Archive for the ‘obscure sociological theory’ Category
The issue of whether some culture is “deep” versus “shallow” has been a thorny one in social theory. The basic argument is that for some piece of culture to have the requisite effects (e.g. direct action) then it must be incorporated at some requisite level of depth. “Shallow culture” can’t produce deep effects. Thus, for Parsons values had to be deeply internalized to serve as guiding principles for action. Postulating cultural objects that are found at a “deep” level requires we develop a theory that tells us how this happens in the first place (e.g. Parsons and Shils 1951). That is: we need a theory about how the same culture “object” can go from (1) being outside the person, to (2) being inside the person, and (3) once inside, from being shallowly internalized to being deeply internalized. For instance, a value commitment may begin at a very shallow level (a person can report being familiar with that value) but by some (mysterious) “internalization” process it can become “deep culture” (when the value is now held unconditionally and motivates action via affective and other unconscious mechanisms; the value is now “part” of the actor).
One thing that has not been noted very often is that the “cultural depth” discussion in the post-Parsonian period (especially post-Giddens) is not the same sort of discussion that Parsons was having. This is one of those instances in cultural theory where we keep the same set of terms—e.g. “deep” versus “shallow” culture–but change the parameters of the argument, creating more confusion than enlightenment. In contrast to Parsonian theorists, for post-Giddensian theorists, the main issue is not whether the same cultural element can be found at different levels of “depth” (or travel across levels via a socialization process). The key point is that different cultural elements (because of some inherent quality) exist necessarily at a requisite level of “depth.”
These are not the same sort of statement. Only the first way of looking at things is technically “Parsonian”; that is Parsons really thought that
…culture patterns are [for an actor] frequently objects of orientation in the same sense as other [run of the mill physical] objects…Under certain circumstances, however, the manner of his [sic] involvement with a cultural pattern as an object is altered, and what was once an object becomes a constitutive part of the actor” (Parsons and Shils 1951: 8).
So here we have the same object starting at a shallow level and then “sinking” (to stretch the depth metaphor to death) into the actor, so that ultimately it becomes part of their “personality.”
Contrast this formulation to the (post-Giddensian) cultural depth story proposed by Sewell (1992). According to Sewell,
…structures consist of intersubjectively available procedures or schemas capable of being actualized or put into practice in a range of different circumstances. Such schemas should be thought of as operating at widely varying levels of depth, from Levi-Straussian deep structures to relatively superficial rules of etiquette (1992: 8-9).
Sewell (e.g. 1992: 22-26), in contrast to Parsons, decouples the depth from the causal power dimension of culture. Thus, we can find cultural schemas that are “deep but not powerful” (rules of grammar) and schemas that are powerful but not deep (political institutions). Sewell’s proposal is clearly not Parsonian; it is instead (post)structuralist: there are certain things (like a grammar) that have to be necessarily deep, while other things (like the the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate) are naturally found in the surface, and need not sink to the level of deep culture to produce huge effects. Accordingly, Sewell’s cultural depth discussion should not be confused with that of the early Swidler. Swidler (circa 1986) inherited the Parsonian not the post-structuralist problematic (because at that stage in American sociology that would have been an anachronism). Her point was that for the thing that mattered to Parsons the most (valuation standards) there weren’t different levels of depth, or more accurately that they didn’t need to have that property to do the things that they were supposed to do.
The primary aim of recent work on dual process models of moral judgment and motivation seems to be to revive a modified version of the Parsonian argument. That is, in order to direct behavior the point is that some culture needs to be “deeply internalized” (as moral intuitions/dispositions). However, as I will argue below the very logic of the dual process argument makes it incompatible with the strict Parsonian interpretation. To make matters even more complicated we have to deal with the fact that by the time we get to Swidler (2001) the conversation has changed (i.e. Bourdieu and practice theory happened), and she’s modified the argument accordingly. She ingeniously proposes that what Parsons (following the Weberian/Germanic tradition) called “ideas” can now be split into “practices + discourses.” Practices are “embodied” (and thus “deep” in the post-structuralist sense) and discourses are “external” (and thus shallow).
