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Given a set of actors or nodes, there are several strategies for deciding how to go about collecting measurements on the relations among them. At one end of the spectrum of approaches are "full network" methods. This approach yields the maximum of information, but can also be costly and difficult to execute, and may be difficult to generalize. At the other end of the spectrum are methods that look quite like those used in conventional survey research. These approaches yield considerably less information about network structure, but are often less costly, and often allow easier generalization from the observations in the sample to some larger population. There is no one "right" method for all research questions and problems.
Full network methods require that we collect information about each actor's ties with all other actors. In essence, this approach is taking a census of ties in a population of actors -- rather than a sample. For example we could collect data on shipments of copper between all pairs of nation states in the world system from International Monetary Fund records; we could examine the boards of directors of all public corporations for overlapping directors; we could count the number of vehicles moving between all pairs of cities; we could look at the flows of e-mail between all pairs of employees in a company; we could ask each child in a play group to identify their friends.
Because we collect information about ties between all pairs or dyads, full network data give a complete picture of relations in the population. Most of the special approaches and methods of network analysis that we will discuss in the remainder of this text were developed to be used with full network data. Full network data is necessary to properly define and measure many of the structural concepts of network analysis (e.g. between-ness).
Full network data allows for very powerful descriptions and analyses of social structures. Unfortunately, full network data can also be very expensive and difficult to collect. Obtaining data from every member of a population, and having every member rank or rate every other member can be very challenging tasks in any but the smallest groups. The task is made more manageable by asking respondents to identify a limited number of specific individuals with whom they have ties. These lists can then be compiled and cross-connected. But, for large groups (say all the people in a city), the task is practically impossible.
In many cases, the problems are not quite as severe as one might imagine. Most persons, groups, and organizations tend to have limited numbers of ties -- or at least limited numbers of strong ties. This is probably because social actors have limited resources, energy, time, and cognitive capacity -- and cannot maintain large numbers of strong ties. It is also true that social structures can develop a considerable degree of order and solidarity with relatively few connections.
Snowball methods begin with a focal actor or set of actors. Each of these actors is asked to name some or all of their ties to other actors. Then, all the actors named (who were not part of the original list) are tracked down and asked for some or all of their ties. The process continues until no new actors are identified, or until we decide to stop (usually for reasons of time and resources, or because the new actors being named are very marginal to the group we are trying to study).
The snowball method can be particularly helpful for tracking down "special" populations (often numerically small sub-sets of people mixed in with large numbers of others). Business contact networks, communityelites, deviant sub-cultures, avid stamp collectors, kinship networks, and many other structures can be pretty effectively located and described by snowball methods. It is sometimes not as difficult to achieve closure in snowball "samples" as one might think. The limitations on the numbers of strong ties that most actors have, and the tendency for ties to be reciprocated often make it fairly easy to find the boundaries.
There are two major potential limitations and weaknesses of snowball methods. First, actors who are not connected (i.e. "isolates") are not located by this method. The presence and numbers of isolates can be a very important feature of populations for some analytic purposes. The snowball method may tend to overstate the "connectedness" and "solidarity" of populations of actors. Second, there is no guaranteed way of finding all of the connected individuals in the population. Where does one start the snowball rolling? If we start in the wrong place or places, we may miss whole sub-sets of actors who are connected -- but not attached to our starting points.
Snowball approaches can be strengthened by giving some thought to how to select the initial nodes. In many studies, there may be a natural starting point. In community power studies, for example, it is common to begin snowball searches with the chief executives of large economic, cultural, and political organizations. While such an approach will miss most of the community (those who are "isolated" from the elite network), the approach is very likely to capture the elite network quite effectively.
Ego-centric networks (with alter connections)
In many cases it will not be possible (or necessary) to track down the full networks beginning with focal nodes (as in the snowball method). An alternative approach is to begin with a selection of focal nodes (egos), and identify the nodes to which they are connected. Then, we determine which of the nodes identified in the first stage are connected to one another. This can be done by contacting each of the nodes; sometimes we can ask ego to report which of the nodes that it is tied to are tied to one another.
This kind of approach can be quite effective for collecting a form of relational data from very large populations, and can be combined with attribute-based approaches. For example, we might take a simple random sample of male college students and ask them to report who are their close friends, and which of these friends know one another. This kind of approach can give us a good and reliable picture of the kinds of networks (or at least the local neighborhoods) in which individuals are embedded. We can find out such things as how many connections nodes have, and the extent to which these nodes are close-knit groups. Such data can be very useful in helping to understand the opportunities and constraints that ego has as a result of the way they are embedded in their networks.
The ego-centered approach with alter connections can also give us some information about the network as a whole, though not as much as snowball or census approaches. Such data are, in fact, micro-network data sets -- samplings of local areas of larger networks. Many network properties -- distance, centrality, and various kinds of positional equivalence cannot be assessed with ego-centric data. Some properties, such as overall network density can be reasonably estimated with ego-centric data. Some properties -- such as the prevalence of reciprocal ties, cliques, and the like can be estimated rather directly.
Ego-centric networks (ego only)
Ego-centric methods really focus on the individual, rather than on the network as a whole. By collecting information on the connections among the actors connected to each focal ego, we can still get a pretty good picture of the "local" networks or "neighborhoods" of individuals. Such information is useful for understanding how networks affect individuals, and they also give a (incomplete) picture of the general texture of the network as a whole.
Suppose, however, that we only obtained information on ego's connections to alters -- but not information on the connections among those alters. Data like these are not really "network" data at all. That is, they cannot be represented as a square actor-by-actor array of ties. But doesn't mean that ego-centric data without connections among the alters are of no value for analysts seeking to take a structural or network approach to understanding actors. We can know, for example, that some actors have many close friends and kin, and others have few. Knowing this, we are able to understand something about the differences in the actors places in social structure, and make some predictions about how these locations constrain their behavior. What we cannot know from ego-centric data with any certainty is the nature of the macro-structure or the whole network.
In ego-centric networks, the alters identified as connected to each ego are probably a set that is unconnected with those for each other ego. While we cannot assess the overall density or connectedness of the population, we can sometimes be a bit more general. If we have some good theoretical reason to think about alters in terms of their social roles, rather than as individual occupants of social roles, ego-centered networks can tell us a good bit about local social structures. For example, if we identify each of the alters connected to an ego by a friendship relation as "kin," "co-worker," "member of the same church," etc., we can build up a picture of the networks of social positions (rather than the networks of individuals) in which egos are embedded. Such an approach, of course, assumes that such categories as "kin" are real and meaningful determinants of patterns of interaction.