In the last 15 years, many teams have explored the social networks of their study species. These studies provided very valuable insights, mainly in two broad categories: first, the networks of many species have been described. That means that various factors that shape social structure have been identified; second, some consequences of social structure have been demonstrated. For example, social networks were shown to affect longevity, reproductive success, sexual selection, and transmission of microbes and information. Yet, our field lacks theoretical foundations. We do not know what kind of networks we should expect to see, and why some types of structure are common while others are not. Basically, we were describing social patterns, with little understanding of the processes behind them.
As one of the first steps toward a theory of social structure, we developed (with Erol Akcay) a simple model of social network dynamics based on the concept of social inheritance. In this model, a newborn that is added to an existing population will copy the social associations of its mother to some extent, and will also make new associations of its own. Our model was able to reconstruct the social networks of several species. It also shows that we should be careful when analyzing the heritability of social roles, because if individuals just copy (or learn) the associations of their mother, they will have a similar social role within a population.
We are now working on extending this basic model in multiple ways, for example by adding a tendency to associate with similar individuals with respect to some trait.