This leads to the issue of how Bourdieu fits into the post-Parsonian/post-structuralist conversation on cultural depth. We can at least be sure of one thing: the Parsonian “deep internalization” story is not Bourdieu’s version (even though Bourdieu used the term “internalization” in Logic of Practice). The reason for this is that habitus is not the sort of thing that was designed to give an explanation for why people “learn” to have “attitudes” (orientations) towards “cultural objects” much less to internalize these “objects” so that they become part of the “personality” (which is, by the way, possibly the silliest thing ever said). There is a way to tell the cultural depth story in a Bourdieusian way without falling into the trap of having to make a cultural object a “constituent” part of the actor but this would require de-Parsonizing the “cultural depth” discussion (which is something that Bourdieu is really good for). There is one problem: the more you think about it, the more it becomes clear that, insofar as the cultural depth discussion is a pseudo-Parsonian rehash, there might not much left after it is properly Bourdieusianized.
More specifically, the cultural depth discussion might be a red herring because it still retains an implicit allegiance to the (Parsonian) “internalization” story, and internalization makes it seem as if something that was initially subsisting outside of the person now comes to reside inside the person (as if for instance, “I disagree with women going to work and leaving their children in daycare” was a sentence stored in long-term memory to which a “value” is attached.
This is a nice Parsonian folk model (shared by most public opinion researchers). But it is clear that if, we follow the substantive implications of dual process models, what resides in the person is not a bunch of sentences to which they are oriented; instead the sentence lives in the outside world (of the GSS questionnaire) and what resides “inside” (what has been internalized) is a disposition to react (negatively, positively) to that sentence when I read it, understand it and (technically if we follow Barsalou 1999) perceptually simulate its meaning, which actually involves running through modal scenarios of women going to work and leaving miserable children behind). This disposition is also presumably the same one that may govern my intuitive reaction to other sorts of items designed to measure my”attitude” towards other related things. I can even forget the particular sentence (but keep the disposition) so that when somebody or some event (I drive past the local daycare center) reminds me of it I still reproduce the same morally tinged reaction (Bargh and Chartrand 1999; Bargh and Williams 2006).
Note that the depth imagery disappears under this formulation, and this is for good reason. If we call “dispositions to produce moral-affective judgments when exposed to certain scenarios or statements in a consistent way through time” deep, so be it. But that is not because there exist some other set of things that are the same as dispositions except that they lack “depth.” Dispositions either exist in this “deep” form or they don’t exist at all (dispositions, are the sorts of things that in the post-Giddensian sense are inherently deep). No journey has been undertaken by some sort of ontologically mysterious cultural entity to an equally ontologically spurious realm called “the personality.” A “shallow” disposition is a contradiction in terms, which then makes any recommendation to “make cultural depth a variable” somewhat misleading, as long as that recommendation is made within the old Parsonian framework. The reason why this is misleading is because this piece of advice relies on the imagery of sentences with contents located at “different levels” of the mind travelling from the shallow realm to the deep realm and transforming their causal powers in the process.
If we follow the practice-theoretical formulation more faithfully, the discussion moves from “making cultural depth a variable” to “reconfiguring the theoretical language so that what was previously conceptualized in these terms is now understood in somewhat better terms.” This implies giving up on the misleading metaphor of depth and the misleading model of a journey from shallow-land to depth-land via some sort of internalization mechanism. Thus, there are things to which I have dispositions to react (endowed with all of the qualities that “depth” is supposed to provide such as consistency and stability) in a certain (e.g. morally and emotionally tinged) distinct way towards. We can call this “deep culture” but note that the depth thing does not add anything substantive to this characterization. In addition, there are things towards which I (literally) have no disposition whatever, so I form online (shallow?) judgments about these things because this dorky, suit-wearing in July interviewer with NORC credentials over here apparently wants me to do so. But this (literally confabulated) “attitude” is like a leaf in the wind and it goes this or that way depending on what’s in my head that day (or more likely as shown by Zaller 1992, depending on what was on the news last night). Is this the difference between “shallow” and “deep” culture? Maybe, but that’s where the (Parsonian version of the) internalization language reaches its conceptual limits.
