by Tünde Cserpes
The perks of academia: the XXXIV Sunbelt Social Networks Conference of the International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA) made me leave the Chicago winter to spend a week in sunny St Pete Beach, Florida. The conference organizers even went to such lengths to encourage us to take a break during during lunch time and “take a swim, go wind surfing, or do other sunbelty things”. This was my second time presenting at this conference. Last year we were in Hamburg, Germany, under much less welcoming weather conditions.
Sunbelt is a relatively long conference: it ran from Tuesday through Sunday. Besides having regular and poster sessions, the organizers made sure that there were opportunities to pick up new analytic skills (hence the workshop sessions stretching up to one and a half days long) and to socialize. Jeffrey C. Johnson from Easy Carolina University delivered the keynote speech on Thursday. Each evening, a hospitality suite facilitated the mingling of participants.
I am sure there are many ways in which people go about participating in conferences. Personally, here is my approach: I always skim the whole program ahead of time, circling presentations I am interested in. I also e-mail those scholars with whom I really want to meet and have questions to ask. This, year I met some fellow graduate students and familiar professors as well. I think it is nice to make arrangements beforehand because, in my experience, I am often busy with other things during the conference.
The “short” program for this year’s Sunbelt was about 30 pages long. Sunbelt has a nice tradition which encourages ‘session hopping’. After listening to a presentation in a panel, you can leave the room and go to another panel. The drawback is that your 20 minutes presenting time remains even if there is someone missing from the program. There was a great variety of sessions, ranging from the deepest technicalities of using ERGMs, stochastic actor-network modeling, and treating missing network data to mixed-methods and historical approaches. Moreover, there were also panels on substantive issues such as political structures, organizational dynamics, market formations, and collective action. I have also seen some great examples of mixing cultural sociology with text analytic methods. Apparently, natural language processing has set its foot on social network land as well.
The multi-disciplinary nature of Sunbelt does teach you patience and open-mindedness. You will eventually run across presentations, which – although in a statistically sophisticated way but – conclude that the social factor is important (Ta dah!). On the other hand, I have seen presentations which made statisticians’ hair stand up on the back of their neck when the social scientist used OLS regression to analyze interdependent data. Overall, Sunbelt is a great place to pick up new methods, find allies from other fields with whom you can collaborate in the future, and expand your theoretical horizons in ways you might never have dreamed of. Sunbelt is the antithesis of the idea that social network analysis is a purely methodological field. Methodology is indeed an important aspect, but from what I have seen so far, those who remain at the center of the field are able to interrogate their data using these new analytic techniques and, in addition, make a theoretically interesting contribution to their field of study.
Ps: at the conference you had a chance to buy a “Can’t we all just get along” t-shirt featuring the co-citation network of social networks and network science. If you want to replicate the results, no problem: the corresponding data file is on the flash drive you got at the registration.