Social Network Analysis and the ResULTS project

My name is Cornell Jackson and I am a social network analyst. I work on the ResULTS project trying to understand how social networks help or hinder the resilience of livestock agriculture. I am focused on the Orkney Islands.

So, what is social network analysis? Social network analysis (SNA) is the process of investigating social structures through the use of networks and graph theory. What does SNA do? It concentrates on three things. First, it measures relationships. Second, it focuses on dyads (pairs) because relationships happen between at least two people. Third, SNA stresses the importance of the structure of these relationships.

There are two types of networks that are analysed. Ego networks focus on the connections of one person. Whole networks, on the other hand, have the connections for everyone in the network.


One of the most important tools SNA has is visualisations such as the figure above. Visualisation allows you to see the structure of the relationships. Nodes, edges and directionality are important concepts in SNA.

Nodes represent the members of the network shown in the turquoise and pink squares in the visualisations. Nodes can be people, families, organisations, animals, words and webpages.

Edges represent relationships in the network and in the above visualisation are shown as lines between the nodes. Many types of relationships can be represented. These include kinship, role based relationships such as boss and leader, perceptual relationships such as knowledge and awareness of, affective relationships such as likes and trusts, interactive relationships such as advice and sex, relationships of affiliation, trading relationships, and collaborations. For animals it can include pecking order, whom eats whom, who grooms who and who fights with whom. On the Internet, it can include hyperlinks and in texts it can be words that are found in the same paragraph.

SNA measures relationships. There are several ways this can be done. This can include the strength, direction, ranking, frequency and probability of the relationship. It can also include if the relationship is perceived to be positive or negative.

Directionality of the relationship is also important. Relationships can be either reciprocal or non-reciprocal. Reciprocal relationships are shown in visualisations with arrows at both ends of edge. Non-reciprocal relationships are shown with the arrow at one end of the edge indicating in which direction the relationship flows.

Another thing to keep in mind about SNA is that the questions asked during data collection determines the resulting network. Asking the same group of people different questions can give you different networks. It is also important to remember that networks are dynamic and change over time.

Historically, SNA comes out of anthropology and sociology. In anthropology, it was the interest in kinship ties that drove this. In sociology, it was trying to understand how society worked that drove SNA development, led by scholars such as Georg Simmel. Jacob Moreno from psychology contributed by developing ways to visualise social networks.

Over the years, mathematics has become increasingly important in SNA. Below are some of the key branches of mathematics that are important in SNA:

  • Graph Theory – Graph theory is the study of graphs which are mathematical structures that visualise the relationship between pairs of objects. It is where SNA gets the terms nodes and edges.
  • Matrix Mathematics – A matrix is a rectangle of numbers. In SNA, we use a matrix to show who is connected to who. Therefore, matrix mathematics are mathematical operations performed on a matrix or matrices.
  • Linear Algebra – Linear algebra concerns linear equations and their representations in matrices and vector spaces. Linear equations produce lines. In SNA, we often load network data in a matrix to show who is connected to who. These lines can also be vectors, lines with direction, that go through space to illustrate what the network looks like.
  • Combinatorics – This is a branch of mathematics that deals with combination of objects in finite set in accordance to certain constraints. In SNA, this will be graph theory.

The traditional focus for SNA research has included who are the most central players in the network, how much cohesion the network has, are there cohesive subgroups within the network, what position people hold in the network and the impact of that, how to visualise networks and whether the friend of your friend is also your friend. In more recent years, the focus has been on terrorism, criminals, economics, the Internet, social networking, diffusion of innovations, how networks change over time, how networks form and large and complex networks.

Orkney Ferry Network

It is too early in the project to report findings. However, it is not too early to report questions generated. Above is a transport network diagram for Orkney. The black lines are regular vehicle and passenger ferries, orange lines show passenger only ferries, green lines represent limited service ferries.

If you look at the top of the network, you will see a triangle of ferry service between three islands, Egilsay, Rousay and Wyre. Rousay has around 215 people, Egilsay has 26 people and Wyre has 29 people. Yet, there are 5 ferries a day between these islands Monday through Friday, 4 on Saturday and 3 on Sunday. What is the reason for this level of ferry service? Is it due to the fact that Rousay has the only primary school among the three islands? Is there some historic ties between these islands that drives ferry traffic? Does the relationship between these three islands help or hinder the resilience of livestock farming?

Orkney Schools

Above is a network that shows how primary schools in Orkney, shown as red circles, feed the secondary schools, shown as blue squares. Is there a network in each local primary school? Are the networks formed in the secondary schools resilient? Do the school networks help or hinder the resilience of livestock farming?

So, what type of networks are in Orkney? Do these networks help or hinder the resilience of livestock farming in Orkney? Theoretically, what are the most resilient types of networks? Can these be developed in Orkney livestock farming?

These are the questions we will try to answer in this project in order to understand the factors critical to the resilience of Orkney livestock farming.

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