Social networks have been with us since the earliest humans, but they were not studied systematically until social scientists became interested in the 1930s. In the 1940s, the mathematical specialty of graph theory was applied to their analysis. In the 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram brought the “small world” problem to widespread attention with a clever experiment investigating how many acquaintance links were needed to connect random pairs of Americans, a number that became enshrined in the phrase “six degrees of separation” – originally the title of a hit Broadway play, later of a 1993 Will Smith movie and then a game concerning the prolific movie actor Kevin Bacon. In the 1990s, the study of networks caught the interest of physicists and computer science scholars, and evolved into the fields of “complex networks” and “computational social science”. From the early 2000s, email and mobile phones became increasingly prominent in our social life and social media, beginning with Friendster and MySpace and continuing with Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Snapchat, among many others, increasingly shaped our social existence.
This Introductory Seminar reviews the history of social network studies, investigates how actual networks have changed over the past hundred years and asks how new technologies will impact them. We draw from scholarly publications, popular culture and personal experience as ways to approach this central aspect of the human experience. We will read, analyze in short papers, and discuss classic and modern writing on social networks. We also dissect films and novels, social media and your own experiences, to reflect on what they tell us about the impact of social networks on individual lives and society.
"I have been interested in social networks since my undergraduate years (and before people had begun using the term) because as a history major, I could see how critical they were in major events such as the French Revolution. Going on to graduate work in Sociology, I did my doctoral dissertation on how people find jobs through social networks. My first published paper, ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’, inspired in part by how many of my respondents found jobs through acquaintances rather than friends, was one of the earliest sociological treatments of social networks and, to my surprise, is now the most cited paper in Sociology with more than 65,000 citations. I find social networks an unending source of fascination, and I look forward to sharing this excitement with my IntroSem."