Saturday, April 6, 2024

Popper and Parfit: the minds of philosophers

Derek Parfit hit the philosophy firmament in the early 1960s, while Karl Popper arrived on the Vienna scene three decades earlier. David Edmonds' biography of Parfit provides a careful and detailed account of Parfit's main philosophical preoccupations and some details about his life in Parfit: A Philosopher and His Mission to Save Morality. Popper's autobiographical essay in Paul Arthur Schilpp, The Philosophy of Karl Popper Part I and Part II (published separately as An Unended Quest) offers a deeply reflective account by Popper of the evolution of his philosophical thinking. It is very interesting to read the two books side by side, in order to consider two styles of thinking and imagination in the doing of philosophy. Both were analytical philosophers, but their intellectual frameworks and their philosophical approaches were markedly different. Both thinkers are well known in analytic philosophy, and each has energetic admirers and a handful of critics. On balance, I find that I greatly prefer Popper to Parfit.

I read Parfit's Reasons and Persons within a year or so of its publication in 1984, and I never shared the astoundingly flattering assessment of Parfit's brilliance and impact that Edmonds offers. Edmonds closes his book by suggesting that Parfit ranks with Kant and Sidgwick as the greatest moral philosophers of the past three centuries. And he suggests that Parfit's work may have greater longterm impact than Rawls's Theory of Justice. This suggests something bordering on "Oxford hero worship" rather than sober philosophical assessment. And in fact the biography has some of the flavor of "inside baseball" in the world of the Oxford common room, the fellowships, the dons, and the rivalries that defined the context for much of Parfit's career. (Edmonds himself holds a PhD in philosophy, and is certainly well qualified to offer his own assessments of various philosophers. On the other hand, he makes it clear that he has had fairly close personal connections with Parfit over the past thirty years.)

For myself, I have generally found Parfit's philosophical ideas as being annoyingly dependent on clever thought experiments, rather than substantive and sustained analysis of serious issues and principles that matter. (Ironically, the title that Parfit chose for his final work -- and what he believed would be his most important book -- is On What Matters (in three volumes).) The title is ironic because so few of Parfit's chains of argument actually do seem to matter much in the world. To give one example, pertaining to the question of personal identity: what are we to make of a breakdown in the Star Trek teleportation system, where Derek winds up in both the destination cubicle and the source cubicle? Which is which? If Derek committed a crime before entering the booth, which "person" deserves to be punished? (Edmonds makes it clear in another place that the question is doubly difficult, because Parfit doesn't believe that anyone "deserves" punishment for any act; but that's a different point.) Reasons and Persons seems to consist mostly of logical puzzles, conceptual conundrums, and refutations of existing philosophical answers to traditional problems and questions. But in the end, it all seems sort of trivial, and almost a caricature of what good philosophy should be. It has a kind of obsessive character that prevents Parfit from moving forward. (How could a set of Tanner Lectures morph into a three-volume set of books?)

Edmonds refers to quite a few philosophers who became close colleagues and sometimes friends with Parfit. Among them include thinkers whom I would certainly rank as being more insightful and more important to the progress of philosophy on issues that matter than Parfit: for example, Tom Nagel, Tim Scanlon, John Rawls, Bernard Williams, and especially Amartya Sen.

Edmonds closes the biography with some commentary on Parfit's remarkably peculiar lack of interpersonal skills -- no small talk, no special loyalty to the romantic partners in his life, no understanding of the ways in which most people conduct their relationships with colleagues, lovers, friends, and random strangers. Edmonds explores the question of a possible diagnosis of autism in the case of Derek Parfit. This seems like a very reasonable question to ask about Parfit's social ineptitude, but perhaps it is relevant to the obsessiveness of his philosophical preoccupations as well.

