the fallacy of adumbration in relational work

Fred Wherry, Sociology, Columbia University

As the debate advances on what relational work is and how it may be applied to studying economic phenomena, it is helpful to revisit what Robert K. Merton called the fallacy of adumbration: if a new concept is indeed novel, its critics will claim that it simply can’t be true; and if it is true, it was already foreshadowed (vaguely) or handled (thoroughly) by pre-existing concepts. Yet “until the concept… [is] coined and refined, the common character and significance of these phenomena remain obscure” (Portes 2001: 184).

Let’s take a look at one of many empirically testable propositions in Zelizer’s article in the Politics and Society volume. She compares mental accounting with her approach to earmarking money. The former hones in on individuals; but the latter, the relationships and relational work in which these individuals are engaged: “To compare both perspectives, take the case of Christmas savings club…. Mental accounting proponents… explain depositors’ apparent irrationality as evidence of how individuals use institutions for self-control or as precommitment devices, in this case protecting themselves from using those funds for other purposes. Yet the history of Christmas savings clubs suggests that these accounts also guarded funds away from specific others” (p. 160). Specific types of relationships may be tied to specific categories of expenditure, so it is the management of these relationships rather than an inherent self-control problem that may be operative. Relational work directs our attention to these empirically identifiable mechanisms that would have, otherwise, remained obscure.

In her conversation with the mental accounting, Zelizer’s relational work promises an empirical advance that can both complement and supplant existing explanations of economic decision-making. The agenda is to identity how a relational work perspective directs us to understudied mechanisms and unrecognized outcomes for specific classes of phenomena. The concept is, yes, new and true—its propositions, testable.

Written by fredthesociologist

September 4, 2012 at 8:06 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] Block, Nina, Kieran and Fred Wherry have already outlined some basic stakes to the claim that an economic sociology more attentive to […]


  2. It behooves us to read Merton regarding adumbration. I recommend the entirety of Robert K. Merton, “On the History and Systematics of Sociological Theory”, chapter 1 in Social Theory and Social Structure, The Free Press (1968 Enlarged Edition). In it, Merton makes a distinction between adumbration (the foreshadowing of elements in new research) and adumbrationism (the systematic, and often, petty and ill-intentioned search for anticipations and adumbrations in older research). The former merits the attention of scholars because adumbrations permit the development of the systematics of ideas – specifically, how they are alike and different, which is important in stitching together a system of thought. Failure to be explicit in doing the comparisons and then declaring the existence of a new system of thought (e.g. “Viviana Zelizer has developed the concept of “relational work” as a way of…”) invites adumbrationism.

    “Adumbrationism is the humanities and the physical sciences has its emphatic counterpart in the social sciences. Adumbrationism in sociology for example has its own roots. Although we lack comparative monographic studies, the early modern development of sociology does not seem in fact to be as cumulative as that of the physical and life sciences. The predilection in the nineteenth century and, in some quarters, today for sociologists to develop their own “systems of sociology” means that these are typically laid out as competing systems of thought rather than consolidated into a cumulative product. This tendency diverts attention from historical analysis of the development of theory toward showing that the allegedly new system is not new after all. The history of ideas then becomes an arena for claims and counter-claims to a kind of originality that is uncharacteristic of the growth of science. The less marked the degree of accumulation, the greater the tendency to search for similarities between past and present thought and, by easy extension, to end up in adumbrationism.” (Merton, pg 23.)

    I read in Merton’s chapter the inference that the history of thought without the attendant systematics is not useful. The problem is exacerbated in the case of Relational Work, as many of the posts imply, because of the explicit need to relate the conceptual framework to fields outside of sociology, namely economics, social psychology, and anthropology. This is by no means a call for diminishing the importance of the Relational Work system of thought. Rather, it is necessary for those of us “outside the tent” to better navigate our way in.



    September 5, 2012 at 5:24 pm

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