz, G.P. (1997) ‘Diplomacy in the Information Age’. Paper presented at the Conference on Virtual Diplomacy, U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., April 1.

Cheap talk and credentials

In fairness, fake dissertations are
probably more fun to read than
the Little Red Book.

Minxin Pei surveys the extent to which China’s leaders have faked their credentials.

Pei suggests that a number of China’s leaders, hailed in the West by presumably credulous journalists, have in fact attained their educational credentials at what amount to diploma mills.

The more interesting point Pei makes about this is that many indicators of Chinese “success,” including local GDP calculations, may in fact be fraudulent. This is nothing new in China (or anywhere else, for that matter); one immediately thinks  of the disastrous local Party reports that hailed the success of the Great Leap Forward even as peasants starved, but China is hardly unique even among authoritarian countries in its reliance on easily faked indicators to gauge the implementation of policies and the reliability of personnel.

The problem, in fact, is endemic to all bureaucratic systems. And we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the Chinese political system when Western systems do a bad job at this too.

 There is a real and enduring need for valid measurements of competence when it cannot be assessed directly (that is, by seeing how well you actually do in a job) or at least by reputation (when others vouch for you in a costly fashion). Baseball players don’t have to be credentialed; we can watch them play. But there’s no corresponding tests for new or newly hired white-collar workers. (If only there were a minor league of academia!)*

Yet the signal cannot be too costly, which means that there will be both a demand and a supply of counterfeit credentials–even when that counterfeiting is no more sophisticated than the listing of a degree on your resume. That, after all, is what scuppered the career of former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson. Plagiarism is more costly and harder to detect (as in the case of former Hungarian president Pal Schmitt or, allegedly, Russian president-for-life Vladimir Putin)

The real question here is why anyone seriously believes CVs–or why firms don’t invest in monitoring. (In Thompson’s case, presumably at least one executive search firm badly dropped the ball.) If something isn’t worth checking out, at least once in a while, why is it worth listing?

So we shouldn’t particularly care if China’s ruling class feels the need to claim doctorates any more than we should wonder at why American generals sport an ever-growing number of ever-less-impressive medals on their chest. We should, instead, think hard about what actually explains their selection and promotion. The secret, of course, is likely that it’s all a factional game, as a team of political scientists (Victor Shih, Christopher Adolph, and Mingxing Liu) have demonstrated.

What this suggests, then, is that China is not a hypocritical meritocracy, in which everyone lies about their CV because credentials are presumed to be important, or a practical one, in which results matter. What this means about the stability and competence of the Chinese Communist Party in the long run is another matter entirely.

* Or, even better, a Premier League, with relegation.

Predicting flu outbreaks, fashion trends, and political unrest with social networks

[Cross-posted at Signal/Noise]

Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler have released a new paper that looks at the potential predictive power of social networks.  They claim that current methods of contagion detection are, at best, contemporaneous with the actual epidemic.  What is needed is a true early detection method, one that would actually provide an accurate prediction of a coming epidemic.

Christakis and Fowler claim that social networks can be used as sensors for various types of contagions (whether biological, psychological, informational, etc).  In an inventive twist, they leverage what is known as the Friendship Paradox–the idea that, for almost everyone, a person’s friends tend to have more friends than they do.   Contagions tend to appear sooner in those individuals that are closer to the center of a social network.  The logic goes that if you ask a group of people to name one of their friends, those friends will be closer to the center of the network than the people you asked.  Rather than map and monitor an entire social network, simply monitoring these friends should allow researchers to detect the outbreak of, say, H1N1 much earlier.

They tested their theory using Harvard College undergrads, attempting to detect the outbreak of the flu.  (You can watch Christakis discuss the paper and research during a recent TED talk in the video embed below).  What did they find?

Based on clinical diagnoses, the progression of the epidemic in the friend group occurred 13.9 days (95% C.I. 9.9–16.6) in advance of the randomly chosen group (i.e., the population as a whole). The friend group also showed a significant lead time (p,0.05) on day 16 of the epidemic, a full 46 days before the peak in daily incidence in the population as a whole. This sensor method could provide significant additional time to react to epidemics in small or large populations under surveillance. The amount of lead time will depend on features of the outbreak and the network at hand. The method could in principle be generalized to other biological, psychological, informational, or behavioral contagions that spread in networks.

