Hypothetical network of a small group

a method for analyzing organizations

I’m about to conduct a study in partnership with a civic association in the midwestern United States. It should yield insights that can inform this association’s plans and help me to develop a method and related theory. I have IRB approval to proceed, using instruments that are designed.

In the meantime, a colleague alerted me to an impressive new paper by Dalege, Galesic and Olsson (2023) that uses a very similar model. Fig. 1 in their paper resembles the image I’ve created with this post. These authors make an analogy to physics that allows them to write about spin, energy and temperature. I don’t have the necessary background to replicate their analysis but will contribute relevant empirical data from a real-world group and some additional interpretive concepts.

We will ask members of the association to what extent they agree with a list of relevant beliefs (derived from their own suggestions in an open-ended survey). We will ask them whether each belief that the individual endorses is a reason for their other beliefs. As a hypothetical example, you might think that the organization’s youth programming is important because you believe in investing in young people. That reflects a link between your two beliefs. We will also ask members to name their fellow members who most influence them.

In the hypothetical image with this post, the circles represent people: members of the group. A link between any two members indicates that one or both have identified the other as an influence. That is a social network graph.

The small shapes (stars, circles, etc.) represent the beliefs that individuals most strongly endorse. The arrows between pairs of beliefs indicate that one belief is a reason for another. This is a belief-network.

Reciprocal links are possible in both the social network and the belief networks.

Before analyzing the network data, I will also be able to derive some statistics that are not directly observed. For example, each node in both the social network and the belief networks has a certain amount of centrality, which can be measured in various standard ways. I can also run factor analysis on the responses about beliefs to see whether they reflect larger “constructs.” (Again, as a hypothetical example, it might turn out that several specific responses are consistent with an underlying concern for youth, and that construct could be measured for each member.)

I plan to test several hypotheses about this organization. These hypotheses are not meant to be generalizations. On the contrary, I expect that for any given organization, most of the hypotheses will turn out to be false. The purpose of testing them is to provide a description of the specific group that is useful for diagnosis and planning. Over time, it may also be possible to see which of these phenomena are most common under various circumstances.

Hypotheses to test

H1: The group is unified

H1a: The group is socially unified to the extent that its members belong to one network connected by interpersonal influences. The denser the ties within the connected network, the more the group displays social unity.

H1b: The group is epistemically epistemically unified to the extent that members endorse the same beliefs, and to the extent that these shared beliefs are central in their belief networks.

H2: The group is polarized.

H2a: The group is socially polarized if many members belong to two separate subgroups that are connected by interpersonal influences but are not connected to each other, as depicted by the red and blue clusters in my hypothetical image.

H2b: The group is epistemically polarized if many members endorse belief A, and many other members endorse B, but very few or no members endorse both A and B. If A and/or B also have high network centrality for the people who endorse them, that makes the epistemic polarization more serious. (Instead of examining specific beliefs, I could also look at constructs derived from factor analysis.)

H3: The group is fragmented

H3a: The group is socially fragmented if many members are connected by influence-links to zero or just one other member.

H3b: The group is epistemically fragmented if no specific beliefs are widely shared by the members.

H4: The group is homophilous if individuals who are connected by influence-ties are more likely to endorse the same beliefs, or have the same central beliefs, or reflect the same constructs, compared to those who are not connected. If the opposite is true–if socially connected people disagree more than the whole group does–then the group is heterophilous.

H5: There is a core and a periphery

H5a: There is a social core if some members are linked in a relatively large social network, while most other members are socially fragmented.

H5b: There is an epistemic core if many (but not all) members endorse a given belief, or a given belief is central for them, or they share the same constructs, while the rest of the organization does not endorse that belief.

H6: Certain members are bridges

H6a: A person is a social bridge if the whole group would be socially polarized without that person.

H6b: A person is an epistemic bridge if the whole group would be epistemically polarized without that person.

