A social network is “simply” bound as a set of objects, such as riders of an elevator lift, or even geese that are linked in some meaningful, measurable fashion. A gaggle of geese is a gaggle of geese but do the birds define themselves by shared genus? Are people riding on a lift bound by some unspoken credo or only share proximity to avoid being late for the tube? There might be an imprinted biological need to group and cooperate. The reflexivity of sociopolitical will and free choice may have no bearing on sharing elbow room with a rider that grins ever so slightly only to divert that glance. A rider does not have to talk to activate the elevator or jockey his or her standing in the elevator hierarchy. The button has already been pushed and the riders need the physical help to proceed on their way. The only agreement in the elevator is follow the understood, unsaid etiquette of riding an elevator. Paranyuskin (2010) calls this a “shared occasion of experience,” the diversity in social organization that illuminates differences in physical closeness, emotional collectivity and mathematical interdependence. Social networks are structurally enduring or relationally fleeting and ethereal. We choose to interact or share the same space in the most mundane of circumstances. Networks change.

I came across a very cool short film by Mark Isaacs called Lift. Isaacs (2001) set up a camera in a London elevator “lift” with the purpose of creating what he calls a vertical community (or, as I would redefine, an ethereal network). Isaacs used his camera lens as an incubator to link riders of the lift to engage in conversation. Isaacs’ community was defined in three ways: spatially, temporally and purposely. His community was bound by the shiny steel car enclosure and platform. The boundaries of the decentralized, emerging community set once the large steel doors clang shut. The composition changes over time as people enter and leave the lift. The network also is purposed—to utilize the transient action of riding the elevator to build a quality sense of community. Is it only a vertical community when Isaccs set up his tripod with the explicit goal of recording the rides of passengers? It is a question to pose as it is often defined by the observer, in this case, Isaacs, how the network is segmented and defined. There are a few fancy anthropological terms that I feel might help. There are two orientations with which we can understand the world—as an outsider (etic) and as an insider (emic). In defining how we might conceptualize networks, Kadushin (2012) differentiates perspectives as emic (such as the lift riders) and the etic (e.g. Outside interloper such as Isaacs with his camera). According to network theory, naming a network is powerful. While Isaacs markets the riders as a vertical community, the lift riders are most likely unaware that they are a member or are being viewed as such. Unnamed groups are often identified by the observer and the boundaries are often most not agreed upon by the group members (Kadushin, 2012). Our understanding of what is a group then becomes grounded in the reality of the observer and is played out by the actors. Isaacs (2001) is using the idea of network segmentation without knowing it. Isaacs (2001) plays off of the reality that each lift rider overlaps larger primary networks, such as floor neighbors, high rise inhabitants, or even more broadly, Londoners. Mathematically, a clique should be defined as a complete subgraph of three or more people that must all be interacting in some meaningful way (Kadushin, 2012). Take the instance in the film where two older individuals know each other, converse and thus decide to ignore the camera. Isaacs is left out only to document the event. They did not clique. If we apply Kadushin’s definition of collectivity to the Isaacs’ film, now it gets interesting. Stay with me now. According to Kadushin (2012), “a collectivity is structurally cohesive to the extent that the social relations of its members hold it together.” Further there are two mechanisms that support and disrupt this happy state of togetherness. First, if a “disruptive force” acts upon the group, will the network survive? Second, complexity is bound also to the health of its network. Disruption in a complex system occurs when one or more people are removed from the group (Kadushin, 2012). Then the process of community starts all over again. According to Miller & Page (2007), the “deep” quality of the complexity would mean that the parts of a sum of the networks will have structural repercussions on the health of the entire system. So the reality of the vertical community of Isaacs becomes computationally precarious at best. It is ethereal with little chance of sustainment long-term. This is not to say that an experiment such as Isaacs cannot have societal effects outside of the lift. However short-lived the vertical community, connections reaffirm even the most fleeting of ethereal communities. But the trick is harnessing the power of these ties once the words dissipate or the steel doors clang to the bing of a ground floor arrival. Does every social organization have to be tied to some larger, metaphorical collective meaning? No. The only social disruption that a lift rider might care about is ending the “shared experience” by getting the heck out of the mechanical box after five annoying floor stops. Beauty can at times reside in the chaotic passing into and out of networks. The ethereal network, in its delicate nature, is also plagued with diminished systemic stability. But we must dance not fight with systems as passengers exit the lift.


Isaacs, M. (director) (2001) Lift [documentary]. United Kingdom: Second Run.

Kadushin, C. (2012) Understanding Social Networks. New York: Oxford.

Miller, J. & Page, S. (2007) Complex Adaptive Systems: an Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life (Princeton Studies in Complexity). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Paranyuskin, D. (2010). The inclusive exclusivity of the “Dynamique d’Enfer”. Retrieved from http://deemeetree.com/current/inclusive-exclusive/.

An earlier version appeared on the Orgcomplexity Blog.

Feature image courtesy of Pixabay.

About The Author

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Adjunct Assistant Professor, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine

Michele Battle-Fisher is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine and the author of Application of Systems Thinking to Health Policy and Public Health Ethics: Public Health and Private Illness (Springer), a 2016 Doody's Core Title. Ms. Battle-Fisher is a Health Systems/Complexity scholar and bioethicist. She has researched and taught in the medical and policy fields, ranging from public health, science and technology, bioethics, systems theory and its application to health. She was a speaker at TEDxDartmouth 2018 where she discussed the "Paradigm Shift" of Health Systems Science curriculum in health and clinical medicine. She was selected as a finalist in the 1st annual MIT Press “Pitchfest”, the “Shark Tank” of book publishing.