Isolated social networkers

by Eszter Hargittai on May 19, 2005

Some physicists have come out with a paper on the Eurovision song contest. Of course, we at CT like to be ahead of the curve and thanks to Kieran’s ingenuity reported similar findings over a year ago. So much for this being “new research”.

There has been much excitement about and focus on social networks in the past few years ranging from social networking sites to several high-profile books on the topic.

Interestingly, much of the buzz about recent work covers research by physicists. It’s curious how physicists have expanded their research agenda to cover social phenomena. I thought their realm was the physical world. Of course, since social phenomena are extremely complex to study, as a social scientist, I certainly welcome the extra efforts put into this field of inquiry.

What is less welcomed is watching people reinvent the wheel. Sure, partly it’s an ego thing. But more importantly, it’s unfortunate if the overall goal is scientific progress. Much of the recent work in this area by physicists has completely ignored decades worth of work by social scientists. If we really do live in such a networked world where information is so easy to access, how have these researchers managed to miss all the existing relevant scholarship? Recently Kieran pointed me to an informative graph published by Lin Freeman in his recent book on The Development of Social Network Analysis:

People whose overall work focuses on social networks are represented by white dots, physicists by black ones, others by grey circles. As is clear on the image, the worlds exist in isolation from each other. It would be interesting to see year-of-publication attached to the nodes to see the progression of work.

I have been meaning to write about all of this for a while, but John Scott from the Univ. Essex addressed these issues quite well in some notes he sent to INSNA‘s SOCNET mailing list a few months ago so I will just reproduce those here. (I do so with permission.)

Originally posted on SOCNET by John Scott on Feb 10, 2005 under the heading “Physics and Sociology”

In all the recent discussions about the relationship between physics and sociology in the study of social networks, the fundamental issue seems to have been lost sight of. The important issue is not whether the two disciplines can or should cooperate. That is essential and it happens frequently. Contributors to the discussion have pointed out many fruitful and important cases, and the history of sociology is full of many others. The big problem arises when academics from one discipline move into the area of another discipline without trying to discover what work has already been done by its practitioners. At best they reinvent the wheel. At worst they antagonise people with their intellectual arrogance.

This is what has happened with much of the recent work on small worlds: physicists have argued that their methods and theories can illuminate social networks but have failed to realise that a whole community of sociological network researchers already exists and has done exactly the kind of work that they are pointing to. Their books claim to have made startling discoveries about the social world and advocate the development of new research programmes on these topics. Their reviewers take these claims at face value and so a reputation for intellectual novelty is built up.

It is surely a basic failure of normal scholarly research procedures that these books can be written and published without the author undertaking any proper literature search. The author of one recent book expounding the novelty of the ‘power law’ does not seem to realise that sociological work over many years has documented the existence of this kind of distribution in many real social networks. None of this is cited. Its author does not seem to have discovered the existence of journals on social networks, nor does he seem to realise that INSNA exists and that the cover design of its newsletter shows a network with a power law structure. This same book is based around the author’s research into internet search engines, but it doesn’t seem as if he has ever typed the words ‘social networks’ into Google or any other search engine.

If I were to come up with the idea that familiar theories from sociology could illuminate problems in physics, the first thing I would do would be a literature search to see if anybody, in physics or elsewhere, had already worked on the issue. Physicists who followed the same strategy when they wished to contribute something to social analysis, might find that they would be welcomed more warmly by their social science colleagues.

Originally posted on SOCNET by John Scott on Feb 13, 2005 under the heading “On the Shoulders of Giants”

The contributions to the ‘physics and sociology’ debate have, as with all the discussions on SOCNET, raised many interesting and important issues. Many contributors have, quite rightly, focused on issues of citation and priority, and how these affect issues of academic justice, and personal career chances. One contributor, however, made the important point that ‘advancing the science’ is the crucial matter, not personal status. The sociology of science shows that these issues cannot be separated, but it is certainly true that ‘advancing the science’ should be our fundamental concern. In this light, perhaps I can raise one crucial consequence of the failure to undertake basic literature surveys in a research area?

The failure to undertake a proper literature search leads researchers to waste time that could be put to more productive use in advancing the science. As is well-known, those who stand on the shoulders of giants are able to see further. Those who do not bother to search out the work of the giants are likely to spend a great deal of time reinventing things already known and so delaying the point at which they or others can see further. This seems to me to be the fundamental point: build on what is already known rather than waste time rediscovering it. It is in the individual researcher’s self-interest to do the search, and it
contributes to advancing the science.

Some contributors have suggested that such counsel may be unrealistic in an age of highly specialised scientific research, as the facilities are not available to allow it. One contributor, for example, asked whether easily searchable cross-discipline databases that cover both physics and sociology exist. Well, yes they do: they are called libraries, and their stock is accessible by catalogue and by browsing the shelves. People who write books and contribute to journals should have the necessary skills to use a library, and any decent academic library makes basic literature searches very easy. I have checked the library catalogue at the university of the leading physicist that I referred to in my original posting and that library contains a run of the journal Social Networks as well as the key texts and sources produced by Barry Wellman, Stan Wasserman and Katie Faust, and others.

By all means let’s try to forget artificial disciplinary boundaries and join together to advance the science of social networks, recognising the potential that all specialists have for contributing to this. But let’s also remember the basic scholarly skills that make it possible for us to advance the science and for all of us to try stand on the shoulders of giants.