H7: Members tend to hold organized views: This is true if the mean density of individuals’ belief networks (the mean number of links/nodes) is high, indicating that people see a lot of logical connections among the things they believe.

Our survey respondents will answer demographic questions, so we will be able to tell whether polarized subgroups or core groups have similar demographic characteristics. Hypothetically, for example, a group could polarize epistemically or socially along gender lines. And we will ask general evaluative questions, such as whether an individual feels valued in the association, which will allow us to see whether phenomena like social- connectedness or agreement with others are related to satisfaction.

What to do with these results?

Although the practical implications of these results would depend on the organization’s goals and mission, I would generally expect polarization, fragmentation, the existence of cores, and homophily to be problematic. These variables may also intersect, so that an organizations that is socially polarized, epistemically polarized, homophilous, and reflects highly organized views is especially at risk of conflict. A group that is fragmented and reflects disorganized belief-networks at the individual level may face a different kind of risk, which I would informally label “entropy.”

Being unified can be advantageous, unless it reflects group-think or social exclusivity that will prevent the organization from growing.

Once an organization knows its specific challenges, it can use appropriate programming to make progress. For instance, if the group is socially fragmented, maybe it needs more social opportunities. If it is polarized, maybe a well-chosen discussion could help produce more bridges. If it displays entropy, maybe it needs a formal strategic plan.

I would generally anticipate that bridges are helpful and should be supported and encouraged. In our study, all the data will be anonymous, so our partner will not know the identity of any people who bridge gaps. But a different application of this method could reveal that information.

Although I am focused on this study now, I remain open to partnerships with other organizations so that I can continue this research agenda. Let me know if you lead an organization that would like to do a similar study a bit later on.

Reference: Dalege, J., Galesic, M., & Olsson, H. (2023, April 12). Networks of Beliefs: An Integrative Theory of Individual- and Social-Level Belief Dynamics. https://doi.org/10.31219/osf.io/368jz. See also: Analyzing Political Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas; Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas; seeking a religious congregation for a research study

Graph: Web of Science citations by language, data from Bordon ans Gomez 2004

English dominance in academia

On a recent quick trip to a smallish European country (Czechia), I was reminded of the dominance of English in broad reaches of academic life.

We Anglophones have the privilege of being able to travel almost anywhere and enjoy rich discussions in our native tongue. This also means that English idioms and conceptual schemas are hugely influential, while specialized vocabulary can lag in other languages. And most of the world’s people face an additional burden when they try to use research: it’s mostly in English. As a Quebecois scholar writes (Lord 2023):

«Cette internationalisation de l’enseignement présente également quelques défis, importants notamment celui de préserver une culture nationale en recherche et un accès à la recherche scientifique dans les communautés locales.» (“This internationalization of education also presents some important challenges, notably preserving a national research culture and access to scientific research in local communities.”)

In many countries, citation counts are used to assess individual scholars and whole universities. That method is always problematic, but an additional problem in most of the world is that papers published in English–and in English-language journals–almost always have higher counts. In fact, controlling for other factors, English is statistically related to the number of times an article is cited (Di Bitetti & Ferreras 2017).

Two Spanish scholars (writing, not surprisingly, in English) calculate the trends captured by the Web of Science from 1980 to 2000. I present their data in the graph with this post. Overall, English represented 84.5% of all articles in 1980, rising very smoothly to 95.9% in 2000. Spanish–which has more than half a billion native speakers–is invisible on my graph, with 0.3% of all articles in 2000. (Bordons & Gomez 2004). The authors don’t calculate Chinese or Hindi.

In countries whose languages were never widely spoken, university life was always conducted in one or more foreign languages. Latin yielded to French or German, before shifting to English after WWII. But even languages that have hundreds of millions of speakers and/or international prestige seem endangered today in academia. Bordons and Gomez calculate that 59% of articles by French authors, and 62% by German authors, were written in English in 1980, rising to 89% and 90% (respectively) by 2000. I haven’t found more recent statistics, but that trend would lead to an English monopoly if it continued.

