Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category
A question for my brothers and sisters in political theory: There are certain individuals who embody the role of the activist/intellectual. They are highly influential in movement politics and they write or speak about movements in a very theoretical way, offering justification for the movement’s goals and strategies. For socialist politics, this role is filled by Lenin, who provided an explanation of what the communist party is supposed to do. For non-violence, King and Gandhi fill this role.
My question: Is there an analog for mass political parties in democratic societies? In other words, who is the master politician who articulates the purpose and function of the party in modern democracies? Does this person talk about how the party should manage/exploit various constituencies, especially rowdy ones like protest movements?
In a recent essay in the NY Times, Ross Douthat explains the motivations behind conservative politics. This clip nicely summarizes the issue:
… For the American mainstream — moderate and apolitical as well as liberal — the Reagan era really was a kind of conservative answer to the New Deal era: A period when the right’s ideas were ascendant, its constituencies empowered, its favored policies pursued. But to many on the right, for the reasons the Frum of “Dead Right” suggested, it was something much more limited and fragmented and incomplete: A period when their side held power, yes, but one in which the framework and assumptions of politics remained essentially left-of-center, because the administrative state was curbed but barely rolled back, and the institutions and programs of New Deal and Great Society liberalism endured more or less intact.
I think that’s a good summary … for one small part of the conservative movement. And it is true. There is definitely an anti-statist element of the modern conservative coalition. There are people who genuinely think that more services should be shifted to the private sector and that the size of the tax obligation and the federal government should be shrunk.
However, the committed anti-statist part of the conservative coalition is only a small part of the story. When we take a broad look at policy, we see that conservatives routinely support all kinds of government services. For example, calls for shrinking government almost always exclude the military. Then, if we look at Medicare we find that conservative voters do not favor privatization. In other areas, conservatives have no problem expanding the size of government – building walls on the Mexican border, jailing millions of African American for drug possession, or creating more and more regulation of reproductive medical procedures such as abortion, stem cell research, and birth control. All of these require massive intrusions on the safety and privacy of millions of people who are doing no wrong to others.
So what’s the real story? I think it’s fairly simple. Committed anti-statists are the “beard” for other factions that really don’t care about the size of government. A theory of personal liberty is important and draws attention from what might be the ulterior goal. And these other factions have all kinds of goals. National security conservatives love war because it shows that they’re tough. Social conservatives simply want to roll back, or circumvent, the progress made by women, minorities, LBGT people, immigrants, and other groups that were openly repressed and discriminated against in previous eras. And there’s what I call the business conservative, who just wants tax breaks and could care less about anti-gay crusades, but has to tolerate the social conservatives in order to get these perks.
Whenever I hear a conservative claim they are for liberty or limited government, I’m always a little skeptical. The arguments for liberty, tolerance, and protection from government harassment apply to themselves, and others like them, but are rarely applied with the same vigor to people or social practices they find distasteful. The bottom line is that I’m willing to engage with writers like Ross Douthat, but not until they tell their fellow travelers that gays and Mexicans are really nothing to worry about.
One thing that I found dissatisfying about our earlier “discussion” on CR is that it ultimately left the task of actually getting clear on what CR “is” unfinished (or bungled). Chris tried to provide a “bulletpoint” summary in one of the out of control comment threads, but his quick attempt at exposition mixed together two things that I think should be kept separate (what I call high level principles from substantively important derivations from those principles). This post tries to follow Chris Smith’s (sound advice) that “ We’ll all do better by focusing on important matters of intellectual substance, and put the others to rest.”
The task of getting clear on the nature of CR is particularly relevant for people who haven’t already formed strong opinions on CR and who are just curious about what it is. My argument here is that neither proponents nor critics do a good job of just telling people what CR is in its most basic form. The reason for this has to do with precisely the complex nature of CR as an ontology, epistemology, theory of science, and (most importantly) a set of interrelated theses about the natural, social, cultural, mental, world that are derived from applying the high level philosophical commitments to concrete problems. My argument is that CR will continue to draw incoherent reactions and counter-reactions (by both proponents and opponents) unless these aspects are disaggregated, and we get clear on what exactly we are disagreeing about. One of these incoherent reactions is that CR is both a “giant” package of meta-theoretical commitments and that CR is actually a fairly “minimalist” set of principles the reasonable nature of which would only be denied by the certifiably insane.
In particular it is important to separate the high level “core” commitments from all the substantive derivations, because it is possible to accept the core commitments and disagree with the derivations. In essence, a lot of stuff (actually most of the stuff) that gets called “CR” consists of a particular theorist’s application of the high level principles to a given problem. For instance, one can apply (as did Bhaskar in the “original” contributions) the high level ontology to derive a (general) theory of science. One can (as Bhaskar also did) use the general theory of science to derive a local theory (both descriptive and normative) of social science (via the undemonstrable assumption that social science is just like other sciences). And the same can be done for pretty much any other topic: I can use CR to derive a general theory of social structures, or human action, or culture, or the person, or whatever. Once again, the cautionary point above stands: I can vehemently disagree with all the special theories, while still agreeing with the high level CR principles. In other words I can disagree with the conclusion while agreeing with the high-level premises because I believe that you can’t get where you want to go from where you start. This may happen because let’s say, I can see the CR theorist engaging in all sorts of reasoning fallacies (begging the question, arguing against straw men, helping him or herself to undemonstrable but substantively important sub-theses, and so on) to get from the high level principles to the particular theory of (fill in the blank: the person, social structure, social mechanisms, human action, culture, and so on).
This is also I believe the best way to separate the “controversial” from the “uncontroversial” aspects of CR, and to make sense of why CR appears to be both trivial and controversial at the same time. In my view the high level principles are absolutely uncontroversial. It is the deployment of these principles to derive substantively meaningful special theories with strong and substantively important implications that results in controversial (because not necessarily coherent or valid at the level of reasoning) theories.