So what about Popper's account of his intellectual development since his beginnings as a cabinet-maker's apprentice in Vienna? Popper's autobiography An Unended Quest is simply fascinating, and it sheds important light on the circumstances, questions, and influences through which Popper's philosophical ideas took shape. Anyone trained in analytic philosophy knows the outlines of Popper's most famous theories -- falsifiability, the demarcation criterion, his rejection of historicism, his rejection of Vienna Circle positivism, his critique of Marxism. What is deeply interesting to me in reading his autobiography is how much more there is to his intellectual and philosophical life beyond these familiar ideas. He seems to have been very deeply interested in music, the visual arts, the breakthroughs in physics of the 1920s and 1930s, recent thinking about cognitive psychology, and the political events of the 1930s, and he thought deeply about each of these topics. Chapters 11-14 of Unended Quest offer a highly interesting and informed discussion of classical western music, polyphony, and innovation in composition. (Here is Chapter 12 where Popper discusses the invention of polyphony.)

Two important features of Popper's autobiography include --

  • a very genuine impression of modesty and generous praise for other thinkers -- in contrast to Parfit's view of his own stature in philosophy as a deserving super-star
  • a serious, learned, and deeply reflective philosophical mind.

Unended Quest makes it clear that there is much more to Karl Popper than falsifiability and his critique of historicism. This was a philosopher who thought creatively, seriously, and deeply about a wide range of issues that matter in the world. Further, Popper was a philosopher who believed that he saw important analogies across apparently disparate sets of questions -- for example, the serious analogy that he finds between "learning through trial and error" by children and animals and "dogmatic hypothesis and critical evaluation" in science. If Edmonds proposes ranking Parfit with Kant and Sidgwick, I'll propose ranking Popper with Kant and Poincaré for his contributions to better understanding scientific ideas and cognitive frameworks. In spite of having criticized Popper strongly in The Scientific Marx, I now think it would have been wonderful to have had him as a teacher.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Limitations of Hobsbawm's historical writing

A defining component of Eric Hobsbawm’s historical writings is the quartet of “Age” books: Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire, and Age of Extremes. These are synthetic works, offering a narrative of the long nineteenth century and the short twentieth century. They give primary attention to developments pertaining to economic, political, and social change in Britain, Europe, and North America, with occasional commentary on the rest of the world (Asia, Africa, and South America). Perhaps the most interesting of these is the first of them, Age of Revolution. Hobsbawm’s central interest – the central story he tries to tell – is the unfolding of the “dual revolutions” – the industrial revolution and the French Revolution – and the consequences these revolutions had for the lives, political identities, and historical agency and activism of working people. These revolutions formed “modernity”, whether in technology, in political forms, or in conditions of material life. And they gave rise to the central social formations (“great classes”) and political ideologies (nationalism, socialism, fascism) that continue to orient our world today.

These books are highly detailed. But we should observe that they are almost entirely grounded in secondary scholarship – Hobsbawm seems to have read almost everything written on this two-century period, and has undertaken to crystallize the main currents of research and interpretation into a reasonably coherent and connected narrative. But very little of the Age of Revolution depends upon Hobsbawm’s own primary research as a social historian. And though the tone of the narrative is even-handed and calm, the impression emerges over the 350-plus pages of the book that it is very deeply informed by the narrative of the Communist ManifestoConditions of the Working Class in England. This is a coherent narrative; but there are other stories that might be told of the nineteenth century, and other organizing themes that might be the hinges of the story.

Hobsbawm’s own primary scholarship focused on “indigenous” class movements and uprising, largely in England. He was a labor historian, and he was interested in uncovering documents and narratives that shed light on the ways that ordinary working people in the 18th and 19th centuries lived, how they conceived of the social relations around them, and how they rebelled. Key works here include Labour’s Turning Point 1880-1900 (1948), Primitive Rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movements in the 19th and 20th centuries (1959), Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (1964), and Captain Swing (1969; co-authored with George Rudé). The recurring theme of these earlier works was the topic of resistance and popular identities among “working people”. In “Captain Swing: A Retrospect” (link) Adrian Randall describes Hobsbawm’s orientation in these terms:

Hobsbawm’s earlier work, mainly concentrated on the labour history of later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was steeped in the well- established Marxist interpretation of economic and social history which saw the years from the later eighteenth century as marking an industrial revolution which had transformed economic, and thence social and political, relations into a more clearly class-divided form. The displacement of a peasantry and the degradation of agricultural labourers formed part of that narrative. (Randall 2009: 421)

But even here Hobsbawm’s role seems to be synthetic rather than primary. The division of labor in Captain Swing seems to divide sharply between Rudé’s primary scholarship on eighteenth-century uprisings (Randall 2009:421) and Hobsbawm’s synthetic historical imagination, guided by Marx’s conceptualization of history. Here too, then, Hobsbawm works as a theoretically-minded historical narrativist rather than as a primary historical researcher.

