Emerging Methods

Social Network Analysis – Types, Tools and Examples

Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is an analytical method used to study social structures through the use of networks and graph theory. It identifies the relationships between individuals, organizations, or other entities and examines the patterns and implications of these relationships.

The nodes in the network represent the actors within the networks and the ties or edges represent relationships between the actors. These might be, for example, friendship ties between people, business relationships between companies, or communication patterns between individuals.

By analyzing the network structure and the characteristics of the actors within the network, SNA can reveal properties such as the distribution of resources, the flow of information, or the overall connectivity of the network.

Here are a few key concepts in SNA:

  • Centrality: This measures the importance of a node in the network. Various centrality measures exist, each emphasizing a different aspect of a node’s position within the network, such as degree centrality (the number of direct connections a node has), betweenness centrality (the number of times a node acts as a bridge along the shortest path between two other nodes), and eigenvector centrality (the sum of the centrality scores of all nodes that one node is connected to).
  • Density: This is a measure of the proportion of possible connections in a network that are actual connections. A high density suggests that the network participants are highly interconnected.
  • Clusters or Communities: These are groups of nodes that are more densely connected with each other than with the rest of the network.
  • Structural Holes: These are gaps in the network where a node could potentially act as a bridge between two unconnected parts of the network.

Types of Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis can be broadly categorized based on the type of networks being analyzed, the level of analysis, and the methodologies employed. Here are a few ways to categorize SNA:

Whole Network Analysis

This type of analysis focuses on the structure and properties of the network as a whole. This might include measures of network cohesion, centralization, and density. It also looks at the overall distribution of relationships and identifies key groups or clusters within the network.

Ego Network Analysis

In this type of analysis, the focus is on a single actor (the ‘ego’) and their immediate network (the ‘alters’). It’s often used when interest is in the personal networks of individuals. Measures can include the size of the network, the composition of the network in terms of the types of ties and nodes, and measures of network density or diversity.

Two-mode (or Bipartite) Network Analysis

This type of SNA is used when there are two different types of nodes, and connections are only possible between nodes of different types (not within types). For example, authors and the books they write, or actors and the movies they appear in. In such a network, you can study the connections between nodes of one type, mediated by nodes of the other type.

Dynamic Network Analysis (DNA)

This is used to study how social networks evolve over time. This could involve studying how ties between actors develop or disappear, or how actors move around within the network. In addition to traditional network measures, DNA also considers measures that are dynamic in nature, such as change in centrality over time.

Semantic Network Analysis

This type of SNA focuses on the relationships between concepts or ideas, rather than individuals or organizations. For instance, semantic network analysis could map out how different scientific concepts are related to each other in the literature.

Social Media Network Analysis

A specialized form of SNA, this deals with the study of social relationships as expressed through social media platforms. It allows for the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows between people, groups, organizations, computers, URLs, and other connected information/knowledge entities.

Social Network Analysis Techniques

Social Network Analysis involves various techniques to understand the structure and patterns of relationships among actors (people, organizations, etc.) in a network. These techniques may be mathematical, visual, or computational, and often involve the use of specialized software. Here are several common SNA techniques:

Network Visualization

One of the most basic SNA techniques involves creating a visual representation of the network. This can help to reveal patterns and structures within the network that may not be immediately obvious from the raw data. There are various ways to create such visualizations, depending on the specifics of the network and the goals of the analysis. Software such as Gephi or Cytoscape can be used for network visualization.

Centrality Measures

These are techniques used to identify the most important nodes within a network. Various measures of centrality exist, each highlighting different aspects of a node’s position in the network. These include degree centrality (the number of connections a node has), betweenness centrality (how often a node appears on the shortest path between other nodes), closeness centrality (how quickly a node can reach all other nodes in the network), and eigenvector centrality (a measure of the influence of a node in a network).

Community Detection

Also known as clustering, this technique aims to identify groups of nodes that are more closely connected with each other than with the rest of the network. This can help to reveal sub-groups or communities within the network.

Structural Equivalence and Blockmodeling

Structural equivalence is a measure of how similarly two nodes are connected to the rest of the network. Nodes that are structurally equivalent often play similar roles in the network. Blockmodeling is a technique used to simplify a network by grouping together structurally equivalent nodes.

Dynamic Network Analysis

This involves studying how a network changes over time. This can help to reveal patterns of network evolution, including how relationships form and dissolve, how centrality measures change over time, and how communities evolve.

Network Correlation and Regression

These are statistical techniques used to identify and test for patterns within the network. For example, one might use these techniques to test whether nodes with certain characteristics are more likely to form connections with each other.

