Course: People, Networks and Neighbours: Understanding Social Dynamics

Course: People, Networks and Neighbours: Understanding Social Dynamics

6th January 2022 0 By Lorraine J. Hayman

By the University of Groningen on Future Learn (Ref

Week 1: Discovering Social Dynamics

This week I started a course on Future Learn concerned with understanding social dynamics, specifically looking at how methods and models help understand how social dynamics and processes develop. Chowdhury (2021) explained: “Social processes refer to the steps of establishing social relationships that occur repeatedly throughout an individual’s life. During a lifetime a person interacts with other people in society permanently or temporarily, as human beings are social creatures. There are several forms of social interaction such as cooperation, conflict, competition, and accommodation, etc. By social processes, we understand the ways in which individuals and groups establish and re-establish social relationships” (Ref

In week one of the course, I explored why it is difficult to predict social processes, both positive and negative. Social processes can be complex due to:

  • Large numbers of people are involved,
  • People are complicated (and diverse),
  • People influence each other,
  • Situations change over time.

While these points may be obvious, I found it a useful reminder. In particular, there have been times over the past few years where I have found myself frustrated by the social dynamics and processes within even small groups of people (rather than the large numbers explored in the course in the example of protests). This week one module helped me to understand a little more why sometimes people may feel that a certain situation should change, and yet no change is instigated and the situation continues.

For example, I was a member of a group where several people didn’t agree with the (arguably) offensive language being used by another member, person A. I was uncomfortable but nervous about highlighting my disapproval, as person A was more senior. However, a colleague, person B, spoke out and challenged person A, after which several other people chimed in supporting person B, including myself. Although, I was limited with my support for person B, simply stating that I agree with them. Afterwards, person B said to me that they wished I had spoken out more and sooner, demonstrating that I was unhappy with the way person A was talking. I felt misunderstood by person B, but I also understood why they wanted more support when being outspoken towards person A.

After reflecting on the above scenario before taking this course, I wondered why I had not been more outspoken (as I often can be!) and also why only a few members of the group spoke out against the arguably offensive language person A was using. Actually, some group members said that there was nothing wrong with the language being used by person A, which was also surprising to me. I was left feeling uncomfortable about the interaction, and admittedly a little clueless as to how it unfolded.

However, after taking this course, I can understand more about how the social processes developed in this scenario.


The course discussed a very basic model exploring an individual’s threshold when acting and re-acting within a social process, specifically a protest in a town called Appleton (Ref

What the course helped me understand about others and myself in the scenario I discussed, is that there is a range of factors that can affect an individual’s willingness to act. The idea of ‘thresholds’ stood out to me. For example, in my scenario, person B was an initiator and started the process of sharing their distaste about the language used by person A. For the next person that spoke up, person C, they had a threshold of 1 – meaning that as person B had already spoken, they would speak up too. Then, the next person to agree with B and C, person D, had a threshold of 2. Person E, a threshold of 3 and so on. On reflection, I had a threshold of around 4. This means that if only two people had spoken out, it is likely that in this situation, I would not have said anything at all.

If a group has people with these thresholds in it, 0-1-2-3-4-5, it is likely everyone will act if 0 initiates action. 0 is required, then 1 will act, then 2 will act, then 3 will act etc. However, if a group consists of people with these thresholds, 0-3-4-5-8-9-11-16 and there is only one 0 threshold, that is where the acts will start and end. Also, if a group has people with thresholds of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 etc, they lack an initiator so it is likely no one will act.

What Else?

In the Appleton scenario from the course, apart from the high average threshold (“people are reluctant to protest”), there are other reasons why a protest might be small:

  • No initiator (or not enough initiators);
  • Early-goers group is too small;
  • There are some discrepancies, e.g. many people have a low threshold, but as they don’t know about each other, they all stay at home (Ref

Thus, this suggests that in the group experiencing the offensive language being used by person A, the early-goers group was too small and there were some discrepancies. Too few people spoke up for anything significant to happen, and some also didn’t agree with the complaint lodged by person B.

In the coming weeks, the course will add further complexities to this basic model. Nevertheless, I found this initial exploration of thresholds useful. It can also be applied to a multitude of situations – take the great toilet roll shortage of 2021, or elections, fashion trends, or the latest popular culture fad. Simple and basic yes, but also, I think, quite useful too!

Butterfly Effect

In this exploration of thresholds, it suggests that a small change could have a big impact, no impact, or a small impact. For example, if a large group of people all have a protest threshold of 1 or 2, but there is no initiator, no protest would occur. However, if a small change led to one of those people with a threshold of 1 becoming an initiator, there could be a huge protest, with everyone from the group involved.

The course explained that this idea, in the chaos theory, is referred to as the Butterfly Effect: “…sometimes a small change can have no impact at all, sometimes it creates a proportional change (small change in initial conditions->small change in the final result) and sometimes it may have a huge impact on the way the process unfolds” (Ref

The chaos theory explains that there are actually patterns and connections within seemingly chaotic and random events. The Butterfly Effect emerged from this theory after a scientist observed that small changes in a mathematical equation could lead to significant outcomes. For example, changing a number from 1.000000000000000000001 to 1.000 may result in a notable outcome. Or not. Or a small, statistically insignificant outcome. Over time, the scientist (who was observing weather patterns) recorded the outcomes which ended up looking like this: (hence the name)

Chaos theory - Wikipedia

Overall, although this course is providing me with a simple exploration of how models and prediction techniques can be useful in the study of social dynamics. I am looking forward to learning more and continuing the course over the coming weeks!