A foundational question (and a new direction for this blog)

In his fascinating book Forging Industry Policy Frank Dobbin critiques other social scientists for “taking too much of the social world at face value, when they should be asking how the world got to be the way that it is”. This is an interesting way of putting things and quite a serious charge to make regarding the social sciences and fellow academics.

In the world of environmental politics and related sustainability debates I’ve found myself increasingly pondering questions like those suggested by Dobbin such as the question of ‘how the world got to be way that it is’.

For instance, I sometimes wonder how the increasingly ideologically fragmented nature of energy discussions (see Sovacool et al., 2016) got to be the way that it is. Or how did the world get to be such that in many debates actors mobilise the science to ‘tell the truth’ (or challenge others to do so), but often do so in highly contrasting ways and frequently find themselves being criticised by scientists for over-claiming and/or misrepresenting the science? You often such dynamics in many climate change debates, such as regarding the underlying climate science (e.g. when activists’ views are argued to be less evidence-based than claimed). Moreover, combatants in such debates often seem to view their opponents as wilfully oblivious to the facts, not merely wrong or misguided, and to believe the facts are solely on their side even on more contentious issues or questions. Again you see this in climate debates, amongst other issues, including debates on decarbonisation and adaptation to climate change. Indeed the latter debates about what to do can be just as heated as debates on the science, if not more so. Or on the question of biodiversity, whilst there’s no doubt species are dying out at an increasing rate, debate rages on whether we’re now in the Sixth Mass Extinction or perhaps (as other scientists suggest) at the beginning of the Sixth Mass Genesis where biological gains (e.g. due to speciation) are the more important trends (rather than biological losses). And so on. Name the issue and increasingly we seem to be in a world of highly polarised debate that’s in many respects unproductive.

How did the world get to be the way that it is?

That’s clearly a very broad question, but one thing I intend to do is flesh out a perspective that I started to explore in my PhD and to draw on this when considering ‘how the world got to be the way that it is’ (or, rather, how focal aspects got to be the way they are) and when asking related questions about the implications or what might be done to change things.

This perspective is the sociological institutionalist perspective which I partially explored regarding forward-looking practices in my case study research (link).

The sociological ininstitutionalist perspective I intend to explore takes a very broad view of institutions which goes beyond the formal rules of behaviour like the rules imposed by states (or even more informal rules) which are emphasised by the dominant institutions-as-rules perspective (Rojas, 2017). Institutions are conceptualised as those “ideas and practices that […] become taken-for-granted, i.e. ‘legitimated’ and ‘institutionalised'” and scholars investigate processes of social construction that give rise to such institutions (Jennings and Hoffman, 2017). Sociologists such as Dobbin further suggest that practices become institutions as “actors develop collective understandings of their purposes”.

In broadest sense, some sociologists suggest that social institutions are enduring customs that are relatively self-activating (Dobbin, 1994; Jepperson, 1991).

Additionally, institutionalists often argue that “human beings are encumbered with all sorts of norms and rules that constrain their behaviour” (Rojas, 2017, p.xxiii). Institutions are often claimed to play multiple roles – “they constrain and corrupt behaviour”, argues Immergut (1998). As such many institutionalists put greater attention on “artifacts of history […] [that] induce particular behaviours” (Immergut, 1998, p.9).

As noted above in my PhD I applied such a perspective to prospective knowledge practices (PKPs) when analysing their development, use and effects. Whilst PKPs remain a major interest of mine, I would like to apply this perspective to a wider range of knowledge practices. This will entail both further exploring and theorising knowledge practices and considering (or perhaps investigating) specific examples.

One sociological institutionalist perspective I intend to explore primarily adopts a cultural approach in considering the origins and persistence of institutions. Proponents of this approach suggest that we must consider how “new institutions and attendant conceptions of reality emerge and evolve” (Dobbin, 1994; my emphasis added).

An aspect where I tend to part company with institutionalists is with respect to addressing normative considerations. This is because institutional theory “is agnostic about the moral nature of the process and its outcomes” (Jennings & Hoffman, 2017).

The other thing that needs to be emphasised about the perspective sketched above is that it can support a stronger focus on epistemic humility (another of my interests).

This perspective argues that all human beings are encumbered with norms and rules that are constraining and potentially ‘corrupt’ their behaviour (including ourselves), not just other people such as our opponents in debates. It therefore suggests that humility and reflexivity are important ideals to keep in mind and to strive for in knowledge practices (i.e. epistemic humility) as well as in our other social practices.

Coming back to the question that framed this post, one thing that I’ve learned over the past five or so years is that you can’t deeply probe knowledge practices if you take the social world at face value. This was a hard won insight in my doctoral research.

A related thing I’d like to explore is whether further investigation of knowledge practices can tell us something about how the world got to be the way that it is. I’ll report emerging thoughts or findings here on this blog.


Dobbin, F. (1994). Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age, Cambridge University Press.

Jennings, P. D., & Hoffman, A. J. (2017). ‘Institutional Theory and the Natural Environment: Building Research through Tensions and Paradoxes’. In R. Greenwood, C. Oliver, T. B. Lawrence, & R. e. Meyer (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Organizational Institutionalism, SAGE Publishing.

Jepperson, R. L. (1991). ‘Institutions, Institutional Effects, and Institutionalism’. In W. W. Powell & P. J. DiMaggio (Eds.), The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, University of Chicago Press.

Immergut, E. M. (1998). ‘The Theoretical Core of the New Institutionalism’, Politics & Society, 26(1), 5-34.

Rojas, F. (2017). Theory for the Working Sociologist, Columbia University Press.

Sovacool, B. K., Brown, M. A., and Valentine, S. V. (2016). Fact and Fiction in Global Energy Policy: 15 Contentious Questions, John Hopkins University Press.

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