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Towards 'Flourishing Studies': A network lens onto flourishing

How networks substantiate what flourishing is and offer ways to study it
Published onApr 29, 2024
Towards 'Flourishing Studies': A network lens onto flourishing

Originally published on The Flourishing Commons. Header image: 150 years of Nature journal: A century and a half of research and discovery.

How do we make flourishing legible, observable, tangible?

I've written much about the notion and the language of flourishing, the things it draws out like a more muscular form of hope, a more capacious imagination, an understanding of the good life as something more than merely surviving and the corresponding long, ongoing way of experiencing time.

But are we speaking about it in too abstract a way? Does it lack substance, some kind of tangibility or a way of realizing it that makes it feel idealistic and naive? Perhaps we know more about what flourishing might mean, but what does it mean we do? Is this more than merely flowery language?

I believe in the power of language and philosophy as shaping forces of society (after all, some of our greatest thinker's greatest quotes speak to this effect, e.g., 'words create worlds,' 'The limits of my language mean the limits of my world'), but the questions around the actions that a philosophy of flourishing calls for for the world we are living in and walking into remain important.

Flourishing: An assay

The poet Jane Hirshfield invented a poetic form she calls the 'assay' for breaking down an idea or topic into its constituent parts.

That word—close to essay and sharing its root in the idea of an attempt, a try—refers to discovering a thing’s nature by breaking it into its elemental parts...That approach to writing, of testing a subject for its discoverable parts, imaginative and factual, caught. -Jane Hirshfield

Of course, the assay has its root in the laboratory, the name for the procedure to qualitatively assess or quantitatively measure the presence, amount, or functional activity of some substance.

But this sort of universal importance of the assay caught me, too, and it felt like time to test the quality and content of the idea of flourishing from the perspective of hard science.

So we sought the biggest stage and the most rigorous community, the largest annual gathering of Earth and Space and Data Scientists in the world, to assay what flourishing is to develop a more robust and perhaps quantifiable conception of it.

In December 2023 in front of 30,000 data scientists, space physicists, geologists, hydrologists, statisticians, program managers and policy-makers, we organized a session on "Flourishing Science Commons: Data Science, Open Science, and Knowledge Communities," and I presented a paper that brought flourishing and science commons into a network lens.

We seeded the session with the following provocation: What does flourishing look like for scientists, science communities, and society?

Certainly it involves pushing the frontiers of scientific discovery, frontiers that now exist at the intersection between disciplines and that require new approaches to science and collaboration. These approaches are emerging from data science, open science, and social science, while we as scientists, engineers, and society are in the midst of understanding how they relate to one another.

Across multifarious, multidisciplinary, and nuanced contributions we sounded a liminal space between existing domains and conversations, individuals and teams creating tools and techniques (technical and social) to better integrate and make sense of more data about the complex world around us. Just a few of the areas that were prominent: knowledge representation (semantic technologies and knowledge graphs), convergence research, network analyses, the role of machine learning and artificial intelligence in science, culture and philosophy of science.

Indeed, flourishing as a lens opened new possibilities for scientific discovery, scientists and science communities. Several things emerged that week in San Francisco.

The first thing I noticed was the quality of question and attention that talking about flourishing invites. Krista Tippett writes that questions elicit answers in their likeness and that it’s hard to resist a generous question. The nature of the questions in our session were notably more generous than I often find at AGU and other scientific conferences, and the discussion that followed rose to meet their calling. In fact, we discussed the questions as an art unto themselves. I was reminded of Kate Murphy's You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why it Matters.

Second, the notion of the 'boundary object' arose repeatedly. One talk even constructed their entire talk as a BO, acting out a dialogue between a community member and a scientist attempting to design models of floods for the community in a format new and affecting for the AGU stage. It was powerful this idea of a piece of information or a model or a specimen that has meaning across communities but with enough common content to facilitate collaborative work between them (for instance, a metaphor is a boundary object).

Finally, there is no domain boundary for flourishing. Looking through the talks and posters from our session, you will not find easy categorization nor comforting reduction to any box. The speakers, their content, and the conversation rose beautifully to that discomfiting space.

In a world that exceedingly denies categories and demands more interconnected science, it seems flourishing is a way into that future.


Giving muscle to ideas of flourishing 

Besides convening, my own contribution to the session was a paper entitled, "Towards Flourishing Studies: A network lens on flourishing." The idea was that we might find muscle for the notion of flourishing within network science. I want to share that here briefly.

A network is defined by its entities (nodes) and their connections (edges). Connections indicate some interaction between nodes. In social science, nodes are often people and edges indicate some natural way people are connected (e.g., friends on Facebook, work at the same institution, go to the same church). Other common ways we have been introduced to the notion of a network is through epidemiology (e.g., how we tracked exposure and spread during COVID) and political science (e.g., witnessing polarization in political views). For a master class in network thinking, enjoy this beautiful conversation with Tina Eliassi-Rad, one of the burgeoning science's leading thinkers.

