Coal miner study

One part of my graduate education that I count as one of the most fortunate was the limited amount of experience I had interacting with Professor Paul Goodman. Paul Goodman unfortunately passed away shortly after I passed my qualifying exams. Paul Goodman was an extremely interesting and committed researcher that allowed his personal feelings of justice influence the direction of his work in a very real way without allowing them to cloud the scientific process. Paul was truely one of a kind.

After Paul passed away, I spent some time talking to his wife and children as they discussed his upbringing and what motivated some of this work. From what I recall, both of his parents were liberal social activists in New England. From an early age they instilled in Paul that organizations have a responsibility to treat their employees well. Though I'm sure many other things influenced his choice of career, Paul eventually began studying the ways that employees interact with management in organizations. Paul was an avid film-maker who did a series of videos about the current state and future of work. He typically interviewed average people in industries that were changing. Many of these films can be found at a permanent collection at Carnegie Mellon's library website:

The last two projects that I know of Paul perusing was a long-term project on the science of science teams. Though I do not know his specific motivation, scientists often apply much less social science to their organization than what we actually know. After Paul died, this project dissolved due to the cohesive power of Paul's personality disappearing. The other was a more amorphous process that I think perfectly sums up Paul's outlook on the world. He and his assistants conducted hundreds of long-form interviews asking average people what they thought the American dream was, if they strove for it, and what kind of world they wanted for their children.

Though Paul completed a lot of interesting work, what I'd like to talk about today was some of the work that came out of his multi-year coal-mining project. In this work, Paul went to coal mines in the mid-Atlantic and interviewed miners in their place of work. By that I mean underground in the mine itself. Paul told me on multiple occasions that he thought that the ability to conduct the interviews and collect data in the mine itself gave him a much more accurate perception of what it was like to work in this environment. My father, who is from Pennsylvania described to me when I was very young that my great grandfather's worked in a coal mine. This profession and the work that Paul did therefore always seemed to touch me a bit closer as I always imagined my great grandfather in the place of the miners in the papers.

The paper I would like to describe of Paul's is one that he wrote with Dennis Leyden. This work was supported by the U.S. Bureau of Mines. I can only make a guess but I think that the Bureau were interested in how the relationships between the individual workers in the mine were related to mine outcomes. Mines vary in productivity enormously and one possible reason is the kinds of relationships the individual workers have with one another.  Goodman and Leyden proposed that the mines provided a good opportunity to look at the effects of familiarity on the small teams that work together within a coal mine. (In a prior study, the researchers had already identified that an individual with little familiarity with a mine was more likely to have an accident.)

Mining crews were sets of workers doing one of three unique roles. Those roles were: the miner operator, the bolter, and the car operator. Each crew typically had a pair of people performing each role. Though each role is unique and there are skills associated with the roles, the authors argue that the specific strategies the individuals use vary from crew to crew based on personal differences and the features of the part of the mine the group is in. Though the researchers do not mention it specifically in this paper, another factor that I imagine is important is the cognitive interdependence of the individuals on one another.

Without getting into too much analytical detail, the researchers used information about which groups individual were working on to create a measure of whether individuals had worked with one another before and to what extent a given group's members were familiar with one another. Overall, the researchers found that the levels of familiarity between the group members was predictive of the overall mine productivity. They found some evidence that different kinds of familiarity mattered more than others but they felt that overall familiarity mattered more.

In rereading this paper, I found myself reminded of some other interesting work by Karl Weick on aircrews. Like I am attempting to do in this blog, Weick preferred description over analytics and wrote extremely provoking papers based on his reading and observations of real events. Weick's observation of air crews found very similar effects of familiarity on the air crews ability to perform without errors. I'm sure I will discuss some of his other work later in this blog.