Might we say, then, that we need less from a historian than what Hobsbawm gives us? Hobsbawm paints a consistent, detailed picture of the evolution of social unrest. But it is fundamentally just an extensive interpretation based on a reading of secondary sources, and it may even be a caricature – certain features may be over-drawn and others minimized, in order to make the coherent and consistent Marxist story plain. But we don’t want our knowledge of history to be “pre-digested” according to a prior plan; we want a reasonable, evidence-based account that is open to contingency, unexpected developments, and details that do not fit the model.

In my mind I contrast Hobsbawm’s Ages books with Jill Lepore’s These Truths, which provides an account of the history of the United States that is not wedded to any particular trope. Instead, Lepore seeks to document and discuss the many themes that enter into US history, without bending the edges to make the facts fit the frame. And I think of more regional and local historians, such as William Sewell (Work and Revolution in France), whose analysis of the “working-class consciousness” of working people of Marseille breaks many stereotypes of the Marxist hymnal. And Sewell’s work, unlike Hobsbawm’s, is deeply grounded in his own research on primary documents and sources. Here is how Lynn Hunt describes Sewell’s primary research in Work and Revolution (link):

Sewell’s sources are eclectic: they range from a philosophical tract by Diderot to the statutes of mutual-aid societies, from artisanal and working-class newspapers to quasi-official reports on the conditions of the working poor, from intellectual tracts on socialism to workers’ poetry. All these comprise “a set of interrelated texts that demand close reading and careful exegesis” (11-12). Sewell rereads and reinterprets these texts with an eye for their linguistic and historical logic. The “socialist vision of labor” was a logical development of certain fundamental Enlightenment concepts, but that logic was pushed forward not so much by intellectual as by social and political developments, in particular, by the revolutionary “bursts” of 1830-34, 1839-40, and 1848-51 (278). In attempting to explicate this “dialectical logic,” Sewell synthesizes an extensive published literature on French labor, and he effectively underlines the importance of paying very close attention to what people in the past said, sometimes indirectly, about what they were doing.

Perhaps this suggests that we need another category of historical misrepresentation beyond the two offered by Andrus Pork (link). In addition to “direct lies” and “blank-page lies”, we need “interpretations of history cut to order by an antecedent interpretation of history”.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

EP Thompson's break with Stalinism

E. P. Thompson was one of the great social historians of the twentieth century (link, link). He was also a committed socialist from youth to the end of his life. His 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, transformed the way that historians on the left conceptualized “social class”, and it was one of the formative works of "history from below". Thompson was a member of the British Communist Party (CPGB) until 1956, following the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Nikita Khrushchev"s "secret speech" revealing some of Stalin's crimes. Thompson remained a staunch advocate of English socialism throughout his life. But as a Communist, he showed an unwelcome degree of intellectual and political independence, and he broke with the CPGB very publicly in 1956 with a manifesto criticizing the party leadership, “Winter wheat in Omsk” (Thompson 1956) and “Socialist humanism” (Thompson 1957). Christos Efstathiou describes Thompson (along with John Saville and Lawrence Daly) in these terms:

What united these three men, and, at the same time distinguished them from other Communist dissidents, was that they did not hesitate to fight the Party’s policies. (Efstathiou 2016: 29)

