02 June 2010

Only connect

Once upon a time I spent several weeks, completely alone (long story; don’t ask), on top of a mesa with a precarious microecology, surrounded by desert. My only company was the local wildlife: mostly lizards, small rodents, and an unlikely colony of feral cats at the top of the food chain.

Those cats, as the only visible social species, became the focus of my attention for much of the time – particularly the complex network of behavioural relations that bound their tribe together. There were mentor/mentee relations. There were sibling and parent/offspring relations. There were hunting partners. There were bonded sexual pairings and temporary liaisons. There was a power hierarchy. And there was a rich web of what I could only describe as ‘best friend’ relations. Then there was also a small number of maverick individuals who appeared to be entirely outside all of this, part of the tribe, but operating alone, connected to the main only by apparently random acts of altruism or brigandism.

Studying systems of inter-relational linkage was, at that time, an important part of my day job. But computing resources were scarce in those days, and sheer volume of content and association limited what could realistically be done; things are very different today. While analysis of social networks stretches back at least to the 1940s (arguably to the late 19th century), and social network analysis (SNA) as a formal field has been well established in sociology (to which I shall return, shortly) for decades, ‘it has only recently been discovered by behavioural biologists as a useful tool in the study of animal behaviour’, to quote Amelia Coleing* in Bioscience Horizons just over a year ago. Coleing goes on to observe that ‘...methods devised to measure social complexity in studies of animal behaviour... often reflect the social relationships between individuals indirectly... social network analysis provides formal descriptors... and by providing quantitative measures... allows testing of statistical models about relationships and structure’. [More]

  • Amelia Coleing, "The application of social network theory to animal behaviour" in Bioscience Horizons, 2009. 2(1): p. 32.

1 comment:

Dr. C said...

I have been wondering lately some things, reflected in what you say in your article, whether someone who has been carried along by the flood (e.g. texting, Facebook, iPhone, GPS location, implantable chip) can't voluntarily turn the other way. Do a sort of Thoreau maneuver and walk away from it all. I feel actually chained to my cell phone and I am expected to be there, one heartbeat away from an anxious parent. I don't really mind it but I can't imagine all of society barreling down the road with our every action, every movement, analyzed by someone in Washington, London or Paris (actually in Bengladesh).