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Theoretical egalitarianism as Primitive Classification

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.

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11 Responses

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  1. This is fantastic! (And not because you cited our paper.) There are so many hypotheses that could be tested here (experimentally, I’m thinking). Maybe you should pull the post down so you don’t contaminate your subject pool!

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    Steve Vaisey

    November 28, 2011 at 2:48 pm

  2. I would submit that Matt’s website (All our ideas) might lend some insight on the empirical question of how willing people are to sort things into two categories. Note respondents are able to…well, not transcend…but refuse the dualistic distinction by claiming they don’t know enough about one, another, or both propositions, or that they see them as equivalent. (But not that they prefer a third, fourth, N unstated option.) http://www.allourideas.org/

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    Jenn Lena

    November 28, 2011 at 3:40 pm

  3. The thing I like best about re-reading “Primitive Classification” is Rodney Needham’s polite commentary, which points out ever so gently where Durkheim and Mauss are talking bollocks.

    One question is where the updated thesis is supposed to “hit”, so to speak. At the level of the entire society, or at the level of little subgroups or splinters of it (such as college professors trained in specific disciplines and departments)? For D&M, the idea was to connect the structure of society as a whole with the ideas of people as a whole—truly collective representations mirroring the structure of the whole society. But is the relationship between the writings of social theorists and their particular political shibboleths plausibly a case of the same phenomenon? I’m skeptical, if only because it seems like more local factors (e.g. in the development of bits of the social science disciplines) could explain the taste for certain stupid heads-I-win, tails-you-lose argumentative moves. The theoretical fashions move fairly quickly, relatively speaking, maybe too quickly to be comfortably explained by fundamental features of a social order. For example, well into the 1980s we were hearing (and undergraduates were being taught well into the 1990s) about the inescapable structural totalities of systemic class/state apparatuses, etc. I’m more inclined to say that the current state of the bits of social theory that Omar picks out—with people being chronically pragmatic, comprehensive, multidimensional and dichotomy-transcending—stems more from the decoupling of social theory from dominant empirical research styles, and the more decline of social theory as a serious enterprise. We teach grandiose but maximally flexible theory-rhetoric that allows for plenty of wiggle room in the interpretation of whatever the regression spits out, but eschew any potentially restrictive method or approach that might connect the two sides in a way that would constrain both.

    At the same time, I’m also reminded of a throwaway remark by John Meyer in the essay printed in Grusky’s stratification volume. He says the fact that stratification theorists and liberal egalitarian philosophers can find employment at all is evidence that the theories they produce ‘are themselves core cultural elements of modern society . . . The obsessions of theory (e.g., with individual inequality and with the distinction between just and functional inequalities and unjust or power and ascription-ridden ones) are the main cultural themes of modern stratification’ (Meyer, 2000, pp. 883–9). So maybe there’s a direct reflection of a similar sort here.

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    Kieran

    November 28, 2011 at 4:09 pm

  4. Kieran: but perhaps it’s not about fundamental features of the social order, but rather about the big structural changes/conditions of the period. For example, a strong (say) structure vs. agency dualism might be more likely to thrive in the Cold War while a sort of bland egalitarian pragmatism fits in with the post-Clinton (“third way”) era. No way to be sure, of course, but it strikes me as plausible. It would be interesting to do some priming experiments and see if priming sociology grad students with racial or income equality primes would make them less likely to endorse theoretical dualisms. I’m not saying I’m confident this would work — you may be right, after all — but at least one could plausibly test for this mechanism.

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    Steve Vaisey

    November 28, 2011 at 5:31 pm

  5. I think is all about everyday experience with social classifications. So there should be as much within as between variation when talking about groups such as disciplines (although the between averages should be ordered; e.g. Women/Queer studies people should be more adamant about transcending dualisms than social psychologists). A big qualification of the D&M thesis is that for the most “primitive” society, the whole thing encompassed most of everyday experience, so there was a close connection between the “whole society” and the representations that were putatively shared by everyone. Durkheim’s methodological conceit was that he was considering a society in which social and classificatory experience were unitary.

    Any extension of D&M’s argument beyond this case requires that we modify the experiential and classificatory unity assumption. Since there was no choice in the original statement of the hypothesis, there has to be choice or preference in the restatement (e.g. “given the choice of two theories, one that imposes a strong classification and one that doesn’t, then persons who are exposed to systematic experience with classified others will be more likely to accept the first over the second,” or something like that).

    Another modification: as one we move towards big complex groups, the argument has to be localized to the typical social experiences of a given sub-group: *if* your everyday experience is comprised of social interaction that either de-emphasize or proscribe any sort of strong social classification (whatever the premise, age, gender, race, etc.) then you won’t find theories that make strong classifications appealing. Alternatively, if your everyday experience occurs in contexts in which the classifications between persons is strong, then you are more likely to accept dualisms (or whatever number of classifications) and if the classification of persons also involves a hierachical distinction, then you are more likely to accept a rank order between your theoretical principles.

