Gorillas grooming
Gorillas and other higher primates are noted as having complex social structures. Image via Kabir Bakie.

Ann Michael’s recent Ask the Chefs post, tackled the question, “What is the Future of Membership Organizations?” There are big questions out there waiting for answers. How do shifts in cultural and economic views on social behavior affect the decision of a student, or researcher when deciding whether to join a relevant academic society? What social and economic forces are involved in an academic’s collaborative life, publishing life, and teaching life?

I was mulling all this over when I came across a fascinating report from the World Bank, entitled “World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society and Behavior”. It is a pretty long report, though well written. One chapter especially caught my eye as being applicable to a number of the questions I raise here. A key definition for me in the report is as follows: “Human sociality – the tendency among humans to associate and behave as members of groups – affects decision making and behavior….” The key issue here is that we form groups that are not just based on selfish and money generating behaviors, though these are important. We also are driven to like-minded people who share our goals, share our ideals, and often share in behaviors and skills that define our world view. A membership society in many ways is just this kind of beast, and it is actually quite a relief to consider that there is more to life than mere self-interest, and that cooperative behavior for the public good is a natural state of being.

One problem with this is, of course, that a group can get a bit stuck. A group’s behavior can be consistent internally, but the internal culture may take on a life of its own, self-reinforcing, independent of external realities. The culture perhaps may be entirely inconsistent with another group’s behavior. In publishing, an example is the groups that form around beliefs in business model options — such as the subscription model, or Open Access (OA). I usually sigh heavily when I encounter an argument from an OA advocate followed closely by equal and opposite beliefs expressed from a passionate anti-OA advocate. Each of these positions has taken on a social and economic definition of a group with internal consistency, but there is not much sign of any room for collaboration between the groups. Of course in member societies, there may well be elements of each of these groups positioned against each other within the society.

Here is a quote from the report, which I just love; “Human sociality is like a river running through society; it is a current that is constantly, if often imperceptibly, shaping individuals, just as flowing water shapes individual stones in a riverbed”. Perhaps one lesson that that academic publishers and society publishers need to learn is that social incentives can be as powerful as economic incentives, and social rewards more effective than financial rewards. Membership societies often wonder how they may attract members. Perhaps it is here where publishing and membership collide with potential social rewards for acting as a reviewer, mentor, author and editor that the social reward will beat out economic reward and will allow for a flourishing membership society. The report identifies a number of key problems in thinking about social incentives. One particular problem is perhaps apparent in the OA debate, where there is an assumption that everyone prefers free, and yet it is entirely possible to see how the social reward of “free” may be balanced by the social reward of an economically viable business model that sustains academic collaboration. A beauty of thinking in terms of social collaboration is that it may turn out that in a social reward environment OA advocates and anti-OA advocates may find common ground. It is so tempting to compete aggressively, but in collaboration there is the potential for greater gain.

I have been throwing around the word “social” quite freely. When you think of “social” you think social networks, and when you think of social networks you think of Facebook, LinkedIn and the plethora of online social networking tools that surround us. The reality is that we all use these tools, sometimes way too much. The real meaning of a social network though is in the way that we use our relationships as “…building blocks of human social experience”. The fact is that a true social network can be a powerful way of enabling the kind of collaboration and sharing of goals that allow social rewards to flourish. Ironically, I would argue that online social networking (Facebook etc.,) are great at allowing for personal interactions, but when it comes to more complex work, concept and collaborative sharing and networking these tools fall apart, more likely creating distance than collaboration. There are many reasons for this: academics are often reluctant to articulate nascent, underdeveloped ideas online for fear that the ideas aren’t very good after all – or, perhaps, because they’re in fact very good and might get stolen. They are protective of their academic reputations and thus reluctant to put down for perpetuity thoughts that they might want to disavow later. Then there’s also the perception that only losers have time to waste faffing about online.

This is why it is still so powerful to meet in person, and why actual conferences with real people, talks, receptions, and dinners thrive.

The World Bank report drove it home for me that it is vitally important to recognize that we should be thinking socially as we devise new publishing business models, and develop our society memberships. The fact is that we naturally congregate and form groups. Learning how to reward socially is as important if not more so than providing the economic reward.

Robert Harington

Robert Harington

Robert Harington is Chief Publishing Officer at the American Mathematical Society (AMS). Robert has the overall responsibility for publishing at the AMS, including books, journals and electronic products.


4 Thoughts on "A Social World: Society Membership, Social and Economic Rewards and Human Behavior"

I lived in both the private and society worlds of publishing. In my private life and to fulfill my altruistic needs I found folks with my same likes and goals. In my business life my question was not advocacy for one or another means of publishing. My question was always most simple: Can it make money and at the same time serve the needs of the user.

I like this: “One problem with this is, of course, that a group can get a bit stuck. A group’s behavior can be consistent internally, but the internal culture may take on a life of its own, self-reinforcing, independent of external realities. The culture perhaps may be entirely inconsistent with another group’s behavior.”

Too right. I’m a member of the UK Labour Party and we are wandering far from the herd right now. I was just in USA on holiday, and noticed that the Republicans, or at least their Presidential candidates, are on a similar trek in diametrically opposite direction. Political parties are social worlds rapidly becoming distant from the lived experience of our less interested neighbours, and for me the social reward diminishes with every step into the wilderness!

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