That is a pretty impressive result.  By simply tracking those individuals located closer to the center of the network, Christakis and Fowler were about to detect the progression of the flu a full 2 weeks before the general population.  They were also able to derive an early warning signal over a month before the peak of the outbreak in the general population.

If this result can be replicated and validated there are various ways it can be utilized.

Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. Product Launches: Particularly in the tech industry–where so often we now see product launches as proto-typing–we could use this method to very quickly gauge the awareness and adoption of a new product and predict the extent to which it will spread throughout the general population.  Companies would have better early-warning systems, which would allow for killing dud products or boosting marketing for those products that are poised to explode.  I would assume this would be particularly applicable to products that benefit/rely on network effects.
  2. Political Indicators: One can think of political unrest as a contagion–discontent starting earlier with a core group within a social network and then, over time, spreading to those on the outskirts of the network.  Tracking the population as a whole may not give you an early warning of unrest, but rather a snapshot of a problem at a time when it is too late to do much about it.  Focusing on those closer to the core of a social network could provide enough lead time to diffuse tensions or intervene in other ways to avoid a full-scale upheaval.  Moreover, businesses and investors could also use the early warning as a signal to make adjustments in supply chain and their portfolios to take into account the potential unrest.  Finally, citizens within those countries could benefit by having more lead time to evacuate conflict zones, etc.
  3. Economic Indicators: Investors, businesses, and politicians are always looking for better economic indicators–those signals that are leading indicators of larger economic trends.  I wonder if adjusting the sampling frames of various polls to incorporate the Friendship Paradox might give us an even earlier warning for mortgage defaults, consumer confidence and spending, manufacturing activity, etc.  Not as sure about this one, but certainly much of economic activity takes place in a networked structure.

Would love to hear other thoughts.

Why states shouldn’t count on Facebook for foreign policy

My colleague, Ben O’Loughlin at Royal Holloway, has written a blog post on the potential consequences of states in the West, particularly the US and UK, increasingly relying on informal social networking of its citizens to promote foreign policy priorities. This would be a move away from the kind of ham-fisted attempts at public diplomacy seen in the wake of 9/11 aimed at getting Arab states to “like” the west to allowing every day citizens to debate the international issues of the day.

Thus, “The War on Terror” becomes the “The Long Change” – or changing people’s minds.

However, Ben points out several potentially huge flaws in this idea:
What is new is that this public diplomacy can be done by publics themselves through social media. The clumsy strategic communication officers of the state can stand back. This approach assumes that communication and connection between people across borders through social media can have a liberal, pluralizing effect. But its not clear why people would engage in patient, deliberative, possibly multilingual conversation with people in other countries about controversial political issues. Anyone familiar with the ‘under the line’ discussions on news websites will see how quickly and often the conversation becomes a hostile dialogue of the deaf.

So, perversely, publics must be taught how to be spontaneously deliberative. Forums for ‘global conversations’ will be created, along the lines of the BBC’s Have Your Say online spaces. These will form the ideal of what public-to-public diplomacy is about, for emulation by progressive media around the world. Unacceptable opinions or styles of participation will be moderated out. The mechanism for the long change is us, or what has been called in recent years ‘the power of we’ and ‘we the media’. But any global ‘we’ will have to be carefully constructed and edited.

It is stating the obvious to note that foreign policy issues are already being debated on the internet by both states and citizens. (The fact that the Israeli MFA actually bothered to tweet me on my Flotilla post brought that fact home to me in a big and scary way.) And I admit that I was impressed last year with the global online support for the Iranian protesters in the wake of the election there – although I do wonder if this constitutes debate? It was interesting that Obama intervened and asked that Twitter delay a service update in order to facilitate the Iranians protesting. Ben does not touch on these issues in his post. But the larger point to what he is getting to is whether such movements (particularly the one aimed at Iran) can be harnessed by states in ways that (cheaply!) support their foreign policy priorities.

I share Ben’s scepticism. However, where he seems to be concerned that “The Long Change, should it come to pass, implicates social media – and us as users and citizens – directly into international affairs in ways that require very careful scrutiny” I confess that I am more concerned over the idea that foreign policy could be constructively debated between “Beiberfan4Lyfe16” and “jiHHHAdiKilla”.

*picture from xkcd. I’m a huge nerd.

