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The 'Riddle' of social network intricacies explained in new book

By Benjamin Welch
On April 27, 2011

Though the term "social network" produces visions of Facebook courtesy of a recent movie about the website's founders, the true definition is more complicated than clicking the "friend" button.

Mark Riddle, a sociology professor at UNC, is assisting others in making that definition in two articles that will be published in "The SAGE Handbook of Social Network Analysis" in May.

Riddle defines social networking as something other than the popular website:

"If you are at the center of a hub of people, and everybody's connected to you but not to each other, then there are a lot of potential ties there but not actual ties," he said.

The two articles, "A Brief Introduction to Analyzing Social Network Data" and "Concepts and Measures for Basic Network Analysis," are the prefacing chapters in the handbook and are an introduction to the mathematics of social network analysis. Riddle said the two chapters are like a statistics book, providing aid to researchers who want to look into the topic.

"People are connected in a variety of ways," Riddle said. "So talking about different dimensions of their connectedness can have different meanings, and (the articles show) how to compute it. Here's how to make the numbers work."

Though Riddle is now gaining prominence in the field of sociological studies, his path toward discovering his passion was not an easy one.

He received his bachelor's degree in music theory and composition from Occidental College in Los Angeles. Afterward, he got his theology degree and spent a decade as a priest. He said he knew the clergy was not his calling, and after a chance meeting with sociologists, he pursued his master's and subsequently his doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Riverside.

While at UCR, he teamed up with his dissertation adviser and mentor, Robert Hanneman, to co-author a textbook.

"What our chapters do is try to show some of the connections between how one observes data and gains insight about it on one hand, and formal mathematical structure on the other hand," Hanneman said.

Hanneman and Riddle became close friends and research partners. The two articles being published in SAGE are from the second edition of that initial textbook.

"He was the mentor I hope to be to my students," Riddle said of Hanneman.

The "SAGE Handbook of Social Network Analysis" was the first comprehensive collection of readings covering the sociological approaches to social networks, Hanneman said. Previous handbooks of social analysis discussed topics ranging from online interaction to connectivity of terrorist attack victims to corporate networks.

This year's handbook will also concentrate on the future of social networking.

"It is the end-all and be-all of the social sciences, at the moment," Riddle said. "There have been people doing social network analysis for a long time, and numeric representations exist as early as the 1940s. But, of course the growth in social media of various kinds has been phenomenal in the last decade. So, currently there are a lot of researchers trying to look into how people are connected on Facebook, Twitter, and to a lesser extent, MySpace, and trying to develop models for what that looks like and trying to make claims about what's happening socially."

In addition to his work on social network analysis, Riddle has published in educational journals about research on higher education and contributed to a journal on disabilities. Currently, he is prepping for an article on moral panic, which is how people get excited over items of interest that are in the public eye over short periods of time.

Though the ideas behind social analysis and the steps to achieve data in the field create a difficult process, Hanneman sums up the basic theory.

"Our chapters are basically about what are the main concepts and tools and translating ideas about social structure into mathematical form," Hanneman said. "This will be a prominent publication cited by many researchers for a long time."


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