The High Level Basics.-
One thing that is seldom noted by either proponents or critics of CR is that the fundamental high level theses are actually pretty simple and in fact fairly uncontroversial. These only become “controversial” when counterposed to nutty epistemologies or theories of science that nobody holds or really believes (e.g. so-called “positivism”, radical social constructionism, or whatever). I argued against this way of introducing CR precisely because it confounds the level at which CR actually becomes controversial.
So what are these theses? As repeatedly pointed to by both Phil and Chris in the ridiculously long comment thread, and as ritualistically introduced by most CR writers in social theory (e.g. Dave Elder-Vass), these are simply a non-reductionist “realism” coupled to a non-reductionist, neo-Aristotelian ontology.
The non-reductionist realism part is usually the one that is much ballyhooed by proponents of CR, but in my view, this is actually the least interesting (and least distinctive) part of CR in relation to other options. In fact, if this was all that CR offered, there would be no reason to consider it any further. So the famous empirical/actual/real (EAR) triad is not really a particularly meaningful signature of CR. The only interesting high-level point that CR makes at this level is the “thou shall not reduce the real to the actual, or worse, to the empirical.” Essentially: the world throws surprises at you because it is not reducible to what you know, and is not reducible to what happens (or has happened or will happen). I don’t think that this is particularly interesting because no reasonable person will disagree with these premises. Yes, there are people that seem to say something different, but once you sit them down for 10 minutes and explain things to them, they would agree that the real is not reducible to our conceptions or our experiences of reality. Even the seemingly more controversial point (that reality is not reducible to the actual) is actually (pun intended) not that controversial. In this sense CR is just a vanilla form of realism.
When we consider the CR conception of ontology then things get more interesting. Most CR people propose an essentially neo-Aristotelian conception of the structure of world as composed of entities endowed with inherent causal powers. This conception links to the EAR distinction in the following sense: The real causal powers of an entity endow it with a dispositional set of tendencies or propensities to generate actual events in the world; these actual events may or may not be empirically observable. The causal powers of an entity are real in the sense that these powers and propensities exist even if they are never actualized or observed by anyone. To use the standard trite example, the causal power to break a window is a dispositional property of a rock; this property is real in these that it is there whether it is ever actualized (an actual window breaking with a rock event happens in the world), and whether anybody ever observes this event.
Reality then, is just such a collection of entities endowed with causal powers that come from their inherent nature. The nature of entities is not an unanalyzable monad but is itself the (“emergent” in the sense outlined below) result of the powers and dispositions of the lower level constituents of that entity suitably organized in the right configuration. What in earlier conceptions of science are called “laws of nature” happen to be simply observed events generated by the actualization of a mechanism, whereby a “mechanism” is simply a regular, coherently organized, collection of entities endowed inherent causal powers acting upon one another in a predictable fashion. Scientists isolate the mechanism when they are able to manipulate the organization of the entities in question so that the event is actualized with predictable regularity; these events are then linked to an observational system to generate the so-called phenomenological or empirical regularities (“the laws”) that formed the core of traditional (Hempelian) conceptions of science.
The laws thus result from the regular operation of “nomological machines” (in Cartwright’s sense). The CR point is thus that the phenomenological “laws” are secondary, because they are just the effect produced by hooking together a real mechanism to produce (potentially) observable events in a regular way. So the CR people would say that Hacking’s aphorism “if you can spray them they are real” is made sense of by the unobservable stuff that you can spray is an entity endowed with the causal power capable of generating observable phenomena when isolated as part of an actualized mechanism. The observability thing is secondary, because the powers are there whether you can observe the entity or not. That’s the CR “theory of science.”
The key to the CR ontology is that the nature of entities is understood using a “layered” ontological picture in which entities are understood as essentially wholes made of parts organized according to a given configuration (a system of relations). These “parts” are themselves other entities which may be decomposable into further parts (lower level entities organized in a system of relations and so on). Causal powers emerge at different levels and are not reducible to the causal powers of some “fundamental” level. Thus, CR proposes a non-reductionist, “layered” ontology, with emergent causal powers at each level.
This emergence is “ontological” and not “epistemic” in the sense that the causal powers at each level are “real” in the standard CR sense: they are not reducible to their actual manifestations nor are these “emergent” properties simply an epistemic gloss that we throw into the world because of our cognitive limitations. Thus, CR is an ontological democracy which retains the part-whole mereology of standard realist accounts, but rejects the reductionist implication that the structure of the world bottoms out at some fundamental level of reality where the really real causal powers can be found (and with higher level causal powers simply being a derivative shadow of the fundamental ones).
Now you can see things getting interesting, because we have a stronger set of position takings. Note that from our initial vanilla realism, and our seemingly innocuous EAR distinction, along with a meatier conceptualization of entities as organized wholes endowed with powers and propensitities, we are now living in a world composed of a panoply of real entities at different levels of analysis, endowed with (non-reducible) real causal powers at each level. The key proposition that is beginning to generate premises that we can actually have arguments about is of course the premise of ontological emergence. I argue that this premise not a CR requirement. For instance, why can’t I be a reductionist critical realist? (RCR) Essentially, RCR accepts the EAR distinction, but privileges a fundamental level; this fundamental level may ultimately figure in our theoretical conceptions of reality but it is the bedrock upon which all actual and empirical events stand. In other words, the only true “mechanisms” that I accept are the ones composed of entities at the most fundamental level of reality, which may or may not ever be uncovered. I don’t seriously intend to defend this position, but just bring it up as an attempt to show that CR hooks together a lot of things that are logically independent (emergentist ontology, Aristotelian conception of entities, part-whole mereology, with a “causal powers” view of causation, among others).