If you are interested in some of the classics from the social sciences, feel free to take a look at the Social Networks reading list I worked with in graduate school.



dsquared 05.19.05 at 12:10 pm

The paper itself cites precisely one source in the sociology literature, despite taking time out in a footnote to explain to its readers exactly what a Pearson correlation coefficient is. One of the co-authors is Neil Johnson, who is meant to be Director of the Oxford Centre for Computational Finance, which is an interdisciplinary centre, so surely it’s his bloody job to make sure that this sort of embarrassment doesn’t happen (Kieran’s post is fourth on a google search for “eurovision voting” so it’s not exactly hard).

What really gets me about this is that this was a joke item on CT, and now it’s apparently been submitted to “Physica A“, which a bit of research reveals is at least a mid-ranking physics journal. If it gets published, then I don’t want to hear anything about Alan Sokal, ever again.

No damn it. I am not going to let this lie. The information commons and the freedom of information, all well and good. But a man’s jokes are his sacrosanct personal property to be defended with fire, brimstone and a cricket bat to the knackers if necessary. Kieran is in Arizona and thus can’t personally defend this one on the field of honour, but I am more than happy to round up a posse. Bloody “hard science” snobs.

(more seriously, a cursory look at the graph Eszter posted shows that the black dots have many fewer interconnections than the grey ones; the physicists involved in social networks research aren’t reading each other’s work either. So it’s not just a matter of “two literatures”; it’s “one literature, plus a gangload of well-meaning dilettantes”.)


dsquared 05.19.05 at 12:16 pm

Also, we had this fight with the econophysicists a few years ago in economics. In the end, they more or less knuckled down and there are such people as serious econophysicists like Joe McCauley producing actual useful work. However, there is still a plague of mediocre physicists reinventing the wheel (and now, god help us, they have been joined by mediocre computer scientists producing “agent based simulations”).


Eszter 05.19.05 at 12:18 pm

Thanks for bringing up the Alan Sokal case. I thought of that as well. Agreed.


BridalBeer 05.19.05 at 12:56 pm

Dana Boyd has written some excellent papers on the social networking
It is amusing to know that physics is being seriously applied to social networks ignoring the human machine. That’s what astrology tries to do.
A logical extension of this
approach is to use physics to predict outcomes of date. Without taking sociological factors like age, ethnicity, relationship history into account.


Paul Orwin 05.19.05 at 1:06 pm

It seems like there is an 800 pound white elephant/gorilla mutant chimera in this particular room, which is the relationship between physicists (universally acknowledged as the greatest, smartest, and most important of all scientists) and lowly, pathetic, undeserving social scientists. Clearly, physicists won’t lower themselves to read sociology journals, and physics is clearly way above the heads of sociologists, so the twain never meet (or something). Obviously, as a biologist, I can see how you are all wrong, and evolution is the only possible explanation for all of it!

More seriously, if physicists who got excited about social networks and the lot of it were to admit that their “insights” were really just them figuring out things other people had been studying for years, they might have to admit that maybe, just maybe, social scientists are smart people too. Also, it is a pretty big investment to learn all the lingo, figure out all the basic theories, read some big heavy textbooks, and master an entire domain of science (and no, I didn’t forget to put the “social” on there), only to find out that you haven’t really added much to the discussion. It’s much easier to skim some popular books on a subject, apply some basic math from your own field (say physics or CS), write a paper, and publish it in a place where your reputation gets it in rather than actual merit; in other words, somewhere where people in the field will never see it.

An unfortunate side note for all of us who want the physicists out of our hair. Early in the development of modern biology (molecular biology and genetics, in particular) a bunch of physicists, inspired by Schrodinger’s “What is Life?” (IIRC) decided to pursue bacteriology, nascent molecular biology, and virology. They were smashingly successful (Nobel Prizes and the like), which led the rest of ’em to think that they can pretty much take over any field they want. It’s high time that we put them in their place.


Barry 05.19.05 at 1:11 pm

I’d like to add that, inside these ‘libraries’, there are humanoids known as ‘librarians’. Their whole lives seem to be devoted to helping people find information, even in fields where the seeker is ignorant! Why they do this is unkown, of course, but the latest medical studies[1] have conclusively disproven the old wives’ tale that ‘librarians’ do this in order to lure people in so as to plant their eggs in those peoples’ living flesh. So it is presumably safe to consult with these ‘librarians’. However male researchers should beware the ‘librarian’ if she starts removing her glasses and hair pins and shaking loose her hair, as many studies [2] have shown that this actually does have something to do with egg implanation.

[1] Published in the Lancet, so right-wingers can just stay out of libraries, which are probably full of evilooshunist falsehoods anyway.

[2] These ‘studies’ are distributed by a research organization known (in the states) as ‘Turner Classic Movies’, and consist of 90-120 minute lessons, many of which were unfortunately colorized.


aaron 05.19.05 at 1:12 pm

I find the tone of this post (and the comments) ironic considering that while physicists are often guilty of not reading enough sociology literature, some sociologists are guilty of condescension, jealousy and reciprocal arrogance – have the physicists contributed nothing to the science of social networks? And finally, I note also that just as there are few connections from the physics community to sociology, there are equally few going the other direction. Perhaps these communities evaluate the usefulness of ideas in somewhat orthogonal ways? How does whining to each other (socnet is populated mostly by sociologists) about the physicists move science forward? Have you walked across campus to have a conversation with a physicists about social networks?


