But understanding the hidden structures of key elements of social networks, such as subgroups, has remained elusive. My colleagues and I have found two complex patterns in these networks that can help researchers better understand the hierarchies and dynamics of these elements. We found a way to detect powerful “inner circles” in large organizations simply by studying networks that map emails being sent among employees.
We demonstrated the utility of our methods by applying them to the famous Enron network. Enron was an energy trading company that perpetrated fraud on a massive scale. Our study further showed that the method can potentially be used to detect people who wield enormous soft power in an organization regardless of their official title or position. This could be useful for historical, sociological and economic research, as well as government, legal and media investigations.
From pencil and paper to artificial intelligence
Sociologists have been constructing and studying smaller social networks in careful field experiments for at least 80 years, well before the advent of the internet and online social networks. The concept is so simple that it can be drawn on paper: Entities of interest – people, businesses, countries – are nodes represented as points, and relationships between pairs of nodes are links represented as lines drawn between the points.