Doing Social Epistemology Socially: A Report, James H. Collier

Author Information: James H. Collier, Virginia Tech, SERRC,

Collier, James H. 2011. “Doing Social Epistemology Socially: A Report.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (1) 1-4.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

A Report on the roundtable entitled “Doing Social Epistemology Socially” held at the Society for Social Studies of Science Meeting, Cleveland, November 2011.

While the roundtable discussion ranged widely, I left impressed both by the enthusiasm over the Collective project, and by the practical note of caution in how we might proceed.


I found the roundtable well-attended — perhaps twenty-five to thirty people (including the panel members).[1] The panel consisted of Jim Collier, William Davis, Marianne DeLaet, Steve Fuller, Joan Leach and Melissa Orozco.[2] Francis Remedios also represented the Collective. Noted members of the audience included Phil Mirowski and Raphael Sassower.

I gave brief remarks as to the roundtable’s purpose. These remarks led into a series of “provocations” — my observations and claims regarding the normative commitments of scholarly authors and readers using Social Epistemology as a central example. Marianne replied to my opening. After Marianne’s reply, the discussion developed along a series of themes including:

  1. Models for collaborative authorship;
  2. The “academic currency” of the Collective’s work;
  3. The vulnerability of, and responsibilities to, early-career (untenured) scholars;
  4. Re-imagining the obligations of scholars to publishing platforms;
  5. The Collective as an “extra” academic relationship.


Allow me to peg my report to the central themes listed in the Background section.

1. Models for collaborative authorship

In my opening remarks, I mentioned that we are exploring models for how to write collaboratively. We have not faced fully the tangles of assigning credit, working effectively in subgroups, and distributing tasks associated with the process of research and writing a given piece. Collaborative writing is not a common practice in the humanities. How to write collaboratively is not taught and seen as anathema. In the social sciences researchers actively collaborate on articles, but I am unclear how tasks associated with the writing process are assigned (I assume such tasks reside with a single author). The model of collaborative authorship in the natural sciences was raised on several occasions. So, the question: Should the Collective adopt the model of collaborative writing in the sciences?

I think the sciences offer lessons as to the ethos of what we might want. Still, working on narrowly defined laboratory-based problems, given the perspective available through similar, if not the same, disciplinary training (I know that broader scientific collaborations happen more frequently in the digital age), makes for a different kind of collaboration. We are not in a lab. Yet, might we fruitfully conceive of the Collective as a kind of scholarly lab?

At the roundtable’s start, I waved off Wikipedia as collaborative writing model. Perhaps wrongly, I find the epistemic goals of encyclopedism different than our own. Moreover, one might well argue the goal in writing an encyclopedia entry, especially given Wikipedia’s current editorial practices, remains developing a consistent authorial voice by forming a consensus around a comprehensive, factually accurate description.

I indicated that our collaborations might explicitly “show the work” (I realize one can see the editorial moves and comments behind a Wikipedia entry). By “show the work” I explained that we might consider how to present disagreement, to indicate confusion or to show negotiation in a way that truly demonstrates the complexity of collaborative inquiry. I was quick to mention, and reject, experiments in “new literary forms” (in the sociology of scientific knowledge in the last 1980’s and early 1990’s). New literary forms tried to turn the conventions of fiction writing, stagecraft, marginalia, irony and reflexive awareness into a kind of meta-textual performance.

Generally, much early discussion in the roundtable involved the approach and style of collaborative authorship.

2. The “academic currency” of the Collective’s work

How will the Collective’s work be received? Moreover, how will the Collective value its work in relation to the time needed to produce meaningful content? I think my answers to these questions, and responses to related comments, came both in the form of a practical admission and an idealist plea.

For early-career scholars digital publishing provides a valuable outlet. The practical value, or academic (or professional) currency, of such publications remains limited — at least as conventionally conceived and performed. I believe the Collective can do something different. Given an imaginative approach, and explicit high standards, we create the academic currency of our work. We demonstrate the value of our work by supporting its reception through continued dialogue. We sustain exchanges among our selves and the site participants. We try not to produce one-off pieces absent a response.

As the website will keep a close association with the journal, I hope the symbiosis will strengthen the regard in which the Collective’s work is received. For Collective members trying to get academic positions and move through the ranks, I trust that the good work we do will help. Moreover, I believe any particular work we complete can be used in the future in a more traditional sense (this belief raises complicating issues that I address below). We have an international network that may lead to professional advantages. The roundtable revealed that we have interested friends. We need to keep their interest.

Ideally, we can regularly contribute to the Collective since the workload can be widely distributed and variously shared. Collective members are all quite busy. In some cases members have theses, class papers, dissertations, articles and grants to write (among other things!). In what priority, then, stands work of the Collective? My reply came as a plea for us to imagine and design procedures for distributing the workload so that we might readily integrate the Collective’s work into our intellectual lives.

