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"All for one, and one for all"

Alexandre Dumas (1802 - 1870)
French novelist and dramatist.
The Three Musketeers

In sociology, a group is usually defined as a number of people who identify and interact with one another. This is a very broad definition, as it includes groups of all sizes, from dyads to whole societies. While an aggregate comprises merely a number of individuals, a group in sociology exhibits cohesiveness to a larger degree. Aspects that members in the group may share include: interests, values, ethnic/linguistic background, roles and kinship. One way of determining if a collection of people can be considered a group is if individuals who belong to that collection use the self-referent pronoun "we;" using "we" to refer to a collection of people often implies that the collection thinks of itself as a group. Examples of groups include: families, companies, cirlces of friends, clubs, local chapters of fraternities and sororities, and local religious congregations.

Collections of people that do not use the self-referent pronoun "we" but share certain characteristics (e.g., roles, social functions, etc.) are different from groups in that they usually do not regularly interact with each other nor share similar interests or values. Such collections are referred to as categories of people rather than groups; examples include: police, soldiers, millionaires, women, etc.


Figure 1: Groups

Individuals form groups for a variety of reasons. There are some rather obvious ones, like reproduction, protection, trade, and food production. But social categorization of people into groups and categories also facilitates behavior and action (Hogg 2003). An example may help explain this idea:

Suppose you are driving somewhere in a car when you notice red lights flashing in your rearview mirror. Because you have been socialized into society, you know that the red lights mean you should pull over, so you do. After waiting for a minute or two, an individual in a uniform walks toward your car door. You roll down your window and the individuals asks you for your "license and registration."

Law enforcement officials are members of a social category, not a groups

Figure 2: Law enforcement officials are members of a social category, not a group

Because groups and categories help facilitate social behavior, you know who this individual is: a member of a law enforcement category like the police or highway patrol. In all likelihood, you do not have to question this individual as to why they are driving a special car with lights on it, why they are wearing a uniform, why they are carrying a gun, or why they pulled you over (you may ask why they pulled you over, but doing so often increases the likelihood they'll give you a ticket). In short, because you recognize that the individual driving the car belongs to a specific social category (or group), you can enter this interaction with a body of knowledge that will help guide your behavior. You do not have to learn how to interact in that situation every single time you encounter it. Social categorization of people into groups and categories is a heuristic device that makes social interaction easier.

Social Identity Theory

Social identity is a theory formed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner to understand the psychological basis of intergroup discrimination. It is composed of three elements:

  • Categorization: We often put others (and ourselves) into categories. Labeling someone as a Muslim, a Turk, or soccer player are ways of saying other things about these people.

  • Identification: We also associate with certain groups (our ingroups), which serves to bolster our self-esteem.

  • Comparison: We compare our groups with other groups, seeing a favorable bias toward the group to which we belong...

As developed by Tajfel, Social Identity Theory is a diffuse but interrelated group of social psychological theories concerned with when and why individuals identify with, and behave as part of, social groups, adopting shared attitudes to outsiders. It is also concerned with what difference it makes when encounters between individuals are perceived as encounters between group members. Social Identity Theory is thus concerned both with the psychological and sociological aspects of group behaviour.

Reacting against individualistic explanations of group behaviour (e.g. Allport) on one hand, and tendencies to reify the group on the other, Tajfel sought an account of group identity that held together both society and individual. Tajfel first sought to differentiate between those elements of self-identity derived from individual personality traits and interpersonal relationships (personal identity) and those elements derived from belonging to a particular group (social identity). Each individual is seen to have a repertoire of identities open to them (social and personal), each identity informing the individual of who he is and what this identity entails. Which of these many identities is most salient for an individual at any time will vary according to the social context. Tajfel then postulated that social behaviour exists on a spectrum from the purely interpersonal to the purely intergroup. Where personal identity is salient, the individual will relate to others in an interpersonal manner, dependent on their character traits and any personal relationship existing between the individuals. However, under certain conditions 'social identity is more salient then personal identity in self-conception and that when this is the case behaviour is qualitatively different: it is group behaviour.

The first element in social identity theory is categorization. We categorize objects in order to understand them, in a very similar way we categorize people (including ourselves) in order to understand the social environment. We use social categories like black, white, Australian, Christian, Muslim, student, and busdriver because they are useful. If we can assign people to a category then that tells us things about those people, and as we saw with the busdriver example we couldn't function in a normal manner without using these categories; i.e. in the context of the bus. Similarly, we find out things about ourselves by knowing what categories we belong to. We define appropriate behaviour by reference to the norms of groups we belong to, but you can only do this if you can tell who belongs to your group.

