Scott Frickel is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Institute for the Study of Environment and Society at Brown University. His research interweaves sociological analysis with environmental studies and science and technology studies. Prior to coming to Brown he was Boeing Distinguished Professor of Environmental Sociology at Washington State University. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
His research has appeared in a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary journals, including American Sociological Review, Annual Review of Sociology, Science, Theory and Society, Technology and Human Values, and Environmental Science and Policy. He is author of Chemical Consequences: Environmental Mutagens, Scientist Activism, and the Rise of Genetic Toxicology and co-editor with Kelly Moore of The New Political Sociology of Science: Institutions, Networks, and Power.
Luke Muehlhauser: In Frickel & Gross (2005), you and your co-author present a “general theory” of scientific/intellectual movements (SIMs). I’ll summarize the theory briefly for our readers. In your terminology:
- “SIMs have a more or less coherent program for scientific or intellectual change… toward whose knowledge core participants are consciously oriented…”
- “The aforementioned core consists of intellectual practices that are contentious relative to normative expectations within a given… intellectual domain.”
- “Precisely because the intellectual practices recommended by SIMs are contentious, SIMs are inherently political… because every program for intellectual change involves a desire to alter the configuration of social positions within or across intellectual fields in which power, attention, and other scarce resources are unequally distributed…”
- “[SIMs] are constituted through organized collective action.”
- “SIMs exist as historical entities for finite periods.”
- “SIMs can vary in intellectual aim and scope. Some problematize previously… underdiscussed topics… Others… seek to introduce entirely new theoretical perspectives on established terrain… Some SIMs distinguish themselves through new methods… Other SIMs aim to alter the boundaries of existing… intellectual fields…”
Next, you put forward some propositions about SIMs, which seem promising given the case studies you’ve seen, but are not the result of a comprehensive analysis of SIMs — merely a starting point:
- “A SIM is more likely to emerge when high-status intellectual actors harbor complaints against what they understand to be the central intellectual tendencies of the day.”
- “SIMs are more likely to be successful when structural conditions provide access to key resources” (research funding, employment, access to rare equipment or data, intellectual prestige, etc.)
- “The greater a SIM’s access to [local sites at which SIM representatives can have sustained contact with potential recruits], the more likely it is to be successful.”
- “The success of a SIM is contingent upon the work done by movement participants to frame movement ideas in ways that resonate with the concerns of those who inhabit an intellectual field or fields.”
My first question is this: what are the most significant pieces of follow-up work on your general theory of SIMs so far?
Scott Frickel: The article on SIMs that Neil Gross and I published back in 2005 has been well-received, for the most part. Citation counts on Google Scholar have risen steadily since then and so I’m encouraged by the continued interest. It seems that the article’s central idea – that intellectual change is a broadly social phenomenon whose dynamics are in important ways similar to social movements – is resonating among sociologists and others.
The terrain that we mapped in developing our theory was intentionally quite broad, giving others lots of room to build on. And that seems to be what’s happening. Rather than challenge our basic argument or framework, scholars’ substantive engagements have tended to add elements to the theory or have sought to deepen theorization of certain existing elements. So for example, Jerry Jacobs (2013) extends the SIMs framework from specific disciplinary fields to the lines of connectivity between disciplines in seeking to better understand widespread enthusiasms for interdisciplinarity. Mikaila Arthur (2009) wants to extend the framework to better theorize the role of exogenous social movements in fomenting change within the academy. Tom Waidzunas (2013) picks up on our idea of an “intellectual opportunity structure” and, like Arthur, extends the concept’s utility to the analysis of expert knowledge production beyond the academy. In his excellent new book, Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care? (Harvard, 2013), Neil Gross links our theory to the political leanings of the American professoriate. His idea is that SIMs can shape the political typing of entire fields – e.g. as more or less liberal or conservative. So, rather than arguing for an extended view of SIMs, Gross wants to recognize an extended view of the impacts of SIMs, which can affect academic fields singly or in combination with other competitor SIMs. Another study that I like very much is John Parker and Ed Hackett’s (2012). analysis of how emotions shape intellectual processes in ways that drive the growth and development of SIMs. The emotional content of SIMs is something quite new for the theory, but which is consonant with lots of good work in social movement theory. Some of my own recent work builds from the SIMs project to offer a companion theory of ‘shadow mobilization’ to help explain expert interpenetration of social movements (Frickel et al. (2014)) So, in different ways, the project is chugging forward.
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