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I have decide not to be on the sidelines instead provide my own input,  in this ongoing conversation about “Influence”,  which will be based on the scientific theories developed over a period of time (proof). By science I don’t mean just engineering, I shall rely on research conducted in social science, system science, management science, complexity theories, and information theories.

The reason for this is that in a connected world we all live on a virtual domain where the social systems and the technical systems combined together play an enormous role in our day to day life, forming socio-technical systems. Therefore, there is a need to look at the technical systems from a social perspective and vice-versa. First time in the history we now have an enormous documented data accessible, unlike the unconnected world where it was an audacious task to gather data. This presents us all with a unique opportunity and we should strive to take advantage of this opportunity.

In this blog post series, I will bring forth some theories in social sciences and identify the gaps that have an effect on indentifying influence in social networks. Today, social networks are no longer just about building relationships, and pursuing common interests or a common cause. They have enabled organizations to leverage the network value of business ecosystems (Afsarmanesh & Camarinha-Matos, 2005) in activities such as marketing, customer service and product innovation (Bressler & Grantham, 2000). Therefore, it’s important to understand influence and influencers in these networks.

In ordered to understand influence the first step is to understand the phenomenon’s of social aggregations. There are two type of social theories on which researchers have worked in the past. The first set consists of theories that attempt to explain the broad integrated view of the social systems. I shall address them as “Macro Theories”. The second set consists of theories that attempt to explain specific social phenomenon in a broader social system. I shall address them as “Micro Theories”. In this blog post, however, I intend to confine myself to just Macro Theories (the rest will be written in future blog posts), in the interest of keeping it clean and legible. So, let’s jump straight into them.

Theory of Social Systems

The first theory I would like to bring forth is Talcott Parsons’s “Theory of Social Systems” proposed in 1951. Parson advocated a functionalist approach and hypothesized that all social systems perform certain basic functions such as:

  1. Adaptation: acquiring sufficient resources
  2. Goal Attainment: setting and achieving goals
  3. Integration: maintaining coordination amongst sub-systems

Parson in his theory emphasized that societies are a result of collective actions they take. These collective actions results in formation of certain systems which become building blocks of a society. This is a very important distinction to understand because Parson here is not defining a society/ community by its structural boundaries (like in countries, states or cities) but by its functional boundaries. The boundaries here mean the internal processes and interdependencies experienced by the people which result in formation platforms and consequently derive a structure. For example, let’s take consider a virtual community which has its own community space (blogs, forums, etc..) and has a presence on Facebook and Twitter too. It is not important what are the boundaries of the community space, Facebook Community or Twitter community. What is important is the extent of internal processes and interdependency experienced by people in them. Since they have distinct processes and interdepdencies they form sub-communities of a community. In order to understand these interdependencies and processes a community structure should be assessed (a discussion about governance mechanisms can be started here but that is for another blog post). A Facebook or a Twitter community may have completely different structures because the goals set for the community and the way they interact. Here societies / communities are considered to be open systems as people decide to join them based on their free will. The theory of social systems is not concerned with the personality systems or the cultural systems independently but on their bearing on the structure and functioning of the social systems. The theory of social system deals with the analysis of social processes in relation to the structure of social systems and their variability. It describes the mechanisms of socialization, patterns of orientation in social roles, tendencies of deviant behavior and mechanisms of social control.

Autopoietic Theory

The next theory is Nikalas Luhmann’s “Autopoietic Theory” proposed in 1986. Autopoietic theory has its origins in biological systems, used to explain living systems (Maturana & Varela, 1980). In this theory Maturna and Varela defined living systems as systems that uses self-reference to reproduce. The offspring’s possess a genetic copy of its parents and through interaction and transformations the off springs continuously regenerate network processes that produced them; thereby retaining the structure and the function similar to that of the parents. Nikalas Luhmann extended this theory to social systems and suggested social systems use communication as their mode for autopoietic reproduction. In this theory Luhmann elaborates on how structures are formed with in a society and emphasizes that it happens because of communication. For example, within a community when a discussion is taking place it may lead to acceptance of certain point of view based on the previous discussions, which generates a context for further discussions to happen. This is what Luhmann refers to as self- reference which results in an open situation of acceptance or rejection. This acceptance or rejection of ideas leads to community taking a certain direction thereby submitting itself to the process of self-reproduced selectivity.

Communication includes understanding as a necessary part of its operation. It does not include the acceptance of its content. It is not the function of communication to produce a consensus as the favored state of mind. If the system were set up to produce consensus it soon would come to an end. It would never produce and reproduce a society. Submitting to self-reproduced selectivity makes social evolution possible, if evolution is seen as a kind of structural selection super induced on selectivity. This phenomenon can be very easily be observed in virtual communities. It is debate and strong diverse opinions within a virtual community that invokes passion and motivates people to contribute towards a goal. If there is no debate or passion within a community, it is difficult to sustain the process of communication and keep the community alive.

Living Systems Theory

The Living Systems Theory, proposed by Miller (1978), is a general theory about how living systems work and deals with the notion of emergence and interaction. This theory takes more of a systemic view of organization and interaction of networks at various levels. A system is defined as a set of interacting units with relationships among them. The eight levels of living systems are:

  • Cells: a basic building block of life
  • Organs: the principle components are cells, organized in simple, multi-cellular systems. Organisms: there are three kinds of organisms: fungi, plants and animals. Each has distinctive cells, tissues and body plans and carries out life processes differently.
  • Groups: these contain two or more organisms and their relationships.
  • Organizations: these involve one of more groups with their own control systems for doing work.
  •  Communities: they include individual persons and groups, as well as groups which are formed and are responsible for governing or providing services to them.
  • Societies: these are loose associations of communities, with systematic relationships between and among them.
  • Supranational systems: organizations of societies with a supraordinate system of influence and control.

The properties (behavior) of a system as a whole emerge out of the interaction of the components comprising the system. Regardless of their complexity, they each depend upon the same essential subsystems (or processes) in order to survive and to continue the propagation of their species or types beyond a single generation. The subsystems and processes of all living systems arranged by input-throughput-output processes. Some of these processes deal with material and energy for the metabolic processes of the system. Other subsystems process information for the coordination, guidance and control of the system. Some subsystems and their processes are concerned with both.

Since, this theory is a general theory of living systems it provides an extremely abstracted view, especially with respect to virtual communities but it is still possible to see its applicability to virtual communities. For example, let’s consider an open source software development community. These communities first interact to decide and define what the problem is. This is an input process. Once the problem definition is formulated, they assign roles and responsibilities to the community members voluntarily and work on a schedule to solve the problem. This is throughput process. Once the solution is formulated and verified it is made available to the entire community. This is output process. Multiple people self –organize amongst themselves, assuming different roles at different stages, evolving the behavior of the system.

Summary of Macro Theories

I think the above theories are enough to convey what I mean by “Macro Theories”. There are many more theories that I do not mention here in the interest of keeping things readable, but that does not mean that they are not important. So, summarizing the above prose, here is what I understand:

  1. In order to assess influence in a social network consider the organization of the entire network (macro architecture). This should make it clear that not all networks are organized in a similar fashion.
  2. Understand the organization of the sub-systems, the processes and their characteristics that exist for a given social network. This should assist in identifying how a social network differs from other social networks.
  3.  Put these understandings in the context of why the social networks exist or was created.
  4. The value that is generated, both for the creators and participants, of the network.

I hope you enjoyed my first blog and I would love to hear you feedback. In my next post I shall explore Micro Theories. Thank you for your attention and let’s keep the debate alive.