Social Network Analysis Tools

There are several tools available that can be used to conduct Social Network Analysis (SNA). These range from open-source software to commercial offerings, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few examples:

  • Gephi: Gephi is an open-source, interactive visualization and exploration platform for all kinds of networks and complex systems. It’s user-friendly and allows users to interactively manipulate the network visualization, perform network analysis, and export results in various formats.
  • UCINet: UCINet is a comprehensive package for the analysis of social network data as well as other 1-mode and 2-mode data. It’s widely used in social science research.
  • NetDraw: Often used in conjunction with UCINet, NetDraw is a free tool for visualizing networks. It supports the visualization of large networks and allows for various customization options.
  • Pajek: Pajek is a program for the analysis and visualization of large networks. It’s an extensive tool, offering a range of complex network metrics, and is free for non-commercial use.
  • NodeXL: NodeXL is a free, open-source template for Microsoft Excel that allows users to display and analyze network graphs. Its integration with Excel makes it user-friendly, particularly for those already familiar with Excel.
  • Cytoscape: Originally designed for biological research, Cytoscape is now a popular open-source software platform for visualizing complex networks and integrating these with any type of attribute data.
  • SocioViz: SocioViz is a social media analytics platform for Twitter data, focused on network analysis and visualization. It’s a powerful tool for researchers interested in online social networks.
  • NetworkX: NetworkX is a Python package for the creation, manipulation, and study of the structure, dynamics, and functions of complex networks. It integrates well with other scientific Python tools like SciPy and Matplotlib.
  • igraph: igraph is a library available in R, Python, and C for creating, manipulating, and analyzing networks. It’s highly efficient and can handle large networks.
  • RSiena: RSiena is an R package dedicated to the statistical analysis of network data, with a particular focus on longitudinal social networks.

Social Network Analysis Examples

Social Network Analysis Examples are as follows:

  • Public Health – COVID-19 Pandemic: During the COVID-19 pandemic, SNA was used to model the spread of the virus. The interactions between individuals were mapped as a network, helping identify super-spreader events and informing public health interventions.
  • Business – Google’s “PageRank” Algorithm: Google’s PageRank algorithm, which determines the order of search engine results, is a type of SNA. It considers web pages as nodes and hyperlinks as connections, determining a page’s importance by looking at the number and quality of links to it.
  • Sociology – Stanley Milgram’s “Small World” Experiment: This is one of the most famous social network experiments, where Milgram demonstrated that any two people in the United States are separated on average by only six acquaintances, leading to the phrase “six degrees of separation.”
  • Online Social Networks – Facebook’s “People You May Know” Feature: Facebook uses SNA to suggest new friends. The platform analyzes your current network and suggests people you’re likely to know, typically friends of friends or people who share common networks.
  • Criminal Network Analysis – Capture of Osama bin Laden: SNA was reportedly used in the operation to capture Osama bin Laden. By mapping the social connections of known associates, intelligence agencies were able to locate the Al-Qaeda leader.
  • Academic Research – Collaboration Networks: SNA is used in scientometrics to analyze collaboration networks among researchers. For example, a study on co-authorship networks in scientific articles can reveal patterns of collaboration and the flow of information in different disciplines.

When to use Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis is a powerful tool for studying the relationships between entities (like people, organizations, or even concepts) and the overall structure of these relationships. Here are several situations when SNA might be particularly useful:

  • Understanding Complex Systems: SNA is well-suited to studying complex, interconnected systems. If you’re interested in not just individual entities but also the relationships between them, SNA can provide valuable insights.
  • Identifying Key Actors: SNA can help identify the most important entities in a network based on their position and connections. These might be influential people within a social network, critical servers in a computer network, or key scholars in a field of study.
  • Studying Diffusion Processes: If you’re interested in how something (like information, behaviors, diseases) spreads through a network, SNA can be a valuable tool. It allows for the examination of diffusion pathways and identification of nodes that speed up or hinder diffusion.
  • Detecting Communities: SNA can be used to identify clusters or communities within a network. These might be groups of friends within a social network, clusters of companies in a business network, or research clusters in scientific collaboration networks.
  • Mapping Out Large Systems: In cases where you have a large system of many interconnected entities, SNA can provide a visual representation of the system, making it easier to understand and analyze.
  • Investigating Structural Roles: If you’re interested in the roles individuals or entities play within their network, SNA offers methods to classify these roles based on the pattern of their relationships.

Purpose of Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis serves a wide range of purposes across different fields, given its versatile nature. Here are several key purposes:

  • Understanding Network Structure: One of the key purposes of SNA is to understand the structure of relationships between actors within a network. This includes understanding how the network is organized, the distribution of connections, and the patterns of interaction.
  • Identifying Key Actors or Nodes: SNA can identify crucial nodes within a network. These could be individuals with many connections, or nodes that serve as critical links between different parts of the network. In a business, for instance, such nodes might be key influencers or innovators.
  • Detecting Subgroups or Communities: SNA can identify clusters or communities within a network, i.e., groups of nodes that are more connected to each other than to the rest of the network. This can be valuable in numerous contexts, from identifying communities in social media networks to detecting collaboration clusters in scientific networks.
  • Analyzing Information or Disease Spread: In public health and communication studies, SNA is used to study the patterns and pathways of information or disease spread. Understanding these patterns can be critical for designing effective interventions or campaigns.
  • Analyzing Social Capital: SNA can help understand an individual or group’s social capital – the resources they can access through their network relationships. This analysis can offer insights into power dynamics, access to resources, and inequality within a network.
  • Studying Network Dynamics: SNA can examine how networks change over time. This could involve studying how relationships form or dissolve, how centrality measures change over time, or how communities evolve.
  • Predicting Future Interactions: SNA can be used to predict future interactions or relationships within a network, which can be useful in a variety of settings such as recommender systems, predicting disease spread, or forecasting emerging trends in social media.

