Dagan used the term “social capital” several times in #DALMOOC’s week 3 materials. He spoke of a person accumulating social capital and how it correlates positively with their node’s high centrality and betweenness centrality values produced by SNA. We were encouraged to build or optimise our own social capital by “positioning” ourselves in the DALMOOC’s social networks (e.g. retweeting was suggested as a good strategy based on DALMOOC’s own data analysis presented at the start of week 4). Social capital after all, we were told, correlates with individual’s academic success, career prospects, influence…
At first it seemed like quite an intuitive concept, but the more it was mentioned, the more I yearned for a clear definition of the term. In fact, something was not sitting right with me in the way that the concept seemed to be atomised to a level of a node/individual in pursuit of their own interests. Surely, an individual would have no social capital on their own, without their network?
When I looked it up in Wikipedia (lazy, I know;), the complexity of the concept belied the initial intuitive impression.
The basic definition seemed pretty straight forward:
“social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups”
But it turns out that there are many ways of conceptualising social capital (SC). There are also many views on its value – high SC can be seen as positive (Putnam sees it as means for civic engagement and democracy), negative (Bourdieu’s “old boys networks” as means to produce/reproduce inequality) or neutral (Coleman’s “neutral resource that facilitates any manner of action” )! But my niggling feeling was confirmed – many of the conceptions seemed to focus on social capital as a feature of a group, a community.
Although the definition agreed that “social networks have value” which can “affect the productivity of individuals AND groups”, there was a palpable tension between conceptions of SC from these two perspectives:
Early attempts to define social capital focused on the degree to which social capital as a resource should be used for public good or for the benefit of individuals. Putnam suggested that social capital would facilitate co-operation and mutually supportive relations in communities and nations and would therefore be a valuable means of combating many of the social disorders inherent in modern societies, for example crime. In contrast to those focusing on the individual benefit derived from the web of social relationships and ties individual actors find themselves in, attribute social capital to increased personal access to information and skill sets and enhanced power. According to this view, individuals could use social capital to further their own career prospects, rather than for the good of organisations.
It is the latter conception which is reflected Nan Lin‘s definition (developed in late 1990s-early 2000s):
“Investment in social relations with expected returns in the marketplace” and “access to resources through network ties”
This definition makes the heretofore elusive SC concept quantifiable, allowing for empirical testing of SC theory predictions, which contributes to its widespread use, in economic study of SC and beyond.
Quick read of one of Dagan’s papers confirmed that he was likely using Lin’s definition during live sessions in Week 3 of the course (Gašević, D., Zouaq, A., Jenzen, R. (2013). Choose your Classmates, your GPA is at Stake!’ The Association of Cross-Class Social Ties and Academic Performance. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(10), 1459-1478. doi: 10.1177/0002764213479362 from week 4 Additional Resources).
Thus network brokers with high betweenness centrality scores and super connectors with high centrality scores maximise individual’s potential for drawing on information/resources from many/diverse others in their SN. This is inevitably a simplified and unidimensional proxy for social capital embodying an individualistic view. Using it in LA makes this conception a central message in our classrooms. Is this really the lesson we want our learners to come away with?
Thankfully, I also found Bogatti, Jones and Everett’s 1998 attempt at mapping more of SC facets onto SNA measures, explicitly trying to tackle the individual AND the group perspective (Borgatti, Stephen P., Candace Jones, and Martin G. Everett. “Network measures of social capital.” Connections 21, no. 2 (1998): 27-36). So perhaps the group perspective can be salvaged in application of SNA to LA after all. Phew!
I know this would be a great point to finish on. But just a couple more reflections.
An interesting tidbit from the Hangout with Shane Dawson, SNAPP co-creator, in relation to the meaning of betweenness centrality scores. You see, it really depends on the context. Even if you just look at information flow/communications or who-talks-to-whom in the discussion forums for simplicity (and exclude other forms of relationships), it can mean drastically different things. In one of his studies of a distance learning cohort high betweenness scores correlated with student dissatisfaction (the students were those who tried to talk to many groups looking for help and never got it). In other studies of campus, blended courses, betweenness positively correlated with creativity. So, as Shane emphasised, interpretation of the SNA outputs is even more important than understanding the underlying maths. The same SC proxy values can mean entirely different things!
I have to admit to a greater-communal-good bias in my conception of SC. Social learning does not end in how much an individual can draw on the knowledge of others. Social learning is also about working well in collaborative teams and organisations and contributing to their social capital (be it via creation of positive atmosphere through provision of cakes, or bringing in new ideas through your external connections). How would this look in SNA?
I designed many of my activities for students as cooperative tasks – they were to work as a team and their individual performance was linked to how well they performed as a group. Now, Shane suggested that on-the-go SNA analysis of discussion forums can provide an early feedback for the instructor to diagnose issues and intervene (change the shape of the community). Neat. Now – if in my teams I saw student behaviour resulting in high centrality (star shape) – single node maximising their social capital by maximising their centrality value some would say – I would be worried. We do not want a single student to dominate the conversation just like we do not want the instructor to do so! This is a common issue in any f2f classroom and most instructors would have many strategies to discourage such behaviour as it takes away opportunities to contribute from other participants. To take this further – any healthy collaborative team would be expected to have high social capital – lots of connections within SN (high network density). And each member would expect to benefit from it. Yet I would not expect each member to look the same in SNA (just like team roles are not all the same – i.e. you have one person chairing the meeting, one taking notes, one bringing cookies and yet another making sure that minuted actions are accomplished to the timetable), especially when zooming it out to inter-team relationships. Would a team consisting solely of high betweenness scorers be successful? While they spend all their time as social butterflies scouting the horizon for new ideas and positioning themselves between groups in the classroom who would be actually doing the work implementing those within the team?
Very keen to get into some literature in search of the group SC conceptions in SNA for LA! Perhaps week 4 material will bring some goodies to sink my teeth into:)