Mapping the structure of big networks of individual actors (without getting overwhelmed)

So what do you do if you are interested in understanding the structure of a network of individuals and the network is too big or your resources too small, to interview each and every one of the 500 members as to who they are linked to? Sometimes, for getting a bigger picture of the structure, you might not even be interested in learning whether Peter sings with Paul or Mary (but if you are, look here). But you want to rather have a concept of what roles people fulfill in the network and what links they have because of these roles. I’m thinking about “generic role labels”. So you add a number of singers:

Singer A

Singer B

Singer C

And they are linked to each other by singing together; they are linked to the generic

Manager A

by multiple links of money flow and contractual agreement, etc.

Or, maybe you are looking at a research network and you see it consists of university professors in different countries, students in these countries on different levels, staff of government agencies who is supposed to implement, farmers and fishermen in the respective countries, who provide data etc. Everybody involved plays a lot of roles in their life (being a mother, church-member, consumer, business-owner etc.), but you would, in this case, only be interested in the role that they play in your network. Just try it out: What happens if you write their roles on your actor cards and ask: How is the typical farmer in your network linked to the typical PhD student and the typical professor?

Because the role labels are generic, the outcome would also be more generic, it would tell you much more about how people think about the structure of the network, and you would have to remind people that it is not about “how it should be”. But I think there are cases when this is exactly what you are interested in: How do people think that things go in our network. And you will see that in any given network there are very different perceptions about that. In case you want to combine the “generic role labels” approach with information about individual actors, you might want to choose bigger actor cards and add names of individuals that can serve as examples of people fulfilling these roles.

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