Social Network Analysis

Social network analysis (SNA) is the process of investigating social structures through the use of network and graph theories. It characterizes networked structures in terms of nodes (individual actors, people, or things within the network) and the ties or edges (relationships or interactions) that connect them. Examples of social structures commonly visualized through social network analysis include social media networks, friendship and acquaintance networks, kinship, disease transmission,and sexual relationships. These networks are often visualized through sociograms in which nodes are represented as points and ties are represented as lines.

Social network analysis has emerged as a key technique in modern sociology. It has also gained a significant following in anthropology, biology, communication studies, economics, geography, history, information science, organizational studies, political science, social psychology, development studies, and sociolinguistics and is now commonly available as a consumer tool.


Social network analysis has its theoretical roots in the work of early sociologists such as Georg Simmel and Émile Durkheim, who wrote about the importance of studying patterns of relationships that connect social actors. Social scientists have used the concept of “social networks” since early in the 20th century to connote complex sets of relationships between members of social systems at all scales, from interpersonal to international. In the 1930s Jacob Moreno and Helen Jennings introduced basic analytical methods. In 1954, John Arundel Barnes started using the term systematically to denote patterns of ties, encompassing concepts traditionally used by the public and those used by social scientists: bounded groups (e.g., tribes, families) and social categories (e.g., gender, ethnicity). Scholars such as Ronald Burt, Kathleen Carley, Mark Granovetter, David Krackhardt, Edward Laumann, Anatol Rapoport, Barry Wellman, Douglas R. White, and Harrison White expanded the use of systematic social network analysis. Even in the study of literature, network analysis has been applied by Anheier, Gerhards and Romo, Wouter De Nooy, and Burgert Senekal. Indeed, social network analysis has found applications in various academic disciplines, as well as practical applications such as countering money laundering and terrorism.


Hue (from red=0 to blue=max) indicates each node’s betweenness centrality.


Homophily: The extent to which actors form ties with similar versus dissimilar others. Similarity can be defined by gender, race, age, occupation, educational achievement, status, values or any other salient characteristic. Homophily is also referred to as assortativity.

Multiplexity: The number of content-forms contained in a tie. For example, two people who are friends and also work together would have a multiplexity of 2. Multiplexity has been associated with relationship strength.

Mutuality/Reciprocity: The extent to which two actors reciprocate each other’s friendship or other interaction.

Network Closure: A measure of the completeness of relational triads. An individual’s assumption of network closure (i.e. that their friends are also friends) is called transitivity. Transitivity is an outcome of the individual or situational trait of Need for Cognitive Closure.

Propinquity: The tendency for actors to have more ties with geographically close others.


Bridge: An individual whose weak ties fill a structural hole, providing the only link between two individuals or clusters. It also includes the shortest route when a longer one is unfeasible due to a high risk of message distortion or delivery failure.

Centrality: Centrality refers to a group of metrics that aim to quantify the “importance” or “influence” (in a variety of senses) of a particular node (or group) within a network. Examples of common methods of measuring “centrality” include betweenness centrality, closeness centrality, eigenvector centrality, alpha centrality and degree centrality.[

Density: The proportion of direct ties in a network relative to the total number possible.

Distance: The minimum number of ties required to connect two particular actors, as popularized by Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment and the idea of ‘six degrees of separation’.

Structural holes: The absence of ties between two parts of a network. Finding and exploiting a structural hole can give an entrepreneur a competitive advantage. This concept was developed by sociologist Ronald Burt, and is sometimes referred to as an alternate conception of social capital.

Tie Strength: Defined by the linear combination of time, emotional intensity, intimacy and reciprocity (i.e. mutuality). Strong ties are associated with homophily, propinquity and transitivity, while weak ties are associated with bridges.


Groups are identified as ‘cliques’ if every individual is directly tied to every other individual, ‘social circles’ if there is less stringency of direct contact, which is imprecise, or as structurally cohesive blocks if precision is wanted.

Clustering coefficient: A measure of the likelihood that two associates of a node are associates. A higher clustering coefficient indicates a greater ‘cliquishness’.

Cohesion: The degree to which actors are connected directly to each other by cohesive bonds. Structural cohesion refers to the minimum number of members who, if removed from a group, would disconnect the group.

Modelling and visualization of networks

Visual representation of social networks is important to understand the network data and convey the result of the analysis. Numerous methods of visualization for data produced by Social Network Analysis have been presented. Many of the analytic software have modules for network visualization. Exploration of the data is done through displaying nodes and ties in various layouts, and attributing colors, size and other advanced properties to nodes. Visual representations of networks may be a powerful method for conveying complex information, but care should be taken in interpreting node and graph properties from visual displays alone, as they may misrepresent structural properties better captured through quantitative analyses.

Collaboration graphs can be used to illustrate good and bad relationships between humans. A positive edge between two nodes denotes a positive relationship (friendship, alliance, dating) and a negative edge between two nodes denotes a negative relationship (hatred, anger). Signed social network graphs can be used to predict the future evolution of the graph. In signed social networks, there is the concept of “balanced” and “unbalanced” cycles. A balanced cycle is defined as a cycle where the product of all the signs are positive. Balanced graphs represent a group of people who are unlikely to change their opinions of the other people in the group. Unbalanced graphs represent a group of people who are very likely to change their opinions of the people in their group. For example, a group of 3 people (A, B, and C) where A and B have a positive relationship, B and C have a positive relationship, but C and A have a negative relationship is an unbalanced cycle. This group is very likely to morph into a balanced cycle, such as one where B only has a good relationship with A, and both A and B have a negative relationship with C. By using the concept of balanced and unbalanced cycles, the evolution of signed social network graphs can be predicted.

Especially when using social network analysis as a tool for facilitating change, different approaches of participatory network mapping have proven useful. Here participants / interviewers provide network data by actually mapping out the network (with pen and paper or digitally) during the data collection session. An example of a pen-and-paper network mapping approach, which also includes the collection of some actor attributes (perceived influence and goals of actors) is the * Net-map toolbox. One benefit of this approach is that it allows researchers to collect qualitative data and ask clarifying questions while the network data is collected.

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