Year one of the SERRC: An interval report, James H. Collier

SERRC —  November 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

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

Please cite as:

Collier, James H. 2012. Year one of the SERRC: An interval report. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 1 (12).

PDF forthcoming on completion of the report. Shortlink:

Please note: This report will be developed in intervals. In part, this report is based on the presentation “Designing the Reception of Academic Work: Elements of Social Epistemology’s Way Forward” given at the Society for the Social Studies of Science meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, 20 October 2012.


The Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC) is both the digital wing of the journal Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy (Taylor & Francis, Routledge) and an independent platform for scholarship, commentary and judgment on matters related to social epistemology.

We understand social epistemology as a normative philosophical approach, informed by empirical sociological and historical research, to problems of knowledge — how do, and how should, we define, organize, develop, evaluate and make policy regarding, the pursuit of knowledge in society. “The fundamental question of the field of study I call social epistemology is: How should the pursuit of knowledge be organized, given that under normal circumstances knowledge is pursued by many human beings, each working on a more or less well-defined body of knowledge and each equipped with roughly the same imperfect cognitive capacities, albeit with varying degree of access to one another’s activities?” (Steve Fuller, 1988, original emphasis)

The SERRC puts into practice the principles of social epistemology by bringing into dialogue “many human beings, each working on a more or less well-defined body of knowledge” in order to interrogate, re-imagine and collectively express how we can, and should, pursue knowledge. In so doing, we ask: How ought scholars — as knowledge producers — be responsible for, and to, their work? What obligations do scholars have to the use and distribution of resources necessary to receive, house, perform, grow and maintain the knowledge they produce? What revised practices — of reading, writing, collaborative authorship, reception, provocation, synthesis — follow our recognition and further articulation of these obligations? The SERRC exists, in part, to forge new practices that realize the normative potential of scholarly inquiry into issues of broad, interdisciplinary concern related to the social production of knowledge.

Steve Fuller founded Social Epistemology in 1987. In the statement of purpose (and PDF), Fuller describes “formats” (2) that the journal will use to challenge taken-for-granted agreements on the use of knowledge bearing texts. On Fuller’s account, philosophers and scientists (in this instance) seemingly share the same belief regarding a text’s (e.g. Newton’s Principia Mathematica) intended epistemic use. If used as intended, the text succeeds in conveying knowledge. Even in a broader social framework, among multiple readers, a successful text retains its intended use. “… [P]hilosophers and the scientists”, writes Fuller, “operate on the assumption that the function of knowledge in society is merely its intended use writ large.” (1)

Of course, texts do not function so simply and “… while knowledge distribution is locally constrained, it is not systematically regulated.” The formats Fuller outlines — critical syntheses, reviews and responses, provocations, alternative critical syntheses [1] — seek to disclose the social mechanisms that allow local differences, among philosophers, scientists and others, to be ignored. These disclosures offer a basis for normatively reimagining and reconstructing both the local constrains and systematic regulations of texts and knowledge.

Pointing to a joint effort by Chris Fields and Stephen Downes,[2] Fuller illustrates aspects of a practice — promoting collaborations that examine scholarly assumptions and processes regarding historical telos and interdisciplinary research — the SERRC emulates. Moreover, the SERRC not only examines the local production of knowledge in relation to its general reception, but also contends with the responsibilities one should bear in relation to the ecology of scholarship and knowledge.

In becoming Executive Editor of Social Epistemology in 2009, I recalled Steve’s early innovations and the structure of the early issues of the journal. In addition, Steve extended these ideas in pedagogical codas in, particularly, his early books (my direct involvement included the first and second editions of Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge). I wanted to revive and update these innovations for the digital era.

Despite unrelenting hype, Web 2.0 projects promise much for social epistemologists (for reference, see the articles in Social Epistemology and exchanges on the SERRC between Paul de Laat and Nicholas Munn). Before the forming SERRC, I tested this promise in classroom practice. Staging comparatively successful digitally-based collaborations — omnibus books reviews, rhetorical analyses, manifestos — among my generous and exceptionally resourceful students, I witnessed the great potential and benefit in collective scholarship.

Formation of the Collective
Beginning in 2010, I sought out early-career scholars interested in social epistemology. Steve provided names — as did Google. Given my fledgling ideas of what the SERRC might do, I was heartened by the willingness of early Collective members to take a chance on, and responsibility for, our project. After initial (and ongoing) discussions about our purpose, and getting our feet wet with different blogging platforms, Elisabeth Simbürger graciously volunteered to help realize the Collective website. Initial members of the SERRC worked extremely hard to put us on solid footing — as a tour of the site’s archives will show.

Over the last year the Collective has grown to 22 members located in 11 countries.

Collective members initiated, and contributed to, the about, critical replies, articles, book reviews, comments, interviews, collective judgments and quick readings sections of the SERRC.

The Collective put together panels at the Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) conference in 2011 and in 2012. We held a roundtable “Doing Social Epistemology Socially” in Cleveland in 2011. In Copenhagen, 2012, members of the Collective proposed “Social Epistemology review and replies collective panel: conceptualising social design as a collective process”. [3] Given shrinking university travel budgets, many panel participants could not attend. We revised the panel to be an extension of a discussion originating in a previous session “On the journal Social Epistemology’s twenty-fifth anniversary”. That session included the talk “Designing the Reception of Academic Work: Elements of Social Epistemology’s Way Forward” [4] that serves as a basis for this report.

