Another excellent annual reflection from Daniel Little on the eighth birthday of Understanding Society. It’s one of my favourite academic blogs and certainly my favourite theory blog:

This week marks the end of the eighth year of Understanding Society. This year passed the 1000 mark — the blog is now up to 1,029 posts, or well over one million words. The blog continues to be a very good venue for me for developing and sharing ideas about the foundations of the social sciences and the ways that we attempt to understand the social world. (Mark Carrigan captures a lot of the value that a blog can have for a scholar in his recent excellent book, Social Media for Academics. Thanks, Mark, for including Understanding Society in your thinking about academic uses of social media!)

Writing Understanding Society continues to stimulate me to read and think outside the confines of the specific tradition in which I work. The collage presented above represents just a few of the books I wouldn’t have read in the past year if it weren’t for the blog. It gives me a lot of pleasure to recall the new ideas learned from working through these books and capturing a few ideas for the blog. There is a lot of diversity of content across these many books, but there are surprising cross-connections as well. (If you want to see the post where one of these books is discussed, just search for the author in the search box above.)

The scale of his writing is remarkable and it was produced iteratively, leading to the emergence of the blog as a unique record of his scholarship over time. In this way, I think it can be seen as a monument to ‘treating ideas with seriousness’: a phrase Daniel used to me when I interviewed him and which has stuck with me since. It’s an exemplar of what research blogs can and should become.

One of my favourite academic blogs is Understanding Society. Written by the philosopher Daniel Little, it covers a diverse range of topics across the social sciences while continually coming back to a number of core theoretical questions that fascinate me. Reflecting on its seventh anniversary, Little offers some interesting thoughts on the role that academic blogging plays in his own intellectual life:

This week marks the seventh anniversary of Understanding Society. That’s 954 posts, almost a million words, and about a hundred posts in the past twelve months. The blog continues to serve as an enormously important part of my own intellectual life, permitting me to spend a few hours several times a week on topics of continuing interest to me, without needing to find the time within my administrative life to try to move a more orderly book manuscript forward. And truthfully, I don’t feel that it is faut de mieux or second-best. I like the notion that it’s a kind of “open source philosophy” — ideas in motion. In my view, this is an entirely legitimate primary way of contributing to philosophy and sociology.

He also makes some interesting suggestions about the future of academic blogging that are informed by his own experience. In the last couple of years I’ve been settling into a view of my blog as my main outlet for developing my ideas, feeding into formal publications as occupational necessity and/or personal passion dictate – in fact the blog has helped me come to terms with the fact that the former and the latter may not always coincide. It’s interesting to see how Daniel Little experiences his blogging because it contrasts in some ways with my own – I share the experience of it being often ‘more creative and less laboured’ but I’m certain it’s much less rigorous, at least in the narrow sense of being carefully constructed. What I do on my blog often amounts to a form of free writing – I’m interested to see if this will change over time. I think Little offers a compelling account of the intellectual legitimacy of blogging and it’s actually left me wondering if I should try and be more careful and selective about my own writing online:

What I would really like to see in the future is a more porous membrane between academic blogging and academic publishing. There is no reason why the arguments and debates that are presented within an academic blog should not enter directly into engagement with formal publication — specialists writing about mechanisms, explanation, or historiography might well want to engage in their published work with the ideas and arguments that are developing in the online world of academic blogging. For example, I think the series of exchanges among Kaidesoja, Elder-Vass, Hartwig, Cruickshank, and Ruth Groff in Understanding Society in December and January make a substantive addition to debates within the field of critical realism. It would make sense for other specialists to take these sources into account in their published work.

I suppose many scholars would look at blog entries as “working notes” and published articles as “archival” and final, more authoritative and therefore more suitable for citation and further discussion. But I’m not sure that’s the right way of thinking about the situation. When I compare the intellectual work process I undertook in writing Varieties of Social Explanation or Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science with the care and concentration I give a blog post, I would say that the latter is just as rigorous and often more creative; less labored, more willing to lay out a new idea quickly. So speaking as a focus group of one, I would say I’m more satisfied with the quality of thinking and presentation I’ve conveyed in the blog than in the books I’ve published.

