August 04, 2010

Course explores the new science of social networks

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Students in a new course offered through Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s University Honors program this fall will learn just how small the world really is when viewed from the perspective of social connections.

Scott McClurg, associate professor in the Department of Political Science, launches a new course, “Six Degrees of Separation: The New Science of Social Networks,” in the upcoming semester. The course title refers to the theory that we are all connected to each other within six steps -- a chain of a friend of a friend of a friend. Though many people know the theory from the popular trivia game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” playwright John Guare first popularized the theory, which Hungarian writer, Frigyes Karinthy, first described.

Students will read the play, but they will also try a campus version of the game, McClurg said. The object of that lesson is fairly simple -- it provides an example of how a community as large as the SIUC campus is bound by relationships between people. Other lessons are not likely to be as simple.

“They’ll learn some tools for data analysis,” McClurg said. “During the semester, we’ll be gathering data and using these tools to analyze it.”

McClurg said recent research in several different academic disciplines shines light on how one person’s behavior and choices affect another person even when the two people are not immediately connected.

“The study of social networks is not new,” McClurg said. “But it’s more clear today, partly because of online social networks, how connections between people work and how they are valued. We’re looking at connections and social groups in different ways than we were just 15 years ago.”

Besides the “six degrees,” students will also look at “three degrees,” McClurg said. This theory, “Three Degrees of Influence,” advanced by Nicholas Christakis, a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and James Fowler, a professor in the School of Medicine and in the Division of Social Sciences at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that individual’s actions influence other people up to three steps distant.

“It doesn’t matter what the problem is, we are influenced by people up to three steps away from us, and we influence others up to three steps away from us,” McClurg said. “That’s the way the world works, but we often don’t look at it that way.”

McClurg said researchers, including Fowler, are using these theories in their studies of obesity, smoking cessation, happiness, depression, and more. As a political scientist, McClurg is particularly interested in the political ramifications of social networks.

He is not alone in this. The American Political Science Association recently formed a new organized section of the association just for “Political Networks.” McClurg is the chair-elect of this section. The goals of the section of the association are to “promote better understanding of network theorizing and analysis across political science” and to make connections with other disciplines.

He noted that data mining, the practice of finding patterns in data, has new applications in marketing, counter-terrorism, and political campaigns, among other areas. He said that while people are more aware of privacy issues with the advent of such well-known social networks as Facebook and Twitter, people are often not aware how much personal information is available to those who know simple steps to retrieve it, nor are they aware of all the ways such information is used.

“I hope students are inspired to pursue these theories in further education or in their careers,” he said.

McClurg said he is looking to bring guest experts to class -- through his own connections, of course.