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National Security Agency Social Network Analysis

The below message was received from Prof. Alvin Wolfe and posted on his behalf.

I am sending this brief message for two reasons: (1)  to check on whether I have the correct address for my anthro friends wherever they/you are; and (2to use this message to inquire whether you agree with me that  we scholars – social scientists, network scholars and especiallyanthropologists – should be more actively studying the cultural context of the unusual U.S. National Security Agency operation that is very much in the news these days. The necessary analytical and technological expertise come from many academic institutions and business corporations whose roles and relationships in the entire system are not at all clear.

This particular message is prompted by a question that Barry Wellman, the founder of the International Network of Social Network Analysts, posted on the INSNA blog:: Why have INSNA scholars not been discussing NSA's use of social network analysis?  

You may recall that after doing field work in Africa (1952-53) I  then studied colonial policy in Belgium. I became interested in network analysis in order to better understand both the structures of traditional African segmentary lineage systems and  the network structures of the corporations that dominated the mining industry in southern Africa, from the Congo to the Cape of Good Hope. 

One thing led to another as it so often does in human culture and the study of human culture. I focused serially on urban anthropology, applied anthropology, families/households in poverty, community studies, always studying the networks that are involved in the various levels of integration, and above all concerned about the networks operating at what I called from 1963 onward the supranational level of integrationwhere states and corporations interact. My most recent publication on that is “Anthropologist View on Social Network Analysis and Data Mining,”(Social Network Analysis and Mining January 2011, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 3-19 )

In 1963 I saw the mining industry as an example of the evolution of a supranational level of integration. Multinational corporations operating above the level of states are becoming more powerful and states are losing their ability to control them in the supranational system.  Even the United States, the most powerful state in the world, is clearly yielding sovereignty over the network of corporations operating within and outside of its borders.

In response to Barry Wellman’s query to network scholars about why they have been so silent on the NSA analysis of communications megadata, I wrote a brief comment, but as an anthropologist I am really more interested in why anthropologists have paid so little attention to the close connections among corporations and states in the continuing evolution of culture -- in the development of a supranational system of integration above the level of the state.  I hope we don’t believe economists, political scientists, and legal scholars will ever answer the questions Boas raised generations ago, about man’s form and behavior and the varieties thereof!

I think network studies of complex societies are crucial, and that anthropologists should be involved. I will be happy to send you my commentary on such issues, especially cultural evolution as it involves concepts of corporations. 

I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Even if you are not interested in my views, hit the reply button so that at least I know whether you received this.

Alvin Wolfe

Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, Anthropology,

University of South Florida., Tampa, Florida     Email: wolfe@usf.edu

For additional context to this message from Professor Alvin Wolfe, please review the below file. We encourage discussion on social network analysis.


Views: 337

Comment by Barry R. Bainton on August 2, 2013 at 9:23pm

Alvin -- I wonder if the silence by anthropologists about the NSA and use of social network analysis is related to the current state of anthropology as a compartmentalized set of sub and sub sub disciplines.. Our lack of a comprehensive theory prevents us from connecting the dots despite our claim of being holisitic.

At one time, archaeological theory relied on theories of diffusion to trace spread of ideas (traits) and build models of cultural change. The 4 field anthropologist was trained culture change theory from archaeology and carried it into their ethnography. Malinowski's study of the Kula ring was an early study of networks and the kinship studies that have been at the foundation of social anthropology is another example of such network analysis

In one respect -- this is all old hat to anthropology. And maybe that's the point, we have been silent because it is not new on the one hand, and it is not being applied to a tribe, band, or archaeological culture that we, as anthropologist, associate with network and diffusion analysis.

Wolf states," ... as an anthropologist I am really more interested in why anthropologists have paid so little attention to the close connections among corporations and states in the continuing evolution of culture -- in the development of a supranational system of integration above the level of the state." I see two elements. First is the anthropologist's reluctance to "study up" as Laura Nader suggested long ago. we seem to react against the sources of power in the ethnosphere. Second, anthropology, outside of archaeology, has not developed a method for studying mega-structures above the state level  of socio-cultural integration.For example, National character studies pioneered in the mid-20th century as part of WWII and Cold War era anthropology are no longer popular. At the same time anthropology tends to still focus on the small scale systems where social networks are contained within definable institutions, rather than wide open systems that NSA, Facebook, Google, etc. operate in.

Just some thoughts that your essay stimulated. Good question.


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