does making one’s scholarly mark mean transplanting the shoulders of giants elsewhere?
The Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics (SASE) website has made Neil Fligstein‘s powerpoint slides on the history of economic sociology available for general viewing. (Update: looks the link is broken at the moment, so here are the slides: 1469704310_imagining_economic_sociology_-socio-economics-fligstein) It’s a fascinating read of the development of a sub-field across continents, and it also includes discussion of a challenge that some believes plagues the sociology discipline:
Both Max Weber and Thomas Kuhn recognized that Sociology as a discipline might be doomed to never cumulate knowledge.
- Sociology would proceed as a set of research projects which reflected the current concerns and interests of a small set of scholars
- When the group hit a dead end in producing novel results, the research program would die out only to be replaced by another one
- Progress in economic sociology is likely to be made by putting our research programs into dialogue with one another to make sense of how the various mechanisms that structure markets interact
- Failure to do so risks the field fragmenting of the field into ever smaller pieces and remaining subject to fashion and fad
Fligstein’s claim for these field-fragmenting tendencies stems from the current structure of the academic field. He depicts sociology as rewarding scholars for applying ideas from one area to another area where current theorizing is insufficient, rather than expanding existing research:
- … the idea is not to work on the edge of some mature existing research program with the goal of expanding it
- But instead, one should be on the lookout for new ideas from different research programs to borrow to make sense for what should be done next
In short, scholars tend to form intellectual islands where they can commune with other like-minded scholars. Bridging paths to other islands can generate rewards, but the efforts needed to disseminate knowledge more widely – even within a discipline – can exceed any one person’s capacity.