From my reading, progress studies defines progress as advancement that raises standards of living. Some time ago, I  asked a question about what exactly it means to do so; Jason Crawford kindly responded, and I've just gotten my thoughts together on the topic.

My 'challenge' (that is, a complicating notion that I think gets us somewhere helpful): notions of progress are intrinsically normative; they describe what types of lives people ought to live. Consider: 

"the quantity and quality of possessions that the average person has (clothes, electronics, tools, jewelry, sporting equipment, etc." 

Who cares about electronics? Only a highly electronically-minded society, and a community that views access to electronics as a pre-requisite for a meaningful life. Those assumptions in turn assume shared values: that global connectivity or access to labor are intrinsically enriching. (More likely, they are conducive to continuing or accelerating progress as we view it).

The best work I've found on these questions is the theory of capabilities Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum developed over many years of collaboration. Capabilities describe "things you can do." In understanding 'development' (in the sense of 'developing country', (an area of concern with many tendrils in progress theory), Sen and Nussbaum ask first: what do people want to do? What kinds of lives do they want to live? As they phrase it, a capability approach to development focuses on enhancing individuals’ capability of achieving the kind of lives they have reason to value.

So: what is the good life? Progress Studies has not examined this question as rigorously as it might. Notions of progress work relative to the capabilities that progress aims to (or is imagined to) create. Here's a worked example. I often hear, "the Apollo mission was kind of a waste." But progress, at the Apollo mission's time, meant allowing people progress toward some future in which the moon is an American suburb (see: any media of the time). I imagine space colonies seemed more important when nuclear war might have rendered the earth uninhabitable. The Apollo mission looked exactly like progress at its time, seemed perfectly reasonable to pursue. Now, what we mean by progress has changed, but we have yet to notice, in part because we have not yet defined the specific capabilities we have aimed progress toward.

I have reason to believe there is contestation here. From my highly informal sample of well-educated people in the Bay Area, for some, space colonies seem to represent progress; for others, an inhabitable and less technological earth seem to represent progress. These two, highly local cultural communities have different views of what progress is. My theoretical challenge is: Progress Studies ought to be able to explain why two communities can view progress differently, and do so in its own terms; that is, in a theory that adequately defines what progress is.

To make progress toward this theoretical challenge, my general research question would be: What can we learn about progress by discussing the capabilities progress imagines itself to create?

Some methods I've pondered to help find answers to this question: 

  • We might begin by making implicit discussions within Progress Studies explicit (e.g., discourse analysis).
  • We might discuss how communities decide what capabilities they want to create.
  • We might do historical analysis to see how progress has been understood historically in the recent (50 year) to ancient (1,000+ year) past.

What does the forum think?

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"My theoretical challenge is: Progress Studies ought to be able to explain why two communities can view progress differently, and do so in its own terms; that is, in a theory that adequately defines what progress is..."

These are interesting questions, but, in my opinion, on the periphery of what "Progress Studies" is. Progress Studies generally pre-supposes that industrial, scientific, and economic development are good things. Most discussion seems to focus on better understanding how and why these things come about. At least, that's what attracted me to this forum - somewhere where people nerd out over why the steam engine was developed where and when it was, how we can accelerate the pace of technological development, and how we can achieve more of these "good" things in the future by studying the past.

To determine whether or not this should be considered progress is, in my view, more likely to be satisfyingly answered by the field of Philosophy. There are centuries of writing that will delve far deeper into this, and have far more satisfying answers, than what's generally discussed here - and the general supposition that, say, the Apollo mission or mRNA vaccines were capital-P Progress.

"I have reason to believe there is contestation here. From my highly informal sample of well-educated people in the Bay Area, for some, space colonies seem to represent progress; for others, an inhabitable and less technological earth seem to represent progress. These two, highly local cultural communities have different views of what progress is. My theoretical challenge is: Progress Studies ought to be able to explain why two communities can view progress differently, and do so in its own terms; that is, in a theory that adequately defines what progress is."

I think this is actually a good example of the point I'm trying to make. The Philosopher would study both arguments and try to understand what each would say about the Good, and make a determination about what this says about the human condition or what progress should be. Your median Progress Studies enthusiast likely starts off pretty firmly on team Space Colony - and, if they're being honest, is mostly interested in this question as a means for understanding how we could encourage more of team degrowth to switch sides.

To be clear, I don't mean this in a negative sense toward either Progress Studies or Philosophy. Both questions are interesting and worthy of discussion. Seeking knowledge and understanding is an inherent good! But it's also nice to have a space to talk about steam engines or designing effective industrial policy, without getting into the Philosophical weeds each time. 

Thanks for your reply! I appreciate the thought.

Progress Studies generally pre-supposes that industrial, scientific, and economic development are good things.

Consider this: What's development? What subset of industrial, scientific, and economic labor count as development (versus business as usual)? Surely not everything - many things are dead-ends. Many developments, even ones that were temporarily widely used, turned out not to be worth the risk (see: thalidomide). Other developments are deemed, by some, not worth the risk, and well worth it by others (see: nuclear energy). On yet more, the jury is still out on whether the risk will have been worth it (like plastic). What makes any one thing a development? Progress Studies will at least need to agree on what is and is not development - if it can't, how does it know what's worth studying? 

Now, say we managed to come up with some criteria for what counts as "progress." Perhaps it's some mix of the technology's diffusion, or its ability to 'unlock' certain other technologies, discounted against its externalities. Now, if we had those criteria, we'd have to justify them: why are these the important things? To answer those questions, I reckon we'd find ourselves right back at the questions I asked in my original post.

If this is all philosophy: fine. But can Progress Studies really work independently of these questions? I understand if they get offloaded to philosophers. (I'll do it; I'm a willing volunteer). But can Progress Studies afford to be agnostic about them? I'm trying to nudge at those points where philosophy may be subtly required to do the thing Progress Studies needs to do. Points where ideas about what progress is haven't been questioned as finely as they might be, and where some additional question-asking in those areas may substantially strengthen Progress Studies' analytical purchase---deciding what is Progress and why, then understanding what features allowed that progress to happen.

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