The interview was held by Kike Viguera, journalist
Dr. Thomas Grund is Assistant Professor and Deputy Head of School in the School of Sociology at University College Dublin, Ireland. Before coming to Ireland in 2015, he was Assistant Professor and Deputy Director at the Institute for Analytical Sociology at Linköping University, Marie Curie Fellow at the Institute for Futures Studies and Stockholm University and post-doctoral fellow at ETH Zurich and Université de Montréal. He studied computer science and sociology at the University of Trier (Diplom), University of Cambridge (MPhil) and the University of Oxford (DPhil). His research has been widely published in academic journals, including Social Networks, Network Science, Social Science Research, European Journal of Criminology and his his research has also been featured in major media outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal, Die Zeit, The Guardian, Irish Examiner, BBC Radio. Learn more about Dr. Grund.
Dr. Grund, you started your professional career as a computer scientist and then you decided to enter the sociological world. How did you come to that decision?
There are two funny stories around this. First, when I was a teenager I wanted to become a particle physicist - somebody who studies the origins of the universe. I was about to do an internship at a physics research laboratory in my home city. As it turns out, just the day before I was about to start, they had an accident and the laboratory got contaminated. I could not do what I was originally supposed to do and the people in the laboratory did not really know what to do with me either. So they put me in their office in front of a computer, which turned out to have just one computer game installed on it: SimCity – which is a game where on builds up a city and has to take care of a society. And now, twenty years later, I find myself simulating societies in sociology.
The second story is more about the actual decision to change subjects. During my first year of studying computer science (and business) I started a “thoughts and ideas” journal, which I still keep up to date. The very first entry in my very first journal was something along the following lines: As long as people believe that something is true it does not really matter if that is true or not in terms of what people do as a consequence of it. Based on this, I wrote down lots of other thoughts that I derived from it. In essence, I applied the principle of “deduction” without even knowing what deduction was. As I eventually learned, somebody already had the very same idea…. 80 years ago. At first, I was devastated because I thought that I had this very original idea, only to realize that I was too late. But then I noticed that it was not too bad that I came up with what turns out to be a very famous theorem in sociology all by myself. In its original quote the theorem reads: “As men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”. And even better, it is already called “Thomas-theorem”, not after me (my first name is Thomas - but it’s a nice coincidence), but after a Chicago sociologist called William I. Thomas. After that episode I became a sociologist.
Are you now focused on sociology or does your research stretch to other disciplines?
I see myself as a sociologist first. Other sociologists are also my main audience when I write. However, the longer I am in the academic business, the more I see that an academic discipline is really just a label that defines who you are speaking with and for which kinds of jobs that you apply. An actual topic can be relevant and dealt with equally from many different angles, e.g. criminology, economics, political science, social physics. Currently, the main focus of my work is “social network analysis”. I am fascinated by networks and study them in all sorts of substantive domains, e.g. crime, art market, sports. I also work on networks methodologically. At the moment I am writing a book titled “Social Network Analysis Using Stata”, which introduces network analysis to an already existing and popular statistics software.
According to your research, do you think that social structures affect in a decisive way the ideas and behaviors of individuals?
Absolutely. We are all part of social networks and social contexts have a massive impact on our lives. The thing is, often we are not aware of this. For example, in my world, almost everybody has a PhD, simply because I met most of my friends at the university and during my own PhD programme. In a similar way, we find what we call “homophily” with respect to age, sex, education, beliefs, attitudes and so on. People tend to be remarkably similar to the people around them. Regardless of the origins for this pattern, it means that we find ourselves in echo chambers where similar opinions and attitudes get reiterated and reinforced. And even more profoundly, the simple fact that we are part of social networks exposes us to people who are not random. In some of my latest research, I show that your friends (on average) do not only tend to have more friends than yourself, but they are also better looking, healthier and nicer. It’s a little mind-boggling, but purely logical.