In the last couple of years, I’ve occasionally wondered whether I’m a methodological individualist. The term carries intensely negative connotations within the areas of sociology in which I spend my time. I’m certainly not an individualist in an ontological sense: I think the social world is made up of many kinds of entities and that we can only understand their composition by recognising their plurality and the stratified relations that obtain between them. I also don’t think we can adequately understand individuals as individuals, in the sense that, to use R.D. Laing’s description, “our relatedness to others is an essential part of our being”. However, as he goes on to say, “any particular person is not a necessary part of our being”: while “I” always exist in relation to a “We”, this does not entail that the identity of the former can be subsumed into the latter. Unless we recognise the independent variability of the “I”, it’s impossible to make sense of the pattern of the development of the “We”: the trajectory “I” take can only be understood in terms of the shifting constellation of constraints and enablements entailed by a “We” that is reconstituted through my actions but nonetheless retains a relative autonomy from me.

In this sense, my approach to studying individuals without being an individualist understands people as temporally extended and always in motion. In other words, I’m concerned with biography. In his account of “actor centred sociology”, Daniel Little talks about the “actor-in-formation”: this is the meta-theoretical function of my notion of personal morphogenesis. I’m suggesting we can best understand the role of the individual within social processes by analysing other social entities in relation to how people change and how people stay the same: personal change and personal stasis then contribute to the reproduction or transformation of other social entities (and in turn engender tendencies towards personal morphogenesis or personal morphostasis etc). This is an argument about biographical microfoundations. This is how Daniel Little describes the notion of microfoundations:

This means that sociological theory need to recognize and incorporate the idea that all social facts and structures supervene on the activities and interactions of socially constructed individual actors. It is meta-theoretically improper to bring forward hypotheses about social structures that cannot be appropriately related to the actions and interactions of individuals. Or in other words, it means that claims about social structures require microfoundations.

I think I differ with Little on what it means to say that we have “appropriately related” structure and agency. I also think there are problems with the notion of supervenience – as far as I can see, it locks us into an ‘aggregation dynamics’ view and precludes top-down causation. However I otherwise like this way of thinking. I’m suggesting that a biographical approach orientated to personal change is a useful way in which we can bridge the gap between micro-sociology and macro-sociology. In essence, I’m suggesting that we think in terms of biographical microfoundations and see the social world as constituted through the unfolding of biographies and their entanglement within situated milieux.

At present I’m leaning towards publishing my PhD as individuals papers rather than as a monograph. However these would be a contribution to a long term project, Becoming Who We Are, which will eventually be a monograph. My PhD has left me with an understanding of my project but I don’t feel intellectually capable of writing it yet. I would use the theory of personal morphogenesis developed in my thesis as a basis for (a) a theory of biographical microfoundations (b) a methodology for studying the lifecourse (c) a theory of the actor (d) a framework for actor centred sociology.

The last phrase is one I’ve encountered through Little and I find it a very helpful way of framing what it is I want to do. Though I don’t think she’d accept the terminology, I’d now understand Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity (including Being Human, as well as the trilogy of books on reflexivity) as developing a theory of the actor and a framework for studying actors. I think it’s very strong in many respects but that there are elements of it which need to developed further. These are the questions that Little suggests a theory of the actor needs to address:

  1. How does the actor represent the world of action — the physical and social environment?  Here we need a vocabulary of mental frameworks, representational schemes, stereotypes, and paradigms.
  2. How do these schemes become actualized within the actor’s mental system? This is the developmental and socialization question.
  3. What motivates the actor?  What sorts of things does the actor seek to accomplish through action?
  4. Here too there is a developmental question: how are these motives instilled in the actor through a social process of learning?
  5. What mental forces lead to action? Here we are considering things like deliberative processes, heuristic reasoning, emotional attachments, habits, and internally realized practices.
  6. How do the results of action get incorporated into the actor’s mental system?  Here we are thinking about memory, representation of the meanings of outcomes, regret, satisfaction, or happiness.
  7. How do the results of past experiences inform the mental processes leading to subsequent actions? Here we are considering the ways that memory and emotional representations of the past may motivate different patterns of action in the future.

