Path dependency in formation of academic disciplines

The topic of the historicity of academic disciplines has come up numerous times in this forum. It is a conviction of mine that disciplines demonstrate a great deal of path dependency over time in their evolution. We can think of a discipline as being constituted at a time by some or all of these elements:

  • a definition of important questions for research
  • a definition of appropriate methods of research and analysis
  • a model of explanation in the field
  • some key examples of what theories and hypotheses ought to look like
  • institutions for supporting, organizing, and directing research efforts
  • institutions for validating and disseminating research findings
  • institutions for training young researchers in the key elements of the discipline

This sounds a lot like Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm, Lakatos’s idea of a research community, or the definitions of scientific enterprise offered by historians and sociologists of science and researchers in the tradition of STS studies (link). An academic discipline is an assemblage of ideas, networks of individuals, institutions, and locations (libraries, laboratories, research institutes).

If this is a reasonable approximation to the social reality of an academic discipline, what does it suggest about contingency and path-dependency in the development of the discipline? For one thing, it suggests multiple sources of contingency both internal to the intellectual enterprise and external to it. Internally, a discipline like philosophy or a sub-discipline like the philosophy of mind is driven in part by a somewhat logical process of attack on existing problems — what Kuhn referred to as “normal science”, and partly by large, compelling breakthroughs by individuals or small groups (for example, the Vienna Circle). Externally, it is straightforward to identify political and institutional influences that shape the research agenda at various times in various disciplines — the preference for positivism in sociology that was advanced by considerations of the Cold War, for example. And within the institutional setting of the disciplines there are contingencies as well — for example, a strong editor of a leading journal or research laboratory can set the agenda for theory and methodology in a discipline for a generation. (Andrew Abbott describes this kind of influence in Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred.)

Almost every element in this list is itself visibly dependent on historical circumstances in multiple ways. Take the issue of defining the important questions for research. There are political and governmental influences on the definition of research problems — witness the influence of the Cold War on the development of the social sciences, the role that is played by governmental funding agencies like the NSF or NIH, and the occasional intrusion of political pressure into scientific fields like environmental science and sociology.

Within the community of individuals currently pursuing the discipline or proto-discipline there is a range of levels of talent and innovation, on the one hand, and prestige and influence, on the other. (The two categories don’t necessarily correlate perfectly.) One charismatic individual or local group (Wittgenstein, say) may exert influence over the direction of a sub-field through charisma and the power of his or her ideas. Another may exert influence over the strategic placement he or she occupies in the institutions of influence — major graduate schools or prominent journals, for example. And in each case, the discipline moves to a new phase with new questions and ideas.

Bourdieu’s theoretical construct of the field (link) is very relevant to these forms of influence on the development of a given academic discipline. By locating various individuals within the network of institutions, scholars, and funding sources it is possible to attempt to piece together the ways in which their own research agendas unfolded (responding to incentives created by their field) and the influence they exerted on other scholars. Neil Gross’s sociological biography of Richard Rorty illustrates this kind of analysis (link), as does much of George Steinmetz’s research on the development of sociology as a discipline in France, Germany, and the US.

What all of this seems to support is the idea that the academic disciplines are in fact highly contingent in their development, and that there is no reason to expect convergence around a single “best” version of the discipline. The history of disciplines should better be understood in analogy to the brachiation and differentiation associated with the evolution of species and sub-species over time — lots of contingency, with a consequent specialization of the intermediate results to the demands of a particular point in time. This implies that a discipline like sociology or political science could have developed very differently, with substantially different ideas about research questions and methods. And this seems to be true for similar reasons in the humanities as well as the natural sciences and mathematics. Finally, this suggests that there is no end-point — no “universal sociology,” no “final philosophy,” no “complete mathematics.” Instead, every discipline in its search for knowledge and new ideas is charting new intellectual space.

French sociology


Is sociology as a discipline different in France than in Germany or Britain? Or do common facts about the social world entail that sociology is everywhere the same?

The social sciences feel different from physics or mathematics, in that their development seems much more path-dependent and contingent. The problems selected, the theoretical resources deployed, the modes of evidence considered most relevant — all these considerations have to be specified; and they have been specified differently in different times and places. An earlier post considered the arc of sociology in France (link).

Johan Heilbron’s French Sociology has now appeared, and it is a serious effort to make sense of the tradition of sociology as it developed in France. (Jean-Louis Fabiani’s Qu’est-ce qu’un philosophe français? provides a similar treatment of philosophy in France; link.) Heilbron approaches this topic from the point of view of historical sociology; he wants to write a historical sociology of the discipline of sociology.

For this historical-sociological view I have adopted a long-term perspective in order to uncover patterns of continuity and change that would have otherwise remained hidden. Several aspects of contemporary French sociology—its position in the Faculty of Letters, for example—can be understood only by going back in time much further than is commonly done. (2)

Understanding ideas is not merely about concepts, theories, and assumptions—however important they are—it simultaneously raises issues about how such ideas come into being, how they are mobilized in research and other intellectual enterprises, and how they have, or have not, spread beyond the immediate circle of producers. Understanding intellectual products, to put it simply and straightforwardly, cannot be divorced from understanding their producers and the conditions of production. (3)

Heilbron traces the roots of sociological thinking to the Enlightenment in France, with the intellectual ethos that any question could be considered scientifically and rationally.

If the Enlightenment has been seen as a formative period for the social sciences, it was fundamentally because a secular intelligentsia now explicitly claimed and effectively exercised the right to analyze any subject matter, however controversial, independently of official doctrines. (13)

This gives an intellectual framework to the development of sociology; but for Heilbron the specifics of institutions and networks are key for understanding the particular pathway that the discipline underwent. Heilbron identifies the establishment after the Revolution of national academies for natural science, human science, and literature as an important moment in the development of the social sciences: “The national Académie des sciences morales et politiques (1832) became the official center for moral and political studies under the constitutional regime of the July monarchy” (14). In fact, Heilbron argues that the disciplines of the social sciences in France took shape as a result of a dynamic competition between the Academy and the universities. Much of the work of the Academy during mid-nineteenth century was directed towards social policy and the “social question” — the impoverished conditions of the lower classes and the attendant risk of social unrest. There was the idea that the emerging social sciences could guide the formation of intelligent and effective policies by the state (20).

Another major impetus to the growth of the social sciences was the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. This national trauma gave a stimulus top the enhancement of university-based disciplines. The case was made (by Emile Zola, for example) that France was defeated because Prussia had the advantage in science and education; therefore France needed to reform and expand its educational system and research universities.

