Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Readers' list of innovative social science writing

Image: graph of relationships among the social sciences,

To the readers of UnderstandingSociety,

I am writing directly to you to ask your thoughts about innovative work in the social sciences today. What books or new areas of inquiry in the social sciences are you particularly excited about right now?

The context --

One of the goals I have in this blog is to take note of interesting new developments in the social sciences and philosophy.  It seems to me very consistently that the social sciences still have a lot of important work to do in establishing goals, methods, and theories for understanding the social world, and creative and innovative contributions to new issues as well as old are very exciting.

In recent months I've written about books that I probably wouldn't have run across without the advantage of many conversations with some very good sociologists and political scientists on a regular basis, and this is a real source of intellectual growth.  I think of Pickett and Wilkinson's theorizing about economic inequalities and social harms, Neil Gross's sociological biography of Richard Rorty, Andreas Glaeser's account of the cultural conditions of the collapse of the Stasi in East Germany, McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal's analysis of political polarization, and John Levi Martin's new thinking about social explanations as good examples, and there are many others.


I've also enjoyed going back to classic texts from the social sciences of the 1960s for a second look. People like Erving Goffman, Chalmers Johnson, G. William Skinner, Steven Lukes, and Karl Popper have come in for a second look over the past several years on UnderstandingSociety. In each case I feel that I've come to see some features of their work that seem particularly pertinent today, fifty years after their primary research, that somehow didn't emerge in my first reading years ago.  (I was definitely not a fan of Popper's in the 1970s.)


The invitation --

What books or new pieces of research in the social sciences and philosophy are you particularly excited about? What are some areas of research that you think are shedding significant new light on how we understand the social world?

If enough readers are willing to make a suggestion or two, it would be very interesting to compile a list of topics and books that are making a difference in the social sciences -- a kind of "crowd-sourcing" approach to mapping out the areas of innovation that are making a difference in how we think about the social world.

If you are willing, please post a few suggestions of books in the social sciences that have you excited in the comments section. You can also make your recommendations on the UnderstandingSociety Facebook page or tweet me at @dlittle30.

I have created a page in the sidebar, Readers' Recommendations, as a way of organizing these recommendations.


Henry Farrell said...

Francis Spufford's _Red Plenty._ Not a social science book, but a novel that says many, many interesting things about the relationship between macro forces and the micro-features of individual lives, and which fits very nicely with the interests of this blog. If I say that this is _the_ novel of the socialist calculation debate, it sounds as though I am damning with faint praise, but not so. It is a truly extraordinary book. We ran a seminar on it which may be worth checking out if you want to read more - PDF is available here - the NYT review is here.

BLS Nelson said...

I would submit David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Years" for consideration. I found his articulation of the idea of a 'human economy' quite interesting. It's not a perfect book (e.g., it really could benefit from a philosopher's touch to tighten up the argument), but it's on the 'must-read' list.

You might cite Randall Collins's "The Sociology of Philosophies" as a modern classic. Published around the millenium, I am always going back to it as a storehouse of cool information about the structure of professional philosophy.

The work being done on collective agency is very cool. I know you've posted about this before, but it's worth some excitement: Margaret Gilbert, Raimo Tuomela, John Searle, Michael Bratman, and others. It is especially fun to contrast and compare this work to the mid-century sociologists (like, say, Talcott Parsons).

Finally, I think the work in evolutionary game theory is utterly fascinating. Brian Skyrms's work is what I rely on the most; rightly or wrongly, I think of him as the "go-to guy" for evo-games.

Jim Johnson said...

Dan Hausman has a new book - Preference, Value, Choice & Welfare (CUP, 2012). It summarizes & extends his papers on the various topics in the title.

Anonymous said...

Not very academic, but I thought Duncan Watts's "Everything is Obvious" was a fine summary of much of the work he has done, and went beyond other popular socsci books. The first half was particularly strong.

Buce said...

It's narrative, not theory, but I would throw in John Gertner's history of Bell Labs. I think it is just beginning to sink in how refreshing and challenging this book is. As a granular study of organizational behavior, it's hard to beat. As a study of our tacit presumptions how organizations behave--and the economics thereof--and a study of how they change--I can't think of anything to match it.

Marcin Serafin said...

Bernard Lahire's "Plural Actor" - a constructive critique of Bourdieu's notion of habitus and a programmatic statement for a "sociology at the level of the individual"

Unknown said...

There has been a recent project to deconstruct Neoclassical (and other) theories of competition that I find quite interesting.

Michael E. Smith said...

(1) Sampson, Robert J.
2012 Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

-- The best book I've read in a long time, both for its substantive contributions and for its focus on mechanisms and empirical observation.

(2) Gerring, John
2012 Social Science Methodology: A Unified Framework. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York.

(3) Flannery, Kent V., and Joyce Marcus
2012 The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

(4) Tilly, Charles
1998 Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

-- This isn't "new," but it was new to me, and it has never taken hold in my fields (anthropology and archaeology). One of the best social science works I have ever read.

Bhandari Rakesh said...

Milanovic on inequality
Parthasarathi why Europe grew rich
Greenhouse the big squeeze
Acemoglu and Robinson why nations fail
Boltanski and chiapello new spirit of capitalism
Sen idea of justice
Ha joon Chang 23 things
Sachs common wealth
Speth bridge to the end
financial crisis report Ed Angelides, Phil
Jonathan marks why I am not a scientist
No withy naked gene
Agar science in the t

Bhandari Rakesh said...

Brown waning sovereignties
Plant neoliberal state
Foley Adams fallacy

Bhandari rakesh said...

Pichot pure society
Zerubavel ancestors
Jones racial discourses
Wexler brain and society

John Deakins said...

Zygmunt Bauman's "Modernity and the Holocaust."
Mary Midgley's "The Solitary Self."
Tony Judt's "Postwar."
My own (John Deakins) "Making Sense of Us: An Essay on Human Meaning"
Richard Rorty"s "Philosophy and Social Hope."

(All because they extend our debate to the issue of how it is that we come to think as we do . . .)

Thanks for the very helpful commentary on Norbert Elias!

LFC said...

A book I'd like to read (but not sure if/when I'll get to it) is Joel Isaac's Working Knowledge: Making the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn (Harvard U.P., 2012)

Anonymous said...

Carl Jungs "Psychological types", think it can be an useful tool in helping to understand society:

Dario said...


I'm sorry I guess this isn't exactly the right section but I couldn't find the contact page.

I'm writing from the Institute of Art and Ideas in Britain, and I thought I'd get in contact as we've just released a video that you might be interested in. Entitled Myths for Modernity (Fictions & Fantasies in an Age of Reason) this discussion examines whether it would be appropriate for us to role of myths in human society and whether they are still "relevant" to our lives in an age dominated by reason and logic.

Given the content of Understanding Society I thought the debate might appeal to you, and if it does it would be lovely if you could post a link to it on your blog.

Please do reply if you have any queries or suggestions


Unknown said...

How about "A Handbook for Responsible Innovation' published through the Bassetti Foundation in Milan. A series of case studies, not academia but an interesting read.

yearwood said...

The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord (1967)--and the specter of the "spectacle" has only grown since then. (In 1967 television was just beginning to assert its dominant presence in our culture.)

Also, myself: A Just Solution; applying the democratic principle to income (not the same for all, but an income available to all adults, though required for no one). If interested, see