Systems in Eval TIG: Brandon Coffee-Borden on Using Social Network Analysis to Describe and Analyze Systems

I’m Brandon Coffee-Borden, an Associate at Community Science and Program Co-chair for the Systems in Evaluation TIG. In this post, I will discuss the use of social network analysis (SNA) as a way to describe and analyze systems.

SNA is an approach to understanding structures and connections through the use of network theory. Networks are described in terms of actors within a network – people, organizations, groups or other entities – (called “nodes”) and relationships, interactions, or links that connect these actors (“ties” or “edges”). Evaluators can use SNA to understand the structural characteristics of a system, identify key actors, examine the role of different actors, and explore the presence and structure of subgroups within a system. SNA can provide insight into promising approaches for changing the structure, interrelationships, and flows that exist within the system and how these changes could impact how the system functions. SNA can also help document and analyze how a system develops and evolves over time.

Hot Tip: Gephi is a free open source software for exploring and manipulating networks. It provides basic network statistics and allows the user to interact with a representation of the network to explore patterns and trends.

Rad Resource:  The American Evaluation Association’s Social Network Analysis in Evaluation Topical Interest Group provides great resources for training in SNA and information on how SNA can be useful for evaluators.

Lessons Learned:

  1. The reflection and participation of those involved in, and knowledgeable of, the system is critical for contextualizing the findings derived from SNA.
  2. An evaluator has to take great care in the collection, management, and analysis of network data. For instance, missing or erroneous data can lead to incorrect assumptions and interpretations resulting from changes in the network’s structure. Similarly, an evaluator has to consider how to appropriately specify and measure interrelationships within the system.
  3. As with any systems inquiry, boundary questions must be attended to when thinking about what lies within the network and what lies outside it to avoid excluding important elements of the network.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating this week with our colleagues in the Systems in Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our Systems in Evaluation TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

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