Thus, we come to a place where a dual process argument becomes tightly linked to what was previously being thought of under the misleading “shallow culture/deep culture” metaphor in a substantive way. I think this will “save” anybody who wants to talk about cultural depth from the Parsonian trap, because that person can then say that “deep= things that trigger moral intuitions” and “shallow=attitudes formed by conscious, on-the-fly confabulation.” Note that conceptually the difference is between thinking of “depth” as a property of the cultural object (the misleading Parsonian view) or thinking of “depth” as resulting from the interaction between properties of the person (internalized as dispositions) and qualities of the object (e.g. meaning of a proposition or statement) (the Bourdieusian point).
Last week, I wondered why there was a decline of “social theorist” as a self-identified niche in sociology. It’s not that people don’t write social theory. On this blog, we spend a lot time discussing books that might be called “theory,” like Reed’s book on interpretive social science or Levi-Martin’s on social structure. Rather, as a whole, social doesn’t produce a lot of people who say “I’m a social theorist.”
In the comments, there was a strong discussion that focused on my hypothesis that empirical work is simply more competitive. Coming up a genuine advance in social theory is much harder than doing solid empirical work. One commenter then responded, if I may paraphrase, that in the long run theory wins out over empirical work.
At first glance, this seems intuitive. We all Weber, but how many of us read, say community studies from the 1920s? I bet John Levi-Martin’s book on structure will be read more than the latest p* article in Social Networks.
Upon further reflection, it’s not clear at all. What we now call “theory” was often “empirical work” in an earlier era. My view is that “theory” is a vague term that is retroactively applied to some sociological work that is highly successful.
For example, most of Durkheim’s major books are considered “theory.” Some are purely theory (e.g., Rule of Sociological Method) while others are doggedly empirical (e.g., Suicide). Some “theorists” write abstract theory (e.g., Parsons) while others mix and match (e.g., Alexander’s book on Neofunctionalism is almost bereft of traditional empirical work, while his recent stuff is motivated by empirical example). Still in others, it’s hard to tell where abstract theory begins and empirical commentary begins (e.g., Simmel).
Maybe that’s the deeper lesson. What becomes canonical theory in the future is hard to predict. So just try to do your best. We’re in a golden age of middle range theory and data and sociology. That’s where the profession it at right now, and that’s where the theory of future is being born.
In the comments on my discussion of Reed’s recent social theory book, Andrew Perrin wrote “the only thing Bhaskar and Postmodernism actually have in common is that Fabio finds them distasteful, or complicated, or something like that.” Yes, exactly. Different ideas, but they are both cryptic and often wrong. Critical realism and post-modernism were mentioned in my post because they indicate the type of literature that Reed often appeals to. Sometimes Reed appeals to types of scholarship that are clearly written and are valuable, at other times he appeals to types of literature that are obscurantist.
When I evaluate scholarship, I focus on whether it is true, insightful, and informative. By this account, post-modernism fails in because it is simply wrong and hard to read. For example, a common claim of post-modernism is that we have a “decentered self,” a claim that flies in the face of research showing the relative stability of personality over the life course.
I also distrust critical realism because it is extremely cryptic. Let’s take the following Bhaskar quote, which won Philosophy and Literature’s 1996 prize for worst academic writing:
Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal — of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.
It says a lot if you beat out continental philosophers and literary critics. This is the Usain Bolt of bad writing.
I’m willing to deal with tough texts if there’s a pay-off. For example, I have long found Bourdieu to be valuable because once you peel away the wordiness, there’s interesting and testable hypotheses about status and social behavior. But when I peel away the layers of the critical realist onion, I am only left with tears.
