Scale can be interpreted spatially, temporally or conceptually. It refers both to things measured and how measurement is done. This research theme is predicated on the idea that seeking common aspects to the study of scale and its effects has the potential to unite, compare and/or contrast phenomena and ideas across all disciplines.
Questions about the relationship between scales of analysis are common in many areas of study. For example, distinctions are made in biology between micro- and macro-evolution, in economics between micro- and macro-economics, and in history between micro- and macro-historical processes. The physical sciences use the term scale to denote a regime or domain. Astronomers refer to ‘the large scale structure of the Universe’, while particle physicists talk about the sub-atomic scale. Scale is implicit in all measurements, e.g. the temperature scale, weight scale, Richter scale etc. In this sense it is related to the concept of units, and the invention and adoption of various systems of units of measurement has many manifestations in the physical sciences as well as multiple implications for social, political and historical analysis. In each disciplinary area, there are deep questions about the relationships between different scales and whether principles and laws describing behaviour at the micro level can account for macro level phenomena. Knowledge and understanding are often more certain at smaller scales than at large scales. Is the apparent similarity in problems of scale real or superficial? Can we generalize any solutions or inferences about the nature of the relationships between scales, from one field to the other?
Scale also raises the issue of human beings and their relationships not only to diverse human scales of sociality, but also to other species and things at micro and macro levels. In the social sciences, a central challenge is to articulate the recursive relationships between local, regional, national and global processes. An in-depth ethnographic focus on local communities and immediate material environments has to be located in larger societal and international contexts, and globalised political, economic and ecological systems. Shifts between individual phenomenological experience and culturally shared ways of being in the world; between genetic mutations and evolutionary change; between local and global patterns of resource use: all require transitions in scale and raise questions about whether (and if so how) individual or local dynamics are manifested in larger social and material scales.
In the arts and humanities, research also ranges from an intense focus on particular works and their social and material contexts, to the examination of whole movements and historical eras. Concentration on specific works, for example The Lindisfarne Gospels or the works of Aristotle, are necessarily considered in relation to their major long-term – and widespread – influence. Across the disciplines a key tension lies between the valorisation of in-depth understanding, and a need to articulate ‘the big picture’. These tensions are entangled with those between qualitative and quantitative approaches: distant versus close reading.
Interdisciplinary research has a special capacity to reconcile different scales. Using the lenses of different disciplines to study common problems enables researchers to migrate between – and perhaps even reconcile – micro- and macroscopic observations. But how can the different scales at which disciplines study phenomena be related to one another? Are there ways of working collectively with scale that reconcile the tensions between fine-grained and broader but more distant observations? Choices about the scales selected for analysis reflect underlying assumptions and influence what is observed, and how this is interpreted, but often the reasons for such choices are not made explicit. A more intensive interdisciplinary consideration of the theme of scale may therefore inform the way in which investigations are conducted in many areas of research.Scale publications
Temporal and spatial scales
Understanding and representing scale
To learn more about the Fellows from this theme, visit the 2016/17 Scale Fellows page.
Professor Hans Petter Graver (University of Oslo)
Professor Massimo Leone (University of Turin)
Dr Patrick McGivern (University of Wollongong)
Professor Ann McGrath (Australian National University)
Professor Julia Prest (University of St Andrews)
Dr Thomas Servais (French National Centre for Scientific Research)
Professor John Steele (Brown University)
Dr Richard Walsh (University of York)
Professor Sara Cousins (Stockholm University)
Professor Mark Fricker (University of Oxford)
Professor John Hall (McGill University)
Dr Anna Maerker (King’s College London)
Professor Anna McCarthy (New York University)
Professor Ranga Narayanan (University of Florida)
Dr Barbara Sattler (University of St Andrews)
Professor Hannah Smithson (University of Oxford)
Professor Ida Susser (Hunter College, City University New York)
Professor Jack Williams (University of Wisconsin-Madison)