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


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.


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

  • mathematicians concerned with topology and graph theory but who are interested in the perceptions and needs of social scientists at this time
  • social scientists sensitive to the possibility that a more extensive use of topology/ graph theory concepts could be used to clarify thinking about inter-organizational structures at this time and their relationship to problem complexes
  • practitioners using the concept of "network" and of "networking" as a means of ordering their perception of the relationships between the organizations with and through which they work -- and who may be able to draw the attention of the other two groups to types of complexity which they have difficulty in describing or analyzing


The purpose of the meeting would he:

  • identification of concepts and methods of analysis in topology/graph theory which may be of value in clarifying understanding of desired or emerging social structures identification of features of emerging or desired social structures for which such (new) concepts and methods of analysis may be useful
  • identification of new social processes and structures which could possibly exist or be brought into existence on the basis of indications from topology and graph theory
  • identification of methods of distinguishing between more and less satisfactory social sub-networks embedded in social networks using non-case-oriented methods such as computer analysis of sub-network properties
  • identification of methods of plotting and displaying networks and their internal features in order to facilitate wider comprehension of their behaviour and potential (Example: use of computer graphics hardware to represent projections of social structures for research, educational, policy and other purposes, according to decree of visual complexity and detail required)

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:

  • preliminary circulation of papers and discussion points
  • publication of papers in the usual manner (although the meeting focus would not be on presentation and discussion of papers, but rather on interaction between participants on the basis of information present in precirculated papers)
  • video recording of some of the sessions to attempt to break through the various well-known barriers to practitioners anxious to benefit from whatever new insights emerge but unwillingto plough through unhelpful documents
  • illustrated report of significant insights, based on graph theory, in the style developed by Professor Yona Friedman for MIT Press, the Council of Europe and the UN Environment Programme

Practical significance

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

  • international relations: description and analysis of inter-/intra-organizational relations, particularly where the interactions between distinct hierarchies become multiple and complex
  • sociology: as above but at the national and community level
  • community development: as above but possibly with an emphasis on alternative structural possibilities and increase in adaptability
  • urban development: as above
  • policy sentences: description and analysis of relations between clusters of identified problems, the actors concerned with them, and the resource flows applied to them

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.


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:

  • Mankind 2000
  • International Federation for Social Innovation
  • Union of International Associations
  • World Future Studies Federation
  • Unesco
  • International Peace Research Association
  • Inter-University Center for Postgraduate Studies

Social networks versus Hardware networks

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

  • information, date and library networks
  • communication networks (cable TV, etc)
  • transportation networks

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.


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)

  • Berge, C.
  • Cartwright, D.
  • Engelbart, Douglas: Center for Augmenting Human Intellect, SRI
  • Flament, C.
  • Harary, F.
  • Kochen, Manfred: Mental Health Research Institute, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 48104
  • Rittel, Horst: Kastelweg 5. 69 Heidelberg, F R Germany
  • Umpleby, Stuart: Urbana, III.

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

  • Alger, Chadwick: Mershon Center, Ohio State University, Columbus
  • Boulding, Elise: Institute of Behavioral Sciences, University of Colorado
  • Colby, K. M: Artificial Intelligence Unit, Stanford University
  • Dorelan, Patrick:
  • Evan, William: Department of Sociology, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
  • Friedman, Yona: Anderson, R C Institute for Community Development and Services. Michigan State University
  • Beal, George: Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Iowa State University
  • Galtung, Johan: Inter-University Centre for Postgraduate Studies Dubrovnik; University of Oslo, Oslo
  • Maruyama, Magoroh: Systems Science Program, Portland State University Portland
  • Lorraine, Francoise
  • Michael, D. M.
  • McHale, John: Center for Integrative Studies, SUNY, Binghampton
  • Schon, Donald: Organization for Social and Technical Innovation, 55 Chanel Street, Newton, Mass 02158
  • Smith, David Horton: Boston College, Boston
  • Schofield, Norman J.
  • Smoker, Paul: Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver Peace and Conflict Programme, Lancaster University
  • Thayer, Frederick C: Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. University of Pittsburgh
  • Turk, Herman
  • Wheatley, Charles

C. Practitioners (and others, broadly interpreted)

  • Archbald, David: Environmental Consultant, Madison Public Schools, 525 West Dayton, Madison, Wis 53703
  • Dixon, John: Director, Center for a Voluntary Society, Washington DC
  • de Last, Christian: Consultant on environmental affairs, UNEF, UNESCO, etc Montreal, Canada
  • Elmandjra, Mahdi: Director, Division of Pre-Programming, UNESCO
  • Judge, Anthony: Mankind 2000/Union of International Associations, Brussels, Belgium
  • Kean, Rick: (Author of book on networks). East Hawley, Mass
  • Miles, M: Center for Humanistic Studies, SUNY, Albany
  • Munro, Robert
  • Stevens, C H Participation Systems, Inc. 20 Lakewood Place, Troy, New York 12180
  • Tofler, Alvin: (Author of book on networks in political processes)
  • Theobald, Robert
  • Thompson, William
  • Thomas, Wes 606 5th Avenue, E'Northport, NY 11731
  • Werdell, Phil 10 Prospect Place. Brooklyn NY 11217

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