Consider Thompson’s break with Stalinism in “Socialist humanism” (1957; link). The essay is decisive in rejecting Stalin’s “ideology” and his bureaucratic dogmatism and domination of the whole of society. Thompson writes eloquently about the need within socialism for open debate and discussion. But the essay does not give primary emphasis to the crimes of the Stalinist state: the Holodomor, the purges, the Show Trials, the Gulag, or the pervasive totalitarianism created by the Soviet state. Thompson does refer to “monsters of iniquity like Beria and Rakosi” and mentions their crimes – “destroying their own comrades, incarcerating hundreds of thousands, deporting whole nations”. And he gives a short summary of the show trial of the Bulgarian Communist leader Traicho Kostov. (The narrative is worthy of Koestler in Darkness at Noon.) Here is how Thompson writes about travesties like the trial of Kostov (and, presumably, the better known trials of Bukharin, Zinoviev, and other Bolshevik leaders):

We feel these actions to be wrong, because our moral judgements do not depend upon abstractions or remote historical contingencies, but arise from concrete responses to the particular actions, relations, and attitudes of human beings. No amount of speculation upon intention or outcome can mitigate the horror of the scene. Those moral values which the people have created in their history, which the writers have encompassed in their poems and plays, come into judgement on the proceedings. As we watch the counsel for the defence spin out his hypocrisies, the gorge rises, and those archetypes of treachery, in literature and popular myth, from Judas to Iago, pass before our eyes. The fourteenth century ballad singer would have known this thing was wrong. The student of Shakespeare knows it is wrong. The Bulgarian peasant, who recalls that Kostov and Chervenkov had eaten together the bread and salt of comradeship, knows it is wrong. Only the “Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist” thinks it was – a mistake. (119)

Elsewhere in the text Thompson refers to "British socialists who see men who claim ‘Marxism’ as their guide, banner, and ‘science’ perpetrating vile crimes against their own comrades and gigantic injustices against many thousands of their fellow men". By "British socialists" he means primarily the group of former communist intellectuals who left the British communist party in 1956 and contributed to efforts to create a new Left labor movement in Britain through the New Reasoner and various new organizations. And here he is explicit in mentioning the "crimes and gigantic injustices" committed by the Stalinist state. 

But these points about Stalin's crimes are incidental, not focal to Thompson’s critique of Stalinism. Thompson’s actions and words in 1956 reflect a revolt against “dogmatism” and the effort of the Party to control thought and debate. But his critique does not extend to a thorough-going indictment of the crimes committed by the Stalinist state. The murders and injustices to which Thompson refers here seem to encompass the terror and show trials of the 1930s, though Thompson is not explicit. But I do not find anywhere in his writings an explicit recognition of the atrocities of collectivization and the Holodomor in 1932-33. Reference to the Gulag appears in later writings (for example, in a passage quoted below from "The Poverty of Theory"). But, once again, Thompson does not provide a sustained and thorough critique of these crimes against individuals and groups by the Soviet state. Rather, the central focus of his critique of Stalinism in "Socialist Humanism" is the dogmatism and ideological purity demanded by the Stalinist state.   

This is – quite simply – a revolt against the ideology, the false consciousness of the elite-into-bureaucracy, and a struggle to attain towards a true (“honest”) self-consciousness; as such it is expressed in the revolt against dogmatism and the anti-intellectualism which feeds it. Second, it is a revolt against inhumanity – the equivalent of dogmatism in human relationships and moral conduct – against administrative, bureaucratic and twisted attitudes towards human beings. In both sense it represents a return to man: from abstractions and scholastic formulations to real men: from deceptions and myths to honest history: and so the positive content of this revolt may be described as “socialist humanism.” It is humanist because it places once again real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration, instead of the resounding abstractions – the Party, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, the Two Camps, the Vanguard of the Working-Class – so dear to Stalinism. It is socialist because it re-affirms the revolutionary perspectives of Communism, faith in the revolutionary potentialities not only of the Human Race or of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat but of real men and women. (Thompson 1957: 108)

Thompson framed his critique of Stalinism somewhat more pointedly two decades later in his polemical essay against Althusser, “The Poverty of Theory” (1978) .