The second important idea is identification. We identify with groups that we perceive ourselves to belong to. Identification carries two meanings. Part of who we are is made up of our group memberships. That is, sometimes we think of ourselves as "us" vs. "them" or "we' vs. "they", and at othertimes we think of ourselves as "I" vs. "he or she" or "me" vs. "him or her". That is sometimes we think of ourselves as group members and at other times we think of ourselves as unique individuals. This varies situationally, so that we can be more or less a group member, depending upon the circumstances. What is crucial for our purposes is that thinking of yourselves as a group member and thinking of yourself as a unique individual are both parts of your self-concept. The first is referred to as social identity, the latter is referred to as personal identity.

Just to reiterate, in social identity theory the group membership is not something foreign which is tacked onto the person, it is a real, true and vital part of the person. Again, it is crucial to remember ingroups are groups you identify with, and outgroups are ones that we don't identify with.

The other meaning implied by the concept of identity is the idea that we are, in some sense, the same, or identical to the other people. This should not be misinterpreted, when we say that we are the same, we mean that for some purposes we treat members of our groups as being similar to ourselves in some relevant way. To take the most extreme example, in some violent conflict such as a war, the members of the opposite group are treated as identical and completely different to the ingroup, in that the enemy are considered to be deserving of death. This behaviour and these beliefs are not the product of a bizarre personality disorder, but under these circumstances violent behaviour becomes rational, accepted and even expected behaviour.

The third idea that is involved in social identity theory is one that we have already dealt with. It is Festinger's (1954) notion of social comparison. The basic idea is that a positive self-concept is a part of normal psychological functioning. There is pretty good evidence that to deal effectively with the world we need to feel good about ourselves. The idea of social comparison is that in order to evaluate ourselves we compare ourselves with similar others. We have already discussed the idea that we can gain self-esteem by comparing ourselves with others in our group, and also that we can see ourselves in a positive light by seeing ourselves as a member of a prestigious group. The question is, how do groups get this prestige? Tajfel and Turner's answer is that group members compare their group with others, in order to define their group as positive, and therefore by implication, see themselves in a positive way. That is, people choose to compare their groups with other groups in ways that reflect positively on themselves.

Two ideas follow from this. One is positive distinctiveness. The idea is that people are motivated to see their own group as relatively better than similar (but inferior) groups. The other idea is negative distinctiveness, groups tend to mimimize the differences between the groups, so that our own group is seen favourably. The operation of these processes is subsumed within the concept of social creativity. Groups choose dimensions in order to maximise the positivity of their own group. For example, groups which perceive themselves to be of high status on particular dimensions will choose those as the basis of comparison. Groups of low status will minimise differences on those dimensions or choose new dimensions. For example, people from some Middle Eastern Islamic countries might regard their country as inferior to the West in terms of economic and technological advancement but might regard their way of life as being morally superior.

p. 461 "In many respects, this has been the fate of "the group" in social psychology. With its focus on the individual, social psychology has had a difficult time accepting the group as a true member of the flock. Although the group has been a part of social psychology since the field's beginning (Triplett, 1898), it has occupied a rather tenuous position. Social psychologists have scoffed at the notion of a "group mind" (Le Bon, 1895/1960). Allport (1924) observed that nobody ever tripped over a group, an insult questioning the very existence of the group. The rejection of the group became so complete that Steiner (1974) entitled an article, "What ever happened to the group in social psychology?" For a time, the group was banished to the foreign lands of organizational psychology and sociology. "But the group could not stay a stranger for long. It wormed its way back into the fold, but its rebirth had a unique twist. Early definitions of the group described it as a unit consisting of several individuals who interacted with each other and occupied "real" space (Shaw, 1981). However, the born-again group was accepted into the domain of social psychology only as a cognitive representation, a figment of the mind. Instead of the individual being in the group, the group was now within the individual; Hogg and Abrams (1988) stated that "the group is thus within the individual ..." (p. 19)."

