Archive for the ‘obscure sociological theory’ Category
Ok, let’s start with the Coleman diagram (or the “bathtub” as they call it in Germany). For institutionlaism, the two “macro” states are culture and isomorphism in an organizational field. That’s what the macro states are in DiMaggio and Powell ’83 or world polity theory.
Now, take your favorite micro sociological theory – maybe you are a Swidlerian toolkit person, or a Goffmanian frame theorist, or a Bourdieu habitus person. Then, complete the Coleman diagram. Except for habitus theory, you’ll notice that a lot of these theories don’t really produce isomorpshism on the macro level.
A definition: theory death is when some intellectual group tires of theory based on armchair speculation. Of course, that doesn’t mean that people stop producing theory. Rather, it means that “theory” no longer means endless books based on the author’s insights. Instead, people produce theory that responds to, or integrates, or otherwise incorporates a wealth of normal science research. In sociology, theory death seems to have happened sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. For example, recent theory books like Levi-Martin’s Social Structures or McAdam and Fligstein’s A Theory of Fields are extended discussions of empirical research that culminate in broader statements. The days of endlessly quoting and reinterpreting Weber are over. :(
Now, it seems, theory death is hitting some areas of political science. Consider a recent blog post by political scientists Stephen Saideman called “Leaving Grand Theorists Behind.” Saideman trashes a recent piece by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (“Leaving Theory Behind: Why Hypothesis Testing Has Become Bad for IR“) that urges international relations scholars to downplay empirical work return to grand thinking. Saideman is pissed:
- My first reaction was: Next title: why too much research is bad for IR….
- As folks pointed out on twitter and on facebook discussions, it seems ironic at the least that someone who made a variety of testable predictions that did not come true (the rise of Germany after the end of the cold war, conventional deterrence, the irrelevance of international institutions, etc) would suggest that testing our hypotheses is over-rated or over-done.
And the critique goes on and on… My take: for reasons that I have yet to understand, political science has not completely washed out old style “theory” in the way that it happened in most other social science disciplines. Therefore you have pockets of people who hold that as their ideal, even in fields that are obviously empirical. When they are very senior and very respected, you get this sort of flare up.
This weekend, Omar wrote a detail post about the “depth” of culture, the degree to which some idea is internalized and serves as a motivation or guide for action. I strongly recommend that you read it. What I’d like to do in this post is use Omar’s comments as a springboard for thinking about organizational behavior.
The reigning theory in sociology of organization is neo-institutionalism. The details vary, but the gist is that the model posits a Parsonsian theory of action. There is an “environment” that “imprints” itself in organizations. Myth and Ceremony institutionalism posits a “shallow imprinting” – people don’t really believe myth and ceremony. Iron cage institutionalism takes a very “deep” view of culture. Actors internalize culture and then do it.
Omar posits, I think, is a view of culture that is constitutive (you are the ideas you internalize) and interactive (your use of the idea modifies the cultural landscape). Omar wants to get away from the metaphor of “deep” vs. “shallow” culture. He also discusses dual process theory, which merits its own post.
What is important for organization theorists is that you get away from Parsons’ model:
Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
The implication for orgtheory? Previously, the locus of orgtheory has been the “environment” – all the stuff outside the organization that people care about. That’s highly analogous to “culture” getting internalized deep within the individual. Thus, different institutional theories reflect a deep/shallow dichotomy. If you buy Omar’s post-Swidler/post-Giddens view of things, then what is really interesting is the interaction creating at the point of contact between environment and organization. Orgs don’t passively await imprinting. Rather, there is variance in how they respond to the environment and there is interesting variation in the adoption/importation of stuff from the environment.
The issue of whether some culture is “deep” versus “shallow” has been a thorny one in social theory. The basic argument is that for some piece of culture to have the requisite effects (e.g. direct action) then it must be incorporated at some requisite level of depth. “Shallow culture” can’t produce deep effects. Thus, for Parsons values had to be deeply internalized to serve as guiding principles for action. Postulating cultural objects that are found at a “deep” level requires we develop a theory that tells us how this happens in the first place (e.g. Parsons and Shils 1951). That is: we need a theory about how the same culture “object” can go from (1) being outside the person, to (2) being inside the person, and (3) once inside, from being shallowly internalized to being deeply internalized. For instance, a value commitment may begin at a very shallow level (a person can report being familiar with that value) but by some (mysterious) “internalization” process it can become “deep culture” (when the value is now held unconditionally and motivates action via affective and other unconscious mechanisms; the value is now “part” of the actor).
One thing that has not been noted very often is that the “cultural depth” discussion in the post-Parsonian period (especially post-Giddens) is not the same sort of discussion that Parsons was having. This is one of those instances in cultural theory where we keep the same set of terms—e.g. “deep” versus “shallow” culture–but change the parameters of the argument, creating more confusion than enlightenment. In contrast to Parsonian theorists, for post-Giddensian theorists, the main issue is not whether the same cultural element can be found at different levels of “depth” (or travel across levels via a socialization process). The key point is that different cultural elements (because of some inherent quality) exist necessarily at a requisite level of “depth.”
These are not the same sort of statement. Only the first way of looking at things is technically “Parsonian”; that is Parsons really thought that
…culture patterns are [for an actor] frequently objects of orientation in the same sense as other [run of the mill physical] objects…Under certain circumstances, however, the manner of his [sic] involvement with a cultural pattern as an object is altered, and what was once an object becomes a constitutive part of the actor” (Parsons and Shils 1951: 8).
So here we have the same object starting at a shallow level and then “sinking” (to stretch the depth metaphor to death) into the actor, so that ultimately it becomes part of their “personality.”
Contrast this formulation to the (post-Giddensian) cultural depth story proposed by Sewell (1992). According to Sewell,
…structures consist of intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different circumstances. Such schemas should be thought of as operating at widely varying levels of depth, from Levi-Straussian deep structures to relatively superficial rules of etiquette (1992: 8-9).
Sewell (e.g. 1992: 22-26), in contrast to Parsons, decouples the depth from the causal power dimension of culture. Thus, we can find cultural schemas that are “deep but not powerful” (rules of grammar) and schemas that are powerful but not deep (political institutions). Sewell’s proposal is clearly not Parsonian; it is instead (post)structuralist: there are certain things (like a grammar) that have to be necessarily deep, while other things (like the the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate) are naturally found in the surface, and need not sink to the level of deep culture to produce huge effects. Accordingly, Sewell’s cultural depth discussion should not be confused with that of the early Swidler. Swidler (circa 1986) inherited the Parsonian not the post-structuralist problematic (because at that stage in American sociology that would have been an anachronism). Her point was that for the thing that mattered to Parsons the most (valuation standards) there weren’t different levels of depth, or more accurately that they didn’t need to have that property to do the things that they were supposed to do.
The primary aim of recent work on dual process models of moral judgment and motivation seems to be to revive a modified version of the Parsonian argument. That is, in order to direct behavior the point is that some culture needs to be “deeply internalized” (as moral intuitions/dispositions). However, as I will argue below the very logic of the dual process argument makes it incompatible with the strict Parsonian interpretation. To make matters even more complicated we have to deal with the fact that by the time we get to Swidler (2001) the conversation has changed (i.e. Bourdieu and practice theory happened), and she’s modified the argument accordingly. She ingeniously proposes that what Parsons (following the Weberian/Germanic tradition) called “ideas” can now be split into “practices + discourses.” Practices are “embodied” (and thus “deep” in the post-structuralist sense) and discourses are “external” (and thus shallow).
This leads to the issue of how Bourdieu fits into the post-Parsonian/post-structuralist conversation on cultural depth. We can at least be sure of one thing: the Parsonian “deep internalization” story is not Bourdieu’s version (even though Bourdieu used the term “internalization” in Logic of Practice). The reason for this is that habitus is not the sort of thing that was designed to give an explanation for why people “learn” to have “attitudes” (orientations) towards “cultural objects” much less to internalize these “objects” so that they become part of the “personality” (which is, by the way, possibly the silliest thing ever said). There is a way to tell the cultural depth story in a Bourdieusian way without falling into the trap of having to make a cultural object a “constituent” part of the actor but this would require de-Parsonizing the “cultural depth” discussion (which is something that Bourdieu is really good for). There is one problem: the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that, insofar as the cultural depth discussion is a pseudo-Parsonian rehash, there might not much left after it is properly Bourdieusianized.
More specifically, the cultural depth discussion might be a red herring because it still retains an implicit allegiance to the (Parsonian) “internalization” story, and internalization makes it seem as if something that was initially subsisting outside of the person now comes to reside inside the person (as if for instance, “I disagree with women going to work and leaving their children in daycare” was a sentence stored in long-term memory to which a “value” is attached.