I think Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is very strong on (3) and (4). The account she offers is very promising on (2) and (5), underemphasising some of these aspects but providing a framework within which they can be treated substantively. I think much more work is needed for  (1), (6) and (7). In my PhD I developed a few ideas which could be used to address these points:

  1. Reflexive technologies are ideational constructs, sometimes encoded into a material device, which are used to extend our capacity for reflexivity. This concept orientates us towards (a) the relationality of reflexivity, in that a self-relation can itself stand in relation to a ‘reflexive technology’ (b) the ways in which particular ideational constructs have divergent effects for particular persons (c) how the assumed reflexivity of others enters into processes of design, marketing and learning i.e. when, how and why do people seek to construct reflexive technologies?
  2. Cultural resources are the raw materials of representational schemes. They are encoded into cultural items, often in incoherent and heterogenous ways, susceptible to purposive ‘extraction’ and non-purposive influence. They often, though not always, stand in complentary and contradictory relations to each other, which are subject to various dynamics of ‘activation’.
  3. Reflexive technologies and cultural resources operate by shaping internal conversation. They shape how we represent our situation, how we represent the range of possibilities within that situation, how we envisage the possible futures available to us and how we talk ourselves through the process of answering the question ‘what to do?’

The notion of microfoundations emerged from within Marxist theory as a claim that “macro explanations of social phenomena must be supported by an account of the mechanisms at the individual level through which the postulated social processes work” (Little 1991: 196). I first encountered this idea on Daniel Little’s blog Understanding Society and I’ve started reading his books with the hope of clarifying my feelings about it. I find it an immensely attractive idea but one which troubles me given its obvious connection to methodological individualism. As Little describes the concept:

These theorists have held that it is necessary to describe the circumstances of individual choice and action that give rise to aggregate patterns if macroexplanations are to be adequate. Thus, in explaining the policies of the capitalist state it is not sufficient to observe that this state tends to serve capitalist interests; we also need an account of the processes through which state policies are shaped and controlled so as to produce this outcome.

More specifically, the microfoundations thesis holds that an assertion of an explanatory relationship at the social level (causal, functional, structural) must be supplemented by two things: knowledge of what it is about the local circumstances of the typical individual that leads him or her to act in such a way as to bring about this relationship and knowledge of the aggregative processes that lead from individual actions of that sort to an explanatory social relationship of this sort. (Little 1991: 196)

This places great importance upon “individual choice and action”, reintroducing the micro-social into macro-explanation but also challenging micro-sociologists to offer accounts of the macro-sociological implications of situated action. In this sense I find the microfoundations thesis immensely promising as a potential basis for the unification of sociological inquiry and as a counterweight to reinforcing negative tendencies inherent in both micro-sociology and macro-sociology. The problem I have with the notion comes in how we conceptualise the basis of these microfoundations. As Little wrote about the issue in 1991,

Once we accept the point that macroexplanations require microfoundations, we must next ask what types of individual-level processes we should look for. And here there are two broad families of answers: rational choice models and social-psychology motivational models. The first approach attempts to explain a given social process as the aggregate result of large numbers of individuals pursuing individually rational strategies. The second approach attempts to explain the social phenomenon as the complex outcome of a variety of motives, rational and nonrational, that propel individual action. (Little 1991: 198)

My difficulty here is with how the ‘individual-level processes’ are conceptualised. This is where I think the methodological individualist baggage attached to the notion of microfoundations begins to pose a problem. I’m convinced that, as Archer puts it, “an insistence upon the activity-dependence of each and every social structure” is “indispensable to a non-reified ontology of society”. However it’s also crucial to recognise that:

  1. a structure being dependent upon the activity of agents does not entail structure being reducible to agency
  2. a recognition of the role of agency as such in the emergence of structure as such does nothing to address the much more interesting question of “upon whose activities the development of a particular structure depended” (Archer 1995: 72).
  3. agency itself is structured, in the sense that individuals figure in macro-social processes both aggregatively and through their participation in collective agents (which themselves invite microfoundational analysis)

If these premises are accepted then the notion of microfoundations begins to look rather different. Our focus turns from the explanatory gaps in macro-social processes (where we offer microfoundations to explain how constant conjunctions hold together) to the manner in which macro-social processes are relationally constituted by micro-social processes. While Little (1991: 200) accepts that “it is entirely compatible with the microfoundations thesis that a microfoundational account of the determinants of individual action should refer to social relations, structures, etc”, claims (1)-(3) above have important consequences for the manner in which microfoundations figure into social explanation. While Little frames it as a problem “that for a given class of social phenomena there often are no clear regularities visible at macro-level at all”, relational realism would see this as inevitable – only tendential claims obtain at the macro-social level and microfoundations enter into the explanatory endeavour in order to explain the relational constitution of the mechanisms underlying these tendencies.