Hektor Bim 05.19.05 at 1:31 pm

As a physicist, I can tell you that Physica A is not the most illustrious physics journal out there by a long shot. If this stuff is getting in Physics Review Letters or Physics Review E, then worry.

The issue here doesn’t seem to be that physicists are publishing nonsense, just that they are reinventing the wheel.

The Alan Sokal hoax specifically turned on the fact that the paper was complete and utter nonsense, at least as it relates to physics.

I don’t know enough about social networks to know, but is it the argument that physicists are publishing nonsense, or just things that are already known. The latter is hardly unkown in research of any kind.


Henry 05.19.05 at 1:48 pm

I’m expecting Cosma Shalizi (a physicist who does this stuff and is scarily well read in the social sciences (and “damn near everything else under the sun”: to weigh in presently). But to play devil’s advocate, much of this work didn’t get much attention in the social sciences before they started weighing in. Some of Barabasi’s work may have been anticipated thirty years ago by Herbert Simon; but Simon’s work on skew functions didn’t get all that much attention among social sciences afik until physicists began to make this issue-area sexy again. And the main direction of research among network sociologists seems to me to have been much more focused on micro-level patterns of exchange within networks than the kinds of topological effects that most physicists have been working on. As well as having a rather different notion of structure. So yes – I do think that physicists have been guilty of stomping in and not paying enough attention to what people have already done – but they’re not the unwitting slaves of defunct sociologists either.


skippy 05.19.05 at 1:51 pm

I find it hysterical that dsquared is harshing on people for claiming authority outside of their area of expertise.

And what hektor bim said. Sounds like cheezy behavior on the part of physicists (if the story as given is the whole story), but it’s pretty much orthogonal to the Sokal Hoax.


Daniel 05.19.05 at 1:52 pm

The issue here doesn’t seem to be that physicists are publishing nonsense, just that they are reinventing the wheel

Well a bit of both really. It’s not nonsense to say that you can apply this mathematics to the Eurovision data; you can do cluster analysis of a plate of scouse if you want to. It *is* complete and utter nonsense, though, as Kieran said in the original Eurovision voting study, to claim that there is any social significance or meaning to the results you get from doing so.


Eszter 05.19.05 at 1:52 pm

Henry is right to point out that there are some non-sociologists who are very well immersed in the relevant sociological literature. I thought I would point to another one: Warren Sack at Santa Cruz. His work is very much informed by what social scientists have done in this field.


Kieran Healy 05.19.05 at 1:58 pm

_until physicists began to make this issue-area sexy again_

Well this is exactly the issue, right?

_the main direction of research among network sociologists seems to me to have been much more focused on micro-level patterns of exchange within networks than the kinds of topological effects that most physicists have been working on_

I wouldn’t say that was true, really. There’s a branch of social networks that looks at power and exchange in relatively micro-contexts, but there are plenty of more macro-oriented people too. Just take a look at the titles in the “Cambridge Structural Analysis Series”:, for instance.


RS 05.19.05 at 2:20 pm

Does that graph mean that physicists have essentially muscled their way into another academic discipline?

Wow, unlucky. Reminds me of the computer scientists I saw on TV once wiring up slugs to circuits and claiming how significant it was that they could get the neurons to act like logic gates, and how it was going to bring a revolution of animal-machine hybrids. It was like they had no idea of hundreds of years of physiology research. It was like that, but you suspect that they knew what they were doing – that Kevin Warwick character, he is their leader, accompanied by Roger Penrose they’re out to get us all.


David 05.19.05 at 2:30 pm

I am not sure ranting will actually help the situation. I might be an optimistic, but what I see when I look at your network of citation patterns is an inter-connected network not two isolated clusters.
So is the glass half-full or half-empty?


Anthony D'Amato 05.19.05 at 2:57 pm

A main complaint of the principal paper that specialists in one field tend to reinvent wheels already well honed in another field. It’s very hard for someone to be a specialist in two fields. The best scholarly “bridge” for a person who wants to interdisciplinary work is to consult a good annotated bibliography.

Forty years ago (I say,shamefully admitting my decrepitude), interdisciplinary journals (and many mainstream journals as well) featured Annotated Bibliographies. Nowadays there seems to be no academic credit attached to such ventures. I suspect, however, that if graduate departments assigned their students each to write one annotated bibliography, we’d see an outpouring of them.


Alex R 05.19.05 at 2:57 pm

Without addressing the particular substantive issue here, I’d like to speak up in defense of “reinventing the wheel”.

Let’s say someone wants to forge into a new area (for him or her) of scientific research or technological innovation. There are different approaches that can be taken. One is to begin by carefully doing a complete review of the literature or the state-of-the-art, and then continue by building upon the knowledge that has been gained by one’s predecessors. Another is to forget about reviewing the literature, to forget about finding out what anybody else has done, and to attempt to find one’s own way to the desired goals.

The first approach is what most successful scientists or technologists do, and for very good reasons: it avoids wasted effort, allows for incremental progress, and properly acknowledges the contributions of others. But it also comes with a downside: by starting with the work that others have done, one is naturally guided to doing work along the same lines — extending it, but not radically changing its direction.