Disciplinary social science now became the predominant mode of teaching, research, and publishing. University-based disciplines gained a greater degree of autonomy not only with respect to the national Academy but also vis-à-vis governmental agencies and lay audiences. Establishing professional autonomy in its different guises—conceptually, socially, and institutionally—was the main preoccupation of the representatives of the university-based disciplines. (30)

Heilbron pays attention to the scientific institutions through which the social sciences developed in the early twentieth century. Durkheim’s success in providing orientation to the development of sociology during its formative period in the early twentieth century rested in some part on Durkheim’s ability to create and sustain some of those institutions, including especially the L’Année sociologique. Here is Heilbron’s summary of this fact:

Because the Durkheimian program eclipsed that of its competitors and obtained considerable intellectual recognition, sociology in France did not enter the university as a science of “leftovers,” as Albion Small said about American sociology. Durkheimian sociology, quite the contrary, represented a challenging and rigorous program to scientifically study crucial questions about morality, religion, and other collective representations, their historical evolution and institutional underpinnings. (90)

Here is a graph of the relationships among a number of the primary contributors to L’Année sociologique during 1898-1912:


But Heilbron notes that this influence in the institutions of publication in the discipline of sociology did not translate directly or immediately into a primary location for the Durkheimians within the developing university system.

Heilbron’s narrative confirms a break in the development of sociology at the end of World War II. And in fact, it seems to be true that sociology became a different discipline in France after 1950. Here is how Heilbron characterizes the intellectual field:

Sociological work after 1945 was caught up in a constellation that was defined by two antagonistic poles: an intellectual pole represented by existentialist philosophers who dominated the intellectual and much of the academic field and a policy-related research pole in state institutes for statistical, economic, and demographic studies. (123-124)

An important part of the growth of sociology in France in this period was stimulated by practical needs of policy reform and economic reorganization. It was in part because of a lack of intellectual status that the demand for applied research came to fulfill a new function for the social sciences. The growth of applied social science research was produced by the needs of economic recovery and the new role of the state in that respect. (129)

But academic sociology did not progress rapidly:

In the postwar academic structure, sociology was still a rather marginal phenomenon, a discipline with little prestige that was institutionally no more than a minor for philosophy undergraduates. The leading academics were the two professors at the Sorbonne, Georges Davy and Georges Gurvitch, each of whom presided over his own journal. Davy had succeeded Halbwachs in 1944 and resumed the publication of the

Année sociologique

, assisted by the last survivors of the Durkheimian network. (130)

Assessing the situation in 1955, Alain Touraine observed a near-total separation between university sociology and empirical research. Researchers were isolated, he wrote, and they lacked solid training, research experience, and professional prospects. Their working conditions, furthermore, were poor. The CES had only three study rooms for almost forty researchers and neither the CES nor the CNRS provided research funding. (139)

On Heilbron’s account, the large changes in sociology began to accelerate in the 1970s. Figures like Touraine, Bourdieu, Crozier, and Boudon brought substantially new thinking to both theoretical ideas and research problems for sociology. In a later post I will consider his treatment of this period in the development of the discipline.
(Here is an earlier post discussing Gabriel Abend’s ideas about differences in the discipline of sociology across the world; link.)

Processual sociology

Andrew Abbott is one of the thinkers within sociology who is not dependent upon a school of thought — not structuralism, not positivism, not ethnomethodology, not even the Chicago School. He approaches the problems that interest him with a fresh eye and therefore represents a source of innovation and new ideas within sociological theory. Second, he presents some very compelling intuitions about the social world when it comes to social ontology. He thinks that many social scientists bring unfortunate assumptions with them about the fixity of the social world — assumptions about entities and properties, assumptions about causation, assumption about laws. And he shows in many places how misleading these assumptions are — not least in his study of the professions The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Institutions), but in his history of the Chicago School of sociology as well (Department and Discipline: Chicago Sociology at One Hundred). Processual Sociology presents his current thinking about some of those important ideas.

The central organizing idea of Processual Sociology is one that finds expression in much of Abbott’s work, the notion that we should think of the social world as a set of ongoing processes rather than a collection of social entities and structures. He sometimes refers to this as a relational view of the actor and the social environment. Here is how he describes the basic ontological idea of a processual social world:

By a processual approach, I mean an approach that presumes that everything in the social world is continuously in the process of making, remaking, and unmaking itself (and other things), instant by instant. The social world does not consist of atomic units whose interactions obey various rules, as in the thought of the economists. Nor does it consist of grand social entities that shape and determine the little lives of individuals, as in the sociology of Durkheim and his followers. (preface)

This isn’t a wholly unfamiliar idea in sociological theory; for example, Norbert Elias advocated something like it with his idea of “figurational sociology” (link). But Abbott’s adherence to the approach and his sustained efforts to develop sociological ideas in light of it are distinctive. 

Abbott offers the idea of a “career” as an example of what he means by a processual social reality. A person’s career is not a static thing that exists in a confined period of time; rather, it is a series of choices, developments, outcomes, and plans that accumulate over time in ways that in turn affect the individual’s mentality. Or consider his orienting statements about professions in The System of Professions:

The professions, that is, make up an interdependent system. In this system, each profession has its activities under various kinds of jurisdiction. Sometimes it has full control, sometimes control subordinate to another group. Jurisdictional boundaries are perpetually in dispute, both in local practice and in national claims. It is the history of jurisdictional disputes that is the real, the determining history of the professions. Jurisdictional claims furnish the impetus and the pattern to organizational developments. Thus an effective historical sociology of professions must begin with case studies of jurisdictions and jurisdiction disputes. It must then place these disputes in a larger context, considering the system of professions as a whole. (kl 208)

His comments about the discipline of sociology itself in Department and Discipline have a similar fluidity. Rather than thinking of sociology as a settled “thing” within the intellectual firmament, we are better advised to look at the twists and turns various sociologists, departments, journals, conferences, and debates have made of the configuration during a period in time.
These examples have to do with the nature of social things — institutions and organizations, for example. But Abbott extends the processual view to the actors themselves. He argues that we should look to the flow of actions rather than the actor (again, a parallel with Elias); so actions are as much the result of shifting circumstances as they are the reflective choices of unitary actors. Moreover, the individual himself or herself continues to change throughout life and throughout a series of actions. Memories change, desires change, and social relationships change. Individuals are “historical” — they are embedded in concrete circumstances and relationships that contribute to their actions and movements at each moment. (This is the thrust of the first chapter of the volume.) Abbott extends this idea of the “processual individual” by reconsidering the concept of human nature (chapter 2).

For a processual view that begins with problematizing that continuity, an important first step is to address the concept of human nature, asking what kind of concept of human nature is possible under processual assumptions. (16)

Here is something like a summary of the view that he develops in this chapter:

Human nature, first, is rooted in the three modes of historicality—corporeal, memorial, and recorded—and the complex of substantive historicality that they enable. It concerns the means by which those modes interact and shape the developing lineage that is a person or social entity. It is also rooted in what we might call optativity, the human capacity to envision alternative futures and indeed alternative future units to the social process. (31-32)

Ecological thinking plays a large role in Abbott’s conception of the social realm. Social and human arrangements are not to be thought of in isolation; instead, Abbott advocates that we should consider them in a field of ecological interdependence. A research library does not exist uniquely by itself; rather, it exists in a field of funding, institutional control, user demands, legal regulations, and public opinion. Its custodians make decisions about the purchase of materials based on the needs and advocacy of various stakeholders, and the operation and holdings of the research library are a joint product of these contextual influences. In an innovative move, Abbott argues that the ecology within which an institution like a library sits is actually a linked set of ecologies, each exercising influence over the others. So the library influences the publisher in the same activities through which the publisher influences the library. Here is a brief description of the idea of linked ecologies:

I here answer this critique with the concept of linked ecologies. Instead of envisioning a particular ecology as having a set of fixed surrounds, I reconceptualize the social world in terms of linked ecologies, each of which acts as a flexible surround for others. The overall conception is thus fully general. For expository convenience, however, it is easiest to develop the argument around a particular ecology. I shall here use that of the professions. (35)

The central topic for a sociologist in a processual framework is the problem of stability: given the permanent fact of change, how does continuity emerge and persist? This is the problem of order.

