Scott Frickel on intellectual movements

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Scott Frickel portrait 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, 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:

  1. “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.”
  2. “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.)
  3. “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.”
  4. “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.

Luke: In your view, what is the expected eventual “payoff” from this kind of sociological research into social movements? Or to put it another way, who are the “consumers” (besides other sociologists) who at some point take certain results and apply them to solving real-world problems? (Your work on SIMs may be too young to have reached that stage yet, so that’s why I’m asking about this kind of work more generally.)

Scott: So, if we think about the SIMs theory in applied terms as something like a recipe for building and sustaining expert collective action in ways that alter the intellectual and scientific landscape, I would say that our “product” is still under development. The various efforts to extend and refine the theory that I mentioned previously support that assessment. But to the extent that the theory could have broader resonance and more practical applications, it is interesting to think about who those consumers might be and what the theory might be good for.

I suppose the most obvious market for our theory would be academic experts who want to change the direction of research in their field. The theory might be useful to scientists who find comfort in the common but I think largely mistaken belief that science is driven by the best new ideas. Our theory begins from a very different assumption, namely that winning ideas are ideas whose champions strategically organize support for their projects by building networks and alliances to topple orthodoxies or defeat challengers. In this way of thinking, new ideas are necessary but insufficient explanations; knowledge advances not in spite of politics, but because of it.

The climate change debates in the US are a good case in point. Having good data and a theory to explain the data isn’t enough. You also need organization and political savvy to anticipate and fend off the opposition. Climate change deniers figured this out first and built a movement that has proven tragically successful at blocking meaningful policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental sociologists Aaron McCright and Rile Dunlap (2003, 2010) have studied this phenomenon extensively as have historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway (2010). In rising to meet the challenge of climate denialism, scientists have produced more and better data and worked harder to refine their theories, but they have also become better organized themselves, as has some sectors of the general public. This is precisely what social movement scholarship tells us about the dynamics between social movements and counter-movements. Our theory holds that this is also a regularly occurring dynamic in science. The climate change debates are not unique in this sense, only uniquely visible.

Luke: Which follow-up studies on your theory of SIMs would you most like to see in the next 10 years?

Scott: I imagine that detailed case studies such as those we’ve seen to date will continue to be an essential element of SIMs scholarship. But the case study method has limitations. By design it does not produce generalizable knowledge (if that is one’s goal) because it prioritizes delivery of rich narrative detail of a single instance of the object of study. By themselves, case studies will tell us relatively little about broader political and institutional dynamics shaping SIM emergence and outcomes.

The studies that I am more interested in seeing done are those that develop a range of approaches for investigating broader questions relating to the historical forces and institutional environments that produce SIMs. Do SIMs emerge in similar fashion in different disciplinary domains or national contexts? Are certain kinds of academic institutions more nurturing of SIMs than others? Are there some areas of science, social science, and humanities that tend to not produce SIMs? These sorts of questions are best answered with studies that are explicitly comparative and I’d like to see research push in this direction.

I’d also like to see research that examines longer term historical patterns of SIM emergence and decline. Social movement scholars have developed the concept of “cycles of protest” to describe the historical ebb and flow of contentious political activity and social movement formation over longer periods of time, usually several decades or more (The original study on protest cycles is Tarrow 1989). They’ve used newspaper articles and other archival materials to collect data on protest events and then coded those accounts for various types of activity (e.g. strikes, boycotts, marches), numbers of people involved, how long the event lasted, whether violence was involved, how the authorities responded, and the like. These studies have shown that national-level protests tend to cluster in “waves” separated by periods of relative calm. Scholars have put forward various theories to explain these patterns, including the idea that initiating movements can have “spillover” effects on later-forming movements. This is the general pattern we see in the U.S. during the 1960s and 70s, with the civil rights movement feeding enthusiasms, building networks, and creating political opportunities that other movements could use to their advantage. What we now refer to as “The 60s” was, in part, a function of this major wave of political protest.

I’m very interested in whether and how SIMs pattern in similar ways. For example, can we find evidence that collective efforts to build new fields and research programs in the social sciences concentrate more in certain time periods than in others? There is prima facie evidence suggesting that “new” interdisciplinary social sciences emerged in the 1930s when we see fields like social psychology and criminology come about. We see clustering again in the 1970s, when universities begin creating degree programs for women’s studies, African American studies, Chicano studies, and others. But these examples are far from comprehensive. The difficulty I’m facing is in working out an approach to data collection that allows us to systematically identify and code SIMs across disciplinary domains and over longer periods of time. Bibliometric data on journal publications and topic modeling techniques may hold some promise. This is the next big project that I’d like to tackle in this area of my research program – hopefully again in collaboration with Neil Gross. If you or any readers of this interview have thoughts about how to move this kind of study forward, I welcome your input.

Luke: Thanks, Scott!