White paper on SSNA as a suite: invitation to collaborate

A necessary step to developing SSNA as a part of ethnography’s future is documenting it. @amelia, @melancon, @markomanka and I have made substantial progress by publishing the first peer-reviewed journal article on it, but much remains to be done. In particular, that article focuses on the data model: take an online forum, code it and turn the result into a network. For reasons of space and maturity, it is missing information about the software tools and coding practices we developed over the years.

For this reason, we have decided to write a longer white paper, putting down the state of the art on SSNA. We are working on it at this link. Co-authors welcome, but we will need some sort of structuring to happen, at the time of writing things are still very much in a flux. So, at the moment the link will only allow you to see the file, but not edit it. If you want to participate in writing it, let me know.

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Dear @alberto and @amelia , I think this is a fantastic idea – to expand on the paper we published, but also disseminate ideas, guidelines and best practices on how to develop methodologies supporting SSNA.

May I suggest to reframe your intent and suggest to discuss different modeling approaches supporting SSNA instead fo listing and/or describing “tools”. Let me explain what I have in mind.

I don’t think it would be especially interesting to have a section pointing at Tulip or Gephi or whatever tool and discuss their pros and cons – I am not saying it’s not helpful and you shouldn’t use space for it, but I feel it could be rather dull and frustrating for the reader – not mentioning the fact that such a section typically becomes out-of-date quite rapidly because softwares evolve, new softwares come in, etc.

Explaining what graph models can be used and how they can be used seems far more interesting.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to go over the different types of transformation you can perform on a graph, which transform or which graph you end with? And more importantly point at which is (more) relevant for this or that domain question?

I thought I should share this with you. Let me know whether you find this interesting. I am open to collaborate. Best, Guy


Replying to myself, as a way to drag @jason_vallet and @brenoust attention on the topic.

– ping @alberto

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Of course, Guy! Thanks. Give me a few days to set up a tentative breakdown of the white paper into sections.

Hello all! I have found an hour of peace of mind to produce a tentative breakdown of the white paper into sections, and a tentative allocation of sections to authors.

Everyone feel free to opt out of the white paper altogether, this is not a request from me, much less an obligation.

The breakdown is already in the Overleaf document. This is a read-only link, I will send people who accept the invitation the edit link.

People who I think could valuably contribute:

  1. @amelia
  2. @hugi
  3. @melancon
  4. @markomanka
  5. @noemi or @MariaEuler or @johncoate (or all of them)
  6. @nadia

Let me know, OK?


Guys, this is a significant investment of time. I would like you to confirm that you are OK proceeding this way, and that we share the goal of producing the white paper within a reasonable time frame. If you have no time that’s totally OK, but please say so, and I will reassess what I can do on my own. Fair?


ok when do you need this by?

End November?

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Ping @IvanC might be something we can work on together


Would gladly take part

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As discussed, I can take lead on writing the “Software stack” section. I could also contribute to Community management and Community engagement. Possibly also “Coding for scale”.

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Just seen this. I will check the overleaf document in the next few hours, and will try to contribute to the best of my capacity :slight_smile:

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Thanks @markomanka. All, I have just finished a first pass at section 1. Phew! It is a big undertaking.

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I was talking to my partner, Greg, about anthropology yesterday. Greg is a mathematician (his PhD is in mathematical physics). I was lamenting that I did not know when was “enough” in terms of what we call “thick description” in anthropology – what we discussed as “stories” in our white paper meeting the other day, and what we also call “evidence” in our SSNA paper. I said – to capture all the nuances of the situation, there are so many sub-arguments that I want to argue underneath my main argument. But I don’t have room, and no one will read an 10000 page tome (plus, my thesis has a word count limit of 100,000). How much is enough to evidence the argument? And how much detail do I need to take the argument into?

He said this reminded him of Taylor’s Theorem, which he proposed might help me metaphorically. I’ll explain it below in an oversimplified form. Screenshot 2020-10-28 at 09.33.13

The question he posed: let’s say we have a function, and we don’t know what the function is, but we know it’s very, very complicated. We know for the function, we input a real number and the function spits out another real number for an infinite amount of real numbers. How can we learn about what the function does without having to know every detail of the function itself?

The answer is to start with a zeroth order approximation – in this illustration, f(0). We can take a range of values very close to zero (the range on the number line at the top). And then we have the next term, O(x), which tells us the error. OK, we are not satisfied. Let’s add another approximation, which turns out to be linear, xf’(0). And we keep going until some point at which we feel we have approximated enough and the error is low enough that adding another approximation does not add significantly to our understanding of the function.

He proposed, based upon our conversations about anthropology, to think about it in that way. We make our best first order approximation, and we look at how much of the big complex story (because humans and human behaviour are extremely complex, very contextually determined, etc) is left out when we do that. OK, not good enough. Then we go and add detail to the description we already wrote (this is the diagram at the bottom). Still not good enough. OK, add more. Then we go until the addition of new information or “thickness” doesn’t add significantly to the understanding of the phenomenon we are describing (or until we run out of room).

I think it’s a useful metaphor, and it maps on to the idea of “theoretical saturation” that we have in social sciences, as well. And anthropological writing is always an approximation, because to not approximate we would have to write every detail of the story. The question is – what details are our strongest, most relevant, to explain the phenomenon we have observed?

This doesn’t really answer “how we know what we know”, but it does help explain how we get there and how to explain anthropological knowledge production. (I was also reminded of Bayesian inference a bit, metaphorically, when we discussed this — because it also incorporates the idea that given more information, your explanation of a phenomenon/ability to predict an unknown becomes more accurate in somewhat predictable ways.)


I can commit to reading through the chapters and provide feedback.

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Hello all. This is to remind everyone that a first White Paper draft is supposed to be ready by the end of November. Of the sessions assigned to me, I have drafted 1, 3, and most of 4. Still missing are 5, 11 and 13. Of these, only 13 needs substantial work. I will probably not finish in a week, but should not be too far behind schedule.

Can I ask @amelia, @hugi, @johncoate, @noemi, @nadia, @markomanka and @melancon if they are still willing to contribute to the paper, and in what time frame?

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I have set aside significant time this week, so yes, I am still onboard. Will hopefully have a draft of my chapter ready before Friday.

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I no longer have permission to view it, though I believe I did before…I did make a couple of edits when I first saw the document, but since then have not and now I can’t see it.

It appears I have the same problem. @alberto, could you check so we still have access?