What ISA Can Learn from Small Niche Conferences

What you see on the board in the picture is the visual description of my latest research article on weapons advocacy, which will be out later this year in International Organization. Also in the picture are yours truly and Duck co-blogger Drew Conway hob-nobbing. Those things we’re waving around as we talk? Yuengling beers. This took place earlier this week at the Networks in Political Science conference at Duke University, and the nature of this poster session at this friendly, fun niche geek-fest has something to teach conference organizers in big associations like ISA and APSA.

Here’s the lesson: poster sessions should be incorporated into section receptions rather than warehoused in a lonely corner of the conference hotel competing with happy hour. I have done poster presentations only a couple of times in my entire career, mostly because in the mainstream associations they are depressing, low-output affairs that are thought to signal academic loser-hood since “you didn’t make the panels.”

Organized properly however, a poster session can be far more rewarding than a panel presentation. Visualizing one’s argument draws on a different and useful set of skills; discussing it verbally one on one in iterations is a far more useful way to get feedback; plus there’s a networking element associated with this type of exchange that greatly exceeds the types of interactions that occur on a panel presentation.

But the problem is that poster presentations need to draw an audience in order to have this effect, and the way they’re organized at large conferences often does the opposite. Three tricks seem to make a difference:

1) minimizing the number of presenters available at a time
2) making sure the posters all revolve around a specific theme and
3) making the event festive (an open bar is ideal).

At niche conferences, one and two happen easily and I’ve seen the “Poster Session Happy Hour” model work splendidly at more than one conference. (If you throw in a cash prize for “best poster” that works well too.) ISA is not a niche conference but could approximate these kinds of gains in the popularity and value of posters by asking the organized sections to incorporate posters into their section receptions. International Security Studies Section folks could drink and hob-nob among visualizations of COIN or nuclear proliferation; next door Human Rights Section members could get their dark genocide jokes on over beer while perusing the latest visual research on Darfur, sex trafficking or drone war ethics. I think this approach would heighten both interest in the receptions and in the posters, and I for one would stop turning down poster presentation opportunities at the big hubs if they switched to such a model.

Other things I learned while at this conference:

1) Network analysts form networks in pretty predictable ways, even though they know enough about networks to be more inventive. This made participant-observation at the conference wine reception a particularly interesting exercise.

2)The WaDuke Inn and Golf Club has probably the most outstanding customer service of any place I’ve ever stayed (and I spend about 1/3 of the year traveling so this is not small praise). Especially if you like bacon in just about every dish.

3) In terms of involvement in the three conferences held by the group since 2008, IR is the most under-represented and recidivist subfield in the Networks in Political Science group, which now has the status of a Section in the American Political Science Association. (Not entirely sure I know why, although Hafner-Burton, Kahler and Montgomery are right that IR folks have been slow to make use of SNA tools – but it could also just be that many IR folks prefer ISA over APSA.) Mathematicians, however, appear at a glance to be well represented in the organization (and highly mathematical formal modeling papers were, from what I could see, over-represented on the panels).

4) Social network analysts have a hard time wrapping their brain around research (like mine) that incorporates and test hypotheses from network theory using non-network-analytic methods (like case studies or elite interviews). However the group is actually intended to be inclusive of both network analysts and network theorists of other sorts, so if you’re working on networks but don’t have the quant background don’t let that put you off: I’ve found this is a great place to be and to learn for scholars who are doing more applied work on networked communities of practice.

5) Billy Mitchell was beat last year and I didn’t even know it until Google reminded me about Pac-Man’s birthday. Also, target shooting in a gun-friendly state is a great way to spend a final afternoon before heading home.

Drew, who understands network analysis way better than I do and made a bang-up presentation at the conference, has more on the conference at Zero Intelligence Agents. And the full video of the didactic workshops on network analysis and network theory can be found on the conference website.

Flash the message…ten red balloons

DARPA’s recent balloon challenge. In case you missed it, DARPA placed ten 8-foot red balloons around the country on Friday and issued a challenge to groups to be the first to identify the correct location of all of them. The winning group received $40k.

Here’s how DARPA defined the challenge:

a competition that will explore the roles the Internet and social networking play in the timely communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems. The challenge is to be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States. The balloons will be in readily accessible locations and visible from nearby roads.

