network dynamics in conversation

(Dayton, OH) It is in conversations–face-to-face or virtual, oral or written, small or massive, formal or informal–that we form our views of public issues, hold ourselves accountable for our reasons and actions, check our assumptions, expand our horizons, gain the satisfaction of being recognized, display eloquence, and develop enough will to act together.

Some conversations are better than others, and we need to understand more about the differences. I think that mapping conversations as evolving networks is a promising strategy. At least three relevant phenomena can be modeled in network terms:

  1. As we discuss, we collaboratively construct networks of ideas. I say that I favor marriage equality because adults who love and commit to each other should have the protection of law, and because people should be treated equally regardless of sexual orientation. In those sentences, I have put several ideas together into a structure. You can add to my structure by posing other ideas, whether they connect to mine or conflict with mine. The group’s epistemic network expands and changes as we talk.
  2. We also form and change social networks during a discussion. The nodes in a social network are people, and the links between pairs of people can be characterized by knowledge, trust, respect, affection, etc (or their opposites). People who converse may already belong to the same social networks. Their discussions may develop and alter their social networks.
  3. We make “meta” comments about the conversation. For instance, I might ask you to clarify what you meant when you said P. Or I might say I agree with you, or withdraw my comment, or propose that the truth lies between what I said and that you said. These are interesting moments because they are about both the epistemic and the social network that already exists, and they can affect those networks. In an important 1983 article, Berkowitz and Gibbs called them “transacts” and found they led to learning when children used them.

Consider some subtle cases and how they might be modeled in network terms.

  1. Person A only cares about influencing her boss, B, who sits at the head of the table, but she chooses to turn toward everyone else in a meeting and address them. In social network terms, her talk is literally directed at a whole set of peers, but there is a more significant network connection between her and just one other person.
  2. A says P, and B pays no attention because B thinks that A is a fool. C says P, and B agrees with it because B thinks that C is smart. In this case, the social network affects the epistemic network.
  3. A wants B to like her, so she withdraws point P that she had made earlier because B objected to it. With that concession, the social network changes in one way, the epistemic network in a different way. B says, “I appreciate your flexibility, but really, you should insist on what you believe.” B’s meta-comment puts P back on the epistemic map and affects the social network.

In technical terms, I’d measure the epistemic network by representing transcripts of discussions as ideas and links (the links being arguments of various kinds) and probably locating the nodes on a two-dimensional plane that reflect key dimensions of disagreement in the conversation. I’d watch the network change as the participants talk.

I’d measure social networks by asking people to characterize the ties between them and each of the other participants, before and after the discussion.

Finally, I might model the relevant personal beliefs of each participant before and after a discussion as a network of ideas and links, which I would derive from a private interview or short essay. I would be interested in how much of the private network ends up in public and how much the public discussion affects the private network.

The point of all this measurement is to provide data that is useful for evaluative judgment. So the normative questions (“What makes a good discussion?” “How should you participate in discussions?”) are central. I think they deserve more exploration than we have had so far, although philosophers have certainly contributed criteria.

For instance, Jurgen Habermas wrote that in an ideal discussion, “no force except that of the better argument is exercised” (Habermas 1975, p. 108). He would want an epistemic network composed of objectively defensible ideas and links to influence the participants, completely independent of their places in a social network. Just because everyone knows and admires A but dislikes B, it doesn’t mean that people should absorb A’s ideas and ignore B’s ideas.

Another example: Olivia Newman argues that a good discussion in a liberal democracy won’t produce a single hierarchical framework of ideas, but will rather encompass numerous clusters of ideas that are only loosely connected. That shape reflects value pluralism while still allowing mutual learning. Thus a group’s epistemic network should be clustered but not overly centralized.

We might add that good discussants should continue to add new nodes and connections as long as the conversation continues (not repeat points already made); that

See also a method for mapping discussions as networks and assessing a discussion.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Mary Elizabeth VonDras

    Peter, your approach holds tremendous interest to me as a parent of a child on the autism spectrum. The mapping of communication renders social interaction concrete. Unfortunately, the discrete recording of communication, whether in the work place or among peers, is currently a grey area, or even taboo, where privacy is concerned. Nonetheless, a very empowering possibility!

  • philofra

    I like this talk of networks, so much so I will contribute this:

    The social networking craze, like Facebook and Twitter, started in the West. You could say it’s a product of Western thinking. And like many Western social constructs social networking has become a worldwide phenomenon, like democracy and capitalism, two institutions that, matter of factly, have been instrumental in expanding social networking.

    Social networking had a start before the Internet. It came about as politics and business activity between individuals grew and expanded. It grew out of peoples’ cumulative experiences and the need to cooperate. It grew as a vehicle of communication and the exchange of data and ideas, a back-and-forth (let’s not forget science). It grew as a deliberative feedback system in business and politics, as a way of seeking improvements and solutions to problems. It grew as a mechanism of developing social capital and amassing social support. The more Western societies engaged themselves in politics and business, the larger and stronger these exchange networks grew. They grew exponentially, feeding on themselves as a means of facilitating the process.

    By no means have social networks been the exclusivity of the West. Peoples around the world have always engaged in such a manner with trade and commerce. But it is in the West where social networks differed and became inclusive, secular and pluralistic, crossing multiple cultural differences and transcending social barriers. In the New World it became the glue that bonded the diverse people who came together from all over the world. Social/exchange networks build trust and respect amongst its participants. Without these networks and their cross-breeding it would be impossible to conduct the activities that bind and connect us today. They’ve helped develop our civility and the civil traditions that govern us today.

    If comparable social exchange networks existed in the Middle East the region would not be in the turmoil it is today.