The second approach is riskier, because one will have to do a lot more to get something new, and because one *is* very likely to “reinvent the wheel”. It does have a real advantage, however: there is a chance that by following one’s own path, one will develop different ways of thinking about the problem than those whose wheels are being reinvented, and that the final result may be innovative in a way that wouldn’t have happened if one followed the first approach. Perhaps the biggest problem with this approach is that it works best for geniuses, and there are a lot more people who think they fall into this category than actually do…

But nonetheless, for the right person or group of people in the right subject area, being unafraid to reinvent the wheel can be the best way to come up with something really new.


des von bladet 05.19.05 at 3:00 pm

I as someone with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics who is also currently studying Social Science with the Open University, I feel uniquely qualified to point out that the semifinals of this years Eurovision Song Contest are taking place RIGHT FRICKING NOW, and all you lot can do is bicker about who invented join-the-dot pictures? Furrfu, people!

It’s streaming on Norwegish P1,
(select P1 from the pulldown menu).

So far, I’m favouring Estland’s (“Estonia’s”) _Let’s go loud_, but I am notoriously a network of one.


Andrew C. 05.19.05 at 3:34 pm

“One contributor, however, made the important point that ‘advancing the science’ is the crucial matter, not personal status.”

Personal status is crucial. That’s why people squabble over priority, and it’s why crap gets published by big names while modest but solid work by nobodies is ignored. The noble ideal of building up the body of human knowledge without concern for personal advancement is just another childish fantasy that shatters on first contact with reality. Science works precisely because it has evolved a method for using conflicting desires for personal aggrandisement to separate wheat from chaff. The appropriate response to sloppy or nonexistent literature searches by people moving into a new field is to serve up a big steaming platter of humiliation in the form of a letter to the editor pointing out that the result they have published is so trivial that experts in the field have already published it on the web as a *joke* – mentioning that it shows up as the fourth search result in an obvious Google search is just the cherry on top.

I’m overstating the case here (mostly because getting into all the little details and niceties would take forever), but I hope I’ve made my point. People double check results, perform exhaustive error analyses and literature searches, design rigorous experiments and all the rest in part to avoid the shame of having to retract results. When they fail to do those things the appropriate corrective is to provide them with a disincentive to repeat the error. I urge Kieran (or one of the other interested parties) to write a nice short letter to the editor pointing out that they have published something that adds nothing to the scientific literature. For added spice, throw in a bunch of citations of papers which cover the subject area in greater detail. Double points if the citation list is more than ten times the length of the letter.


detached observer 05.19.05 at 4:16 pm

I think the evidence in this post needs to be beefed up.

How exactly are physicists reinventing the wheel? What specific non-trivial discoveries have appeared in the social science literature only to be re-invented by the physicists?

I see two specific such discoveries cited here.

a. Kieran’s analysis of Eurovision.

But unless Kieran published a paper with this analysis, surely you cant fault the author of the Physica A submitted paper for not being avid readers of Crooked Timber.

b. The “novelty” of power laws.

OK, so physicits think power laws are new and are not aware that social scientists have been studying them. But this is hardly re-inventing the wheel. Unless you can cite specific facts about power laws that have been known by social scientists that physicists have spent considerable time rediscovering, I don’t think your case is strong enough.

Generally speaking, going on stereotypes, one would expect there to be few interconnections: the work of physicists is most likely to be more hyper-mathematical and less connected with the “real world” as compared to the work of social scientists.


Jared 05.19.05 at 4:26 pm

As a physicist studying physics, what I find irritating is seeing papers on social networks polluting Phys. Rev. Lett. and other physics journals. Not because I think the study of social networks is useless or uninteresting, but because it’s not physics. A few months ago I couldn’t believe it when the top weekly story in physics (according to the Physics New Update) was a paper on book marketing.

If you’re going to switch subjects, that’s fine, but please switch journals too. I’ll bet the referee pools for the physicists and social scientists don’t overlap much, and if they did, a lot of this reinventing the wheel wouldn’t happen.


Kieran Healy 05.19.05 at 4:57 pm

Unless you can cite specific facts about power laws that have been known by social scientists that physicists have spent considerable time rediscovering, I don’t think your case is strong enough.

Compare, for instance,

Barabasi, Albert-Laslo, and Reka Albert. 1999. “Emergence of scaling in random networks.” _Science_ 286:509–512.


Price, Derek de Solla. 1976. “A general theory of bibliometric and other cumulative advantage processes.” _Journal of the American Society for Information Science_ 27:292–306.


John Quiggin 05.19.05 at 5:09 pm

There’s also an economics literature on networks that seems to be similarly disconnected. The problem isn’t one of reinventing the wheel, since the economics stuff is mostly game-theoretic, but I suspect opportunities for cross-fertilisation are going begging.


Dan Nexon 05.19.05 at 5:11 pm

I’m still having trouble with the notion that Eurovision votes are a pristine measure of collective affinity, let alone that a measure “free of bias” from economic or other political considerations matters one whit for our understanding of European integration.


Henry 05.19.05 at 5:25 pm

_Rationality and Society_ did a special issue a few years ago on bringing together network theory and game theory – seemed interesting but a little inconclusive if I’m remembering right.