The MIT team developed a web site to develop an expansive social networking structure with financial incentives to participate:

Have all your friends sign up using your personalized invitation. If anyone you invite, or anyone they invite, or anyone they invite (…and so on) win money, then so will you!

We’re giving $2000 per balloon to the first person to send us the correct coordinates, but that’s not all — we’re also giving $1000 to the person who invited them. Then we’re giving $500 whoever invited the inviter, and $250 to whoever invited them, and so on….

DARPA said the point of the exercise was to observe strategies for social networking and to determine the reliability and credibility of social networking information. More than 4,000 groups participated and it only took the MIT group nine-hours to identify the correct location of all ten balloons.

The results demonstrate that credible monitoring and reporting do flow through social networks — and the right mix of technology, organization, and incentives can produce impressively quick results. But, I’m curious what you all think this means? DARPA representatives said this was a bit of a fishing exercise and that they weren’t sure exactly what they were looking for or where the data would lead them — but I wonder how you all would interpret this event and what DARPA might conclude from it?

Apropos my last post

Today’s rally in Tehran was, by all accounts, truly massive. Now the BBC reports the security forces pro-Ahmadinejad militia members opened fire on at least some of its participants. I may have been premature in my assessment of the regime’s ability to disrupt collective mobilization against it by targeting vectors of communication among members of the active opposition. With a united opposition still capable of turning out large numbers of people, it seems increasingly clear that the direction this all takes depends, in no small measure, on:

1. Ahmadinejad’s and his faction’s ability to control the coercive apparatus of the state.
2. The political maneuvering taking place among members of the regime and its various power-centers which will help determine who controls which parts of that coercive apparatus;
3. Whether a sizable popular counter-mobilization takes place among Ahmadinejad supporters;
4. How the demands of various parties alter (or not) in response to changing circumstances, and how those demands shape the first three factors.

(Note that “forces aligned with the regime opening fire on crowd of demonstrators” comprises an extremely well-rehearsed ‘event’ in modern contentious politics. Such events often turn out to be important moments in the unfolding of both failed and successful mass movements.)

Given my lack of any expertise on the substance of Iranian politics, I’ll be looking to others to provide information concerning these processes.

UPDATE: I’m coming around to the reality that I seriously underestimated the ability of the Iranian opposition to circumvent disruptions of their communications networks. Perhaps the movement is just too big at this point, with too many different vectors of dissemination–at least in Tehran. It would be nice to know what’s going on in the rest of the country…

Why we do Social Science the way we do

Some of us here at the Duck would put ourselves into the “relational” camp when it comes to how we approach Social Science. Among other things, this approach looks at social and political actors based on their relations to other actors and position within a social network rather than as autonomous entities.

Dan’s work, for example, has made excellent use of social network theory to talk about empires and such.

Today’s Washington Post points out that

a growing body of evidence is suggesting that traditional social networks play a surprisingly powerful and underrecognized role in influencing how people behave.

In particular, a team of researchers has found that social networks strongly influence your health, with profound personal and political consequences:

obesity appeared to spread from one person to another through social networks, almost like a virus or a fad.

In a follow-up to that provocative research, the team has produced similar findings about another major health issue: smoking. In a study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, the team found that a person’s decision to kick the habit is strongly affected by whether other people in their social network quit — even people they do not know. And, surprisingly, entire networks of smokers appear to quit virtually simultaneously.

Taken together, these studies and others are fueling a growing recognition that many behaviors are swayed by social networks in ways that have not been fully understood. And it may be possible, the researchers say, to harness the power of these networks for many purposes, such as encouraging safe sex, getting more people to exercise or even fighting crime.

“What all these studies do is force us to start to kind of rethink our mental model of how we behave,” said Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociologist. “Public policy in general treats people as if they are sort of atomized individuals and puts policies in place to try to get them to stop smoking, eat right, start exercising or make better decisions about retirement, et cetera. What we see in this research is that we are missing a lot of what is happening if we think only that way.”

Social trajectories

Fascinating set of articles in this morning’s Washington Post about the US military’s efforts to develop an effective strategy for dealing with the IEDs — improvised explosive devices — that are involved in something like half of the combat deaths in Iraq (and many other deaths of non-combat personnel). IEDs are low-tech explosive devices, but by virtue of this low-tech character they are both cheap to produce and virtually undetectable, and both aspects combine to make them a very difficult weapon to protect against. Despite the expenditure of thousands of hours and millions of dollars, the US military does not yet have a particularly effective way of dealing with the threat that IEDs pose.