p. 462 "SIT became the springboard for new approaches to understanding stereotyping (Haslam, Turner, Oakes, McGarry, & Hays, 1992; Ng, 1989; Spears, Oakes, Ellemers, & Haslam, 1997), prejudice (Bagby & Rector, 1992), ethnic violence (Worchel, 1999) and other forms of intergroup relations. The perspective was applied to a host of traditional social psychological issues such as interpersonal perception (Park & Rothbart, 1982), minority influence (Clark & Maass, 1988), and group productivity and social loafing (Worchel, Rothgerber, Day, Hart, & Buttemeyer, 1998)." Every article I have read in these books has mentioned SIT and Tajfel; was that a requirement? Has SP nothing else?

p. 463 "Social identity theory presents individual identity as a point along a continuum ranging from personal identity on one end to social identity on the other end. One's identity at a specific time is represented by a single point on the continuum. A multitude of variables affect whether personal identity or social identity will be most salient, and which of the many group memberships will be most prominent on the social identity side of the equation. The conceptualization of social identity as being composed of group membership leads to the hypothesis that people discriminate in order to enhance the position of their ingroups relative to that of outgroups. The motivation behind this action is to create a positive social identity (Tajfel, 1978), reduce threats to self-esteem (Hogg & Abrams, 1990; Long & Spears, 1997), or reduce uncertainty (Hogg, 2000; Hogg & Abrams, 1993)."

p. 464 "Our approach gives the group a clear role outside the cognitive structure of the individual. Although we do not deny that individuals hold mental representations of groups and that these representations can and do exert influence, we also argue that groups are entities that exist outside the person and exert real pressure. We suggest that group dynamics has interpersonal and intergroup components that cannot be ignored in the study of the relationship between individual and group. Although group activities have an impact on the identity of the individual member, the group must be examined within a true social paradigm."

p. 467 "The disintegration of the group continues into the stage of decay. At this point, members may defect from the group. Scapegoating takes place and leaders are often blamed for group ills. The individual focus is accelerated, and the need for the group is questioned. "In some cases, the decay destroys the group and it ceases to exist. However, in many other cases, the group, albeit with a different set of members, begins the process of rebuilding. A distinct incident or threat may ignite the rebirth, or the rebuilding may be initiated by the collective actions of a subset of the members. Whatever the reason, the group enters again into the group identification stage, and the cycle of group development begins anew." Why do they put everything into either stages or cycles? Why can't things not progress and just be?

Primary and Secondary Groups

In sociology we distinguish between two types of groups based upon their characteristics. A Primary group is typically a small social group whose members share close, personal, enduring relationships. These groups are marked by concern for one another, shared activities and culture, and long periods of time spent together. The goal of primary groups is actually the relationships themselves rather than achieving some other purpose. Families and close friends are examples of primary groups.

Students in a class are generally considered a secondary group

Figure 3: Students in a class are generally considered a secondary group

Secondary groups are large groups whose relationships are impersonal and goal-oriented. Some secondary groups may last for many years, though most are short term. Such groups also begin and end with very little significance in the lives of the people involved. People in a secondary group interact on a less personal level than in a primary group. Rather than having as the goal the maintenance and development of the relationships themselves, these groups generally come together to accomplish a specific purpose. Since secondary groups are established to perform functions, peopleâ€(tm)s roles are more interchangeable. Examples of secondary groups include: classmates in a college course, athletic teams, and co-workers.

The distinction between primary and secondary groups was originally proposed by Charles Horton Cooley. He labelled groups as "primary" because people often experience such groups early in their life and such groups play an important role in the development of personal identity. Secondary groups generally develop later in life and are much less likely to be influential on one's identity.

Reference Groups

A group that is used as a standard against which we compare ourselves would be a reference group. Take the case of someone who grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. If all friends and relatives (her reference group) were in the same situation, just scraping by, she may not have considered herself poor at the time. Reference groups can also serve to enforce conformity to certain standards. A college freshman who has his heart set on joining a prestigious fraternity on campus may adopt behaviors and attitudes that are accepted by members of the fraternity.

Ingroups and Outgroups


Figure 5: Ingroup

p. 56 "Groups exist by virtue of there being outgroups. For a collection of people to be a group there must, logically, be other people who are not in the group (a diffuse non-ingroup, e.g., academics vs. non-academics) or people who are in a specific outgroup (e.g., academics vs. politicians). In this sense, social groups are categories of people; and just like other categories, a social category acquires its meaning by contrast with other categories. The social world is patterned by social discontinuities that mark the boundaries of social groups in terms of perceived and/or actual differences in what people think, feel, and do."

p. 407 "Research on the black sheep effect is consistent with this analysis. In one study (Marques, Yzerbyt, & Leyens, 1988, Exp. 1), Belgian students rated "attractive Belgian students," "attractive North African students," "unattractive Belgian students," and "unattractive North African students." Attractive ingroup members were judged more favorably than attractive outgroup members. The opposite occurred for unattractive members. Figure 1 shows the general pattern of judgments that correspond to the black sheep effect." Basically the whole point of this chapter.