I am concerned to envision what kinds of concepts of order might be appropriate under a different set of social premises: those of processualism. As the first two chapters of this book have argued, the processual ontology does not start with independent individuals trying to create a society. It starts with events. Social entities and individuals are made out of that ongoing flow of events. The question therefore arises of what concept of order would be necessary if we started out not with the usual state-of-nature ontology, but with this quite different processual one. (200)

Here Abbott’s thinking converges with several other sociologists and theorists whose work provides insights concerning the persistence of social entities, institutions, or assemblages. Abbott, Kathleen Thelen and Manuel DeLanda (link, link) agree about an important fundamental question: we must investigate the mechanisms and circumstances that permit social institutions, rules, or arrangements to persist in the face of the stochastic pressures of change induced by actors and circumstances.


Guest post by Paul Draus and Juliette Roddy

Paul Draus and Juliette Roddy have been involved in street-level sociological research in Detroit for over ten years. Roddy is an economist and a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Ojibwe Indians. She studies substance use, recovery and re-entry in the city of Detroit and teaches health policy and health economics in the Health and Human Services Department at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Draus is professor of sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. His research resides at the intersection of health and urban ethnography, and is especially focused on the life of marginalized populations in post-industrial cities. His research with Juliette Roddy, Mark Greenwald and other co-authors has integrated ethnographic and economic data to examine the everyday lives of Detroit heroin users, street sex workers, and other residents of forsaken neighborhoods. 

I invited Paul and Julie to provide a short example of their ethnographic work in Detroit for Understanding Society. Thanks, Paul and Julie!

Scraping Black Bottom: Linking Memory, Identity and Community in Detroit
Paul Draus and Juliette Roddy

We have been traipsing up and down Detroit streets for a number of years, in the course of carrying out various research projects and sometimes just out of curiosity. Like any other city, Detroit reveals more on foot than it does to the casual windshield or media-based observer. This being the Motor City, and the automobile being one of the main vehicles of both its early 20th-century prosperity and its late 20th-century deconstruction, it seems particularly appropriate to abandon one’s car in order to explore the remnants of the city left behind.

We use the word remnant rather than ruin deliberately, to counter the impression that Detroit is abandoned, empty or vacant, that it is simply a blank slate waiting to be rebuilt or reimagined by entrepreneurial newcomers or self-styled urban pioneers. While Detroit’s open spaces and ghostly buildings with their empty eyes do invite one’s imagination to wander, our on the ground encounters and interviews reveal a city that not only still lives, but struggles and asserts itself even more vigorously against the tide of withdrawn resources that has sucked its neighborhoods in a tightening spiral of disinvestment, neglect, escape and despair. These individuals express a powerful sense of pride in what Detroit has been, as well as a belief in its future potential, though tempered by that weary skepticism borne of hard experience and past disappointments.

Here we focus on one mobile interview, with a man we call “Mack,” a lifelong resident of the city’s once vibrant and now desolate-seeming East Side. Theoretically we draw upon the ideas of Deleuze, Guattari, and DeLanda, as well as the concepts of Yi-Fu Tuan, who wrote that, “Space and place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted. When we think about them, however, they may assume unexpected meanings and raise questions we have not thought to ask” (Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, p. 3).  The form of this interview was a movement across the landscape, involving the three of us, and a digital recorder. As he led us on a walk through this territory that he knew intimately, we invited him to share whatever thoughts and observations came to mind, while occasionally asking questions to clarify what he said or understand what we were seeing.

This movement and these traces call to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a line of flight, illustrated in A Thousand Plateaus with the image of a wolf life, which appears as nothing more than a set of tracks across a field of snow. The line of flight represents a departure from regularity, a kind of disruption of fixed status, like a deer leaping over a fence, which contains possibility but also implies a return to regularity.

The line of flight is closely connected to the concept of the rhizome, which is described by Deleuze and Guattari using spatial terminology, “Unlike the graphic arts, drawing or photography, unlike tracings, the rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entranceways and exits and its own lines of flight” (Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1987, p. 21).

We can’t claim to understand all of D-G’s thought, which is somewhat elliptical and enigmatic by design (1,000 plateaus representing non-hierarchical levels of thought, a multiplicity, in direct contrast to traditional concepts of structure as a set of nested layers or arguments building toward a single thesis), but we also can’t help seeing the connection between the Wolf Line and the traces we see in Detroit’s shifting landscape. D-G write:

Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes… Even some animals are, in their pack form. Rats are rhizomes. Burrows are too, in all of their functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion and breakout.

In this sense a neighborhood is also a clearly a rhizome, not a unitary, static reality, but a multiplicity of paths, trajectories, histories, structures, and potentials. Consider for example the following two images, one representing the stability of residence on the East Side, the other its transience:

Interviewee: Now, I wanted to take a picture of that. This where the Polacks stay at.


Interviewer: Is there somebody stayin’ there now?

Interviewee: He been—yeah! Yeah. The Polack. Uh, he owned this building, and he owned this. You know? I mean, he owned this house and this right here.

Interviewer: Do you know him?


Interviewee: Huh? I’m aware of him.

For Mack, the continued presence of “The Polack” is a reminder of the neighborhood’s persistence.  Even though his actual connection to him is tenuous, it retains an importance. It is something to be recorded with a photograph.

It is harder to take a picture of what has been materially and socially lost. A related photograph below was taken across the street from the house pictured above, but one struggles to place it.  The fragmented sidewalk gives an indication that this is a residential area, and the presence of the invasive species phragmites australis in the foreground provides an indication of a high water table, but aside from the hands of the speaker in the lower right hander corner of the photograph there are few clues as to the social character of this space.  Mack comments on this active absence, which is not a nothingness, a non-thing, but more like a memory, a ghost or a wound.

Interviewee: When you see all the empty fields out here like that, that’s why we—they called it—they called it black bottom, but it ain’t no such thing as a black bottom. Black bottom to us is like a poor neighborhood, because empty fields are empty fields. You know? Nobody—ain’t no stores out here. You have to go a mile away to go to a store, a grocery store. Ain’t no good foods out here. You got little small stores, get some hot dogs or canned foods. Somethin’ like that. Now, I’m only take you—


Interviewer: So who calls, uh—you said, uh, people call this area black bottom?


Interviewee: They call the whole black—um, the whole neighborhood black bottom now.

Interviewer: Okay.


Interviewee: Because it a poor neighborhood.

Through his narration of these adjoining spaces Mack is tracing the neighborhood’s trajectory from a Polish-dominated enclave of homes and businesses to a majority-Black community, now dominated as much by the plant population as the current human residents.  Here we see a home surrounded by green growth, facing a field where the evidence of past density may be difficult to see.  For Mack, the empty lot contains within it the past human occupants as well as the plants now flourishing there.