In any case, my argument is that most of the substantively interesting CR theses do not emerge (pun intended) from the Bhaskarian theory or science, or the account of causation, or the EAR distinction. They emerge from hooking together (ontological) emergentism and an Aristotelian conceptions of entities and dispositional causal powers. For emergentism is what generates the (controversial) explosion of real entities in CR writing. Not only that, emergentism is the only calling card that CR writers have to provide what Dave Elder-Vass has called a “regional ontology” for the social sciences, that does not resolve into just repeating the boring EAR distinction or the (increasingly uncontroversial) “theory of science” that Bhaskar developed in A Realist Theory of Science and The Possibility of Naturalism.
How to be a (controversial) Critical Realist in two easy steps.-
So now that we have that covered, it is easy to show how to produce a “controversial” CR argument. First, pick a mereology. Meaning, pick some entities to serve as the parts, preferably entities that themselves do not have a controversial status (most people would agree that the entities exist, form coherent wholes, have natures, and so on), and pick a more controversially coherent whole that these parts could conceivably be the parts of. Then argue that the parts do indeed form such a whole via the ontological emergence postulate. Note that the postulate allows you to fudge on this point, because you do not actually have to specify the mechanism via which this ontological emergence relation is actualized (you can argue that that is the job of empirical science and so on). Then hooking the CR notion of causal powers and the EAR distinction and the postulate of ontological democracy of all entities argue that this whole is now a super-addition to the usual vanilla reality. That is, the new emergent entity is real in the same sense that other things (apples, rocks, leptons, cells) are real. It has a inherent nature, a set of dispositions to generate actual events, and most importantly it has causal powers. The powers of this new emergent entity may be manifested at its own level (by affecting same-level entities), or they may be exhibited by the constraining power of that entity upon the lower level constituent entities (the postulate of “downward causation”). For instance, (to mention one thing that could actually be of interest to readers of this blog), Dave Elder-Vass has provided an account of the reality of “organizations” (and the non-reducibility of organizational action to individual action) using just this CR recipe.
Now we have the materials to make some people (justifiably) discomfited about a substantive CR claim (or at least motivated to write a critical paper). For if you look at most of the contributions of CR to various issues they resolve themselves to just the steps that I outlined above. So the CR “theory” of social structure, is precisely what you think. Social structure is composed of individuals, organized by a set of relations that form a coherent (configured) whole. This whole (social structure) is now a real entity endowed with its own causal powers, which now (may) exert “downward causation” on the individual’s the constitute it. These causal powers are not reducible to those of the individuals that constitute it. This how CR cashes in what John Levi Martin has referred to as the “substantive hunch” that animates all sociological research. “The social” emerges from the powers and activities of individuals but it never ultimately resolves itself into an aggregation of those powers and activities. Note that CR is opposed to any form of ontological reduction whether it is “downwards” or “upwards.” Thus attempts to reduce social structure to the mental or interactional level are “downward conflationist” and attempts to reduce individuals to social structure (or language or what have you), are “upward conflationist.” Thus, the “first” Archer trilogy can be read in this way. First, on the non-reducibility (and ontological independence between) social structure in relation to the individual or individual activity, then “culture” in relation to the individual or individual interaction, and later (in reverse) personal agency in relation to either social structure or culture.
Essentially, the stratified ontology postulate must be respected. Any attempt to simplify the ontological picture is rejected as so much covert (or overt) reductionism or “conflation.” Note that “conflation” is not technically a formal error of reasoning (as is begging the question) but simply an attempt by a theorist to simplify the ontological picture by abandoning the ontological democracy or ontological emergence postulates. A lot of the times CR theorists (like Archer) reject conflation as if it was such an error in reasoning, when in fact it is a substantive argument that cannot be dismissed in such an easy way. Note that this is weird because both the ontological democracy and the ontological emergence argument are themselves non-demonstrable but substantively important propositions in CR. Thus, most CR attempts to dismiss either reductionist or simplifying ontologies themselves do commit such a formal error of reasoning, namely, begging the question in favor of ontological emergence and ontological democracy.
Another way to make a CR argument is to start with a predetermined high level entity of choice. This kind of CR argument is more “defensive” than constructive. Here the analyst picks an entity the real status of which has (for some reason) become controversial, either because some theorists purport to show that it does not “really” exist (meaning that it is just a shorthand way to talk about some aggregate of actually existing lower level entities), or is not required to generate scientific accounts of some slice of the world (ontological simplification or reduction a la caloric or phlogiston). Here CR arguments essentially use the ontological democracy postulate to simply say that the preferred whole has ontological independence from either the lower constituents or higher level entities to which others seek to reduce the focal entity. Moreover, the CR theorist may argue that this ontological independence is demonstrated by the fact that this entity has (actualized and/or empirically observable) causal powers, once again above and beyond those provided by the lower level (or higher level ) entities or processes usually trotted out to “reduce it away.” This applies in particular to the “humanist” strand of CR that attempts to defend specific causal powers that are seen as inherent properties of persons (e.g. reflexivity in Archer’s case) or even the very notion of person (in Chris Smith’s What is a Person?) as an emergent whole endowed with specific causal powers, properties and propensities.
To recap, CR is a complex object composed of many parts. But not all parts are of the same nature. I have distinguished between roughly three parts, organized according to the generality of the claim and the specificity of the substantive points made. In this respect, I would distinguish between:
1) The parts that CR shares with all “vanilla” realisms. This includes the postulate of ontological realism (mind-independence of the existence of reality), the transitive/intransitive distinction, the EAR distinction, and so on. In itself, none of these theses make CR particularly distinctive, unique or useful. If you disagree with CR at this level, based on irrealist premises, congratulations. You are insane.
2) The Aristotelian ontology.- This specifies the kind of realism that CR proposes. Here things get more interesting, because there is actual philosophical debate about this (nobody seriously defends irrealist positions in Philosophy any more and most sociologists just like to pretend to be irrealists to show off at parties). Here CR could play a role in philosophical debates insofar as a neo-Aristotelian approach to realism and explanation is a coherent position in Philosophy of Science (although it is not without its challengers). Here belongs (among other things) the specific CR conceptualizations of objects and entities, the causal (dispositional) powers ontology (when hooked to the EAR distinction) and the specific “Theory of Science” and the “Theory of Explanation” that follows from these (essentially endorsing mechanismic and systems explanation over reductive, covering law stories). This is what I believe is the best ontological move and CR should be commended in this respect.
