Social Research Glossary

 

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International, http://www.qualityresearchinternational.com/socialresearch/

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.

 

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Invisible college


core definition

Invisible college refers to intercommunicating scientific researchers who are working within a specified paradigm, or field of study that has some core issues in common.


explanatory context

Invisible college refers to a community of scientists. It is the name applied by some philosophers, sociologists and historians of science to loose-knit but intercommunicating scientific research groups operating within a paradigm. Invisible colleges are usually conceptualised as communicating groups forming an unofficial network with an upper limit of around one hundred members. Invisible colleges operate on an implicit circuit of institutions, summer schools, and research centres. They serve to confer prestige and facilitate communication by operating on an interpersonal level.

 

Invisible colleges serve to augment the development of a scientific discipline because personal contact contributes to the cumulative growth of knowledge. Those disciplines with little or no interpersonal relationships between researchers, it is argued, are characterised by linear rather than exponential growth.

 

While invisible colleges act as a communication network within a discipline they also serve to connect one research area to another, with research area leaders drawing on other disciplines. Invisible colleges tend to have such leaders who are usually highly productive and have an important role in recruiting and influencing other members. They tend to be highly flexible and essential for the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Thus they are quite distinct from the dogmatic leaders of a school.

 

Invisible colleges set norms of research orientation, of social interaction, of citation practice and of information utilisation. Invisible colleges, according to their proponents, are at the core of social structure of science, they act to constrain scientific work within a manageable framework whilst providing a forum for innovation and critique.

 

The invisible college thesis has been criticised for concentrating on the internal history of science. The model makes no attempt to widens its scope, to take into account the social milieu nor even the general scientific mileu except in as much as cross-fertilization is nesessary for progress. Progress in science is taken as self-evident, or, at best, as sophistication through puzzle solving. The model makes no attempt to explain how scientific work progresses other than to assume the paradigmatic thesis. It also assumes that the mechanism of cross-fertilization is self evident and operates only at the level of 'incorporatable ideas'. The approach ignores cross-fertilization that occurs at a more fundamental, epistemological level, and which is not so easily traceable through empirical study.

 

The invisible college approach, has suggested the importance of social groups but fails to explain adequately the process by which scientific knowledge grows. It ignores legitimation processes assuming that circulation of work within an invisible college constitutes, in itself, legitimation of research results and thus automatic inclusion into the realm of scientific knowledge. Similarly it ignores the way 'norms' in the group are enforced or become effective. It fails adequately to address the questions of why and how invisible colleges come into being. It is tacitly assumed that such a structure is somehow natural and that invisible colleges are necessary for rapid growth. Conversely, a rapidly growing science must be characterised by invisible colleges.


analytical review

Crane (1972, p. 35) defines an invisible college:

as a communication network of a subgroup of researchers within a research area.

 

Tiegland (2003, p. 78) explains Diana Crane's approach:

Crane (1972) conducted an extensive study of 102 mathematics authors and 221 rural sociology authors in the United States in which she used both bibliometric methods and questionnaires to uncover emergent relationships through sociometric methods. Based on her findings, she proposes that scientists within a research field organize themselves into subgroups of informal networks of personal relationships, or invisible colleges that are characterized by strong ties based on informal collaboration. These invisible colleges are then linked to individuals within other research fields through weak ties by their members, thus facilitating the diffusion of information both to and from each field. A common language based on a similar orientation towards research facilitates communication between individuals from different fields. With regard to performance, Crane suggests that the position of a scientist in the invisible college impacts his or her awareness of existing research as well as how rapidly he or she obtains information. Furthermore, Crane found that productivity in terms of innovations and publications tended to be unevenly distributed, i.e., a small percentage of researchers were responsible for a large percentage of innovations and publications. Finally, Crane argues that invisible colleges have lifecycles, growing and fading depending on the state of the central scientific research problem.


associated issues

Analysis of invisible college as a metascientific unit

Introduction

Price, and later Crane have elaborated the idea of invisible college as the basic metascientific unit. Price's conceptualisation grew out of his work on the rapid expansion of science from 'little' to 'big science', the consequent specialisation of practitioners and the limited circulation of an increasing number of scientific papers. Crane expanded the concept and related it more directly to the social context of scientific work and Kuhn used this notion of invisible college when suggesting the scope of the scientific community in which a paradigm operates, when, at the end of the 1960s, he revised his earlier exposition of the growth of scientific knowledge.


