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March 1975

Networks as a Conceptual Aid to Ordering Perception of Complex Social Structures

Proposal for a symposium to facilitate their description and adaptive development

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Proposal made on behalf of Mankind 2000 and the Union of International Associations, March 1975


Introduction

The term "network" is encountered more and more frequently in both social science and administrative documents which attempt to grasp the complexity of the relationships between social structures characteristic of society today. Social scientists use the term for purely descriptive purposes, since little attention has been given to any form of network analytic approach to social structure. (Sociometry has restricted itself to interpersonal relationships.) Practitioners and administrators use the term as the only means of giving recognition to the social complexes of organizations, groups, individuals or channels through and with which they have to work, or would like to work in some alternative future. Some have gone further, particularly at the grass-roots level, and advocate a process called "networking".

Whilst the term may be doing adequate service at this time to contain the complexity with which social scientists and practitioners are confronted, there is a strong possibility that both groups could benefit greatly from exposure to the more sophistic- ated insights already developed by the small group of mathematicians concerned with those features of topology (and particularly graph theory) which have concentrated on concepts in this domain. An opportunity is required for them to make available their insights on the manner by which networks can best be perceived and analyzed, as a support for thinking about complexity, or else "network" will merely become a synonym for complexity.

The power of graph theory in this context lies in its use as a descriptive device for highly complex structures, whilst at the same time permitting relatively sophisticated analyses of such structures on the basis of relatively limited information and without the need for the introduction of simplifying assumptions. As a descriptive device a directed graph representation has the additional advantage of being transformable into forms of representation which are much more iconic than those conventionally used to describe social structures. This means that,by virtue of the property shared by the graph and that which it represents, the ability to comprehend the structure is considerably increased -- a most important consideration at this time.

Proposal

It is proposed that a small symposium be organized as a confrontation session between the following groups:

Objectives

The purpose of the meeting would he:

Time, location and duration

A suitable site for the meeting, given its possible size (7-50 people), would probably be one of the universities in Canada, preferably in the late Fall of 1975. A meeting of 3-4 days should be adequate.

An important reason for holding the meeting in Canada is the number of people in that country, whether mathematicians, social scientists or practitioners, with an Interest in networks.

Associated activities

To ensure maximum spin-off from such a meeting, it might he useful to envisage:

Practical significance

Insights could usefully emerge which would he valuable to the following sectors, for example:

An existing set of concepts relevant to the current condition would therefore acquire wider currency. By entering to a greater degree into the language used to describe the social complex, their relative sophistication will improve the response to complex situations,if only 1n terms of an increased ability to distinguish between types of complexity and to communicate unambiguously about them.

Sponsorship

Preliminary contacts indicate that a number of international bodies may well be prepared to associate themselves in one way or another with this activity or the follow-up to it.

Possibilities include:

Social networks versus Hardware networks

It is important to distinguish the focus on social networks identified above from that associated with

These "hardware" interests have already been well developed, whereas their social "software" analogues have not, particularly with regard to the types of social organization that may be supported or facilitated by such hardware.

Participants

The following is a preliminary list of possible participants or at least of people who have some interest in the social dimension of networks. The list should be extended, although not all those listed need necessarily be invited nor would all of them find it fruitful to attend. This would depend on the final form of the meeting. Most of them however could be interested in follow-up activities to the meeting.

Note that some of them already belong to specialized networks about different aspects of networks and networking.

A. Mathematicians (including some information scientists)

B. Social scientists (i.e. primarily academics)

C. Practitioners (and others, broadly interpreted)

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