Report on EASP Meeting: Introducing Structure: Networks in Social Psychology
22.11.2018, by Tina Keil in meeting report
October 31st-November 3rd, 2018 in Brussels, Belgium; Organisers: Julia Eberlen & Olivier Klein
If one has to select an ideal place for organizing a meeting about social networks in social psychology, Brussels should probably come near the top of the list. As a hub in one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and as the capital of Belgium, Flanders, and Europe, it is a crucial node in a tangled web of overlapping networks. Strangely, while early work on social networks was conducted in the field of social psychology (e.g., Jacob Levy Moreno’s work on sociometry), interest for the topic has penetrated other fields - such as sociology or physics - more than our own. Renewed interest for networks has been encouraged by the availability of computing tools allowing to simulate and analyse networks. Yet, a small, but vigorous army of social psychologists have relied on networks to model and investigate social psychological phenomena. The purpose this meeting, that was initiated at the last EASP general meeting in Granada, was to bring them together. The meeting took place in the splendid Art Nouveau venue of the University Foundation, an institution that emerged from the humanitarian aid provided to Belgium during World War I - thanks to the businessman Emile Francqui - and played a crucial role in the emergence of publicly funded scientific research in the country. One of the institutions that spawned from is the National Fund for Scientific Research (FRS-FNRS), the main funding body for research conducted in French speaking Belgium, that contributed to the funding of this meeting.
Before the actual meeting, two 3 hour-tutorials were offered. On October 31st, Tobias Stark (Utrecht University) and Tibor Zingora (Academy of sciences of the Czech Republic) introduced colleagues to the R-SIENA program - that allows to study the evolution of social networks longitudinally. This was done in a fascinating room covered with images of bees. Those who were interested in discovering agent-based models could attend another tutorial delivered by Christian Luhmann (Stony Brook University). The participants displayed an impressive level of studiousness that was rewarded by having dinner in a Brussels hallmark - the “Ultime Atome” Restaurant, a fitting allusion to the Atomium building - which we used to illustrate the website of the meeting. After, all are we not all made of small networks?
After this appetizer, it was time for the main course on November 1st. Tibor Zingara was the first to talk and explain his work - using R-Siena of course - on how adolescents’ social networks shape intergroup attitudes. Next, Niels Mertens talked about leadership networks in soccer teams and found that the success of the team is predicted by the team’s (leadership) network structure. The third talk, by Katarzyna Growiec (from the University of the Social Sciences, Warsaw) showed us ambitious work aiming to use networks to measure the sociological concept of social capital. In a representative sample, she showed that these measures predict generalized social trust.
The next session was devoted to work in progress. This was a new format in which scholars presented their work in different stages of the research process and received feedback from two “experts” attending the meeting (who had read a report of the research beforehand). Shelley McKeown-Jones (from the University of Bristol, UK) presented work conducted with Thia Sagherian-Dickey on contact in racially diverse classrooms in Northern Ireland. Their work shows the interest of examining seating choices and friendship nomination as two complementary measures of social networks. Along similar lines, Lars Leszczensky (Mannheim Centre for European Social Research, Germany) examined friendships between Muslims and Non-Muslim Youth. He showed that religion was more important than religiosity in predicting such friendships. Finally Kieran Mepham (from ETH Zürich) considered different ways of measuring informal social groups, comparing social cognitive maps with social networks.
It was time for a well-deserved standing lunch in the beautiful dining room of the University Foundation, where we felt like dignitaries of the early 20th century.
This put us in an ideal mood to listen to the keynote by Tom Postmes from the University of Groningen. Tom presented fascinating work building on Durkheim’s classical distinction between “organic” (i.e., involving distinct, interdependent, roles) and “mechanical” solidarity (i.e., involving similar roles and behaviors) to understand the emergence of a sense of groupness. The climax of his fascinating presentation was when he presented us work relying on professional dancers that attempted to choreograph these two forms of solidarity and examine their effect on groups of audience members’ actual spatial behavior. How more ambitious can you be? And yet, the results of the studies proved highly conclusive.
After a coffee break, the last session of the day started with Loes Meeussen’s presentation (from the University of Leuven), who studied the impact of diversity in small groups of engineering students longitudinally using RSiena. Loes’ take home message: diversity seems to have a negative effect on social norming (i.e., the sharing of values) but not on “social bonding” (i.e., creating bonds with other group members).