The network is a seemingly simple construction, but with it comes a less constrained language for complexity. Networks, unlike flattened 2D forms, can represent immense complexity. They are indeed a language for the complex world we inhabit. And it is this point that make networks important to flourishing. Can networks become a way of witnessing flourishing, making it observable?

There are a few network concepts that will be vital to developing new ways of understanding flourishing. A very simple, yet powerful, one is that of the triangle: a set of three nodes where each node has a relationship to the other two.

The triangle is a revealing local topological structure of a network. For instance, if we are studying a social network and I am friends with two other people, yet those people are not friends with each other (which would form a triangle), then there is some force or dynamic in the system preventing that triangle from closing. Understanding where triangles are not closed and interrogating why can become a meaningful diagnostic.

Two dominant processes in the evolution of collaborative networks are preferential attachment and homophily: the tendency of a new network node to attach to already popular nodes or to similar nodes, respectively. The prevalence of each type is captured in the global geometry of a network. For instance, homophily produces strong clustering, like we observe in political social networks in the US where nodes are likely to attach to similar nodes and two clusters to emerge along Democratic-Republican lines. However, there is an opportunity here. Perhaps we can grow flourishing in a collaborative network by optimizing for bridging ties, connections between unlike individuals and groups; improbable connections [Allen; 2023 - chapter four].

Network of political blogs during the 2004 U.S. presidential election [Interian and Ribeiro; 2018]

Finally, networks can allow us to examine things simpler representations cannot, such as the density of collaborative structures (the health of our cooperation), selection vs influence, and the geometry of the network. Each will carry important information about the flourishing or languishing of the system being studied. In fields as diverse as ecology, economics, anthropology, biology, and computer and political science the geometry of networks that form as a response to some problem are being linked to the performance of the system on that problem (one way to think about a system's flourishing). For instance, less connected networks (perhaps non-intuitively) consistently outperform fully connected ones, suggesting some tradeoff between performance and connectivity, and core-periphery networks can outperform other network structures on several tasks quite like those confronting humanity today [Moser and Smaldino; 2023 -- exploring how network structures influence not only population-level innovation but also performance among individuals].

In this way, studying flourishing may be the impetus to move us from simple metrics, to analyses of relational dependencies and the information carried within them. I liken this shift to that of using GDP as a proxy for the health of an economy to the capabilities approach, which centers human dignity and capacity in assessing health.

The paper then proceeded to explore several areas where networks are already aiding a move to more interconnected science, many often using the language of flourishing.

Network science in the physical sciences and wicked problems

Equipped with these few concepts, network thinking has altered our understanding of the world around us and ourselves, including seemingly intractable problems.

For instance, network analysis is transforming physical science. Steinhaeuser et al., [2012] discovered that networks can unveil climate insights, extracting valuable information from well-predicted variables (e.g., temperature) to enhance understanding and predictions of critical, less-predicted factors like precipitation, potentially complementing physics-based climate models.

Evolution of oceanic network clusters over a 20-year period, derived from atmospheric variables. Notable patterns include cohesive clusters in sea-level pressure (SLP) and more dispersed clusters in vertical wind shear (VWS)

Indeed, problems that involve deep interconnections among systems like climate change do not lend themselves to neat separation of parts. For these 'wicked problems,' especially those for which the physical systems cannot be disentangled from the social systems that interact with and change them, network approaches are required.

Vespignani [2010] gave striking demonstration that analyzing a system in isolation indicates fundamentally different behavior than if that same system were considered with its networked interdependencies. The interdependent networks they studied exhibited a smaller critical threshold than isolated networks, leading to different levels of disruption and a different nature of abrupt 'first-order' transitions in system breakdown. This challenges anticipation and control, emphasizing the complexity and difficulty of managing complete breakdowns compared to isolated networks.

G: Largest connected nodes fraction in a network, q: fraction of removed nodes, qc: critical fraction causing abrupt fragmentation. Interdependent networks show a 'first-order' transition at a smaller qc than isolated networks [Buldyrev et al. 2010]

These interconnected wicked problems are the frontiers of science, and human flourishing is among them.

Risks Interconnection Map 2011 illustrating systemic interdependencies in the hyper-connected world we are living in

Network Science in the Society of Science

Wicked problems far exceed the cognitive and material capacities of any individual scientist. So, we must understand how communities of scientists function, how they flourish or languish. Our session turned to this component of the state of scientific discovery and of the scientists and science communities themselves.

There is an emerging field of 'The Science of Science' that applies computational social science methodologies to use large data sets to study the mechanisms underlying the doing of science.