Economist 05.19.05 at 5:37 pm

As an outsider to this, I decided to go and actually *read* the article by the physicists, rather than their press releases which I also tracked down. I urge everyone else to actually read the paper as well (otherwise we run the risk of doing what we complain about — not actually reading papers from other fields!).
Judging from what I read, I found that:
1. They do state that other people have looked at voting in the Eurovision Song Contest. They then give a set of reasons why their work is different, as well as stating a few references to some of these other published works (which seem to be social science orientated).
2. The dendogram that they have, seems much more complete than Keiran’s. Plus they state exactly how they calculated it (the problem of changing voting rules and numbers of countries, seems important).
3. Much more importantly, they go on to give many more results than just this dendogram. And the main conclusions aren’t just related to the dendogram. So this seems a far more complete work than Keiran’s, and contains many results which I myself found surprising and didn’t know about. And nor did Keiran apparently. So it does seem to qualify for a (rather good) publication — original, surprising results obtaned in a presumably scientific way. Not embarrassing for them at all — in fact, rather nice for them!
(By the way, I checked Keiran’s denodogram and it is really unclear how he did it — what about missing years for particular countries etc.? No wonder they didn’t cite it, even if they had known about it!)
4. They do state that the study is strictly limited to voting in the Eurovision Song Contest, and only seem to speculate at the very end about possibly being any more in it than that.

So I think we all need to watch out — pot calling the kettle black etc.!


Walt Pohl 05.19.05 at 7:51 pm

Kieran: You have your answer right there. The Albert & Babarasi paper is available on ArXiv. If Derek Price actually wanted people to read his paper, he would have added it to ArXiv back in 1976.


Eszter 05.20.05 at 12:01 am

Economist – I did look at the paper and the citations. Your assumptions about what goes into posting a blog entry
here are unfounded.

Economist said: pot calling the kettle black

Wrong. The relevant analogy would be for you to find a paper among my publications that addresses a physics topic and fails to cite all sorts of relevant literature from the field of physics.

Aaron said: just as there are few connections from the physics community to sociology, there are equally few going the other direction

That is precisely why I said it would be interesting to see dates attached to the articles in the graph. Obviously,
a sociology article written in the 70s couldn’t possibly have cited a physics article written in the 90s. Since
physicists are the ones who came to this topic more recently, I suspect more of their pieces in the graph tend
to have more recent publication dates when the previous work was already available.

Aaron also asked: How does whining to each other (socnet is populated mostly by sociologists) about the physicists move science forward? Have you walked across campus to have a conversation with a physicists about social networks?

1. I didn’t just post on SOCNET, I posted here _and_ sent the note to some physicists and engineers who do related work.
2. I am affiliated with and attend regularly the talks hosted by an interdisciplinary institute on campus that brings together physicists, engineers, political scientists, legal scholars, etc. with an interest in complex systems and social networks. Thanks for asking.

Jared – I think you’re absolutely right. The editors of those journals are not doing a very good job of finding relevant reviewers for the papers.


Cosma 05.20.05 at 12:38 am

I do have some comments, as it happens, but since they, ah, grew completely out of control, they’re posted on my blog, rather than here.


paolo 05.20.05 at 1:03 am

I’m attending the School and Workshop on Structure and Function of Complex Networks at the ICTP (the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics). 2 weeks of lectures. Most of the people here are physicists but there are also biologists, economists, sociologists, computer scientists, mathematicians (we are 155) …
I’m a computer scientist so I have nothing “personal” in this matter.

The first talk at the school was trying to address “is this really new?” “Why is it so cool?” “Why is it so cool NOW?” “What are doing physicists in networks and why?”, …
Well, the main reason is that now there is a great amount of data available (previously the data were available only via surveys with real people and so were scarse). This makes it easy to apply “ideas” from other disciplines and see if something comes out of it.
A possible reason for not citing the sociology literature (but I’m not supporting the lack of citations) is that it is hard to get a clear picture of what sociology has done in the theory of networks in few days. You probably need months just of reading books and papers and this is something that in physics (and in computer science and probably any subject nowadays) you cannot really spend: ideas (i.e. possible papers) become old quickly.

At the school, usually a paper by Moreno (1934) is acknowledge in every lecture as the first about this stuff (speaking of a sociogram).
And one of the speaker is Stan WASSERMAN from Indiana University, Bloomington, U.S.A.
So I do really think that physicists are trying to find the relevant literature in sociology (and build on it and cite it) but this is not so easy and it is taking some time.
Moreover physicists are interested, in general, in very big networks and sociology, at least in past, at least to my knowledge, was mainly concentrated in small networks (with a lot of attributes and social implications).

Well, I conclude with a quotations from “Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age” by Duncan J. Watts
“Physicist tend to see themselves as the lords of the academic jungle, loftily regarding their own methods as above the ken of anybody else and jealously guarding their own terrain. But their alter egos are closer to scavengers, happy to borrow ideas and techniques from anywhere if they seem like they might be useful, and delighted to stomp all over someone else’s problem. As irritating as this attitude can be to everybody else, the arrival of the physicists into a previously non-physics area of research often presages a period of great discovery and excitement. Mathematicians do the same thing occasionally, but no one descends with such fury and in so great a number as a pack of hungry physicists, adrenalized by the scent of a new problem.”

I’m blogging the School and Workshop on Structure and Function of Complex Networks at
in case you are intested.


agm 05.20.05 at 2:09 am

Let’s see, Physica A is a European journal, isn’t it? Not useless at all, just hasn’t built the same reputation as PRL or the Phys Revs or JGR or (insert acronym of most important journal in physics specialty here). On the other hand, most of my experience with European journals is through Annales Geophysicae.

As I understand it, one of the reasons physicists tend to go looking at new fields is funding. For example, there’s much money to be had in molecular biology/biophysics, where I am told by a number of people there is no comprehensive characterization of how biomolecules are organized or behave, not of the sort that would let you predict how a protein would fold or things like that, just lots of ad hoc stuff. We happen to have a large number of people trained in building up theory, so off they go.

