Tag: science of science and reflexivity

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and the sociology of martial knowledge

Maybe 15 months ago, I started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a martial art that focuses on grappling and ground-fighting. Matches are won through points based on position (e.g., “mount”, where you are sitting on somebody else) and through submission, when a player taps out due to hyperextension under a joint lock or asphyxiation by choking. I recommend it heartily to anybody as a fascinating, smart workout that also has a vibrant and supportive community around it.

One of the impressive aspects of BJJ, which differentiates it from many other martial arts, is its emphasis on live drilling and sparring (“rolling”), which can offer a third or more of a training session. In the context of sparring, there is opportunity for experimentation and rapid feedback about technique. In addition to being good fun and practice, regular sparring continually reaffirms the hierarchical ranking of skill. As in some other martial arts, rank is awarded as different colored “belts”–white, blue, purple, brown, black. Intermediary progress is given as “stripes” on the belt. White belts can spar with higher belts; more often than not, when they do so they get submitted.

BJJ also has tournaments, which allow players from different dojos to compete against each other. I attended my first tournament in August and thought it was a great experience. There is nothing like meeting a stranger for the first time and then engage them in single combat to kindle a profound respect for the value of sportsmanship. Off the mat, I’ve had some of the most courteous encounters with anybody I have ever met in New York City.

At tournaments, hundreds of contestants are divided into brackets. The brackets are determined by belt (white, blue, etc.), weight (up to 155 lbs, up to 170 lbs, etc.), sex (men and women), and age (kids age groups, adult, 30+ adult). There is an “absolute” bracket for those who would rise above the division of weight classes. There are “gi” and “no gi” variants of BJJ; the former requires wearing special uniform of jacket and pants, which are used in many techniques.

Overall, it is an efficient system for training a skill.

The few readers of this blog will recall that for some time I studied sociology of science and engineering, especially through the lens of Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity. This was in turn a reaction to a somewhat startling exposure to sociology of science and education, and intellectual encounter that I never intended to have. I have been interested for a long time in the foundations of science. It was a rude shock, and one that I mostly regret, to have gone to grad school to become a better data scientist and find myself having to engage with the work of Bruno Latour. I did not know how to respond intellectually to the attack on scientific legitimacy on the basis that its self-understanding is insufficiently sociological until encountering Bourdieu, who refuted the Latourian critique and provides a clear-sighted view of how social structure under-girds scientific objectivity, when it works. Better was my encounter with Jean Lave, who introduced me to more phenomenological methods for understanding education through her class and works (Chaiklin and Lave, 1996). This made me more aware of the role of apprenticeship as well as the nuances of culture, framing, context, and purpose in education. Had I not encountered this work, I would likely never have found my way to Contextual Integrity, which draws more abstract themes about privacy from such subtle observations.

Now it’s impossible for me to do something as productive and enjoyable as BJJ without considering it through these kinds of lenses. One day I would like to do more formal work along these lines, but as has been my habit I have a few notes to jot down at the moment.

The first point, which is a minor one, is that there is something objectively known by experienced BJJ players, and that this knowledge is quintessentially grounded in intersubjective experience. The sparring encounter is the site at which technique is tested and knowledge is confirmed. Sparring simulates conditions of a fight for survival; indeed, if a choke is allowed to progress, a combatant can lose consciousness on the mat. This recalls Hegel’s observation that it is in single combat that a human being is forced to see the limits of their own solipsism. When the Other can kill you, that is an Other that you must see as, in some sense, equivalent in metaphysical status to oneself. This is a sadly forgotten truth in almost every formal academic environment I’ve found myself in, and that, I would argue, is why there is so much bullshit in academia. But now I digress.

The second point, which is perhaps more significant, is that BJJ has figured out how to be an inclusive field of knowledge despite the pervasive and ongoing politics of what I have called in another post body agonism. We are at a point where political conflict in the United States and elsewhere seems to be at root about the fact that people have different kinds of bodies, and these differences are upsetting for liberalism. How can we have functioning liberal society when, for example, some people have male bodies and other people have female bodies? It’s an absurd question, perhaps, but nevertheless it seems to be the question of the day. It is certainly a question that plagues academic politics.

BJJ provides a wealth of interesting case studies in how to deal productively with body agonism. BJJ is an unarmed martial art. The fact that there are different body types is an instrinsic aspect of the sport. Interestingly, in the dojo practices I’ve seen, trainings are co-ed and all body types (e.g., weight classes) train together. This leads to a dynamic and irregular practice environment that perhaps is better for teaching BJJ as a practical form of self-defense. Anecdotally, self-defense is an important motivation for why especially women are interested in BJJ, and in the context of a gym, sparring with men is a way to safely gain practical skill in defending against male assailants. On the other hand, as far as ranking progress is concerned, different bodies are considered in relation to other similar bodies through the tournament bracket system. While I know a badass 40-year old who submitted two college kids in the last tournament, that was extra. For the purposes of measuring my improvement in the discipline, I will be in the 30+ men’s bracket, compared with other guys approximately my weight. The general sense within the community is that progress in BJJ is a function of time spent practicing (something like the mantra that it takes 10,000 hours to master something), not any other intrinsic talent. Some people who are more dedicated to their training advance faster, and others advance slower.

