WAS KEYNES A ”KEY PLAYER”? Social network analysis of the Bloomsbury Group

What did social networks look like 100 years ago? Was Keynes a ''Key Player'' in his own Bloomsbury Group network of intellectuals and artists? In an era without Facebook, Twitter and other social media, what did social networks look like and how much can this tell us about how networks operate today? How can we work out the effects of networks on people''s behaviour and decisions?

In a study forthcoming in the Economic Record and to be presented at the Royal Economic Society at the University of Bristol in April 2017, Professor Peter Dolton (Sussex University and NIESR) explains how a detailed study of the Bloomsbury Group network can tell us a lot about how networks form, change and operate. Specifically, it is possible to estimate what effect the structure of this network has on decisions that members of the Bloomsbury Group made.

A major finding of the research is that working out who is central to a network – the ''Key Player'' measure – is crucial to an understanding of how the network works. Specifically, the more central you are to the network in terms of connections, the more likely you are to have your outcomes influenced.

The measure of ''centrality'' in a network is important and determines who is the ''Key Player''. It turns out that Keynes was not the Key Player in this network in 1905 or in 1925. That role belonged to Lytton Strachey, although Keynes was the person with the second highest centrality score by 1925.

Today social networks have a huge impact on our lives. We influence our friends and they in turn have clear effects on us. This may have dramatic effects on our behaviour and decisions. It has been shown that network effects – the possibility that who your friends are may influence our outcomes – are ubiquitous. For example, we know that if your friends are obese, then you are more likely to be obese. The same is true of smoking. Likewise our academic outcomes are likely to be influenced by the peers with whom we study.

Modelling how social networks originate and how they operate may be tremendously important for all sorts of economic, educational, health and social outcomes. The problem is that we can seldom observe how these networks form and how they change over time.

One interesting exception – thanks to a large number of diaries, letters and memoirs – is the Bloomsbury Group – the group of London intellectuals that included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West and many other writers and artists, which formed before the First World War.

This research constructs a mathematical model of the Bloomsbury Group, which makes its possible to analyse the role that the network played in influencing the members'' decisions. It also tells us a lot about how networks should be modelled. The results could have major implications for how we think about all forms of social interactions and their effects.