Nine years of Understanding Society

image: Anasazi petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock

This week marks the ninth anniversary of Understanding Society — 1105 posts to date, or over 1.1 million words. According to Blogger, over 7 million pageviews have flowed across screens, tablets, and phones since 2010.

The blog has been an ideal forum for me to continue to develop new ideas about the social sciences, and to reflect upon new contributions by other talented observers and practitioners of the social sciences. It is a material record for me of the topics that have been of interest to me over time, like points on a map outlining a driving trip through unfamiliar country. (The photo above was such a moment for me in 1996.) Each entry describes a single idea or insight; taken together, they compose a suggestive map of intellectual development and discovery. During the year I’ve gotten interested in topics as diverse as the early work of John von Neumann on computing (link, link), Reinhart Koselleck’s approach to the philosophy of history (link), quantum computing (link, link), China’s development policies (link), and cephalopod philosophy (link). I’ve continued to work on some familiar topics — generativity, reduction, and emergence; character and plans of life; causal mechanisms; and critical realism.

It is interesting to see what posts have been the most popular over the past six years (the period for which Blogger provides data):

Key topics in the foundations of the social sciences appear on the list — structure, power, pragmatism, poverty, mobility. But several novel topics make the top ten as well — supervenience, assemblage theory, and hate. “What is a social structure?” was written during the first month of the blog. The top key words in searches are “social structure” and “social mobility”.

Some of the philosophical ideas explored in the blog have crossed over into more traditional forms of academic publishing, including especially the appearance of New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science earlier this fall. (Here is a site I’ve created to invite discussion of the book; link.) This book bears out my original hope that Understanding Society could become a “web-based dynamic monograph”, with its own cumulative logic over time. In framing New Directions it was possible for me to impose a more linear logic and organization on the key ideas — for example, actor-based sociology, generativity, causal mechanisms, social ontology. As I conceived of it in the beginning, the blog has proven to be a work of open-source philosophy.

A recurring insight in the blog is the basic fact of heterogeneity and contingency in the social world. One of the difficult challenges for the social sciences is the fact that social change is more rapid and more heterogeneous than we want to think. The founders of sociology, economics, and political science wanted to arrive at theories that would permit us to understand social processes in a fairly simple and uniform way. But the experience of the social world — whether today in the twenty-first century or in the middle of the nineteenth century — is that change is heterogeneous, contingent, and diverse. So the social sciences need to approach the study of the social world differently from the neo-positivist paradigm of “theory => explanation => confirmation”. We need a meta-theory of social research that is more attentive to granularity, contingency, and heterogeneity — even as we seek for unifying mechanisms and patterns. (The very first post in Understanding Society was on the topic of the plasticity of things in the social world.)

A new theme in the past year is the politics of hate. The emergence of racism, misogyny, and religious bigotry in the presidential campaign has made me want to understand better the social dynamics of hate — in the United States and in the rest of the world. So an extended series of posts have focused on this topic in the past six months or so (link). This is a place where theory, philosophy, and social reality intersect: it is intellectually important to understand how hate-based movements proliferate, but it is also enormously important for us as a civilization to understand and neutralize these dynamics.

So thanks for reading and visiting Understanding Society! I know that without the blog my intellectual life would be a lot less interesting and a lot less creative. I am very appreciative of the many thoughtful visitors who read and comment on the blog from time to time, and I’m looking forward to discovering what the coming year will bring.

(Mark Carrigan’s Social Media for Academics is a very interesting and current discussion of how social media and blogging have made a powerful impact on sociology. Thanks, Mark, for including Understanding Society in your work!)

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