Applications of Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis has a wide range of applications across different disciplines due to its capacity to analyze relationships and interactions. Here are some common areas where it is applied:

  • Public Health: SNA can be used to understand the spread of infectious diseases within a community or globally. It helps identify “super spreaders” and optimizes strategies for vaccination or containment.
  • Business and Organizations: Companies use SNA to analyze communication and workflow patterns, enhance collaboration, boost efficiency, and detect key influencers within their organization. It can also be applied in understanding and leveraging informal networks within a business.
  • Social Media Analysis: On platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, SNA helps analyze user behavior, track information dissemination, identify influencers, detect communities, and develop recommendation systems.
  • Criminal Justice: Law enforcement and intelligence agencies use SNA to understand the structure of criminal or terrorist networks, identify key figures, and predict future activities.
  • Internet Infrastructure: SNA helps in mapping the internet, identifying critical nodes, and developing strategies for robustness against cyberattacks or outages.
  • Marketing: In marketing, SNA can track the diffusion of advertising messages, identify influential consumers for targeted marketing, and understand consumer behavior and brand communities.
  • Scientometrics: SNA is used in academic research to map co-authorship networks or citation networks. It can uncover patterns of collaboration and the flow of knowledge in scientific fields.
  • Politics and Policy Making: SNA can help understand political alliances, lobby networks, or policy networks, which can be critical for strategic decision-making in politics.
  • Ecology: In ecological studies, SNA can help understand the relationships between different species in an ecosystem, providing valuable insights into ecological dynamics.

Advantages of Social Network Analysis

Social Network Analysis offers several advantages when studying complex systems and relationships. Here are a few key advantages:

  • Reveals Complex Relationships: SNA allows for the study of relationships between entities (be they people, organizations, computers, etc.) in a way that many other methodologies do not. It emphasizes the importance of these relationships and helps reveal complex interaction patterns.
  • Identifies Key Players: SNA can identify the most influential or important nodes in a network, whether they are individuals within a social network, key servers in an internet network, or central scholars in an academic field.
  • Unveils Network Structure and Communities: SNA can help visualize the overall structure of a network and can reveal communities or clusters of nodes within a network. This can provide valuable insights into the organization and division of a network.
  • Tracks Changes Over Time: Dynamic SNA allows the study of networks over time. This can help to track changes in the network structure, the role of specific nodes, or the flow of information or resources through the network.
  • Helps Predict Future Interactions: Based on the analysis of current and past relationships, SNA can be used to predict future interactions, which can be useful in many fields including public health, marketing, and national security.
  • Aids in Designing Effective Strategies: The insights gained from SNA can be used to design targeted strategies, whether that’s intervening in the spread of misinformation online, designing a targeted marketing campaign, disrupting a criminal network, or managing collaboration in an organization.
  • Versatility: SNA can be applied to a vast array of fields, from sociology to computer science, biology to business, making it a versatile tool.

Disadvantages of Social Network Analysis

While Social Network Analysis is a powerful tool with wide-ranging applications, it also has certain limitations and disadvantages that are important to consider:

  • Data Collection Challenges: Collecting complete and accurate network data can be a major challenge. For larger networks, it may be nearly impossible to collect data on all relevant relationships. There’s also a risk of response bias, as people may forget, overlook, or misinterpret their relationships when providing data.
  • Time and Resource Intensive: Collecting network data, especially from primary sources, can be extremely time-consuming and expensive. Additionally, analyzing network data can also require significant computational resources for larger networks.
  • Complexity: SNA involves complex concepts and measures, which can be difficult to understand without specialized knowledge. This complexity can make it difficult to communicate findings to a non-technical audience.
  • Privacy and Ethical Concerns: SNA often involves sensitive data about individuals’ relationships and interactions, raising important privacy and ethical concerns. It’s important to handle this data carefully to respect individuals’ privacy.
  • Static Snapshots: Traditional SNA often provides a static snapshot of a network at a particular point in time, which may not capture the dynamic nature of social relationships. While dynamic SNA does exist, it adds additional complexity and data demands.
  • Dependence on Quality of Data: The insights and conclusions drawn from SNA are only as good as the data used. Incomplete, inaccurate, or biased data can lead to misleading results.
  • Difficulties in Establishing Causality: While SNA can reveal patterns and associations in network data, it can be difficult to establish causal relationships. For instance, do strong connections between two individuals lead to similar behavior, or does similar behavior lead to strong connections?
  • Assumptions about Relationships: SNA often assumes that relationships are equally important, which might not always be the case. Different relationships might have different strengths or meanings, which can be challenging to represent in a network.

About the author

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer