Carbon dating is a scientific method for trying to determine the age of organically based archaeological discoveries.
The process hinges on measuring the radioactive isotope (carbon-14) that is present in all terrestrial life. At death the isotope gradually decays. So the remaining amount in a given artifact can give us a picture about its age. More precisely, the ratio of remaining carbon-14 to stable, unchanging carbon (carbon-12) is used to try to determine a sample’s age.
I say “try” because the process is not as exact as some cheesy educational books or docudramas will tell us. The buzzword “carbon-dating” is often used to apparently prove scientific theories, but many laypersons are unaware of the high degree of controversy (and inaccuracy) surrounding this process. Like most, if not all, of science, there’s room for bias and interpretation. And this is hardly surprising because science is a human enterprise to begin with.
The idea of carbon dating has become so much a part of popular culture that it appears in science fiction and fantasy films like Prometheus,¹ where carbon samples are used to determine the age of alien substances discovered on a distant planet.
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Image source (immediate right) and helpful article
- Core sample sends carbon clock farther back in time : Nature News & Comment (nature.com)
- New advancement for carbon dating found in Japanese lake (japandailypress.com)
- Carbon Dating Gets an Update (science.slashdot.org)
- The problems with Carbon-14 Dating (lambfollower.wordpress.com)
- Bosnia Pyramid Carbon Dated 25 Thousand Years Old (rclvideolibrary.com)
- Scientists: Carbon Dating Could Help Identify Victims Who Washed Ashore At Gilgo Beach (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Dating of New Zealand Wreck Suggests Visitors Pre-Dated Cook (sott.net)
- The Most Important Records For Dating Old Objects Were Just Found In A Japanese Lake (businessinsider.com)
- Reconciling the Conflicts between Science and Religion (realintent.org)
Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) was an innovative French sociologist who taught at the university of Bordeaux and the Sorbonne. He’s usually upheld in introductory Humanities courses as as one of great three “classical” sociologists, and one of the founders of sociology as a discipline in its own right. This academic honor also includes Karl Marx and Max Weber.
Among his many achievements and insights, Durkheim is seen as a pioneer in the use of scientific method. Durkheim focused on society instead of the individual. He believed that “collective representations” emerged from many minds that interact in a social environment. Depending on their character, these collective representations had variable but statistically demonstrable effects on society.
In addition, he tended to view society as a doctor would look at a patient. This is often called Durkheim’s “organic metaphor.” His outlook predates what would come to be called structural functionalism. As such, he believed that some social forms were healthier than others.
Durkheim sought to create one of the first rigorous scientific approaches to social phenomena. Along with Herbert Spencer, he was one of the first people to explain the existence and quality of different parts of a society by reference to what function they served in maintaining the quotidian (i.e. by how they make society “work”). He also agreed with his organic analogy, comparing society to a living organism. Thus his work is sometimes seen as a precursor to functionalism. Durkheim also insisted that society was more than the sum of its parts.†
Unlike his contemporaries Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber, he focused not on what motivates the actions of individuals (an approach associated with methodological individualism), but rather on the study of social facts. As a result, Durkheim contrasted mechanistic social types (where individuals cooperate less, relying on tradition and punitive authority) to organic solidarity (where individuals cooperate more, working together to satisfy mutual needs). And for Durkheim, the former is inferior to that latter.
Durkheim also wrote on alleged “elementary” forms of religion, building his theories on the anthropological studies available at the time. And he did (secondary) statistical analyses of the sociological facts of crime and suicide, trying to link their frequency to particular social conditions and beliefs.
What makes Durkheim unique to most sociologists is his blending of theory, method and observation. In most cases Durkheim provides a detailed outline and defense of his scientific approach before engaging in a particular study. After completing his research, a theoretical analysis of his data follows. However, most of Durkheim’s observations are secondhand. He used the statistics and case studies available to him at the time, and rarely – if ever – went out in the field to do his own primary research.