Next Tobias Stark considered the extended contact hypothesis (i.e., the idea that attitudes towards outgroup members can be improved to the extent that the latter have positive contact with one’s own friends) through a social networking angle, which allowed to operationalize this concept much more precisely: depending on whether the individual knows the out-group member as well (but is not necessarily close friends with this person), the triad (self/in-group friend/out-grouper) is closed or not. Contrary to the extended contact hypothesis, Tobias finds that extended contact via open triads is not related to prejudice. He used the open source “GENSI” software to model “ego-networks” (i.e., people’s representations of their social network based on self-report). Finally, Ana-Maria Bliuc (Western Sydney University) studied the cohesion of an online social network - an Australian white supremacist community - before and after a major race riot (the “Cronulla riot”). She shows that activity in the network is driven by the new members who join after the riots, thereby influencing the identity of the group.
After this long day, a walking tour was organized guided by a specialist in urban myths, Aurore Van Winkel (apples had been provided for starving walkers). She showed us obscure locations in the center of Brussels associated with scary stories featuring suicidal architects, the food habits of Chinese restaurant owners, the abduction of Belgian ladies in toilets and sexual perverts clothed as old ladies. While some of us would have preferred a real “historical” tour, the social psychological functions of these stories - managing the fear of “strangers”, bonding, protecting identity - complemented the social psychological substance of the meeting appropriately. The torrents of rain falling on the city, and the darkness that fell early, contributed to the gloomy atmosphere.
On November 2, we were back at the University Foundation to attend tutorials by Nucco Ludovico (from La Sapienza University in Italy) on network vizualisation using the free-to-use Gephi software or by András Vörös (from ETH Zürich) on ethics in network research. After a coffee break, as always, one could sip the water contained in beautiful Art Nouveau bottles that were placed on the tables by the highly professional staff of the University Foundation while listening to a talk by Mark Brandt (Tilburg University, Netherlands).
Contrary to most other speakers, Mark was not interested in networks of people but in networks of beliefs: how are political beliefs connected with each other? And how can this explain political polarization? And indeed, sub-components of political beliefs were much more connected to each other among members with extreme beliefs. The next talk by Lydia Repke from the Leibniz Institute (Germany), and co-authored by Veronica Benet-Martinez from Pompeu Fabra University, Spain (also present at the meeting) bore on the social networks of immigrants in Spain. Using ego-network methods, she showed that connectedness between the local ingroup and outgroup predicted sociocultural adjustment - highlighting the importance of bicultural identity.
The lunch break offered an opportunity to make a group shot and to lounge in deep armchairs. Afterwards, a second session of work in progress was scheduled. Felicity M. Turner-Zwinkel (Tilburg University) approached the structure of moral belief networks as a function of education. Martin Delhove (Innsbrück University, Austria) examined social networks of video game users longitudinally and whether video-game related aggression could spread to friends of the gamers. Lea Baumann (Leibniz Institut für Wissensmedien, Tübingen) examined people’s categorizations of their personal business networks when they use professional networking sites.
Another coffee break (we really had a lot of coffee!) was followed by the two last talks of the day. The first one by Christian Luhmann sought to distinguish mechanisms of behavioral contagion using a Bayesian approach. Christian showed that it was possible to identify which influence mechanisms that had produced a specific pattern of activation in a network.
Finally, Alin Coman (Princeton University) examined the formation of collective in networks of beliefs. He explored how the phenomenon of “socially-shared retrieval induced forgetting” could be implemented at the level of a whole network, and how the network metrics can influence the spread and formation of collective beliefs. The audience was rightfully deemed the “most amazing” when no question were asked after he explained the (somewhat) arcane paradigm used to demonstrate this impressive effect.
After this long day, many of us walked to a small square behind the “Place De Brouckère” (sung by the famous Belgian singer Jacques Brel): Place du samedi. There, at the upper level of the Cafe Béguin, a long table awaited nearly 40 of us. We would be served a splendid Ethiopian meal. Large round plates were covered with a variety of deliciously flavoured foods. The food was eaten with “injera” - the Ethiopian pancake-like bread filled manually with one’s preferred ingredient (which demands some dexterity in pinching food while holding it). This was a long night for many of the guests!
But this was not the end of it. On November 3rd, Julia Eberlen was actually the first to tell us about stereotype learning in social networks. In her ongoing work, she examines how new stereotypes can form in groups depending on the structure of the network. Markus Kaakinen reported his work with Atte Oksanen, (also present, both from the University of Tampere, Finland) on online discussion groups involving normal vs. problematic gamblers. Among other notable findings, he shows that the emotions displayed in the comments differ between the two groups. It was then András Vörös’ turn to talk about how individuals may respond to conformity pressures in the presence of a supporting minority and how these may contribute to group formation, operationalized here as network evolution. The approach was fascinating but involved considerable computing power. One of the memorable quotes of the meeting (by András) will be “Results are gross both in the German and the English sense”.
