Social network theory and analysis: a preliminary exploration. CHERE Working Paper 2009/5
The rationale for addressing the issue of social networks and social network analysis in the context of health policy is to investigate the extent to which these theoretical and analytical paradigms represent feasible and useful tools to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies aimed at increasing the likelihood that policy makers will use evidence from research in formulating health and health services policy. In this context, the investigation of social network theory and analysis is informed by the needs of the Sax Institute, which is a coalition of University and research groups undertaking public health and health services research in NSW. The aim of the Institute is to build partnerships between researchers and health policy and service delivery agencies and, through these partnerships, develop research assets and programs and support researchers to enable and strengthen policy and practice focused research. Although the final outcome of interest is the formulation of evidence-informed policy (and, by inference, its implementation and the subsequent improvement in outcomes such as enhanced health services delivery and/or improved health status of those affected by the policy), it is unlikely that a direct link between the research evidence used, the formulation of policy, its implementation and any outcomes will be able to be observed within the limited resources available to the Sax Institute. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, policy formulation and implementation will be treated as processes, and their link to health services and patient/population health status will be assumed. The paper will focus on the use of social networks in encouraging or enhancing links between the research evidence and policy formulation aspects of the process and the feasibility of using social network analysis to evaluate the effectiveness of such links. In particular, the issue of researcher-policy maker interaction will be dealt with, in terms of the extent to which a social network is likely to encourage such interactions and the extent to which interactions, in turn, facilitate the development of evidence-informed policy. The paper is structured as followsa: social networks and social network analysis are described in section 2, including a brief explanation of the theoretical underpinnings of the constructs. Section 3 covers some literature describing how networks have been used to link researchers and policy makers (research policy networks) and any evaluations of such networks. Section 4 will repeat this exercise with examples from the literature of health research policy networks (or similar) and will focus on the extent to which networks are likely to be effective in the context of policy relating to health and health services, and, if they are, what might be the characteristics required for a network to be successful. In turn, this will allow some consideration of how the effectiveness of a network could be evaluated. The final section (section 5) will draw some conclusions from the preceding sections and raise some issues for the Sax Institute to consider.
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