These data come from Web of Science. Although that database includes humanities, social sciences, and law, it tilts to the STEM fields, as do all citation counts. My own humanities and social science articles from the last few years are sole-authored publications that required many weeks of my work, and they will not receive any citations for quite a while. Being cited requires another scholar to read the piece, write an article that cites it, and then navigate a publication process that can take years. In contrast, I was part of two public health publications in 2022, along with co-authors. Each required hours of work from me. Just months after appearing, they already have 19 published citations between them. STEM simply involves a much higher volume and faster pace, basically swamping the humanities in numerical terms.

I mention this point about STEM because any data about publications will likely underestimate the humanities, where the written languages are probably more diverse. I find that when I want to know about specific works of art or literature, Google Scholar will often yield results in languages other than English. Nevertheless, English is dominant in academia as a whole, and its share appears to be growing.

References: Lord, F. R. (2023). La communauté universitaire sous tensions: analyse des dynamiques de communication et de gestion entourant la création d’une université (Doctoral dissertation, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières); Di Bitetti, M. S., & Ferreras, J. A. (2017). Publish (in English) or perish: The effect on citation rate of using languages other than English in scientific publications. Ambio, 46, 121-127; Bordons M and Gomez I. 2004. Towards a single language in science? A Spanish view. Serials 17: 189–195

a clearinghouse to make political contributions anonymous

At the Institute H21 symposium last week in Prague, Stein Ringen described his proposal for a campaign finance clearinghouse. I gather Ringen also defends this idea in How Democracies Live: Power, Statecraft, and Freedom in Modern Societies (Chicago, 2022), which I have not yet read. My summary is based on his talk alone.

The idea is that you could give money (up to the legal limit) to candidates, but you would have to make your contributions through a clearinghouse that would transmit the funds to your chosen recipients without telling them who gave them the money.

Normatively, this proposal accepts that individuals have a right to support communications by their favored candidates. Like Ringen, I am unsure I agree with this premise, but it has been upheld by the US Supreme Court since 1971 (in Buckley v Valeo). Also, there are times when being able to support insurgent candidates with many smallish contributions increases competition and challenges incumbents.

At the same time, the proposal denies that candidates should be able to tell who gave them money, because contributions should never purchase access, goodwill, or influence.

Ringen said that he would allow contributors to inform candidates that they had given money. That’s a form of speech that would probably be protected by the US Supreme Court (and I am generally skeptical about banning speech and then policing the ban). However, the clearinghouse would make such communications quite noisy. Many donors would not take the trouble to inform candidates that they had given, and some would lie about having done so. They might even falsely tell both sides that they were financial supporters. As a result, candidates would have a much more ambiguous picture of who was supporting them financially. And that ambiguity would be good.

The secret ballot has a similar rationale. You can might want to bribe or coerce other voters, but you can never tell how they actually voted, because you cannot see their ballots. Privacy blocks the emergence of markets for votes. The same could happen to campaign finance if the money flowed through a clearinghouse.

sexual politics in Milan Kundera’s Laughter and Forgetting

While on a quick but lovely trip to Prague–and since Milan Kundera had died recently–I decided to read a book that I had not read before, Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (translated from French by Aaron Asher).

It is a set of linked stories with some essay-like passages, “a novel in the form of variations” (p. 227). The stories constantly recombine leitmotifs: the acts of laughter and forgetting that are named in the title plus dancing (especially in circles), caches of letters, literary writing, and sex. I think the novel as a whole avoids any theory–any consistent and organized way of combining its major themes that might reflect a truth about the world. Instead, it plays with them. Perhaps the resistance to theory and the embrace of free play is itself a theory of both literature and politics, a kind of liberalism that emphasizes the right to have and to express a complex and individual inner life.

The gender binary is very evident, and there is a lot of sex as well as some rape. The most admirable characters are women; most of the men are pretty bad. But the women are mostly defined by their relationships to male lovers.

