Saturday, September 12, 2009

Our Personal Networks:
A Methodology Moment

We get our political information in lots of ways -- the news media, obviously, but also from the people we talk to every day, our social network.

It's the latter that is the focus of an article in the most recent issue of Public Opinion Quarterly. The authors look at two different ways of generating survey data about people's social networks.  As the authors write:
"One method asks respondents to provide information about the individuals with whom they discuss 'important matters,' while the other asks respondents to provide information about the individuals with whom they discuss politics.  We find that respondents provide more or less the same data on their political discussion partners regardless of which name generator procedure is used."

My first thought was -- wow, cool, you can get published with a null finding.

My second thought was -- there's leeway in how we study social networks, allowing us to confidently compare studies with slightly different methods.  Useful.

The authors conclude that our "core and political discussion networks comprise the same individuals."  In other words, we talk to the same people ... politics, or not.

That's good to know from a methodological standpoint.  I assumed people carve their larger social networks into smaller chunks.  This chunk is made up of people you talk about politics with, that chunk is people you talk music with, that other chunk is for religion, etc.  Maybe some overlap, but I always assumed there were differences.  This research suggests not.

I'm a bit skeptical. Maybe I'm generalizing from an N of 1, but maybe the lack of a result here has more to do with a methodological quirk in the wording ("important matters" versus "politics") than in how we consciously or unconsciously create our interpersonal networks.  I don't know.  My gut says the method here is too mild to truly capture differences in our interpersonal networks.  The lack of results are useful, especially if you want to combine data from different approaches in a larger analysis, but I don't think we can say quite yet that we have the same interpersonal network for everything.

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