Fourteen years of Understanding Society

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Greetings, readers… This week marks the fourteenth anniversary of Understanding Society. With this post there are 1,412 entries in the blog — about 1.4 million words. The blog began on November 2, 2007, with a post on the topic of the plasticity of the social — a theme that has persisted to the present. Here is a paragraph from that initial post:

This ontology emphasizes a deep plasticity and heterogeneity in social entities. Organizations and institutions change over time and place. Agents within these organizations change their characteristics through their own behavior, through their intentional efforts to modify them, and through the cumulative effect of agents and behavior over time and place. Social constructs are caused and implemented within a substrate of purposive and active agents whose behavior and mentality at a given time determine the features of the social entity.

Several of the themes of the philosophy of social science I have advocated over several decades are encapsulated here: the heterogeneity and plasticity of the social world, the importance of understanding social phenomena in terms of the actors who constitute them, and the deep connection between explanation and causal mechanisms.

The idea I had for the blog from the start was that it could serve as a form of “open source philosophy”, an open laboratory notebook through which this single and particular individual philosopher could work through many interesting problems, without feeling the need to create an architecture or research design for the whole. In an inchoate way I had the idea that a series of themes and cross-connections would begin to emerge, and that perhaps in the future there would be tools permitting the discovery and mapping of these interconnections more explicitly. I tried to incorporate category labels and keywords that would permit the reader to pursue a topic through many separate posts, over multiple years. Now, years later, I’ve been very struck by the fantastic efforts by Joseph DiCastro to provide a graphical interface to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link)Here is a link to an interactive screen that provides a map of the SEP with respect to topics in social and political philosophy. If only my digital assistant Alexa would develop some genuine AI skills and construct such a map for Understanding Society!

There has been a good deal of continuity through these fourteen years — philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, moral philosophy. But every year new themes and preoccupations have emerged as well. Here are a few recent examples. I’ve had an interest in the philosophy of history for many years. In the past year or so, I’ve focused that interest on the question of “confronting evil in history”, and have asked how philosophers and historians can best confront the evils of the twentieth century. There have been numerous posts in the past year on the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, and other atrocities of the twentieth century (CAT_evil). I’ve been led to understand the Shoah in very different terms as a result.

My longstanding interest in topics in social contract philosophy gained much greater urgency for me in face of the rise of radical right-wing populism and the threat that these movements present to liberal democracy, throughout the world and in the United States. The past year has involved numerous posts on various issues raised by the theory of liberal democracy and the rising threat of authoritarian populism (CAT_progress). Is liberal democracy viable? A very recent post asks a gloomy question: what would a post-democracy United States look like (link)?

Another rising interest for me that finds expression in the blog is the topic of “organizational causes of large technology failures”. I’ve come to see accidents like Fukushima, Texas City, the Ford Pinto, and Grenfell Tower as being inherent in the fabric of modern life. Accidents and disasters like these almost always involve a dense set of connections and dysfunctions involving companies, regulatory agencies, engineering firms, and management systems — as well as the intricacies of technology design for wildly complex machines. The Boeing 737 Max disaster illustrates every aspect of this picture (link). We cannot ignore the dysfunctions to which the social infrastructure of technology systems are vulnerable, or look at them as second-order problems, if we are to have any hope of managing complex and interconnected technologies in the future. Here too there are numerous posts in Understanding Society that explore various aspects of the social and organizational causes of failure (link). 

Beyond these large themes, I’ve always found myself writing about topics that come up through unexpected paths. For example, the reading I’ve been doing about the cultures of pre-war Poland and Ukraine led me to learn about the career of Ludwik Fleck (link), a Polish medical scientist in the 1930s who anticipated many of Thomas Kuhn’s thoughts about scientific change. If I hadn’t been stimulated to think about the development of the careers of Zygmunt Bauman (link) and Leszek Kołakowski (link), I wouldn’t have been drawn to Fleck. Another fortuitous example — I have a general interest in the history of science and technology, but a chance news story about the Antikythera mechanism led me to learn more about this surprisingly complex and sophisticated technology from the second century BCE (link). And this led into more reflective thinking on my part about the history and philosophy of technology. A final example — Vasily Grossman went from being for me a dimly recognized name in Russian literature, to being a writer and human being whose journalism and fiction about the Holocaust and Stalinism are a beacon of insight for me (linklink). 

The blog is a tool of discovery and exploration for me.

Understanding Society was very fortunate to develop a fairly wide readership in the first several years of publication. I owe this good fortune to Mark Thoma, who frequently linked and sometimes reposted entries from Understanding Society in his outstanding blog, Economist’s View. Thank you, Mark! This seems to have set off a virtuous circle in the world of social media: more readers led to higher page ranks in Google and Bing, leading to more pageviews, which sustained the page ranks of the website. 

Here are two graphs of pageviews as recorded by Blogspot, the blog platform. The first graph records pageviews since 2010. The pageview count reached a peak in the middle of 2017, declined quite a bit in the next two years, and seems to have stabilized over the past two years. The second graph shows pageviews over the past twelve months, and this data is now fairly stable at about 68K pageviews per month. The total page views recorded by Blogspot since 2010 is 12.7 million.

All time:

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Last 12 months:

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The second pair of tables below record the top 10 posts in 2010-2021 and for the past twelve months. There is a good deal of consistency between the two time periods. Posts on Lukes, Bauman, Marx, and Sassen are in the top-ten posts of both time periods. 

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I’m grateful to everyone who reads the blog from time to time. This has been an important part of my intellectual growth over the past fourteen years. I invite you to think of the blog as an eclectic bookstall on the Seine that can be a source of stimulation in philosophy and social thought. Thanks for visiting — and I am confident there is more to come! 

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