As the only institution of higher education in Maine’s capital city, the University of Maine at Augusta is uniquely situated to study, reflect on, and generate new knowledge of Maine politics.

This year, as we mark an end to the term of the 127th Maine Legislature and look ahead to the election of a new one, how much do we Mainers really know about how the Legislature works? With the passage of time, how have the ways of the state Legislature changed?

The skills gained in an undergraduate education at UMA can help us to answer these questions, and the best answers don’t come from one discipline alone. As our university celebrates the theme of interdisciplinarity this year, I’d like to show how seemingly far-flung academic skills can be combined to deepen our understanding of a subject — in this case, the Maine Legislature.

The field of communications (a social science) has noted the emergence of a new kind of interaction in our society. Over the last decade, the millennium-old behaviors of person-to-person communication, group formation, and joint action have been relocated to the new computing environment called “social media.”

Social media are different in three ways. First, anyone (not just a mass media company) can share a message with millions. Second, anyone else has the power to respond. Third, what we say, join and do over social media tends to be both public and recorded.

In Maine, more than 1 in 3 state legislators has joined Twitter, opening up a new alternative to back-room discussions or private constituent meetings. Take Communications 475 (Analyzing Social Media) at UMA to understand this change.

The presentation and recording of interactions over Twitter is made possible through the application of computer and information systems (a field of the natural sciences). Take our Data Mining (CIS 450) course to learn how to use application program interfaces (APIs) to grab observations of legislators’ behavior over Twitter and store them in a database on your computer or in a “cloud” server. Then take Social Networks (SOC 375) in the social science field of sociology and learn how to turn that raw data you’ve grabbed into fresh insights.

Let’s get practical. Using COM 475, CIS 450 and SOC 375 techniques, let’s look at the real social network of Maine state legislators on Twitter in the first half of February 2016. If a legislator or another account to which the legislator communicates over Twitter is depicted as a dot, and if each communication between them is a line, the raw mathematical pattern of contacts between Maine legislators looks like this:

 

rawnetwork

What a mess!

As you can see, raw mathematics isn’t enough to obtain meaning. Take the Data Visualization seminar taught by one of our professors of art (CIS 352) to learn the principles of visual design that lead to a more sensible image like the one you see below. In this image, legislators are squares, non-legislators are round, Democrats are blue, Republicans are red, the larger accounts issue more tweets, the darker accounts are mentioned by other legislators more often, and the 10 most active legislators are labeled.

designednetwork

As you can see from this image, when computer science, mathematics, communications, sociology and art are used in conjunction, we can begin to notice truly interesting patterns: partisan division, intermediaries, communicators, listeners, power players.

It is only through an interdisciplinary approach that a rich and instructive account of a phenomenon like politics can emerge.

James Cook has been a professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2011. Dr. Cook’s primary areas of interest in research and teaching are political organizations, social networks, and social media, specifically applying social network theory to social media in the Maine State Legislature.