In other words I’m actually quite drawn to a strong version of the microfoundations claim: “social explanations must be explicitly grounded on an account of the microfoundations that produce them” (Little 1991: 196). Or rather they should be. But these microfoundations are intrinsically relational and biographical – looking at the biographical trajectories that lead people ‘into’ and ‘out of’ situated interaction, as well as the way in which this interaction reproduces or transforms the individuals party to the interaction and the social relations obtaining between them:


My point is that a genuinely comprehensive explanation of something like the UK student protests would encompass (a) a macro-social account of the protests, their context and the relevant history (b) an account of the relational contestation that took place within each of the collective agents party to the unfolding of events (c) narratives of participation in the protests and the personal and relational changes which ensued from them. Furthermore, these accounts would be mutually consistent – this is a less stringent demand than might initially seem to be the case case because, if points (1)-(3) are accepted, then the (a), (b), (c) all figure into their reciprocal explanation. So while I see individual biography and relations as providing microfoundations – my interest comes from the possibility that, purged of its individualistic connotations, this notion can help point us towards a unification of sociological inquiry. What fascinates me are the sorts of questions Nick Crossley indicates in relation to social movements below:

We would all agree that social movements are ‘collective’ ventures, for example, but what makes a venture count as collective? Is it a matter of numbers? If so, how many? Is it a matter of a type of interconnection between people, an organization or network? If so, how is that interconnection itself defined? Does ‘wearing the badge’ and ‘buying the T-shirt’ make one part of a movement or must one attend monthly meetings and engage in protest? And if the latter, what counts as protest? Would wearing the aforementioned badge count as a protest or must one stand in a group of three or more people waving a placard? 

– Nick Crossley, Making Sense of Social Movements, Pg 2

However I find his later relational approach to addressing them unsatisfactory (focused on the T2-T3 of the above diagram) but I also find methodological individualism problematic on a variety of levels (remaining confined to the T1 and T4 of the diagram). My (mis?)appropriation of the microfoundations concept is an attempt to think through a way out of this impasse that incorporates the micro-social into the macro-social (and vice versa) in an emergentist manner.

In recent months I’ve been slowly working through some of Jeffrey Alexander’s work. I’m interested in what cultural sociology has to offer as I begin to try and extend my PhD research on internal conversation & biography into my planned post-doctoral work on the sociology of thinking. However I’ve found Alexander’s work slightly hit and miss, occasionally leaving me wondering whether I’ve misunderstood his project or perhaps overestimated its potential relevance to my own. This post on Daniel Little’s book has clarified my sense that cultural sociology is highly relevant to me but also something I need to be critical when engaging with:

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have “frames” of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation.


The term “cultural sociology” is sometimes used to try to capture those research efforts that try to probe the meanings and mental frameworks that people bring to their social interactions. We can postulate that human beings are processors of meanings and interpretations, and that their frameworks take shape as a result of the range of experiences and interactions they have had to date. This means that their frameworks are deeply social, created and constructed by the social settings and experiences the individuals have had. And we can further postulate that social action is deeply inflected by the specifics of the mental and emotional frameworks through which actors structure and interpret the worlds they confront.

I think these internal constraints and enablements are underemphasised in Archer’s work on reflexivity. They are integral to her account of meta-reflexivity, in the sense that such individuals come to orientate themselves to a cause they have encountered or jury-rigged together from elements in their environment, but she lacks a comprehensive theory of what these resources are. The elements necessary for such a theory, an extremely sophisticated one in fact, can be found in her wider body of work – the distinction between the cultural system and socio-cultural relations, as well as the various situational logics that obtain at this interface, simply needs an account of how cultural relations are mediated at the level of everyday life to flesh out this aspect of human experience.

