Who is good at qualitative network analysis?

I’m struggling with this. And learning while I struggle. Have you been in situations, where you know intuitively what you are doing and it works wonderfully and then you try to teach someone, hire someone to do the same and you just can’t explain it? It’s hit and miss, either they get it or not… Qualitative network analysis is one of these things. So let me try to tell you how I think it works and you can see if that makes sense:

You collect network data in a way that involves collecting network narratives (stories about how the network works) and a visual representation of the network.

You look at the network picture, take the network narratives as an important source of answers to the questions “How?” and “Why?” and try to say something about how network structures are linked to network performance. Not by calculating indicators but by understanding the structural logic of the network.

What do you need to be able to do this well? I have found that it is a combination of training and network intuition. Let’s start with the training. You need to know how to handle qualitative data, which is something you can be trained in. And I have found that training in quantitative network analysis greatly helps in being able to detect patterns and structural issues, even if you don’t do the actual quantitative analysis. If you know what eigenvector centrality is, you will start to look for actors who are connected to the well connected.

But what is network intuition? With my colleague Noora Aberman, who does a lot of the in-country trainings at the moment, I have tried to figure out why it is that some people just “get it” immediately whereas for others learning Net-Map is like swimming up-river. It seems to be a rather fundamental difference, not so much grounded in the training that people had but much more in their general view of the world.

Some people see the world as a networked place where structures are very relevant to determine outcomes, where power is an important ingredient structuring human interaction. When they tell you two stories, they will often think about what was the common thread and what you can learn from this for similar situations. But even though they believe in the importance of structures they don’t necessarily believe it’s as simple as A+B=C and often struggle with determining simple straightforward causalities. When they get in contact with social network analysis for the first time, there is this beautiful moment, when there is a spark in their eyes and they say: “This is how I have seen the world all along, I just didn’t have the language for it.” Then they are hooked.

In our trainings we have met (very simplified, obviously) two other types, who found it much more difficult to master Net-Map and use it to it’s full potential. And that is, again, mainly because of their general view of the world. One group are the very qualitatively oriented, people who tell you two stories and are acutely aware of all the differences between them. If you talk about structures they feel like you are generalizing too much, not taking into account the specific issues that just concern this actor in this moment in time. I have some colleagues who love using Net-Map as a tool to allow interview partners to tell them their story in all necessary detail and would prefer not doing anything with the map afterwards, because for them it has served it’s purpose already. The map doesn’t tell them anything.

On the other end of the spectrum I meet very quantitatively oriented people, who initially get very excited about Net-Map (and social network analysis in general) because they expect that it will help them deal with complexity and give them a formula to compute it and finally say the answer is 42. Or: This is the most important actor in the network. Just from the quantitative indicators. No matter what individual sits on this chair, the network position of the chair determines how the person will act. They get excited when we start looking into the quantitative network indicators. But when they ask me: “What is the best value of XY centrality” I have to tell them “That depends…” Often when I work with people who have this more quantitative mindset, they find it easier to detect the network structures in the picture – but more difficult to elicit the narrative we need and to digest it’s whole richness, instead of just thinking about the fact that A is linked to B.

My very practical concern at the moment: How do you find out whether someone will have a talent for qualitative network analysis BEFORE you go through the effort of training them?

4 Responses

  1. Eva,

    So having now experienced my first Net-Map exercise, I keep asking myself, “Do I get it?” And I guess I just don’t know what the “it” is. As you know, I love the magic of visualizing the map–I could do that all day. And the whole exercise seems to make a lot of sense to me. But I wonder if I’m missing something because it seems so intuitive–it just makes sense to look at things this way.

    I mentioned to Noora that maybe you need to come up with some “pre-test” that would help determine a person’s world view–the second element you mention. Not sure what questions you would ask, but it might give you an understanding of where the person is coming from separate from their quantitative or qualitative skills.

    Let me know when you figure it out.


    • Hi Hannah,
      I would guess (though I wasn’t there) that the fact that it all felt so intuitively easy and making sense is a sign that you get it. 🙂
      I hope I didn’t sound like this is a magical exclusive club. Maybe it is more that for some people this is just a picture of how the world looks while for others it is a method that they have to put extra effort into learning… Just like me doing statistical analysis, it requires a lot of conscious effort and remembering the rules to do it because it doesn’t come natural to me. That doesn’t mean I cannot learn and do it. But it’s a lot of hard work for so-so results. While I know people who play statistics like a piano and come up with all kinds of great results without even thinking too much about what they are doing.
      I’m looking forward to hear more about your experience in the field and am curious how the two colored influence towers are working out.

  2. Dear Eva,
    I think the pre-test to detect a quantitatively oriented person is rather easy: show them a table full of numbers, p<0.001, etc. and catch the first expression in their eyes: if they spark in fascination, here you have your quantitative guy! Let them play with Visualyzer. If they look puzzled and rather dizzy, well, you have a qualitative dude in front of you.
    Now, the overly qualitative one is trickier. I guess you could bump into discourse analysts who are anally precise about the meaning of tones and pauses, and sighs in the conversation, for whom your toolbox might sound too raw. But I wouldn't worry if I were you: they might dig out interesting stuff you never would, and that's cool anyway.

    • Hm… but how do you know if someone “sees” structure? I’m definitely more on the qualitative side. But I know both, qualitative and quantitative thinkers who see patterns and structure just pop out when they hear a story, see a picture or see a table full of numbers. And others don’t. Maybe the easiest way of figuring out whether someone is good at Net-Mapping is to draw a map with them… But that just sounds so simple and straightforward, there must be a more magical trick I can come up with 🙂

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