The Social Network Ecology of Small Groups in Isolated and Confined Environments

Jeffrey Johnson, Michael Zurek, Noshir Contractor, Leslie DeChurch


Ecology generally involves the relationships between species and their environment. In this paper, we examine the social network ecology of small groups in isolated and extreme environments. Informed by earlier research on fishers in Alaska and early Antarctic expeditions, here we report on findings from cross-cultural research on the evolution of social networks at four international Antarctic research stations in relation to group outcomes (e.g., station morale) and 8 simulated space missions in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) in terms of mission viability. Specifically, we examine the evolution of such network structures over the Austral winter for four stations: the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the Russian Vostok Station, the Polish Arctowski Station, and the Chinese Great Wall Station. Also, the evolution of networks in each of the 8 missions involving isolation of between 30 and 60 days (4 person crews). For the Antarctic study, data on social networks, morale, psychological well-being and the emergence of informal social roles were collected over a three year period for each of the stations yielding 12 unique winter-over groups. The HERA study collected data on social networks and informal roles. The Antarctic study found that, independent of station culture, the more that certain informal social roles (e.g., expressive leaders) emerged in the group the more the networks evolved globally coherent network structures (i.e., core-periphery networks) and the higher the group morale by winter’s end. Similarly, in the HERA project, the higher the prevalence of positive informal social roles and the greater the isomorphism between formal and informal leadership the higher the crew viability. These findings suggest human universals in the social network ecology of small groups in isolation.

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