The Floating University


I. Sociology – the study of human behavior, human experience, and social networks

A. There is a fundamental tension between your own identity and ability to make

choices and collective responsibility/supra-individual factors

B. Two Big Ideas Sociology Explores

1. Supra-Individual Factors

a. environmental and cultural factors that partially determine your actions

b. examples: where you live, where you are located in face-to-face

networks, what formal institutions (governments, hospitals) are near you, inequality, culture, religion

c. the difference between structure (social constraints and

opportunities) and agency (individual choices and actions)

2. Collective Phenomena

a. special attributes of groups that are not present in the constituent individuals

II. The Big Picture: Healing the symptoms of one is not the same as curing the problem for all

A. Sociological ideas have widespread application in public policy and public health

B. Sociological interventions aim to affect the behavior of large groups

1. example: how we design cities

2. example: mass media campaigns to get people to alter sexual practices

III. Structure vs. Agency

A. Social and Structural Components of Suicide

1. The individual that commits suicide is connected to others

2. Often suicide notes make some reference to the impact on others

3. The responsibility of others to the individual makes suicide social as well

a. Statistics show most people who survive suicide regret the

attempt – 25 years later 94% of suicide survivors were still alive or died of natural causes

b. Most suicides are committed in acute distress; suicide can be

prevented by structural barriers to individual action, like nets under bridges and higher safety walls

B. Social Connectedness

1. Structural Intervention

a. Having structural barriers can help deter agency, like suicide

barriers at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building

b. The Golden Gate bridge doesn’t have them because it’s an

aesthetic choice by local government, showing the interplay between structure and agency, and policy made on the collective level versus and individual’s ability to stay alive

2. Group Level Phenomena

a. Sociologist Emile Durkheim

(1) in 1897 studied suicide rates in different religious

groups across different periods in France

(2) found that rates stayed constant within religious groups regardless of the time period

(3) deduced that something beyond individual choice or brain

biology was affecting people’s decision to commit suicide

(4) concluded from this that society was having a big effect on this seemingly individual act

(5) Durkheim: “The individual is dominated by a moral

reality greater than himself, namely, collective reality.”

(6) Durkheim: Groups have properties of their own that

transcend the individuals

IV. Social Networks

A. Studying social networks began with Georg Simmel in the 1890s

B. Social networks – face-to-face networks (not modern social networks like


1. We are connected to our friends and acquaintances, and they in turn are connected to others

2. Our networks are incredibly complex

3. We live our lives within these networks

4. The difference between networks and groups is that networks have ties

C. Artificial Social networks - cause new properties to emerge from individuals

1. Bucket Brigade

a. People line up and move a bucket, person by person, from

one end to the other to put out a fire or move debris

b. Putting people together like this allows the group to have an

ability the individual didn’t have: to efficiently put out a fire or transport debris

c. Another example is the telephone tree where one person calls

3 people, and those 3 people call 3 more people, etc

2. Military companies

a. Take 100 people and dividing them into 10 groups of 10

b. Everyone in the small group gets to know each other well, and

this dense interconnection of ties gives the group properties that weren’t there with just the individuals: the willingness to die for one another, for example

D. Natural Social Networks: the obesity epidemic

1. Obesity in Americans has risen from 20% or 30% in the last 10 years,

suggesting something structural and social, as opposed to biological, is causing the epidemic

2. Possible structural explanations

a. decline in the real price of food allowing us to buy more of it

b. an increase in sedentary lifestyles

c. the American economy is more service oriented now instead of

labor oriented

d. the urban and suburban design of cities is such that people don’t

walk as much

3. Obesity as a social contagion

a. Question: in addition to the other causes, is obesity spreading

from person-to-person, like a literal epidemic?

b. Question: like the collective rates of suicide, is something

collective determining the actions of an individual (their choice to overeat, exercise less, gain weight, etc)?

c. A special study was done using data from the Framingham Heart

Study – it showed that people seemed to be affected by the body size of those around them

4. Visualizing natural social networks through obesity

a. Question: do epidemics spread in waves, like a pebble hitting the water in a water table?

b. Data analysis did not show a wave because obesity is not a

uni-centric epidemic, it is multi-centric, it has many sources

c. The proper analogy is therefore not one pebble being dropped, but many

d. The data showed the network as a living thing, like a human super organism, that changes and evolves

e. It shows social networks as having emergent properties from a bigger whole that we are a part of

5. Two ways social contagions spread

a. An alter's (other person's) appearance or behavior could change the ego's (your) appearance or behavior

(1) your friend suggests eating muffins and beer, so you

copy your friends behavior and thus gain weight

b. The alter’s behavior changes the perception of norms

(1) what spreads is not behavior but an idea

(2) as people around you change body size your

expectation about what is an acceptable body size changes, and so you change accordingly

6. Sociology asks: Where do people’s desires come from?

a. In part our desires and wants are determined by the collective

b. Eric Hoffer: “When people are free to do as they please they usually imitate each other.”