Another lot contained what might be an unremarkable monument—a single concrete planter.  However, this object’s persistence rendered it worthy of remark.

Interviewee: Now, while we walkin’ and when you see things, now, this right here was Chuck house right here. See that? This right here was—yep. A black man owned this, but his momma had died and things that happened. And I see that his momma sick, got the stone. And you can look. You can look. When we partied here in the ‘80s—and this right here. I don’t know why, and I wasn’t nothin’ but four years old, and this still standin’ here, and I’m 54. Right here?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Interviewee: Still standin’.

Interviewer: Wow.


Interviewee: Still standin’. Right here. Still—old though, but it still standin’. This right here was in the ‘80s. This was—it’s so old. It’s like, uh. It’s like, boom. It’s still standing. Nobody ain’t take it.

According to Tuan, “A neighborhood is at first a confusion of images to the new resident; it is blurred space, ‘out there.’ Learning to know the neighborhood requires the identification of significant localities, such as street corners and architectural landmarks, within the neighborhood space…” (Tuan 1977, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, p. 17).

This passage reveals the constant tension between permanence and transience, between blurred space and significant localities, or using the D-G terms, between territorialization and de-territorialization. As Mack has noted, this single inconspicuous icon is significant simply because “Boom! It’s still there.” 
Detroit’s fascination as a city lies not in its ruin, or reconstruction, but in the degree of play that exists between these ever-present potentialities, the struggles over identity and interpretation within these shifting fields, and the perhaps fruitless search for tipping points, clues to its ultimate outcome or meaning. Thus Detroit itself may be seen as a line of flight, unsettling because it seems so continually unsettled, a disruption of expectation, like the pheasant taking flight before our meandering feet. 
In that sense, Detroit is not so different from any other city, always becoming, yet constrained by the path lain by its past, distinctive only in degree.

Photo by Tomek Zerek, taken while stomping through Detroit fields with first author

(Can you see the pheasant?)

(For more on the Deleuzian perspective, see Manuel Delanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity.)

Sociology circa 2008

I often find handbooks in the social sciences to be particularly valuable resources for anyone interested in thinking about the big issues and challenges facing the social sciences at a particular point in time. Editors and contributors have generally made intelligent efforts to provide articles that give a good understanding of a theme, methodology, or issue in the given field of research, without diving into the full detail of a scholarly monograph on the minutiae. Earlier posts have highlighted a number of such handbooks (link, link, link).

An excellent example of such a volume is Hedstrom and Wittrock, Frontiers of Sociology (Annals of the International Institute of Sociology Vol. 11). This volume took its origin in the 2008 meeting of the IIS, supplemented by a number of additional pieces. It includes excellent contributions from highly impactful sociologists from Europe and North America.

The editors describe the motivation for the volume in these terms:

There may be a greater urgency today than for a very long time for sociology to examine its own intellectual and institutional frontiers relative to other disciplinary and scholarly programs but also relative to a rapidly changing institutional and academic landscape. In this sense, current sociology may be in a situation more analogous to that of the classics of sociology and of the IIS than has been the case for a large part of the twentieth century. (1)

A core theme in the volume is the idea of intersections between sociological research and adjacent disciplines.

The large topic areas include:

  1. The legacy and frontiers of sociology
  2. Sociology and the historical sciences
  3. Sociology and the cultural sciences
  4. Sociology and the cognitive sciences
  5. Sociology and the mathematical and statistical sciences

A handful of chapters are particularly relevant to themes that have come up frequently in Understanding Society. Here are a few representative ideas from these chapters.

Peter Hedstrom, “The analytical turn in sociology” [analytical sociology]

What I find particularly attractive in analytical philosophy is rather the general style of scholarship as well as a number of specific conceptual clarifications that are of considerable importance for sociological theory.

The style of scholarship one finds in analytical philosophy can be concisely characterized as follows:

  • An emphasis on the importance of clarity: If it is not perfectly clear what someone is trying to say, confusion is likely to arise, and this will hamper our understanding. 
  • An emphasis on the importance of analysis in terms of breaking something down to its basic constituents in order to better understand it. 
  • An academic style of writing that does not shy away from abstraction and formalization when this is deemed necessary. 

By adopting principles such as these, it is possible to devise a more analytically oriented sociology that seeks to explain complex social processes by carefully dissecting them, bringing into focus their most important constituent components, and then to construct appropriate models which help us to understand why we observe what we observe. Let me try to briefly indicate what I have in mind, starting with analysis in terms of dissection and abstraction. (332)

Philip Gorski, “Social ‘mechanisms’ and comparative-historical sociology: A critical realist proposal” [critical realism]

A second important principle of critical realism, which follows directly from the above, is ontological stratification. This principle is a familiar one for social scientists, who often speak of the various “levels” or “dimensions” of a particular “system” or “phenomenon.” But critical realism provides a basic principle for identifying these levels: namely, the principle of emergence. Consider the pin factory example once again. A modern manager or engineer could undoubtedly increase the output of the factory’s workforce simply by making various kinds of organizational or technical adjustments—to the sequencing of tasks, the spatial layout, the introduction of new tools or machines, and so on. From the perspective of critical realism, then, the factory qua organization or institution is an autonomous reality.

This is not to deny that the output of the pin factory could also be increased by changing the composition of the workforce—e.g., by hiring more skilled or dextrous or energetic workers. The principle of stratification should not be confused with the principle of holism. To say that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is not to say that the composition of the parts is of no consequence. This brings us to a third important principle of critical realism: explanatory a-reducibility. A-reducibility is not the same as irreducibility. Irreducibility implies that one level or strata of reality cannot be explained in terms of another at all, that decomposing that strata into its constituent parts is useless; a-reducibility, on the other hand, merely implies that one level or strata cannot be fully explained in terms of another. So, to say that the output of the pin factory is a-reducible to the composition of its work force is not to say that the latter has no effect on the former, only that no individual-level property or power can fully explain the collective output of a factory, which is to say, that the factory has emergent powers and properties—that it is real. (148-149)

Richard Breen, “Formal theory in the social sciences” [agent-based models]

