One of the key concepts in Social Network Analysis is that of 'centrality'. Analysts will look at an organisation or community, and disregard the presupposed hierachies in favour of node centrality. An individual may be quite close to the bottom of a formal hierachy, but occupy a position close to the centre of several informal sets of relationships, granting him a degree of centrality that reveals his actual power. To put it another way, if lots of people need to go through me to get something done, that indicates my power and influence in some way.
Following from this is the recognition that links are not apolitical. Person A can be dependent on Person B, but if person B has far greater network centrality than person A, then the relationship is not in equilibrium; B may not even recognise A as a contact at all. Links in networks are likely to flow primarily in one direction, rather than the other. I may have your mobile number, but if you don't have mine then this symbolises little.
(Incidentally, failure to recognise this is what led to some of the most hilarious delusions surrounding social software a couple of years ago. Harking back to 2003, only last month I got a message from some moron saying "I currently have over 525 connections on Soflow, and what with being able to get a hold of anyone who is one degree of separation away I have 2000 people in my network already. Therefore, those who are already connected to me have at least 2000 people in their network too. Considering there are just over 8000 people on the site all told, if you connect to me you'll be able to get a hold of one quarter of everyone on the site." Errrr... so owning the London phone book gives me 8 million contacts, right?)
Anyway, so the research idea...
In environments where hierachy is deemed unhip or simply ignored for whatever reason, tacit norms have to develop to represent the power imbalances in networks, and the greater centrality that some individuals have over others. Rudeness becomes a critical way of supporting informal politics in networks. If, for instance, I wear the mantle of an egalitarian hippy, but I am in fact a bit of a megalomaniac, it becomes critical that I am accessible, but not approachable. It is technically possible and formally permissable to contact me, but the power imbalance at work will be made aesthetically clear. You will be polite and slightly nervous; I will be aloof and look bored.
Projects for Valdis Krebs, one of the most interesting network analysts around:
- Email typos in networks: go through an individual's inbox and sent items, and check which contains the most typos. If your sent items contains more, you have a positive centrality rating in your own network, because you are being more rude to others than they are being rude to you; if your inbox contains more, you have a negative centrality rating in your own network [NB. be wary of the 'tousled email': emails which have typos put in deliberately, to give the sender a false sense of busyness/importance]
- Over-shoulder glances in drinks receptions: Count the number of times a person looks over a shoulder, and compare it to the number of times their shoulder is in turn looked over. Again, calculate centrality.
What you then do, is work out an actual ratio (plus or minus) to reveal to an individual how significant they are in the eyes of their own social world. This then becomes a diagnostic tool for therapists. If someone starts to develop a plus-5 rudeness rating, they are encouraged to move towards a more network-central, more rude culture; if the opposite happens, it is explained to them that they are out of their league, and must go and find a slightly more marginal social environment in which they can behave more rudely.
Right, time to ring the ESRC...