Three years of UnderstandingSociety

Today marks the end of the third year of publication of UnderstandingSociety. This is the 481st posting, with prior posts covering a range of themes from “social ontology” to “foundations of the social sciences” to “globalization and economic development.” In beginning this effort in 2007 I had envisioned something different from the kinds of blogs that were in circulation at the time — something more like a dynamic, open-ended book manuscript than a topical series of observations. And now, approaching 500,000 words, I feel that this is exactly what the blog has become — a dynamic web-based monograph on the philosophy of society. It is possible to navigate the document in a variety of ways — following key words, choosing themes and “chapters”, or reading chronologically. And it is also possible to download a full PDF copy of the document up through July, 2010; this will be updated in January 2011.

I find that the discipline of writing the blog has led me into ideas and debates that I would not have encountered otherwise. For example, the thread of postings on “world sociology” and the epistemologies and content of sociology in China, France, or Mexico opens up a new set of perspectives for me on the social context of the disciplines of sociology. Thanks to Gabriel Abend, Marion Fourcade, Céline Béraud and Baptiste Coulmont for a range of stimulating ideas on this subject. (These discussions can be located under the “disciplines” and “sociology” tags.)

I’ve also been pleased at the way that the social ontology topic has unfolded. The ideas of plasticity, heterogeneity, and contingency as fundamental features of social entities are crucial when we try to understand why social entities and processes are different from natural entities. They give a basis for understanding that the distinction between natural kinds and social kinds is a crucial one. And I don’t think I would have come to the particular formulations and found here without the working canvas provided by the blog. (This thread falls under the ontology theme.)

And, of course, I’ve been led into a number of discussion areas that I wouldn’t have anticipated: Michigan’s economic crisis, practical strategies of stimulating regional economic development, analysis of the schooling crisis our major cities face, and current developments in China, for example.

The writing process here is quite different from that involved in more traditional academic writing. When a philosopher starts out to write a philosophical essay for publication, he/she plans to spend many days and weeks formulating a line of argument, crafting the prose, and critically revising until it is perfect. Likewise, writing a traditional academic book involves coming up with a “story-line” of topics and key arguments, turning that into a chapter outline, and methodically drafting out the full manuscript. Creative planning, writing, and editing occupy months or years before the ideas come into public view.

Writing an academic blog has a different structure. It is a question of doing serious thinking, one idea at a time. Each post represents its own moment of thought and development, without the immediate need to fit into a larger architecture of argument. Eventually there emerges a kind of continuity and coherence out of a series of posts; but the writing process doesn’t force sequence and cumulativeness. Instead, coherence begins to emerge over time through recurring threads of thinking and writing.

I’ve done each of these other forms of traditional academic writing — dissertation, conference presentation, journal article, book, and book review — and I find this current form particularly valuable and intellectually rewarding. It stimulates creativity, it leads to new insights, it permits rigor in its own way, and it leads to new discoveries within the vast literatures relevant to “understanding society” and the space of questions this domain presents.

Writing the blog is intertwined with the web in several deep ways that are worth calling out. First, of course, is the availability of a venue for publication and the possibility of gaining a world-wide readership. The web and the search engines made this kind of readership possible, and this was a unique new capability entirely absent in the world of print. But equally important for me has been the ubiquitous availability of knowledge and writing on the web, and the ease with which we can access this knowledge through search engines and other web-based tools. This means that the web-based scholar can quickly discover other materials relevant to the current topic, leading to unexpected turns in the argument. It means that the web-based scholar is not locked into the circle of his own study and the literatures that he/she has already mastered; rather, there is an open-ended likelihood of interaction with new and important ideas previously not part of the mix. So the task of writing is no longer that of formulating one’s pre-existing ideas; it is simultaneously an act of inquiry and intellectual discovery. (For me a good example of this is the interest I’ve developed in the theory of assemblage and the writings of Deleuze, Delanda, and Latour. These ideas fall far outside my own analytic philosophy comfort zone, and yet they align well with my own thinking about micro-foundations and social contingency.)

I invite readers to take this opportunity to make suggestions or observations about this experiment in academic writing. Are there topics you’d like to see addressed in future postings? Do you have suggestions for how to make the presentation of the content more useable? Can you see possibilities for this kind of inquiry and writing in your own field?

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