My friend Jason Stanley has a blog post up at the New York Times‘s Opinionator section that might be of interest to you social theorists out there. Jason’s a philosopher of language who teaches at Rutgers. He attacks a distinction which is by now extremely well-entrenched in social theory generally and in specific theories of action in the sociology of culture, the sociology of organizations, and elsewhere—namely, the distinction between theoretical and practical knowledge:
Humans are thinkers, and humans are doers. There is a natural temptation to view these activities as requiring distinct capacities. When we reflect, we are guided by our knowledge of truths about the world. By contrast, when we act, we are guided by our knowledge of how to perform various actions. If these are distinct cognitive capacities, then knowing how to do something is not knowledge of a fact — that is, there is a distinction between practical and theoretical knowledge. …
Most of us are inclined immediately to classify activities like repairing a car, riding a bicycle, hitting a jump shot, taking care of a baby or cooking a risotto as exercises of practical knowledge. And we are inclined to classify proving a theorem in algebra, testing a hypothesis in physics and constructing an argument in philosophy as exercises of the capacity to operate with knowledge of truths. The cliché of the learned professor, as inept in practical tasks as he is skilled in theoretical reasoning, is just as much a leitmotif of popular culture as that of the dumb jock. The folk idea that skill at action is not a manifestation of intellectual knowledge is also entrenched in contemporary philosophy, though it has antecedents dating back to the ancients.
According to the model suggested by this supposed dichotomy, exercises of theoretical knowledge involve active reflection, engagement with the propositions or rules of the theory in question that guides the subsequent exercise of the knowledge. Think of the chess player following an instruction she has learned for an opening move in chess. In contrast, practical knowledge is exercised automatically and without reflection. The skilled tennis player does not reflect on instructions before returning a volley — she exercises her knowledge of how to return a volley automatically. Additionally, the fact that exercises of theoretical knowledge are guided by propositions or rules seems to entail that they involve instructions that are universally applicable — the person acting on theoretical knowledge has an instruction booklet, which she reflects upon before acting. In contrast, part of the skill that constitutes skill at tennis involves reacting to situations for which no instruction manual can prepare you. The skilled tennis player is skilled in part because she knows how to adjust her game to a novel serve, behavior that does not seem consistent with following a rule book.
… But once one begins to bear down upon the supposed distinction between the practical and the theoretical, cracks appear. When one acquires a practical skill, one learns how to do something. But when one acquires knowledge of a scientific proposition, that too is an instance of learning. In many (though not all) of the world’s languages, the same verb is used for practical as well as theoretical knowledge (for example, “know” in English, “savoir” in French). More important, when one reflects upon any exercise of knowledge, whether practical or theoretical, it appears to have the characteristics that would naïvely be ascribed to the exercise of both practical and intellectual capacities. A mathematician’s proof of a theorem is the ideal example of the exercise of theoretical knowledge. Yet in order to count as skilled at math, the mathematician’s training — like that of the tennis player — must render her adept in reacting to novel difficulties she may encounter in navigating mathematical reality. Nor does exercising one’s knowledge of truths require active reflection. I routinely exercise my knowledge that one operates an elevator by depressing a button, without giving the slightest thought to the matter. From the other direction, stock examples of supposedly merely practical knowledge are acquired in apparently theoretical ways. People can and often do learn how to cook a risotto by reading recipes in cookbooks.
Jason develops the point a bit more in his post and rather more rigorously in recent book, which I haven’t read in any detail as of yet. I won’t say that I’m entirely convinced, and in particular I wonder whether the argument he’s making is going to turn on some very fine-grained aspects of technical philosophy of language which I’m not really in a position to assess. However, the strong division between practical and theoretical knowledge is such a shibboleth in social theory—variously entrenched in Wittgensteinian, phenomenological and cognitive versions—and such a great deal rests on it, that it’s worth taking the time to think against it once in a while to see where that goes.
