I’m just returning from three back to back conferences: PolNet, hosted by Ohio State University; NetSci, hosted by Indiana University, and Frontiers of Democracy hosted by Tisch College at Tufts University. All three conferences were great, and they all brought together people from various slices of my work at the intersection of political science, network science, and civic studies.
I expect that in the coming week I’ll post more reflecting on each of these conferences, but for now I wanted to share a brief lightning talk I gave to introduce myself at the NetSci satellite session hosted by the Society for Young Network Scientists. We were each restricted to 3 minutes – which isn’t very much time when speaking to a cross-disciplinary group with divergent areas of focus.
But here’s what I came up with, as I tried to explain the motivation behind my (nascent) research:
Good morning everyone. My name is Sarah Shugars and I’m a doctoral student at Northeastern’s Network Science program where I just completed my 2nd year.
My work is driven by the central question: What should we do?
Every word in this sentence is important:
- What: What are the specific actions to be taken?
- Should: What are the right actions and what are the right criteria for making that decision?
- We: Literally you and I. Humans in this room. As citizens, we are each agents with a role to play in shaping the world around us. We may choose actions aimed at influencing others, but fundamentally we must decide how we will act – individually and together.
- And of course Do: Once we figure out what actions should be done – we must actually do those actions.
What should we do?
This framework comes from civic studies, specifically Peter Levine at Tufts University.
The question is intended to give agency to individuals, but also to the communities they belong to. As members of a society we should neither act with blind individualism – doing whatever we want whenever we want it – nor should we completely withdraw from political life, abdicating our responsibility to add our unique ideas and perspectives to the collective challenge of tackling complicated problems.
We each have a responsibility to share our own voices – and to ensure that the voices of those around us are heard. We have a responsibility to build spaces were everyone can participate in addressing the fundamental challenge we face:
What should we do?
You may be wondering what this question has to do with Network Science. Like all of you, my work is also driven by another question:
What are the nodes and what are the links?
On one level we could think of this as a social network problem: Who comes into contact with whom and how are ideas propagated and created throughout the network?
These are important questions, but the core of my work focuses on a different level of analysis: How do we collectively reason about our shared problems?
Under this conception, I take nodes to be ideas, beliefs or concepts. The edges between them represent the logical or conceptual connections between these ideas. I believe A, which is related to my belief B.
Importantly these networks may have seeming inconsistencies – ideas may be in tension with each other and may struggle to co-exist. When coming to a decision about an issue then, I weigh the different factors at stake – these are the nodes in my network – and I come to a conclusion appropriate to the context.
These individual networks of ideas then connect as we reason together. We each shape the networked thinking of those around us while simultaneously shifting our own beliefs. We may discard nodes or edges, or even collectively discover new nodes and edges we hadn’t considered before.
In reasoning together – in collectively searching the solution space – we can find and evaluate solutions, we can work together to answer the question:
What should we do?