This is a nice Parsonian folk model (shared by most public opinion researchers). But it is clear that if, we follow the substantive implications of dual process models, what resides in the person is not a bunch of sentences to which they are oriented; instead the sentence lives in the outside world (of the GSS questionnaire) and what resides “inside” (what has been internalized) is a disposition to react (negatively, positively) to that sentence when I read it, understand it and (technically if we follow Barsalou 1999) perceptually simulate its meaning, which actually involves running through modal scenarios of women going to work and leaving miserable children behind). This disposition is also presumably the same one that may govern my intuitive reaction to other sorts of items designed to measure my”attitude” towards other related things. I can even forget the particular sentence (but keep the disposition) so that when somebody or some event (I drive past the local daycare center) reminds me of it I still reproduce the same morally tinged reaction (Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Bargh and Williams 2006).
Note that the depth imagery disappears under this formulation, and this is for good reason. If we call “dispositions to produce moral-affective judgments when exposed to certain scenarios or statements in a consistent way through time” deep, so be it. But that is not because there exist some other set of things that are the same as dispositions except that they lack “depth.” Dispositions either exist in this “deep” form or they don’t exist at all (dispositions, are the sorts of things that in the post-Giddensian sense are inherently deep). No journey has been undertaken by some sort of ontologically mysterious cultural entity to an equally ontologically spurious realm called “the personality.” A “shallow” disposition is a contradiction in terms, which then makes any recommendation to “make cultural depth a variable” somewhat misleading, as long as that recommendation is made within the old Parsonian framework. The reason why this is misleading is because this piece of advice relies on the imagery of sentences with contents located at “different levels” of the mind travelling from the shallow realm to the deep realm and transforming their causal powers in the process.
If we follow the practice-theoretical formulation more faithfully, the discussion moves from “making cultural depth a variable” to “reconfiguring the theoretical language so that what was previously conceptualized in these terms is now understood in somewhat better terms.” This implies giving up on the misleading metaphor of depth and the misleading model of a journey from shallow-land to depth-land via some sort of internalization mechanism. Thus, there are things to which I have dispositions to react (endowed with all of the qualities that “depth” is supposed to provide such as consistency and stability) in a certain (e.g. morally and emotionally tinged) distinct way towards. We can call this “deep culture” but note that the depth thing does not add anything substantive to this characterization. In addition, there are things towards which I (literally) have no disposition whatever, so I form online (shallow?) judgments about these things because this dorky, suit-wearing in July interviewer with NORC credentials over here apparently wants me to do so. But this (literally confabulated) “attitude” is like a leaf in the wind and it goes this or that way depending on what’s in my head that day (or more likely as shown by Zaller 1992, depending on what was on the news last night). Is this the difference between “shallow” and “deep” culture? Maybe, but that’s where the (Parsonian version of the) internalization language reaches its conceptual limits.
Thus, we come to a place where a dual process argument becomes tightly linked to what was previously being thought of under the misleading “shallow culture/deep culture” metaphor in a substantive way. I think this will “save” anybody who wants to talk about cultural depth from the Parsonian trap, because that person can then say that “deep= things that trigger moral intuitions” and “shallow=attitudes formed by conscious, on-the-fly confabulation.” Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
Last week, I wondered why there was a decline of “social theorist” as a self-identified niche in sociology. It’s not that people don’t write social theory. On this blog, we spend a lot time discussing books that might be called “theory,” like Reed’s book on interpretive social science or Levi-Martin’s on social structure. Rather, as a whole, social doesn’t produce a lot of people who say “I’m a social theorist.”
In the comments, there was a strong discussion that focused on my hypothesis that empirical work is simply more competitive. Coming up a genuine advance in social theory is much harder than doing solid empirical work. One commenter then responded, if I may paraphrase, that in the long run theory wins out over empirical work.
At first glance, this seems intuitive. We all Weber, but how many of us read, say community studies from the 1920s? I bet John Levi-Martin’s book on structure will be read more than the latest p* article in Social Networks.
Upon further reflection, it’s not clear at all. What we now call “theory” was often “empirical work” in an earlier era. My view is that “theory” is a vague term that is retroactively applied to some sociological work that is highly successful.
For example, most of Durkheim’s major books are considered “theory.” Some are purely theory (e.g., Rule of Sociological Method) while others are doggedly empirical (e.g., Suicide). Some “theorists” write abstract theory (e.g., Parsons) while others mix and match (e.g., Alexander’s book on Neofunctionalism is almost bereft of traditional empirical work, while his recent stuff is motivated by empirical example). Still in others, it’s hard to tell where abstract theory begins and empirical commentary begins (e.g., Simmel).
Maybe that’s the deeper lesson. What becomes canonical theory in the future is hard to predict. So just try to do your best. We’re in a golden age of middle range theory and data and sociology. That’s where the profession it at right now, and that’s where the theory of future is being born.
In the comments on my discussion of Reed’s recent social theory book, Andrew Perrin wrote “the only thing Bhaskar and Postmodernism actually have in common is that Fabio finds them distasteful, or complicated, or something like that.” Yes, exactly. Different ideas, but they are both cryptic and often wrong. Critical realism and post-modernism were mentioned in my post because they indicate the type of literature that Reed often appeals to. Sometimes Reed appeals to types of scholarship that are clearly written and are valuable, at other times he appeals to types of literature that are obscurantist.
When I evaluate scholarship, I focus on whether it is true, insightful, and informative. By this account, post-modernism fails in because it is simply wrong and hard to read. For example, a common claim of post-modernism is that we have a “decentered self,” a claim that flies in the face of research showing the relative stability of personality over the life course.
I also distrust critical realism because it is extremely cryptic. Let’s take the following Bhaskar quote, which won Philosophy and Literature’s 1996 prize for worst academic writing:
Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal — of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.
It says a lot if you beat out continental philosophers and literary critics. This is the Usain Bolt of bad writing.
I’m willing to deal with tough texts if there’s a pay-off. For example, I have long found Bourdieu to be valuable because once you peel away the wordiness, there’s interesting and testable hypotheses about status and social behavior. But when I peel away the layers of the critical realist onion, I am only left with tears.
My friend Jason Stanley has a blog post up at the New York Times‘s Opinionator section that might be of interest to you social theorists out there. Jason’s a philosopher of language who teaches at Rutgers. He attacks a distinction which is by now extremely well-entrenched in social theory generally and in specific theories of action in the sociology of culture, the sociology of organizations, and elsewhere—namely, the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge:
Humans are thinkers, and humans are doers. There is a natural temptation to view these activities as requiring distinct capacities. When we reflect, we are guided by our knowledge of truths about the world. By contrast, when we act, we are guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions. If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge. …
Most of us are inclined immediately to classify activities like repairing a car, riding a bicycle, hitting a jump shot, taking care of a baby or cooking a risotto as exercises of practical knowledge. And we are inclined to classify proving a theorem in algebra, testing a hypothesis in physics and constructing an argument in philosophy as exercises of the capacity to operate with knowledge of truths. The cliché of the learned professor, as inept in practical tasks as he is skilled in theoretical reasoning, is just as much a leitmotif of popular culture as that of the dumb jock. The folk idea that skill at action is not a manifestation of intellectual knowledge is also entrenched in contemporary philosophy, though it has antecedents dating back to the ancients.
According to the model suggested by this supposed dichotomy, exercises of theoretical knowledge involve active reflection, engagement with the propositions or rules of the theory in question that guides the subsequent exercise of the knowledge. Think of the chess player following an instruction she has learned for an opening move in chess. In contrast, practical knowledge is exercised automatically and without reflection. The skilled tennis player does not reflect on instructions before returning a volley — she exercises her knowledge of how to return a volley automatically. Additionally, the fact that exercises of theoretical knowledge are guided by propositions or rules seems to entail that they involve instructions that are universally applicable — the person acting on theoretical knowledge has an instruction booklet, which she reflects upon before acting. In contrast, part of the skill that constitutes skill at tennis involves reacting to situations for which no instruction manual can prepare you. The skilled tennis player is skilled in part because she knows how to adjust her game to a novel serve, behavior that does not seem consistent with following a rule book.
… But once one begins to bear down upon the supposed distinction between the practical and the theoretical, cracks appear. When one acquires a practical skill, one learns how to do something. But when one acquires knowledge of a scientific proposition, that too is an instance of learning. In many (though not all) of the world’s languages, the same verb is used for practical as well as theoretical knowledge (for example, “know” in English, “savoir” in French). More important, when one reflects upon any exercise of knowledge, whether practical or theoretical, it appears to have the characteristics that would naïvely be ascribed to the exercise of both practical and intellectual capacities. A mathematician’s proof of a theorem is the ideal example of the exercise of theoretical knowledge. Yet in order to count as skilled at math, the mathematician’s training — like that of the tennis player — must render her adept in reacting to novel difficulties she may encounter in navigating mathematical reality. Nor does exercising one’s knowledge of truths require active reflection. I routinely exercise my knowledge that one operates an elevator by depressing a button, without giving the slightest thought to the matter. From the other direction, stock examples of supposedly merely practical knowledge are acquired in apparently theoretical ways. People can and often do learn how to cook a risotto by reading recipes in cookbooks.