3) The stratified ontology.- This comes from yoking (1) and (2) to the ontological emergence and ontological democracy postulate. This is where you can find a lot of “controversial” (where by controversial I mean worth arguing about, worth specifying, worth clarifying, and in some cases worth rejecting) arguments in CR. These are of three types: ontological emergence arguments, augment the standard common-sense ontology of material entities to argue for the existence of higher level non-material entities; thus “social structures” are as real as the couch that you are lying on; the danger here is a world that comes to populated with a host of emergent “entities” with no principled way of deciding which ones are in fact real (beyond the theorist’s taste). This is the problem of ontological inflation, (2) “Downward causation” arguments add this postulate to suggest that the emergent (non-material or material) entities not only “exist” in a passive sense, but actually exert causal effect on lower level components or other higher-level entities, (3) “ontological independence” arguments attempt to show that a particular sort of entity that is usually done violence to in standard (reductionist) accounts has a level of ontological integrity that cannot be impugned and has a set of causal powers that cannot be dismissed. In humanist and personalist accounts, this entity is “the person” along with a host of powers and capacities that are usually blunted in “social-scientific” accounts (e.g. persons as centers of moral purpose) and the enemies are the positions that attempt to explain away these powers or capacities or that attempt to show that the don’t matter as much as other entities (e.g. “social structure”).
4) Continuing extensions of the stratified ontology argument.- This is the part of CR that has drawn (an unfair) amount of attention, because it extends the same set of arguments to defend both the reality but also the causal powers of a set of entities that (a) a lot of people are diffident about according the same level of reality to as the standard material entities, and (b) things that most people would have difficulty even calling entities. These may be “norms,” “the mental,” “the cultural,” “the discursive,” and “levels of reality” above and beyond the plain old material/empirical world that we all know and love (e.g. super-empirical domains of reality). You can see how CR can get controversial here.
5) Additional stuff.- A lot of other CR arguments do not directly follow from any of these, but are added as supplementary premises to round out CR as a holistic perspective. For instance, the rejection of the fact-value distinction in science is not really a logical derivation from the theory of science or the neo-Aristotelian ontology, and neither is the “judgmental rationality” postulate (that science progresses, gradually gets at the truth, etc.). I mean all realisms presuppose that we get better at science, but this is not really a logical derivation from realist premises (as argued by Arthur Fine). The fact/value thing is in the same boat, because it requires a detour through a lot of controversial group (3) and group (4) territory to be made to stick. For instance, given that persons are emergent entities, endowed with non-arbitrary properties and powers, then the “relativist” arguments that any social arrangement is as good as any other for the flourishing of personhood is clearly not valid. This means that social scientists have to take a strong stance on the value question (hence sociological inquiry cannot be value neutral). Because a mixture of Aristotelian ontology and ontological emergentism applied to human nature is incompatible with moral (and social-institutional) relativism, the the fact value distinction in social science is untenable. However, note that to get there a lot of other premises, sub-premises, and substantive arguments for the reality of persons as emergent, neo-Aristotelian entities have to be accepted as valid. In this sense the fact/value thing is only a derivation from certain extensions of CR into controversial territory. As already intimated, What is a Person? is a (well-argued!) piece of controversial CR precisely in this sense.
Note that this clarifies the “giant package” versus “minimalist” CR debate. Let’s go back to the cable analogy. So you are considering signing up for CR? Here’s the deal: The “basic” CR package would (in my view) be any acceptance of (1) and (2) (with some but not all elements of (3)). In this sense, I am a Critical Realist (and so should you). The “standard” CR package includes in addition to (1), (2) and all of (3), some elements of (4). Here we enter controversial territory, because a lot of CR arguments for the “reality” of this or that are not as tight or well-argued as their proponents suppose. In their worst forms, they resolve themselves into picking your favorite thing (e.g. self-reflexivity), and then calling it “real” and “causally powerful” because “emergent.” It is no surprise that Archer’s weakest work is of this (most recent) ilk. Here the obsession with ontological democracy prevents any consideration of ontological simplification or actual ontological stratification (meaning getting clear on which causal powers matter most rather than assigning each one their preferred, isolated level). Finally, the “turbo” package requires that you sign up for (1) through (5), this of course is undeniably controversial, because here CR goes from being a philosophy of scientific practice to being a philosophy of life, the universe and everything. Sometimes CR people seem to act surprised that people may be reluctant to adopt a philosophy of life, but I believe that this has to do with their penchant to suppose that once you accept the basic, then the chain or reasoning that will lead you to the standard and the turbo follows inexorably and unproblematically.
This is absolutely not the case, and this where CR folk would benefit most from talking to people who are not fully committed to the turbo, but who (like other sane people) are already 80% into the basic (and maybe even the standard). My sense is that we should certainly be arguing about the right things, and in my view the right things are at the central node (3), because this is the where the key set of argumentative devices that allows CR people to derive substantively meaningful (“controversial”) conclusions (both at that level—arguments for the reality of “social structure”—and about type (4) and (5) matters), and where most attempts to provide a workable ontology for the social sciences are either going to be cashed in, or be rejected as aesthetically pleasing formulations of dubious practical utility.
The continuing brouhaha over Fabio’s (fallaciously premised) post*, and Kieran’s clarification and response has actually been much more informative than I thought it would be. While I agree that this forum is not the most adequate to seriously explore intellectual issues, it does have a (latent?) function that I consider equally as valuable in all intellectual endeavors, which is the creation of a modicum of common knowledge about certain stances, premises and even valuational judgments. CR is a great intellectual object in the contemporary intellectual marketplace precisely because of the fact that it seems to demand an intellectual response (whether by critics or proponents) thus forcing people (who otherwise wouldn’t) to take a stance. The response may range from (seemingly facile) dismissal (maybe involving dairy products), to curiosity (what the heck is it?), to considered criticism, to ho hum neutralism, to critical acceptance, or to (sock-puppet aided) uncritical acceptance. But the point is that it is actually fun to see people align themselves vis a vis CR because it provides an opportunity for those people to actually lay their cards on the table in way that seldom happens in their more considered academic work.
