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Project 8.6.PD. Designing Social Network Interventions for Sustainable Joint Production in a Diverse Team 

(2 year project)


Aim of the project

Predict and test with lab experiments effects of a social network intervention on sustainable joint production in a diverse team.

Theoretical background

Teams in organizations often face complex group tasks. Complex group tasks require both a joint effort of all members, and the combination of different sets of knowledge and skills. Examples are writing an interdisciplinary research proposal, developing a new technical product, or devising a marketing strategy that works for different cultural contexts. Research has documented how in complex group tasks teams can greatly benefit from diversity of their members in, for example, ethnicity, gender or disciplinary background (Ellemers & Rink, 2016). Indeed, despite their solidarity (or because of it) one downside of homogeneous groups is that they tend to underestimate the value of unique and unshared information (Postmes, Spears, & Cihangir, 2001). However, work in both organizational psychology and sociology has also has highlighted potential pitfalls of diversity. Organizational psychologists pointed to the danger of negative attitudes towards outgroups and ingroup favoritism that can hamper the  collective performance of a diverse group (Ellemers & Rink, 2016). Closely related, organizational sociologists showed how homophily, the well-documented tendency of people to preferentially link with similar others in informal networks, can lead to the segregation of informal networks of friendship, interpersonal trust or mutual helping between different subgroups (Reagans, 2011; Stark & Flache, 2012). In sum, successful sustainable cooperation in a diverse team requires navigating in between two sustainability threats. The first threat is an over-emphasis on cohesion and shared views at the expense of undervaluing different perspectives. The second is mutual distrust and segregation of informal networks between members of the different subgroups that constitute the diverse team. 

This project focuses on network interventions (Valente, 2012) as an innovative approach to keep a diverse team on the path towards sustainable joint production, avoiding the two threats discussed above. Starting from the notion that formal and informal interactions between members of a team are structured by a network of interpersonal relations, a network intervention is here seen as a measure that aims to influence who interacts when with whom in the joint group task. Organizations have different means to influence network structures, for example by organizing formal or informal activities that increase the likelihood for particular relations to form, or creating social media platforms that link individuals in a specific structural pattern to discuss salient issues online. While such interventions have been found to elicit certain desired behaviors and attitude changes, little is known about possible effects on joint production in a diverse team. 

In this project we will focus in the interplay of two different aspects of a network intervention. First, drawing on earlier theoretical modelling work (Flache & Mäs, 2008) it will be further elaborated how a specific structural pattern in connecting members of different subgroups interacts with the a priori composition of the team in terms of salient dimensions of diversity (e.g. gender, ethnicity, disciplinary background). For example, this work suggests that creating new possibilities for intergroup interaction between individuals with strongly negative outgroup attitudes, may lead to the unintended consequence of further amplification of their negative attitudes. Connecting individuals with more favorable initial views of the outgroup would be more promising from this perspective. Second, it will be studied how effects of network structure interact with features of the specific medium of communication used in the network intervention. As has been proposed based on the social identity model of deindividuation effects (Spears, Lea, & Postmes, 2007), the salience of group identity can be increased or decreased, depending on key features of the communication medium. For example, visual anonymity as in email communications can mask group cues and thus support the voicing of dissenting views, whereas some “visually cued” social categories (e.g. gender) would be more enhanced by communication media with visibility (e.g. in videoconferencing).

The postdoc is expected to develop these theoretical starting points towards more specific hypotheses suitable for empirical test in experiments (see below), in close collaboration with the project initiators. 

Research design

Controlled lab and online experiments will be developed and conducted to test theoretically derived hypotheses. Experimental paradigms that the project can innovatively combine for this purpose are the biased sampling paradigm (see e.g. Postmes, Spears & Cihangir, 2001), modelling the need to pool diverse sets of knowledge to optimally solve complex group tasks, as well as the paradigm of public good network games (Suri & Watts, 2011), addressing the role of network structure in groups facing a joint production problem. Lab experiments can be conducted drawing on the subject pool and infrastructure of the Sociological Laboratory at the Department of Sociology (RuG). Diversity will be imposed in a controlled way by recruiting and assigning to teams participants from different disciplinary and cultural backgrounds, with different demographic characteristics, as well as exogenously imposing distinct resources and group markers in the experimental game. 


Ellemers, N., Rink, F. 2016. Diversity in work groups. Current Opinion in Psychology 11:49-53.

Flache, A, M. Mäs. 2008. How to get the timing right. A computational model of the effects of the timing of contacts on team cohesion in demographically diverse teams. Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory 14.1:23-51. DOI 10.1007/s10588-008-9019-1.

Postmes, T., Spears, R. & Cihangir, S. (2001). Quality of decision-making and group norms. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 918-930.

Reagans, R. 2011. Close Encounters: Analyzing How Social Similarity and Propinquity Contribute to Strong Network Connections. Organization Science 22(4):835-849. 

Spears, R., Lea, M., & Postmes, T. (2007). Computer-mediated communication and social identity. In: A.N. Joinson, K.Y.A. McKenna, T. Postmes & J.E. Katz (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of internet psychology. (ch. 17, pp. 253-269). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stark, T.H. & Flache, A. 2012. The Double Edge of Common Interest: Ethnic Segregation as an Unintended Byproduct of Opinion Homophily. Sociology of Education 85.2:179-199.

Suri S., D.J. Watts. 2011. Cooperation and Contagion in Web-Based, Networked Public Goods Experiments. PLoS ONE 6.3: e16836. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016836.

Valente, T.W. (2012) Network Interventions. Science, 337, 49-53. 

Project initiators

Andreas Flache, Rafael Wittek, Russell Spears


Department of Sociology, University of Groningen


Sociology, Psychology

How to Apply

For background information on this vacancy and further instructions, click here (portal opens June 1).

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