We are not only (please remember) just talking about some millions of people (and most of these the ‘wrong’ people) being killed or gulaged. We are talking about the deliberate manipulation of the law, the means of communication, the police and propaganda organs of a state, to blockade knowledge, to disseminate lies, to slander individuals; about institutional procedures which confiscated from the Soviet people all self-activating means (whether in democratic modes or in forms of workers’ control), which substituted the party for the working class, the party’s leaders (or leader) for the party, and the security organs for all; about the confiscation and centralisation of all intellectual and moral expression, into an ideological state orthodoxy — that is, not only the suppression of the democratic and cultural freedoms of ‘individuals’: ... it is not only this, but within the confiscation of individual ‘rights’ to knowledge and expression, we have the ulterior confiscation of the processes of communication and knowledge-formation of a whole people, without which neither Soviet workers nor collective farmers can know what is true nor what each other thinks. ("The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors", Thompson 1978: 328-29) 

Here Thompson is more explicit in naming the crimes of the Stalinist state -- mass murder, the Gulag. But here too Thompson seems most concerned about the dogmatism and thought control of the Stalinist state, "the suppression of the democratic and cultural freedoms of 'individuals'".

Stalinism, in its second sense, and considered as theory, was not one ‘error’, nor even two ‘errors’, which may be identified, ‘corrected’, and Theory thus reformed. Stalinism was not absent-minded about crimes: it bred crimes. In the same moment that Stalinism emitted ‘humanist’ rhetoric, it occluded the human faculties as part of its necessary mode of respiration. Its very breath stank (and still stinks) of inhumanity, because it has found a way of regarding people as the bearers of structures (kulaks) and history as a process without a subject. It is not an admirable theory, flawed by errors; it is a heresy against reason, which proposed that all knowledge can be summated in a single Theory, of which it is the sole arbitor and guardian. It is not an imperfect ‘science', but an ideology suborning the good name of science in order to deny all independent rights and authenticity to the moral and imaginative faculties. It is not only a compendium of errors, it is a cornucopia out of which new errors ceaselessly flow (‘mistakes’, ‘incorrect lines’). Stalinism is a distinct, ideological mode of thought, a systematic theoretical organisation of ‘error’ for the reproduction of more ‘error.’ (331)

These passages seem to capture the heart of Thompson's conception of socialist humanism: that socialism must ensure that its institutions are designed for real, free human beings -- not for the abstract theoretical assumptions of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist doctrine. And a genuine commitment to freedom of expression and thought is both a means and an end in this effort: freedom of expression and thought is necessary (as John Stuart Mill too argued) in order to allow the socialist order to progress; and free and equal human beings are the ultimate good of a socialist society.

Certainly Thompson was aware of Stalin's vast crimes by 1956. There was a great deal of information publicly available in the 1930s about the most important crimes of Stalin’s dictatorship, including the Holodomor, the Terror, the show trials, and the Gulag. Malcolm Muggeridge's reporting about the Ukraine devastation was widely available during 1933. And Welsh journalist Gareth Jones traveled through Ukraine and reported the facts of starvation as he observed them firsthand in articles in the Cardiff Western Mail and the London Evening Standard in 1933 as well as a published letter to the Manchester Guardian on May 8, 1933, corroborating Malcolm Muggeridge’s reporting on the famine in that newspaper. 

Thompson's independence of mind as a historian is unquestionable, and his willingness to follow his conscience in his relationship to communism was manifest in his actions and writings of 1956 and following years. He rejected the moral authority of the CPGB and the ultimate authority of the party line. But unlike other observers like Orwell, Koestler, or Muggeridge, Thompson seems not to have fully addressed the atrocious crimes of the Stalinist period. He did not squarely confront the atrocities represented by the Holodomor, the Gulag, or the pervasive and repressive use of the security apparatus (NKVD, KGB) to maintain totalitarian control over the citizens of the USSR. 

So we are left with a question: why did E.P. Thompson fail to clearly and unequivocally address the Holodomor, the Gulag, and the regime of terror established by Stalin's state?