Game theory and social interaction models follow the rational choice model, but there is another approach to modelling the way in which context influences aggregate outcomes which has not developed from, nor necessarily makes use of, rational choice: this is agent based modelling. Agent based models (or ABMs) are simulations, usually computer based, of the interactions of agents. These simulations are used to generate aggregate properties of the agent population using very simple characterisations of the agents themselves. As Macy and Willer (2002: 146) put it in their review of the field: ‘ABMs explore the simplest set of behavioural assumptions required to generate a macro pattern of explanatory interest’. The roots of this approach are deep, but it is only within the past 15 years or thereabouts that agent based models have become popular. Nevertheless, one of the most influential pieces of agent based modelling predates the availability of powerful computers: this is Schelling’s (1971) model of residential segregation. The Schelling model consists of a set of agents, each of which is of one of two types—call them red and blue—arrayed on a network structure such as points on a circle or a lattice. These agents have a preference for a balance of neighbours of each type and in each round of the simulation those agents who are dissatisfied in this respect are allowed to move to any other available location. The strength of preference can be varied in the Schelling model, reflecting the extent to which agents want to be with a majority of their own type or are willing to be in a minority. It transpires that, even if agents’ preferences for neighbours of their own type are very weak, after several rounds of the simulation there is complete segregation, so that the network consists of areas that are completely red or completely blue but lacks any mixed areas. This outcome is a stylized version of residential segregation by race in the United States, but the model suggests that a strong desire for such segregation on the part of the agents is not necessary to generate segregation: it can arise from only weak preferences for residing with one’s own type. The Schelling model nicely illustrates the characteristic feature of agent based models: namely that a complex social outcome is generated as an emergent property of the interaction of agents who follow very simple rules of behaviour. A more recent and almost equally well known, but much more elaborate, example of an agent based model is the Sugarscape model of Epstein and Axtell (1996) in which a population of agents, again following simple rules, exploits the natural resource of a landscape and in so doing generates social outcomes, such as a distribution of wealth and cultural distinctions which, according to the authors, closely resemble their real world counterparts. 

In obvious contrast to the agents of rational choice models, those of agent based models of the sort I have referred to follow simple rules of the kind ‘if X then do Y’—so, in the Schelling model, the rule is: if your preferences are not met move; if your preferences are met, stay where you are. To the extent that agents change their behaviour they are adaptive, rather than forward looking. (218-219)  

Hans Joas, “The emergence of universalism: An affirmative genealogy” [new pragmatism]

The type of sociology I am representing here tries to understand—as I said—creative processes. The creative process that interests me most at the moment is the creation of new values. I prefer not to speak of the creation, but of the genesis of values, because it is one of the seemingly paradoxical features of our commitment to values that we do not experience them as being created by us but as captivating us, attracting and grasping us (“Ergriffensein”). There is a passive dimension in all creative processes that has always been described in terms like “inspiration”; but in the case of values it is clearly only from an observer’s standpoint that we can see values as created. The participants in these processes do not feel committed to an entity of their own making, but consider values as being discovered or rediscovered.

A sociological study of major innovations in the field of values is neither a philosophical attempt to offer a rational justification for these values nor a mere historical reconstruction of the contingencies of their emergence. Philosophical justifications do not need history. In the case of human rights, they mostly develop their argument out of the (alleged) character of reason or moral obligation as such, out of the conditions of a thought experiment or the fundamentals of an idealized rational discourse. The history of ideas is then mostly seen as the pre-history of the definitive solution that can be found in the work of Kant or Rawls or Habermas. —Historiography, on the other hand, certainly has some implicit elements of an evaluative character and of their justication and it can be a historiography of philosophical, political, or religious arguments concerning human rights and universal human dignity. But as historiography it seems to be nothing but an empirically tenable reconstruction of historical processes and not a contribution to the justification of values. In their division of labor philosophy and history support a strict distinction between questions of genesis and questions of validity. (18)

Jack Goldstone, “Sociology and political science: Learning and challenges” [internal organization of sociology as a discipline]

Both economics and political science have relatively simple structures to their academic fields. Economics divides itself, roughly, among micro- economics, macro-economics, trade or international economics, and economic history. Of course there are myriad specialties that cross these lines: labor economics, price theory, general equilibrium theory, development economics, finance, welfare economics, experimental economics, health economics, environmental economics, the economics of public goods, the economics of innovation/R&D, etc. etc. Nonetheless, economics gives itself great coherence as a field by having a simple fourfold division to guide its basic undergraduate and graduate foundation courses, and its staffing of departments.

Political science similarly has a four-fold division: American (or other home country) politics, comparative politics, international relations, and theory (actually the history of political thought). This can be even more simply conceptualized as the politics of my country, the politics of other countries, the relations among various countries, and the intellectual history of the field. Again, political science has myriad subfields that operate within and across these divisions: comparative democratization, legislative politics, the presidency, deterrence, political psychology, opinion research, public administration, etc. etc. But the basic four-fold division gives a certain coherence to structuring pedagogy and hiring.

Sociology, sadly, has no such internal structure. There is no reason for this, except for the history of the field as succumbing alternately to grand unifying visions (Marxism, Weberianism, Functionalism) and fractioning into a large number of different specialties. Sociology certainly could set itself up as having four basic fields: American (or the national society in which the department is located) society, comparative macro-sociology (the sociology of other societies and their relationships, including most of development and political sociology), micro-sociology (social psychology, small-groups, social identity, race/ethnicity/gender), and organizational or meso-sociology (professions, organizations, net- works, business, religion, education, medicine, etc.).

Of course sociology, like economics and political science, could retain its hundreds of sub-specialties that cut across these divisions. But requiring all students to take a course in each of these four areas, and specialize in one of them, would give much greater coherence and institutional structure to the field. Right now, sociology presents itself through one vast intro survey course and an unstructured mass of specialized courses that have little intellectual organization.

Aage Sørensen, “Statistical models and mechanisms of social processes” [social mechanisms]

Understanding the association between observed variables is what most of us believe research is about. However, we rarely worry about the functional form of the relationship. The main reason is that we rarely worry about how we get from our ideas about how change is brought about, or the mechanisms of social processes, to empirical observation. In other words, sociologists rarely model mechanisms explicitly. In the few cases where they do model mechanisms, they are labeled mathematical sociologists, not a very large or important specialty in sociology.

We need to estimate relationship in order to figure out if our theoretical ideas have some support in evidence. For this purpose, we use statistics. Statistics is a branch of mathematics and might seem alien to sociologists for this reason. However, while sociologists are not very eager to formulate their theories as mathematical models, sociologists are very eager to learn statistics, and quite good at it. They therefore use statistical models to estimate the relationships that concern them in research. These statistical models are usually presented by statisticians as default models, to be used when a substantive model is lacking. The models are invariably additive, at least as a point of departure. They have the virtue of being parsimonious. The statistical models have the defect that they sometime are poor theories of the processes under investigation. (370)

I have argued that the integration of theory and evidence in sociology must take place by choosing theories that allow for such integration by producing ideas about what generates change in social processes. In order to be fully successful, this strategy should result in the formulation of mathematical models for change. These ideas are not novel. They form the justification for the creation of a specialty in sociology called mathematical sociology and the power of the ideas is illustrated with numerous examples in Coleman (1964) and related work. Nevertheless, sociologists have largely chosen a different strategy for going about testing their ideas with evidence. They adopt ad hoc statistical models as described in textbooks and they have become quite sophisticated at statistics. I have tried to show that this use of statistical models and the fascination with their elaboration has blinded sociologists to exploring fundamental properties of the processes they investigate, such as social mobility processes. In turn this has sometimes produced quite unreasonable substantive models for the processes being investigated, as in the case of research on schools effects.