Price (1963) argued that invisible colleges arise as a pragmatic response to the growth of science from 'little science' to 'big science'. Essentially, the rapid development of science, the escalating education of, and generation of scientists, the massive cost of research, the spiralling numbers of publications and the continual splitting of sciences into specialist areas means that a researcher, if determined to 'progress', needs to become involved in one specific area. However this does not mean that science is comprised of non-communicating closed schools.

 

Price's Invisible Colleges

According to Price's research, scientists tend to 'congregate' in communicating groups with an upper limit of around one hundred members. These groups Price calls 'invisible colleges'. An invisible college is characterised by an unofficial network which gives

'each man status in the form of approbation from his peers, they confer prestige, and, above all, they effectively solve a communication crisis by reducing a large group to a small select one of the maximum size that can be handled by interpersonal relationships.... These groups devise mechanisms for day-to-day communication. There is an elaborate apparatus for sending out not merely reprints of publications but preprints and pre-preprints of work in progress and results about to be achieved.... In addition ways and means are being found for physical juxtaposition of the members. They seem to have mastered the art of attracting invitations from centers where they can work along with several members of the group for a short time. This done, they move on to the next centre and other members. Then they return to home base, but always their allegiance is to the group rather than to the institution which supports them, unless it happens to be a station on such a circuit. For each group there exists a sort of communicating circuit of institutions, research centers, and summer schools, giving them the opportunity to meet piecemeal, so that over an interval of a few years everybody who is anybody has worked with everybody else in the same category.' (Price, 1963, p. 85)

Crane's Invisible Colleges

Crane (1972) elaborates the notion of invisible college. Her book, entiled 'Invisible Colleges', draws together ideas presented in her earlier papers (Crane 1965, 1967, 1969). She leans heavily on Price's work (Price 1961, 1963, 1965a) and adopts a Kuhnian framework for her analysis, arguing that the developmental model is closer to empirical evidence than conventionalist accounts.


Her aim is to examine the extent to which scientific communities affect the growth of knowledge. This leads to a problem of identification of scientific communities which she resolved, following Price, through the use of publication citations as an index. Price had shown that in 'basic science' each new group of papers has about fifty per cent of citations linked to a small network of other papers. The remaining citations appearing to be random selections from the existing literature. The research networks that emerge from an analysis of citations are discrete entities (in the case of the areas studied by Price and Crane).


Crane accepts the 'logistic curve' model of the growth of science asserted by Price, and, on the basis of her empirical research argues that interpersonal relations among scientists is reflected in this model. Those disciplines with little or no interpersonal relationships between researchers are characterised by linear rather than exponential growth curves


Crane argued that 'the logistic growth of scientific knowledge is the result of the exploitation of intellectual innovations by a particular type of social community' (Crane, 1972, p. 2). Such a community is what she calls an invisible college.


The essential feature of the invisible college is, according to Crane, that contact between researchers, within the framework of such networks, contributes to the cumulative growth of knowledge. Such interpersonal contact is the basis for the interaction of research sub-groups. The invisible college is, at one level, the network of such interrelated research sub-groups, 'Findings from various studies indicate clearly the presence of an invisible college or network of productive scientists linking separate groups of collaborators within a research area' (Crane, 1972, p. 67) but at another level invisible colleges connect a research area to other research areas, through the interaction network of influential (and usually highly productive) research area leaders. As Crane noted

'Analysis of the social organisation of research areas has shown that a few scientists in each area played very important roles in recruiting and influencing other members. This may suggest that consensus concerning a paradigm for an area may emerge from a small group of scientists who then transmit it to many others. (Crane, 1972, p. 67).

The role of leadership in these networks or invisible colleges is important for Crane. These leaders are intermediaries who are fundamental for the cross fertilisation of ideas from one research area to another. Such leaders are, ideally, flexible, communicative and concerned with a wider perspective, and quite different from the dogmatic leader of a 'school'.