c. This means we have less free will than we think

V. Why do social networks exist?

A. Where you want to be within a natural network depends on what is spreading:

if it’s gossip you want to be where is the most connected, if it’s a virus you want to be on the edge with fewer heavily entangled connections

B. How social network structures affect us

1. What is happening to the people around us (as aforementioned)

2. The structure of the network itself

a. Example: both graphite (soft and dark) and diamonds (hard and

clear) are made out of carbon atoms, the difference is how the atoms are assembled

b. Properties aren’t determined by individual atoms, they are determined by the connections between atoms

c. Thus the pattern of our connections affects the properties of the group

d. New properties emerge in groups because of the connections between people

C. Case Study: Broadway Musicals

1. Sociologist Brian Uzzi studied why some Broadway musicals succeed

and others flop by looking at the structure of their production companies

2. Data showed that networks where nobody knew each other before the

show resulted in flops, and networks where too many people knew each other before resulted in flops

3. Shows with medium amounts of existing connections were successes; thus, the structure of the network affected

the likelihood of success

VI. Networks in Other Organisms

A. Slime Mold

1. Eats wood in forests

2. When individual molds connect they form a super organism with unexpected properties

a. They can solve mazes to get from a start point to food in the most efficient way

b. This can be used to find optimal paths like interconnecting rail networks between cities

VII. Social Networks as Social Capital

A. What is social capital

1. a resource we can all use

2. capital: any productive resource

3. capital: a change that allows a substance to act in new ways

3. to create capital, invest skill and effort

B. Physical Capital

1. Example: land - you have a forest, you invest skill and effort to clear it,

make a farm, and thus have a source for wealth

2. Example: take a tree, put skill and effort to turn it into lumber which is

more valuable than the tree, you can turn the lumber into a violin, now you can do things with the violin you couldn’t with the tree or lumber: make music

C. Human Capital

1. Economist Gary Becker focused on humans as a form of capital in the 1960s

2. if you endow someone with skills and knowledge they change to become more productive

3. example: take a disinterested grad student, put in skill and effort to

educate him, and then he will be able to do things he couldn’t do before

D. Social Capital

1. A change in interpersonal relations that makes the group more productive

and capable of doing things it previously couldn’t

2. How social capital is generated by social structure

a. what is flowing through the group’s connections

b. how groups of individuals are organized or connected

3. Public good

a. There is no exclusivity in consumption of a public good

(1) Example: cake vs lighthouse – if you eat the cake no one

else can have it, whereas many people in boats can use the same light coming from a lighthouse regardless if someone else is also using it

b. Public goods often arise by accident from people’s interactions with each other and the public sphere

c. Social capital is a public good

VIII. Understanding Human Social Behavior

A. Methodological individualism

1. Individual transactions give rise to larger phenomena

2. Example: markets, elections, and riots are the byproduct of individuals’

decisions to buy/sell, vote, or express anger

3. Example: Adam Smith’s conception of markets being guided by “an

invisible hand” where each individual acting in their own interest creates an efficient market

B. Groups with collective identities

1. Collective identities: can cause people within the group to act in concert

2. Karl Marx: believed that groups had collective consciousnesses inaccessible by individual

C. Methodological holism

1. Methodological holism: groups have properties not discernible in constituent members

2. The study of social networks combines individualism and holism

IX. Why Parts Become a Whole

A. The whole is greater than its parts

B. Free will

1. Sociology is highly concerned with this because what happens to us

doesn’t just depend on our own choices, but on broader structural factors outside of our control

2. The questions of structure vs agency, which one shapes your destiny?

X. The Future of Sociology

A. The field is only getting better

1. Because of technology and the every day use of cell phones, credit cards,

administrative records, online networks, and blogs, people are leaving “digital bread crums” that sociologists can study better than ever using new computational tools

2. This will open up new understandings about how and why society operates

3. A new kind of computational science is just now emerging

B. Sociology is highly applicable to problem solving

1. The new data and analysis that will emerge in years to come will help us

understand and address important social issues like violence, poverty, epidemics, and political extremism

C. The internet

1. It is not changing something fundamental about human interaction as

much as people think; things are “the same but different”

2. Example: your great-grandmother would have said when she was 10 that

she had about one or two best friends, and four or five she is very close to, and those numbers hold true for today, despite the invention of the telephone and internet

3. Despite the technologies to keep in touch the fundamental reality of our

social interactions hasn’t changed much

4. This is because what determines our social interactions is our brains,

and ours brains haven't changed much in the last century

5. the capacity of humans to want to interact with others and their capacity

to influence and be influenced by others hasn’t changed

D. Sociology and You

1. Understanding sociology and collective structures helps you


a. why people do what they do

b. why people have the taste and desires that they have

c. why people behave irrationally

d. why so many problems seem to arise in our society like violence, political extremism, and poor health that

seem to be so against an individual’s own interests