SNA Connect

Cambridge’s new hub for Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is a growing, but still relatively niche academic field, so when the pandemic hit, many specialists were cut off from the conferences and workshops on which they normally depend to meet and collaborate with fellow-researchers. In response, graduate students at the Faculty of Education created ‘SNA Connect’, a programme of online seminars which has brought together scholars from 37 different countries to explore how networks can be framed, visualised and measured both within the social sciences and beyond.

In this interview, Tom Cowhitt, a PhD researcher at the Faculty, explains what SNA is, and how the project has kept scholars connected during a time of remote research.

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Social Network Analysis tries to explain social phenomena through relationships between people

This isn’t just about ‘social networks’ online; you can do network analysis with anything that interacts. It’s used in a lot of different contexts, but in the social sciences, we’re mainly interested in understanding complex human systems. Here at the Faculty of Education, for example, we might want to understand the inner workings of a school or university; other social scientists might want to study the corporate headquarters of a large company, for example, or a prison system. Network analysis is also used extensively outside these disciplines: Harvard, for example, has an institute for network medicine.

It’s useful because we all use relationships to exchange information and resources. That means that relationships are central to the way organisations work, and to the facilitation or frustration of individuals’ efforts to operate within them. If, therefore, we want to know how a school might work better, we shouldn’t just look at the ‘human capital’ – the skills and experience of the people working there – but at the relational structures between them. SNA helps us to see that side of the equation.

Tom Cowhitt

Tom Cowhitt

Opportunities to develop the skills required for SNA are often few and far between

At Cambridge, for example, social science grad students do a day-long, intensive network analysis methods class, but otherwise the University really just has individual researchers who have an interest in the field. There’s nothing unusual about that: while there are a few dedicated institutions for SNA, most universities don’t offer anything comprehensive.

It is a problem, though, because social network analysis requires you to master all sorts of different skills. Linton Freeman (a sociologist whose interest in the origins of SNA led him to write a comprehensive book on the subject) suggested that there are three primary skills researchers need: They have to learn how to systematically collect relational data, which is a challenge in itself; how to visualise it, and how to model and measure both endogenous and extraneous effects on the network. There is also a growing movement of Mixed Methods SNA researchers who integrate qualitative methods and SNA tools to add important context to networks. For examples, see the work of Nick Crossley (University of Manchester) and Dominick Froehilch (University of Vienna). MMSNA is an important movement because it is bringing SNA back to some of its more qualitative roots.

We just said: “Look, everything’s getting cancelled and grad students need this training – would you be willing to participate in a seminar?”

When the pandemic started, we became concerned that many SNA specialists were losing the chance to hear from fellow-researchers

Because SNA folks don’t exist at every university, and their work is often highly specialised, the main way that we train and keep up to date with developments is by going to summer school methods programmes, or workshops and conferences. When those were cancelled in spring 2020, a lot of people lost their only chance to meet with the handful of fellow-researchers they needed to hear from.

A group of us, with support from Elaine Wilson (University Senior Lecturer in Education) and the Faculty’s Education Reform and Innovation network (ERI) started to reach out to some of the top SNA researchers around the world. We just said, “Look, everything’s getting cancelled and grad students need this training – would you be willing to participate in a seminar?” To my surprise, they started saying yes, and we were able to put together an online seminar series, with excellent support from fellow PhD student Raquel Scarpa-Gebara. When it came to recruitment, we also had great additional support from the Digital Humanities Lab, the Social Science Research Methods Programme, and Andrew Pitts at Polinode.

The series launched in March 2021 and quickly attracted an international cohort

Although the original plan was to open it to social science researchers at Cambridge, they all started tweeting about it and, of course, they have international followings! Although we limited it to current grad students, we decided to make it international. We had to close each session after hitting 100 registrations. Some of our sessions then registered wait-lists of over 50 additional students. Overall we had graduate students and early-career researchers join us from more than 30 different countries. It’s literally stretched across multiple time zones; I’ve seen tweets from researchers in South America about how SNA Connect is their only reason to get up at 5am, which is great to see! It’s an indication, I think, of how isolated we all felt as SNA researchers when everything was cancelled.

Back when I was a teacher in Minneapolis I remember thinking, I have to do this.

The first programme covered all the components of modern social network analysis and featured some world-leading contributors

The first two sessions really focused on how you collect relational data; it included a presentation from a specialist on Twitter networks and another from a criminologist – which is interesting in itself because gathering relational data is quite a challenge when your field of interest is people committing criminal acts!

We then had a leading expert on network visualisation, and a specialist on ‘ego networks’: a very neglected area that focuses on the networks of a single person, for example, a teacher’s professional network, as opposed to the systemic network of an entire school. The last three contributors focused on different types of modelling – one, for example, talked about how to model co-ordination relationships: relationships between people that are closely intertwined and deeply collaborative.

The quality we got was amazing. Alan Daly (UC San Diego), for example, who did our second session, has to be one of the leading network people in education. His book was actually what got me interested in network analysis for my PhD, back when I was a teacher working for Minneapolis Public Schools in the US, and I remember thinking, “I have to do this”. Another indication of how much this mattered to people working in SNA is that we actually had professors who had delivered one seminar asking us if they could attend some of the others!


It’s been exciting to explore how we can involve a different range of contributors and students by taking this online

The format has been a two-hour lecture with questions and a two-hour lab the same day, with the labs all run in the R programming language. Anyone can join you for a Zoom call, of course, so we’ve been able to draw on a range of genuinely leading experts to a degree that we might not have done otherwise. I was amazed that people were so willing to contribute to a programme that was being set up by a cohort of grad students, but it suggests that the sky’s the limit with what we can do with this.

Our hope is now to run a second programme in 2021/2 on a blended basis, with a physical dimension to help bring together the Cambridge SNA community in person, but retaining the online aspect for the international audience. Even when we get back to ‘normal’, there’s clearly an appetite for more SNA meetings than we had before the pandemic, which implies we should keep this going. As students, we are still learning the craft, so to cram all the meetings and training into a single summer school plus conferences doesn’t work; I want to be able to work with fellow-researchers who do what I do all year round.


I hope that we’re beginning to stimulate wider interest in SNA research methods

Whenever people see a network diagram, they get really intrigued by what social network analysis can do. At one level, that’s dangerous, because you need to be aware of how to analyse that information qualitatively as well as quantitatively, and that a network has boundaries which doesn’t account for all relationships for each node in the network. When I go into a school, for example, it’s hard to show a network to staff, because teachers who look isolated in that network often have a lot of connections outside the system – it’s just that they’re not what the diagram is visualising.

Health warnings aside, I think that data visualisation is kind of the on-ramp to SNA methodologies. People get excited about what a method can communicate and what it might lead to. When I run a session on social network analysis for newer students, there are usually people in the group who decide that’s what they want to do for their PhD. In that context, and now that we are out there and sharing information with a really diverse, international audience online, there’s real potential to grow what we’ve started.

Additional images in this story from : The Opte Project and Claudio Rocchini. Both images licensed under a Creative Commons Licence (CC by 2.5) via Wikimedia Commons.