After the last break, three talks were left. Kim Titlestad (Groningen University) examined the emergence of group norms in small interactive groups. Specifically, she studied the dissemination of shared strategies in cooperative public goods dilemmas. Our faith in mankind was restored when we learned that maximum cooperation was the most frequent.
Lisa Kleyn (University of Cape Town & Oxford University) tackled a grave social problem: physical abuse of children by their parents in South Africa. She reported on an intervention that sought to prevent such behavior and through network analysis, showed that parents who were connected to others who displayed positive parental behavior (thanks, in part, to the intervention) tended to display such behavior as well.
The very last talk was presented by Judit Kende (University of Amsterdam). She studied networks of pupils in a large sample of Flemish secondary schools. Her interest was on the relation between “majority” (i.e., native Belgian) and “minority” friends. Through longitudinal network analysis, she shows that pupils belonging to the majority come to share their minority friends’ perception of unequal treatment. Thus, friendship can lead majority members to adopt the perspective of the minority.
This fascinating talk was a fitting coda for this very exciting meeting, that will long remain in our memories. These will be aptly complemented by the very thorough live-tweeting that has been performed during the conference - by Julia Eberlen on the @NetworPsy account and by @olivier_klein.
Could it get any better? Only the future will tell.
Olivier Klein & Julia Eberlen
We would like to thank the financial sponsors of the meeting: EASP of course, but also FRS-FNRS and the PSYCEDUC doctoral school. Also, we are grateful to the University Foundation for the flawless organization
Feedback from Participants
Pompeu Fabra University
This EASP meeting was one of the best i have attended. The topic (use of social network methodology and theory in social psychology) is of high interest to me, but what made this meeting special and different was the ingenious mixture of formats (traditional presentations, workshops, work-in-progress presentations + feedback, many coffee breaks for ide exchanges). This was both refreshing and very conducive to learning and networking. I learned a lot and left the meeting feeling full of ideas and energized. Made some new friends and planted the seeds for some possible collaborations also.
This meeting was a unique intersection of technical tools/know-how (network analysis) and exciting ideas - new ideas as well as new takes on old ideas re: core processes of social influence, norms, identity … in our discipline. The format mixing presentations with work-in-progress was novel to me. I found this quite refreshing and I feel it facilitated constructive interactions among peers as it invited us to think along with each others’ research questions.
Social psychology is sometimes called the hardest science because of the complexity of studying social beings embedded in social environments that shift and change, vary and flux across time and space. Given these challenges, one might think that social psychologists adopt the necessary methods and research strategies to observe, study, and test this complexity. But they often don’t. The network of EASP meetings starts to change that. We got together in central Brussels with fellow social psychologists who study how people, their cognitions, their attitudes, and their behaviors are embedded within a broader and more complex social environment. This helped bring together social psychologists with expertise in cognition, politics, prejudice, culture, and, of course, networks to share their knowledge, exchange resources, and build a research community around networks and social psychology. Although the talks were stimulating and I personally learned a lot, I found this informal networking and community building particularly helpful. Networks can be applied to a number of different topics and it was quite stimulating to learn how people embed them into surveys, experiments, and web-scraping studies. So, maybe social psychology has ignored its inherent complexity, but this conference shows we don’t have to!
University of Leuven
This conference brought together researchers who apply social network analyses to various social psychological research topics. I came back very inspired by learning about the many ways in which I can implement social network analyses further into my own research. Thank you very much for this interesting conference and the great organisation!
I really liked the format of work-in-progress talks. It was inspiring to hear two experts talking about your research from an outsider’s perspective and coming up with thoughts and ideas you might not have considered before. The whole meeting was very positive and constructive and I had the impression that everyone was trying to take everybody else’s research to the next level with tips and advice on how to improve.
University of Amsterdam
The EASP Meeting was a wonderful opportunity to meet scholars from various disciplines engaged with social networks. I am a social psychologist who works with social networks to model social influence but I don’t specialize in the method, so I learnt a lot methodologically and theoretically from being in conversation with researchers who use social networks for other purposes. I gained an overview of a wide range of research from methodological studies to theoretical and applied sociological and social psychology papers. I also received very useful feedback on my own research from various viewpoints including social psychological perspectives but also beyond. Though we used slightly different concepts and terminologies across the disciplines, the ample space for discussion allowed time to find the common ground.
Furthermore, the meeting combined talks with tutorials giving us access to new tools and techniques. I especially appreciated this combination, as sophisticated techniques are becoming more accessible for researchers who are not network specialists but training opportunities are not that easy to come by.
I would like to thank the organizers Julie Eberlen and Olivier Klein for the warm hospitality, the professional and smooth organization and in general for the inspiring meeting.