Several decades of research on social networks has shown that social structure matters, not only for what people see, but also for what they do. For example, people find jobs through their networks, they become criminal because their friends are criminal or even worse, they are more likely to commit suicide when one of their friends already committed suicide.
Your ‘networked minds’ article (2013) is, sociologically, very interesting. Could it be the starting point of a completely new economic model?
In a certain way, that is what we had in mind. The essence of the paper was that we looked at something that does not make much sense from a traditional economics point of view – why do people care about others and not just about themselves? This empirical puzzle keeps researchers quite busy. Our solution was that the local interaction with others gives individuals an advantage who are nice to each other. And most interestingly, and that is what we show with computer simulations, such niceness can emerge spontaneously and prevail in the long-run under certain conditions.
In this article you (as well as C. Waloszek and D. Helbing) compare the ‘homo economicus’ with the so-called ‘homo socialis’. Do you think is possible that someday there will be more people cooperating with each other than people with self-regarding preferences in the world?
Let’s hope so. Although, I think there will always be some egoistic individuals in this world. Our research, however, shows that when you have enough nice people who interact with each other, they get a collective advantage and can outperform egoists. And very quickly such an advantage multiplies and can protect nice individuals from nasty individuals.
In the real world, there already exist a large amount of people who cooperate and who are nice to each other. In that sense, it is more a question of adapting our current theories of individual and economic behaviour to account for this. Funnily, it has been a big puzzle that researchers have been struggling with so far – why are people so nice?
In the article arises the possible solution for a remarkable growth in the population of ‘homo socialis’. Could you explain briefly the concept of ‘local reproduction’?
With “local reproduction” we describe a simple mechanism that leads to nice people interacting with other nice people. In our paper we employ an evolutionary perspective and “local reproduction” refers to the idea that offspring who have similar properties, e.g. niceness, as their parents get born and live close to their parents. This relatively abstract idea leads to clusters of nice people who somehow protect each other and who have a competitive advantage over nasty individuals.
Another concept that caught my attention is the ‘idealists’ one. Are ‘idealists’ needed nowadays? And what do you think is their role?
One thing that comes out of the complex systems perspective in my work is that large outcomes do not necessarily have to have large causes as well. For some sociologists, this is disturbing or strange, but for me it makes a lot of sense. Sometimes having just one idealist leads to other people following, which leads to other people following, which leads to other people following and so on, which ultimately changes the world. In that way, a small spark can trigger a huge fire. Once you understand that networks and social dynamics matter, you understand that small changes can have huge consequences. This has been shown in many different contexts, for example, when it comes to segregation – the separation of similar individuals from each other. Making people only slightly more tolerant can lead to a completely different societal pattern, where different people mix. But I also apply this insight to my own teaching. In my opinion students are much cleverer than some people (and sometimes even the students themselves) think. I challenge them deliberately because I want them to change the world, and I know that they can change the world, by changing the world of others, who change the world of others and so on.
Currently, do you have any specific project you are working on, or that you are looking forward to do?
I am involved and interested in far too many projects these days. But that is precisely what I love about my job. I get to study the social world in all its facets. I just need to open my eyes. The theme that runs through all of my work lately is that social networks shape our perception of the social world, which affects individual behaviour, which ultimately leads to different social outcomes. Networks matter big time. For example, in one project I study the unfolding of a large corruption scandal. As it turns out networks matter for what people say who else was involved. It is pretty cool, because we can show (controlling for all other sorts of things that we can observe and even that we cannot observe) that denunciations are affected by network dynamics. Looking at "negative relations" is pretty new. We can reveal general mechanisms (e.g. an eye for an eye, punish those who talk, scapegoating) for how denunciations work.
But I am also very excited about developing this further methods-wise. Currently, I am writing a book about “Social Network Analysis” in general. It is exciting to put this together and provide the tools for lots of other people to get excited about what I am already excited about.
- Grund, T., Waloszek, C, Helbing, D. (2013) How Natural Selection Can Create Both Self- and Other-Regarding Preferences, and Networked Minds. Scientific Reports, 2013, 3, Article number 1480.