I’ve conceptualised this in terms of recurrent relations between ‘me’ and ‘I’ – at any given moment, my repertoire of routine responses is conditioned by the cultural elements I reflexively orientated myself to at a previous moment in time, in turn shaping how I respond to present cultural variety and coming to constitute the ‘me’ to my ‘I’ at some future point in time. In other words, I’m always constrained by my past but presently able to act freely* within them. I like this framework and it seems to work quite effectively, with my intention being to flesh it out at much greater length when I extend my PhD thesis into a monograph.

I’m hoping cultural sociology will be very useful for this purpose but thus far it hasn’t been. Little helpfully sums up what is of value in cultural sociology but also why I don’t like what I’ve read thus far:

But this kind of research becomes especially interesting if we find that the mental frameworks and systems of meanings that actors bring with them actually make substantial differences to their social actions and the choices that they make. In this case we can actually begin to create explanations and interpretations of social outcomes that interest us a great deal. (Why are some extremist militants so ready to put on suicide vests in actions that are almost certain to bring about their own deaths?)

My problem here is with the failure to conceptualise the interface between the personal and the cultural – it’s a parallel to what I earlier referred to as the lack in Archer’s work of an account of how cultural relations are mediated at the level of reflexive individuals (it’s there in parts, it just hasn’t been worked out thoroughly). Little refers to this as a need for cultural sociology to pay “more attention to the interface between frame and actor”. I don’t think this is simply an oversight but something which would constitutively reorientate the entire approach – I think it would involve an engagement with the ontology of media (e.g. books), biographical questions about how culture reorientates lives and an analysis of the cognitive processes by which ideas are appropriated. At the very least ‘cultural frames’ are inflected through the path-dependent orientation of particular individuals but I think I’d argue for the stronger claim that they are transformed through this appropriation or rejection by individuals – with this individual action contributing to the reproduction or transformation of the frames themselves which are more broadly in circulation within the social world.

*I’m talking purely about internal constraints and enablements here for sake of brevity. Obviously external constraints/enablements, as well as the relations between those operating internally and externally, would be considered in practice.

There’s a great post on Daniel Little’s blog which uses a critique of analytical sociology and critical realism to explore a premise which he argues they both share: ontology dictates methodology. As he frames the issue:

Both groups have strong (and conflicting) ideas about social ontology, and both think that these ideas are important to the conduct of social-science research. Analytical sociologists tend towards an enlightened version of methodological individualism: social entities derive from the actions and nature of the individuals who constitute them. Critical realists tend toward some version or another of emergentism: social entities possess properties that are emergent with respect to the individual activities that constitute them.

Both groups tend to design social science methodologies to correspond to the ontological theories that they advance. So they tacitly agree about what I regard as a questionable premise — that ontology dictates methodology.

I want to argue for a greater degree of independence between ontology and methodology than either group would probably be willing to countenance. With the analytical sociologists I believe that social facts depend on the availability of microfoundations at the level of ensembles of individuals. This is an ontological fact. But with the critical realists I believe that it is entirely appropriate for social scientists to examine the causal and structural properties of social entities without being forced to attempt to provide the microfoundations of these properties. This is an observation about the locus and nature of explanation. There are stable structural and causal properties at the social level, and it is entirely legitimate to investigate these properties in full empirical detail. Sociologists, organizational theorists, and institutional researchers should be encouraged to investigate in detail the workings, arrangements, and causal properties of the regimes that they study. And this is precisely the kind of investigation that holds together researchers as diverse as Michael Mann, Kathleen Thelen, Charles Perrow, Howard Kimmeldorf, and Frank Dobbin. (Use the search box to find discussions of their work in earlier posts.)

This is an issue I’m very interested in but have struggled to come to any firm conclusion about. My most serious attempt to think through these issues is this working paper. On the one hand, I find Margaret Archer’s argument that social ontology regulates the kinds of entities which can be admitted into explanation intuitively plausible. On the other hand, I find myself intuitively hostile – even actively irritated by – the style of social theory that someone like Dave Elder-Vass sometimes lapses into, in which he appears to argue that sociological investigation is unable to proceed adequately until social theorists have provided the domain specific ontology sociologists need to undergird their activity.