Group Size

Social Facilitation and inhibition

In Social Psychology, social facilitation involves the positive effects of the presence of others on an individual's behavior; social inhibition involves the negatove effects of others' presence (research examples are listeed in Exhibit 1). Social facilitation and inhibition can be further delineated by audience effect and coaction.

Skill Level Facilitation: Increased Population Inhibition: Decrease Performance
Well Learned Bicycle Racing
Pool Shooting
Simple Mathematics
Ant Nest Building
Cockroaches Running
Novice -
Pool Shooting
Learning Nonsense Syllables
Completing a Maze
Complex Mathematics
Cockroaches Running

Exhibit 1: Task affected by social facilitation and social inhibition

Audience Effects→ The phenomenon of audience effects takes place when a group of people passively wathches an individual. An example would be a sporting event held in an arena. The strength of the effect of having an audience present is a function of at least three factors:

  • audience's size

  • its physical proximity to the group

  • its status

Thus, groups are more likely to be affected by large audiences of experts who are physically close to the group.

Coaction→ the effect on behavior when two or more people are performing the same task in the presence of one another is called coaction. Examples would be two runners competing against each other without a crowd present. Research findings suggest that coaction decreases performance and productivity.

Social Loafing

In the social psychology of groups, social loafing is the phenomenon that persons make less effort to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone. This is one of the main reasons that groups sometimes perform less than the combined performance of their members working as individuals.

The main explanation for social loafing is that people feel unmotivated when working in a group, because they think that their contributions will not be evaluated. According to the results of a meta-analysis study (Karau & Williams, 1993), social loafing is a pervasive phenomenon, but it does not occur when the group members feel that the task or the group itself is important.

The answer to social loafing is motivation. A competitive environment will not get group members motivated. It takes "the three C's of motivation" to get a group moving: collaboration, content, and choice (Rothwell, 2004).

  1. Collaboration is a way to get everyone involved in the group. It is a way for the group members to share the knowledge and the tasks to be fulfilled unfailingly (CSCW, 2000). For example, giving Sally the note taker duty and Raúl the brainstorming duty will make them feel essential to the group. Sally and Raúl won't want to let the group down, because they have specific obligations to complete.

  2. Content identifies the importance of the individuals' specific tasks within the group. If group members see their role as a worthy task, then they are more likely to fulfill it. For example, Raúl enjoys brainstorming, and he knows that he will bring a lot to the group if he fulfills this obligation. He feels that his obligation means something to the group.

  3. Choice gives the group members the opportunity to choose the task they want to fulfill. Assigning roles in a group causes complaints and frustration. Allowing group members the freedom to choose their role rids social loafing and encourages the members to work together as a team.


Deindividuation refers to the phenomenon of relinquishing one's sense of identity. This can happen as a result of becoming part of a group, such as an army or mob, but also as a result of meditation. It can have quite destructive effects, sometimes making people more likely to commit a crime, like stealing (Diener, 1976) or even over-enforce the law, such as police in riot situations. It is the motivational cause of most riot participants' actions for example, the violent 1992 riots that took place in LA's south central district. Deindividuated individuals' selfawareness becomes absent and they are oblivious to outside evaluation. This is when evaluation apprehension ceases to exist, ultimately breaking down any inhibitions.

Group Polarization

Group polarization effects have been demonstrated to exaggerate the inclinations of group members after a discussion. A military term for group polarization is "incestuous amplification".

Overview→ Study of this effect has shown that after participating in a discussion group, members tend to advocate more extreme positions and call for riskier courses of action than individuals who did not participate in any such discussion. This phenomenon was originally coined risky shift but was found to apply to more than risk, so the replacement term choice shift has been suggested.

In addition, attitudes such as racial and sexual prejudice tend to be reduced (for already lowprejudice individuals) and inflated (for already high-prejudice individuals) after group discussion.