 

Limits of 'schools' as a metacientific unit


Indeed, Crane sees invisible colleges as distinct from schools, the latter being of less importance in the growth of scientific knowledge than the former. Schools, she implies, are a product of a less well defined paradigm (or possibly of no paradigm in the Kuhnian sense at all). She suggests that areas where 'paradigms are not so evident' (social science, humanities and technology) are characterised by lengthy theoretical conflicts. On the basis of research, (notably by Krantz, 1969, 1971) Crane suggests that Skinnerian psychologists, for example, 'suggest a group that is closed to external influences and in this sense has some of the characteristics of a 'school'. )

 

A school is characterised by the uncritical acceptance on the part of disciples of a leader's idea system (Krantz, 1971). It rejects external influence and validation of its work. By creating a journal of its own, such a group can by-pass the criticism of referees from other areas' (Crane, 1972, p. 87). Crane saw schools as fragmenting scientific knowledge thereby inhibiting its growth. She likened schools to religious sects, constructing a new faith and intolerant of critique and deviationism. She noted,

'Schools have similarities to religious sects the latter break away from the church and build separate organizations, emphasising aspects of doctrine or policy that they believe have been ignored or misrepresented by the church. The religious sect is a relatively closed system that resists external influences rather than attempting to adopt them. Members who deviate from orthodox views on any issue are quickly expelled (see for example Coser 1954, Johnson 1964, Yinger 1957).' (Crane, 1972, footnote to page 87).

The school, unlike the invisible college, is thus seen as a small unit of detached researchers without the benefit of cross fertilisation of ideas to promote innovation within the research programme. Determined to safeguard its theoretical stance a school will actively reject alternative conceptualisations from within its own discipline. Crane implies that such a state of affairs will, at worst, lead nowhere, or at best, advance will be slow and inneficient as research confined to schools will lose momentum. She maintains that it is essential for interaction between groups if research is to lead to cumulative growth. 'Social and cognitive influences flow across research areas at all stages of their growth... this openness to external influence plays an essential role in the process of innovation in scientific communities.' (Crane, 1972, p. 99)


In short, Crane maintains that her own empirical work, plus available evidence from other studies shows that research areas are not closed communities unreceptive to external ideas. On the contrary invisible colleges, unlike schools, exist to promote cross-fertilisation of ideas, and they can not be easily boundaried. Indeed, invisible colleges are able to embrace, and possibly encourage, interdisciplinary study and peripheral or hybrid work on the boundaries of disciplines or research areas. Citing Back (1962), Crane suggests that when a research area abandons non-directive searching for new ideas its level of innovation declines.


This is not, however, meant to imply that invisible colleges are simply loose associations of similarly motivated workers. Invisible colleges are more than an ad hoc grouping, they have an autonomy grounded in the prevailing paradigm that constrains innovation, while not denying imputs of ideas from parallel realms. Invisible colleges, according to Crane, set norms of research orientation, of social interaction, of citation practice and of information utilisation. Invisible colleges are at the core of social structure of science, they act to constrain scientific work within a manageable framework whilst providing a forum for innovation and critique.


In her attempt to formalise the unsystematic development of the concept of invisible college suggested by Price, Crane sums up the role of the community in the development of scientific knowledge as follows:

'Research areas seem to have tendencies toward both a high degree of specialization and toward receptivity to external ideas.... The existence of a 'core' of journals in the literature and of scientists in the research area provides a kind of repetition in scientific communication insuring that certain ideas will be repeated and emphasized sufficiently so that the scientists who are interested in these problems will be sure of receiving at least some of the currently important messages and therefore continue to do research on these problems.

The exchange of ideas between members of different research areas is important in generating new lines of inquiry and in producing some integration of the findings from diverse areas. Some degree of closure is necessary in order to permit scientific knowledge to become cumulative and grow, while their ability to assimilate knowledge from other reserch areas prevents the activities of scientific communities from becoming completely subjective and dogmatic.' (Crane. 1972, p. 114)

Critique of invisible colleges

The Price-Crane construct of invisible college concentrates on internal history. The boundaries of the analysis are the scientific communities operating within a discipline. The model makes no attempt to widens its scope, to take into account the social milieu nor even the general scientific milieu except in as much as cross-fertilisation is nesessary for progress. Analytically, the invisible college model therefore operates only at levels 1 and 2.


