Our understanding of behaviour in groups has been evolving for many years. Much of the earliest scientific study was based on animal populations and formed a subset of the science of ethology. These studies usually revolved around small groups that were relatively easy to observe. Larger group theories could not be studied very accurately and so tended to be hypothetical, unless they followed the behaviour of one individual in that larger group.
In the years around the Second World War and into the 60s, Wilfred Bion, a doctor of medicine and a psychoanalyst, studied the dynamics of groups and the individuals within them, drawing heavily on his experiences of leading groups in WW1, treating the ‘shell-shocked’ from WW2, and an extensive training analysis with some of the most significant psychoanalysts since Freud, based around the Tavistock Clinic in London. In 1961, he published one of the most widely acclaimed books on group dynamics ever; Experiences in Groups, which continues to be the definitive text for the study of human behaviour in groups.
One of the toughest challenges then facing group dynamics researchers is the ability to observe them. Some of us would film and then spend hours analysing movements, others would use statistical pattern recognition techniques, and, of course, there have been many simulation studies.
There’s ground-breaking work going on in studies on the human genome which looks at longer-term connectedness.
With the digital era and the explosion of social media studies there’s a revolution going on in the scale of the data that can be studied in quite short timescales. Networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, and search engines such as Google and Yahoo, and mobile phone systems, can provide vast quantities of data that allow us to understand how very large groups are behaving – in some cases even in real time.
One of the pioneers of this work is Nicholas Christakis whose work examines the biological, psychological, sociological, and mathematical rules that govern how we form these social networks, and the rules that govern how they shape our lives. His work shows how phenomena as diverse as obesity, smoking, emotions, ideas, germs, and altruism can spread through our social ties, and how genes can partially underlie our creation of social ties to begin with. His work also sheds light on how we might take advantage of an understanding of social networks to make the world a better place.
At Harvard, Christakis is a Professor of Medicine, Health Care Policy, and Sociology, and he directs a diverse research group investigating social networks. His popular undergraduate course (Life and Death in the US) is podcast [available on itunes]. His book, “Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives“, co-authored with James H Fowler, appeared in 2009, and has been translated into nearly 20 languages. In 2009, he was named by Time magazine in its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, and also by Foreign Policy magazine in its list of 100 top global thinkers.
His basic tenet is that people aren’t merely social animals in the usual sense, because we don’t just live in groups. We live in networks and have done so ever since we emerged from the African savannah. Through intricately branching paths tracing out cascading family connections, friendship ties, and work relationships, we are interconnected to hundreds or even thousands of specific people, most of whom we do not know. However, we affect them and they affect us.
You can see his two talks at TED, here:
The hidden influence of social networks
How social networks predict epidemics
Graham Wilson – 07785 222380
PS My previous Business Book of the Week was ““The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo (20/11/10)
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