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1 July 2009 Analyzing Animal Societies: Quantitative Methods for Vertebrate Social Analysis
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The intended purpose of Analyzing Animal Societies: Quantitative Methods for Vertebrate Social Analysis is made clear in the title—it aims to assist biologists studying social structures held to be synonymous with social systems, social organization, and society. This purpose is further clarified in three key words of the subtitle. The emphasis is on quantitative approaches and analysis, and the subjects are vertebrates (mainly mammals, although birds and, to a lesser extent, fish also get a look). The reason for the focus on higher vertebrates is pragmatic rather than exclusive; interactions between identifiable individuals are central to the approach, and most studies of invertebrate social behavior do not identify individuals.

Hal Whitehead is a research professor in the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. However, I am sure that Whitehead would consider Balaena (his research sailboat) to be at least equally important as his land-based place of work. Researching such an astonishing study species as the sperm whale Physeter macrocephalus in exotic oceanic locations from a sailboat has made Whitehead the envy of many desk-bound biologists. If such work is not quite the stuff of legend (and it must be a close call), you still cannot help feeling that there is a movie in the Indiana Jones genre waiting to be shot. But that sort of Hollywood stereotype obscures the reason that Whitehead is held in high regard by a wide range of biologists: his work has consistently pushed forward our understanding of cetacean social structure. That he has been able to do this with ocean-roaming mega mammals leaves one wondering what he would be able to do with more tractable species. His book Analyzing Animal Societies: Quantitative Methods for Vertebrate Social Analysis gives hints and examples that partly answer this question and, more important, it should provide a stimulus to those studying such species.

Contrary to the publisher's blurb on the back cover, this book will not give studies of vertebrate social behavior a “kind of quality standard.” It will do something far more important: it will give much needed quantitative insights into vertebrate social structures.

This is a book about fundamental methods of social analysis; as such, it covers the essential technicalities of analysis, including collecting data and using them to describe relationships and to model social structure. It then takes the natural next step of using this information to compare societies and to discuss the direction of cause-effect arrows in relation to social structure.

The approach adopted in Analyzing Animal Societies is based on a conceptual framework of social structure from an ethological perspective set out by R. A. Hinde in 1976 (“Interactions, Relationships and Social Structure,” Man 11: 1–17). The foundation of this approach is the interaction, defined as when the presence or behavior of one individual affects, or is directed toward, another individual. This focus on interactions between known individuals requires their identification by the observer and results in the taxonomic limitation to vertebrates.

The approach is also essentially dyadic, and while a dyad of two interacting individuals is the obvious practical starting point, I am concerned that this will limit the approach. The potential for limitation is best explained by drawing parallels with animal communication. Such parallels are close because communication underlies many important interactions. Traditionally, communication has been considered to be dyadic, often with one individual as a signaler and one as a receiver. However, there are many reasons to consider that communication occurs in a network of several signalers and receivers, and such considerations have identified additional communication roles, such as eavesdropping. The advisability of the focus on dyads in the approach is briefly discussed in the context of the network analyses emerging from physics and the individual-based social niche approach. These are rapidly changing areas of research, and I would expect a second edition to incorporate such approaches.

But to return to Hinde's perspective, the relationship between the individuals is characterized by the content, quality, and patterning of interactions, and social structure is the aggregation of relationships in relation to the type and patterning of relationships. The approach appears straightforward—record the interactions of identified individuals and characterize these interactions and their aggregation into relationships. The bulk of Analyzing Animal Societies guides the reader through the techniques required to do this and describes the resulting analytical challenges. The layout of the text aids the journey: there is an explicit (and explained) structure of headings and subheadings to clarify the thread of argument. The numerous figures (often enhanced with line drawings of the study species), tables, and text boxes (which contain detail or elaborations) are also key features of the layout that help understanding. The prose is clear, readable, and concise, almost to the point of abruptness at times. However, the information is there, in text boxes, appendices, and glossaries.

But make no mistake: this book takes no prisoners. It will be a challenging read for many who are directly involved in this field of research. It maybe daunting enough even to dissuade potential students from the notion that studying vertebrate social structures is a pretty neat idea (especially if megafauna, oceans, and sailboats are not on the menu). I suspect I'm not alone in wishing while reading the book that I'd paid more attention during math and stats courses. But Analyzing Animal Societies will amply reward those who take up its challenge. Contrary to the publisher's blurb on the back cover, this book will not give studies of vertebrate social behavior a “kind of quality standard.” It will do something far more important: it will give much needed quantitative insights into vertebrate social structures. In so doing, it will help the field to move on from the use of qualitative descriptive labels, such as the ubiquitous (and therefore ultimately unhelpful) phrase “complex fission-fusion societies.” I hope many readers are motivated to take up the challenge.

Peter McGregor "Analyzing Animal Societies: Quantitative Methods for Vertebrate Social Analysis," BioScience 59(7), (1 July 2009). https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2009.59.7.13
Published: 1 July 2009
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