Austerity and the social construction of economic knowledge

In a rich and wonderfully detailed 2011 article for the American Journal of Sociology, Donald Mackenzie lays out a case for “The Credit Crisis as a Problem in the Sociology of Knowledge.”

The global financial crisis, Mackenzie argues, was partly the result of particular and contingent “knowledge-generating arrangements”, which allowed the wildly mis-allocated risks of the US mortgage securities industry to accumulate and eventually implode. Research for the paper included detailed interviews with 87 financial market participants. Continue reading

Michael Berube on the Sokal Hoax and the science wars

At Democracy: A Journal for Ideas, the always-perceptive Michael Berube has a wonderful potted history of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax. For those who’ve forgotten or don’t know, the short version is that Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist, submitted and had published a hoax paper to then-influential cultural studies journal Social Text. The paper made fun of cherished theories of postmodernism and science and technology studies such as constructivism and relativism, and threw in a farrago of dodgy physics references for good measure.

The ensuing controversy cystallised the disdain many conservatives (not to mention scientists and philosophical hard materialists) felt about the 90s postmodernist in-crowd. But Berube’s article has a sting in the tail: the ideas of relativism and constructivism advanced by thinkers such as Andrew Ross in the 90s are now being used, he argues, for far more nefarious purposes, against science by demogogues and populists on the right. I’ll let Berube explain in more detail below, but the whole article is recommended:

The cover of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's book about the hoax, Intellectual Impostures. Image: Profile Books

What, you ask, was the Sokal Hoax? While I was chatting with my colleagues at the Postmodern Science Forum, New York University physicist Alan Sokal, having read Higher Superstition, decided to try an experiment. He painstakingly composed an essay full of (a) flattering references to science-studies scholars such as Ross and Stanley Aronowitz, (b) howler-quality demonstrations of scientific illiteracy, (c) flattering citations of other science-studies scholars who themselves had demonstrated howler-quality scientific illiteracy, (d) questionable-to-insane propositions about the nature of the physical world, (e) snippets of fashionable theoretical jargon from various humanities disciplines, and (f) a bunch of stuff from Bohr and Heisenberg, drawing object lessons from the uncertainty at the heart of quantum mechanics. He then placed a big red bow on the package, titling the essay “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The result was a very weird essay, a heady mix–and a shot heard ’round the world. For Sokal decided to submit it to the journal Social Text, where it wound up in a special issue edited by Ross and Aronowitz on . . . the “Science Wars.” Yes, that’s right: Social Text accepted an essay chock-full of nonsense and proceeded to publish it in a special issue that was designed to answer the critics of science studies–especially, but not exclusively, Gross and Levitt. It was more than a great hoax on Sokal’s part; it was also, on the part ofSocial Text, one of the great own-foot-shootings in the history of self-inflicted injury.

Cannily, Sokal chose Lingua Franca, a then-influential (since folded) magazine that covered the academy and the humanities, as the venue in which to publish his “gotcha” essay, in which he revealed that the whole thing was a great big joke. And as if on cue, Ross and Aronowitz fired back almost precisely as Sokal believed they would: Aronowitz called Sokal “ill-read and half-educated,” while Ross called the essay “a little hokey,” “not really our cup of tea,” and a “boy stunt . . . typical of the professional culture of science education.” Aronowitz and Ross had every reason to feel badly stung, no question; but the terms of their response, unfortunately, spectacularly bore out Sokal’s claim that “the targets of my critique have by now become a self-perpetuating academic subculture that typically ignores (or disdains) reasoned criticism from the outside.” It was not hard to wonder, after all: If indeed Sokal’s hokey boy-stunt essay was not really your cup of tea, why did you publish it in the first place?

For many people, the answer to that question was simple: because the theory-addled, jargon-spouting academic left, of which Social Text now stood as the symbol, really didn’t know squat about science and really wasdevoted to the project of making shit up and festooning it with flattering citations to one another’s work. It was what critics believed all along, and now they had the proof. The disparity of audience response was–and remains–stark: In my academic-left circles, Sokal’s name was mud, his hoax an example of extraordinary bad faith; everywhere else, especially on the rest of the campus and in the world of journalism, Sokal was a hero, the guy who finally exposed the naked emperor (and there was much talk of naked emperors) and burst the cultural-studies bubble that had so drastically overinflated certain academic reputations–and academic egos.

Axel Bruns maps the Australian blogosphere

A close up of the Australian blogopshere map generated by Axel Bruns.

Axel Bruns has extracted some 2.6 million hyperlinks and come up with some very pretty data mapping the Australian blogosphere for the first time:

what we’re already seeing in the network is a relatively large cluster of sites on the left of the graph, made up of sites (MSM as well as blogs) that deal predominantly with news and politics. In addition to domestic and international news sites, various Australian political blogs (such as Larvatus ProdeoClub TroppoJohn QuigginPeter MartinCatallaxy Files, and the suite of Crikey blogs) appear as prominent nodes in the network (on both the indegree and eigenvector centrality counts). Many smaller – that is, less prominent – blogs cluster around them, but receive comparatively fewer inlinks. There’s even likely to be some further subdivision within this overall cluster, but I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on this point until we’ve had a chance to further clean our data.

