Prosopography for Mapping Science and Visibilizing Invisible Colleges (Part 2)

Prosopography for Mapping Science and Visibilizing Invisible Colleges

Shalini Urs

Part 2

1. Introduction 

Prosopography as a new research tool for studying a wide variety of phenomena such as the study of the class background and economic interests of the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution to explain its form and content (Beard, 1913) to Greer’s Ph.D. thesis (2014), which narrated the stories of many women who were present at the 25th Jubilee dinner of the British Psychoanalytical Society and their contribution to psychoanalysis, was outlined in Part 1. Here, in Part 2, I connect the dots between the different approaches of the Network of Science, Actors-network Theory, Science & Technology Studies, and the Bibliometrics-based Invisible College school to the endeavor of mapping sciences and make a case of a combined approach to the mapping sciences.

—Over the past decade, there has been a growing public fascination with modern society’s complex “linkedness”—

2. Network Science and Science of Science

 Over the past decade, there has been a growing public fascination with modern society’s complex “linkedness,” especially since the emergence of Social Networking sites. Most modern phenomena, such as the rapid spread of news or the tipping point of social/political movements, or the cascading of epidemics and financial crises, are attributed to the linkedness of the times. Many scientific disciplines have come together and evolved into a new discipline of network science focused on understanding these linked systems. Social Network Analysis (SNA) has emerged as an approach and a tool to uncover and understand the hidden side of diverse kinds of connections (Easley and Kleinberg, 2010).

By measuring interaction and communication patterns among network members, one can uncover the origins of ideas, certain social behaviors and decision-making of the networked individual, and group dynamics. By focusing on the connective structures, instead of individual components, Barabási (2014) provided a new perspective for understanding how the world works—in business, science, politics, and everyday life—in his book Linked.

While invisible colleges and networks have always been relevant for analysts of intellectual antecedents and histories, the attention to networks has become massive since the 1960s, with the emergence of the network science discipline. Together, data science, network science, and artificial intelligence tell a complex yet insightful story about how scientific careers unfold, how collaborations contribute to the discovery, and how scientific progress emerges through a combination of multiple interconnected factors (Wang & Barabási, 2021).

Wang and Barabási curiously also avoid referencing the field of bibliometrics, while the focus of their entire book is on scientific productivity, collaboration, and impact.

3. Actor-network Theory

Actor-network theory (ANT) is both a theoretical and methodological approach to social theory and empirical research. It is based on the axiom that everything in the social and natural worlds exists in constantly shifting networks of relationships. It was first developed at the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation (CSI), of the École nationale supérieure des mines de Paris in the early 1980s by science and technology studies (STS) scholars Michel Callon, Madeleine Akrich, Bruno Latour, John Law, and others. It is a constructivist approach developed to understand processes of innovation and knowledge-creation in science and technology. ANT attempts to understand and explain the combinations and interactions of elements that make for success in science and technology. In their book Science for Social Scientists, Law and Lodge (1984) try to establish the network theory and the inductive process of knowledge creation as the key component.

ANT tries to intertwine two threads in understanding scientific inquiry: the French tradition of the epistemology of science and the British tradition of the sociology of scientific knowledge (Muniesa, 2015). The “state of the art” of ANT in the late 1980s is well described in Latour’s Science in Action (1987). From about 1990 onwards, ANT started to become popular as a tool for analysis in a range of fields beyond STS. Today, ANT is widespread in its popularity and is interpreted and used in a wide range of alternative and sometimes incompatible ways; and there is no orthodoxy in current ANT, so different authors use the approach in substantially different ways.

Despite the close connections between STS and Scholarly communication studies, these two threads do not appear to be intersecting. Invisible college, which is anchored to the idea of communication amongst scientists and scientific inquiry, and the STS, which is the sociology of science or the epistemology of science, is to be interwoven.