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Defining disciplinary research in the social sciences

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, training institutions, laboratories, journals, and universities and research institutes -- and shifting but shared cognitive frameworks. They argued that scientific research and knowledge always proceeds through organized research communities that regulate the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Kuhn emphasized the specificity and contingency of the cognitive frameworks (disciplinary matrix or paradigm) that guided a research community, insights that in part reflected his own reading of Ludwik Fleck's earlier work on the history of biology and medicine and the idea of a "denkkollektiv" (link, link).  Here is Alexander Bird's description of Kuhn's view in his essay on Kuhn in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

He claims that normal science can succeed in making progress only if there is a strong commitment by the relevant scientific community to their shared theoretical beliefs, values, instruments and techniques, and even metaphysics. This constellation of shared commitments Kuhn at one point calls a ‘disciplinary matrix’ (1970a, 182) although elsewhere he often uses the term ‘paradigm’. Because commitment to the disciplinary matrix is a pre-requisite for successful normal science, an inculcation of that commitment is a key element in scientific training and in the formation of the mind-set of a successful scientist. (link)

Well and good for astronomy and fundamental physics. But what about the social sciences? How should we think about the sub-disciplines of fields in the social sciences like sociology? The idea is sometimes expressed, including by Kuhn himself, that the social sciences are not yet "mature sciences" precisely because they lack strong and definitive paradigms. Here is Bird again in the SEP:

The claim that the consensus of a disciplinary matrix is primarily agreement on paradigms-as-exemplars is intended to explain the nature of normal science and the process of crisis, revolution, and renewal of normal science. It also explains the birth of a mature science. Kuhn describes an immature science, in what he sometimes calls its ‘pre-paradigm’ period, as lacking consensus. Competing schools of thought possess differing procedures, theories, even metaphysical presuppositions. Consequently there is little opportunity for collective progress. (link)

This view perhaps once had a seductive appeal, but it is no longer convincing. The social sciences are different from the natural sciences because social phenomena are different from the phenomena of the world of chemistry and physics, and the unity of science was a dogma from logical positivism that we are well rid of (link, link). Here is how I've tried to formulate the differences that exist between the social sciences and the physical sciences:

Rather than unity, we should expect eclectic theories, piecemeal explanations, and a patchwork of inquiries at a range of levels of description. Some explanatory theories will turn out to be more portable than others. But none will be comprehensive, and the social sciences will always remain open-ended and extensible. Instead of theoretical unification we might rather look for a more and more satisfactory coverage, through a range of disciplines and methods, of the aspects of the social world we judge most interesting and important. And these judgments can be trusted to shift over time. And this means that we should be skeptical about the appropriateness of the goal of creating a unified social science. (Understanding Society; link)

This view of the social world suggests that sociological research does not require strict paradigms or dogmatic commitment to a "disciplinary matrix" of theory and methodological commitments in order to make progress. Instead, sociology should embrace a pluralistic range of research approaches and cognitive frameworks that can address different aspects of the social world. We gain insight and understanding of the social world through overlapping and pluralistic methods and theoretical frameworks.

That said, it is plain enough that there are distinct (sometimes overlapping) research families within sociology. Any large sociology department at a research university will have members who identify with different approaches and methodologies. Social movement researchers disagree with large-N quantitative researchers in many important ways, and an ethnomethodologist might find the work of both these sets of colleagues to be somewhat foreign. How should we characterize these differences across extended research groups within sociology? 

Several ideas are available. Weakly, a group of researchers might be said to belong to a research tradition if they share a number of common assumptions about the nature of the social world, the methodology that is most suitable to sociological research, and some core examples of sociological explanation. Most commonly this situation would arise from the fact of a common genealogy for a group of researchers -- a founder (Durkheim or Tarde, let's say), and a few generations of researchers who followed in their footsteps. But notice how weak this account is. It does not refer to shared research institutions, social networks of researchers, or definitive processes of research evaluation.

A stronger conception of a research community may begin with the weak conception, but then provide a specification of how research proceeds in this field or that. This stronger analysis aims to describe the institutional framework within which "X sociology" is carried out, evaluated, disseminated, and incorporated into the training of the next generation of sociologists in the X approach. What is added here is an account of the institutional infrastructure of the sub-discipline, the institutions and actor networks through which sociological research is carried out and shared. This more elaborate description is one of the guiding assumptions of the field of the sociology of scientific knowledge (SSK) (link).