Group polarization has been used to explain the decision-making of a jury, particularly when considering punitive damages in a civil trial. Studies have shown that after deliberating together, mock jury members often decided on punitive damage awards that were larger or smaller than the amount any individual juror had favored prior to deliberation. The studies indicated that when the jurors favored a relatively low award, discussion would lead to an even more lenient result, while if the jury was inclined to impose a stiff penalty, discussion would make it even harsher.

Developments in the study of group polarization→ The study of group polarization began with an unpublished 1961 Masterâ€(tm)s thesis by MIT student James Stoner, who observed the so-called "risky shift", meaning that a groupâ€(tm)s decisions are riskier than the average of the individual decisions of members before the group met. The discovery of the risky shift was considered surprising and counterintuitive, especially since earlier work in the 1920s and 1930s by Allport and other researchers suggested that individuals made more extreme decisions than did groups, leading to the expectation that groups would make decisions that would conform to the average risk level of its members. The seemingly counterintuitive findings of Stoner led to a flurry of research around the risky shift, which was originally thought to be a special case exception to the standard decision-making practice. By the late 1960s, however, it had become clear that the risky shift was just one type of many attitudes that became more extreme in groups, leading Moscovici and Zavalloni to term the overall phenomenon "group polarization".

Thus began a decade-long period of examination of the applicability of group polarization to a number of fields, ranging from political attitudes to religion, in both lab and field settings. Basic studies of group polarization tapered off, but research on the topic continued. Group polarization was well-established, but remained non-obvious and puzzling because its mechanisms were not understood.

Mechanisms of polarization→ Almost as soon as the phenomenon of group polarization was discovered, a variety of hypotheses were suggested for the mechanisms for its action. These explanations were gradually winnowed down and grouped together until two primary mechanisms remained, social comparison and influence. Social comparison approaches, sometimes called interpersonal comparison, were based on social psychological views of self-perception and the drive of individuals to appear socially desirable . The second major mechanism is informational influence, which is also sometimes referred to as persuasive argument theory, or PAT. PAT holds that individual choices are determined by individuals weighing remembered pro and con arguments. These arguments are then applied to possible choices, and the most positive is selected. As a mechanism for polarization, group discussion shifts the weight of evidence as each individual exposes their pro and con arguments, giving each other new arguments and increasing the stock of pro arguments in favor of the group tendency, and con arguments against the group tendency. The persuasiveness of an argument depends on two factors â€" originality and its validity. According to PAT, a valid argument would hold more persuasive weight than a non-valid one. Originality has come to be understood in terms of the novelty of an argument. A more novel argument would increase the likelihood that it is an addition to the other group membersâ€(tm) pool of pro and con arguments, rather than a simple repetition.

In the 1970s, significant arguments occurred over whether persuasive argumentation alone accounted for group polarization. Daniel Isenbergâ€(tm)s 1986 meta-analysis of the data gathered by both the persuasive argument and social comparison camps succeeded, in large part, in answering the questions about predominant mechanisms. Isenberg concluded that there was substantial evidence that both effects were operating simultaneously, and that PAT operated when social comparison did not, and vice-versa. Isenberg did discover that PAT did seem to have a significantly stronger effect, however.


Groupthink is a term coined by psychologist Irving Janis in 1972 to describe a process by which a group can make bad or irrational decisions. In a groupthink situation, each member of the group attempts to conform his or her opinions to what they believe to be the consensus of the group. In a general sense this seems to be a very rationalistic way to approach the situation. However this results in a situation in which the group ultimately agrees upon an action which each member might individually consider to be unwise (the risky shift). Janis' original definition of the term was "a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members' strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action." The word groupthink was intended to be reminiscent of George Orwell's coinages (such as doublethink and duckspeak) from the fictional language Newspeak, which he portrayed in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Groupthink tends to occur on committees and in large organizations. Janis originally studied the Pearl Harbor bombing, the Vietnam War and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Recently, in 2004, the US Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq blamed groupthink for failures to correctly interpret intelligence relating to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

Symptoms of groupthink→ Janis cited a number of antecedent conditions that would be likely to encourage groupthink. These include:

  • Insulation of the group

  • High group cohesiveness

  • Directive leadership

  • Lack of norms requiring methodical procedures

  • Homogeneity of members' social background and ideology

  • High stress from external threats with low hope of a better solution than the one offered by the leader(s)

Janis listed eight symptoms that he said were indicative of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability

