Defining disciplinary research in the social sciences
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
3w ago
The "historical turn" in the philosophy of science in the 1960s and 1970s gave most of its attention to the development of the physical sciences -- especially physics itself. (See Tom Nickles' essay "Historicist Theories of Scientific Rationality" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a detailed account of this development in the philosophy of science; link.) Historian-philosophers like Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos studied the development of astronomy, physics, and chemistry as research communities involving complex social arrangements -- networks of practitioners, tr ..read more
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Mistakes by organizations
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
2M ago
In 1964 Jim Marshall, a defensive player for the Minnesota Vikings, committed a mistake by recovering a fumble by the San Francisco 49ers and running it into the end zone – at the wrong end of the field. In the early 1990s the US Congress made a mistake by ordering continued development of the Osprey VTOL aircraft. Did these two “actors” do the same sort of thing? Is an organization’s mistake similar to an individual’s mistake? At a superficial level it is easy enough to agree that these are the same kinds of things. The wrong outcome resulted from a series of apparently intentional and calc ..read more
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Brecht on Galileo on science
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
4M ago
Bertolt Brecht composed his play Life of Galileo (1939) (link) while on the run in Denmark from Nazi Germany in 1938. Brecht was a determined anti-Nazi, and he was an advocate of revolutionary Marxism. It is fascinating to read one of the longest speeches he composed for Galileo at the end of the play, in which Galileo reflects on his recantation of the heliocentric theory of planetary motion. Rather than celebrating "pure science" over the oppression of the Church, Brecht has Galileo reflect bitterly on the corruption of science and its subservience to the powerful. This speech occurs ..read more
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Orwell on historical truth
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
5M ago
George Orwell is celebrated for his recognition of the role of political lies in the conflicts of his time. For example: "Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Part of his awareness of self-serving lies about history by states and political partisans developed through his experience in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Events that he himself had observed and participated in -- for example, the stree ..read more
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An absolutist Socrates
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
5M ago
We often think of Socrates as the ultimate "critical free thinker". He antagonized many in Athens through his relentless questioning of shared assumptions about ethics, the gods, and the nature of knowledge and belief. And, as a result, he was also thought to have "corrupted the youth", leading many young men of the Athenian elite into a skeptical rejection of the knowledge, wisdom, and authority of their seniors.  So what are we to make of Socrates' principled rejection of the efforts of Crito and other friends to persuade him to flee Athens and avoid the sentence of death to which hi ..read more
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A horrendous massacre in Tamil Nadu, 1968
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
6M ago
A recurring theme in Understanding Society for the past several years is the occurrence of unfathomable atrocity in the twentieth century. Many of the examples considered occurred in Europe. But atrocities have occurred in many countries and civilizations. A horrific example occurred in Tamil Nadu, India, in 1968. In the small rural village of Keezhvenmani, some 44 dalit people, mostly women and children, were gathered into a hut by the strongmen of local landlords, the hut was set afire, and all 44 innocent dalit people died a horrifying, torturous death. The exact number of victims is ..read more
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Moses Finley's persecution by McCarthyism
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
6M ago
MI Finley (1912-1986) played a transformative role in the development of studies of the ancient world in the 1960s through the 1980s. He contributed to a reorientation of the field away from purely textual and philological sources to broad application of contemporary social science frameworks to the ancient world. His book The Ancient Economy (1973) was especially influential. Finley was born in the United States, but most of his academic career unfolded in Britain. The reasons for this "brain drain" are peculiarly America. Like many other Americans -- screenwriters, actors, directors, gov ..read more
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Memory and culture after 1989 in Central Europe
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
6M ago
The years following the collapse of the socialist-Stalinist regimes of eastern Europe were not comfortable for the people of the GDR, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and many other countries. The economic arrangements of a centrally planned economy abruptly collapsed, and new market institutions were slow to emerge and often appeared indifferent to the needs of the citizens. The results of "shock therapy" were prolonged and severe for large segments of these post-socialist countries (Hilmar 6-8). Till Hilmar's Deserved: Economic Memories After the Fall of the Iron Curtain tries to ..read more
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Are organizations emergent?
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
6M ago
Do organizations have properties that are in some recognizable way independent from the behaviors and intentions of the individuals who inhabit them? In A New Social Ontology of Government I emphasized the ways in which organizations fail because of actor-level features: principal-agent problems, inconsistent priorities and goals across different working groups, strategic manipulation of information by some actors to gain advantage over other actors, and the like. With a nod to Fligstein and McAdam's theory of strategic action fields (link), I took an actor-centered approach to the workings ..read more
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Marxism and British historiography
UnderstandingSociety
by Dan Little
6M ago
It is noteworthy that some of the very best historical research and writing of the 1930s through 1970s in Britain was carried out by a group of Marxist historians, including E.P. Thompson, Maurice Dobb, Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, and a few others. Many belonged to the British Communist Party and were committed to the idea that only sweeping revolution of economy and politics could bring to an end the exploitation and misery of nineteenth- and twentieth-century capitalism. These historians did not align with the democratic socialists of the Fabian and Labour varieties (l ..read more
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