For instance, exiled in France, Tamina is surrounded by privileged bourgeois citizens of a free republic who want to express themselves in writing (for the sake of being writers), bend her ear with their concerns, or have sex with her, and none of them is willing to assist her at any personal cost. The narrator says:

[This] is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina goes offstage, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its principal character and its principal audience, and all the other stories are variations on her own story and meet with her life as in a mirror (p. 227).

One of Tamina’s admirable features is her steadfast love for her late husband, an exiled Czech dissident/writer–someone who sounds rather like Milan Kundera, albeit with a shorter lifespan.

Tamina doesn’t have much of an agenda: cultural, political, or otherwise. That’s fine; she’s just trying to live her life. But one gets that sense that this is not really “a novel about Tamina.” It’s a novel about someone like Kundera, as seen by his devoted wife. Indeed, as a deceased Czech dissident, Tamina’s husband is now purely good–a figure worthy of grief who cannot possibly do any harm. Tamina strives to preserve his memory.

The narrator writes:

The gaze of a man has often been described. It seems to fasten coldly on the woman, as if it were measuring, weighing, evaluating, choosing her, as if, in other words, it were turning her into a thing.

Less well known is that a woman is not entirely defenseless against that gaze. If she is turned into a thing, then she watches the man with the gaze of a thing. It is as if a hammer suddenly had eyes and watched the carpenter grip it to drive in a nail. Seeing the hammer’s malicious gaze, the carpenter loses his self-confidence and hits his thumb.

The carpenter is the hammer’s master, yet it is the hammer that has the advantage over the carpenter, because a tool knows exactly how it should be handled, while the one who handles it can only know approximately how (pp. 285-286).

Could this be reversed, to talk about a woman’s gaze at a man? Could the hammer think about anything other than the carpenter?

I cannot address the whole of Kundera’s oeuvre, let alone his peers and influences, but I did find this general thesis in Matonoha (2014):

The reduction of women to objects, which are observed or used by male subjects, is a conspicuous feature of Czech prose. By the same token, this classic feminist critical topos (man in the position of a subject, woman reduced to the position of an object) is further internally structured in Czech prose. Generally speaking, the following model is more or less repeated: at first glance — objectification, reification, fetishization, trivialization; on a second plane — proving that the male character is misunderstood, reduction of the female character, and the uncovering of his existential dependence on a loving female character; however, it is the next, higher, plane that uncovers the real, unreflected patriarchal and androcentric groundwork of the whole epistemological and ethical complex. Therefore, the model does not only include banal sexism and scopophilia (although they are plentiful) but also, on the second plane, paradoxically flattering and therefore even more treacherous identities …

Matonoha discusses Lucie from Kundera’s The Joke (1967) as the novelist’s first example of a recurrent type, the “idealized silent woman.” This also seems to be Tamina’s role in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And the narrator tells us that she is the center of that whole book.

Kundera is a political writer insofar as he sees state communism as hostile to individual flourishing. His female characters are among the victims of that system. But he seems to miss the possibility that they are also oppressed on account of their gender and that men like him can play a role analogous to the state’s.

Source: Matonoha, J., 2014. Dispositives of Silence: Gender, Feminism and Czech literature between 1948 and 1989. In The Politics of Gender Culture under State Socialism (pp. 162-187). Routledge. See also: Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls; The Dictionary of the Khazars, pro and con; Vaclav Havel

Meeting venue in Prague

visiting Prague

I’m briefly in Prague for a valuable symposium on “Democracy in the 21st Century: Challenges for an Open Society” organized by the Czech political research and reform group called Institute H21. I will share substantive ideas from the conversation when I’m home. In lieu of new comments about this beautiful city, I’ll share a link to an introduction I wrote during a longer visit here in 2008. Sometimes, I find my own writing from that long ago cringe-worthy, but I think this mini-essay about how to “read” the city of Prague holds up OK and may have some value for other visitors.