Mark Buchanan’s Small Worlds: Uncovering Nature’s Hidden Networks

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

I just finished reading Mark Buchanan’s Small Worlds: Uncovering Nature’s Hidden Networks, published in the US as Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks (W. W. Norton & Company, 2002).

Buchanan’s prose is accessible and spiced with just enough wit to keep the reader engaged, and keeps this a smooth read. The book’s also a great primer on the field of complexity science, tracing its trajectory from Milgram’s early experiments right across the disciplines, including detailed coverage of the work of such pillars of network theory as Granovetter and Barabasi.

There is some striking ambivalence, though. Buchanan, a PhD physicist by training, engages in what I can only describe as the bigotry of the hard sciences on the nature of evidence and truth claims, "objectivity", and verifiable research – the sort of thinking that presupposes there is no evidence absent hard mathematics to back it up (which is irritating in the extreme for a field of research that’s making claims on social phenomena).

Buchanan doesn’t exactly dismiss social sciences out of hand, and curiously, he’s almost reverent of historical method when it comes to dealing with particulars rather than generalizables. But his verbiage hints at condescension (toward some social science suppositions) and apprehension (that the answers to some of those those pesky unexplained elements of networks, alas, sigh…. may lie in the social sciences), when it isn’t engaging in idol-worship (the tyranny of numbers!).

I’m skeptical. Aggregate studies are useful, of course, and theories on the "naturally occuring order" of network architecture – the Godhand – are fascinating.  But  I don’t want to believe that individual human agency is a secondary or irrelevant phenomenon to collective dynamics.

 

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