Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Small Worlds & Six Degrees – Duncan J. Watts (1999; 2003)

Watts, Duncan J. 2003. Six degrees : the science of a connected age. New York: Norton.
Watts, Duncan J. 1999. Small worlds : the dynamics of networks between order and randomness. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Duncan Watts, I think, is a kind of rising star in recent interdisciplinary science in a connected age. Especially, in a field of management science, he and his colleagues argued viral marketing which exploits an existing social networks or communication networks (by the way, my personal view on ‘viral marketing’ sounds not positive and creates some unexpected reactions for readers who have no knowledge over epidemiology or network sciences).

Anyway, while it is a hyperbole or not, a so-called network science has lots of implications and gives scholars very valuable theoretical insights.

First, Watts’ book published in 1999 is a little bit hard for ordinary social scientists to follow the arguments and presentation of results. As he told in a book, his original idea about the topic comes from his studies on natural phenomena via theoretical lens of physics. Results are filtered via mathematical formula (in other words, lots of Greeks!!) and lots of scatterplots. However, if readers feel comfortable for the writing styles, they will find that the 1999 book is really beautifully written with great conciseness and details.

Second, the 1999 book is well structured: introduction, explanation, representation of results, interpretations, and summaries. Readers who are very familiar with the writing style of physics can skip some sentences and save their time.

However, I think ordinary social scientists (like me) will be more benefitted from the 2003 book. Basically, the 2003 book is a sort of lecture note or research diary for ordinary readers. Readers get more knowledge over the context and the academic collaboration of the author, which is also very interesting and valuable for baby-students who want to know how scientific collaboration emerges and happens and forms. (Personally, I am really enjoying over the critics of Stanley Milgram’s research about how much overblown the original paper, despite its theoretical importance)

Thus it is better for social scientific readers to start with the 2003 book and to go forward the 1999 book for understanding Watts’s arguments over small-world phenomena.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Drunkard's walk - Leonard Mlodinow (2008)

Mlodinow, Leonard. 2008. The Drunkard's walk : how randomness rules our lives. New York: Pantheon Books.

I believe the author of the book is a great translator, meaning he is really good at ‘interpreting mathematical or statistical theorems at highly abstract level into ordinary English which is natural language most people can understand.’ With the deep and interesting historical anecdotes and records, the author shows that patterns that people found ‘intuitively’ are frequently wrong and misguide people’s decision. The key argument is simple: Randomness matters and it is the key principle that penetrates human activities.

However, actually, it is really hard concept for ordinary people to understand the meaning of randomness because most human beings cannot generate random numbers as machine (any statistical or computer language does with short time) does. It might be really wonder that ordinary humans understand the meaning of randomness via interesting examples in the book while they are not able to make random events.

Suggested readers are undergraduate students and some undergraduate students who have no history of studying formal statistics or mathematical trainings. Of course, social scientific readers who have studied statistics with three or four courses also get huge help and insights from this book. Personally, some of social scientific findings may not be safe from the randomness argument in the book.

Though it is my personal feeling, the book has too many distractions that are interesting by themselves but prevent readers from focusing the main topic, i.e., randomness. Historical records or anecdotes are good and release readers’ burden for the hardness of the topic, but I feel that they are too many and suddenly intervene in the middle of descriptions.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Comparing media systems - Hallin & Mancini (2004)

Hallin, Daniel C., and Paolo Mancini. 2004. Comparing media systems : three models of media and politics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

As clearly noted in the book, the authors want to make follow-up study of Siebert et al's “Four theories of the press,” one of the classics investigating the relationship between the form of the press and the characteristics of social/political institutions. While Siebert et al's classic book provided very simplified stereotypes of media system due to the influence of cold war, their book was very insightful because media system is not separated from its larger social system. The basic research question of this book is not much different from its theoretical antecedent, while the dimensions and presented three models of media system are more empirically representative.

There are three parts in this book. The first part introduces the concepts and models. Probably the most important thing in the first part is the theoretical definition of four dimensions: (1) the development of a mass press, (2) political parallelism, (3) professionalism, and (4) the role of the government in media system. Based on the degree of a nation-state's score on each dimension, the authors extract three ideal-types (although the authors clearly want to admit internal heterogeneity within each ideal type): (a) Polarized pluralist model, (b) Liberal model, and (c) Democratic corporatist model.

In the second part, the authors describe the histories and social/economic/institutional reasons of nation-states in each idealized model.

