The Density of Dickinson and the Brokering of Bronte’

A quick glance at my high school and college transcripts would reveal my ability to efficiently and continuously perform at an average level- especially when based on a  standardized measurement of aptitude. If one were to dig a little deeper, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that my skill in remaining at this constant became tested over the years by the dreaded lit class. I viewed the work of authors like Dickinson and Bronte the same way I look at soccer players who call upon the magic bottled-water to cure their ankle ailments.

Just like my progression through those classes, things change and I have finally seen the value in studying both Dickinson and Bronte. Not as authors, but as individuals. Recently, I found a study that looked at the productive lives of those two authors of classic literature in the attempt to find correlation between creativity and their social network. And as I continually am being followed by the old saying: “You are the sum of the people you surround yourself with”, I dove in.

First a little background:

Psychologists conceptualize creativity in three different ways:

Creativity as an attribute. Similar to IQ, it will vary from person to person.

Creativity is a product of a person’s social structure. 

Creativity is a response to changes in social or cultural constructs.


The goal of this particular study was to look at creativity as a product of one’s social structure (or relationship patterns). By cataloguing each author’s written correspondences during their periods of peak creativity (publishing), the researcher could not only map who were active players in each author’s network, but what content flowed between each link.

 

emily_dickinson

The second component of the study looked to see if the same concepts that defined a ‘creative’ person’s network, remained true for ‘creative’ people who were notoriously viewed as isolated. By making this comparison, the researcher could continue research efforts that showcased how important one’s network is in terms of making creative leaps.

First, let’s look at the network concepts that should be prevalent in a ‘creative’ individual’s network.

(1) Moderate Network Density

A person’s network needs to be cohesive, but not enough to encourage groupthink. The term density is borrowed from network theory. Density is measured by the amount of ties one has, divided by the amount of possible ties. The number is relative to the person, but in this case the number should be moderate (Dickinson’s was .47). In the study, the researcher looked at the correlation between the author’s network density and their peak creative periods.

(2) Wide Ranging Set of Connections

This would be the relationships the author maintained throughout the author’s writing career and was measured through written correspondences during the examined periods of each author.

(3) Situated as a Node Between Disparate Small Worlds

The neat thing about this study, was how each author experienced a network change surrounding their most productive points. A node can be thought of as a central component of a network and one that has established a large number of links within the network. Granovetter was the first to posit the strength of weak ties. The strength of such ties allows an individual the access to separate networks. In a sense (and very loosely based), this is what is meant by small worlds. Nodes act a hub and tend to connect separated worlds. Without them the worlds remain separate. Individuals that can situate themselves, similarly to a hub, have easier access to social goods.

figure7

Betweenness centrality is the measure of geodesics that pass through each node. The measurement reflects the amount of unique pathways that link to the person. The more ties to separate ‘worlds’, the more access one has to information and different ways of thinking. What the study hoped to find, was that betweenness centrality correlated with the author’s most productive periods.

As this title suggests, it may have been the density of Dickinson’s network that helped to establish the mechanisms to drive innovation for the author. If you look at the graph that was used to plot Dickinson’s network density over the course of her writing, her most productive years (and her greatest level of network density) were during the time the she produced the bulk of her poems and was said to have developed the innovative style she was known for. Secondly, this was a period that saw Dickinson’s social network contracting, decreasing her betweenness centrality. One could infer that she was becoming less bound by those she was closely tied too (her family) and becoming a distinguished structure within her network.

In the case of Bronte, her network density was similar to Dickinson’s (.474). This was actually lower than what was measured the two periods prior. What this suggests was that Bronte’s network was too cohesive and as it expanded she was able to gain access to new information and ideas (side note: during this period Bronte wrote Jane Eyre). An interesting aspect of Bronte’s creative periods, was that they came after a low period of betweenness. What Bronte’s written correspondence told the researcher was that as Dickinson’s network was contrasting, Bronte’s was expanding. Her creative periods were occurring as she was developing new relationships that ultimately lead to connecting with previously separated groups (worlds).

The Fit Get Rich- The Take Away

I am unsure where this saying originated, but the meaning helps to explain the importance of understanding the implications of one’s network. Nodes that are seen as more fit, attract more links.

“Structural holes are not valuable in situations of egocentric certainty”

According to Grannovetter and Burt, weak ties make our network valuable.They are what grants us access to social goods that are not normally in our reach. Secondly, when dealing with uncertainty (perhaps a career change) these links are imperative. Our connections can be viewed in a similar lights to the human body. The more fit the body becomes, the ability to perform increases. Network fitness can react in a similar manner. How we establish connections and how we choose to foster those connections over time relates to its fitness level. Richard Koch and Greg Lockwood, authors of Superconnect, do a great job documenting the power of weak ties in successful people. It is rather unlikely that either Dickinson or Bronte’ were strategic in the relationships that they built, but with the highly connected world we inhabit and insist on creating, the ability to develop and foster fit links becomes somewhat easier.

 

Giuffre, Katherine. (2010). Half the right people: Network density and creativity.Culture Unbound, 2, 819 – 846.

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