    Also, as Kieran notes the argument as stated by D&M is static not dynamic, so we have to fix that too. But this is not too hard. In fact, we could restate the hypothesis in terms of Sperber’s (1985) notion of an “epidemiology of representations.” So that we can explain why certain “representations” (read: ways of formulating certain theoretical issues) succeed (e.g. non-hierarchical arrangement of abstract things) and become institutionalized in certain fields and not in others. So we can accept the point that at some point wishy washy agency/structure theories were not around, but once they appear they should “take over” fields where people are socially primed to accept non-hierarchical classifications (e.g. they are “susceptible” in diffusion lingo), and we may be even be able to predict ex ante which fields or subfields should be more likely for this to happen.

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    Omar

    November 28, 2011 at 6:37 pm

  6. Yeah, I mean, it’s certainly true that we see linkages of this sort made pretty regularly both in cross-national cultural sociology and also in terms of science/social science disciplinary stereotypes … though in the former case the idea is less that one’s experience of a given structure gives rise to distinctive forms of thought (or intolerance of certain ways of thinking) and more that durable conceptions or models of order are drawn on and enacted in practical life. In the latter case there’s the question of how connected these representations are to the intellectual output of the relevant group … I’ve heard it said in rebuttal to U.S. conservatives complaining about left-leaning humanities faculties that in the Soviet Union it was the engineers who were the most ideologically “unreliable” group in academia, while the humanists fell into line with much greater frequency.

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    Kieran

    November 28, 2011 at 6:59 pm

  7. Perhaps I’m just <a href="http://scatter.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/on-the-grounds-for-political-dispute/#comment-13039&quot; feeling grumpy this morning, but I dispute the empirical claim upon which the (admittedly very elegant) theoretical exposition is based. I don’t recognize much serious theory in your portrayal of the taboo upon dualisms, or the tendency to resolve dualisms by refusing to “privilege,” at least not within sociology. Instead, it seems like you’ve set up a paper tiger, as sociologists love to do,[1] then provided citations to other critiques that agree but, revealingly, to no theory that actually characterizes the tendency you critique! In short: you seem to be theorizing a phenomenon that “everyone knows” to be true but is not actually demonstrated.

    [1] Sociological reactions to postmodernism, rational choice, and Talcott Parsons often share this reflexive approach in which the sociologist dismisses the theory without bothering to stop and comprehend it first.

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    andrewperrin

    November 29, 2011 at 4:25 pm

  8. I think that was pretty obvious. So-called structuration theory is the primary example. If you look through the Constitution of Society there is not a single place in which the term “dualism” is used in a way that does not imply some sort of derogatory status for the formulation under discussion. Once again, the post was not designed to be the beginnings of any sort of rigorous investigation into the matter. If it doesn’t resonate with you at an anecdotal level then it ain’t gonna work. It’s all about experience. Although I envy the theoretical company that you keep!

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    Omar

    November 29, 2011 at 4:41 pm

  9. I think I agree with Omar’s characterization of sociologists’ theoretical aversion to dualities, although I think there is a great deal of heterogeneity within sociology on this matter. Some versions of sociological theory are less accepting of that kind of conceptual muddiness. I think this tendency makes it difficult for sociologists to talk to other disciplines and have productive exchanges. My psychologist colleagues go bananas whenever they hear a concept, like structuration, that is too fuzzy to turn into an experimental manipulation. (Meanwhile, sociologists go crazy when they hear psychologists describe culture as breaking down into a collectivism/individualism duality.)

    I was at a multidisciplinary conference earlier this year where a prominent sociologist was presenting a new grand theory of everything (coming soon to Amazon!). The theory was careful to avoid any dualist classifications and had many moving parts. I saw an economist in front me pass a note to the economist sitting next to him, which said, “Every once in a while it’s good to be reminded why I chose to be an economist.”

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    brayden king

    November 29, 2011 at 7:53 pm

  10. A short history of Science and Technology Studies (S&TS):

    Bloor/Lynch/Collins: “Traditional Sociology of Science (Merton/Mannheim) treated the causes of true explanations as somehow different from false explanations; the ‘strong program’ will impose a symmetry principle in which both are treated in equal terms.”
    Pinch/Bijker: “The ‘strong program’ excludes technological systems as somehow not subject to sociological explanation; our model imposes a symmetry principle in which both knowledge and technology are treated in equal terms.”
    Woolgar/Ashmore: “The strong program and everybody else excludes the analyst’s position from being explained by the same social forces as are the techno-scientific systems under study; we impose a symmetry principle in which both the system under study and the very explanations produced by science and technology people are treated in equal terms.”
    Latour/Callon: The strong program and everybody else has accepted the human/non-human duality. We impose a symmetry principle in which both human and non-human actors are treated in equal terms.”

    “As Woolgar notes, actor-network theory’s call fro breaking down the human-nonhuman divide ‘is one instance within a larger dynamic: the successive rooting out and dismantling of fearful symmetries…in a glorious bonfire of the `dualities'” (this quote taken from and the paragraph(s) above adapted from Pels 1996: 278).

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    Omar

    November 29, 2011 at 8:21 pm

  11. Omar, that’s a great example! I love it. However I do think in many of these cases the move is controversial among many sociologists specifically because of the muddy defense.

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    andrewperrin

    November 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm


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