My own stance vis a vis CR is mostly positive. When reading CR or CR-inflected work, I seldom find myself vehemently disagreeing or shaking my head vigorously (this in itself I find a bit suspicious, but more on that below). I find most of the epistemological, and meta-methodological recommendations of people who have been influenced by CR (like my colleague Chris Smith, Phil Gorski, or George Steinmetz, or Margaret Archer) fruitful and useful, and in some sense believe that some of the most important of these are already part of sociological best practice. I think some of the work on “social structure” that has been written by CR-oriented folk (Doug Porpora and Margaret Archer early on and more recently Dave Elder-Vass) important reading, especially if you want to think straight about that hornet’s nest of issues. So I don’t think that CR is “lame.” Although like any multi-author, somewhat loose cluster of writings, I have indeed come across some work that claims to be CR which is indeed lame. But that would apply to anything (there are examples of lame pragmatism, lame field theory, lame network analysis, lame symbolic interactionism, etc. without making any of these lines of thought “lame” in their entirety).
That said, I agree with the basic descriptive premises of Kieran’s post. So this post is structured as a way to try to unhook the fruitful observations that Kieran made from the vociferous name-calling and defensive over-reactions to which these sort of things can lead. So think of this as my own reflections of what this implies for CR’s attempt to provide a unifying philosophical picture for sociology.
Seeing as Fabio has promoted some off-the-cuff remarks I made on Twitter about Critical Realism, I suppose I should say something a little more about it. All the moreso seeing as some anonymous commenters have been getting quite huffy at the very idea that anyone who called themselves an academic could make a dismissive comment without, presumably, devoting themselves full-time to “thoughtful debate and analysis” on the work in question. I have a general and a specific response to that. Speaking generally, online commentary should not be a kind of Markov process where every single contribution must start from scratch with no memory of anything that has gone before. The demand that any particular comment or post provide a full and complete accounting of everything on the topic (before it can count as “thoughtful debate and analysis”) is a hallmark of annoying Internet discussion. My specific response is that some time ago I did in fact devote myself full-time to thoughtful debate and analysis about Critical Realism, for a period of about eighteen months. I read pretty much everything on the topic that had come out until that time, which was a real barrel of monkeys let me tell you. I wrote and published an article on a current debate in the field, and then I moved on to other projects.
My conclusion, then as now, was that Critical Realism is a low-quality, confused, and misleading body of work. It is a justly peripheral branch of 1970s philosophy of science. The philosophical demands it satisfies amongst sociologists could be met elsewhere at much higher quality and far lower cost. In practice it does literally nothing substantive for the work of the sociologists who have taken it up, and I am dismayed to see it gain a foothold in the United States.
The orgtheory crew hails from across the globe, our methods range from computer simulations to ethnography, and we have varying levels of tolerance for Graham Peterson. But do you know what we all agree on? That’s right, critical realism is lame. I was reminded of this when Kieran started a critical realism flame war on Twitter this evening, in response to Phil Gorski’s essay defending CR in the most recent Contemporary Sociology. Each tweet is a one inch punch of academic truth.
- In the new CS Phil Gorski asks “What is Critical Realism? And Why Should You Care?” The correct answers: “It’s Bollocks” & “You Shouldn’t”
- Say you’re a sociologist and you meet some Philosophers who think Alvin Toffler is the world’s best Strat guy. It’s like that with Bhaskar.
- You’d be like, “Oh yeah that guy—from the ’70s? Whatever happened to him?” And the Philosophers say “He’s a leading figure in your field!”
- And you say “Well the field didn’t exactly go in that direction, and even if it had you’d want to read these ten other people instead.”
- But the Philosophers reply, “No, no, he’s effected a Copernican Revolution in Sociology! I mean, he repeatedly says so himself! QED!”
- I think at that point you might be tempted to roll your eyes right out of your head.
For previous spiking the ball on Bhaskar, click here.
The Open Borders movement is based around a simple idea – in most cases, people should not be restricted in their movement across borders. This idea was featured this weekend in The Atlantic. The article presents the case and discusses the academics and writers who congregate at the Open Borders blog, which is run by Vipul Naik.
Michael Huemer, a philosopher, boils down the argument with the hypothetical story inspired by the “Starvin’ Marvin” South Park character:
[Marvin] is very hungry and is trying to travel to the marketplace to buy some food. Another person, Sam (Sam has a large number of nephews and nieces, so we’ll call him Uncle Sam), decides to stop Marvin from going to the marketplace using coercion. He goes down there with his M16 and blocks the road. As a result, Marvin can’t trade for food and, as a result, he starves. So then the question is, did Sam kill Marvin? Did he violate his rights? Almost anyone would say yes, Sam acted wrongly. In fact, if Marvin died as a result, then Sam killed him. It wouldn’t be that Sam failed to help Marvin. No, he actively intervened….This is analogous to the U.S. government’s immigration policy. There are people who want to trade in our marketplace, in this case the labor market, and the government effectively prevents them from doing that, through use of force.
I was also cited for discussing open borders strategy:
“Open borders will become a reality when the public stops believing that immigrants are a threat,” sociologist Fabio Rojas recently wrote, comparing the open borders movement to the gay rights movement. “Even if a pro-immigration referendum fails to pass, it will still serve the function of forcing the issue onto the public stage. These actions won’t change the minds of those strongly committed to anti-immigration policy. Instead, they will make immigration seem ‘normal’ to a later generation of people.”
Check it out.