Jason develops the point a bit more in his post and rather more rigorously in recent book, which I haven’t read in any detail as of yet. I won’t say that I’m entirely convinced, and in particular I wonder whether the argument he’s making is going to turn on some very fine-grained aspects of technical philosophy of language which I’m not really in a position to assess. However, the strong division between practical and theoretical knowledge is such a shibboleth in social theory—variously entrenched in Wittgensteinian, phenomenological and cognitive versions—and such a great deal rests on it, that it’s worth taking the time to think against it once in a while to see where that goes.
Conceptions of what we mean by “agency” abound and are unlikely to constitute a single manageable notion (some ritualistic citation to Emirbayer and Mische would go here). Instead, something like the notion of agency is probably a complex, “radial category.” This means that when we take a position on the various versions of the “agency/structure” or any sort of analogous “debate” we end up having unrelated arguments that use similar words, and sometimes the same argument using different words. More deleteriously, we end up speaking in code, so that instead of saying what we mean in specific terms, we develop the bad habit of speaking in “generics” such as agency versus structure. Positions taken in terms of these generics have a socio-logical function in the field (they serve as emblems of membership in groups and schools) but analytically they leave us at the level of a low cognitive equilibrium, one which is pretty hard to shake out from (which is why it seems like we’ve been having the same conversation for like fifty years now).I think one productive way to proceed is to use a disagreggation and specification strategy, whereby we isolate all of the various sub-arguments that we are having under the agency/structure debate guise (this is roughly the strategy that John Martin used in Social Structures in regards to that concept). After disagreggation and specification we may then have it all out at this lower level of abstraction. Arguments at this level will be bound to be more productive, because here hopes for adjudication regarding the desirability and coherence of one position over another are actually much higher than they would be if we stay at the level of ghostly generics.
So, one thing that I think has been meant by agency in the history of social theory is simply freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that is not dictated by the objective features of the world. While the term agency usually has an affinity to “freedom” (as in freedom of the will or freedom to do whatever you want), so that in a lot of debates agency is conceptualized as freedom of action, I think that one of the core meanings (or the most consequential meaning in the history of various influential debates in social theory) is not about freedom to act but about freedom to think or as I will refer to this from now on, as freedom to conceptualize. So agency is simply freedom of cognition from objective aspects of the world, or more precisely the agent’s freedom (insofar as our cognitive capacities are constitutive of our status as agents) to conceptualize the world in alternative ways. One can recognize this as a strictly Kantian version of what we mean by “agency” and that is no accident. For it is clear that it was the strand of social theory that begins with German-Idealism and which emphasized the creative and constitutive capacities of the subject to conceive of the world in particular ways that injected the most consequential version of the agency problematic in social theory. Under this model, the individual is “free” insofar as the way in which some state of affairs is conceptualized is not completely determined by some sort of non-negotiable feature of the world (e.g. its materiality or brute facticity). Instead, a conceptualization emerges from a negotiation between features of the world and aspects of cognition that are decidedly contributed by the conceptualizer. This mean that a simple inspection of the objective features of the situation is not sufficient to predict the way in which that situation will be understood (read conceptualized) by a person. In this sense, to say that there agency is a property of persons is to say that they have “freedom to” construe a given state of affairs in ways that are not a function of extra-cognitive features of that state of affairs.
As Parsons well understood, a theory that denies agency (or that denies “voluntarism” in his antiquated language) would be a theory that by-passes the mental, or to use more contemporary language, would be a theory that by-passes cognition (or in Weberian terms, a theory that says that ideas don’t matter). In Parsons there were three examples of such theory: instinct theory (biologism), radical behaviorism (environmental determinism) and neo-classical economics; he called all of this stuff “positivism” even though that had nothing to do with how the term had been understood in nineteenth century thought. Regardless, Parsons was right in thinking that any theory that made the cognitive a determinate product of the non-cognitive by definition got rid of the element of “freedom” in action (which he sometimes confusingly referred to as the “value-element”); the reason for that is that–thanks to Kant—in the social theory tradition the only source of freedom left to the person was the freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that was not determined by non-negotiable features of the world. That’s why the “material” is the site of non-agency and the mental (or the cognitive/ideal) is where “agency” resides.
So one way to specify the whole “agency” thing is to actually argue about this rather than about agency: does your actor model makes conceptualization indeterminate given some state of affairs or does it constrain the actor to conceptualize the world in a single way (e.g. the way that “reality” really is). Parsons understood that any theory that reduced cognition to “objectivity” was “positivist” in the sense that it left the actor no conceptual choice to construe the world in independence from non-cognitive features of the world. In neo-classical economics the world is only one way (the way described by “modern science”) and if the actor did not have this conceptualization then by definition the actor was irrational. That’s why in Parsons work (but curiously not in our versions of his debates) there was a clear connection between agency and “the problem of rationality.” Parsons dilemma was that the only theory that had a normative conception of rationality did not leave room for agency (positivism in its neo-classical incarnation) while the only theory that left room for agency (freedom to think otherwise) when taken to its ultimate conclusions resulted in a irrationalist premise (a form of cultural and cognitive relativism). We still haven’t solved that one, but it would be helpful to bring the rationality debate to the fore again.
Note that a lot of “social construction” talk (and debate) has the same structure. So another advantage of what I propose is that disagreggates and re-specifies that debate. I think the term social construction is terrible and misleading. First, if you’ve read Berger and Luckmann you know that it is missing a few words. What they really mean by this phrase is the cognitive construction of (the sense of) reality with categories of thought of social origin. This mouthful is of course unwieldy, but underscores their achievement. In some respects the B&L respecification of the problematic ended up being a better synthesis of German-Idealism with French Social Realism (e.g. Weber and Durkheim) than that produced by Parsons. For the point of social construction (and of cultural sociology) is that this implies an “idealist” version of the Marxian dictum (on this “idealization” of Marx B&L were quite clear): you cognitively make your world but not with categories of thought of your own making (a point obviously central to Bourdieu as well; the phenomenological notion of world-making re-appears in analytic philosophy in Nelson Goodman’s work). I think the reason why we like this formulation is that we can have our cake and eat it too. Note that at the individual level this implies the grossest form of (Durkhemian) determinism (not made any more palatable by the invocation of Mead): the categories with which your think are the product of society; at the group level though we get the benefits of German Idealism: culture is not reducible to (social structure, environment, physical features of the world, universal rationality), so agency re-appears at that level.
This accounts for why social-construction types of debates are so predictable: on the one side you usually have somebody vigorously stomping his/her feet and saying that there are objective features of the world (e.g. and by “objective” the foot-stomper means features of reality that demand that they be conceptualized in ways that leave no freedom for alternative construals). Let’s call these features non-negotiable features. On the other side you have social constructionists carefully denying that such non-negotiable features exist (or more precisely, claiming that they might exist in a neutral ontological sense but they don’t really constrain thought in the way that the non-constructionist claims that they do; i.e. they are epistemically indeterminate). For the (strict) social constructionist everything that the non-constructionist claims is non-negotiable could be construed otherwise, and that’s why culture is autonomous and people have agency.
For instance, Andy Pickering thinks that his work on Quarks demonstrates how (scientific?) “agency” emerges from the “mangle of practice” even though his substantive point is that objective features of the world have not constrained the actual shape of theories about the world in the history of particle physics. Once again, “agency” plays no role in this claim, and we could translate agency as “capacity to conceptualize in divergent ways” without any explanatory loss; agency is a completely decorative term in this whole discussion. Of course, now we can easily explain why it makes this strange appearance; for what Pickering means by “agency” is simply freedom of thought from the slavery of having to reflect a unitary reality. Pickering’s big counter-factual (and this he has in common with every cultural theorist) is that the history of physics (which is essentially a history of conceptualizations) could have been otherwise. Non-constructionists think that he should be comitted to the nearest mental institution. The constructionist immediately points out that the very notion of mental illness is a concept that is not determined by objective features of the world and therefore one that has been cognitively constructed in collective or social way (we can envision an alternative history in which the notion of “mental illness” never arose in the way that it arose in the West, which is the point of Foucault’s early work).
So the point is that a lot of debates about social construction is simply the historical version of the culture/agency thing: the history of collective conceptualizations is contingent and/or driven by the internal features of cultural systems themselves (a point also made by Foucault in his early work). One thing that is not the case is that the history of cultural change can be done as a history of changes in non-cultural features of the world.
