How Network Structures Explain Creativity


David Stark
Arthur Lehman Professor of Sociology


Collaboration in and across teams increasingly distinguishes production in creative fields whether in academic research, business projects, civic activism, or cultural production, including music, film, design, and new media. The proposed research examines how working teams are expressions of larger, informal, yet relatively stable, communities. The task is to develop a set of network analytic tools to track how teams assemble, disassemble, and reassemble. The field of social network analysis has identified several structural properties that might contribute to successful group performance. Among these are cohesion dense, reciprocal ties that promote trust within teams, a prerequisite for productive collaboration and optimal implementation. The counterpart concept is brokerage long-distance ties that span groups or communities providing access to information and new ideas. To test the idea that innovation requires familiarity and diversity, we identify a new structural property on the landscape of network topographies: the structural fold, a distinctive position where cohesive groups overlap. In exploring this structural property, we additionally identify group lineages to reveal patterns of historical contiguity defining groups over time. Development of these analytic tools will allow us to assess whether (and under what conditions) innovative success is promoted by relative group stability or, alternatively, by group disruption and reassembly across groups that are more (or perhaps less) distant in historical network space.

To address these questions, we construct historical datasets on group formation in three distinctive fields where teams are the elemental unit of creative production: scientific collaboration (charting the evolution of the interdisciplinary field of Network Science through the patterns of co-authorship among some 26,000 researchers from 1981-2009), the video game industry (comprising every commercially released video game and some 310,000 unique individuals from 1972-2009), and jazz recordings (comprising approximately 40,000 jazz recording sessions and 400,000 musicians from 1930-1969).

Broader Impact: Creative fields increasingly support the strength and vitality of our national economy and cultural identity. Musical production, whether through performances, recordings, or music videos, is a major industry today generating enormous revenues. Similarly, the video game industry, generating an estimated $50 billion in 2011 global revenues, is emerging as a giant in the field of cultural production with implications for education, the military, and civic participation. Scientific research increasingly involves creative work carried out not by individuals but by teams of dispersed collaborators. By identifying the social sources of innovation, this study supports the creative production that assures a robust economy and society.