Skye’s Bennington Thesis

Note: This is an HTML adaptation of the version of the thesis from 2001. Some of the ideas are a bit out of date. The original is avalible as a PDF (137 pages, 9.8mb).

Information transmission in social groups:
communication, networks, and interaction


Skye Bender de-Moll
May 2001

A Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont, in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts.

Questions and comments are welcome.


I argue that for information transmission to occur there must be communicative contact between individuals. The patterns of contact then provide a set of outer limits for the extent of information spread. But an examination of a formalized communication process shows that the degree of information or knowledge transmitted may be related to the degree to which the communicants share similar bases of meanings and interpretive schemata. An individual’s cultural properties can be described as a set of schemata, frames, heuristics, historical meanings, and behaviors. Acts of communication among individuals lead to increasing similarity along these cultural dimensions, which may change the likelihood of future interactions, and the effectiveness of existing communicative relations. These longer time scale modifications of social structure often feed back into the process, causing systems to behave in a complex and possibly counter-intuitive manner. Ideally, the analysis of the formal properties and behaviors of such systems might shed some light on some of the observed trends and biases in human communication and the processes involved in the formation of social groups. Analyses of a study of self-report name recognition and communication networks among the incoming class at Bennington College are presented, and some implications discussed.

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Introduction to Thesis

On April 16, 2000, a diverse group of activists, anarchists, artists, anti-corporate agitators, union members, and students converged on Washington D.C. Their common purpose, as much as there was one, was to disrupt the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in an attempt to draw attention to their perception of the organizations’ agendas, and to encourage discussion of specific issues which were not being addressed in the political arena. The protesters hoped to build on the success of the Seattle World Trade Organization protest of November 1999, and intended to employ similar tactics . I was among a group of students from Bennington who went down to take part in the rallies. I had some idea of what to expect, but was still blown away by the intensity of the action and the experience. The details of events, political agendas, encounters and their impact upon me are not relevant here. What is important is that, at least in later considerations, the actions and interactions of those three days served to focus my interest on the relationship between communication, the structure of social relations, and human events.

Fig. 1.a Confrontation between a protester and a man who tried to cross through the line at the IMF/World Bank protest. (Washington D.C. April 16, 2000, photo by author)

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Culture and Social Transmission in Hominids and Non-Humans

“Culture … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”
-Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (Primitive Culture, 1871)

One of the things which initially prompted me to do research on information transmission and culture was the question of the relationship between genes and culture. I was in an evolution class and doing reading on dynamical systems at the same time. So the question wasn’t so much the near cliché of Nature vs. Nurture, but more how the cultural and genetic influences might play out as a developmental system for generating an individual’s phenotype. There seems to be an odd asymmetry in the evolutionary literature. The mathematical framework for describing the changes in population gene frequencies brought about by differential selection on organisms is very well developed. Many of the implications of the powerful concepts of genetic evolution and fitness lead to explanations of certain social phenomena which are both fascinating and persuasive (kin selection and altruism, for example). But it seems that in many evolutionary models surprisingly little attention is paid to the potential impact of cultural transmission in determining some aspects of the “behavioral phenotype.”

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Adaptation and Models of Cultural Transmission

One of the crucial tools of modern evolutionary thinking is the notion that it is not only necessary to think about how a particular trait or relationship might be beneficial to its holder now, but also what circumstances were required for it to have become an adaptive variation in the first place. It is also essential to consider what structural factors must remain present to keep a trait from being removed from a population – is the behavior an evolutionarily stable strategy, or one which is subject to invasion by more “exploitive” traits? In this context, then, what are the biological-fitness enhancing values of “proto-culture” or communication which might have encouraged its emergence in early humans? Clearly this question is closely related to, and dependent upon, the adaptive value of cognition, consciousness, and communication. Is the continued existence of cultural behaviors which seem biologically maladaptive simply an unavoidable consequence of having big brains and jabbering mouths? Or are there group selection benefits? Are cultural behaviors subject to the same constraints of biological fitness, or do they reside in some other selective regime?

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Information, Uncertainty, and Meaning

The field of “information theory” or “communications theory” has as its core concept the idea of the transmission of information as the “reduction of uncertainty” about possible states of the source. The definition is very mathematical and involves very specific concepts of “message,” “encoding,” and the characteristics of the channel of transmission. Even though the formalization is in very mechanistic communications theory terms, the idea of reduction of uncertainty is a powerful tool for describing many information and transmission related phenomena. But there are also other common-use conceptions of information which, at least on the surface, appear unrelated to the communications definition. We often speak of objects as “containing information,” as if it were a kind of liquid which could be poured into a book-shaped container by the author and wrung out drop by drop as the reader pages through it. It may be that speaking of information as if it were a substance is simply a convenient short-hand which makes it possible to avoid the headaches and convolutions necessary to describe information as a time-based communicative process. But it is also true that the classic (Shannon, 1948) definition could simply be too rigid to express the complex shifting semantic meaning systems employed by humans in the processes of perception and communication.