The lesson? Agency means many things. One obvious thing that it means is freedom. Yet, a curious quirk in the history of social theory linked “freedom” to cognition or thought (Kant). In the twentieth century this linkage (via Boas who was said to regularly page through his copy of Critique of Pure Reason during cold nights in the arctic) was “blown up” to the group level in the form of the founding problematic of cultural anthropology; so that the “autonomy” (a synonym for “freedom” by the way) of culture from “conditions” (biological, environmental, etc.) is the formal equivalent of the Kantian autonomy of conceptualization from the world, or the Parsonian autonomy of values from conditions. Cultural sociology inherits this whole package of debates, problematics and hasty formulations, but in some sense, cultural sociology is simply the contemporary avatar of a position in this debate (shared by Boas and Parsons): this position is that culture, cognition and thus conceptualization is not reducible to objective or non-negotiable features of the world (so when early network theorists counter-posed “social relations” to culture, they took a stance in this debate, one that they’ve recently reneged); Berger and Luckmann provide us with the modern vocabulary, the one that replaced Parsons’ voluntarism/idealism/positivism lingo: “the social construction of reality.” That’s why this phrase has become shorthand for saying “culture/cognition (depending of whether you are talking about groups or individuals) is not a function on non-negotiable features of reality” or simply another way of saying “agents have the freedom to construct realities in ways that are not a function of the objective features of the world” (the phenomenological input here is clear in the notion of “multiple realities”). Edmund Leach, Mary Douglas and Eviatar Zerubavel provide us with another update of the same position: culture is a grid that cuts the booming, buzzing confusion of the world in group-specific ways. This single fact explains why cultural sociology stands opposed to all sorts of biologism, environmentalism and universalist rationalisms. In these debates the capacity to unhook thought from servitude to some sort of non-mental determinant is essentially an argument for “agency.” But if that’s the case, then we can have the same debates without using the “a” word. It adds nothing to the proceedings, and in fact may actually confuse matters further.
As every sociology grad student knows, the famous thesis of Dukrheim and Mauss’ (1962: 11) essay on Primitive Classification is that “the classification of things reproduces…[the] classification of men [sic].” This is a controversial argument that has served as one of the primary inspirations for contemporary work in the sociology of knowledge. Durkheim and Mauss went on to argue for instance, that if persons divided themselves into two groups, then they divided the world of animals, plants, etc. into two kinds; if they divided themselves into four groups organized as hierarchies (with subgroups nested within larger groups), we would find an analogous classification system for nature (with sub-kinds nested within larger kinds), and so on.
I want to propose that a form of “Primitive Classification” is alive and well in contemporary social theory. This argument holds with two minor elaborations: first, we must allow for the corollary that if the classification of things reproduces the classification of persons, then the resistance to classify persons should result in a resistance to classify things. Second, that the style of classification of persons should result in an analogous style of classifying things. For instance, one thing that Durkheim and Mauss “primitives” had no trouble doing was classifying themselves in rigidly hierarchical terms. From here Durkheim reasoned that an equally rigid classification of things should follow such that subsumptive relations between groups resulted in analogous part whole classifications at the level of natural phenomena. From this it follows, that resistance to classify persons in a hierarchical manner should result in an equal resistance to classify things in a hierarchical way.
I think that these two principles can help to explain a lot of quirky features of contemporary social theory. Consider for instance the knee-jerk presupposition that any form of dualistic distinction is somehow “wrong” (a priori) and therefore deserves to be “transcended” (the allergy against dual distinctions). Or consider for instance the related (equally knee jerk) propensity to think that when postulating the existence of two abstract substances and processes (let us say, structure and agency) the theorist makes a “mistake” if he or she “privileges” one over the other (theoretical egalitarianism). Such that the best theory is the one that gives equal share of (causal?) power to both things (or if the theorist postulates “three” things, then all three).
I will submit that for the most part, the “hunch” that “dualisms” are wrong or that “privileging” some abstract thing over another puts us on the road towards the worst of analytical sins has nothing to do (in 99% of the cases) with the logical virtues of the argument. Instead, I think that this hunch, is in effect a form of Primitive Classification unique to certain collectives in the social and human sciences (most other sciences and most other lay persons have no problem with dualisms and hierarchical privileging of one abstract thing over the other). I think that we (e.g. sociologists) want our classification of (abstract) things to reflect our (desired?) classification of persons, so that when there is a mismatch, we simply reject the theoretical strategy as wrong and in fact end up producing bland theoretical classifications (“equal interplay of structure and agency”) that in fact reflect our classification of persons. So dualisms are (perceived as) “wrong,” not logically, but socio-logically (Martin 2000). They are wrong because our desired classification of persons tends to reject dualisms (at least in the humanities and some social sciences). And even when abstract dualisms are provisionally allowed (e.g. agency and structure), then we are forbidden from privileging one over the other (because such a privileging is a no no in our [ideal?] social world).
So, the next time somebody tells you that the very fact that you made an analytical distinction is somehow already a logical or theoretical “fallacy,” (see Vaisey and Frye 2011 for an entertaining dispatching of this ridiculous idea) or the very fact that you argued that something is substantively more important than something else somehow makes you unacquainted with the canons of theoretical logic or that your theory in fact requires that everything be at the same level as everything else in order to count as “sound” (see Archer 1982 for the classic demolition of this preposterous notion), turn the tables and point them back to Durkheim and Mauss’ classic essay.
Why are there so few anarchists in the academy? That’s the opening question in David Graeber’s book (free pdf) Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Check it out.
Here are the opening two paragraphs:
What follows are a series of thoughts, sketches of potential theories, and tiny manifestos—all meant to offer a glimpse at the outline of a body of radical theory that does not actually exist, though it might possibly exist at some point in the future.
Since there are very good reasons why an anarchist anthropology really ought to exist, we might start by asking why one doesn’t—or, for that matter, why an anarchist sociology doesn’t exist, or an anarchist economics, anarchist literary theory, or anarchist political science.
Hosted over on my own blog, mostly because it’s a little long, here’s A Sociology of Steve Jobs.
Richard Swedberg and Wendelin Reich have written an engaging Theory, Culture & Society piece capturing Georg Simmel’s many aphorisms. For Simmel fans, definitely worth reading.
This article contains an analysis of Georg Simmel’s aphorisms and an appendix with a number of these in translation. An account is given of the production, publication and reception of the around 300 aphorisms that Simmel produced. His close relationship to Gertrud Kantorowicz is discussed, since she was given the legal right to many of Simmel’s aphorisms when he died and also assigned the task of publishing them by Simmel. The main themes in Simmel’s aphorisms are presented: love, Man, philosophy, Lebensphilosophie and art. Two of Simmel’s aphorisms are also given an extended analysis. It is suggested that the skill of writing a good aphorism, both when it comes to style and content, has much to do with what we call the art of compression. It is also suggested that what ultimately attracted Simmel to the form of aphorism was its capacity to hint at something that is richer than the reality we are currently experiencing.
aphorisms ■ Gertrud Kantorowicz ■ Lebensphilosophie ■ Georg Simmel ■ sociology
If you read/speak German, then you can find a wealth of free, classic (and more obscure) sociology-related books online. Here’s a sample of books that you can download for free from google ebooks:
Gustav Ratzenhofer, 1907. Soziologie. (OK, I hadn’t heard of him either. Omar has. It appears Ratzenhofer was an Austrian General and Sociologist. Hey, it’s a free book, people.)
Georg Simmel, 1892. Die Probleme der Geschichtsphilosophie, (Genau.)
Georg Simmel, 1906. Kant. (Simmel’s lectures from the University of Berlin.)
Georg Simmel, 1908. Soziologie: Untersuchungen ueber die Formen der Vergellschaftung. (Classic.)
Ferdinand Tönnies, 1887. Gemeinshaft und Gesellschaft.
Max Weber. 1921. Gesammelte Politische Schriften.
When you and I wake up in the morning a series of unconscious microhabits of perception and appreciation take over. These habits structure our “common-sense” perception of the physical and the social worlds. In fact these habits dictate a specific partition of the everyday objects that we encounter into those that are “animate” (agents) and “inanimate” (non-agents). Within the subset of agents that we endow with “animacy” we distinguish those that have a resemblance to you and me (we use the term “humans” to refer to them) and those who do not. We treat the “humans” in a special way, for instance, by holding them responsible for their actions, getting mad at them if they do not acknowledge our existence but we have previously acknowledged theirs, saying “Hello” to some of them in the morning, etc. We also ascribe distinct powers and abilities to those humans (and maybe to those furry non-human agents whom we have grown close to).
The most important of these powers is called (by some humans) “agency.” That is the capacity to make things happen and to be the centers of a special sort of causation that is different from that which befalls non-human agents and non-agents in general (such as my lamp). This is our common-sense ontology. Bruno Latour does not experience the world in this way. In Bruno’s experience, the world is not partitioned into a set of “animated” entities and a set of “non-animated” ones. After much wrestling with previous habits of thought and experience (which Bruno imbibed from his upbringing in a Western household and his education at Western schools), Bruno has taught himself to perceive something that we usually do not notice (although I hasten to add, it is available for our perception only if we started to make an effort to notice): a bunch of those entities that the rest of the world does not ascribe that special property of “agency” to (because the rest of us continue to hold on to our species-centric habit of thought that dictates that that this capacity is only held by our human conspecifics), actually behave and affect the world in a manner that is indistinguishable from humans. For instance, they act on humans, they make humans do things, they participate (in concert with humans some of the time; in fact humans can be observed to “recruit” these non-human agents and these “non-agents” for their own self-aggrandizement projects) in the creation of large socio-technical networks that are responsible for a lot of the “wonders” of modern civilization.