I guess a lot depends on what we take the claim about ‘regulation’ to mean. Does ontology regulate methodology? Should ontology regulate methodology? Could ontology regulate methodology? I think a similar ambiguity can be found in Little’s own framing of the relationship between ontology and methodology in the aforementioned post:

Ontology is not irrelevant to methodology; but it provides only weak constraints on the nature of the methodologies social scientists may choose in their pursuit of better understanding of the social world.

Is this an empirical statement about sociological practice? If so then we’re in the domain of the sociology of social theory – a notion that I’ve played around with in the past and at some point in my life, when I’ve read an awful lot more than I have at present, intend to come back to. If it’s not an empirical claim of this sort then what is it? This is the question that interests me and it’s one I don’t feel I have a sufficiently firm grip on to try and answer – descriptive claims about sociological practice unavoidably include normative claims within their scope (i.e. describing what sociologists actually do includes descriptions of what their theories tell them they should do) and yet as such a purportedly neutral sociology of social theory comes to constitute a move within the same game.

I’m very interested in the possibility of an ethnographic study of how sociologists actually use theoretical concepts as part of the research process. But at the same time I find the possibility of the neutrality this would entail to be rather implausible… I guess this is why I’m so confused (and yet fascinated) by questions like the relationship between ontology and methodology. The tendency seems to be for explicitly normative claims about what the methodological implications of social ontology should be. My problem is not with the normativity here but rather with the slipperiness of the grounding, if any, in facts of the matter about sociological practice. I’m interested in the sociology of social theory as a normative project – how do sociologists actually use theoretical resources and what conclusions can we draw about how they should use them in light of such a state of affairs? This is a project which unavoidably confronts a messy reality, in which an underlying impulse towards theoretical tidiness (which I think animates the work of many social theorists even if they reflectively deny it – I’ve had a post about the psychodynamics of social theory which I’ve intended to write for ages) runs headfirst into the tangled reality of empirical research.

I guess what I’m saying comes down to this: can we incorporate what sociologists actually do and what social theorists think they should do within a unified frame of reference? 

The philosopher Daniel Little has written about Margaret’s Archer recent book Social Morphogenesis on his blog:

Margaret Archer’s contribution to critical realism has been an important part of the recent progress of the field, and her theory of morphogenesis is key to this progress. Her recent volume, Social Morphogenesis, represents a rigorous and serious step forward in the project of articulating this theory as both a meta-theory for the social sciences and a potential contribution to sociological theory. The volume includes two good essays by Archer, as well as contributions by Douglas Porpora, Andrea Maccarini, Tony Lawson, Colin Wight, Kate Forbes-Pitt, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Emmanuel Lazega, Ismael Al-Amoudi, and Pierpaolo Donati.

One of my favourite academic blogs is Understanding Society. Written by Daniel Little, Chancellor for the University of Michigan-Dearborn, it covers an extraordinarily broad range of theoretical topics and sustains the rigour of serious academic writing while nonetheless being written in a relatively accessible way. I think it’s the best theory blog on the internet (by quite some way) and I’m always stunned by quite how much interesting stuff there is in the archives. The author, who has also done some excellent video interviews with leading social scientists, describes the blog as a ‘hypertext book’ and you can find an index of topics here.

My blog, UnderstandingSociety, addresses a series of topics in the philosophy of social science. What is involved in “understanding society”? The blog is an experiment in writing a book, one idea at a time.  In order to provide a bit more coherence for the series of postings, I’ve organized a series of threads that link together the postings relevant to a particular topic.  These can be looked at as virtual “chapters”.  This list of topics and readings can serve as the core of a semester-long discussion of the difficult philosophical issues that arise in the human sciences.  It roughly parallels the topics I cover in the course I teach in the philosophy of social science at the University of Michigan.