Training in BJJ has been a positive experience for me, and I often wonder whether other social systems could be more like BJJ. There are important lessons to be learned from it, as it is a mental discipline, full of subtlety and intellectual play, in its own right.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Science of science and reflexivity. Polity, 2004.

Chaiklin, Seth, and Jean Lave, eds. Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

the economic construction of knowledge

We’ve all heard about the social construction of knowledge.

Here’s the story: Knowledge isn’t just in the head. Knowledge is a social construct. What we call “knowledge” is what it is because of social institutions and human interactions that sustain, communicate, and define it. Therefore all claims to absolute and unsituated knowledge are suspect.

There are many different social constructivist theories. One of the best, in my opinion, is Bourdieu’s, because he has one of the best social theories. For Bourdieu, social fields get their structure in part through the distribution of various kinds of social capital. Economic capital (money!) is one kind of social capital. Symbolic capital (the fact of having published in a peer-reviewed journal) is a different form of capital. What makes the sciences special, for Bourdieu, is that they are built around a particular mechanism for awarding symbolic capital that makes it (science) get the truth (the real truth). Bourdieu thereby harmonizes social constructivism with scientific realism, which is a huge relief for anybody trying to maintain their sanity in these trying times.

This is all super. What I’m beginning to appreciate more as I age, develop, and in some sense I suppose ‘progress’, is that economic capital is truly the trump card of all the forms of social capital, and that this point is underrated in social constructivist theories in general. What I mean by this is that flows of economic capital are a condition for the existence of the social fields (institutions, professions, etc.) in which knowledge is constructed. This is not to say that everybody engaged in the creation of knowledge is thinking about monetization all the time–to make that leap would be to commit the ecological fallacy. But at the heart of almost every institution where knowledge is created, there is somebody fundraising or selling.

Why, then, don’t we talk more about the economic construction of knowledge? It is a straightforward idea. To understand an institution or social field, you “follow the money”, seeing where it comes from and where it goes, and that allows you to situated the practice in its economic context and thereby determine its economic meaning.

Mathematics and materiality in Latour and Bourdieu’s sociology of science

Our next reading for I School Classics is Pierre Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity (2004). In it, rock star sociologist Bourdieu does a sociology of science, but from a perspective of a sociologist who considers himself a scientist. This is a bit of an upset because so much of sociology of science has been dominated by sociologists who draw more from the humanities traditions and whose work undermines the realism the scientific fact. This realism is something Bourdieu aims to preserve while at the same time providing a realistic sociology of science.

Bourdieu’s treatment of other sociologists of science is for the most part respectful. He appears to have difficulty showing respect for Bruno Latour, who he delicately dismisses as having become significant via his rhetorical tactics while making little in the way of a substantive contribution to our understanding of the scientific process.

By saying facts are artificial in the sense of manufactured, Latour and Woolgar intimate that they are fictious, not objective, not authentic. The success of this argument results from the ‘radicality effect’, as Yves Gingras (2000) has put it, generated by the slippage suggested and encouraged by skillful use of ambiguous concepts. The strategy of moving to the limit is one of the privileged devices in pursuit of this effect … but it can lead to positions that are untenable, unsustainable, because they are simply absurd. From this comes a typical strategy, that of advancing a very radical position (of the type: scientific fact is a construction or — slippage — a fabrication, and therefore an artefact, a fiction) before beating a retreat, in the face of criticism, back to banalities, that is, to the more ordinary face of ambiguous notions like ‘construction’, etc.

In the contemporary blogosphere this critique has resurfaced through Nicholas Shackel under the name “Motte and Bailey Doctrine” [1, 2], after the Motte and Bailey castle.

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of pleasantly habitable land (the Bailey), which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier, such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible, and so neither is the Bailey. Rather, one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

In the metaphor, the Bailey here is the radical antirealist scientific position wherein facts are fiction, the Motte is the banal recognition that science is a social process. Schackel writes that “Diagnosis of a philosophical doctrine as being a Motte and Bailey Doctrine is invariably fatal.” While this might be true in the world of philosophical scrutiny, this is unfortunately not sociologically correct. Academic traditions die hard, even long after the luminaries who started them have changed their minds.

Latour has repudiated his own radical position in “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matter of Concern” (2004), his “Tarde’s idea of quantification” (2010) offers an insightful look into the potential of quantified sociology when we have rich qualitative data sets that show us the inner connectivity of the societies. Late Latour is bullish about the role of quantification in sociology, though he believes it may require a different use of statistics than has been used traditionally in the natural sciences. Recently developed algorithmic methods for understanding network data prove this point in practice. Late Latour has more or less come around to “Big Data” scientific consensus on the matter.