The important thing is that now Bruno is able to directly perceive (in an everyday unproblematic manner) that these “machines” and these “animals” are the source of as much agency (sometimes even more! ), than other humans. Bruno has gotten so good at practically deploying this new conceptual scheme (along with the radically new ontological partition of the world that it carries along with it) so as to transpose this newly acquired and newly mastered habits of perception and appreciation to discover evidence of the agentic capacities of those entities that were previously thought not to exercise it, in the history of Science and Politics. He has even uncovered evidence of humans being aware of this evidence, but then he noted that they proceeded to hide this evidence by creating elaborate systems of ontology and metaphysics in which non-human agency was explicitly denied, and in which it was explicitly conceptualized as being an exclusive property of so-called “persons” (where persons is now a category restricted to humans) only. These “human” agents were now thought to reside in a special realm that these human apologists called “society.” This “society,”—these thinkers proposed—was organized by a specific set of properties and laws that were distinct from those that “governed” (the humans even used a metaphor from their own way of dealing with another! ) the “slice” of the world that was populated by those entities which “lacked” this agency (the humans called these latter “natural laws”).
Giddy with excitement at this discovery, Bruno even wrote a book in which he announced the entire cover-up to the rest of his human counterparts. But the basic point is as follows: When Bruno experiences the world directly, or when Bruno’s brain simulates this experience (e.g. when reading a historical account of the discovery of the germ theory of disease) he does not deploy our common-sense ontology. Instead he practically deploys a conceptual scheme that in many ways does “violence” to our common sense ontology by radically redrawing and liberally redistributing certain properties that we restrict to a smaller class of entities. Bruno is thus able to perceive the action of these “agents” both in the contemporary world and in past historical eras in a way that escape most of us. In fact, Bruno recommends that if you and I want to see the same things that he sees, and if you and I want to escape the limits of our highly restrictive “common-sense” ontology (in which such things as “society,” “persons,” “animals,” “natural laws,” etc. figure prominently) that we begin by (little by little) divesting ourselves of old habits of thought and perception and acquiring the new habits that he has worked so hard to master.
The epistemological payoff of doing this would be to see the world just as Bruno sees it: a world in which humans are just one of another class of agents and which agency is shared equally by a host set of entities that our common-sense ontology fails to ascribe agency to (and which we thus fail to perceive the everyday ways in which these alleged non-agents exercise a sort of “power” and “influence” on our own behavior and action). In this way Bruno recommends that the ontology specified in our common sense be reduced and displaced by that specified in what he now calls “actor-network theory.” But this is a terrible name, for this is not a “theory” but a viewpoint; a way of practically reconfiguring our perception of the social and natural worlds. In fact this last sentence just used categories from the old ontology for in Bruno’s world, the “master-frame” that divides the things of “nature” from “social” things (Goffman 1974) is no longer operative and no longer serves to structure our perception.
In my undergraduate social theory class, I teach a little bit of Durkhem’s The Division of Labor and Simmel’s essay on the problem of modern culture, as anthologized in the Levine volume. Last week , multiple students asked: How are Simmel and Durkheim’s criticism’s of modernity different?
I had to admit that they formulated very similar criticisms: modern society was dysfuntional because we are disconnected. However, Durkheim and Simmel had very different proximate causes for modernity’s problems. Simmel was not quite obsessed with the development of capitalism as a root problem, while Durkheim, and other classical theorists, definitely though that the capitalist division of labor was the fundamental issue in modernity.
The Simmel take on capitalism was always a bit conflicted. Yes, he could be extremely critical. When I took an undergraduate theory course, he was presented as a sort of Marxist. The city was the nexus of capitalism, and they city depersonalized you. But if you read Philosophy of Money in its entirety, you’d see he also had a number of very positive things to say about modern economic institutions. So it’s not just a case of anti-capitalist critique.
That leads me to my main point about Simmel’s view of modernity. I think ultimately it’s a cultural argument. The formlessness of modern life, his terminology for anomie, was less about social differentiation (i.e., the capitalist way of organizing work) and more about the lack of values that provided order for the spirit. Individualism, which is not logically connected with modern capitalism, was the culprit. Anomie reflects a shift in culture, not just a technical development.
So, theory heads, did I get this one right?
Which prominent sociologist was responsible for these lovely words about Stalin?
Joseph Stalin was a great man; few other men of the 20th century approach his stature. He was simple, calm and courageous. He seldom lost his poise; pondered his problems slowly, made his decisions clearly and firmly; never yielded to ostentation nor coyly refrained from holding his rightful place with dignity. He was the son of a serf but stood calmly before the great without hesitation or nerves. But also – and this was the highest proof of his greatness – he knew the common man, felt his problems, followed his fate.
Three great decisions faced Stalin in power and he met them magnificently: first, the problem of the peasants, then the West European attack, and last the Second World War. The poor Russian peasant was the lowest victim of tsarism, capitalism and the Orthodox Church. He surrendered the Little White Father easily; he turned less readily but perceptibly from his ikons; but his kulaks clung tenaciously to capitalism and were near wrecking the revolution when Stalin risked a second revolution and drove out the rural bloodsuckers.
Answer below the fold…
Today I ran across this beautiful paragraph from an American Political Science Review article (1963) by Peter Blau:
In general, a situation of collective dependence is fertile soil for the development of authority, but its development is contingent on judicious restraint by the superior in the use of his power. If he alienates subordinates by imposing his will upon them against their resistance, they will obey only under duress and not freely follow his lead. If, on the other hand, he uses some of his power to further their collective interests, the common experience of dependence on and obligation to the superior is apt to give rise to shared beliefs that it is right and in the common interest to submit to his command, and these social values and the corresponding social norms of compliance legitimate and enforce his authority over them, as has been noted. In brief, coercive power and authority are alternative forms of social control, which are incompatible, but which both have their roots in conditions of collective dependence (313).
Blau is in fine form here. The paragraph is rich with testable propositions about authority, none of which he actually investigates empirically in the article. I identified the following implied propositions, but there may be more.
- Groups with greater member interdependence will have higher levels of authority legitimacy (i.e., shared beliefs of the rightness of a superior’s command).
- Superiors who exercise power against the will of group members will lose the legitimacy of their authority.
- Superiors who sacrifice to provide collective benefits for the group will enhance the legitimacy of their authority.
- Both of the above effects are moderated by group member interdependence.
While prepping to teach a graduate seminar in classical theory seminar a couple of years ago, I decided to buy this edited volume featuring a series of Durkheimian scholars dealing about the role the notion of “representations” played in his work.
This is one of those Routledge hardback-only deals that is only of interest to a small audience of cognoscenti, which means that you can only find it for exorbitant prices at the usual used book sites. The price was indeed exorbitant, but I decided the shell the big bucks anyways (as opposed to a lot of edited volumes, this one was actually worth it). The seller said that the book in good condition, and the pages were generally all clean except for some writing in the first page. I remember seeing that the book indeed had some writing, but it only consisted of some sort of note written by a person who bought the book and obviously sent it to somebody else as a gift or something. I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time. The note in the first page is shown below.
When I picked up the book again a couple of months ago it struck me this scribble might actually be more significant than I first realized. I don’t want to proffer any grandiose theories here, but I submit to you that the writer (“Bill”) is William S. F. Pickering (the book’s editor and a well-known Durkheim scholar and founder of The British Center for Durkheimian Studies) and the intended recipient (Bob Jones) is not a third-generation hellfire and brimstone evangelist, but the equally renowned Durkheim scholar Robert Alun Jones. Since I now own the book, either Prof. Jones wasn’t very impressed (which I doubt because the chapters are great), or he figured (correctly) that there was a good market for these kinds of hugely overpriced limited edition books among suckers like myself (other scenarios are of course possible, maybe involving a forgetful Professor lending his book out to a starving grad student).
Robert Paul Wolff — the well-known philosopher of politics and political economy, late convert to Afro-American studies, and author of some very good books including the best explanation of how to approach Marx’s ironic, sarcasm-laced prose style — has lately been keeping a blog, and writing his memoirs. There are some very good stories, mostly about philosophers.
Most sociologists are unaware that Talcott Parsons’ son Charles Parsons is a well-respected philosopher of logic, mathematics and language. Wolff knew him as a student, and Chapter 4 has a good story about Parsons, Snr:
Charlie was a very serious, very brilliant, very compulsive young man of middle height, with sandy hair. He was an academic brat, having grown up in the family home in Belmont during the time that his father was a famous senior professor in the Harvard Social Relations Department. Talcott Parsons had been responsible for introducing American readers to the works and theories of Max Weber, the great German sociologist. But unlike Weber, whose books were deep, powerful investigations of the roots, structure, and functioning of modern bureaucratic capitalist society, Parsons produced vast, empty, classificatory schemes that were devoid of any real power or insight. Poor Charlie, who lived very much in the shadow of the great man, was in fact much smarter than his father, and I have always suspected that he knew quite well how meretricious his father’s theories were. But during all the time I knew him, he never said a word about the matter. …
One story will give some sense of the burdens laid upon him by his parents. Our second year together, Charlie very kindly invited me to join his family for Thanksgiving dinner at their colonial Belmont home. … A topic was proposed for discussion during the taking of the wine, and we entered into a lively debate, while papa sat in a corner with a pad and pen and wrote another book, nodding into the conversation from time to time without actually joining it. At issue was whether it would be immoral for the aunt to buy a new car before her present vehicle had entirely worn out. Strong views were offered pro and con, but in the end, a consensus was reached that this would indeed be immoral. At no time, I am happy to say, did the discussion descend to the level of considerations of prudence. It was all on a high moral plane.
