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The Primacy of the Individual, Bah Humbug!

Naniette Coleman's picture

Have you put on weight lately? Are you dating someone who knows a friend or two of yours? Are you a little happier or sadder and cannot figure out why? According to authors Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD and James H. Fowler, PhD, it may be your network stupid. In Connected, Christakis and Fowler set out to overturn the notion of the “primacy of the individual.” They suggest that people we do not even see can influence us in ways previously unimagined. Life many not be solely based on me, myself and my decisions. The beginning and end to all of our problems might be our networks. 


The research of Christakis and Fowler, in many ways, directly challenges the basic underpinnings of economic theory. The authors propose that, “social networks generate behavior not consistent with the simplified, idealized image of a rational buyer and seller picking a price to transact the sale of goods.” They do not ignore the messy “behaviors” and “interactions” that many economists have turned a blind eye to. Christakis and Fowler believe that if you understand the idea of connection and the idea of contagion, and respect the fact that the networked world is much more complex than we realize, the rules of engagement are predictable. 


The definitions of importance are connections and contagion. Connections take on many forms, from linear, or what the authors call a “bucket brigade”, to the incomprehensible structure of a network like Facebook. Contagion refers to the elements that pass between the nodes in those networks. Things like disease, ideas, water, and weight gain or loss. With knowledge of these definitions at hand, the authors suggest there are five rules that shape the connected world based on these two definitions. 


The shape of the network matters, as does the structure, components, transitivity and transitivity. These are the basis of the first of our author’s rules. Rule 1: We Shape Our Network. Where you reside in the network can affect what benefits or drawbacks you derive. According to the authors, “being more central makes you more susceptible to whatever is flowing within the network.” These ideas are the basis for Rule 2: Our Network Shapes Us. Rule 3 is lacking in controversy and somewhat obvious but is good to revisit, Our Friends Affect Us. Humans have a “tendency to influence and copy one another.” Rule 4: Our Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Us. Rule 4 concerns the importance of being aware of “hyperdyadic spread” the “tendency of effects to spread from person to person to person, beyond an individual’s direct social ties.” Finally, the authors present Rule 5: The Network Has a Life of Its Own. Social networks have emergent properties or attributes that arise from the interaction of nodes. These elements are new and the result exists as a function of the combination.  


Christakis and Fowler draw from their expertise in Health Care Policy, Sociology, Medicine, Political Science as well as Wireless and Population Health Systems to create a busy masterpiece. Their attention to detail is evident in this volume’s 338 dense pages. At no point during my two week read, was I ever wanton for examples drawn from across the developed and developing world nor was my desire for examples focused on women, the environment, people of color, the private sector, contagious disease, the travels of a US dollar, suicide, voting, politics, Kevin Bacon, evolutionary biology or Facebook untended. They also included many clever Latin phrases (I do so love Latin phrases) and mathematical patterns like Levy flights and random walks. I can confidently say that this book intellectually satiated me. The authors were, at all times, vociferous in their use of examples, perhaps a tad too vociferous.


I am an enthusiastic fan of inter-disciplinary work; my own education includes undergraduate and graduate coursework in Communication, Psychology, Business, Law, Political Science, Science, Economics and Public Administration (and admittedly I regularly eye PhD programs in Organizational Behavior) but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Taken in parts, this book is comprehensive and well done. However, to make the best of its comprehensiveness I would recommend skimming. Read the first two chapters, get a handle on the framework and then selectively choose which chapters fit your particular interests. Politics are in chapter six; love and relationships, chapter three (a good read for us single folks) followed, ironically, by spreading germs, weight gain, smoking, drinking and suicide in chapter four, and so on and so forth. 


I will not claim to be a fast reader nor an efficient reader, as I actually like to read a good book slowly, from cover to cover. This book was good, it was very good but its denser quality decreases its value. The book renders itself and its valuable information inaccessible to the very groups who might benefit most from it. This book, reminds me of my blog from last week, Research Is Not an End in Itself. Communication experts are invaluable in situations like this as they bridge the gap between excellent, groundbreaking research and application in the field.  This piece could be helpful to people around the world. In the interest of brevity, I will use my next blog post to attempt a translation of Christakis and Fowler for use by reformists in the developing world.  


Photo Courtesy of Flickr user: Erica_Marshall

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Submitted by Helen Abadzi on
The traditional primacy of the individual probably was conceived with an alpha male as a model. In evolutionary psychology terms, they seek vassals rather than peers and need to keep others at bay, because another male is about to challenge the primacy. See if Christakis and Fowler discuss connectedness with respect to alpha and beta males and females.

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