In class yesterday, Ajay argued that the distinction between attributes and relations — so often made in intro-to-networks contexts — is not so clear. An attribute is a node-level variable, so centrality and any other node-level network concept is just another attribute. This is surely true, but it also a matter of semantics. Dan B prefers to use “attribute” in a more restricted way. An attribute is a characteristic of an actor themselves and not of their location in their social environment, such as their gender or attitude toward texting. In contrast, a node-level network property is a characteristic of a node’s position in the network, and can change if a tie is added or lost anywhere in the network. So gender and attitude are attributes while betweenness centrality is a node-level property. Joe said this distinction is problematic because network processes can cause attributes. For example, a person’s attitude is an attribute but it may have been formed as a result of contact with others with that attitude. But in my view the fact that attributes and network properties can cause each other is not relevant to the conceptual distinction between them; heat may cause fire but they are not the same thing.
The distinction here reminds me of the distinction between social networks and networks in general, which also came up in class. In my view, it is useful to restrict the term social network to just those cases where the nodes are entities, i.e., have agency. I can define a network in which the nodes are words and the ties indicate whether a given pair of words co-occurs in the same sentence in a given text. But I’d rather not call that a social network, and I certainly don’t want to apply social theory to it.