Finally dinner was served. After we had seated ourselves around the table, Mrs. Parsons, who was herself a social scientist, turned to Ann and said, “Ann, would you bring in the potatoes, please?” She then explained to me, as the guest, “It is traditional in our family for the older daughter to bring in the potatoes.” Next, she turned to Susan, and said, “Susan, would you bring in the vegetables?” Once again, she explained, “In our family, it is traditional for the younger daughter to bring in the vegetables.” Finally, she turned to her husband, and said, “Talcott, would you carve the turkey?” Yet again, “It is traditional in our family for the father to carve the turkey.”
At first, I was utterly mystified by these elaborate explanations, until, with a flash of methodological insight, I realized what was going on. This was a collection of intellectuals who had read in books that one of the latent functions of social rituals was to preserve the unity of kin structures. So they were deliberately, by the numbers as it were, reenacting a social ritual that they had self-consciously created in an effort to reinforce the ties that bound them. It was a textbook exercise, complete in every way save for any vestige of spontaneous feeling or manifest pleasure.
Professor Parsons proceeded to address the bird, a big, beautifully cooked production to which he applied a carefully sharpened carving knife. He made a series of passes that barely damaged the turkey, producing a neat stack of extremely thin slices. Each plate received one of them, together with a spoonful of the potatoes and the vegetables, a bit of stuffing, and a dollop of gravy. Then we dug in.
Coming as I do from a culture in which eating occupies pride of place among all the bodily functions, including sex, I inhaled my plate of food almost before the others had taken up their knives and forks, and looked around expectantly for seconds. But they were not to be. The turkey, still almost whole, was returned to the kitchen, and plates were ceremonially cleared, ready to be washed, though in my eyes they barely needed it.
Steve Levitt, has a provocative blog post up today. Forwarding a reader’s email he asks:
“What other benefits can be found in poverty? Obviously there is a difference between the regular poverty of say, a good chunk of Western college students versus the extreme poverty of many people in Africa. Depending on the situation, I am thinking there could be a connection between poverty and with things like creative resourcefulness and happiness.” Your thoughts?
As for thoughts, an orgTheorist who shall go nameless posted this on his facebook page questioning whether Steve might have had an aneurysm. Its hard to disagree with that sentiment.
But then it did make me think of Amartya Sen’s argument in Development as Freedom. In a nut shell, Sen’s goal is to shift the debate away from mainstream economists’ notions of utility and from philosophical (sociological?) questions of justice or fairness to emphasize the capability of people to do and be what they value.
Echoing Levitt’s reader’s (puke-worthy, yet nevertheless thought provoking) comparison of Western college students and “people in Africa” (whatever that means given that it is a continent of 1 billion people and countless cultures and subcultures), Sen’s argument is, fundamentally, that poverty is relative.
If a lack of income is standing in the way of doing things you want to do — worship, vote, be comfortable — then you are poor. But those restrictions can come just as easily from social norms, religious edicts or political structure as income. At the same time, simply having a low income does not make one either poor or unhappy. The Botswanan bushman who is living a full and meaningful life within a traditional society is neither unhappy nor poor because he has full capability to achieve what he wants to achieve in life.
Sen likes to point out that in his wanderings in Calcutta’s ghettos, he never encountered anyone who said that their poverty made them unhappy. The same, I venture, could not be said of your average college student living on loans. Myself, I remember spending a few very miserable winters in Ithaca eating ramen noodles. Yet, the capabilities of the Calcuttan ghetto-dweller to achieve the things they may want to achieve are vastly inferior to the capabilities of the students. So why are they happier? The difference is, essentially, ignorance: the poor in Calcutta make-due under overwhelmingly adverse circumstances while students in the US feel worse off relative to others in society. The poor may seem happier, but their happiness is in light of their relative lack of freedom compared to the US student. Which is worse? Sen argues that happy ignorance is not bliss. I’d say I have to agree.
In teaching Weber’s Protestant Ethic in my theory course the last two semesters, I’ve come to the conclusion that the title of the book (essay? long article? chapter in larger anthology?) is misleading. I’ve posted about German titles half jokingly before. The basic idea is that Germans tend to title their books using the template: “blah, blah, blah und blah, blah, blah” (or whatever the German equivalent of “blah” is), even when their books are really about three things not two. The best example, as I noted is Freud’s classic The Ego and the Id, which is a classic in Psychoanalysis because of the theoretical reworking of the role of the Superego in the metapsychology, precisely the entity that is left out in the binary title Das Ich und Das Es.
Weber’s Protestant Ethic is the same way and I’ve come to realize that only after trying to teach it to undergrads. It is not about two things as suggested by the classic germanic title (Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus), but about three things: (1) The Protestant Ethic (whatever that is), (2) The (Spirit/Mentality*) of Capitalism (whatever that is), and then the third thing excluded from the title: (3) The Modern Economic Order. Without this last thing Weber’s argument is incomprehensible and in fact leads to the usual exegetical mangles generated by most people who try to make sense of “The Weber thesis.”
First, let us get rid of the most egregious fallacy. There is (no one) “Weber thesis” and much less is it (as has been proposed by the theoretically-challenged economists who are recently game of “testing” it) that Protestantism causes “capitalism” (whatever that is).
Second, the fact that the book is about three things, means that there are multiple “Weber theses,” some of which seem to be more historically plausible to me than others. But the one that is most important from a pedagogical perspective (if you are in charge of teaching this) and the one that seems most easily defendable is the following: these three things are independent, and while in a single historical case, one led to the other which then led to other, the more probable historical possibility is that you find them hanging out all by themselves.
This is how Weber structured the book. Thus, the first part is about Luther, Calvin and the Protestant sects (kind of boring). In this part, all that Weber wants to do is (1) provide an ideal type of what the “Protestant Ethic” is and (2) most crucially, to show that the Protestant Ethic existed prior to the Mentality of Capitalism; ergo the Protestant Ethic is quite independent from the Spirit of Capitalism, and is not bound to deterministically lead to the latter. In fact, most versions of the Protestant Ethic can’t do this, because they are too impregnated with what he called “mysticism” and thus lead towards an otherworldy asceticism (these terms are defined elsewhere in the collected essays). The causal sequence Protestant Ethic –> Spirit of Capitalism, has only happened in a few cases (e.g. Calvinism).
Notice that we have already transcended the simplistic presumptions of the theoretically challenged interpretation of the so-called Weber thesis. For if there is a “Weber thesis” here, it is the following: The Protestant Ethic (may, under some determinate historical circumstances that are fairly rare) lead to The Mentality of Capitalism (not “capitalism” without qualifications—this confuses the mentality of capitalism with its objective structural foundations—and much less “economic growth” (!!!???). As Parsons noted in his Heidelberg dissertation, this is not a “culture —> structure” arrow of causation but a “culture —> culture” one. We haven’t gotten to “structure” yet. That’s the (or one of the) other Weber’s “thesis(es)”
After doing this, (part II of Weber’ story) Weber’s does something puzzling (Chapter 3); he starts talking about Benjamin Franklin’s advice to young people. This usually throws people for a loop (leading to people thinking of the “Protestant Ethic” and “The Spirit of Capitalism” as coterminous). But it is clear what Weber wants to do by bringing up the (largely secular) Ben Franklin (and by implication the historical example of the American Colonies; let us not forget that it was a “trip to America” that finally convinced Weber to write this darn book). He wants to establish one of his other theses: the fact that the Spirit of Capitalism is historically independent from the Protestant Ethic, since it can survive even after that PE is gone. This is the whole point of the Franklin example (well actually two points, since the Franlkin example is also supposed to give us the ideal-typical definition of the Mentality of (rational) Capitalism). In fact he is clear that what is historically significant about 18th century America is the fact that there existed the Spirit of Capitalism without the Protestant Ethic and without the (structural) accoutrements of the modern economic order (e.g. the U.S. was a largely agricultural society and whatever industry existed was “proto-capitalist” and small scale).
Finally the famous Chapter 5. This is the most speculative and weakest of the chapter, because it contains the strongest and possibly most dubious of the Weber theses. First the one that seems least dubious: in this chapter Weber wants to secure the last link in the three-step chain: he wants to show that Ben Franklin’s mentality of capitalism is historically transformed into the objective, institutional structures of the Modern Economic Order. This is a culture —> structure argument, and today we would probably use the language of “institutionalization” to describe it. The second “thesis” that he wants to establish (and here Weber substitutes Nitzschean pathos for actual argument) is that modern societies are an example of the fact that The Modern Economic Order can exist without either the Protestant Ethic or the Spirit of Capitalism. Both of these cultural sources of meaning are exhausted and the system rests on “mechanical foundations” (never have such a few lines of bad argumentation generated more rivers of scholarship from both the left and the right). So the final step is complete. Weber’s full argument is: “Protestant Ethic –> Mentality of Capitalism –> Modern Economic Order.”