About two weeks ago, there was an interesting post at Econlog about the relative importance of civil rights for libertarians. The issue is that libertarians often hype other issues, like taxes, more than civil rights. Not too much discussion about discrimination, Jim Crow, and so forth. A blogger from the pro-immigration website Open Borders asked how often libertarians argued against, for example, segregation.
I think the commenters (myself included) got it right when we said “some, but not much.” In other words, from time to time, libertarian intellectuals did talk about the evils of segregation. Usually, the issue is couched in terms of the use of state power to prohibit blacks from holding property and practicing certain occupations, like the law. Sometimes it was a commentary on what was good and bad in the Black freedom movement. There is the occasional talk of opposing colonialism. But overall, it was not an overwhelming response.
The relatively weak answer to Black oppression is puzzling. Opposing Jim Crow was a no brainer from the libertarian point of view. Blacks had been slaves, which is the antithesis of personal freedom. Then, after Reconstruction, they had been subjected to humiliating and painful legal regulations in addition to extensive personal violence. While libertarians may disagree with liberals about the remedy for state violence and segregation, you would think that they would have been marching arm and arm with liberals in the 1960s.
But that didn’t happen. Black repression takes a back burner on the libertarian shopping list. But why? I think it has to do with the sociology of elite libertarians. Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Here’s a recent book chapter worth reading: “Why Behaviorism Isn’t Satanism.”
The history of comparative evolutionary psychology can be characterized, broadly speaking, as a series of reactions to Cartesian versus pragmatist views of the mind and behavior. Here, a brief history of these theoretical shifts is presented to illuminate how and why contemporary comparative evolutionary psychology takes the form that it does. This brings to the fore the strongly cognitivist research emphasis of current evolutionary comparative research, and the manner in which alternative accounts based on learning theory and other behaviorist principles generally receive short shrift. I attempt to show why many of these criticisms of alternative accounts are unjustified, that cognitivism does not constitute the radical lurch away from behaviorism that many imagine, and that an alternative “embodied and embedded” view of cognition—itself developing in reaction to the extremes of cognitivism—reaches back to a number of behaviorist philosophical principles, including the rejection of a separation between brain and body, and between the organism and environment.
Key Words: animal, cognition, behavior, cognitivism, behaviorism, evolution, learning, psychology
The discussion over “bleeding heart” libertarians got me thinking a lot about the foundations of various political ideologies. For example, what is the ultimate intuition for modern liberalism? There isn’t a single one. They come in a few flavors:
- Reformist: Some policies simply need fixing and government is the best way to do it. Think Keynes – we just need the state to manage aggregate demand so business cycles aren’t too bad. I put arguments over public goods in this camp.
- Redistribution: It’s inherently unfair that some people don’t have enough income, thus was have to use government to redistribute income.
- Rawlsian: If we weren’t wedded to our specific interests, rational people would prefer liberal policies to manage risk over the life course and provide collective goods.
- Utilitarian: On the average, liberal interventions in the economy and society work out pretty well.
There is one intuition for liberalism that isn’t popular, but it deserves some thought. I call it “sociological liberalism.” It goes like this:
- People and groups can’t be separated. People treat each other in bad ways because of strong personal attachment to groups. Thus, we should proactively create policies that counter people’s tendency toward tribalism.
This is different than other justifications of liberalism. For example, it’s not Rawlsian in that we have to argue about what people in the ideal state would care about. It not fundamentally about redistribution of income or ad hoc reform. It’s about a basic feature of human psychology – the strong, perhaps too strong, attachment to our family, religion, ethnic group, etc. – and how that’s counter our belief that people should be treated with respect.
West 86th has an article by Ben Kafka on the subject of bureaucracy. Kafka’s main point is that philosophers, and political philosophers especially, have consistently misunderstood administration. In the 19th century, there was this belief that if we could just use science, we could administer ourselves to peace and stability. In the 20th century, philosophers, especially those with a left bent, felt that the problem of administration had been solved. It was so easy, anyone could do it. The intuition isn’t crazy. Kafka’s points out that these statements came on the heels of the French Revolution and its aftermath. People simply wanted rational rules that could easily be applied.
So how would a modern orgtheorist respond to the utopian philosophers? I think we’d say that administration is hard (and often brutal in the case of socialist nations) for the following reasons:
- Limited knowledge – aggregation of knowledge is hard, though bureaucracy makes it a little easier
- Self interest – Since administration is set up to deal with massive resources that owners can’t directly supervise, you get principal-agent problems
- Mission creep – a consequence of the principle-agent problem. Since it’s hard to monitor bureaucrats, it’s hard to keep a lid on them.
- Asymmetry – bureaucracies often have the upper hand over individuals because they don’t rely on a single person E.g., if this lawyer can’t fight anymore, a new one will be hired. In contrast, an individual can easily be outlasted in a conflict.
- Myth and ceremony – Rather than solve problems, states and organizations may expand bureaucracies to show they’re dealing with the problem
Thus, administration is a tool with limits and it comes with its own problems.
In disgust research, there is shit, and then there is bullshit. Colin McGinn’s book belongs to the latter category.
It gets better:
The sad fact is the reader would learn more about disgust by reading Mad magazine.
For the rest of us—those who actually care about disgust, or aesthetic emotions, or scholarship at all— the book is bound to disappoint. “Who can deny the mood-destroying effect of an errant flatus just at the moment of erotic fervor?” he writes. McGinn’s book is just such a flatus, threatening to spoil an exciting intellectual moment for the rest of us. Sometimes with books, as with farts, it’s better to just hold it in.
Nina, don’t damage the fine reputation of Mad magazine.
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.
Our friend Kieran has a series of posts on his research at Leiter Reports, the leading academic philosophy blog. Aside from writing on economic sociology, Kieran has begun an ambitious project analyzing the way that philosophers evaluate each other. Three posts so far, each well worth reading:
- The overall pattern of department evaluations.
- Descriptive analysis of who does the ratings.
- Specialties and raters.