Progress in science is taken as self-evident, or, at best, as sophistication through puzzle solving. The invisible college model makes no attempt to explain how scientific work progresses other than in Crane's case, to assume, uncritically, that a paradigmatic analysis best approximates 'reality'. The problematics of paradigm analysis are shelved.


Cross-fertilisation is shown to be important for 'progress' but the adoption of elements external to the research programme(s) of the invisible college scientist is not considered problematic but rather as self-evident. The view that a 'good idea is a good idea' (provided it can be implemented) underpins the cross-fertilisation thesis, despite the paradigmatic framework which would delimit the relevance of 'external' concepts. The 'leader' is the entity constructed as the medium of cross-fertilisation. Such a leader, it seems, is not paradigm bound and through interpersonal contact of leaders and leaders with ordinary scientists worthwhile and particularly fruitful ideas will be readily accepted. How such ideas are reorganised and transmitted is beyond the scope of an invisible college analysis. In retrospect, cross-fertilisation can be identified. Yet this ignores those areas of 'non-cross-fertilisation', those attempts which fail (and even those which are not attempted despite, retrospectively, close affinities.) Invisible college analysis also assumes that the mechanism of cross-fertilisation is self-evident and operates only at the level of 'incorporatable ideas'. The approach ignores cross-fertilisation, which occurs at a more fundamental, epistemological level, and which are not so easily traceable through empirical study. Although some aspects of cross-fertilisation may be identified, there is no way the approach is able to assess the 'decision criteria' for such cross-fertilisation. In effect, there is no mechanism in the invisible college approach for the elaboration, abandonment or redirecting of a research programme. Instead, the looseness of definition of concepts such as 'research area', 'research sub-area' and 'research leader' allow for any post hoc descriptive categorisation of a research field.


The primary concern of invisible college analysis seems to be to establish that intercommunicating groups of scientists exist and that such communication is beneficial for the development of scientific knowledge. The impetus of this approach, which has succesfully demonstrated both these facets, has been lost through its preoccupation with identifying groups.


The invisible college approach, then, has suggested the importance of social groups but fails to explain adequately the process by which scientific knowledge grows. It ignores legitimation processes assuming that circulation of work within an invisible college constitutes, in itself, legitimation of research results and thus automatic inclusion into the realm of scientific knowledge. Similarly it ignores the way 'norms' in the group are enforced or become effective. It fails adequately to address the questions of why and how invisible colleges come into being. It is tacitly assumed that such a structure is somehow natural and that invisible colleges are necessary for rapid growth. Circularly, a rapidly growing science must be characterised by invisible colleges. The role of the metascientist is thereby reduced to locating invisible colleges. The metascientist becomes a 'puzzle-solver'.


In general, there is nothing in the invisible college thesis that enhances understanding of the processes of the development of scientific knowledge save empirical work to show that communicative, interactive groups are important and that cross-fertilisation of ideas accentuates 'growth' through innovatory theorising.


related areas

 


Sources

Black 1962

Price, D.J. de Solla, 1963, Little Science, Big Science, New York, Columbia University Press.

Coser 1954

Crane, D. 1972, Invisible Colleges; Diffusion of knowledge in scientific communities. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Crane, D., 1965, 'Scientists at major and minor universities: a study of productivity and recognition', American Sociological Review, 30(5), pp. 699–714.

Crane, 1967, 1969

Johnson 1964

Krantz, D.L., (Ed.), Schools of Psychology: A symposium, New York: Appleton- Century-Crofts.

Krantz, D.L., 1971

Tiegland, R, 2003, 'Knowledge Networking: Structure and Performance in Networks of Practice' Dissertation for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Stockholm School of Economics, Stockholm

Yinger, J.M., 1957, Religion, Society and the Individual, Collier-Macmillan.


copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017


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