Discovering group status structures using conversational data

Prof. Peter McMahan

Nov. 9, 2019, 1:30 p.m. - Nov. 8, 2019, 2:30 p.m.

Wilson 105 [3506 Rue University]

Communication reveals relationships between people. The words we use and the way we use them are acutely sensitive to even the most subtle variations in meaning across relationships, interactions, and social situations. The research presented here exploits this sensitivity to uncover hidden interpersonal structure among the members of U.S. President Kennedy's ad-hoc Executive Committee (ExComm) during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. I describe a statistical model of linguistic style that accounts for the adjustment of individuals' patterns of speech as they interact with one another and with groups. The method comprises a computational tool that is shown to be adaptable to different contexts, including both online and face-to-face interactions. 

Speaker Bio: Dr. McMahan received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 2017, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University in 2018, and is now an Assistant Professor of Sociology at McGill. His research centers on the ways that communication informs and reinforces hierarchy and authority in varied social settings. He specializes in statistical modeling and computational methodologies, with particular focus on network analysis and emerging methods for social inference on large, unstructured data sets.

Currently, Dr. McMahan is working on several projects relating to communication in academic contexts. One line of research examines the role of individual journal publications in the structuring of scholarly fields. This work finds that particular modes of publication (e.g. review articles) have far-reaching effects on the form and focus of future research. A separate research agenda is concerned with the effects of ambiguous academic language on intellectual discourse, arguing that imprecision in communication can have a cohering effect on a community of scholars and lead to more engaged and fruitful scientific outcomes.