This doesn’t stop Latour from being used rather differently. Consider boyd and Crawford’s “Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a Cultural, Technological, and Scholarly Phenomenon” (2012), and its use of this very paper of Latour:

‘Numbers, numbers, numbers,’ writes Latour (2010). ‘Sociology has been obsessed by the goal of becoming a quantitative science.’ Sociology has never reached this goal, in Latour’s view, because of where it draws the line between what is and is not quantifiable knowledge in the social domain.

Big Data offers the humanistic disciplines a new way to claim the status of quantitative science and objective method. It makes many more social spaces quantifiable. In reality, working with Big Data is still subjective, and what it quantifies does not necessarily have a closer claim on objective truth – particularly when considering messages from social media sites. But there remains a mistaken belief that qualitative researchers are in the business of interpreting stories and quantitative researchers are in the business of producing facts. In this way, Big Data risks reinscribing established divisions in the long running debates about scientific method and the legitimacy of social science and humanistic inquiry.

While Latour (2010) is arguing for a richly quantified sociology and has moved away from his anti-realist position about scientific results, boyd and Crawford fall back into the same confusing trap set by earlier Latour of denying scientific fact because it is based on interpretation. boyd and Crawford have indeed composed their “provocations” effectively, deploying ambiguous language that can be interpreted as a broad claim that quantitative and humanistic qualitative methods are equivalent in their level of subjectivity, but defended as the banality that there are elements of interpretation in Big Data practice.

Bourdieu’s sociology of science provides a way out of this quagmire by using his concept of the field to illuminate the scientific process. Fields are a way of understanding social structure: they define social positions or roles in terms of their power relations as they create and appropriate different forms of capital (economic, social, etc.) His main insight which he positions above Latour’s is that while a sociological investigation of lab conditions will reveal myriad interpretations, controversies, and farces that may convince the Latourian that the scientists produce fictions, an understanding of the global field of science, with its capital and incentives, will show how it produces realistic, factual results. So Bourdeiu might have answered boyd and Crawford by saying that the differences in legitimacy between quantitative science and qualitative humanism have more to do with the power relations that govern them in their totality than in the local particulars of the social interactions of which they are composed.

In conversation with a colleague who admitted to feeling disciplinary pressure to cite Latour despite his theoretical uselessness to her, I was asked whether Bourdieu has a comparable theory of materiality to Latour’s. This is a great question, since it’s Latour’s materialism that makes him so popular in Science and Technology Studies. The best representation I’ve seen of Bourdieu’s materiality so far is this passage:

“The ‘art’ of the scientist is indeed separated from the ‘art’ of the artist by two major differences: on the one hand, the importance of formalized knowledge which is mastered in the practical state, owing in particular to formalization and formularization, and on the other hand the role of the instruments, which, as Bachelard put it, are formalized knowledge turned into things. In other words, the twenty-year-old mathematician can have twenty centuries of mathematics in his mind because formalization makes it possible to acquire accumulated products of non-automatic inventions, in the form of logical automatisms that have become practical automatisms.

The same is true as regards instruments: to perform a ‘manipulation’, one uses instruments that are themselves scientific conceptions condensed and objectivated in equipment functioning as a system of constraints, and the practical mastery that Polanyi refers to is made possible by an incorporation of the constraints of the instrument so perfect that one is corporeally bound up with it, one responds to its expectations; it is the instrument that leads. One has to have incorporated much theory and many practical routines to be able to fulfil the demands of the cyclotron.”

I want to go so far as to say that in these two paragraphs we have the entire crux of the debate about scientific (and especially data scientific) method and its relationship to qualitative humanism (which Bourdieu would perhaps consider an ‘art’.) For here we see that what distinguishes the sciences is not merely that they quantify their object (Bourdieu does not use the term ‘quantification’ here at all), but rather because it revolves around cumulative mathematical formalism which guides both practice and instrument design. The scientific field aims towards this formalization because that creates knowledge as a capital that can be transferred efficiently to new scientists, enabling new discoveries. In many ways this is a familiar story from economics: labor condenses into capital, which provides new opportunities for labor.

The simple and realistic view that formal, technical knowledge is a kind of capital explains many of the phenomena we see today around data science in industry and education. It also explains the pervasiveness of the humanistic critique of science as merely another kind of humanism: because it is an advertising campaign to devalue technical capital and promote alternative forms of capital associated with the humanities as an alternative. The Bailey of desirable land is intellectual authority in an increasingly technocratic society; the Motte is banal observation of social activity.

This is not to say that the cultural capital of the humanities is not valuable in its own right. However, it does raise questions about the role of habitus in determining taste for the knowledge as art, a topic discussed in depth in Bourdieu’s Distinction. My own view is that while there is a strong temptation towards an intellectual factionalism, especially in light of the unequal distribution of capital (of various kinds) in society, this is ultimately a pernicious trend. I would prefer a united field.