Conceptions of what we mean by “agency” abound and are unlikely to constitute a single manageable notion (some ritualistic citation to Emirbayer and Mische would go here). Instead, something like the notion of agency is probably a complex, “radial category.” This means that when we take a position on the various versions of the “agency/structure” or any sort of analogous “debate” we end up having unrelated arguments that use similar words, and sometimes the same argument using different words. More deleteriously, we end up speaking in code, so that instead of saying what we mean in specific terms, we develop the bad habit of speaking in “generics” such as agency versus structure. Positions taken in terms of these generics have a socio-logical function in the field (they serve as emblems of membership in groups and schools) but analytically they leave us at the level of a low cognitive equilibrium, one which is pretty hard to shake out from (which is why it seems like we’ve been having the same conversation for like fifty years now).I think one productive way to proceed is to use a disagreggation and specification strategy, whereby we isolate all of the various sub-arguments that we are having under the agency/structure debate guise (this is roughly the strategy that John Martin used in Social Structures in regards to that concept). After disagreggation and specification we may then have it all out at this lower level of abstraction. Arguments at this level will be bound to be more productive, because here hopes for adjudication regarding the desirability and coherence of one position over another are actually much higher than they would be if we stay at the level of ghostly generics.
So, one thing that I think has been meant by agency in the history of social theory is simply freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that is not dictated by the objective features of the world. While the term agency usually has an affinity to “freedom” (as in freedom of the will or freedom to do whatever you want), so that in a lot of debates agency is conceptualized as freedom of action, I think that one of the core meanings (or the most consequential meaning in the history of various influential debates in social theory) is not about freedom to act but about freedom to think or as I will refer to this from now on, as freedom to conceptualize. So agency is simply freedom of cognition from objective aspects of the world, or more precisely the agent’s freedom (insofar as our cognitive capacities are constitutive of our status as agents) to conceptualize the world in alternative ways. One can recognize this as a strictly Kantian version of what we mean by “agency” and that is no accident. For it is clear that it was the strand of social theory that begins with German-Idealism and which emphasized the creative and constitutive capacities of the subject to conceive of the world in particular ways that injected the most consequential version of the agency problematic in social theory. Under this model, the individual is “free” insofar as the way in which some state of affairs is conceptualized is not completely determined by some sort of non-negotiable feature of the world (e.g. its materiality or brute facticity). Instead, a conceptualization emerges from a negotiation between features of the world and aspects of cognition that are decidedly contributed by the conceptualizer. This mean that a simple inspection of the objective features of the situation is not sufficient to predict the way in which that situation will be understood (read conceptualized) by a person. In this sense, to say that there agency is a property of persons is to say that they have “freedom to” construe a given state of affairs in ways that are not a function of extra-cognitive features of that state of affairs.
As Parsons well understood, a theory that denies agency (or that denies “voluntarism” in his antiquated language) would be a theory that by-passes the mental, or to use more contemporary language, would be a theory that by-passes cognition (or in Weberian terms, a theory that says that ideas don’t matter). In Parsons there were three examples of such theory: instinct theory (biologism), radical behaviorism (environmental determinism) and neo-classical economics; he called all of this stuff “positivism” even though that had nothing to do with how the term had been understood in nineteenth century thought. Regardless, Parsons was right in thinking that any theory that made the cognitive a determinate product of the non-cognitive by definition got rid of the element of “freedom” in action (which he sometimes confusingly referred to as the “value-element”); the reason for that is that–thanks to Kant—in the social theory tradition the only source of freedom left to the person was the freedom to conceptualize the world in a way that was not determined by non-negotiable features of the world. That’s why the “material” is the site of non-agency and the mental (or the cognitive/ideal) is where “agency” resides.
So one way to specify the whole “agency” thing is to actually argue about this rather than about agency: does your actor model makes conceptualization indeterminate given some state of affairs or does it constrain the actor to conceptualize the world in a single way (e.g. the way that “reality” really is). Parsons understood that any theory that reduced cognition to “objectivity” was “positivist” in the sense that it left the actor no conceptual choice to construe the world in independence from non-cognitive features of the world. In neo-classical economics the world is only one way (the way described by “modern science”) and if the actor did not have this conceptualization then by definition the actor was irrational. That’s why in Parsons work (but curiously not in our versions of his debates) there was a clear connection between agency and “the problem of rationality.” Parsons dilemma was that the only theory that had a normative conception of rationality did not leave room for agency (positivism in its neo-classical incarnation) while the only theory that left room for agency (freedom to think otherwise) when taken to its ultimate conclusions resulted in a irrationalist premise (a form of cultural and cognitive relativism). We still haven’t solved that one, but it would be helpful to bring the rationality debate to the fore again.