The SERRC attracts extraordinary contributors. While assuming various roles, contributors act primary as interlocutors for scholars who publish in Social Epistemology (We hope to expand these roles in the future). For every article published in Social Epistemology 26.1 and 26.2 (the two issues appearing thus far in 2012), at least one critical reply, and at least one response to that reply, has appeared on the SERRC.

The potential development of an exchange among contributors can be seen best, perhaps, in the dialogue that includes Johannes Persson, Daniel Little and Kimberly Chuang. Johannes published an article, “Mechanistic explanation in social contexts: Elster and the problem of local scientific growth” in Social Epistemology 26 (1): 105-114. Daniel offered an engaging, detailed reply. Johannes graciously responded. During this exchange, Daniel was teaching a course at the University of Michigan. Kimberly Chuang, a student in the course, took the opportunity to explore Jon Elster’s work, in part, through the lens of Persson-Little exchange. The work led to Kimberly’s article “In defense of Elster’s mechanisms”. Both Johannes and Daniel gave thorough replies to the Kimberly’s work and to one another’s evolving arguments.


This dialogue exchange captures something of what the SERRC wishes to accomplish — a focus on the reception of ideas; a complex, nimble discussion over time; a dialogue among early-career and established scholars; an opportunity to attract new readers to one’s existing work; and a staging area for new arguments and forms of expression.

The Numbers
The The Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective went live on 15 November 2011 under the editorship of Elisabeth Simbürger. We received 356 views on the first day.

By 15 November 2012:

  • 17,850 views (approximately 1500 views a month)
  • 63 posts
  • 13 categories
  • From 25 February to 15 November 2012, double-digit views from 53 countries
  • The Collective: 22 members located in 11 countries
  • Each article in Social Epistemology 26.1 and 26.2 received at least one reply
  • Each author of an article responded, at least once, to a given reply

[1] Please see examples in Social Epistemology (1): 1, 1987.

[2] “Human-computer interaction: A critical synthesis”. Fields, Chris. 1987. The computer as tool: A critique of a common view of the role of intelligent artifacts in society. Social Epistemology 1 (1): 5-25 and Downes, Stephen. 1987. A philosophical ethnography of human-computer interaction research. Social Epistemology 1 (1): 27-36.

[3] Panel abstract “Social Epistemology review and replies collective panel: conceptualising social design as a collective”: The conference theme states that ‘one can even think of societies and social arrangements being “designed”’; this panel seeks to determine in what sense one may do so. As the medium through which positive knowledge is utilised for industrial purposes, design may be celebrated as an expression of humanity’s promethean genius. However, this positive connotation usually evaporates when we think of designing societies, which to us suggests technocracy, or even the totalitarian imposition of a ‘blueprint’ on a recalcitrant population. In this panel, we propose to tackle the question of whether it is possible to conceive of collective, collaborative forms of social design to which such critical reaction would not apply. The journal Social Epistemology was founded to address normative questions about knowledge, without giving in to the ‘dark age’ mentality of traditional epistemology, which conceived knowledge as a regulative but unrealisable idea in a world indifferent to intellectual norms. Against this, a continued commitment to enlightenment would be possible through grappling with the problem of ‘bounded rationality’ inherent in given social conditions, leading to theoretically informed but ultimately practicable design proposals for the institutionalisation of knowledge. The journal’s ‘Review and Reply Collective’ (SERRC) is intended as a mechanism for the transformation of knowledge, through providing space for early career academics to engage in epistemic collaboration: itself a design in the making. The presenters are members of the Collective, whose sense of the problems of institutional design has, in varying ways, been sharpened by participation in the Collective itself.

[4] Panel abstract “Designing the Reception of Academic Work: Elements of Social Epistemology’s Way Forward”: The future of academic print journals resides in doubt. Issues related to bundling, copyright cost, distribution and usefulness make print journals appear, especially in the age of social media,
increasingly anachronistic. While Social Epistemology faces similar challenges as other academic journals, the nature of social epistemology itself — as an interdisciplinary movement concerned with articulating and designing the normatively appropriate means and ends for the social development knowledge — provides a basis for re-imagining the performance of academic inquiry. Specifically, Social Epistemology launched on 15 November 2011 the Review and Reply Collective ( As an online platform, the Collective focuses on the normative obligations of scholars to the diffusion, reception and intellectual maintenance of their ideas. Among other practices, the Collective arranges and gives extended replies and encourages comment on scholarship published in the journal. In so doing, the Collective asks researchers to consider their places in designing and disrupting the scholarly ecosystem. Using the work of the Collective and Social Epistemology’s past and present as a future guide, this presentation will address the following questions: What responsibilities ought scholars bear in the relation to their own work? Should scholars arrange for (in much the same way journal editors contract referees), and respond to, public replies to their work? Ought scholarly work be judged, at least in part, on the basis of its designed reception? Might the process of designing, maintaining and governing the reception of scholarly work lend a certain, applied and sustained province for Social Epistemology and social epistemologists?

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