If one is to use a metascientific unit such as 'school', 'research unit' or 'network' then clear definitions of the concepts are necessary. Taken-for-granted views of the constituents of a school, its activities, orientations and theoretical endeavours, must be suspended. A critical engagement with the historical evidence is essential. One must avoid adopting prevailing myths about historical entities uncritically.
The key to the efficacy of a unit approach is that the criteria that serve to identify units should be consistent with theoretical ideas about how knowledge grows. Membership, citations and so on are merely indicators of interactive units rather than frames for assessing the process of science production. Much of the confusion about the 'Chicago School', I would contend, comes from a lack of any clear idea of the processes involved in the development of sociological knowledge. Even those who adopt a clear metascientific orientation, tend to rely heavily on a framework that derives from Kuhn's notion of paradigm and reworkings of the concept of 'paradigm group'. However, this kind of analysis has tended to drift further and further away from the mechanism of crisis and transformation that Kuhn argued underlay the growth of knowledge. The tendency has been to argue that the mechanism takes place within social units, to then identify the units, and presuppose that being able to fit individuals to prescribed roles is sufficient to explain the development of sociological knowledge (e.g. Mullins, 1973; Tiryakian, 1979a, 1979b).
This approach is historicist, in selectively reconstructing schools to fit favoured models, and also ignores the critical process in knowledge transformation. I would thus suggest that a unit approach would have more potential if, instead of concentrating on ideas, personnel or institutional groupings, the unit was viewed by focusing on its knowledge transformative processes. One way to do this would be to focus on the processes of critique within a unit and how the critique is carried out, institutionalised and legitimated. There would be no need, then, to attempt to construct barriers around an intellectual enclave, either on the basis of personnel or of subject matter. The dynamic and changing nature of the enterprise would be the focus of investigation, rather than the underlying presuppositions, genesis and history of an idea, or gelling together of a group of practitioners.
The tendency towards an internalist perspective evident in unit approaches would also be avoided. Unit approaches tend to construct the school or emerging unit as internally consistent, and as providing a set of internal justificatory and legitimating criteria. Apart from the problems of cross-fertilisation of ideas, this internalistic orientation disengages the unit from both the wider discipline in which it is located and also the social milieu. The investigation of a school or unit is thus usually concerned with how it develops a new sub-area rather than how it engages with the discipline and acts to transform the stock of scientific knowledge.
The 'Chicago School', for example, constituted a metascientific unit in as much as it incorporated an open, and accessible, critical process that was integral to the work of practitioners both directly involved in work, of various sorts, at Chicago and of others in communication with those based at Chicago. The Chicagoans extensive involvement in American sociology (chapter seven) made the 'Chicago School' one of the foci through which developments in sociological knowledge in the United States were directed. This critical process at Chicago was institutionalised, as Park (1939) suggested, in the Society for Social Research. As the discussions throughout the book have indicated (especially chapters two to four), the society acted as a supportive association of sociologists affiliated, in one way or another, to Chicago. The aim of the society, as set out in its constitution, was to disseminate knowledge and act as a clearing house of ideas. The accessibility of the society, its summer institutes, communication network, frequent discussion meetings, and regular bulletin all served to advance this aim.
A unit thesis that investigates the processes by which knowledge is developed and evaluated would provide a basis for rational selection and interpretation of unit indicators. It would also discourage reliance on secondary sources and thereby, perhaps, avoid the retelling and perpetuation of myths.
Next 8.3 Conclusion: units, myths and metascience