A short visual history of social network mapping

Posted on 02/01/2011 by


I stumbled across an interesting journal yesterday: The Journal of Social Structure. The sort of public arm of the International Network for Social Network Analysis, one of the first papers dealt with an informal introduction to data visualization in general.  I thought that may also be a good place to begin Seeing Complexity.

The idea of a social network is not all that new, despite the contemporary association of the term with consumer participation and internet culture.  Mike Gotta suggests that across the variety of disciplines that contributed to the concept, as early as 1853 philosopher Auguste Comte conceived of social systems as a set of interconnected relationships.  Yet I cannot find any record of social network visualizations until the mid 1930’s with Jacob Moreno‘s pioneering work on social life.  Moreno’s (1934) original work defined a social network as a set of linkages between actors:

His work introduced the idea of nodal points at the center of networks.  Since the inception of network visualizations, researchers have attempted to identify the most popular points among social relations as nodes, a theme later conceptualized in terms of centrality by Alex Bavelas in 1950.  Of course, the visual complexity of these relationships mirrors the growth in a sociological emphasis on structure in academia.  Lundberg and Steele (1938), building on Moreno’s seminal work, they identify nuclei of social networks as the foundation of the association.

I should note here that Norway plays a strangely important role in the coinage of the actual term ‘social network.’  J.A. Barnes, an anthropologist, used the term in a 1954 paper on the social organization of a Norwegian fishing village.  He critically suggested that the network of relationships in any organization influence individual’s decision making.  As another side note, as sociologists attempted to embed more data in a single visualization, this era produced some truly odd maps:

(Sociogram of a First Grade Class (from Northway, 1952)

The explosion of computational imaging in the 1980’s created a whole new world of methods of visualizing social data.  Klovdahl’s (1982) adaptation of biology imaging software for social networks (ORTEP) ushered in a new age in 3-dvisualizations:

With the advent of widespread internet use, the floodgates really opened in network mapping.  I suppose that is really what most of this blog will be looking at–and there is no shortage of innovative, beautiful projects visualizing social networks. One of my new favorites is Vizster out of Stanford.  Jeffry Heer and Danah Boyd published a paper back in 2005 on visualizing social networks, and have since released their software as a java app online (Download here).

Real-time mapping and other neat innovations are beginning to define the data visualization landscape online.  But as sites like Trendistic get more and more coverage for their seemingly endless explanatory and even predictive power (see Iran’s Twitter Revolution, via The Washington Times), I think we should keep in mind the origins of  this sort of data visualization in the very much ‘offline’ relationships that continue to define our everyday lives.

Just a thought.

Klovdahl, A. S. (1981). A note on images of networks. Social Networks. 3, 197-214.

Moreno, J. L. (1932). Application of the Group Method to Classification. New York: National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor.

Moreno, J. L. (1934). Who Shall Survive? Washington, DC: Nervous and Mental Disease Publishing Company.

Lundberg, G. A., and Steele, M. (1938). Social attraction-patterns in a village. Sociometry. 1, 375-419.

(Images via Linton Freeman, Visualizing Social networks, Journal of Social Structures 1)

Posted in: History, Images