Thirteen years of Understanding Society

This month represents the end of the thirteenth year of publication of Understanding Society. Since 2010 the blog has received 11,874,515 pageviews. (Pageviews increased quickly through 2018, and have declined and stablized in 2019 and 2020.) So far the blog has published 1,340 posts and about 1.3 million words. (That’s about the length of thirteen normal academic books — the better part of a bookshelf!) It is quite amazing to me to look back on the many topics, books, and intellectual figures that have come in for discussion here on Understanding Society over these years. In 2007 I described this undertaking as a form of “open source philosophy,” a kind of lab notebook that allowed me to work on some of the topics and ideas that interested me without waiting for a sabbatical to write a book. As I formulated the idea of the blog at the very beginning, “It is an experiment in thinking, one idea at a time.” It has proven to be just that.

During these years I can see that my interests and ideas have evolved almost continuously. In 2007 I would primarily have identified myself as a philosopher of social science, interested in ideas such as microfoundations, causal mechanisms, contingency, and social plasticity. These topics continue to interest me. But now I consider myself (perhaps immodestly) as a philosopher who contributes to the social sciences. My emphasis has shifted a bit from philosophical reflection to an effort to make concrete and useful contributions to substantive issues of social concern to all of us. In recent years I have come to focus on more concrete problems in the social world that we share — for example, organizational causes of technology failure, the risks to democracy created by radical populism, the systemic causes of government failures, and the persistence of systemic racism in our country. Just now I described this as a shift of disciplinary perspective on my part; but maybe it is better to simply describe it as a non-disciplinary attempt to understand various things about the social world.

In fact, I have come to realize that these substantive topics, though not contained within traditional definitions of philosophical inquiry, are all areas where a philosopher can make a substantive contribution. It is certainly true that there is a crucial empirical and sociological dimension to each of these topics that cannot be treated in the apriori way that philosophers often approach subjects. Nonetheless, if a philosopher is willing to make the effort to learn in some detail the empirical and theoretical issues that each of these topics involves, it is possible to contribute to better understanding of the nature of these complex social phenomena. Here is a post where I try to show how philosophy is relevant to the subject of technology failure; link. The results are not “pure philosophy”, and neither are they novel empirical discoveries based on original sociological investigation. Instead, we might describe the results of this kind of work as integrative and exploratory. Work like this is integrative because it is cross-disciplinary and allows the engaged philosopher to see connections from one field of research to another that are sometimes more difficult to perceive from within the parameters of a single discipline. It is exploratory because philosophy encourages us to think about topics like these in ways that are perhaps somewhat more angular and idiosyncratic than traditional experts in these fields might take.

Consider the wide range of topics considered in the blog over the past year: the threat to democracy posed by right-wing populism; new thinking in the philosophy of history; new analysis of the social causes of technology failures; racism and police abuse towards young black men; genocide and the Holocaust; agent-based models of social phenomena; the philosophy of technology; and the social ontology of organizations. There is a pleasing diversity in this range of topics. But there is also a surprising degree of continuity over time with respect to some topics — for example, safety, organizations, democracy, populism, and racism.  Since the beginning I’ve used “category labels” and keywords for each post, to allow the reader to quickly filter the posts on a given topic. (For example, here are dozens of posts on “democracy and hate”; link.) This way of organizing the blog is found in the right sidebar, under the label “Themes”, and all the labels can be found under “Labels”.

One thing that has become clear to me is how valuable it is for me personally to take the time to try to express a certain idea or topic while it is fresh. Spending an hour or two formulating, researching, and testing an idea in one thousand words is a great way of further developing the idea; but even more fundamentally, it is a great way of capturing the idea. For example, the post I wrote about “Responsible Innovation” (link) resulted from a serendipitous invitation to a publisher’s book party in Milan while I was there in January 2020. One of the book’s editors, René von Schomberg, talked with great conviction about the book. I then read a number of chapters and wrote the post. I identified some of the ways in which this European initiative on technology parallels developments in the philosophy of technology in the United States — as well as ways in which it is distinctly different. But in hindsight one thing is clear to me: I now realize that if I hadn’t put these ideas on “paper” at the time, the details and insights would have escaped me by now. That is the value of a “philosopher’s lab notebook”.

It is interesting for me to think about the specific experiences that led me to focus on the particular questions I’ve taken up over the years. In the past year or so, returning to full-time teaching has been very stimulating for me, and many topics I’ve considered in the blog have arisen as a result of preparation for my courses. For example, designing a course in the philosophy of technology in 2019 led me to think about how technologies of flood control on the Mississippi River illustrate many of the key problems in the philosophy of technology; thinking about Eichmann and Bonhoeffer in an honors class has led me to do a lot more reading and to think differently about the Holocaust; and teaching a course about democracy and the politics of hate has led me to think (and read) about current theories about authoritarian personality. Another source of stimulation comes from interacting with colleagues in other places, including Milan, Tianjin, Paris, and British Columbia. My accidental friendship with Thai Professor Chaiyan Rajchagool led to some interesting thinking about “global history” — I met Chaiyan at a philosophy conference at Nankai University and I then read his history of the Thai monarchy, which I liked very much. And right here in Michigan, leisurely conversations with George Steinmetz during his recovery from a bike accident have led to many new insights into studying the Holocaust. Interactions with smart, interesting people have always given me new ideas to explore in the blog.

When I began the blog I thought it might gain a regular following. And in a limited sense, that has turned out to be true — on any given day there are a few hundred “returning visitors” who visit the blog on a regular basis, and there are several thousand followers on Twitter and Facebook. But it’s not the New York Review of Books! The vast majority of pageviews are generated by search engines, bringing visitors looking for some information or commentary on topics like “social structure”, “power”, “assemblages theory”, “Steven Lukes”, or hundreds of other search terms. Visits are therefore highly random. In the past few minutes, for example, visitors have opened pages on “Epicurus’s philosophy”, “The rise of Austro-fascism”, “Methodological individualism”, “Causal narratives about historical actors”, and “Hofstadter on the American right”. (Another growing source of visits is the learning platforms like Blackboard and Canvas, as instructors have increasingly linked to specific posts as reading assignments in their courses.) In the past twelve months the top posts have been:

  1. Lukes on power (15K)
  2. Liquid modernity? 14.5K)
  3. Sociology as a social science discipline (10.6K)
  4. Dynamics of medieval cities (9.3K)
  5. The global city — Saskia Sassen (8.7K)
  6. Power and social class (8.0K)
  7. A modern world-system? (7.8K)
  8. Akerlof and Kranton on identity economics (7.7K)
  9. Social science and social problems (5.5K)
  10. Philosophy and society (4.7K)

I’m glad the blog has survived through four presidential elections, one pandemic, a massive global recession, and so many other social and political events that are worth reflecting about. I hope to continue writing and posting for years to come. What do they call a twentieth anniversary when it comes around in 2027?

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