Points on Blogs: Understanding Society

There’s plenty of self-promoting, self-referential nonsense out there in the blogosphere.  When it came time to thinking about “Points on Blogs,” well…let’s just say that your editor did not feel this feature needed to promote the self-promoting, or add layers of nonsense to the nonsensical.  Consequently, we were very pleased to be able to bring to the Points readership the earnest inquiry of the Drugs, Law and Conflict blog and the vivid explorations of the Res Obscura blog.  Last time, I promised we’d “go drinking” in this installment, but I’ve decided to “go thinking” instead.  Our third blog is Prof. Daniel Little’s Understanding Society, and it moves away from the realm of alcohol and drugs particularly, to the broad questions that animate our investigations.  Little is a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, where he is also currently university chancellor.  Here’s how he describes his intellectual orientation on the front page of Understanding Society: “I am a philosopher of social science with a strong interest in China and Southeast Asia. Right now I’m thinking about how to reformulate the philosophy of history in a way that is more closely related to the practice of contemporary historians. I think philosophers need to interact seriously and extensively with working social scientists and historians if they are going to be able to make a useful contribution.”

Crowds cheer war

Crowds cheer for war--understand them?

As for Understanding Society, calling it a blog doesn’t quite capture what Little is trying to accomplish.  The recipe for a typical academic blog mixes small amounts of extended analysis with a larger portion of timely reaction pieces, all baked together with heaping pile of whatever comes to mind at the moment.  In contrast, here’s Little’s goal, in his own words: “This site addresses a series of topics in the philosophy of social science. What is involved in “understanding society”? The blog is an experiment in thinking, one idea at a time. Look at it as a web-based, dynamic monograph on the philosophy of social science and some foundational issues about the nature of the social world.”  Indeed, one can find the entire site organized into a table of contents, or obtain the entire contents through July, 2011 in monograph form (obtained free from the site as a 1234-page[!] pdf file).

Needless to say, that’s a lot to go through.  Why should historians of drugs and alcohol care?

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Keller’s Reticence: A Note on the Perils of Insider Historiography

Mark Keller

Mark Keller (1907-1995) was the long-time editor and editor emeritus of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.(1)  His career in alcohol studies stretched all the way back to the 1930s, when he worked for Norman Jolliffe at Bellevue Hospital as a general-purpose research assistant and sometime editor.  Over the years Keller published a number of accounts of the genesis of “the new scientific approach” to alcohol problems in the mid- and late-1930s in the U.S.(2)  (I had the honor to attend a talk given by Keller on this topic at the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley on February 13, 1978 — which presentation was later the basis for his 1979 article on this history [see 2].)  Keller’s accounts drew in part upon what he himself had witnessed as well as what Jolliffe passed along to him.  On a personal level, Keller always made his kind and generous scholarly help freely available to me.  In time, however, I came to appreciate one or two of the pitfalls of Keller’s essentially personal-reminiscence approach to this history. Continue reading