There are several reasons for why statistical models came to dominate. I have argued elsewhere that the increase in computing power allowed sociologists to estimate what with less computing power had to be modeled (Sørensen 1998). So instead of formulating stochastic process models for the mechanisms of what we are interested in, we proceed directly to estimate how parameters of these processes depend on independent variables in hazard rate analysis. (396-397)

These are talented sociologists, searching for some new ways of approaching the task of understanding social change, social variation, and social stability. Further, like the larger universe of sociology today, there are important tensions among the approaches highlighted here — from historical and comparative research to causal mechanisms to statistical inference and causal modeling. And yet, in spite of the range of approaches offered in the volume, sociological methods and sociological theorizing would benefit from an even greater range of pluralism and innovation. Understanding the contemporary social world requires new appreciation of the complexity and heterogeneity of the social processes in which we live, and new tools for investigating and theorizing those processes. (Here is a post from 2008 that makes the case for theoretical and methodological pluralism in sociology — ironically, from the same year in which the Hedstrom and Wittrock volume appeared.)

Interdisciplinary discussions in Mexico

I’ve just spent several interesting days at the second science and humanities conference of the Mexican Academy of Sciences in Mexico City (link). My thanks to Dra. Rosario Esteinou, Chair of the Social Sciences Section of the Mexican Academy of Science, for inviting me to participate.

This forum is a very interesting effort to bring together researchers across the spectrum of the sciences and humanities in useful dialog with each other. Biologists, physicists, biologists, astronomers, sociologists, and humanists from Mexican universities and institutes (along with a handful of international visitors) interacted intensively through a series of panels and plenary talks, with animated conversations taking place in the common areas throughout the days of the conference. Speaking for the Academy in the opening session, organizers set high and convincing expectations about the value of interdisciplinary and international collaboration. I attended sessions on nano-materials, plant evolutionary history, and economic development goals, and I found all the presentations to be of high quality and interest. And more significantly, I witnessed a real intellectual engagement by physicists, biologists, and social scientists around each of these topics.

Particularly interesting for me was a session on well-being and development for poor and disadvantaged populations in Mexico. This season was chaired by René Millán and included presentations by Gonzalo Hernández Licona (Director of the National Council for the Assessment of Social Development Policies – CONEVAL), Rodolfo de la Torre (Director del Programa de Desarrollo Social con Equidad, CEEY), and Gerardo Leyva (Deputy Director General for Research of INEGI). Key themes included human development, the status of indigenous people, the situation of rural women, and the challenge of extending opportunities for all Mexicans.

Speakers showed a real and committed involvement in the importance of poverty reform that really works in Mexico, with an emphasis on creating greater equity and opportunity for all Mexicans. Each speaker took Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities and functioning as given; disagreements turned on how this basic theory might be supplemented to incorporate empirical studies of perceived well-being and how to create policies that worked to broaden social inclusiveness.

Gerardo Leyva framed his presentation around new interest in “happiness” as a goal of development, referring to the United Nations World Happiness Index Report 2016. The heart of his presentation was a report of a study conducted by INEGI on life satisfaction in Mexico, the BIARE survey (link). It turns out that Mexican citizens have an average level of satisfaction of about 8 on a ten-point scale. Of course the absolute level of the average response to the question, how satisfied are you with your life currently?, is not very meaningful. More interesting than the aggregate were the disaggregated results Leyva reported for specific segments of Mexican society, and an analysis of the separate factors that appear to bring down life satisfaction. Here is a snapshot of satisfaction reports by age for Mexico as a whole:

There are not large differences across age groups, but it is interesting to see that 18-29 year-olds report the highest level of satisfaction. In particular, it seems to suggest that young people have a favorable view of their futures in Mexico.

Outside the agenda of the conference I also had a very interesting discussion with David Barkin, professor of economics at the Xochimilco Campus of the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in México City, and two of his PhD students, about an alternative approach to just economic development, ecological economics. The Center for Ecodevelopment is one node in a global network of researchers, activists, and communities who are actively working to establish new economic practices embodying sustainability and community cohesion. Emphasis is placed on the autonomy and knowledge of the indigenous communities who make their livings in various parts of the world. Here is a paper in which Barkin explains the perspective of this field of development thinking (link). Here is a short snippet from the paper:

Rural communities in general and indigenous groups in particular continue under increasing pressure. Their living conditions deteriorated as their production systems demanded more from the land; they produced crops for human consumption on their rainfed lands, developed handicrafts and other artisan products, and raised animals and horticultural products, including hogs, chickens, fruits and herbs, in their backyards. The most fortunate among them were able to protect their access to other natural resources, such as a lake or river for fishing and to meet their water needs and a forest for wood or hunting. Over the decades, they accumulated a rich experience in managing these resources, developing sophisticated management systems that were integrated gradually into their customary practices. They continued trading activities, among themselves and with others, maintaining and modifying their traditions, adapting them to changing conditions, strengthening their communities and their identity, choosing to protect their most cherished values and practices in each historical moment.

Organizations like the New Rural Reconstruction Movement in China (link) and Via Campesina in many countries (link) came up in the conversation, and the two recent PhD students in this program described their economic ethnographic work in several Mexican indigenous agricultural communities. This work is interesting in part because it is aimed at crafting an alternative to both neo-liberal and classical leftist ideas of an economic future for the developing world.

My overall impression is that the sciences are robust in Mexico today, and that there are energetic efforts underway to solve Mexico’s most pressing social problems. 

Making sense of ISA 2016


The International Sociological Association hosted its third major forum in Vienna this month. (ISA forums are organized every four years; previous forums took place in Buenos Aires and Barcelona.) Nearly five thousand sociologists (and researchers in cognate disciplines) came together from countries all over the world, contributing to over 700 sessions in five days. So one might look at this as a great opportunity for distilling a map of the topics that are the most urgent for social researchers in many countries today. The program provides a first-hand exposure to a point Gabriel Abend makes about national differences in the practice of sociology (link); attendance at multiple sessions makes it apparent that there are substantial differences in topics, methods, and vocabularies across national and cultural research communities in sociology.

There are 56 research committees represented in the ISA, and most of the five-day program was put together by these research groups. An overall theme of global crisis emerges from the gestalt of panels and papers — refugees, radicalization, international terrorism, racial conflict, and environmental collapse, along with the conviction that public sociology can help lead to a better world. Topics of aging, youth, the body, race, and protest are also prominent. There are relatively few quantitative research projects on display. (It would be interesting to compare the frequencies of papers using qualitative, comparative, and quantitative methods at this conference to that found at the ASA.)
It would be fascinating to see a network graph of citation clusters or keywords from the full list of papers to identify central topics. (The 829-page PDF book of abstracts might allow for some initial topic analysis along these lines.) What methods emerges as particularly compelling? What theoretical approaches and concepts are favored?
The demographics of attendance would also be very interesting to study. What countries are represented? What is the gender composition of the attendees and panelists? What about age and rank in the profession? The ISA has provided a country breakdown for previous forums; I assume it will do so after the close of this event as well. Perhaps most difficult to assess, why did these individuals choose to participate? Is there a sense of deep engagement in a set of intellectual issues in the disciplines? Or is the dominant motivation one of career competition and progress?  It would have been very interesting if ISA had organized an “ethnographic corps” of volunteers who did short interviews with attendees to learn a little more about their interests and reasons for attending. 
My non-scientific impression, based on assessing the audiences in several small sessions and a large common session, is that the attendance is skewed to a younger set of scholars, relative to attendance at the ASA. There are a good number of senior scholars (>60 years), but this segment seems to be less than 15% of a typical audience. In sessions I have attended the gender ratio is about 2:1 male:female and sometimes much more skewed. The age distribution of panel participants is more difficult to assess, but my impression is that panel participants tend to be more senior than the audiences. Gender representation among speakers appears to be substantially lower than the 33% female audience would suggest.

