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Down the Rabbit-Hole: A Glimpse into the Sunbelt Social Network Analysis Conference

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Down the Rabbit-Hole: A Glimpse into the Sunbelt Social Network Analysis Conference

Future Health Systems

By Nasreen Jessani, DrPH (Johns Hopkins University). Nasreen is based in Johannesburg, South Africa and works as an independent consultant in health policy and systems research, particularly on strategies for evidence informed decision-making. Her dissertation work was supported in part by DfID Future Health Systems. Follow her on twitter @NasreenJessani

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

Cheshire Cat: "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."

Alice: "I don't much care where –"

Cheshire Cat: "Then it doesn't matter which way you go.”

~ Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

(For those unfamiliar with the story, click here for a synopsis and here for notes on some on some of the objects and places I refer to)

For a few days in June I felt like Alice in Wonderland: tumbling down a rabbit hole, only to find myself lost in a maze of rooms. Overwhelmed by the unfamiliar. Curious about what next. I opened one door and saw indistinguishable mathematical formulas flash on the screen across the hall. I opened another door and could barely see through the multitude of hands raised in question. Another U-turn, and two staircases later a sign ushered me to “Durham Hall” where the faint smell of coffee beckoned.

This was the daily experience at the annual Sunbelt Conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA) held in Brighton, UK from 23-28 June 2015. INSNA was created 35 years ago to bring together social scientists, mathematicians, computer scientists, ethnologists, epidemiologists, organizational theorists, and others working in the area of social networks. Having presented at several public health and evidence-to-policy conferences globally, I was keen to venture into the unfamiliar territory of SNA enthusiasts at Sunbelt, as veterans fondly refer to it. Here are a few things that struck me about Sunbelt:

Queen of Hearts's Castle: This is where the maze ended and what SNA enthusiasts came to experience. Unlike international public health conferences such as the Global Forum for Health Research and the Global Symposium for Health Systems Research, the focus was primarily on theory and methodology: new ways of thinking about social networks, different ways of measuring networks and the relations within, mathematical modeling and statistical analysis, mixed methods research etc… Several panels featured titles such as “Modeling Network Dynamics” and “Approaches to Longitudinal Ego Network Analysis”. In many ways this seemed to be the Mecca of the SNA community and of forging new frontiers. Two days dedicated to capacity building workshops in advance of the conference further anchored the conference on methodology and theory.

The Garden of Live Flowers: Take your pick! While there were no rude talking flowers at this conference, there was an impressive array of disciplines and topics, which employed SNA as a critical method, and approach of choice. These included Migration, Education, Evidence-based policy, International Trade and Investment, Entrepreneurs, and Corporations amongst others. A welcome surprise was the variety of sessions focused on health such as “Public Health Networks,” “Social Networks in health interventions”, “Social Networks and Health Inequalities”, “Infectious Diseases and Social Networks”. Definitely a colorful garden variety to pick from!

No White Rabbit: There were on average, 40 panels a day every day for 4 days, each with about 4 presenters. With 20 minutes dedicated per presenter the chairs of each session ensured that the presentations ran like clockwork. No delays; no substitutions. No White rabbit frantically stating “"I'm late! I'm late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye! I'm late! I'm late! I'm late!" This meant that if you wanted to attend presentation 1 in Preston Hall, presentation 2 in Stanmer Hall and return to presentation 3 in Preston, you could do so without worrying about missing part of any. Very impressive!

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Prof. Brian Uzzi’s research on the origins of deep connections (well summarized by @michaeldsimmons in Forbes magazine last year) demonstrated that shared experiences that facilitate trust building, getting to know others at a deeper level, and exposure to a diverse array of individuals often lead to important relationships. The concept clearly did not escape this bevy of network researchers who convened daily from 9pm-midnight in the hospitality suite where novice and veteran researchers alike gathered unfettered and joyous. (If social network experts, of all people, didn’t know how to establish “deep connections”, then surely the rest of us are in trouble.)

Advice From a Caterpillar: One of my session explorations brought me serendipitously to a presentation by Martin Everett – renowned SNA researcher and co-creator of the world’s most commonly used software for analyzing social network data, UCINET. While Dr. Everett is no hookah smoking storybook caterpillar, his “Whooo are youuu?” query to me certainly resembled one! A quick conversation, an exchange of contacts, and a few emails later Dr. Everett offered to review my SNA paper. A respected node and tie added to my professional network – success!

“Off With Her Head!” Given my recent venture into the field of SNA compared to most of the participants, and witnessing the sophistication of many of the papers, I was arguably nervous to present my dissertation work. While I was looking forward to professional interest and critique, I feared the worst – what if my study didn’t meet expectations? What if my methods didn't hold up to scrutiny? What if…what if… The fact that my presentation (and that of many others) kept being rescheduled without my knowledge didn’t help either. Thankfully, although my (forthcoming) paper on Academic Knowledge Brokers as a bridge between academia and health policy in Kenya was strangely slotted in the Politics and Networks session, my presentation invited friendly faces (@JessicaShearer) and, with much relief, raised no contentious issues.

The Queen’s Croquet Ground: If you like playing with pebbles, the beautiful Brighton beach made for a great obstacle croquet ground. Personally, the one and half hour lunch sessions provided the ideal opportunity for a stroll on the beach, a 99 flake and reflections on Sunbelt. Until next year perhaps!

While the Rabbit Hole in Brighton proved highly interesting, the Golden Key that unlocked ideas for me at Sunbelt were the opportunities for health policy and systems researchers to consider SNA more deliberately in order to understand actors and their relations that affect public health decision making, to unpack the structure and dynamics of the networks that facilitate or hinder innovation, and ultimately to leverage this knowledge to improve health behaviors and outcomes, strengthen health policies and governance, and manage information and financing flows. And these are only a few of many ideas! Furthermore, perhaps global health conferences should consider more multidisciplinary panels, encourage the use of new methods for research, and invite a diverse network of attendees to the tea party.

Much of the activity in global health occurs through networks - and networks of networks; some official, others informal; some deliberate, others emergent; some visible, others concealed. Connected. Interconnected. Failing to apply network theory to this obvious modus operandi will be our failure to recognize and deliver on relevant approaches to improving public health. Like every maze, the global health one is a wonder ready to explore if we can find back the Alice in ourselves. So let’s be bold, embrace the unfamiliar and unlock the door at the end of the rabbit hole!

To catch up on more reflections on the conference, search twitter hashtag #Sunbelt2015.

*Image copyright: *2011-2015 demonsaintdante