by Michele Battle-Fisher
Structure- then Word associate- blurt out “Patterns”, maybe “Connection”
Who (or what) are the nodes? Who is connected to whom? What is the underlying structure? How are we isolated or socially integrated? This idea of structural position or “color” is central to understanding social networks. Why? That pretty NetDraw representation of a network or the complete networks given by Linkurious gives us “color” (position), a quick and dirty visual of structure. This “surface structure” (as defined by Borgatti & Everett) on a rather superficial level is concretely labeled as components of the system. If nodes can be perfectly exchanged, you have structural equivalence. But how many of our real-world networks can really ascribe to Borgatti and Everett’s definition of structural equivalence? Structural equivalence is the same as IDENTICAL ego networks that each node would be have the same structural attributes across the board (density, degree, etc.). This gold standard of structural equivalence may be impossible to attain in real networks. These networks require not only the same individuals across ego networks but also the “same” mathematical mix of structural results. Having the same structural properties does not mean that the nodes are structurally equivalent. Why care? According to Burt, structurally equivalent actors see each other as social comparisons to monitor beliefs and behaviors due to the equivalence in structural environment. This ascribes to the implicit assumption often levered that structural equivalence yield equivalent social environments. This does not mean that the innate complexity of each person is interchangeable but the structural properties (as well as social leverages) are equal such that actors may be interchanged one-for-one for the same mathematical result.
As an example, color may matter in risk-taking. In the work of Rice et al.’s (2012) study of HIV risk behavior, homeless adolescents were located within the core (that dense ball of spaghetti in the middle of the network graph), were more likely to be female and were more likely to have been homeless for at least 2 years. Surprisingly, being on the outside (in the periphery) was protective against HIV risk taking. You may still have positive support to exhaust that may help a youth reintegrate into a stable living environment. But, why would a teen become homeless if there were obvious or accessible support networks to stay in a stable housing environment. The longer a teen is away, it becomes more likely that their family will be in the same dire social straits and may not be protective in navigating good social choices and decisions. But the longer a teen is away, human nature requires connection and closeness, a family broadly defined. Being on the outside (peripheral) of the homeless core protects against HIV risk-taking. Let us not forget a social purgatory between the instability of homelessness and the perceived caustic environment that the teen desperately calls to escape. The peripherals may be at risk in other ways that may lead to a greater risk of HIV risk taking once the teen is in the core. Social networks are powerful and are often underutilized in uncovering the underlying structure of public health issues. But the work that we hold dear must be acknowledged for its power to illuminate macro-level, ecological gaps and failures, such as failing just one homeless teen.
Borgatti, S. & Everett, M. (1992). Notions of Position in Social Network Analysis. Sociological Methodology, 1-35.
Rice, E., Barman-Adhikari, A., Milburn, N. & Monro, W. (2012) Position-Specific HIV Risk in a Large Network of Homeless Youths. American Journal Of Public Health. 102(1), 141-147.