As to reinventing the wheel, we probably have less of a fear of doing that, after all we have three different ways of doing quantum mechanics, one of which was done as someone’s PhD thesis (Schrodinger, Lippman-Schwinger, Feynman), three ways of doing classical mecahnics (Newton, Lagrange, Hamilton), two sources of calculus (Newton, Liebnitz), and lots of other stuff that has been duplicated, for various reasons. We tend to worry much more if something cannot be duplicated, cause that implies that maybe the results from the first time around are just crap.

Power laws are not a novel idea in physics. They are so common in physical phenomena that often the first thing physicists do with non-linear data is to see if a power law can adequately describe it (I’m only a grad student and already I’ve had it up to here with power laws).


agm 05.20.05 at 2:11 am

And nice to see Mr. (Dr.?) Orwin knows the proper pecking order in the sciences =).

::fleeing before the flames::


Shannon Clark 05.20.05 at 2:33 am

I’m the founder and one of the organizers of MeshForum (, which is a conference on Networks dedicated to this very issue – bringing together experts across disciplines. (We also bring together business professionals, government and military experts, and public sector professionals with academics – so lots of networks being connected).

At this year’s MeshForum (Eszter was one of our speakers), we heard from a wide range of academics. There are many other fields studying networks besides Social Scientists and Physicists (though we had both at MeshForum), other fields include transportation experts (operational engineers for example), economists, professors of communication, mathematicians, and computer scientists (not just those who write agent based simulations but the ones who have been working on routing algorithms for decades work with large scale, complex networks on a routine basis).

It may take a while, but we hope that in some small way we can help connect experts across disciplines.


34 05.20.05 at 2:51 am

As Cosma has queried in his post – was Duncan Watts a black or white dot on that graph Eszter?


a software engineer 05.20.05 at 5:03 am

I’m neither a physicist nor a social scientist; I’m a software engineer with a mathematical education. I have, however, implemented some social network analysis software, and read some social network literature in the process. I have observed that the social network literature is largely ignorant of basic graph theoretical and mathematical concepts. An example: to do cohesion analysis, the literature presents an algorithm which starts with some random numbers, may or may not converge, and is usually O(MN^3). What it actually computes is simply the eigenvectors of the weighted adjacency matrix. A little bit of SVD made a big difference.


Abi 05.20.05 at 5:26 am

Now that Cosma Shalizi has spoken, I can reveal that he has another gem that some of you might be interested in: A simple model of the evolution of simple models of evolution. It sparkles!


Abi 05.20.05 at 6:02 am

Oops! I spoke too soon about Cosma’s gem, which is summarized right there in the fourth paragraph of his blog post. My apologies.

You might still want to read the whole thing, though ;-)


Oh, right, and that Tozier fellow 05.20.05 at 6:16 am

It is not without a certain irony — and with a bigger dose of amusement than I’ve had in weeks — that I am driven to say: ahem. Whose paper?


Iain Lang 05.20.05 at 6:43 am

“The failure to undertake a proper literature search leads researchers to waste time that could be put to more productive use”–it would be hard to disagree with what John Scott says here, at least on the face of it. But as Andrew C. has pointed out, there’s more to this than just doing things “properly”. A quick Web of Knowledge search on “social networks” produces over 3000 hits. Obviously, it would take a lot of work to check through these potentially relevant articles even before you hit the library and start browsing or searching for books. It’s hard enough to keep up with research in your own field, never mind what goes on in others.

When you get to potentially boundary-spanning subject like social networks, you’ll also fall down if you don’t know the terminology other groups use. If I call it a spade and you call it a shovel than I’m never going to find what you’ve written about it using my ‘spade’ search term. Cross-disciplinary institutions and groups can help get round this problem, but only if you have the right mix of people, and only if you have access to such groups.

Going by what comes up top in Google (not that we, as good researchers, would do that) leads to the same problem as going by what you see cited elsewhere: what Robert Merton called the ‘Matthew Effect’ is reproduced, and the same authors (or papers) get cited again. Nevertheless, this type of approach–doing what others do–is what a lot of researchers, lacking the time to do a proper literature search, rely on. Calling for better reviewing is fine, but the reviewers and the people writing the papers are the same folks–it’s “peer” reviewing, after all–and it would be naive to suppose that this will straightforwardly lead to better science.

Those “basic scholarly skills” to which John Scott refers are essential, but we have to keep in mind their, and our, limitations.


Eszter 05.20.05 at 8:30 am

Those asking for more information about the graph can do a search on the book’s content on Amazon. Search for Figure 10.1 and then click on the Page 165 link. The discussion of Watts’ work begins in the last paragraph on the previous page. It seems that Watts is considered a physicist, it’s not clear how his later work is classified for this graph.

Interestingly, the author points out that Watts and Strogatz in their 1998 Nature article also failed to cite the relevant earlier works of many physicists as well.


dsquared 05.20.05 at 9:44 am

The really objectionable thing about the Eurovision paper is not so much the “reinventing the wheel” aspect as the fact that Kieran H was actually correct first time round to present it as a joke paper and call it an “abuse of the data”. These guys have done basically no research into the process by which the dataset was generated or to what the underlying social reality might have been. They’ve not cleaned it up for host-country effects, different national voting schema or anything like that. They’ve just taken the dataset, crunched the numbers, come up with some post-hoc rationalisations of the results of the calculation and called it sociology.