In the third part, the authors discuss the underlying similarity between three models, especially recent rampart of Liberal model (e.g., more professionalism, less dependent on political parties or patrons) in terms of differentiation theory.

Very good book, I believe. However, some limitations I felt were: (1) Each model is highly clustered within the spatial boundary. The authors also knew this spatial clustering and concluded the underlying reason is the shared history and mutual influences between coterminous nation-states. I also agree with the authors' conclusion, but this finding, to me, seems to weaken the persuasive power of four dimensions the authors theorized in the first part. In other words, if the spatial clustering is the main force, then the four dimensions are not the explanatory factors to understand the differences between media system, but the explained phenomena caused by shared histories.

(2) Relating to the first point, the book has to emphasize the history (e.g., the invasion of Napoleon into Mediterranean countries), rather than formal social structure or others. In European contexts, it seems okay, I believe. However, it seems highly problematic when the authors' model is applied in Asian or Arab countries. Probably, the prior imperialistic countries wielded higher influence on the form of media system in prior colonized countries. Probably true, but this unilateral influence has to sacrifice or deny the voluntary development in each country.

However, it is still very good book containing many important insights and theories between media and society.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Comparing policy networks - David Knoke (1996)

Knoke, David. 1996. Comparing policy networks : labor politics in the U.S., Germany, and Japan. Cambridge [England]; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.

The lead author of the book is very famous for network analysts in social science, especially those whose interests are political networks or social movements. As expected, the main methodology of this book is originated from network analyses investigating the links, types of connections (asymmetric influences, i.e., influencing vs. being influenced), and types of network (e.g., how much dense a nation’s political web about labor politics). Readers should be accustomed to some relation-oriented statistics, such as multi-dimensional scaling, diverse statistics of network properties (e.g., indegree vs. outdegree; betweenness; prominence; mutual connection; density; structural equivalence; or blockmodeling) and some advanced statistics such as structural equation modeling.

Underlying theory of this book is relatively straightforward. A variety of publics (issue public, event public, and others) and classic sociologist’s (G. Homans and T. Parsons) theory of exchange. Probably all sociologists and most of non-sociological social scientists may know what they do mean, although having no specialized expertise.

The subtitle of the book clearly shows that the book adopts comparative study, which aims to compare the similarity and difference between different social/political systems. Three nations – US, Germany, and Japan – were chosen and compared their political webs based on the author’s conceptualization, termed, organizational state approach.

The first chapter is an introduction of what the organizational state approach means, and why it is adopted (simply put, its strength is the possibility of empirical tests). Basically, it means “[Organizational state approach’s] conceptual components argue that modern state-society relationships have increasingly become blurred merging into a mélange of interorganizational influence and power relations”

The second chapter compares three nation-states from the perspective of legal-historical context.

The third chapter introduces the organizations in each nation-state because the basic unit of organizational state approach is a social organization that participates into the policy networks where the collective decision occurs.

The fourth to eighth chapters provided empirical results based on the author’s approach. In chapter four, he examines what is common and what is different in terms of policy interests among three nation-states. In chapter five, he examined policy webs where social agents interact. In chapter six, influences of both action sets and events are examined. In chapter seven, he provides several models about exchange between social agents (information exchange vs. resource exchange that is physical). Mainly this chapter might be considered as the expansion of the prior study conducted by Laumann, Knoke, and Kim (1992). The chapter eight concludes power structure based on results of policy networks. Conclusion – (1) public actors are important in all nation-states, (2) Japan shows centralized, but US shows bipartite with Germany intermediate between two nation-states – is not much surprising but clearly shows general perceptions of each nation-state’s political-institutional structure and/or decision-making culture.

The last chapter summarizes the findings of the author’s series of studies and confirmed his adopted approach (i.e., organizational state approach) is quite plausible. The figure 9.1 (on page 219) may summarize the author’s finding:

(Formal institutions, Informal institutions)

Contentious (USA model) – (Presidential system, Multiple centers of power)

Collaborative (Germany model) – (Parliamentary system, Multiple centers of power)

Coordinated (Japan model) – (Parliamentary system, Single center of power)

Autocratic (Not mentioned) – (Presidential system, Single center of power)

In general, findings are clear, while some figures are not self-evidently clear (probably, due to my unfamiliarity of styles of the author). Findings are not theoretically interesting by themselves, but sound plausible and persuasive. Especially, the author’s descriptions of historical backgrounds greatly helped readers like me.