I’d be interested to know if Little still sees it as book. The sheer size of the blog’s archives suggest that it’s now something approximating a whole series of books. Clearly, it’s been a success. What I have always been curious about is the author’s institutional role (which I assume is the equivalent of a UK vice-chancellor) and the role which the blog perhaps serves as an outlet for his continued scholarship when he presumably has many other commitments competing for his time. I was pleased to see this addressed recently in a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post. The blog recently had its sixth birthday and the author reflected on the evolution of the blog and his understanding of the role that it serves:

This week celebrates six years of Understanding Society.  This effort represents over 850 posts, on topics ranging from current debates in philosophy about causal powers to China’s urban transformation to the conservative war on the poor, leading to nearly three million page views since the first post in 2007.  I’m grateful to the communities of interested readers who have followed Understanding Society on TwitterFacebook, and Google Plus. There are almost 4,000 readers in these groups, and I’m grateful to everyone who has read, followed, tweeted, commented, and Googled the blog — thanks!

What I found particularly interesting was the author’s description of himself as an ‘open-source philosopher’. The integration of the blog into his working practices, such that it constitutes the starting point for traditional scholarship rather than something in opposition to it, is something which deeply resonates with me from the opposite end of the career spectrum. When I’ve written about continuous publishing in the past, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to say:

Virtually all the new academic publishing I’ve done in these six years began as a couple of posts on Understanding Society. You might say I’ve become an “open-source” philosopher — as I get new ideas about a topic I develop them through the blog. This means that readers can observe ideas in motion. A good example is the efforts I’ve made in the past year to clarify my thinking about microfoundations and meso-level causation. Another example is the topic of “character,” which I started thinking about after receiving an invitation to contribute to a volume on character and morality; through a handful of posts I arrived at a few new ideas I felt I could offer on the topic.  This “design and build” strategy means that there is the possibility of a degree of inconsistency over time, as earlier formulations are challenged by newer versions of the idea. But I think it makes the process of writing a more dynamic one, with lots of room for self-correction and feedback from others.

The blog has also given me a chance to write about topics I’ve long cared about, but haven’t had a professional venue for writing about. These include things like the reality of race in the United States; the lineaments of power that determine so many of the features of contemporary life; and the nuts and bolts of education and equality in our country. And along the way of researching and writing about some of these topics, I’ve come to have a better and more detailed understanding of them. Not many philosophers have such a wide opportunity to write on a variety of topics beyond the confines of their sub-disciplines.

It’s really interesting to read about the blogging experiences of someone who has been a philosophy professor for decades. I was struck by the homology between his experiences and my own in spite of our very different positions within the higher education system. I wonder if there’s something interesting about freedom here. As someone who has blogged throughout my PhD, I’ve experienced it as an intellectual outlet which has no real implications for my academic position (though retrospectively that’s not really true). Perhaps Daniel Little feels similarly free about his blog, for entirely different reasons, as a result of his institutional position leaving scholarship via his blog being something he does for its own rewards rather than any need to make a living out of it. Reading his post has increased my confidence in the notion of ‘continuous publishing’ and strengthened my conviction that, with time, this is a way of working that will become ever more common. Both the short-term and long-term gains available to those who begin to work in this way are such that it seems inexorable, barring a trend towards heavy-handed institutional regulation or something along those lines. I think the implications of this are hugely significant. Here’s how Pat Lockley and I described it in a blog post we wrote quite some time ago:

Perhaps it’s time to move from ‘the Cathedral to the Bazaar’. These metaphors from the open-source software movement refer to contrasting models of software development. In academic terms we might see them as referring to distinct orientations towards publishing: one which works towards the intermittent, largely private, production of one-off works (papers and monographs → cathedrals) and the other which proceeds in an iterative and dialogical fashion, with a range of shorter-term outputs (blog posts, tweets, online articles, podcasts, storified conversations etc) standing in a dynamic and productive relationship with larger-scale traditional publishing projects: the ‘cathedrals’ can be something we build through dialogues, within communities of practice, structured around reciprocal engagement with publications on social media platforms.

The idea which is still insufficiently clear in my own mind is how my advocacy of this relates to my belief in academic over-production. I’ve had a vague intuition for a long time about the potential ‘rebalancing’ away from ever more journal articles which ever fewer people read and towards a continuous making public of provisional work which ultimately leads to fewer though better journal articles. In a future post I’ll try and elaborate my understanding of the institutional constraints and enablements upon such as process, as well as what I imagine the landscape of scholarly publishing might look like when it is filled with a preponderance of open-source academics.