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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 47.2 (2004) 303-305

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Chaos of Disciplines. By Andrew Abbott. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. xvi + 259. $17 (paper).

This book is not for the fainthearted. It transcends disciplinary boundaries and requires a background in sociology, as well as a willingness to explore the applications of the concepts of dynamics to the social sciences. The examples presented and the many references cited attest to the author's erudition. Indeed, in his preface, Professor Abbott, Chairman of the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago, writes: "I have always been a little too eclectic. Unable to make up mind if I wanted to be a scientist or humanist, I learned what I could about both." I applaud him for setting such difficult goals. Meeting them requires a paradoxical combination of intellectual promiscuity and scholarly discipline.

The father of modern dynamics was the French polymath Jules Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), who showed that Newtonian mechanics doesn't provide a general solution to the Earth, Moon, and Sun interplanetary system—the three-body, or more generally the n-body, problem. One offspring of such situations is found in complex problems that involve chaos. Such problems can be represented by the celebrated Feigenbaum bifurcation diagram, or by the corresponding Mandelbrot set, which represents a fractal. Fractals, unlike configurations in Euclidean geometry, have non-integer dimensions, and they are self-similar; for example, a coastline is not a straight line, and hence its dimension [End Page 303] is between 1 and 2, more than a line, less than an area. Some physicians apply such considerations in studying nonlinear body traces such as EKGs. Applications may also be found in economics, although their usefulness in this context has not been settled yet. In any case, chaos, fractals, and self-similarity may be potential candidates for further research in the social sciences.

Abbott proposes to consider sociology from a dynamic viewpoint. Interest in social issues goes back to the Greek philosophers, but it was the French positivist philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) who gave us the term sociologie. He had in mind a hierarchy of the sciences where one would proceed from the simple to the more complex, according to the sequence: mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, and, at the top, sociology. Of course, our knowledge has increased immensely since then, so that Comte's ladder has spawned bifurcations at each rung and there are also numerous hyphenated fields that we call interdisciplines. Sociology and the social sciences have experienced a lot of dynamic evolution, namely change with time and place, and it is quite natural therefore to apply some of the new techniques to these disciplines. Frequently old problems are best solved with new methods, and new problems with old methods.

The volume consists of seven chapters that are self-contained essays written for the most part for different occasions. In this spirit the author has dedicated each to a different individual. However, common threads run through them, namely, the dynamic nature of the social sciences, the chaos of disciplines, fractionization, and self-similarity. The first chapter presents the theoretical foundations, while the second chapter demonstrates the utility of the fractal model with reference to the concept of stress. Here the author applies his theoretical arguments to empiricist sociology from 1965 to 1995, during which period historical considerations became paramount in a variety of social science disciplines. The author then addresses constructionist movements, offering details of definitions, labeling theory and its death, the sociology of science, and his views on constructionism.

The social sciences are the "hard sciences" because their structure is not isolated but is impacted by the environment; in many cases we don't even know what all of the influencing variables are. Further, because of their dynamic nature, data are hard to come by. Indeed, the traditional manner of graduate student research with its thesis, isolation of variables, etc., is at times limiting in dealing with the broader issues. In the fifth chapter, the author considers social science education in the United States and abroad. Disciplinarity...


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