But this specification remains incomplete in a crucial way: it says little about the intellectual content of the target sociological sub-field, the cognitive frameworks and theoretical ideas to which practitioners within the field adhere and that guide their research. This is the aspect that is the most novel and interesting feature of Kuhn's theory of the paradigm and Fleck's conception of the thought-collective. Kuhn, Fleck, and others in this line of thought emphasize that scientific research is not "blue-sky" theory, but rather proceeds on the basis of a contestable set of beliefs about the nature of the phenomena under investigation. According to this line of thought, the scientist's imagination is framed and directed by a set of assumptions about the world from which the discipline itself discourages deviation. The sub-discipline is indeed "disciplined" to conform to the existing paradigm. 

In the case of the social sciences, the role of "paradigm beliefs" is complicated and ambiguous. On the one hand, various areas of the social sciences are notorious for their rigid adherence to certain methodological principles -- the primacy of large-N quantitative studies, the value of formal models, lack of respect for case studies and comparative studies. (This was the point of the Perestroika debate in political science some years ago, and subsequent methodological debates in sociology more recently; link, link.) On the other hand, there is a very wide range of different assumptions (ontological beliefs) about social entities and processes in the social world across the social sciences and within each discipline. And it is rare to find a high level of consensus about these issues within a social science discipline. (Economics departments in research universities in the United States are an exception, but an unrewarding one: a high level of commitment to a specific set of methods, but a low level of empirical or policy success.) It seems, then, that the full-blooded idea of a "paradigm" as a unified cognitive framework spanning a broad network of researchers is not to be found in the social sciences. So perhaps our assessment of this topic in the social sciences might be: yes to research communities and networks, no to paradigm-driven research communities.

My interest in this question is fairly specific. I've been thinking about the emerging sub-discipline of analytical sociology over the past twenty years, and it would be useful to provide an analysis of the field in terms of the ideas sketched above. Do the manifestos of important advocates like Hedström and Demeulenaere constitute a "disciplinary matrix" in something like the sense that Kuhn had in mind? Do new areas of computational sociology (agent-based modeling, for example) represent something analogous to the body of laboratory techniques and procedures that Kuhn or Hanson included in the disciplinary matrix of physics? Do the strict assumptions of structural individualism advocated by the primary voices constitute a component of a "paradigm" for sociological research that helps to guide productive investigation and theory formation? In short, is analytical sociology a reasonably well-defined research community unified by a specific disciplinary matrix that is enforced by the regulative institutions of allied journals and institutes?

It is useful to compare the field of analytical sociology with other families of research in sociology today. For example, we might consider 

  • "processual sociology" described by Andrew Abbott (link
  • "field sociology" inspired by Pierre Bourdieu (link)
  • "ethnomethodology and microsociology" inspired by Goffman (link) and Garfinkel (link)

Abbott offers a vision of the nature of the social world -- an alternative social ontology -- and his writings provide quite a bit of methodological advice for sociologists interested in exploring these kinds of social phenomena. But it is hard to find the "processual sociology network" of researchers that is carrying out detailed empirical research under this banner. So it is hard to say that processual sociology constitutes a research community at present. The Bourdieu case is different. Many young sociologists make use of Bourdieu's ideas and theories about cultural fields. Bourdieu has a great deal of influence. But it is not obvious that there is a cumulative body of work that "Bourdieu-theory" can claim credit for as a research framework, and it is difficult to articulate the premises of a disciplinary matrix for conducting sociological research for this approach. So here too, perhaps we are forced to conclude that Bourdieu-theory too is less than a research community, in spite of its influence and the frequency of citations of Bourdieu in sociology journals. (According to a table titled "Most referenced authors in 42 sociology journals" reproduced by Gerardo Munck on X (link), Bourdieu is #1 with 9853 citations, and Weber is #2 with 6135 citations!) And though Goffman and Garfinkel are still part of the corpus of "theory" in sociology, it is hard to find instances of research networks proceeding along the lines described by ethnomethodologists fifty years ago. So analytical sociology seems to be a live candidate for an example of a research community organized by an active research matrix, whereas the other examples do not.

(This topic is an appropriate subject for study within the "new sociology of knowledge"; link.)