The Matthew Effect revisited: the social and cultural dynamics of awarding the Nobel Prize
What is excellence, and how does it come to be recognized? In a highly influential essay on the Nobel Prize, the sociologist Robert K. Merton hypothesized that scientific recognition was governed by a “Matthew Effect,” or a general tendency towards prior success bringing with it a disproportionate share of later resources and recognition. Merton’s initial conjecture has been confirmed in a great number of studies of scientific recognition, and similar processes of cumulative advantage have been observed in a variety of other social contexts. At the same time, the actual dynamics underlying the Matthew Effect remain poorly understood. This project aims to disentangle the social mechanisms underlying the Matthew Effect in Merton’s original case using a newly available database of Nobel Prize nomination materials. The database covers almost all science and literature prizes from 1901 to 1966, and contains 13,922 nomination letters. In addition, we have established a collaboration with the Swedish Academy which will give us access to unique data related to the literature prize. In order to sift through this vast amount of textual data, this project will employ new quantitative techniques made possible by recent advances in the computational analysis of textual sources. The project also has an important meta-methodological component comparing qualitative and computational approaches.