Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Island Time, the Resilience Alliance and Scientific Change

Individuals with an interest in the Resilience Alliance will want to check out the recent ASR article by two sociologists of science, John Parker and Edward Hackett, Hot Spots and Hot Moments in Scientific Collaborations and Social Movements. (American Sociological Review 77(1) 21–44. DOI: 10.1177/0003122411433763). The article uses the Resilience Alliance as a case study to understand the dynamics of scientific practice and, in particular, the spread of ideas (see below).

For individuals unfamiliar with the origins and growth of the RA, the article gives a detailed social history of the origins of the Resilience Network, its growth and expansion into the Resilience Alliance, the Maltese crisis that threatened to break up the Alliance, and the Alliance's aims for transforming the discipline of ecology.

A central trope in the analysis is the group's concept of 'island time' -- the holding of small, intense meetings in isolated environs with invitations limited to a small group as a mechanism to build shared identity, solidarity and emotional energy as well as discuss ideas. The analysis then proceeds to document the manner in which these social resources were deployed in order to produce novel scientific knowledge.Once the network had developed novel claims, they faced two essential tensions. First, originality is a necessary but insufficient condition for transforming science. The group also has to persuade a wider community that is less sympathetic, perhaps even antagonistic to their claims; a community that will test their claims of originality against traditional theories and results. Moreover, the network members have to manage the negative emotions resulting from the skepticism present in the wider discipline. Second, once the results are widely accepted and disseminated, the challenge of getting-big-while-remaining-small emerges.
In other words, how does the group enlarge its membership and influence without compromising the intimacy and intensity that brought success.

As the above summary makes clear, the bulk of the article focuses on the dynamics of small scale interpersonal interaction, particularly emotions, and their role in both the emergence of novel science and the scaling of acceptance of that knowledge within the scientific community. It is in that latter sense, as a contribution to understanding the role of emotions in the transformation of a system (in this case, scientific knowledge), that other Resilience scholars will find the article to be less about themselves and more about an analytic resource they can deploy in their own work. Here is the abstract:
Emotions are essential but little understood components of research; they catalyze and sustain creative scientific work and fuel the scientific and intellectual social movements (SIMs) that propel scientific change. Adopting a micro-sociological focus, we examine how emotions shape two intellectual processes central to all scientific work: conceiving creative ideas and managing skepticism. We illustrate these processes through a longitudinal study of the Resilience Alliance, a tightly networked coherent group collaborating at the center of a burgeoning scientific social movement in the environmental sciences. We show how emotions structured and were structured by the group’s growth and development, and how socio-emotive processes facilitated the rapid production of highly creative science and helped overcome skepticism by outsiders. Hot spots and hot moments—that is, brief but intense periods of collaboration undertaken in remote and isolated settings—fueled the group’s scientific performance and drove the SIM. Paradoxically, however, the same socio-emotive processes that ignited and sustained creative scientific research also made skepticism more likely to occur and more difficult to manage. Similarly, emotions and social bonding were essential for the group’s growth and development, but increased size and diversity have the potential to erode the affective culture that generated initial successes.


  1. To preserve intimacy when you have 50 members in your organization can be really difficult. This problem arises in every scientific community or company. Recently I have read interesting research that said that any person can maintain close personal relations with no more than 150 people. Our brain is simply not capable to remember more.

  2. Sure, there is a limit. But humans are way better at bonding with larger numbers than any other primate. Indeed Robin Dunbar's social brain hypothesis marshals a variety of interesting data suggesting that language evolved as a mechanism to facilitate bonding among larger groups. Other social primates bond by touch -- picking nits out of each others hair, etc. -- which limits the group size because they have to spend time with each individual in the group one at a time. Language, Dunbar notes, allows humans to bond with multiple individuals at the same time and, hence, facilitates a larger group.

    That said, the 150 limit on close relations corresponds well with evidence about the size of those early hominid groups.