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Institute of Advanced Study

2016-17: Scale

Introducing Scale

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.


  • Governing Scales
  • Human Scale
  • Living Scales
  • Sustaining Scales
  • Temporal and Spatial Scales
  • Understanding and Representing Scale

Governing Scales

There are obvious opportunities to consider the issue of scale in relation to governance. For example, a key issue in the social sciences and humanities is the relationship between individuals and collective groups: clans, language groups, cultural groups, nations and larger international alliances. Issues of identity are multi-scalar, as are those of law, and each affects the balance of rights across different social and political scales.

At the Scoping Meeting, issues of scale and decision-making were discussed in reference to devolution in contemporary UK politics; regionalism; ethics and violence; and international development. A sub-theme activity in this area, bringing together researchers from Law, Geography and Government and International Affairs will focus on ideas about global governance.

See: Thematic Activities

Human Scale

How are temporal and spatial scales experienced? A previous IAS theme, Time, considered different phenomenological experiences of temporality: there is good potential to extend this work with a focus on scale, and equally fruitful questions could be asked about spatial scales, and how different concepts of scale affect people’s perceptions and experiences of spatiality. Sub-theme activities will consider phenomenological experiences of scale in a range of areas, for example, a project bringing History, International Affairs and Music together with English and German Studies will consider how modern humans experience temporal scales. This is nicely complemented by another sub-theme activity, involving English Studies, Music, Psychology and Visual Arts and Culture, which will focus on the experience of scale in music.

See: Thematic Activities

Living Scales

How are scales traversed in living systems?How does the material intersect with the social in shifting scales? There are important connections between social concepts of scale, and perceptions of the relationships between the individual (human or non-human) body and broader patterns of genetic and evolutionary development.

The Scoping Meeting generated a useful discussion about ‘scaling up’ (and down) from cellular levels of physical stress in organisms to larger physical responses; between neurological responses and broader social and cultural framing and experiences of pain; and from physical tissue damage to meanings and wider societal issues about donation, imaginaries of persuasion, health care etc. Bringing anthropology together with engineering and computing sciences, this produced a major sub-theme activity concerned with ‘scaling the body’ from molecules to tissues to organs (and back again).

See: Thematic Activities

Sustaining Scales

Understanding sustainability depends on relating local, regional and global ecological and social processes. Ecological discussions of scale often focus on broad processes, or larger patterns of species distribution, but the indicators of change often lie in microscopic processes – changes in soil composition; chemicals in water that affect micro-organisms or species fertility. Causal factors may lie in everyday human actions rather than societal levels of resource use. The challenge is thus to see how small events at the levels of micro-organisms or everyday activity interact recursively with larger patterns of change.

The Scoping Meeting raised a range of possible connections between scale and sustainability. Linking with the potential sub-theme on Governing Scales, there were also ideas about scale and environmental governance; system control and modelling issues; and the issue of scale in decision-making. A sub-theme is underway to consider issues of scale in debates about sustainability.

See: Thematic Activities

Temporal and Spatial Scales

Interdisciplinarity brings to the fore radical variations in temporal and spatial scales. Local experience is necessarily considered in relation to larger spatial contexts and research on individual lives has to be located in longer views of historical and evolutionary development: one sub-theme activity therefore asks philosophical questions about the logic of the ‘here’ and ‘now’. Ideas about adaptation and evolution also combine major temporal and spatial variations in scale, and another sub-theme activity brings Anthropology and Biology together to explore scalein ecological systems in the past and present.

See: Thematic Activities

Understanding and Representing Scale

What is scale? How do we conceptualise scale, and should we be rethinking these concepts? Are there cognitive limits to our capacity to imagine and deal with scale? Our brains evolved within small-scale societies focused primarily on local contexts; but population expansions and movements, new technologies, and the emergence of sciences such as cosmology have shifted that focus outwards. How do new forms of measurement and information technologies allow us to extend our cognitive limits to deal with larger scales? How are different scales captured and represented?

One sub-theme activity brings interdisciplinary perspectives to bear on concepts of scale in Physics; another investigates ideas about scale and ‘the great chain of being’ in Victorian culture. A major collaboration between physicists, chemists, computer scientists and biophysical scientists will consider how the sciences communicate across scales.

See: Thematic Activities