4. Invisible College

Invisible College is the term used for a small community of interacting scholars in the mid 17th century to discuss Francis Bacon’s experimental methods of scientific inquiry. The invisible college is also said to be fashioned after the fictional institution Salomon’s House (in Bacon’s utopian work New Atlantis, containing a vision of the future of human discovery and knowledge published in English in 1627, the year after Bacon’s death). Salomon’s House idea inspired followers like Samuel Hartlib and Robert Boyle and led to the Royal Society of 1660. It became a standard based upon which many academies were founded in the 17th century, including the French Académie des Sciences.  Later the Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria)—a self-proclaimed community of scholars and literary figures that stretched across national boundaries, emerged in the late 17th and 18th centuries in Europe and the Americas. It fostered communication among the intellectuals of the Age of Enlightenment, or philosophes as they were called in France. Thus formal and information communication amongst scholars for the advancement of science is at the heart of the idea of invisible college.

The modern usage of the term invisible college is credited to Price (1963). Based on bibliometric research, Price adapted the modern notion of invisible colleges as an elite, globally distributed scientific community, mutually interacting, exchanging information, producing, and shaping the progress in their field. Price originally coined the term “invisible college” to a communication network of scholars. Though his research focused on measuring the growth of scientific literature and collaborative work as evidenced by multi-authored papers, he used the term invisible college to imply informal patterns of interpersonal contact among scientists. Following Price’s concept, Crane documented the growth of communication networks among rural sociologists and mathematicians specializing in finite group theory using survey and citation data to support her conclusions in her much-acclaimed book Invisible Colleges in 1972. The modern usage of the term invisible college originated from the Bibliometrics and Scientometrics school.

5. Visibilizing Invisible Colleges through Prosopography

Scholarship is inherently a social process, and it is embedded in a structure of relationships with other scholars, scholarly societies, and publishers and libraries (Borgman, 2000). Bibliometrics and Scientometrics have been deployed as a tool for mapping the research, intellectual, and communication structures of disciplines and in general for the science of science studies. Although there is enough scholarship available on the concept of Price’s Invisible College, questions have been raised about the structure vs. process issue— i.e., the structure of communication as evidenced through published documents or processes rooted in social theory. In order to expand the idea of the invisible college and exploit the true nature and potential of the invisible college, it is essential first to recognize that it is not a one-dimensional construct but rather a multi-faceted phenomenon. Paisley (1972) includes the invisible college in constructing a set of almost concentric circles affecting researchers. While culture is the largest and the farthest circle, the researcher within his mind (motivation, creativity, intelligence, cognitive structure, and such) is the innermost. And in between, he places the political system, a membership group (discipline/profession), a reference group (specialization), and a workgroup.  He also adds two more systems: legal/economic systems (including Intellectual Property Rights) and the formal information system (including libraries). While he places the invisible college between the membership group and the reference group, he acknowledges the challenges of defining and measuring the same.

Extending and expanding invisible college studies beyond bibliometrics by adding the layer of prosopography (new prosopography that combines SNA) might help us visibilize the invisible colleges better and study how social relations and structures correlate with scholarly communication, history of ideas, science, and society. Only by fully exploring the scientific enterprise will we be able to map the sciences; otherwise, it will remain a unidimensional picture. It is the shadows that give depth to a drawing.


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Cite this article in APA as: Urs, S. (2021, September 28). Prosopography for mapping science and visibilizing invisible colleges. Information Matters. Vol.1, Issue 9. https://r7q.22f.myftpupload.com/2021/11/google-search-results-theyre-all-the-same-right/

Shalini Urs

Dr. Shalini Urs is an information scientist with a 360-degree view of information and has researched issues ranging from the theoretical foundations of information sciences to Informatics. She is an institution builder whose brainchild is the MYRA School of Business (www.myra.ac.in), founded in 2012. She also founded the International School of Information Management (www.isim.ac.in), the first Information School in India, as an autonomous constituent unit of the University of Mysore in 2005 with grants from the Ford Foundation and Informatics India Limited. She is currently involved with Gooru India Foundation as a Board member (https://gooru.org/about/team) and is actively involved in implementing Gooru’s Learning Navigator platform across schools. She is professor emerita at the Department of Library and Information Science of the University of Mysore, India. She conceptualized and developed the Vidyanidhi Digital Library and eScholarship portal in 2000 with funding from the Government of India, which became a national initiative with further funding from the Ford Foundation in 2002.