You can see the full post here and download the full-size, gorgeous mapping images here.

Is Wikileaks’ Julian Assange Australia’s most influential journalist?

I think right now, globally, the answer is “yes.”

That is, if you think he is even a journalist.

From the Village Voice piece on Assange:

Assange was born in 1971, in the city of Townsville, on Australia’s northeastern coast, but it is probably more accurate to say that he was born into a blur of domestic locomotion. Shortly after his first birthday, his mother—I will call her Claire—married a theatre director, and the two collaborated on small productions. They moved often, living near Byron Bay, a beachfront community in New South Wales, and on Magnetic Island, a tiny pile of rock that Captain Cook believed had magnetic properties that distorted his compass readings. They were tough-minded nonconformists. (At seventeen, Claire had burned her schoolbooks and left home on a motorcycle.) Their house on Magnetic Island burned to the ground, and rifle cartridges that Claire had kept for shooting snakes exploded like fireworks. “Most of this period of my childhood was pretty Tom Sawyer,” Assange told me. “I had my own horse. I built my own raft. I went fishing. I was going down mine shafts and tunnels.”

You can read the whole of Raffi Khatchadourian’s piece, the best profile of Assange yet, at the New Yorker.

Special series on innovation theory: 1: Everett Rogers and the diffusion of innovations

Welcome back to A Cultural Policy Blog. As regular readers will know,  I’ve been offline lately, busy with research on a new paper on cultural innovation theory. This week, I’m going to bring you the fruits of my labours with a special series of posts on innovation theory as it applies to arts and culture.

Today we begin with the classic text in the field, by one of the most important figures in cultural sociology of the later 20th century: Everett Rogers.

Rogers’ book ,The Diffusion of Innovations (5th edition cover shown above), is both the standard text and the best introduction to the field of innovation diffusion. It boasts an astonishing 27,331 citations on Google Scholar, which by some reckonings makes it one of the most-cited works in the social sciences.

Everett Rogers’ intellectual biography helps us understand one of the important features of this field, which is that it has emerged from agricultural science. Rogers studied at Iowa State University and became interested in rural sociology; his doctoral supervisor was George Beal.

A key early paper in the field was by Bruce Ryan and Neal Gross, whose famous 1943 paper on the uptake of a special type of hybrid seed corn in two rural mid-west farming communities is described by Rogers as the “paradigmatic” text in the field:

Ryan came to Iowa State with a intellectual interest in nonrational aspects of economic decision makin, influenced by the work of Vilfredo Pareto, and by [the now largely forgotten US anthropologist] R.B. Dixon and other scholars of cultural change, through what he refers to as a quasi-minor in anthropology at Harvard (Ryan interview, 17 May 1991). Ryan did not have a farm background, and was somehwat ill at ease in the Iowa State environment of studying down-to-earth agricultural problems. Ryan designed the hybrid corn study so as to accomdodate his theoretical interests in sociology, with the practical concerns of boosting agrifucltural production at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture. Ryan chose hybrid seed corn as an innovatiojn of study because “the development of a geneticallly and economically superior seed type was a scientific achievement of great economic consequence” (Ryan and Gross 1950, 667). Hybrid corn was the most important innovation then diffusing among midwestern farmers, and it had spread very rapidly in the previous ten years.

Below is the original graph from Ryan and Gross’ paper, in all its analogue glory:

The original "Figure 1" from Ryan and Gross' 1943 paper on the diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa farming communities. The original caption reads: "Percentages of Farm Operators First Hearing of Hybrid Seed Corn and Percentages First Accepting It, by years"

As you can see, while some farmers were what would be known today as “early adopters” (a term which, as far as I can determine, was actually coined by Rogers and then taken up by marketing academics), some decided to use the hybrid corn after seeing it in  use on their own community; others held to their old ways and never adopted the innovation at all.

The result of combining the two bell curves you can see above, and rotating the axis, is the famous “S”-shaped curve of innovation diffusion, which has been found to characterise the adoption of innovations generally, from mobile phones to oral rehydration therapy.

Rogers himself went on to perform many diffusion studies, as well as synthesizing much of the discipline in his reviews and texbooks as diffusion research itself diffused out to fields such as marketing, communications, public health and political science. Innovation diffusion is a five stage process, Rogers tells us, with feedback loops at all stages that help to decide whether and how quickly a particular innovation spreads.  This idea and many others that Rogers developed, including the concept of “opinion leaders” (highly networked and influential individuals in a particular community, an idea Rogers took from Paul Lazarsfeld‘s seminal studies of voting patterns in US presidential elections) and the role they play in helping innovations to catch on, have rapidly become some of the most important in contemporary social science, even making their way into hugely popular works by writers like Malcolm Gladwell.

In an important 1995 paper for Science Communication, Rogers both describes the development of the field and relates it to seminal texts from what is now often known as science and technology studies, most notably Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Communities and Diana Crane’s Invisible Colleges (in which Crane examined the development of rural sociology and performed an early network analysis of the important authors in the field).  This gives us a clue as to where Rogers looked when he examined the sources of innovations – something I’ll dive into tomorrow.