Large groups (crowds), Network theories, Dunbar Number   no comments

Posted at 4:42 pm in Psychology,Sociology

No discourse on social theory of social groups would be complete without mentioning Mark Granovetter who did some fascinating network analysis and published his findings displaying the presence of weak ties, structural holes in organisations. Structural holes in particular explain how someone can become an unelected leader of a group if they hold a position in which they are the main conduit for which information can flow between separate parts of groups or between groups.

I have been reading ‘Theories of Communication Networks’, Noshir Contractor and Peter Monge (2003) a more complex book that references fundamentals from sociology, psychology, maths and computer science, that describes and help the reader understand complex communication networks involving large groups of people. It has become more and more apparent during my reading that it is increasingly difficult to look at a subject from just two disciplines, in my case, sociology and psychology. Some fundamentals from other subjects like maths, computer science, or philosophy are necessary so as not to have a one sided, or in this case two dimensional, view, thus highlighting the multi-disciplinary nature of web science topics. For the IDR though I have found ample material in ‘Theories of Communication Networks’ from sociology and psychology to describe groups and the communication mechanisms within them:

There are 2 branches of theories as to how groups internal behaviour can be modelled. These are:

  • homophily theories – where individuals select others to communicate with who are similar to themselves.
  • contagion theories – are based on the assumption that exposure to networks (groups) increase the likelihood that individuals are influenced by others and will then develop beliefs, attitudes and assumptions similar to those of others in their network.

These two theories are very useful for describing how groups form, and how individuals in groups are influenced.

Crowd psychology is one of the subclasses of social psychology, and social science books are interested in this aspect of psychology as it concerns how sudden and large scale social changers can be brought about because of large groups of people. There are a lot of interesting theories put forward over the past century about how large groups of people (crowds) behave,  by psychologists such as those by Carl Jung who coined the term ‘Collective Unconscious” that described a shared, universal psychic system identical in all individuals. Many people since Jung then have expanded this concept, such as blogger and researcher Kevin Kelly, who describes many Internet groups starting to exhibit a ‘Hive mind’. Sigmund Freud also has a theory known as his ‘Crowd behaviour theory’ that describes that people who are in a crowd act differently towards people than those who are thinking individually.

One of the most interesting and often challenged theory of modern day sociology is the theory of cognitive limit for the maximum number of people in a person can have a inter-personal relationship. In 1992, Dunbar published a theory that the neocortex size of the brain was a constraint on group size in primates. Dunbar predicted that human cognitive limit for relationships was 150 based on the size of the human neocortex. This is known as the Dunbar Number and is now widely referenced and cited, despite how Dunbar based his observations on primates other than humans along with information about human network sizes in less developed countries. Dunbar’s methodology appears to have observed that tribal village sizes, military units, company sizes average around 150. In light of this perhaps humans have hard wired limits in their brains, limiting the number of individuals they can have interpersonal relationships with – and similarly the number of groups they can participate actively in. Thus even the most highly social individuals, or those with strong psychological desires such as goal theories or homeostatic drives to participate in groups, will only be able to network effectively with fixed amount of people. Thus social and psychological desires for group participation come up against physical hard limits if Dunbar’s Number theory based on neocortex size is correct. It shows how social research on primate groups, along with some statistical and network analysis, can lead to interesting extrapolations of the limitations of human mind, and the limitations of relationships within a social group.

Written by cm7e09 on May 7th, 2010

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