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?