Social network cognition : an empirical investigation of network accuracy and social position

Cornelissen, Laurenz Aldu (2019-04)

Thesis (PhD)--Stellenbosch University, 2019.

Thesis

ENGLISH SUMMARY : The navigation of social relations is a central part of human life. In 1998, Robin Dunbar proposed the social brain hypothesis: brain size, particularly the neocortex, is directly related to the size and complexity of social networks of the species. This is due to the computational complexity needed for memorising relationships, and social skills necessary to manage those relationships. There is a key research field attempting to deal with questions around understanding social networks. Embedded in a structuralist agenda, social network analysis (SNA) offers theory, concepts, mechanisms, and tools to investigate social networks. A particular subset of the field investigates how individuals encode and perceive social networks. The realisation that humans are surprisingly inaccurate about social relations around them, prompted scholars to investigate why. If understanding social environments is such an important part of human life, why do researchers observe such inaccurate perceptions. The question led to investigations into the causes of individual misperceptions of social relations, and the consequences of such distorted perceptions. In other words, what causes people to misperceive crucial social relations, and what are the effects of differentiations of perceptions for individuals and groups? Prior work has mostly focussed on organisational contexts, which offers natural boundaries for social networks, as well as individual and group motivations for the functioning of the networks. Evidently, some individuals are more accurate than most, and a natural direction is to investigate why, and what the consequences are for these individuals. The literature employs a key assumption, which up to this point has been unchallenged. Inherited from the structuralist agenda, it has assumed that accuracy about the social network is the result of an individual’s social position. The network structure offers the opportunities and constraints for the individual, and thus results in increased awareness of social relations from an advantageous social position. The assumption is challenged in this thesis through highlighting evidence from a logical inconsistency between empirical findings and the proposed theoretical framework. Prior research proposes that individuals are accurate due to their position exposing them to information about social relations, a classical structuralist stance. Yet, when individuals in a formalised social position (such as organisational rank) are consistently observed to have lower acuity, the theoretical explanation cites motivation as antecedent, thus introducing agency into a structuralist theory. Proposing agency as an ad-hoc explanation for this finding does not offer a coherent theoretical framework. This, therefore, prompts a need for developing a more coherent theoretical framework from which to interpret the empirical findings, and guide future research. The pure structuralist theory for social acuity is thus challenged through a critical analysis of current literature and empirical findings. Three hypotheses are developed which is tested with new and prior data. Using non-parametric tests, the hypotheses are substantiated, which prompts an elaboration of the thesis to develop a formalisation of theoretical frameworks. The implicit assumptions of prior work are formalised under exposure theory, which stands as a structuralist approach to social network cognition. Subsequently, a formalisation of the thesis is developed into networking theory, which is a contextualisation of structuration theory. The thesis then draws increasingly broader conclusions for future research, and opens key questions about the role of cognition of social networks in a modern environment characterised by broad access to internet and social media platforms, enabling us to establish networks beyond our original capacity, as set by Dunbar.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING : Die navigasie van sosiale verhoudings is ’n sentrale deel van die menslike lewe. In 1998 het Dunbar die sosiale breinhipotese voorgestel: breingrootte, spesifiek die neokorteks, is direk verwant aan die grootte en kompleksiteit van sosiale netwerke van die spesie. Dit is te danke aan die kompleksiteit wat benodig word vir die memorisering van verhoudings, en sosiale vaardighede wat nodig is om daardie verhoudings te bestuur. Daar is ’n sleutel navorsingsveld wat probeer om vrae te antwoord rondom die verstaan van sosiale netwerke. Vanuit ’n strukturele agenda, bied sosiale netwerkanalise (SNA) teorie, konsepte, meganismes en instrumente om sosiale netwerke te ondersoek. ’n Spesifieke deelversameling van die veld ondersoek hoe individue sosiale netwerke waarneem en enkodeer. Die besef dat mense verrassend onakkuraat is oor sosiale verhoudings rondom hulle, het geleerdes genoop om te ondersoek in te stel na waarom dit so is. As die begrip van sosiale omgewings so ’n belangrike deel van die menslike lewe is, waarom sien ons sulke onakkurate persepsies. Die vraag het gelei tot ondersoeke na die oorsake van individuele misverstande van sosiale verhoudings en die gevolge van sulke verwronge persepsies. Met ander woorde, wat veroorsaak dat mense belangrike sosiale verhoudings misinterpreteer, en wat is die gevolge van verskille van persepsies vir individue en groepe? Voorafgaande werk het meestal gefokus op organisatoriese kontekste, wat natuurlike grense bied vir sosiale netwerke, asook individuele en groepmotiewe vir die funksionering van die netwerke. Dit is duidelik dat sommige individue meer akkuraat as die meerderheid is, en ’n natuurlike neiging, is dus, om ondersoek in te stel oor waarom dit die geval is, en wat die gevolge vir hierdie individue is. Die literatuur gebruik ’n belangrike veronderstelling, wat tot dusver onbetwis is. As ’n resultaat van die strukturele agenda, word dit aanvaar dat akkuraatheid oor die sosiale netwerk die gevolg is van ’n individu se sosiale posisie. Die netwerkstruktuur bied geleenthede en beperkings vir die individu, en sodoende lei dit tot toenemende bewustheid van sosiale verhoudings vanuit ’n voordelige sosiale posisie. Hierdie aanname word hier uitgedaag deur bewyse van ’n logiese inkonsekwentheid tussen empiriese bevindinge en die voorgestelde teoretiese raamwerk uit te lig. Vorige navorsing stel voor dat individue akkuraat is weens hul posisie wat hul blootstel aan inligting oor sosiale verhoudings. Hierdie is ’n klassieke strukturele siening. Tog, wanneer individue in ’n geformaliseerde sosiale posisie (soos organisatoriese rang) konsekwent waargeneem word om laer akkuraatheid te hê, benoem die teoretiese verduideliking motivering as antesedent, dus die bekendstelling van agentskap binne ’n strukturele teorie. Die voorlegging van agentskap as ’n ad hoc verklaring vir hierdie bevinding, bied nie ’n samehangende teoretiese raamwerk nie. Dit lei dus na ’n behoefte aan die ontwikkeling van ’n meer samehangende teoretiese raamwerk om die empiriese bevindings te interpreteer en toekomstige navorsing daarop toe te spits. Die suiwer strukturele teorie vir sosiale akkuraatheid word dus uitgedaag deur ’n kritiese analise van huidige literatuur en empiriese bevindinge. ’n Model word ontwikkel, bestaande uit drie strukturele hipoteses, wat met nuwe en vorige data beproef word. Met behulp van nie-parametriese toetse, word die model gestaaf, wat in die uitwerking van die proefskrif vereis om ’n formalisering van die teoretiese raamwerke te ontwikkel. Die implisiete aannames van vorige werk word geformaliseer onder blootstellingsteorie, wat as ’n strukturele benadering tot sosiale netwerkkognisie staan. Vervolgens word ’n formalisering van die sentrale proefskrif ontwikkel in netwerk teorie, wat ’n kontekstualisering van struktureringsteorie is. Die proefskrif trek dermate toenemend breër gevolgtrekkings vir toekomstige navorsing en ontwikkel belangrike vrae oor die rol van kognisie van sosiale netwerke in ’n moderne omgewing, wat gekenmerk word deur breë toegang tot internet en sosiale media-platforms. Hierdie blootstellings stel ons in staat om netwerke buite ons oorspronklike kapasiteit, soos beoog deur Dunbar, te vestig.

Please refer to this item in SUNScholar by using the following persistent URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/106171
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