Alexander T. J. Barron, a PhD candidate in CNetS, and co-authors are recipients of the 2018 Cozzarelli Prize in Behavioral and Social Sciences for their paper, Individuals, institutions, and innovation in the debates of the French Revolution. Every year, six of these awards are given to PNAS publications according to their “outstanding scientific quality and originality.” Each of the papers selected were chosen from the more than 3,200 research articles that appeared in PNAS during the last year and represent the six broadly defined classes under which the National Academy of Sciences is organized. The paper is the product of an interdisciplinary research team across several universities: Alexander Barron (Informatics, IU), Simon DeDeo (Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon and the Santa Fe Institute), Rebecca Spang (History, IU), and Jenny Huang (soon to be attending Oxford).
Barron et al. developed information-theoretic techniques to analyze speech patterns and power dynamics during the French Revolution. Using 44,913 speeches from the Revolution’s first parliament—the National Constitution Assembly (NCA)—dating from July 1789 to September 1791, the authors discovered distinctive features characterizing individuals and groups during legislative debate. Compared with conservatives, radicals more frequently discussed short-lived, novel concepts. While conservatives discussed traditional ideas that resonated for long periods of time, the NCA’s tendency to discuss new concepts was influenced by radical individuals who frequently proposed new ideas that were continuously debated. The results provide insight into why radicals like Maximilien Robespierre and Jérôme Pétion de Villeneuve were among the Revolution’s most influential figures. The same analysis revealed the emergence of committees as a political force, marking a shift in decision-making from public, large-scale debate to private deliberation of small cohorts.