On Indirect Ties

For me, the joy of Social Network Analysis is in uncovering the central hubs of a network. A hub is that node that serves to connect all manner of other nodes. These are often discernible in large bureaucratic structures. For example, as a former gofer during my pre-grad school days, I spent a lot of time running here and there. I was a go-between stand-in for non-human actors — a human without the ability to make a choice being told to make connections to other people. Within SNA, the ability to see these sorts of things at the core of “social” system is an incredible thing.

At my gofer job, the network I had to traverse changed almost over night due to an email. The email changed the nature of access at the administrative level from a starfish to a pyramid. I think a lot about that email. As a Social Network Analyst, sudden changes in networks are really strange for data collection and analysis reasons. In fact, the act of SNA forces a re-evaluation of what generalizability should mean. If all it took to alter the social network of a large campus was just one email, how can these data ever be applied elsewhere.

And this is a limitation of studying only people. For example, with just one email, a whole slew of social activity before the drafting of the email is invisible. We do not often have access to those in power even if SNA is about studying the choices people below them have. No group of people ever act the same. Nor do they produce the same data. They do not because contexts are always changing because there are always indirect actors mediating relationships beyond our attention span.

This is where SNA gets tricky and begins to look something like Association Mapping. Along with the network of humans to humans, non-humans to humans also are deployed. For example, documents get created, new policies occur within faculty meetings or administrative sub-committed. At nearly every point, there are non-human actors like policies, word processors, laptops, webpages, servers, and software that all impact and are mediating and impacting all types of contexts.

What these contexts are can be called indirect ties. An indirect tie is best referred to as possibly, “friends of friends” or perhaps something like a cashier at a grocery store who suggests a book. In some ways, non-humans are indirect ties. The search for indirect ties is often associated with the concept of transitivity. In this case, transitivity often assumes that, “a friend of a friend is a friend” (Wasserman & Faust, 2009, pg 150). Example of the various ways ties can be assumed about.

The ways in which ties between nodes in a social network can be conceptualized and termed. Note that in all three of the examples with three actors, the addition of a connection between two previously disconnected points is assumed. This is often called weak ties but through weak ties, we also see indirect ties in possible actors tied to each of those three we can see.

In other types of work, an indirect tie could also be new research citing a paper that cited another paper more relevant but older. Because the newer research is often seen as more relevant, the direct tie is usually noted and the indirect tie, the older research which itself may have been cited due to its indirect citations, is not mentioned. The study of citation networks produce a number of great pieces about this. For Association Mapping, indirect ties produce something else of use.

In Association mapping, there are no indirect ties but only because the notion of directness — sometimes referred to as choice in SNA — has been dispensed with. In order to communicate with another person, I have to make ties to all manner of object. The detail of this level of analysis is, or could be, so minuscule as to become comprehensible only by the most powerful of machines. However, for purposes of practicality, the nature of Association Mapping makes manifest the building of and re-arranging contextual nature of objects in situ.

So in the above example, the email would be sent at a particular time via a system controlled by the IT department of the University. To make those technologies function, the administrator in charge of the President’s email had to call the help desk in order to make sure that this email could make it through filters. To make the filters except an email sent to that many people at once, the lead of the administration had to make a special exception — a window allowing an email to be created that went to the University administration as a whole, one email address at a time.

To make this happen, the administrator had to link the administration permissions directory to the email system itself. This required a little work to be done in order to make these systems momentarily work together. In doing this, the help desk personnel set a meeting agenda item for the next week to discuss the email tool they had written and its tie-ins to Outlook, the Exchange server system, and the various mail tools.

At each point in this chain, we see portions of a network — not social in and of itself but in the formation of a social moment — create bounded spaces for actions that result in a number of ties that are neither direct nor indirect, but hybrid in their abilities. Without the email, the President’s office could not perform their campus-wide adjustment. Without the help desk to aid the President’s office with making adjustments to the security systems of the email system, the President could not even begin their email.

Yet all of this occurs in the background. All of this makes it into a paper if the researcher notices this or finds the right people. As a traditional SNA researcher, it might be that the researcher is undertaking an evaluation of the gofer network of a college system and they do not note the background work being done by non-human gofers.

Ultimately, indirect ties, weak ties, direct ties, directional ties, and non-directional ties all are eradicated in Association Mapping. In their place, we have an association. All associations are by choice and their continuing from one moment to the next is an indication of success. Each association is itself bereft of the hierarchical nature humans create by artificially hoisting themselves above the objects they create to mediate their existence. All of these hierarchical relations must be continually tested and reified in order to maintain their existence. There is no moment wherein an entity can be dispensed with or disappear.

While these entities disappear, we often assign these pre-formatted concepts names. With a name, we can find these pre-formatted ideas and deploy them as needed. This is how non-human actors have power. They are made manifest and can be called due to their tangibility. In this section, I have discussed the concept of weak ties and transitivity within Association Mapping. In the next section, I will discuss centrality, the manner of making sense of an association map, and begin to describe the data that was collected.

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PhD: Information Science. Programming Pedagogy, Data Science, Crisis-Informatics, Map Interfaces, Science and Technology Studies, Play, and Game Studies.

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Nick LaLone

Nick LaLone

PhD: Information Science. Programming Pedagogy, Data Science, Crisis-Informatics, Map Interfaces, Science and Technology Studies, Play, and Game Studies.

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