April 30, 2004

Thought for the Day: Are Academic Disciplines Chaotic?

Posted by Ed

Over the last week, I've spent several of my spare moments reading Chaos of Disciplines, a book by a University of Chicago sociologist named Andrew Abbott. This is the sort of book that makes me feel really ignorant of science, since my knowledge of fields like chaos theory is quite shallow: Abbott uses fractals to explain the patterns that appear in academic disciplines and to discuss the ways that academic knowledge changes and advances. I've found the book really stimulating, but I can't decide if it's brilliant, eccentric, or a combination of the two. (It helps that I haven't finished reading it yet!)

For those of you who are curious, here's an excerpt from the book's prologue that will give you some sense of what Chaos of Disciplines is like:

Every spring the MCAT examinations select the medical elite from among the upper extreme of the college population in terms of scientific and rational abilities and attitudes. But three years later those selected will choose specialties ranging from psychiatry to family practice to cardiology, thereby replicating within the compass of medicine the entire humanistic-rationalistic scale that the MCAT defines on the college population as a whole.

On the other side of the world, the great hierarchy of the caste system relegates certain groups so firmly to the bottom as to exclude them from the four varnas altogether. Yet among those excluded harijans, an internal hierarchy exactly replicates the much larger one that places them beneath all the caste Hindus.

Those two social structures have a peculiar property in common: the property of self-similarity. No matter what the level at which we inspect them, we find the same pattern repeated. Nor is this simply a matter of looking at a linear scale in progressively finer detail. The world of medicine covers much more than just those in the upper extreme of scientism, just as some harijans enjoy substantial authority and power in their daily existence. These are truly self-similar structures, in which fine detail recapitulates gross structure.

A similar pattern emerges in cultural systems. At any given time the avant-garde of art is itself broken up into a thousand little cells, each imagining itself to be the true avant-avant-garde, leading those who will lead the general art public. Similarly, just as psychiatric practice offers a category system explaining everyday life to the average denizens of modernity, so does psychoanalysis offer an explanatory system to the psychiatrists who treat everyman. Or, to come suddenly close to home, if we take any group of sociologists and lock them in a room, they will argue and at once differentiate themselves into positivists and interpretivists. But if we separate those two groups and lock them in separate rooms, those two groups will each in turn divide themselves over the same issue.

Thus cultural structures too may have the characteristic of self-similarity. In the book that follows, I apply this argument about cultural self-similarity to a particular example, holding that self-similarity provides a general account of how knowledge actually changes in social science.

I didn't find all of those examples equally interesting, and I'm more intrigued with what Abbott is trying to do with fractals than I am with the fact that he's found various examples of self-similarity across scale; so far, the part of the book that has impressed me most has dealt with the way that academic debates operate in cycles, and don't merely progress and advance toward greater understanding. I'll reserve judgment on Chaos of Disciplines until I've finished reading it, but if nothing else, it's an entertaining and stimulating read!

Posted by Ed at April 30, 2004 02:49 PM


I'm always a bit wary of people claiming to use "Chaos theory" or fractals to explain things outside what those fields usually cover. Not that those fields don't have facinating implications, but they aren't necessairly well-developed enough to have much predictive power. More often, it's just because it's the latest fad that people outside the fields talk about them--actual chaos theory researchers don't even usually call it chaos theory anymore, the less sexy "dynamical systems theory" is more popular, because not only does it describe what's going on better, it doesn't lead crackpots into thinking they know what it's about from the name.

This is not necessairly to say that Abbott doesn't know what he's talking about, I couldn't say, since I haven't read the book. I'm just a little suspicious that it doesn't have much to do with chaos theory.

Posted by: Matthew at May 2, 2004 09:49 PM

Some of the parts of the book that I've liked most have actually been less closely related to chaos theory. I just wish I knew more about the theory and how to judge the book's argument!

Posted by: Ed at May 6, 2004 07:42 PM

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