Modeling Networks of Individuals and Institutions

One of the topics that I’m interested in as I delve into my Ph.D. program involves using networks to model a community’s interactions. A critical first question in this process is simply: what is a community network a network of?

Social network analysis and it’s face-to-face equivalent focus on networks of individuals. Each person is a node in the network, linked to the individuals they know or communicate with. This is a robust and helpful way of looking at communities.

It allows for mapping information flows and exploring community dynamics. Do most people know most other people? Are there segments of the community that are isolated from each other, like cliques in the high school cafeteria? How diverse is the average person’s network?

These are valuable ways of looking at a community, but this approach doesn’t tell the full story.

There is also great work being done looking at the network of institutions within a community. Can the characters of a community’s institutional network predict how well that community will fare during an economic crisis?

This approach is often not devoid of interest in the individual – asking, too, questions of how strong institutional networks can build social capital, benefiting the community as a whole as well as the individuals who comprise it.

Again, this is a valuable approach that can yield many interesting and helpful results.

But somehow, I find myself unsatisfied with either approach.

Communities are complex systems of individuals and institutions. An institution may be comprised of individuals, but it’s ultimate character is more than the sum of its parts: individuals can change institutions and institutions can change individuals.

And there may be yet more factors that influence how communities function: policies, norms, historical sensibilities, regional or even international networks.

So for now, the question I’m pondering is this: what would a detailed, robust, network model of a community look like? What are its nodes and connections, and is there some fundamental unit which could be used to model all these complex layers together?

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