PolNet 2010 and the Cult of ERGM

Duke Psychology BuildingI returned to NYC on Friday from the Political Networks conference, but have only now had a chance to reflect. Charli Carpenter, of the always excellent Duck of Minerva, has already made many great points about what large conference could learn from niche conferences through her experience at PolNets (who's that guy imbibing in that photo, anyway?). I agree with much of what Charli points out about, and overall thoroughly enjoyed the conference. I think a combination of low-visibility of these methods within the discipline as a whole with high-energy among those actually interested in networks resulted in a very top-heavy set of presentations.

A clear advantage to a conference like PolNets is that rather having a specific substantive focus at its core—like so many smaller conferences—here the focus was on a methodological technology. With that, there is less need during presentations for people to "sell" their method, because everyone in attendance has essentially signaled acceptances by being there. Therefore, more of the discussions are centered on the substantive implications of applying network theory to some research agenda, or specific methodological quibbles. This is all well and good, and add to this the fact that a small number of attendees means graduate students and young scholars have a lot of opportunity to discuss their work with more established academics.

While I have studied networks for several years, this was actually my first conference on the subject. I do, however, try to stay rather current on the literature and as such came to the conference with the expectation that the breadth of topics covered would be wide both in terms of application of network methods and political science topics. Perhaps due to my own naivety, or willful ignorance, I was disappointed to find that this was not the case.

On the former point, from what I observed at PolNets it seems that the social science networks community is rapidly forming as a cult of the exponential random graph model (ERGM) framework. In some ways this makes perfect sense. ERGM are—for lack of a better term—statistical models that describe network and allow for some degree of inference to be drawn about these structures. This can be extremely useful for social scientists, as it describes networks in familiar statistical terms. What was surprising was the wholesale, and often unquestioning, commitment to these models for all types of analysis with the social sciences. In fact one of the creators of ERGM went so far as to call it the lingua franca of all network models. To be clear, mathematically ERGM can produce all possible networks; however, in practice this is akin to saying that all the works of Shakespeare could be reproduced in Morse code. While technically possible, it would be a fool's errand. The ERGM framework has significant computational limitations, which was reinforced by the admission of several presenters needing weeks to complete model estimations on very moderately sized networks.

While there were a few notable exceptions (best exemplified by the presenters on the Innovations in Network Measurement panel), I would have liked to see more research not just extending the ERGM framework, but also stepping outside of it to build models to describe the massively complex networks that have become commonplace in disciplines outside of the social sciences. My fear is that networks in the social sciences will become a "one trick pony," and a pony that itself is incredibly hampered by current technology.

With respect to the breadth of application in political science I was impressed by the diversity of topics covered by the panels. I was disappointed, however, by the actual representation of political scientists at the conference. While I am fully aware that the study of networks is highly interdisciplinary, and that political science as a discipline is a very late adopter of this technology, it would have been encouraging to see more APSA card caring political scientists among the attendees. For example, on the second day of the conference a "panel of experts" convened to field questions from anyone who cared to pose one. The problem: there was not a political scientist among the experts, making it hard to ask pointed questions about networks in political science.

As I said, though, overall the conference was excellent, and I extend my thanks and congratulations to Mike Ward of Duke University for putting on such a great event. Next stop: Sunbelt 2010!