Daniel Little

University of Michigan-Dearborn

Welcome to the academic website of Daniel Little. I am professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Since writing my dissertation in philosophy in the 1970s I have been fascinated by the complexity and heterogeneity of the social world, and the urgency of arriving at better intellectual tools for understanding the social world. Since the beginning of my academic career I have published books and articles on different aspects of this challenge. Since 2007 I have published an academic blog called Understanding Society, which I look at as a “lab notebook” for a working philosopher.

My understanding of the social world emphasizes heterogeneity, plasticity, and contingency. The social world is not like the natural world, filled with exceptionless regularities and underlying unchanging entities. I have always taken an “actor-centered” approach to understanding society — even as I recognize that actors live within a dense network of norms, institutions, and structures that constrain their thinking and their actions. But these social entities too are composed of the actions and thoughts of socially situated individuals, in other times and places. The images included here capture much of this complexity: conflict, collaboration, cooperation, solidarity, and self-interest all play into almost all social outcomes, with often unpredictable consequences. As Marx believed, “people make their own histories, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.”

I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Illinois (AB Philosophy, 1971; BS Mathematics, 1971) and completed my PhD in philosophy at Harvard University in 1977.

My most recent books are Confronting Evil in History (Cambridge Elements, 2022), A New Social Ontology of Government (Palgrave, 2020), and New Directions in the Philosophy of Social Science (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016). I am currently working on a book to be titled Rethinking Analytical Sociology, to appear in the Rethinking Sociology series with Edward Elgar Publishing. Details about my publications can be found on the Research tab.

I am currently teaching several new courses that reflect my current interests: Democracy, Division, and the Politics of Hate; Confronting Evil in History; and Organizational Causes of Large Technology Disasters. Each of these topics is a frequent topic of discussion in Understanding Society. Notably, each has to do, in different ways, with socially created catastrophes — hate-based populism, the Holocaust, and Chernobyl. Sample course descriptions for these courses are included on the Courses tab above.

In addition to many years as professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, Colgate University, Wellesley College, Bucknell University, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, I have been privileged to serve in positions of academic leadership at several institutions. I served as associate dean of faculty at Colgate University (1993-1996), vice president for academic affairs at Bucknell University (1996-2000), and chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn (2000-2018). Most fulfilling were the eighteen years I spent as chancellor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, contributing to an inclusive and diverse university serving metropolitan Detroit. These experiences were extremely rewarding, personally and intellectually. Being part of very different kinds of universities gave me a good exposure to some of the truths of the “new institutionalism” and the difference that apparently small organizational differences can make.

Please visit Understanding Society for ongoing discussions and reflections that explore the intersections between philosophy and society on a range of topics.

Mastodon, Twitter, and Facebook feeds offer interested readers a convenient way to follow the issues that arise here. The Understanding Society Youtube channel can be found here.