While this kind of approach wouldn’t wash today in social psychology, many academic sociologists can still get away with armchair philosophy, making pretty obvious statements and distinctions that hard core philosophers have already covered in far greater detail. The only difference is that the sociologist applies conceptual distinctions to everyday life in ways that are more easily understandable and up-to date.‡
‡ Forwarding simplified versions of existing philosophical distinctions is evident in the works of Peter Berger and Erving Goffman. However, Berger talked about the importance of data collection while Goffman usually went a step further, actually going out into the field and getting his own data.
- “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds” – Bob Marley. (zenandtheartofbreakingthings.wordpress.com)
- Deviance (earthpages.wordpress.com)
- Strat theorists, ngram waves (familyinequality.wordpress.com)
- Sociology Essay (thinkingbookworm.typepad.com)
- Infidelity, Tiger Woods, and Émile Durkheim (nortonbooks.typepad.com)
- What Is Collective Consciousness? (powersthatbeat.wordpress.com)
Traditionally, the term discourse was applied to any kind of serious treatise or homily that was used for educational or pastoral purposes. A good example of the older usage of discourse can be found in Rene Descartes’ Discourse on the Method (1637).¹
But with the rise of postmodernism, the idea of discourse underwent something of a revolution. Instead of representing the “last word” on a given topic, discourses now became socially relative truth claims. And rather than being perceived as originating from some great authority on high, to be received by a passive audience, the new idea of discourse is far more intersubjective. That is, in the grand scheme of things, one truth claim is about as good as another.
The poststructuralist thinker Michel Foucault popularized the idea of discourse as an essentially political utterance. The key for Foucault is that discourse (as relative instead of absolute truth) always occurs within a relational matrix of social power. For Foucault, a given discourse actually creates a specific truth. This truth is relative to the network from which it emerges. In postmodernism, which includes but also extends to thinkers other than Foucault, discourses may be vocal, written or gestural.
The Foucauldian understanding of discourse also includes institutionalized practices (e.g. the school system) or even architectural statements connoting a certain truth claim about a given group or society (e.g. 1 WTC, Burj Khalifa, CN Tower, Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Taj Mahal).
In addition, Foucault maintains that different discourses may take similar forms. For instance, political and economic discourses of the 18th and 19th centuries embrace discursive styles reflecting the scientific belief in evolution.
In the 21st century, giving a discourse a scientific look and feel may enhance its social legitimacy, appeal to the masses, and therefore have real effects. This is perhaps most obvious in TV ads, where products are often endorsed by actors portraying scientists, doctors and nurses. Dressing up ads in the garb of science is one form of scientism.
Interestingly, some contend that all of science (and not just cheesy ads) is really just another kind of mythmaking. These critics argue that science is always biased at some level, has degrees of institutionalized corruption, and reflects some kind of culturally relative paradigm (way of seeing the world).
From this perspective, science is a kind of temporary fiction. Its method does generate practical and helpful results. But some argue that scientists should better recognize their limits and not make overblown truth claims based on the visible successes of the scientific method. After all, this method is, to put it simply, one that tests hypotheses. And any hypothesis is always subject to falsification—if not today, perhaps tomorrow. So technologies usually improve, as does our grasp of ourselves and the world around us.
¹ This historical introduction is derived from David Macey’s The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, 2000, pp. 100-101.
- Foucault: His Thought, His Character (review) 2012 (foucaultnews.com)
- Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling by Foucault (2013) (foucaultnews.com)
- Discourse, ideology? MA assignment (journoactivist.com)
- Poststructuralism (prmarketingcommunication.com)
- #27: Discourse on Method by Rene Descartes (1year100books.wordpress.com)
- Michel Foucault, Pierre Rivière and the Archival Imaginary (2011) (foucaultnews.wordpress.com)
- Critical Is Sexy (thoughtcatalog.com)
- Michel Foucault: Power, Discourse and 9/11 (nortonbooks.typepad.com)
- Language as the Place Where Reality Gets Constructed (intersectingspaces.wordpress.com)
- Chomsky Can’t Be Bothered to Learn C (byfat.xxx)