The science of science (SciSci) offers a quantitative understanding of the interactions among scientific agents across diverse geographic and temporal scales: It provides insights into the conditions underlying creativity and the genesis of scientific discovery, with the ultimate goal of developing tools and policies that have the potential to accelerate science [Fortunato et al., 2018].

And the discoveries of SciSci have been profound and provocative (see here and here, for a small sample). Yet, our twenty-first-century challenges have a social component and cannot be solved by technology or computation alone. Social network interactions can create social capital such as trust, solidarity, reliability, happiness, social values, norms and culture [Putnam, 2000]. To assess systemic risks fully, a better understanding of social capital is crucial. This is an essential part of the flourishing lens on science, scientific communities, and scientific discovery.

The considerations of the society of science are not yet in the realm of computation (e.g., beyond the science of science) and are more accurately a part of the philosophy and sociology of science. We have much to learn from the philosophy of science about what it means to flourish in science and as scientists. Elements of flourishing can be gleaned in the progression from Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (how does science advance?) to Philip Kitcher's Division of Cognitive Labor (how do we know what to focus on as individuals, as a community?) to C Thi Nguyen's Playfulness versus epistemic traps (what is the value of intellectual playfulness?), to pick only a few from this rich and wide domain of scholarship.

A new field: Flourishing Studies

The session, my paper, and the conversations around them converged around a need. We need a more robust conception of flourishing for the world we are walking into, a conception furnishing of new multiscale and multi-medium interactions, the ways of making legible when a system is flourishing, and new groups and institutions capable of responding to the call to flourishing. It was recognized that these groups will not fit within any departmental or institutional boundaries, nor within the boundaries of any single or few worldviews. 

As flourishing is something we must practice and, in that experience, understand, the belief was that the exploration must be situated within the research domain now. We must have it as the philosophy undergirding how we do research and as the focus of research. During the conference we began to call this sensibility 'Flourishing Studies' and its instantiation a 'Flourishing Commons.' The session and the paper were practices in discovering the dimensions and principles of flourishing in scientific discovery and scientific communities. Several indeed emerged:

Dimensions (grey) and emergent elements (red) of flourishing. Explore the interactive and living map of the dimensions of flourishing at

How do we ignite Flourishing Studies?

From these dimensions and principles, we organized the outline of a curriculum for Flourishing Studies, a starting place for Flourishing Studies and developing communities capable of undertaking it.

An Invitation

What constitutes flourishing? If you were to probe your own experiences of flourishing, honestly and authentically without constraint of social pressure or norm, what elements would consistently show up there?

Spend ten quiet minutes exploring that idea and share in the comments to this essay the things you find are part of most of or all of your experiences of flourishing.

As we collectively start to emerge these elements of flourishing, perhaps we can use networks to develop better measures of flourishing in science and among science communities. The collective process that puts science itself under the microscope can begin to reweave the civic community of science and can be a beacon for reweaving civic community across any context or scale. This is how we move toward a better society, and not only of science.

Sarah Gulliford (Kearns):

Even years later, I still find the 3D network of Nature papers so fascinating and beautiful and overwhelming. It’s stunning to see a good piece of data visualization and its through no fault of the designer that it’s a lot to take in, it’s just how it is. The sense of scale and discovery is the point of the interactive as it demonstrates how interconnected research studies are. It’s literally a constellation of literature and it’s up to you to identify the shapes and patterns. Something that this article helps me realize that what’s not connected is as important as what is, and going in with a beginner’s mindset probably is useful to find something interesting. Because with expertise comes the habits of doing something a certain way and having a set of expectations, so getting out of your own way is a key challenge for doing research.

The balance of staying on the edge of your knowledge while you push forward into the unknown without falling over the edge into chaos — and too many tabs — seems to be an ingredient of flourishing as well. I think back to the time when everything shut down during the first wave of COVID in 2020 including many research labs. This gave me a time to really spend all my time in the literature and truly getting lost in it until enough ideas crystalized into a set of experiments I could do when the lab reopened. Separating these two things, for me, gave me a chance to really read and then to really do experiments without feeling the pressure to juggle both. On the other hand though, the spontaneity of trying a half-baked idea based on a paper I skimmed also lead to some really interesting results.

I often come back to this video depicting how the CytoMorpho Lab operates combining conversations and collaborations to solve challenging problems. It’s also just a beautiful little documentary.

At Knowledge Futures, we are really leaning into the idea of making information useful and I think that these visualizations of information networks can certainly do that. I also think that if they’re designed well they are beautiful and inspirational and aren’t just tools for productivity. Intentionality might prevent the pitfalls of Goodhart's Law so I’m thinking about what kinds of nodes and edges are meaningful, playful, and interesting when creating these knowledge graphs.