I’ve seen this project presented in workshops. There is much more and it is very good. Can’t wait to see more posts.
There is a new web site, Open Borders, that collects arguments for the view that people should freely move across borders in most cases. It just got started, but it has both empirical and philosophical arguments, as well as arguments from different political perspectives. One stop shopping for people who want to hear, or disagree with, the argument that freedom of movement is a basic human right.
A few days ago, philosopher Colin McGinn wrote an op-ed in the New York Times demanding that his discipline drop “philosophy” as its name. The essence of his argument is that what used to be called “philosophy” bears little resemblance to what now dominates academic philosophy.
To understand this exercise in meaning construction and boundary work, it helps to understand what modern philosophy professors do. I think it might be described to outsiders as “using precise language to understand conceptual and logical issues.” So, a philosopher who looks at sociology might ask what we mean by “society” or “actor,” and then examine the meanings of these terms and their logical implications. If you want a great example on our blog, see Omar’s recent discussion of social constructionism.As you can imagine, that sort of intellectual work is a bit different than what used to be called philosophy, or what defines heterodox types of philosophy.
What’s at stake in this argument? I think this is an exercise in purity that uses the physical sciences as its claim for status. Consider the following passage:
Our current name is harmful because it posits a big gap between the sciences and philosophy; we do something that is not a science. Thus we do not share in the intellectual prestige associated with that thoroughly modern word. We are accordingly not covered by the media that cover the sciences, and what we do remains a mystery to most people. But it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”
I am very partial to this argument. I think that sociology is a science in the common sense use of the term. Sociologists collect data, test hypothesis, and argue about the link between theories and observation. We just do it about people, while physicists do it about energy and matter.
But I am not about to let McGinn off the hook. I don’t think that the practice of philosophy is as pure as he makes it out to be. There are important chunks of the academic discipline that don’t fit into a physical science model. For example, there are quite a few people who do history of thought. And earlier types of philosophy are not completely divorced from the discipline.
Nor would I buy McGinn’s argument that being systematic is enough to make you into something like chemistry. Yes, philosophy is systemic, but falsifiability through logic is qualitatively different than falsifiability through experiment or observation. That’s why I’ve always thought that philosophy is akin to purely logical fields like math and pure statistics, more than chemistry and physics.
In the end, through, I approve of McGinn’s status seeking exercise. Systematic investigation of logical arguments is different than art history or music performance. As a member of a discipline whose mission is to discover what is correct, I can recognize that philosophy is also about “rightness” and less about judgment. But I am happy to let philosophy live in a sui generis position that is different than the physical and social sciences until they can show me that they are engaged with a reality that exists beyond our heads.
Let’s start with a thumbnail sketch of libertarian theory: laissez-faire – hands-off, as long as it’s voluntary, it’s ok. Now, there’s two sides to this coin. You have the right to do good and bad. With regard to race, the libertarian position implies that we should be equally tolerant, for example, of people who want to live in mixed race neighborhoods and those who wish to live in segregated neighborhoods. As long as force isn’t used, we should tolerate it, even if we don’t approve of it.
That brings me to Ron Paul. He’s been dogged for years by inflammatory racial articles in his newsletters. If you read them, you’ll see that they are disgusting. The puzzling part is that there is not much to indicate that Paul himself hates Blacks. In fact, some of his arguments about policy might have been written by the most bleeding heart liberals. For example, he has publicly argued that the drug war disproportionately hurts minorities and has racist origins. Most observers have guessed that the inflammatory articles have been written by someone else who is very racist.
The problem with a philosophy of hyper-tolerance is that you attract repulsive people, like Paul’s racist associates. That’s doesn’t always happen. ACLU style free speech activists rarely share beds with the neo-Nazis whose rights they defend. But sometimes it is a problem. Since libertarian philosophy dictates a tolerance, but not an endorsement, of people who dislike other racial groups, hyper-tolerance may come off as a signal of approval for racism. Furthermore, followers of a hyper-tolerant philosophy, like libertarianism, may seek short term political gain by building coalitions with repulsive people. And of course, truly evil people, like hard core racists, may dress up their views with a sheen of tolerance. The result? The philosophy of tolerance co-mingles with the repulsive.
That’s a problem for libertarianism as a social practice. For it to become more mainstream, it will have to move beyond policy and come up with a more serious theory of social practice. It has to be a philosophy that breaks out of utilitarian arguments over economic policy, and provide an ethic beyond minimalist tolerance. Otherwise, libertarians who care, like Paul does, about the drug war, foreign wars, and other issues of wide appeal will be left explaining why their room mate has a David Duke poster on the wall.
I’ve come to the conclusion that political beliefs aren’t logically coherent things. Instead, the things you believe signal who you are rather than a judicious application of abstract principals. That’s why we get angry when we talk about politics. A person who disagrees with me isn’t saying that I have misapplied an abstract idea. They are directly attacking my identity.
If you believe that, then political ideologies reflect how we see ourselves, which leads me to one sentence summaries of political theories:
- Conservatives: I’m tough.
- Liberals: I’m a nice person.
- Green: I like turtles.
- Marxists: I want your stuff.
- Libertarians: Get your hands off my stuff!
Add your own pithy summaries in the comments.
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.
What’s the *real* difference between continental and analytic philosophy? For example, the wiki claims that continentals are more into historical work and less into discrete problem solving. These issues still strike me as superficial differences. In principle, couldn’t the claims derived from a historical view be translated into the plain language style that characterizes analytic philosophy? So I have a few questions for the professional philosophers who might be reading this blog:
- Are analytic and continental philosophy incommensurable? Is it literally impossible to translate the claims from one into the other?
- Is it a label problem? Do analytics and continentals do different things and it’s really a fight over who gets to use the word philosophy?
- Is it a real dispute over truth claims? Do analytics and continentals agree that they are actually talking about the same things, but they really think they have different answers?
- Is it just style? Maybe they agree on a lot, but the analytics and continentals simply can’t stand the radically different presentations of argument.
