Wednesday, January 11, 2017

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.


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