Studying this extensive conference in sociology seems like a good topic for investigation by researchers in the new sociology of ideas (link). I’m sure that Neil Gross, Michelle Lamont, or Andrew Abbott would have dozens of interesting questions to pose about this assemblage of the field of sociology in the process of renewing itself (as of course every discipline does on a continuing basis). The concept of “field” is particularly relevant here; many of the topic areas are actively engaged in contesting the various fields and institutions that constitute the sociology knowledge industry today. And of course the disastrous state of the academic marketplace in almost all of European universities is relevant; young scholars face almost impossible odds in seeking continuing faculty positions in their fields of expertise.


In my view this forum has accomplished a lot of what we would want from an academic convening. Important topics were discussed with seriousness, and new ideas were shared with a world-wide audience of mostly younger scholars. At a time when anti-intellectualism seems to be at a high, ISA makes a strong case for the vitality of sociology and the likelihood that research in the disciplines of the social sciences can actually make a difference in achieving a better future. 


Systems management and the War on Poverty


One of the important developments in engineering and management thinking since World War II is the value of approaching large problems as systems rather than simply as a sum of separable components. Designing a ballpoint pen is very different from designing an aircraft or a fire control system; in the latter cases there are multiple functionalities and components that need to be incorporated, each associated with specific engineering and material disciplines. It was recognized during World War II that it is much more effective to treat the product and the design and manufacturing efforts as systems so that it is possible to conform components to synergistic and mutually supportive inter-relationships.

Agatha Hughes and Thomas Hughes organized a group of leading researchers to reflect upon the history of systems engineering and management, and the chief results are included in their 2000 volume, Systems, Experts, and Computers: The Systems Approach in Management and Engineering, World War II and After. The contributors include experts (and participants) in the history of the development of complex military systems during World War II — for example, radar-controlled fire control systems for anti-aircraft use (David Mindell); experts like Donald MacKenzie on the incorporation of computing into the control of complex technologies (for example, the pathbreaking SABRE system for airline reservations); and experts on expertise such as Gabrielle Hecht, who provides an essay on post-war French technology management.

Here is how Hughes and Hughes describe the systems approach in their introduction to the volume:

Practitioners and proponents embrace a holistic vision. They focus on the interconnections among subsystems and components, taking special note of the interfaces among the various parts. What is significant is that system builders include heterogeneous components, such as mechanical, electrical, and organizational parts, in a single system. Organizational parts might be managerial structures, such as a military command, or political entities, such as a government bureau. Organizational components not only interact with technical ones but often reflect their characteristics. For instance, a management organization for presiding over the development of an intercontinental missile system might be divided into divisions that mirror the parts of the missile being designed. (2)
Hughes and Hughes provide a narrative that is intended to show the origins of systems engineering in operations research during World War II, and in the rapid development of highly complex technology systems needed for weaponry during the war (automated fire control, for example). In their telling of the story, the development of the digital computer during and after the war was a critical component of the development of the systems approach and the increasingly complex technologies and systems that the approach stewarded into existence. (See earlier posts on the development of ENIAC; linklink.) Much of this research took place within government and military organizations such as OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development); but private companies like RAND and MITRE soon emerged to take on contracts from military agencies for large-scale systems projects (5). And the research and development process itself came to be treated as a “system”, with new software developed to support project planning and management. One important example was the PERT (Program Evaluation Review Technique) software system, developed by Booz, Allen & Hamilton (10).

Of particular interest here is the light the volume sheds on the efforts by the Johnson administration to apply systems thinking to the large social problems the country faced in the early 1960s, including especially poverty and urban problems (16) (link). David Jardini’s essay “Out of the blue yonder: The transfer of systems thinking from the Pentagon to the Great Society, 1961-1965” explores this effort to transfer these systems methods to the social field. “[The chapter] argues that the construction and implementation of the Great Society social welfare programs and their analytical methods can be found at the core of Great Society policy making” (312). 
It emerges that a central political and policy disagreement that determined the course of events was a fundamental disagreement about centralization versus community involvement in social welfare policy. Policy leaders like Robert McNamara preferred to see the nation’s social welfare policies to be managed and monitored centrally; affected communities, on the other hand, wanted to have greater control over the programs that would affect them. These disagreements converged on the question of the role of CAPs (Community Action Program) in the implementation and management of policy initiatives on the ground. Should CAPs serve as effective venues for local opinions and demands, or should they be sidelined in favor of a more top-down administrative organization?

The first CAP program guide, for example, suggested that local organizations provide “meaningful opportunities for residents, either as individuals or in groups, to protest or to propose additions to or changes in the ways in which a Community Action Program is being planned or undertaken.” In fact, protest and confrontation were viewed by many CAP organizers as at least therapeutic means for the poor to vent their frustrations. (339)

But Johnson’s administration was not interested in providing a venue for community advocacy and protest, and quickly sought to find ways of managing social welfare programs to reduce the level of activism they stimulated. The solution was the extension of the PPB (Planning-Programming-Budgeting) model from defense systems administration to the Great Society. But, as Jardini observes, this hierarchical system of control is poorly adapted to the problem of designing and administering programs that affect vast groups of people who can see its effects and can have very different ideas about the appropriateness of the policies being conveyed. “In this sense, the DOD is a poor model for the democratic ideal many Americans hold for their government institutions” (341).

This example illustrates an important tension that runs through many of the essays in the volume concerning the political significance of systems engineering and management. The volume gives support to the idea that systems management is an expert-driven and non-democratic way of organizing complicated human activities. What Robert McNamara brought to Ford Motor Company and the Department of Defense was a hierarchical, analytical, expert-driven system of management that sought to replace decentralized decision-makers with an orderly process driven from the top. For some purposes this may be a reasonably effective way of organizing a large effort involving thousands of agents. But for purposes like social reform it has a fatal flaw; it makes it almost impossible to create the level of buy-in at the local level that will be crucial for the success of a large project.

(I remember asking Tom Hughes in 1999 or so what he thought about the massive “Big Dig” project in Boston, then approaching completion and affecting many neighborhoods and thousands of residents. He commented that he felt that we should not judge the success of the project on the basis of whether it came in under budget; in fact, he suggested that this would show that the project designers and managers had not done enough to modify and adapt the project to gain support from the communities that the project affected.)

Defining social phenomena

How does a field of phenomena come into focus as a subject of scientific study? When we want to know about weather, we can identify a relatively small number of variables that represent the whole of the topic — temperature, air pressure, wind velocity, rainfall. And we can pick out the aspects of physics that seem to be causally relevant to the atmospheric dynamics that give rise to variations in these variables. Weather is a closed system, if a complex one.