- Is it sociological? Maybe analytics and continentals agree on problems, can understand each other, and would produce similar answers to problems, but they simply fighting over turf defined by their respective founding figures.
Yes, I know that each term denotes a wide range of view that share a family resemblance. Yada yada. I’m more interested in how much weight might be given to the five different explanations.
After my talk at GMU on Friday, I was lucky enough to have dinner with a fun group of policy folks and economists. The discussion ranged over a lot of great topics, but here’s one question I’d like to share: Are there really any conservative economists?
This question may surprise you because economics is considered the most conservative branch of the social sciences. To get the discussion, let me explain the definitions. First, by “economist,” they clearly meant a professional PhD holding economist. Not the policy wonks you’ll find around DC. Second, by “conservative,” they mean someone who is socially conservative – anti-gay, anti-immigrant, anti-drug legalization, a Bill Bennett style culture warrior, pro-life, evangelical Christian, etc.
The observation was that economists range from liberal (e.g., Paul Krugman) to libertarian (e.g., Milton Friedman). And this is backed up by survey evidence. On social issues, economists tend to be fairly liberal, even in comparison with other social scientists. They are conservative when it comes to economic policy such as minimum wages and price controls. It was argued that economists are rarely socially conservative, while many are economically conservative.
Do you buy this observation? Can you think of prominent economists who are socially conservative?
I am re-reading Foucault’s “The Order of Things” and I have a few posts summarizing my thoughts in the pipeline. So if you want a Foucault/Order post on a particular topic, just comment/email/tweet me about it. Two posts in mind: one on how sociologists absorb Foucault and another on evaluating the main claim of Order. Other ideas are welcome.
There’s a certain resistance to dichotomizing: the truth is somewhere in between, it’s more nuanced, processual, interactional etc — both “x” and “y” need to be considered — so we’ll call it “z” (say, “structuration”). But, as I’m preparing for an entrepreneurship-related PhD class tomorrow, most of the papers we read indeed tend to set up a dichotomous relationship between two things. Despite problems with these types of contrasts (it’s usually pretty easy to see where the argument is going), I still find the exercise of extremes very valuable. Theories, after all, idealize and need to focus on something (usually in reaction to its opposite, sorta).
So, here are some of the entrepreneurship-related dichotomies that popped up:
- structure versus agency
- macro versus micro
- exogenous versus endogenous
- observation versus theory
- experience versus thought
- supply versus demand
- backward- versus forward-looking
- discovery versus creation
- something versus nothing
- actual versus possible
(The truth can be found on the right-hand side.)
Many of the above dichotomies — in one way or another — hearken to classic debates in philosophy: rationalism versus empiricism, realism versus constructionism, etc. I don’t think that organizational scholars will solve any of these classic problems, though obviously there are comparative opportunities vis-a-vis the things that we study: collective action, social process and interaction, value creation and so forth.
Below the fold you’ll find some of the (somewhat eclectic) readings that somehow relate to the above dichotomies of entrepreneurship: Read the rest of this entry »
Harold Garfinkel, who brought phenomenology back to the core of social theory, died last week in Los Angeles. His best-known work, Studies in Ethnomethodology, has led a double life. It’s put to work in introductory courses so that people can read about breaching experiments, and maybe do some minor ones themselves while pining for the days before IRBs. Here its contents are often played for laughs, or the general lesson that social life is a funny old thing and simultaneously more rulebound and more fragile than one might expect. On the other hand, the essays are a thoroughgoing and deep critique of the Parsonian approach to theorizing action, and relentlessly problematize the ongoing accomplishment of everyday life.
In the 1980s, the main problematic of social theory was micro- vs macro- and how to reconcile them. A common line of argument was that macro-theory required microfoundations, and these foundations were to be sought in the stable preferences and actions of (perhaps rational) individuals. Garfinkel’s vision of micro and macro was very different. Unlike the perhaps difficult but ultimately comforting search for a well-founded base to build society on, the ethnomethodological approach was more like the discovery of subatomic states and quantum-mechanical phenomena: way up there in the world of big celestial bodies, things looked orderly and stable, and there was some plausible prospect of discovering laws of society. Even a little further down the scale you could see where the structure was, even if it was inevitably messier. Studies in Ethnomethodology, however, zoomed in even closer on the micro-level and found that it wasn’t a level at all, that everything was constantly on the verge of going completely to hell, and that chaos loomed at every turn. Even today, when I read the breaching experiments it’s still striking just how quickly things move from an ordinary, boring interaction to a bunch of confused, upset, and very, very angry people who don’t know what is happening.
It turned out to be difficult to build on the discovery of the foamy, swirling reality that society was supposed to rest its weight on. Beyond some passing remarks I’ve seen in print or heard in person by those who were connected with Garfinkel and his circle, I don’t really know (nor do I much care) why the research program stalled out or became marginalized in the way that it did. Maybe it was the problem faced by a lot of phenomenological work, which finds it hard to reconcile its key insight (based on first-person experience) with a generative research program. Maybe it was a failure to transcend a little cult of personality. Maybe it was opposition from better-positioned competitors. I don’t know. Either way, it seems like a waste. But the core contribution is still there, and Garfinkel represents a vital link between the Husserlian tradition of the early 20th century and contemporary developments in the theory of social fields.
Yale’s Open Courses projects has some very interesting offerings, including Shelley Kagan’s famous course on Death, and Chris Hayes’ Introduction to the Old Testament. Right now they’re featuring Foundations of Modern Social Theory taught by the terrific Iván Szelényi, seen here in full flow and looking rather like a dapper, more genial and engaging version of a statue to some cold-war communist party leader. The course really does take a “Foundations” approach, starting with Hobbes and spending quite a bit of time on Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Smith—not so common in sociology these days. Marx, Weber, and Durkheim get multiple lectures to themselves, while Mill, Nietzsche, and Freud get air time as well. Great stuff.
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.