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Humans, Bias, and Communication Phenomena

Even if the specifics of the processes of coding meaning and information in intentional (or unintentional) communication are not fully understood, some of the results may be visible on a social level. If individuals have exchanged information, there might be a convergence in the meanings they associate with certain signs or actions. There my be an increased tendency to see things from each other’s perspective. Through conversation they establish a common context, a dictionary of shared words, and a collection of common connotations and references which grows with each interaction. In Eco’s terms, the “semantic trees” exchange elements; the possible meanings attached to the symbolic referents they employ become more similar. In a sense, a micro-language is developed, a subculture between the interactants, a set of expectations and conventions. If it were possible to attach some metric to the degree of meaning convergence, this might be a usable measure of information transfer.

Fig. 7 Diagram shows a summary of differences in mean semantic loadings of terms for English (star) and Japanese (circle) speakers. In this spatial representation, emotion terms that are judged as more similar (by a method similar to Osgood’s) are closer to each other than terms that are judged less similar. The dimensions of the diagram are from a Principal Component Analysis. Dimension 1 appears to correspond to what Osgood referred to as the Evaluative Factor (good-bad, pleasant-unpleasant, positive-negative) and Dimension 2 appears related to his Activity Factor (fast-slow, active-passive, excitable-calm). (copied without permission form Romney et. al. 1999)

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Networks and Social Structure

Social relations tend to have an amorphous and ephemeral quality, making the term “social structure” at times seem like an oxymoron. Yet it is clear that there are also reoccurring patterns in individuals’ social contacts, and both people and organizations often describe the patterns in terms of fixed relationships. The abstract ties of extended family lineages, social support networks, organized webs of informants, and hierarchical political organizations are frequently spoken of as structures or networks – sets of relations between individuals which may partially predict or explain their behavior. It is often useful to conceptualize these patterns of interaction, friendship, or aid as formal “webs” or “networks” in order to visualize them more completely, compare them, and analyze their properties. A formal network description usually involves delineation of the ties or connections which interrelate a group of individual actors according to some criteria. (Figure 11)

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Dynamics of Conformity and Association

In the previous sections I’ve made some speculative predictions, both at the level of the individual or dyad and also at the level of groups, about the dynamics of information which is socially transmitted. One thing which has become apparent to me as I become more familiar with decentralized systems and emergent behavior is that it is extremely difficult to guess what the system’s global performance will be, even when the rules of the components are fully understood. It might seem that many of the statements I’ve made about the properties of social networks and information transmission imply dynamics which would lead simply to a general homogenous mixtures of transmitted culture. Yet there are many real-life experiences of social structure and transmission where this is not the case. How could simple transmission rules create complex patterns? What are the potential impacts of cultural transmission for the creation and modification of social groups? What classes of processes might drive group formation and dissolution, and how does the presence of groups in social structure affect transmission and population-level properties?

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Models and Definitions

All networks can be represented solely in terms of the connections between their elements, assuming that whatever combination of factors making people more or less likely to associate with each other is accounted for by the distribution of those associations that actually form. … The likelihood of a new connection being created is determined, to some variable extent, by the already existing patterns of connections. (Watts, 1999)

Because the actual functions governing the when, where, and amount of information transmission are so complex and context dependent, there are a great number of dimensions for conceptualization, experimentation, and analysis. I’ve already mentioned some previous work involving the effects of status and trust on transmission. There are numerous other possibilities to examine: power, transactional exchanges, sex differences, etc. As the problem is so multidimensional, it is difficult to ascertain which perspective would provide the most informative perspective from which to view the data. And of course which variables are relevant also depends on what scale the phenomena are examined and explanation is desired.

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Bennnington Social Network Study

At the same time that I’ve been doing the literature research for this project, I’ve also been conducting a short term longitudinal study of social and informational networks as they develop among the entering first-year students of the Class of ’04 and the rest of the Bennington College community. I had several reasons for wanting to do this. Throughout this work I have been discussing and suggesting conceptual frameworks for thinking about information in social networks. My hope was that doing this kind of study might give me some real data for comparison – a qualitative check on how well theory actually describes what is going on. Ideally a network study of the campus might give me a baseline idea of the social structure of Bennington which could be built upon in future work. At the very least, attempting to construct and implement a study would teach me a great deal about methodologies and the complicating factors which will inevitably crop up when dealing with theory and data in the real world.

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