This is the big danger in blundering into a field you don’t understand, not that you’ll reinvent the wheel, but that you’ll make idiotic mistakes by failing to follow research procedures that are there for a reason.


Hektor Bim 05.20.05 at 10:22 am

I’m getting a lot of whining here, but I’m not getting a lot of substantive criticism. So far all the complaints I’ve heard focus on one paper in Physica A, which seems to be substantially more thorough than Kieran’s post. One paper does not an argument make.

As for lack of citation, please continue to complain, but as far as I can tell, the more important issue is whether the work is correct or not, not whether the work cites every possible antecedent work spanning multiple disciplines. I’ve never met an academic who thought they were cited as much as they should have been. I have yet to hear that work done is wrong.

Finally, although I haven’t worked directly on complex networks as a physicist, I’ve read some of the physics literature on it and tried to keep up as a pseudo-hobby (though I’ve almost certainly failed). I have to echo Cosma’s points. Physicists are not interested only in “social networks”. I went to a complex networks session at APS this past March and saw talks on power networks in the US, proteins in fruit flies, and collaboration networks on These are all things physicists call “complex networks”, but I wager most of the people commenting here have zero interest in protein networks or power networks. So I think it is a bit unfair to say that everything physicists are doing has already been done and done better by social scientists, who in many cases don’t have the mathematical backgrounds or interest in specific problems that physicists do.


bob 05.20.05 at 10:43 am

Not to make too much of this, but of course Derek Price was himself a physicist who moved into social science.


Economist 05.20.05 at 11:18 am

Just to add to hektor bim’s earlier post:
If all this really just centers on one Physica A paper, then *can someone actually show* that all (or in fact any) of the results reported in the Physica A paper, have indeed actually appeared elsewhere in the social science network literature? Or indeed on any website posting such as Kieran’s? And I mean *exactly the Physica A results* not just saying ‘someone else has used a dendogram’. There is no law against the use of a dendogram in other fields. And the Physica A dendogram (which is just one of the introductory results in their Physica A paper) is way more complete (and seemingly correct) than Kieran’s — plus better explained as to how they got it etc.

So thats the challenge — please cite *exactly the source, page and which figure/result in Physica A paper has appeared before*
In addition, please state which of the Physica A results is wrong. This will help me understand the physicists ‘mistake’ (if any).

[Just getting technical for a moment in response to an earlier posting, the criticism of ‘removing country bias’ sounds like the economists’ argument of wanting to ‘remove the trend’ from a financial data series. If you don’t know what the series signal is generated by, how can you define what the trend is without adding an additional bias]

I started off as neutral in all this, neither being a physicist or social network scientist — but I’m afraid all the whining and lack of substance in the arguments has made me end up feeling like standing up for the physicists!


Keith M Ellis 05.20.05 at 1:24 pm

“I started off as neutral in all this, neither being a physicist or social network scientist—but I’m afraid all the whining and lack of substance in the arguments has made me end up feeling like standing up for the physicists!”

Yep. Me, too.

“So I think it is a bit unfair to say that everything physicists are doing has already been done and done better by social scientists, who in many cases don’t have the mathematical backgrounds or interest in specific problems that physicists do.”

I’m almost certain that this is somewhat true, though less so all the time. This is an old, general argument, as mentioned above; and I think both sides have legitimate greivances. Physicists are very arrogant generally and specifically regarding the distinction between what some call “hard science” and “soft science” (the latter which they completely disdain). So there’s little doubt that they long have marched in and ignorantly and arrogantly reinvented the wheel…or worse. Even so, it’s also true that most other sciences have lacked the rigor of physics—and as these sciences have matured those intrusive physicists have probably played an important role. Especially as a science moves into a realm where sophisticated mathematical analysis becomes more worthwhile. And there are of course always entrenched people resisting this and whining about it.

Personally, I think a good example of this is d^2’s complaint above against CS people doing agent simulation in economics. From my perspective, economics is paricularly weak in that it is amenable enough to reductive, physics-like mathematical theory that there has been much more success with this approach than there has been with other social sciences—but ultimately this approach will fail, it’s already failing. I personally don’t think that we’ll achieve mature physics-like basic insights into any of the social sciences by any method other than simulation because of complexity. I think we’ll see success first in economics, because in relative terms, it’s “easy” the same way that physics has been “easy”. In my opinion, which I admit isn’t that humble, most of the other sciences (and particularly the social sciences) are so intractably complex that our current theories are really not (relatively) that much more than narratives. That sounds like a swipe, but it’s not.


QrazyQat 05.20.05 at 9:40 pm

This is the big danger in blundering into a field you don’t understand, not that you’ll reinvent the wheel, but that you’ll make idiotic mistakes by failing to follow research procedures that are there for a reason.

This is the sort of thing you can see with some of the folks in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Unfortunately, the ones that do this ignoring of the past and facile data-crunching tend to be the ones who get popular press as well, so they also bring down the reputation of other sociobiology/evo psych people who do the job right. The thing is, they may be partly lazy, but sometimes they seem proud to be ignoring the past work as if it were all tainted and “unscientific”.


Oh, right, and that Tozier fellow 05.21.05 at 6:08 am

Has anybody thought to suggest that the old and oft-quoted Santayana “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” saw might be applicable? Was he talking about the doom of cultures and leaders, or the doom of wheelwright researchers as well?

Or us poor benighted putative readers?