Note that a lot of “social construction” talk (and debate) has the same structure. So another advantage of what I propose is that disagreggates and re-specifies that debate. I think the term social construction is terrible and misleading. First, if you’ve read Berger and Luckmann you know that it is missing a few words. What they really mean by this phrase is the cognitive construction of (the sense of) reality with categories of thought of social origin. This mouthful is of course unwieldy, but underscores their achievement. In some respects the B&L respecification of the problematic ended up being a better synthesis of German-Idealism with French Social Realism (e.g. Weber and Durkheim) than that produced by Parsons. For the point of social construction (and of cultural sociology) is that this implies an “idealist” version of the Marxian dictum (on this “idealization” of Marx B&L were quite clear): you cognitively make your world but not with categories of thought of your own making (a point obviously central to Bourdieu as well; the phenomenological notion of world-making re-appears in analytic philosophy in Nelson Goodman’s work). I think the reason why we like this formulation is that we can have our cake and eat it too. Note that at the individual level this implies the grossest form of (Durkhemian) determinism (not made any more palatable by the invocation of Mead): the categories with which your think are the product of society; at the group level though we get the benefits of German Idealism: culture is not reducible to (social structure, environment, physical features of the world, universal rationality), so agency re-appears at that level.
This accounts for why social-construction types of debates are so predictable: on the one side you usually have somebody vigorously stomping his/her feet and saying that there are objective features of the world (e.g. and by “objective” the foot-stomper means features of reality that demand that they be conceptualized in ways that leave no freedom for alternative construals). Let’s call these features non-negotiable features. On the other side you have social constructionists carefully denying that such non-negotiable features exist (or more precisely, claiming that they might exist in a neutral ontological sense but they don’t really constrain thought in the way that the non-constructionist claims that they do; i.e. they are epistemically indeterminate). For the (strict) social constructionist everything that the non-constructionist claims is non-negotiable could be construed otherwise, and that’s why culture is autonomous and people have agency.
For instance, Andy Pickering thinks that his work on Quarks demonstrates how (scientific?) “agency” emerges from the “mangle of practice” even though his substantive point is that objective features of the world have not constrained the actual shape of theories about the world in the history of particle physics. Once again, “agency” plays no role in this claim, and we could translate agency as “capacity to conceptualize in divergent ways” without any explanatory loss; agency is a completely decorative term in this whole discussion. Of course, now we can easily explain why it makes this strange appearance; for what Pickering means by “agency” is simply freedom of thought from the slavery of having to reflect a unitary reality. Pickering’s big counter-factual (and this he has in common with every cultural theorist) is that the history of physics (which is essentially a history of conceptualizations) could have been otherwise. Non-constructionists think that he should be comitted to the nearest mental institution. The constructionist immediately points out that the very notion of mental illness is a concept that is not determined by objective features of the world and therefore one that has been cognitively constructed in collective or social way (we can envision an alternative history in which the notion of “mental illness” never arose in the way that it arose in the West, which is the point of Foucault’s early work).
So the point is that a lot of debates about social construction is simply the historical version of the culture/agency thing: the history of collective conceptualizations is contingent and/or driven by the internal features of cultural systems themselves (a point also made by Foucault in his early work). One thing that is not the case is that the history of cultural change can be done as a history of changes in non-cultural features of the world.
