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15. Covert networks


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Most of the social networks that we study are openly visible traces of interaction and communication between people, which we either observe, gather from archives, or ask people to self-report (for example, neighbourhood networks, friendship networks, policy networks, trade networks, facebook networks). Social network analysis provides us with a range of tools for visualising and measuring these kinds of networks and thinking about their dynamics. How well do these methods and measures apply however when the type of social networks we are interested in are ‘covert’ – that is, they involve interactions, communications, and identities, that are secret in some way. There are several examples of covert networks, which are of interest to social scientists and policymakers alike: chief among them are criminal networks, clandestine social movements, and terrorist networks, where their involvement in illegal activity ensures a need for secrecy.

Members of the Mitchell Centre for Social Network Analysis are currently asking questions about covert networks in their Leverhulme-funded research project. They are interested to find out the effects that the demand for secrecy has on network structure and dynamics. Their work seeks in particular to unpick some of the debates within the literature, especially as the existing literature makes diametrically opposed claims about the nature of covert networks. Some argue that covert networks will tend to be highly centralised (e.g. around a central leader or group who can ensure discipline and vet newcomers), others that they will tend to be highly decentralised (in a snake-like pattern, where members have few connections to one-another in order to increase security should one member be arrested).. The project aims to gather as many ‘covert’ datasets as possible (from previous projects of the authors, public sources, and other researchers in the field). This will generate a resource for all researchers in this area and provide the empirical evidence needed to further test the theories developed and to assess whether covert networks can be analysed with established methods.

Further reading

Crossley, N, Edwards, G, Harries, E, Stevenson, R. (2012) Covert Social Movement Networks and the Secrecy-Efficiency Trade Off: the Case of the UK Suffragettes (1906-1914), Social Networks 34(4), 634-44.



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