Friday, November 1, 2013

Six years of Understanding Society


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 Twitter, Facebook, 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!

The past six years have demonstrated to me the broad and expanding opportunity the Web and social media provide for scholars and thinkers. It is possible to reach readers throughout the world whom we would never have reached in the past through traditional journal and book publication. And I have found the medium to be a great stimulus for research creativity as well. I've written on topics that never would have come up for me in a more traditional research strategy, and these topics have broadened me as a philosopher and thinker. And I've formed new academic relationships through the blog and associated social media -- thanks, Moses (@mosabou), thanks, Petri (@YlikoskiP), thanks, Rani (@ranilillanjum), thanks, Mark (@MarkThoma), thanks, Richard (@Richard_Florida)!

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.

I’ve learned a few interesting things about social media through the process of writing the blog. One is that readership of individual posts is highly variable, depending on how the topic (and title) intersects with current interests that other people have, and highly accidental facts about page ranking in search engines.  The number one post for all time is “What is a social structure?”, with 55,683 hits. Number two is “Social mobility?”, with 15,671 hits, and number three is “Lukes on power”, with 13,714 hits. The explanation for the popularity of the first post is fairly clear; it is the fifth entry on the first Google page for the search “what is a social structure”, which is undoubtedly a common question around the world.

So thanks for reading, and I hope you will continue to visit during the coming year of topics and controversies in the pages of Understanding Society.


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