That’s why is silly to try to “refute” the Weber thesis by pointing to the fact that for instance, institutional elements of the Modern Economic Order existed in the (Catholic) Italian City-States. As if Weber (the History Savant) didn’t know this! (he did. see General Economic History). In fact, he saw this as supporting his “all three things can exist independently of one another” argument. The Italian city states had elements of the Modern Economic Order but had neither the Protestant Ethic nor the Spirit of Capitalism. Also, I think the fact that the chain is three steps long does leave open the possibility that you can get a “Modern Economic Order” without the Protestant Ethic as long as you get a “Mentality of Capitalism” from somewhere. If some other “[Fill in the blank] ethic —> Mentality of Capitalism” then it is possible to get a (culturally specific version of) the Modern Economic Order. Obviously this argument has already been made for Japan (by Bellah and Collins) for instance.
So the moral of the story: three things not two. And all three are independent from one another not joined lockstep in some sort of inexorable causal chain.
*The German word “Geist” was translated by Parsons as “spirit” although the less spooky “mentality” is also acceptable and actually preferable (e.g. Geistesleben is translated as “Mental Life” in Simmel’s classic essay).
As many of you probably already know, Claude Levi-Strauss, the greath French anthropologist who advocated for the structuralist analysis of culture, passed away this week. I was surprised to hear this since I wasn’t even aware that Levi-Strauss was still alive. His version of anthropology, it seemed to me as a grad student reading his work, was outdated and no longer central to anthropological theories. But I’ve been thinking a little about Levi-Strauss lately while I’ve read John Levi Martin’s new book, Social Structures. Perhaps structural theories of culture are alive again, but now this kind of work is taking place in sociology departments rather than in anthropology.
As Kieran and Teppo already discovered, Martin’s book is brimming with ideas. The basic premise of the book is that many sorts of individual and group action (and the subsequent meanings generated in that context) can be explained by basic principles of local structure. The premise is rooted in the work of Simmel, but it’s hard to miss Levi-Strauss’s influence throughout. Martin clarified in the beginning of the book how this local structural analysis differs from institutional analysis (he elsewhere distinguishes between structuralism and social network analysis):
The vision of Simmel’s dialectic of institutionalization that inspires this work implies that is is at such a local level that we may see social action being shaped by distinct principles that we would rightly call structural. When things have developed to the extent that regular equivalence guides action – that is, when one may interact with any of a set of for-all-purposes-equivalent actors – then we are looking at institutions, not structures as I here use the term. Thus a structure is a pattern of interaction that links a person to particular others, as opposed to classes of others.
The importance of such local or particular structures has been downgraded by a sociology that arose in the context of European political economy, which presupposed the division of persons into functionally equivalent classes. Sociology (exceptions such as Simmel aside), far from challenging the preexisting tendency of social though to ignore the particular elements of social life, associated itself with the strong theoretical claim that such particularism was doomed to extinction anyway (“modernization” theory). Certainly, from a functional perspective, great parsimony is gained by treating sets of persons and indeed whole social structures..as functionally equivalent. That is, it does not matter that one officer has a relationship over here with an enlisted man, and another officer has a relationship over there with a different enlisted man. All that matters is the overall relationship between officers and enlisted. But the parsimony of considering persons interchangeable representatives of categories comes at a cost: we are likely to be left with a misleading picture of the generation and stabilization of actually existing social structures and institutions by ignoring the importance of ties that connect specific persons (14).
Martin’s embrace of Simmel’s structuralist approach is refreshing in that he points to a real alternative to the institutional analysis (and I don’t mean just neoinstitutional theory from organizational research) that dominates much macro-social scholarship. He offers an intriguing way to link micro-macro without relinquishing all of the explanatory power to one level over the other. In a way, I suppose this is what Levi-Strauss was about as well. His agenda was to explain the particularities of local structures. Rather than jump right to institutions and history as an explanation, the origin of an explanation was to analyze how the interactions within that structure worked and how/why individuals continued to reproduce those relationships over time.
Martin’s book is really fascinating and sure to be a classic in sociological theory.
It seems like everyone wants to talk about social mechanisms these days. As Neil Gross points out in his paper, “A Pragmatist Theory of Social Mechanisms,” no fewer than five different sociological views on social mechanisms have popped up in the last decade. Why the sudden interest in mechanisms? One reason, I think, is that macro-sociological theories have lacked preciseness as causal explanations. Focusing on mechanisms draws attention to the underlying causal pathways in our macro models of society. The same impetus has spurred the call for more research on micro-foundations (you might even say that microfoundations = social mechanisms).
Gross enters this fray and tries to introduce some order with an encompassing definition of social mechanisms:
A social mechanism is a more or less general sequence or set of social events or processes analyzed at a lower order of complexity or aggregation by which—in certain circumstances—some cause X tends to bring about some effect Y in the realm of human social relations. This sequence or set may or may not be analytically reducible to the actions of individuals who enact it, may underwrite formal or substantive causal processes, and may be observed, unobserved, or in principle unobservable (364).
The first part of the definition is pretty standard, I think. Going to a lower level of explanation helps us understand how properties at the focal level of analysis come to be. So, for example, if you want to explain how organizations set strategy, you need to understand how individuals within the organization interact and how their individual beliefs, knowledge, etc. combine to shape strategic choices. Simple enough, right? Gross’s definition departs from previous definitions, however, in recognizing there is a great deal of variation in the kinds of mechanisms that people may impute in a causal process. Some are observable, some are not. Some are formal (i.e., they are universal and appear in almost every setting), while others are specific to the domain of interest. This last sentence introduces a lot of variability into the study of mechanisms. Rather than searching for a fixed set of causal mechanisms that govern the universe of human relations (e.g., networks in everything or markets in everything), Gross wants to give scholars the leeway to identify a rich index of mechanisms that work quite differently across time and space. Gross’s aim here is to make mechanisms-oriented research more historically and culturally relative.
In this post, I want your opinion on the following social theory conjecture: Bourdieu’s sociology is successful because it draws on three of the four main streams of modern sociology. To see why I might say this, consider the following summary of Bourdieu’s main concepts:
- There are “social fields” – socially constructed domains defined by a type of action (e.g., the state, the arts, the market).
- These domains of action have their own “capital” – resources that can be used to further one’s position and create more resources (see Sean’s post).
- These domains also have hierarchies based on the creation and destruction of field specific capital, and even “doxa,” the range of what can be expressed within a social field. In other words, a field is a whole bunch of things.
- Habitus – the deeply help dispositions that reflect an individual’s internalization of the rules and values associated with that domain.
- All of this is terribly endogenous (“self-structuring structrues… yada yada“).
If you buy this thumbnail sketch – and it omits much – then you can easily see that Bourdieu’s theory is highly constructionist. It’s also fairly obvious that he draws on critical theory – Marxian class analysis is obviously one inspiration for how he views capital and habitus (think of “class culture” in Distinction).
The more controversial claim is that Bourdieu draws on a very basic form of rational choice theory. If you read Introduction to Reflexive Sociology, Bourdieu is asked whether this is true and he just says the comparison is off base. I think Bourdieu is sort of wrong, but not totally. Specifically, he responds to Becker’s rational choice theory and I think Bourdieu is correct in drawing the distinction. The homo economicus is very different than the mood driven habitus. Explicit calculation is simply not the main variable of Bourdieu’s theory.
On the other hand, striving for status and attention is an implicit, ecological view of strategic behavior. Field based actors do strategically try to defend their turf using their resources, even if they ways they do it are not always conscious or well articulated. I call this “ecological” competition because biological and social ecology theories depict actors who must compete over space/resources with inherited traits/strategies that do emerge from conscious calculation.
The final claim of this post is that Bourdieu pretty much circumvents a fourth type of sociology – the values/institutions/social structure stream associated with the old & new institutionalists, Parsons, and network analysts. It’s pretty obvious that he’s not a big fan of functionalism or of any theory focusing on the links between values and orgs/networks/institutions. For him, the hierarchy is the principal model of social organization and hierarchies are just visible manifestations of who has the capital. Sociology is about explaining who’s making and breaking these hierarchies and using the capital. If you really believe that, there’s not much point in talking about networks, decoupling, logics, or any other stuff associated with the values & structures branch of sociology, even though Bourdieu gets many “respect citations” from that crowd.
So, orgheads, a fair assessment of Bourdieu? Post your reactions in the comments!
I am all in favor of further work at the intersection of sociology and emerging work in biology, cognitive science and neuroscience. There is surely much to be learned. But, let’s face it, this seems needlessly limiting. Particle physics has been in the doldrums a bit lately, so they could do with some interdisciplinary reinvigoration. Also, their research budgets remain quite large.
Below we see a picture of the emerging Standard Model of sociophysics, with which you will no doubt be quite familiar.
