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Mathematics LibreTexts

1.5: A note on Statistics and Social Network Data

Social network analysis is more a branch of "mathematical" sociology than of "statistical or quantitative analysis," though social network analysts most certainly practice both approaches. The distinction between the two approaches is not clear-cut. Mathematical approaches to network analysis tend to treat the data as "deterministic." That is, they tend to regard the measured relationships and relationship strengths as accurately reflecting the "real" or "final" or "equilibrium" status of the network. Mathematical types also tend to assume that the observations are not a "sample" of some larger population of possible observations; rather, the observations are usually regarded as the population of interest. Statistical analysts tend to regard the particular scores on relationship strengths as stochastic or probabilistic realizations of an underlying true tendency or probability distribution of relationship strengths. Statistical analysts also tend to think of a particular set of network data as a "sample" of a larger class or population of such networks or network elements -- and have a concern for the results of the current study would be reproduced in the "next" study of similar samples.

In the chapters that follow in this text, we will mostly be concerned with the "mathematical" rather than the "statistical" side of network analysis (again, it is important to remember that I am over-drawing the differences in this discussion). Before passing on to this, we should note a couple main points about the relationship between the material that you will be studying here, and the main statistical approaches in sociology.  In chapter 18, we will explore some of the basic ways in which statistical tools have been adapted to study social network data.

In one way, there is little apparent difference between conventional statistical approaches and network approaches. Univariate, bi-variate, and even many multivariate descriptive statistical tools are commonly used in the describing, exploring, and modeling social network data. Social network data are, as we have pointed out, easily represented as arrays of numbers -- just like other types of sociological data. As a result, the same kinds of operations can be performed on network data as on other types of data. Algorithms from statistics are commonly used to describe characteristics of individual observations (e.g. the median tie strength of actor X with all other actors in the network) and the network as a whole (e.g. the mean of all tie strengths among all actors in the network). Statistical algorithms are very heavily used in assessing the degree of similarity among actors, and if finding patterns in network data (e.g. factor analysis, cluster analysis, multi-dimensional scaling). Even the tools of predictive modeling are commonly applied to network data (e.g. correlation and regression).

Descriptive statistical tools are really just algorithms for summarizing characteristics of the distributions of scores. That is, they are mathematical operations. Where statistics really become "statistical" is on the inferential side. That is, when our attention turns to assessing the reproducibility or likelihood of the pattern that we have described. Inferential statistics can be, and are, applied to the analysis of network data. But, there are some quite important differences between the flavors of inferential statistics used with network data, and those that are most commonly taught in basic courses in statistical analysis in sociology.

Probably the most common emphasis in the application of inferential statistics to social science data is to answer questions about the stability, reproducibility, or generalizability of results observed in a single sample. The main question is: if I repeated the study on a different sample (drawn by the same method), how likely is it that I would get the same answer about what is going on in the whole population from which I drew both samples? This is a really important question -- because it helps us to assess the confidence (or lack of it) that we ought to have in assessing our theories and giving advice.

To the extent the observations used in a network analysis are drawn by probability sampling methods from some identifyable population of actors and/or ties, the same kind of question about the generalizability of sample results applies. Often this type of inferential question is of little interest to social network researchers. In many cases, they are studying a particular network or set of networks, and have no interest in generalizing to a larger population of such networks (either because there isn't any such population, or we don't care about generalizing to it in any probabilistic way). In some other cases we may have an interest in generalizing, but our sample was not drawn by probability methods. Network analysis often relies on artifacts, direct observation, laboratory experiments, and documents as data sources -- and usually there are no plausible ways of identifying populations and drawing samples by probability methods.

The other major use of inferential statistics in the social sciences is for testing hypotheses. In many cases, the same or closely related tools are used for questions of assessing generalizability and for hypothesis testing. The basic logic of hypothesis testing is to compare an observed result in a sample to some null hypothesis value, relative to the sampling variability of the result under the assumption that the null hypothesis is true. If the sample result differs greatly from what was likely to have been observed under the assumption that the null hypothesis is true -- then the null hypothesis is probably not true.

The key link in the inferential chain of hypothesis testing is the estimation of the standard errors of statistics. That is, estimating the expected amount that the value a a statistic would "jump around" from one sample to the next simply as a result of accidents of sampling. We rarely, of course, can directly observe or calculate such standard errors -- because we don't have replications. Instead, information from our sample is used to estimate the sampling variability.

With many common statistical procedures, it is possible to estimate standard errors by well validated approximations (e.g. the standard error of a mean is usually estimated by the sample standard deviation divided by the square root of the sample size). These approximations, however, hold when the observations are drawn by independent random sampling. Network observations are almost always non-independent, by definition. Consequently, conventional inferential formulas do not apply to network data (though formulas developed for other types of dependent sampling may apply). It is particularly dangerous to assume that such formulas do apply, because the non-independence of network observations will usually result in under-estimates of true sampling variability -- and hence, too much confidence in our results.

The approach of most network analysts interested in statistical inference for testing hypotheses about network properties is to work out the probability distributions for statistics directly. This approach is used because: 1) no one has developed approximations for the sampling distributions of most of the descriptive statistics used by network analysts and 2) interest often focuses on the probability of a parameter relative to some theoretical baseline (usually randomness) rather than on the probability that a given network is typical of the population of all networks.

Suppose, for example, that I was interested in the proportion of the actors in a network who were members of cliques (or any other network statistic or parameter). The notion of a clique implies structure -- non-random connections among actors. I have data on a network of ten nodes, in which there are 20 symmetric ties among actors, and I observe that there is one clique containing four actors. The inferential question might be posed as: how likely is it, if ties among actors were purely random events, that a network composed of ten nodes and 20 symmetric ties would display one or more cliques of size four or more? If it turns out that cliques of size four or more in random networks of this size and degree are quite common, I should be very cautious in concluding that I have discovered "structure" or non-randomness. If it turns out that such cliques (or more numerous or more inclusive ones) are very unlikely under the assumption that ties are purely random, then it is very plausible to reach the conclusion that there is a social structure present.

But how can I determine this probability? The method used is one of simulation -- and, like most simulation, a lot of computer resources and some programming skills are often necessary. In the current case, I might use a table of random numbers to distribute 20 ties among 10 actors, and then search the resulting network for cliques of size four or more. If no clique is found, I record a zero for the trial; if a clique is found, I record a one. The rest is simple. Just repeat the experiment several thousand times and add up what proportion of the "trials" result in "successes." The probability of a success across these simulation experiments is a good estimator of the likelihood that I might find a network of this size and density to have a clique of this size "just by accident" when the non-random causal mechanisms that I think cause cliques are not, in fact, operating.

This may sound odd, and it is certainly a lot of work (most of which, thankfully, can be done by computers). But, in fact, it is not really different from the logic of testing hypotheses with non-network data. Social network data tend to differ from more "conventional" survey data in some key ways: network data are often not probability samples, and the observations of individual nodes are not independent. These differences are quite consequential for both the questions of generalization of findings, and for the mechanics of hypothesis testing. There is, however, nothing fundamentally different about the logic of the use of descriptive and inferential statistics with social network data.

The application of statistics to social network data is an interesting area, and one that is, at the time of this writing, at a "cutting edge" of research in the area. Since this text focuses on more basic and commonplace uses of network analysis, we won't have very much more to say about statistics beyond this point. You can think of much of what follows here as dealing with the "descriptive" side of statistics (developing index numbers to describe certain aspects of the distribution of relational ties among actors in networks). For those with an interest in the inferential side, a good place to start is with the second half of the excellent Wasserman and Faust textbook.