  2. Unquestioned belief in the inherent morality of the group

  3. Collective rationalization of group's decisions

  4. Shared stereotypes of outgroup, particularly opponents

  5. Self-censorship; members withhold criticisms

  6. Illusion of unanimity

  7. Direct pressure on dissenters to conform

  8. Self-appointed "mindguards" protect the group from negative information

Finally, the seven symptoms of decision affected by groupthink are:

  1. Incomplete survey of alternatives

  2. Incomplete survey of objectives

  3. Failure to examine risks of preferred choice

  4. Failure to re-appraise initially rejected alternatives

  5. Poor information search

  6. Selective bias in processing information at hand

  7. Failure to work out contingency plans

Preventing groupthink→ One mechanism which management consultants recommend to avoid groupthink is to place responsibility and authority for a decision in the hands of a single person who can turn to others for advice. Others advise that a pre-selected individual take the role of disagreeing with any suggestion presented, thereby making other individuals more likely to present their own ideas and point out flaws in others' â€" and reducing the stigma associated with being the first to take negative stances.

Anonymous feedback via suggestion box or online chat has been found to be a useful remedy for groupthink â€" negative or dissenting views of proposals can be raised without any individual being identifiable by others as having lodged a critique. Thus the social capital of the group is preserved, as all members have plausible deniability that they raised a dissenting point.

Institutional mechanisms such as an inspector general system can also play a role in preventing groupthink as all participants have the option of appealing to an individual outside the decisionmaking group who has the authority to stop non-constructive or harmful trends.

Another possibility is giving each participant in a group a piece of paper, this is done randomly and without anyone but the receiver being able to read it. Two of the pieces of paper have "dissent" written on them, the others are blank. People have to dissent if the paper says so (like a Devil's Advocate), no-one is able to know if the other person is expressing dissent because they received a pre-marked "dissent" piece of paper or because it's an honest dissent. Also, as with every Devil's Advocate, there exists the possibility that the person adopting this role would think about the problem in a way that they wouldn't have if not under that role, and so promoting creative and critical thought.

Another way which is of special use in very asymmetric relations (as in a classroom) is to say something which is essentially wrong or false, having given (or being obvious that the persons that may be groupthinking know about that) the needed information to realize its inconsistency previously, if at the start of the class the teacher told the students that he would do so and not tell them when he did until the end of the class, they would be stimulated to criticize and "process" information instead of merely assimilating it.

An alternative to groupthink is a formal consensus decision-making process, which works best in a group whose aims are cooperative rather than competitive, where trust is able to build up, and where participants are willing to learn and apply facilitation skills.

Notes→ The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that "the Intelligence Community (IC) suffered from a collective presumption that Iraq had an active and growing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. This "group think" dynamic led Intelligence Community analysts, collectors, and managers, to both interpret ambiguous evidence as conclusively indicative of a WMD program as well as ignore or minimize evidence that Iraq did not have active and expanding weapons of mass destruction programs. This presumption was so strong that formalized IC mechanisms established to challenge assumptions and group think were not utilized."


A social network is a social structure between actors, mostly individuals or organizations. It indicates the ways in which they are connected through various social familiarities ranging from casual acquaintance to close familial bonds. The term was first coined in 1954 by J. A. Barnes (in: Class and Committees in a Norwegian Island Parish, "Human Relations").

Social network analysis (also sometimes called network theory) has emerged as a key technique in modern sociology, anthropology, Social Psychology and organizational studies, as well as a popular topic of speculation and study. Research in a number of academic fields have demonstrated that social networks operate on many levels, from families up to the level of nations, and play a critical role in determining the way problems are solved, organizations are run, and the degree to which individuals succeed in achieving their goals. Social networking also refers to a category of Internet applications to help connect friends, business partners, or other individuals together using a variety of tools. These applications are covered under Internet social networks below, and in the external links at the end of the article.

Introduction to social networks

An example of a social network diagram

Figure 6: An example of a social network diagram

Social network theory views social relationships in terms of nodes and ties. Nodes are the individual actors within the networks, and ties are the relationships between the actors. There can be many kinds of ties between the nodes. In its most simple form, a social network is a map of all of the relevant ties between the nodes being studied. The network can also be used to determine the social capital of individual actors. These concepts are often displayed in a social network diagram, where nodes are the points and ties are the lines. The shape of the social network helps determine a network's usefulness to its individuals.

