Fifteen years of Understanding Society

This week represents the fifteenth anniversary of publication of Understanding Society, with a total of 1,484 posts and 13.3 million page views to date. There have been 72 posts and 657K page views in the past twelve months. The blog has remained consistent with the original vision of a “lab notebook for open-source philosophy”. And the topics that I’ve written on have paralleled both the teaching and the academic writing I’ve done in the past year, reflecting a nice synergy between blogging, teaching, and research. Out of 72 posts during the preceding year, the most frequent topics include “Evil in history” (22), “Democracy and authoritarianism” (16), “Progress and social change” (11), “Philosophy of history” (7), and “Social ontology” (5). Eighteen posts were devoted to specific figures in the history of philosophy and social thought, including Nietzsche, Marx, Carlyle, Machiavelli, Herder, and Herzen.

Blogspot provides cumulative statistics for page views for each post. The top ten posts in the past twelve months include:

  1. The global city — Saskia Sassen, 12.3K
  2. Lukes on power, 11.1K
  3. Liquid modernity?, 10.0K
  4. Marx’s ideas about government, 9.8K
  5. Assemblage theory, 6.7K
  6. Possessive individualism, 6.6K
  7. Power and social class, 4.9K
  8. What is methodology?, 4.7K
  9. Why “philosophy of social science”?, 2.5K
  10. Quantitative and qualitative social science, 1.3K

(For some reason the page providing the text of my talk at the Beijing Forum in 2011, “Justice matters in global economic development”, continues to gather a large number of views — 19.6K in the past twelve months, and 68.6K views since 2011; link.)

From this list it is evident that Sassen, Lukes, Deleuze, Marx, and Macpherson continue to have a good deal of interest for the online public.

The geopolitical distribution of visitors to the blog is interesting as well. Here are maps of about a quarter of the visits on November 3 and November 4, 2022. 

image: sampling of visits to Understanding Society, November 3, 2022

image: sampling of visits to Understanding Society, November 4, 2022

Just about every day there are visitors from six continents, with the preponderance coming from the United States and Western Europe. There are usually a few return visitors from Moscow, Kyiv, and Kharkiv — surprising to me in the middle of the atrocious war now being waged in Ukraine. On this particular day in early November, visitors from the Russian Federation landed on posts on “Social progress” (Moscow) and “Who was Leon Trotsky?” (Nalchik). A visitor from Kyiv read “Sociology of life expectations”, and a return visitor from Zhytomyr Oblast, Ukraine read “Quality of life in China”. A visitor from Minsk also visited “Quality of life in China” on the same day, and a visitor from Pinsk browsed a number of posts on “agents and structures”. Surprisingly enough, nearly 500 visitors have opened the Ukrainian-language post “Злі наслідки тоталітарних ідеологій” (“Evil consequences of totalitarianism”) since it was published in May 2022. (This was as an experiment using Google translations of a relevant post into Ukrainian and Russian.) India and the Philippines always show a substantial number of visitors. Thanks to the Great Firewall, there are no visitors recorded from China, though it is likely that some readers in China come to the blog through a VPN routed through another country.

Since I spend a lot of energy and time writing for the blog, it’s worth reflecting on why it’s worthwhile for me. The answer is, this is a format of writing and thinking that I find hugely stimulating and satisfying. Something will strike me in my reading or teaching, and I’ll try to write up the topic in a reflective way in a thousand words or so. Over time, I find that I’ve learned a great deal by wrestling with details and ideas from books and articles I would otherwise never have encountered — for example, Malcolm Muggeridge: A LifeNew Jerusalems, or Holocaust in Rovno. And there turns out to be a fair amount of continuity among the topics that show up in the blog over time. Understanding Society has been a very important part of the vitality of my intellectual life in the past fifteen years.

Two topics have proven to be particularly timely in the past year, both in the blog and in my teaching. The first is the topic of honestly confronting the evils of the twentieth century, including the Holocaust and the Holodomor. And the second is the rising threat to liberal democracy created by the anti-democratic impulses of the extreme right in the US and other western democracies. Both of these are important issues to consider at any time. But they are existentially important today, when Russian military forces are committing horrendous atrocities against civilians in Ukraine once again, and when paramilitary organizations and GOP candidates alike are explicitly threatening subversion and violence against democratic institutions in the US. Atrocity and authoritarianism once again threaten our freedom and wellbeing.

It is interesting to me to look back to the beginning, to the contents of the first two months of the blog in 2007. Most striking is the extraordinary number of posts in those two months (58). But the distribution of content is also very interesting. Topics in the philosophy of social science provided the overwhelming majority, including sociological methods, social ontology, and social causation. There were a handful of posts on topics in the philosophy of history, and a comparable number on features of social consciousness (religion, ideology, tacit knowledge, …). Key parts of the philosophy of social science that I continue to advocate — the ideas of heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency of the social world — were all present in those first two months, and these themes have continued to appear over the intervening years. The language of “actor-centered sociology” did not appear explicitly in these first two months of posts, though the cognate label “microfoundations” was used for several posts during that time. (The first time the phrase “actor-centered” was used is in November 2008, in “Narrative history”.) Notably, there are several topics which came to have a substantial presence in later years, including democracy, the Holocaust, totalitarianism, technology failure, analytical sociology, or critical realism, which were entirely absent in 2007.

It is fair to say that the language of the blog remains fairly academic — though less so than in a published journal article. That said, I appreciate George Orwell’s simple rules of good writing from From “Politics and the English Language”:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This year I have introduced an improved set of tools for navigating the blog to find posts of interest on a particular topic. This proved to be more flexible on the WordPress platform where the blog is mirrored ( The navigation tool permits the user to select posts by topic or keyword. My hope in creating these tools is that it will be more convenient to “read” the blog on a particular subject through a series of topically related posts.

I have also prepared a four-volume PDF archive of the first fifteen years of blog posts, organized into topics and themes. It runs to 5,500 pages of posts on social ontology, philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, democracy and authoritarianism, social progress, and country studies. The collection will be placed in an online archive to ensure continuing access in the future. Given the current tumult in the world of social platforms, I’d like the past fifteen years of work represented in the blog to remain accessible independently from the blogging platforms on which Understanding Society has appeared.

So thank you, readers, for continuing to follow Understanding Society!

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