If pressed, I would suggest that a 100% fair solution might be to give no scientist, even a social one, any credit whatsoever for anything they write. It seems a senseless waste of ink and pixels and breath to claim credit for work that is essentially a rephrasing of common sense and others’ efforts, and that energy and space might be better spent just reinforcing the point of the utterance, instead of so diligently associating it with one’s self and one’s career.

“Alas, it is a sad fact that our work depends on getting credit where it’s due,” will be somme straw person’s response.

Prove it. No, really, I mean it: prove it. I kid you not.

How important is your reputation with the readers? What makes you think your publications have anything to do with it? Do the people who read your publications not already know who you are, and what you will say, and how you will say it before they have finished the abstract? Are you that literary and cunning, to have hidden the mysterious secret at the end of the work?

Or are you just signaling your peers and competitors? Of the rest of us, who are essentially disinterested, how many will read your work at all?

What is the most important target audience, do you think, of academic publication? I would venture that it is the author’s ego. We could save a deal of time by acknowledging that, though of course we would have to revisit the whole process at length in public to do so.

And, by the way, who was it that wrote Cosma’s gem of a satire? I can’t recall the entire bibliographic entry. I know I had it around here somewhere….

Amused, Tozier


Oh, right, and that Tozier fellow 05.21.05 at 6:23 am

By the way, just to get party affiliations correct (for the record), I am neither a social scientist nor a physicist. Indeed, just bring me up in the right group, and you will quickly hear, “Well I know him, and as I’m concerned, Tozier is no [group membership noun].”


Economist 05.21.05 at 8:35 am

While I agree that arguing about who did what first is pointless, we should remember that this whole discussion *started* with the post by Eszter claiming: ‘Some physicists have come out with a paper on the Eurovision song contest. Kieran… reported similar findings over a year ago. So much for this being “new research”.’
In my limited view of the world, this is a public accusation i.e. that the Physica A paper by the physicists is work that has been done a year ago, and hence challenging the claim of ‘new research’.
I go back to my earlier challenge: (and I quote):
‘..can someone actually show that all (or in fact any) of the results reported in the Physica A paper, have indeed actually appeared elsewhere in the social science network literature? Or indeed on any website posting such as Kieran’s? And I mean exactly the Physica A results not just saying ‘someone else has used a dendogram’. There is no law against the use of a dendogram in other fields. And the Physica A dendogram (which is just one of the introductory results in their Physica A paper) is way more complete (and seemingly correct) than Kieran’s—plus better explained as to how they got it etc.
So thats the challenge—please cite exactly the source, page and which figure/result in Physica A paper has appeared before
In addition, please state which of the Physica A results is wrong.’

You/we cannot make accusations without being able to back it up — it makes the exchange on this website meaningless otherwise. It is also probably illegal!

So if the accusation isn’t completely true, I would have thought the right thing to do is for the accusers to apologize on the website. That is what would happen in a court of law, if this were a libel case!
Then we can all get on with doing far more important things than whinging without proper justification.


aaron 05.21.05 at 1:33 pm

Eszter, my questions were largely rhetorical, but thanks for responding. However, I still don’t know what you (specifically) think physicists have contributed, if anything, to the general scientific field of social networks, and I’m truly interested in knowing. Feel free to email me off-list, assuming I haven’t completely offended you.

p.s. It’s sad to me that Cosma’s extremely thoughtful post has been largely ignored in the subsequent commentary.


eudoxis 05.21.05 at 3:43 pm

Cosma’s post is excellent.


Randy Zagar 05.23.05 at 3:15 pm

I’ve seen a lot of posts commenting on the arrogance of physicists… Being trained as a physicist myself, and being married to an engineer, I hear about that a lot.

What most people fail to realize is that the arrogant “we can solve anything” attitude is a professional necessity. There are no easy problems anymore, and if you don’t approach new problems with a “can-do” attitude then you end up running away in fear…

Another advantage to approaching a new field with a “fresh” perspective is that you don’t know what’s impossible.

Lastly, when physicists do computer science you get the world-wide-web. When lawyers do computer science, you get spam.


Ros Marsh 05.24.05 at 5:04 am

I am no sociologist or physicist either. I have concluded however that in this discussion there is no reinvention of the wheel, the physicists and the sociologists are not talking about the same thing, and know what they know differently.
Eszter pinpoints the sociological position with the “since social phenomena are extremely complex to study” The paper from the Complex Agent- Based Dynamic Networks is talking about complexity. We are referred to Freeman and Barton and “social control” The paper accused of reinventing the wheel discusses “the group “self-assessment process …in the absence of any central controller.
Another major difference is identified by the comment “It is amusing to know that physics is being seriously applied to social networks ignoring the human machine”
The physicists on the other hand say “The complexity in this system emerges.”
One group has a Newtonian view of a special system, the other considers another of the complex adaptive systems, this one a human one.
It is a sad discussion in a way. The Santa Fe mob decided early in the piece not to include sociologists because if they had they would have gotten a lot of social scientists in with no technical background. There would be no common terms on which to build a common language with which they could talk to each other. (Waldrop) Here we have angst about a paper from the Complex Agent- Based Dynamic Networks who want to establish a truly multidisciniplary cluster, ranging from the physical, biological and computational sciences to the social, economic and political sciences And in which a dialogue across disciplines can flourish and in which a shared language can be developed. This discussion seems to prove the need.
Waldrop also expressed the view that it was a gap that may not have been able to be crossed. This would sadly suggest he was right.

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