I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences this fall. Think of the CASBS as the CERN of social science: even as we speak, hard-working technicians are putting the final touches to the Stanford Superconducting Supersocializer, which will come online once the relevant IRB
gods committees have been placated with a sufficient amount of cargo detailed forms. The SSS will propel local college sophomores at tremendous speeds into unfamiliar groups of people in an effort to plumb the structure of the elementary particles of social interaction. Despite the success of the standard model, there is much to be learned. The organization of the Quirks is of course well known, with some of the early triumphs of post-war research focused on the internal dynamics of the quirk-matrix (Up, Downer, Charm, Strange, Top Bloke, Asshole). The complex of interactions centered on W and Z remains wholly mysterious, however. The Liketons, too, pose difficult questions, though the recent discovery of observer-dependent YouTube effects has gone some way toward clarifying their role. Finally, the famous Biggs Hangeron also remains problematic, as it is not only notoriously easy to observe but in fact also impossible to ditch at parties.
Bourdieu is often cited in organizational studies, but references to Bourdieu, as Omar noted, are usually symbolic gestures meant to bring legitimacy to projects. The real Bourdieu, the sociologist interested in power dynamics and culture, is less often found in our American theories of organizations. This point is made strongly by Mustafa Emirbayer and Victoria Johnson in a recent paper published in Theory and Society, “Bourdieu and organizational analysis.” Emirbayer and Johnson argue that the theorization of Bourdieu’s contribution to organizational theory has been incomplete because it has failed to fully utilize the Bourdieuian concepts – the theoretical triad – of field, capital, and habitus. Since the publication of DiMaggio and Powell (1983) the concept of field has become highly central to organizational theory, particularly in institutional theory, but the authors argue that an understanding of fields is incomplete (and perhaps shallow) without linking it to capital and habitus. Because of this, our theoretical understanding of fields has become detached from Bourdieu’s central insight – that fields are the locations of massive, historical struggles for power.
Emirbayer and Johnson provide a good overview of how Bourdieuian concepts might be more fully utilized in organizational research. The paper is well worth reading. Here are some highlights from the text:
Social network studies, not to mention other approaches often taken to task by Bourdieu, are to be faulted only insofar as they deny that the truth of interactions is to be found always (at least partly) outside those interactions themselves (pg. 10).
One of my favorite papers ever is Camic’s (1992), “Reputation and Predecessor Selection: Parsons and the Institutionalists” (see here for a previous post on the general subject matter). The paper has two general lines of argumentation, one empirical-historical, the other theoretical.
On the empirical front, Camic tackles the long held notion that the primary reason why Parsons “turned to the Euros” (Durkheim, Weber, Pareto, Marshall) as a way to establish the conceptual credentials of his theory of action was because the American intellectual scene of the period consisted of a an a-theoretical wasteland. Camic shows, that this thesis is simply not tenable. Autochotonous conceptual resources existed in the U.S. (including within the very American institutionalist economics that Parsons imbibed at Amherst) that were sufficient to mount an attack on (marginalist) utilitarianism and behaviorism. Thus, Parsons turn to the European masters cannot solely be explained by the reason that he gave, which was that they and only they had converged on a model of action that allowed sociology to transcend the aporias of psychological and economistic reductionism.
On the theoretical front, Camic uses his case study of Parsons to adjudicate between two models of what he refers to as “predecessor selection.” This is a choice that all intellectual entrepreneurs face when they are in the process of establishing a theoretical perspective. Predecessor selection is not just an optional adjunct to crafting a perspective, but a key component in any intellectual entrepreneurship project. Selecting the “right” predecessors is crucial, because the existence of predecessors provide a fledgling theoretical paradigm with the cognitive legitimacy required to outdo competitors.
What are these two models of the predecessor-selection process? One Camic refers to as the “content-fit” model and the other as the “reputational” model. The content-fit model claims that in scientific fields, intellectual entrepreneurs select predecessors based purely on considerations of conceptual content, and how well that content “fits” with the intellectual perspective that is being developed. The reputational model on the other hand, claims that issues of content are secondary (for one, what “some predecessor said” can–within some limits–always be molded to the focal creative project of the entrepreneur as the case of Parsons clearly shows), so what is primary is the reputation of a given set of predecessors on the intellectual entrepreneur’s local intellectual mileu. Ceteris paribus, high reputation predecessors will be selected over low (or uncertain) reputation ones, regardless of issues of content fit.
Not surprisingly, Camic argues that for the case of Parsons and Structure, the reputational model accounts for the historical facts, while the content-fit model leaves a lot to be desired. Various American theorists existed that could be used to establish Parsons’ charter, yet Parsons ignored them in favor of high reputation (in LSE, Heidelberg and Harvard) Euro-theorists. Furthermore, while Parsons claimed (in a letter to Jeff Alexander) that he had left out Simmel from TSA solely due to issues of content, it can also be argued that Simmel got cut due to his uncertain reputation in Parsons local intellectual environment. Thus the reputational model explains not only the European/American difference, but also processes of selection within the set of available European theorists themselves.
While Parsons is certainly today (as per one of this post’s tags) “obscure sociological theory” it is clear that the process of reputation selection happens all of the time in organizational theory. However, because we are all naive, “content-fit model” believers, we miss the (interesting!) reputational dynamics going on right under our noses.
Where do you need to look to see this PS dynamics at work in OT? Well, you need to look at the “grand” statements that introduce a “perspective”! For instance, it is clear that DiMaggio and Powell’s (1991) famous “Introduction” to the Orange Bible, can be interpreted as a giant job of predecessor-selection for the perspective (Bourdieu and Giddens). Prima Facie evidence that is consistent with Camic’s contention that this process is driven by intellectual reputation and not content, is Lounsbury and Ventresca’s (2003) brief for the “new structuralism” in organizational theory. Here, Bourdieu shows up as a predecessor of a paradigm in organizational theory that is in many ways opposed to the New Institutionalism of which, if we believe DiMaggio and Powell, he is also a predecessor. Camic’s reputational model of predecessor selection also explains why Giddens pretty much disappears from L & V’s radar: the reputational fortunes of Bourdieu and Giddens have experienced diametrically opposed trajectories in the American academy of late, with Bourdieu’s reputation soaring, and Giddens’s remaining flat (on this last count see Sallaz and Zavisca 2007).
Essays by Dick Scott and Thomas Luckmann, based on talks given at the last EGOS conference in Vienna, appear in the new issue of Organization Studies. It’s not often you get two luminaries of this magnitude sharing issue space.
Both papers show a shift in the scholars’ thinking over the last several decades. Luckmann is best known for his classic The Social Construction of Reality, coauthored with Peter Berger. In that book, Berger and Luckmann argue that reality is constructed from ongoing patterns of typification and habitualization – i.e., chains of social interaction lead to routine ways of doing things and become infused with meaning. Reality gradually becomes reinforced, but through an unconscious process. Institutional theory is also based on the idea that institutions seep into daily life. Institutionalization of behavior is mostly a top-down process (see Scott’s three pillars). But in these essays Luckmann and Scott take agency much more seriously. Luckmann and Scott want to explore the role that intentionality plays in shaping institutions.
While following the caucuses, I am reading Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. I did not know that New York City suffered from yellow fever outbreaks in the late 18th century. I did not know that the Manhattan Company in charge of supplying fresh water hijacked a municipal waterworks project. The company erected a reservoir far smaller than needed by the city and opted for cheaper technologies, keeping the interests of its stockholders uppermost (p.360-361).
I wonder what the difference is between a national health care system and public waterworks. They are both public goods (a waterworks, by the way, does have health consequences ). And yet the former remains a focus of an election in the 21st century. What explains the difference? The power of interested groups? To put it bluntly, the US appears not very different from other industrialized countries insofar as the provision of public goods other than health care is concerned. It is an interesting puzzle to an inquisitive but ignorant mind.
Fans of cultural theory should pay close attention to the GOP primary. For the first time in ages, there is no strong leader in the party and different politicians are doing well in different places (Huckabee in Iowa, Romney in NH, Giuliani in FL, etc). There is no obvious hierarchy in the GOP camp and, for you Victor Turner fans, that’s a chance for liminality. The absence of social structure induces vagueness and ambiguity, allowing all sorts of weird stuff to happen. Turner argued that some cultural figures, like the court jester, thrive in situations where the normal relations of power are suspended, a situation allowing them to say things that most folks would be afraid to say.
Paul is a great example of structurelessness and liminality. Hard core libertarians are normally banished to the far off fringes of mainstream party politics, but the Iraq War and the delegitimizing influence of evangelicals has left the GOP without clear leadership. It’s now possible for fringe elements to make their appearance. All the signs of the jester are in force with Paul – the extreme policy positions, followers engaging in goofy tactics like the Ron Paul blimp. If Huckabee wins Iowa and does well in New Hampshire, Paul will get more traction from voters who are scared of the religious wing of the GOP.
Don’t expect this to last. Once a front runner with mainstream credibility emerges, party time will be over in the GOP. Already, FOX news has tried to exclude Paul from the NH debates. But until we hit Super Tuesday, we can expect Paul to say in public what a lot of people in the GOP don’t want to hear.