Deciding what factors are important and amenable to scientific study in the social world is not so easy. Population size or density? Economic product? Inter-group conflict? Public opinion and values? Political systems? Racial and ethnic identities? All of these factors are of interest to the social sciences, to be sure. But none of this looks like anything like a definition of the whole of the social realm. Rather, there are indefinitely many other research questions that can be posed about the social world — style and fashion, trends of social media, forms of etiquette, sources of power, and on and on.

For that matter, these don’t look much like a macro-set of factors that are generated in some straightforward way by the simple actions of individual persons. These social factors aren’t really analogous to macro-level weather factors, emerging from the local cells of temperature-pressure-humidity-direction. Rather, these social concepts or constructs are theorized and developed in a complicated back-and-forth by sociologists or political scientists seeking to identify social-level constructs that seem to give some insight into the ordinary and systematic experiences we have of the social world.

Most particularly, there isn’t a natural way of mapping these social concepts into an integrated and comprehensive mental model of the whole of the social world. Instead, these high-level social concepts are partial and perspectival. And this is different from the situation of weather or climate. In the latter domains there are finitely many higher level concepts that serve to characterize the whole of the domain of global climate phenomena. Call this “high-level conceptual closure.” There are no questions about climate that cannot be phrased in terms of these concepts. But the social world is not amenable to this kind of closure. We lack high-level conceptual closure for the social world. 
One way of making sense of these observations is to say that there isn’t a domain of the social in general. Rather, there are more narrowly specified domains within the undifferentiated social whole. Ethnic conflict is a specifiable domain of social phenomena at the macro level, and it has a fuzzy but plausible set of domains of microfoundations that are scientifically relevant to this domain. For example, we might canvas the kinds of causal factors that students of ethnic conflict have found relevant to the eruption of ethnic conflict: features of actors’ mentality; institutions and organizations on the ground; spatial distribution of actors; political framework of contention (government, legislation, police). Research on ethnic conflict will focus on factors at this level. 
A different empirical focus might be population quality of life. Researchers on this topic will consider a very different set of individual-level factors — form of agriculture, property relations, family structure. Some factors will overlap with the field of study of ethnic conflict, but most will not. And, importantly, the findings of each field are relevant to study of the other topic. The dynamics of ethnic conflict have consequences for population quality of life, and fluctuations in quality of life (food security, for example), will be causally relevant to the dynamics of ethnic conflict. But the research programmes and communities are substantially distinct. 
And there are indefinitely many other social programmes of research, unlimited in principle. The social sciences in general are nothing more than the sum of research in these different research fields. And more controversially, we might say that the social world is the patchwork sum of these qualitatively heterogeneous kinds of social phenomena. 
So there is no general answer to the question, what is the domain of the social; there is no systematic and final definition of the social world. And there is similarly no hope for “unifying” the social sciences under a master set of theoretical premises about social behavior or structure. Significantly, this seems to be Weber’s point in “‘Objectivity’ in social science and social policy” in Methodology of Social Sciences (105) when he writes that topics for social research are novel for each generation.

Accordingly the synthetic concepts used by historians are either imperfectly defined or, as soon as the elimination of ambiguity is sought for, the concept becomes an abstract ideal type and reveals itself therewith as a theoretical and hence “one-sided” viewpoint which illuminates the aspect of reality with which it can be related. But these concepts are shown to be obviously inappropriate as schema into which reality could be completely integrated. For none of those systems of ideas, which are absolutely indispensable in the understanding of those segments of reality which are meaningful at a particular moment, can exhaust its infinite richness.

Contrast this with Marx’s effort at conceptual closure by providing an integrated schema for capitalist society of its forces and relations of production; its economic structure; and its political and cultural superstructure (link). Here is a famous passage from Marx’s Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Graphing the English-speaking university curriculum

Here is a fascinating and ambitious “big data” project that aims at probing and mapping the structure of the disaggregated university curriculum in the United States and other English-speaking countries. The project is called the Open Syllabus Project and is hosted at Columbia University with a team including Joe Kraganis (project director), David McClure (Stanford University Library), Dnnis Tenen, Jonathan Stray, Alex Gil, and Ted Byfield, along with others.  The project has collected over a million syllabi that are openly accessible on university websites; it has then created a database of the books and articles included in these syllabi. There are currently 934K items in the database of texts.

The project provides two basic tools. First, it allows users to search the database by title and see its frequency and co-references. It is also possible to filter by field, institution, state, and country; for each title it is possible to find the other titles most commonly associated with it in the filtered field of syllabi.

One immediate interest in this project is to see the top 10 or twenty titles overall and in various fields. Overall The Elements of Style, the Republic, the Communist Manifesto, Biology, and Frankenstein are the top five titles. In sociology the top five include Aristotle’s Ethics, JS Mill’s Utilitarianism, Plato’s Republic, Descartes’ Meditations, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In politics the top five include Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Aristotle’s Politics, and Machiavelli’s Prince.

These listings give a somewhat musty feel to the collective curriculum — the most common titles are “classics” at least 150 years old. (Sam Huntington’s Civilizations book and Ken Waltz’s Theory of International Politics are the only 20th century works of political science in the politics field top ten. Ranks 11-20 are more contemporary.) This might give the impression that the typical syllabus is dominated by the classics — not very encouraging for anyone who thinks that new ideas are needed to solve contemporary problems. But that impression is probably a statistical illusion. If the canon is relatively small (perhaps 100 titles) and the more contemporary and topical literature is very large (10,000 titles) then it is likely enough that items in the canon will show up more frequently, if only because there are lots of introductory courses in which those titles are used. There will be a broad spread of the more contemporary titles over the large number of syllabi, with the result that only a few will break through into the top rank.

Here is an example — my own Varieties of Social Explanation.

VSE appears in 62 syllabi in the database, and it is most commonly paired with Kuhn, Elster, Taylor, Lijphart, Fearon, and Winch. The syllabi including VSE break down by discipline like this: sociology (23), politics (5), economics (5), psychology (4), philosophy (1), other (28). There are 200 titles with which it is paired in at least four syllabi. Some of these would fit handily into a philosophy of social science course; others are more distant.

The most interesting tool currently available through the project is an interactive network graph of the 10,000 most frequently cited titles.

The methodology is not fully explained on the website, but it appears that items are assigned a metric to other titles based on the frequency of cross-reference between them. It results in an intriguing map of knowledge across the galaxy of disciplines. It is possible to zoom in on any region; below is a snapshot within the social science cluster.

It is possible to pick out the classics in the field — Durkheim, Weber, Mead, Dewey, Goffman, Bourdieu, Freire — in this cluster of titles. But this should not be equated with importance or influence. One’s eye may be drawn to the large central references in this graph — Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example, and these may appear as stars around which other items revolve. But equally interesting are the titles on the periphery  and in the interstices — titles which occur with a measurable frequency within the corpus of syllabi but which have relatively fewer affinities with other titles. And in fact many specialists in the various fields would probably find the most innovative works in their discipline on the periphery rather than in the core of these clusters.

This project is a great example of a big-data problem in the sociology of knowledge. The very hard question now is what to make of it; what light does it shed on the structure of university instruction and knowledge conveyance? What analytical questions need to be posed to this data set?

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