Networks Reading List

February 6, 2018 at 12:24 pm 1 comment

| Gabriel |

In response to my review of Ferguson’s Square and the Tower, several people have asked me what to read to get a good introduction to social networks. First of all, Part I of Ferguson’s book is actually pretty good. I meant it when I said in the review that it’s a pretty good intro to social networks and in my first draft I went through and enumerated all the concepts he covers besides betweenness and hierarchy being just a tree network. Here’s the list: degree, sociometry, citation networks, homophily, triadic closure, clustering coefficients, mean path length, small worlds, weak ties as bridges, structural holes, network externalities, social influence, opinion leadership, the Matthew Effect, scale free networks, random graph networks, and lattices. While I would also cover Bonacich centrality / dependence and alpha centrality / status, that’s a very good list of topics and Ferguson does it well. I listed all my issues with the book (basically 1) he’s not good on history/anthropology prior to the early modern era and 2) there’s a lot of conceptual slippage between civil society and social networks as a sort of complement (in the set theory sense) to the state and other hierarchies. However it’s a very well written book that covers a lot of history, including some great historical network studies and the theory section of the book is a good intro to SNA for the non-specialist.

Anyway, so what else would I recommend as the best things to get started with for understanding networks, especially for the non-sociologist.

Well obviously, I wrote the best short and fun introduction.


My analysis of combat events in the Iliad is how I teach undergraduates in economic sociology and they like it. (Gated Contexts version with great typesetting and art, ungated SocArxiv version with the raw data and code). This very short and informal paper introduces basic concepts like visualization and nodes vs edges as well as showing the difference between degree centrality (raw connections), betweenness centrality (connections that hold the whole system together), and alpha centrality (top of the pecking order).

Social networks is as much a method as it is a body of theory so it can be really helpful to play with some virtual tinker toys to get a tactile sense of how it works, speed it up, slow it down, etc. For this there’s nothing better than playing around in NetLogo. There’s a model library including several network models like “giant component” (Erdos-Renyi random graph), preferential attachment, “small world” (Watts and Strogatz ring lattice with random graph elements), and team assembly. Each model in the library has three tabs. The first shows a visualization that you can slow down or speed up and tweak in parameter space. This is an incredibly user-friendly and intuitive way to grok what parameters are doing and how the algorithm under each model thinks. A second tab provides a well-written summary of the model, along with citations to the primary literature. The third tab provides the raw code, which as you’d expect is a dialect of the Logo language that anyone born in the late 1970s learned in elementary school. I found this language immediately intuitive to read and it only took me two days to write useful code in it, but your mileage may vary. Serious work should probably be done in R (specifically igraph and statnet), but NetLogo is much better for conveying the intuition behind models.

Since this post was inspired by Square and the Tower and my main gripe about that is slippage between civil society and social networks, I should mention that the main way to take a social networks approach to civil society in the literature is to follow Putnam in distinguishing between bridging (links between groups) and bonding (links within groups) social capital. TL;DR is don’t ask the monkey’s paw for your society to have social capital without specifying that you want it to have both kinds.

If you want to get much beyond that, there are some books. For a long time Wasserman and Faust was canonical but it’s now pretty out of date. There are a few newer books that do a good job of it.

The main textbook these days is Matthew O. Jackson’s Social and Economic Networks. It’s kind of ironic that the main textbook is written by an economist, but if Saul of Tsarsus could write a plurality of the New Testament, then I guess an economist can write a canonical textbook on social network analysis. It covers a lot of topics, including very technical ones.

I am a big fan of The Oxford Handbook of Analytical Sociology. Analytical sociology isn’t quite the same thing as social networks or complex systems, but there’s a lot of overlap. Sections I (Foundations) and III (Social Dynamics) cover a lot in social networks and related topics like threshold models. (One of my pet peeves is assuming networks are the only kind of bottom-up social process so I like that OHoAS includes stuff on models with less restrictive assumptions about structure, which is not just a simplifying assumption but sometimes more accurate).

I’m a big fan of John Levi Martin’s Social Structures. The book divides fairly neatly into a first half that deals with somewhat old school social networks approaches to small group social networks (e.g., kinship moieties) and a second half that emphasizes how patronage is a scalable social structure that eventually gets you to the early modern state.

Aside from that, there’s just a whole lot of really interesting journal articles. Bearman, Moody, and Stovel 2004 maps the sexual network of high school students and discover an implicit taboo on dating your ex’s partner’s ex. Smith and Papachristos 2016 look at Al Capone’s network and show that you can’t conflate different types of ties, but neither can you ignore some types, only by taking seriously multiple types of ties as distinct can you understand Prohibition era organized crime. Hedström, Sandell, and Stern 2000 show that the Swedish social democratic party spread much faster than you’d expect because it didn’t just go from county to county, but jumped across the country with traveling activists, which is effectively an empirical demonstration of a theoretical model from Watts and Strogatz 1998.


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. cogiddo  |  February 6, 2018 at 2:42 pm

    Interesting, thanks. I teach an undergraduate course called Economic Theory of Networks, and I use Easley and Kleinberg’s Networks, Crowds, and Markets, which is can also be legally downloaded free of cost (but also comes in reasonably priced hardback edition from CUP).


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