But what’s most fascinating to me about this is not the continued ineffectiveness of the US military against these kinds of attacks; that was probably overdetermined by the basic design problem of the US occupation of Iraq in the first place, in that the US went in with a skewed understanding of what it was likely to discover on the ground, and as a result finds itself in the position of an imperial occupier instead of the welcomed liberator it was expecting to be hailed as. Counterinsurgency is always a difficult operation to perform, and IEDs are in a way just an updated version of the Molotov cocktails and other cheap-but-effective bombs long-favored by guerrillas and other resistance fighters. But the striking thing about the articles to me was the way that the problem of IEDs is framed, and not by the article’s author as much as by the military officials he interviewed: according to those officials, IEDs are primitive weapons deployed by primitive people against the technologically advanced and sophisticated US military — and they have social trajectories of deployment, as opposed to the purely physical trajectories of the US’s weaponry. The insurgents are primitive and social; the US military is advanced and a-social.

I am not exaggerating or taking liberties here. Insurgents using IEDs are compared to “guys with spears and loincloths, and their ability to quickly modify their strategies to account for whatever the US military does on the ground is conveyed in the following terms:

. . . as an officer writing in Marine Corps Gazette recently put it, “The Flintstones are adapting faster than the Jetsons.”

There seems to be a pervasive sense of frustration among US officials that the technological powers of the US military cannot root out these primitive assaults; faith continues to be put in various kinds of bomb-sniffers, robotic investigation devices, advanced armor, and the like. This despite the fact that these techniques do not seem to have been particularly effective against IEDs thus far. This is an old article of Enlightenment faith: science will save us, because ultimately knowing more about the nature of nature will be sufficient to solve all significant problems that we might face. Everything, in a way, reduces to a technical problem, and the solution to a technical problem is of course a technical solution.

The interesting thing is that this faith persists even though a) military officials themselves acknowledge the limits of this paradigm, and b) at least one high-ranking military official (Montgomery Meigs, head of the Joint IED Defeat Organization) implicitly admits that the problem is actually of a very different character:

Three 152mm rounds underneath a tank, which will blow a hole in it, are artillery rounds. But they didn’t come through three-dimensional space in a parabolic trajectory. They came through a social trajectory and a social network in the community.

The network-sociological side of me is of course overjoyed to hear anyone in a position of authority speaking in these terms — at last someone is getting to the actual problem, which involves patterns of social action and the way that they are organized so as to make something like an IED roadside bomb placement possible in the first place. What is most significant, to this way of thinking with which I am very much in sympathy, is less the various physical components of an IED and the knowledge of how to assemble them to lethal effect (information which, incidentally, is readily available on the ‘Net — just google it and you’ll see what I mean) and more the arrangement of social ties that makes such a course of action both thinkable and justifiable, even legitimate. That’s the issue, and that’s the challenge for those directing the occupation: how does one alter social ties and mechanisms such that a particular course of action becomes more or less unfeasible?

But as the military giveth, the military also taketh away. The insight that General Meigs delivers also comes connected to a blindness that undermines it and virtually ensures that the insight will not be acted on in the most effective manner. Note that Meigs contrasts the social trajectory of the IEDs with the putatively non-social, technologically sophisticated trajectory of the weaponry deployed by the US military and other developed/advanced members of the occupying forces, as though that weaponry was not itself equally deliverd through a social trajectory. Indeed, the equation seems to be: social = primitive = them, technological = advanced = us/US. Not only is this analytically absurd — just think for a moment about the social infrastructure needed to deliver three 152mm rounds through the air, both to enable that course of action and to render the action legitimate — but it is also positively harmful to any effort to take social relations seriously. The same mechanisms (especially things like “legitimation”) operate on both sides of the US/insurgent divide; what differers is how they interact and concatenate and play themselves out.

And continuing to think of ourselves as somehow advanced beyond such social mechanisms to the point where we can operate in a purely technical space will keep hindering any effort to really address the problem posed by IEDs, let alone solve it. Because in the end, the problem isn’t IEDs or any other piece of military technology; it’s the patterns of social action within which those pieces of military technology and the ways that they can and should be used become meaningful. Those patterns are what we ought to be combating and striving to change.

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