Smaller, tighter networks can be less useful to their members than networks with lots of loose connections (weak ties) to individuals outside the main network. More "open" networks, with many weak ties and social connections, are more likely to introduce new ideas and opportunities to their members than closed networks with many redundant ties. In other words, a group of friends who only do things with each other already share the same knowledge and opportunities. A group of individuals with connections to other social worlds is likely to have access to a wider range of information. It is better for individual success to have connections to a variety of networks rather than many connections within a single network. Similarly, individuals can exercise influence or act as brokers within their social networks by bridging two networks that are not directly linked (called filling social holes).

The power of social network theory stems from its difference from traditional sociological studies, which assume that it is the attributes of individual actors -- whether they are friendly or unfriendly, smart or dumb, etc. -- that matter. Social network theory produces an alternate view, where the attributes of individuals are less important than their relationships and ties with other actors within the network. This approach has turned out to be useful for explaining many real-world phenomena, but leaves less room for individual agency, the ability for individuals to influence their success, so much of it rests within the structure of their network.

Social networks have also been used to examine how companies interact with each other, characterizing the many informal connections that link executives together, as well as associations and connections between individual employees at different companies. These networks provide ways for companies to gather information, deter competition, and even collude in setting prices or policies.

Applications of social network theory

Applications in social science→ Social network theory in the social sciences began with the urbanization studies of the "Manchester School" (centered around Max Gluckman), done mainly in Zambia during the 1960s. It was followed up with the field of sociometry, an attempt to quantify social relationships. Scholars such as Mark Granovetter expanded the use of social networks, and they are now used to help explain many different real-life phenomena in the social sciences. Power within organizations, for example, has been found to come more from the degree to which an individual within a network is at the center of many relationships than actual job title. Social networks also play a key role in hiring, in business success for firms, and in job performance. Social network theory is an extremely active field within academia. The International Network for Social Network Analysis is an academic association of social network analysts. Many social network tools for scholarly work are available online (like "UCINet") and are relatively easy to use to present graphical images of networks.

Diffusion of innovations theory explores social networks and their role in influencing the spread of new ideas and practices. Change agents and opinion leaders often play major roles in spurring the adoption of innovations, although factors inherent to the innovations also play a role.

Popular applications→ The so-called rule of 150 states that the size of a genuine social network is limited to about 150 members (sometimes called the Dunbar Number). The rule arises from cross-cultural studies in sociology and especially anthropology of the maximum size of a village (in modern parlance most reasonably understood as an ecovillage). It is theorized in evolutionary psychology that the number may be some kind of limit of average human ability to recognize members and track emotional facts about all members of a group. However, it may be due to economics and the need to track "free riders", as larger groups tend to be easier for cheats and liars to prosper in.

Degrees of Separation and the Global Social Network→ The small world phenomenon is the hypothesis that the chain of social acquaintances required to connect one arbitrary person to another arbitrary person anywhere in the world is generally short. The concept gave rise to the famous phrase six degrees of separation after a 1967 small world experiment by psychologist Stanley Milgram which found that two random US citizens were connected by an average of six acquaintances. Current internet experiments continue to explore this phenomenon, including the Ohio State Electronic Small World Project and Columbia's Small World Project. As of 2005, these experiments confirm that about five to seven degrees of separation are sufficient for connecting any two people through the internet.

Internet social networks→ Whilst there was evidence of social networking on the Web in 1997, with websites such as, it was not until 2001 that websites using the Circle of Friends online social networks started appearing. This form of social networking, widly used in virtual communities, became particularly popular in 2003 and flourished with the advent of a website called Friendster. There are over 200 social networking sites, though Friendster is one of the most successful at using the Circle of Friends technique. The popularity of these sites rapidly grew, and major companies such as Google and Yahoo have entered the Internet social networking space.

In these communities, an initial set of founders sends out messages inviting members of their own personal networks to join the site. New members repeat the process, growing the total number of members and links in the network. Sites then offer features such as automatic address book updates, viewable profiles, the ability to form new links through "introduction services," and other forms of online social connections. Social networks can also be organized around business connections, as for example in the case of Shortcut.

Blended networking is an approach to social networking that blends offline and online elements together to create a blend. A human social network is blended if it supported by both face-toface events and an online community. The two elements of the blend support one another. A current trend is social networks that mirror real communities, becoming online extensions of these communities. MySpace builds on independent music and party scenes, and Facebook mirrors a college community. These sites allow stronger ties and freer relationships.

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PhD student at the University of Cincinnati

MS Human Genetics; employed as a genetic counselor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

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