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Social network tool provides insights into communities

29 September 2017

Example of a resource seeking network

The Prevention Centre’s use of Social Network Analysis (SNA) in prevention research is helping stakeholders across Australia gain a deeper understanding of their professional communities.

SNA is being used to document organisational relationships within four local communities involved in the Prevention Tracker project and to understand the growth of connections and interdisciplinary collaboration between Chief Investigators involved in the Prevention Centre. It’s also being piloted in a study of the roll out of statewide childhood obesity prevention projects in NSW.

SNA is a way of measuring and quantifying relationships or ties between different sets of ‘actors’ (e.g. people or organisations). The theory is that regularly occurring exchanges among people or organisations establish a social pattern that affects the flow of information, influence and access to resources or ideas.

Professor Penny Hawe, who introduced SNA into the Centre’s work program, said SNA was an underused technique in public health and prevention research.

“To me, SNA has an advantage over survey instruments that simply study partnerships or teams. This is because it enables you to understand how ideas and resources can be mobilised among people who may not be working with each other directly,” Professor Hawe said. “A network is different to a team. It’s typically bigger and more diverse.”

Key actors

SNA involves surveying key actors in a network to find out about their ties or relationship to other actors. It might look at who they know about, who they work with, whose knowledge and expertise they are likely to tap into, and with whom they feel they share similar ideas and views.

This data are then analysed to describe the network’s mathematical structure and to create a map of the links between the actors. This can highlight features of the network that may be hidden from an individual perspective. Most people are conscious of their direct ties, it’s the ties that these people, in turn, are tied to that can be critical for accessing novel information or resources.

SNA has huge appeal at a community level when it articulates the relationships that matter to them. As a result of SNA work conducted for Prevention Tracker, the Prevention Centre has assisted a number of policy partners who have wanted to use SNA in their own work. This includes an SNA of local food programs in Tasmania, and advice on mapping professional networks in Albany, and connections between fly-in fly-out cancer specialists, health providers and patients in WA.

Understanding context

Research Fellow Dr Dan Chamberlain said policy partners were interested in SNA because it helped them to understand the contexts that could influence the success of their interventions. “Network analysis is a good way to reveal the efforts that local organisations are putting into relationship building and working together,” he said.

Dr Chamberlain is based at La Trobe University, where there is a hub of Prevention Centre activity on networks and resource transfer in networks. The hub also involves Professor Hawe, Professor Alan Shiell and Dr Shane Kavanagh.

Professor Hawe and Dr Chamberlain have conducted two social network analyses of collaborative relationships between partners in the Prevention Centre. Baseline data were collected in 2014 and a second survey was done this year.

The aim of this work is to understand how closely partners worked with each other previously, whether collaboration changed because of their involvement with the Prevention Centre, and to identify meaningful opportunities for Prevention Centre colleagues to learn more about each other’s ideas and experience.

“As a sociologist, I was drawn to SNA help people make sense of the structures around them,” Dr Chamberlain said. “I’m thrilled to have landed a job where I can do this work full time and see the benefits of these methods unfold,” Dr Chamberlain said.