3. The vulnerability of, and responsibilities to, early career (untenured) scholars

A point raised initially by Fuller, and echoed throughout the session, is that early-career Collective members are taking a risk — effort absent clear reward — and may need protection.

The risks appear twofold: (1) The work done by the Collective lacks traditional academic currency (see above), especially when writing credit is shared, and may count little for academic career advancement; and, (2) The work, depending on the project, puts Collective members in direct critical dialogue with senior scholars. While a senior (or any) scholar wants attention paid to their work, critical replies may call for a deft touch.

I found Fuller’s concerns well-motivated. In response, I agreed such vulnerabilities exist. I offered a broad reply to (1) by claiming that the Collective will lend meaning to its work through an explicit recognition of its aims and practices. In reply to (2), I suggested that the form and degree such protection takes might be based on the how we organize the work — strength and safety in numbers being our watchword.

4. Re-imagining the obligations of scholars to publishing platforms

More a series of provocations, perhaps, I made observations regarding the responsibilities of authors and readers both to their scholarship and to the journals in which they publish. Consider: Publishing an author’s work requires considerable resources. True, articles keep a journal afloat. But does an author have a responsibility beyond making a one-off contribution to a journal (typically a journal publishes a single article by an author)? For example, does an author have the obligation to read the journal in which they publish (my point of emphasis)? To cite the journal? To serve as a peer reviewer? To actively promote the reception of their work and, hence, the readership of the journal? Ultimately, then, what are the normative obligations of authors and readers in the ecology of scholarship? On an immediate front, I argued that authors should read the journal in which they publish (broadly, not just the issue in their work appears). This argument led to points regarding the economic models of journals and to speculation regarding a more flexible model of individual subscription rates and online access.

5. The Collective as an “extra” academic relationship

Might, and how might, we conceive the Collective as an “extra” academic relationship? This question came toward the end of the roundtable, out of responses to issues 2 and 3 above, leading to reasoning one might label speculative at best. To wit, given the use of digital media to promote international scholarly work (among other things), might the Collective be recognized, or sanctioned, much like a post-doctoral fellowship or seen as, going back to point 1, a scholarly lab of sorts (a lab “doing social epistemology socially”) conducting experiments in academic inquiry? Or as an academic consortium? Positioned as a “formal” academic relationship, might the Collective’s activities have recognizable (fundable?) implications for performing research and teaching outside a particular university? For example, might the Collective help teach a course?


While the roundtable discussion ranged widely, I left impressed both by the enthusiasm over the Collective project and by the practical note of caution in how we might proceed. Realizing how busy we are, and given our varying intellectual commitments, I have only a vague sense of how we can do the work of the Collective in a way that might be best integrated into our professional lives. For the Collective to develop, we need an idea of sustained, meaningful work that entails a professional payoff.

Future Action

Some questions for possible future action:

  • Do all of us, or rotating subgroups, need to meet, on a scheduled basis, beyond the website and email? Skype conference calls?
  • Do we need to grow? At the end of the roundtable, I collected a list of eight names of people who wish to be kept informed of the Collective’s activities.
  • Do we need more long-term planning of projects and, so, regular web content?
  • Do we need to address the concerns mentioned above regarding early-career vulnerability and the academic currency of the work? If so, how do we address these concerns?
  • Do we need a conference and/or a professional organization to call our own?

Contact details:


Panel Abstract

Social epistemology, understood as an “intellectual movement of broad cross-disciplinary provenance that attempts to reconstruct the problems of epistemology once knowledge is regarded as intrinsically social” is poised to move beyond its classic mode of intellectual critique and analytical reconstruction by experimenting with collective, social practices of knowing. This roundtable discussion explores the forms that social epistemology, as a practical endeavor and constructive site of knowing and knowledge-making, does and can take. Panelists will reflect upon how to develop and bring into practice the project of social epistemology; they include members of the “Reply and Review Collective” — an international collaboration of scholars who are currently engaged in an effort to “do social epistemology socially”.

[1] I was encouraged by the attendance at the roundtable considering the time of day (3:30) and the location of the proceedings — the “Boardroom” on the twenty-second floor of the Marriott. Travel to the twenty-second floor was not unproblematic. Describing unfortunate encounters with elevator malfunctions was the opening of innumerable conversations throughout the conference. Chairs in the boardroom were in short supply and some attendees sat on the floor. After the roundtable, a contingent of the panel decided to take the stairs to the thirteenth floor to meet the elevator.

[2] The attendance of Steve, Joan and I marked the complete editorial history of Social Epistemology. As Fuller wrote in an email to me on 5 November: “It became clear last night that the roundtable was quite significant — since I was able to tell Mel Orozco just about the entire history of social epistemology by talking about the people who attended it. It was effectively the first social epistemology summit conference — a kind of ‘First international’ in the old Marxist terms.”

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  1. James H. Collier. Year one of the SERRC: An interval report « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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