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Understanding Dark Networks: A Strategic Network for the Use of Social Network Analysis

Understanding Dark Networks: A Strategic Network for the Use of Social Network Analysis by Daniel Cunningham, Sean Everton, and Philip Murphy. Rowman & Littlefield 2016, 364 pp.

The text, Understanding Dark Networks, delves deeply into accepted social network analysis (SNA) practices and techniques used by professional researchers and skilled academics to analyze statistical deviations through graphical and mathematical means. Cunningham, Everton, and Murphy leave no stone unturned while explaining how different analytical approaches generate varied results and subsequently altered network visualizations. Various tools and techniques are examined and then employed to conduct SNA. A companion website with digital data is included to further explore several outside items. Each textbook chapter progressively demonstrates ever-advancing techniques that reveal steadily more information differentiating the studied networks. While interesting as a potential analytical path, the subject matter remains highly technical and will be best appreciated by those already well versed with the chosen tools or during a class with experts to demonstrate a path through the many overlapping considerations.

The work’s textbook nature remains consistent throughout in offering well-spaced sections, numerous graphics, frequent summaries, end of chapter questions, and suggested sources for further reading. The three authors split the text into four sections: an introduction, exploratory SNA techniques, confirmatory SNA techniques, and a conclusion. Each section contains multiple chapters and a step-by-step process with clear lists, multiple graphics, and detailed explanations. Although the authors repeatedly insist the text is nontechnical, the sheer number of equations and comparative matrices suggests the material is not for a casual reader. While graphical depictions are common, most show only one variation despite suggesting many others are possible. Comparing multiple elements in the text or through the website would have added value and comprehension. Many graphics used line weights, monochromatic shading, and geometry to highlight some feature but legends tied to those graphics were frequently not included.

Cunningham, Everton, and Murphy’s text has one great strength; it is a truly excellent and consolidated reference for those undertaking any SNA exploration. Each chapter contains a full table to summarize analytic measures, provide short explanations, offer alternative interpretations, and caveat the element. Each item here could save junior analysts hours, if not days, when struggling their way through the tool selection offered by many analytical software versions. The first column explains the term and reference where the best source material on that one item will appear for further study. The second item offers a brief definition, while the third suggests what those definitions might mean to the observer during an SNA project. Finally, the caveats column suggests some insights the authors have gathered from their careers, including suggesting which software programs support those analytic approaches. Some text and graphics are small, at least in the paperback version, so one should also bring their reading glasses. The voluminous graphics deliver an excellent starting point to interpret information aspects on any potential dark network.

Unfortunately, the biggest textual weakness arises from the lack of specific attention to dark network characteristics. While the text’s title offers a path to generate more understanding and examples include three terrorist networks, an Afghan tribe structure, and Anabaptists during the Protestant Reformation, the authors, in my opinion, fail to deliver any real insight about how demonstrated methods are any more strategic or effective than standard SNA approaches. In fact, the methods all appear as standard SNA, with average tools, applied against data already present. No challenges associated with analysis, collection, or even developing strategic requirements are presented. Instead, one experiences seemingly random statements like, “centralization is often positively associated with the command and control of dark networks” (p. 91). One could reasonably assume, even without the text, centralization always remains key to an ability to conduct command and control over any network. A chapter focused on dark networks, explaining how several dark networks show different traits from more exposed social networks, and how one goes about ensuring data accuracy, would have been highly beneficial in achieving the titular goals expressed by the authors. Further, other than being an excellent reference on SNA methods, no single section appeared to repeatedly or consistently address strategies for using SNA against dark networks. If the text had used different samples, for example, examining Netflix users in the urban US, the same techniques and conclusions as were already shown would likely appear.

The text contains a wealth of valuable information and should provide an excellent reference for any skilled analyst even if falling somewhat short as a specifically dark network area. The SNA details and descriptions, as well as additional references to outside material, should save significant time looking for a guide in approaching this as a new analytic area. My final recommendation would be for any SNA-focused class whose instructor relies on this text to deliver an integrated operational experience to significantly aid their students. However, as an off-the-shelf, analytic read or for those brand new to SNA, the text is not a good place to start. The work is highly technical and narrowly focused on mathematical comparisons describing social networks in multidimensional space. Understanding Dark Networks accomplishes its primary goal as providing a framework to accomplish advanced SNA characterization if falling short in explaining how those unique aspects are uniquely associated with dark networks. Overall, skilled analysts will find it provides some valuable aspects while those more junior should wait for the text to appear as part of a more expansive instructional venue.


Lt Col Mark Peters, USAF