The lesson? Agency means many things. One obvious thing that it means is freedom. Yet, a curious quirk in the history of social theory linked “freedom” to cognition or thought (Kant). In the twentieth century this linkage (via Boas who was said to regularly page through his copy of Critique of Pure Reason during cold nights in the arctic) was “blown up” to the group level in the form of the founding problematic of cultural anthropology; so that the “autonomy” (a synonym for “freedom” by the way) of culture from “conditions” (biological, environmental, etc.) is the formal equivalent of the Kantian autonomy of conceptualization from the world, or the Parsonian autonomy of values from conditions. Cultural sociology inherits this whole package of debates, problematics and hasty formulations, but in some sense, cultural sociology is simply the contemporary avatar of a position in this debate (shared by Boas and Parsons): this position is that culture, cognition and thus conceptualization is not reducible to objective or non-negotiable features of the world (so when early network theorists counter-posed “social relations” to culture, they took a stance in this debate, one that they’ve recently reneged); Berger and Luckmann provide us with the modern vocabulary, the one that replaced Parsons’ voluntarism/idealism/positivism lingo: “the social construction of reality.” That’s why this phrase has become shorthand for saying “culture/cognition (depending of whether you are talking about groups or individuals) is not a function on non-negotiable features of reality” or simply another way of saying “agents have the freedom to construct realities in ways that are not a function of the objective features of the world” (the phenomenological input here is clear in the notion of “multiple realities”). Edmund Leach, Mary Douglas and Eviatar Zerubavel provide us with another update of the same position: culture is a grid that cuts the booming, buzzing confusion of the world in group-specific ways. This single fact explains why cultural sociology stands opposed to all sorts of biologism, environmentalism and universalist rationalisms. In these debates the capacity to unhook thought from servitude to some sort of non-mental determinant is essentially an argument for “agency.” But if that’s the case, then we can have the same debates without using the “a” word. It adds nothing to the proceedings, and in fact may actually confuse matters further.
As every sociology grad student knows, the famous thesis of Dukrheim and Mauss’ (1962: 11) essay on Primitive Classification is that “the classification of things reproduces…[the] classification of men [sic].” This is a controversial argument that has served as one of the primary inspirations for contemporary work in the sociology of knowledge. Durkheim and Mauss went on to argue for instance, that if persons divided themselves into two groups, then they divided the world of animals, plants, etc. into two kinds; if they divided themselves into four groups organized as hierarchies (with subgroups nested within larger groups), we would find an analogous classification system for nature (with sub-kinds nested within larger kinds), and so on.
I want to propose that a form of “Primitive Classification” is alive and well in contemporary social theory. This argument holds with two minor elaborations: first, we must allow for the corollary that if the classification of things reproduces the classification of persons, then the resistance to classify persons should result in a resistance to classify things. Second, that the style of classification of persons should result in an analogous style of classifying things. For instance, one thing that Durkheim and Mauss “primitives” had no trouble doing was classifying themselves in rigidly hierarchical terms. From here Durkheim reasoned that an equally rigid classification of things should follow such that subsumptive relations between groups resulted in analogous part whole classifications at the level of natural phenomena. From this it follows, that resistance to classify persons in a hierarchical manner should result in an equal resistance to classify things in a hierarchical way.
I think that these two principles can help to explain a lot of quirky features of contemporary social theory. Consider for instance the knee-jerk presupposition that any form of dualistic distinction is somehow “wrong” (a priori) and therefore deserves to be “transcended” (the allergy against dual distinctions). Or consider for instance the related (equally knee jerk) propensity to think that when postulating the existence of two abstract substances and processes (let us say, structure and agency) the theorist makes a “mistake” if he or she “privileges” one over the other (theoretical egalitarianism). Such that the best theory is the one that gives equal share of (causal?) power to both things (or if the theorist postulates “three” things, then all three).
I will submit that for the most part, the “hunch” that “dualisms” are wrong or that “privileging” some abstract thing over another puts us on the road towards the worst of analytical sins has nothing to do (in 99% of the cases) with the logical virtues of the argument. Instead, I think that this hunch, is in effect a form of Primitive Classification unique to certain collectives in the social and human sciences (most other sciences and most other lay persons have no problem with dualisms and hierarchical privileging of one abstract thing over the other). I think that we (e.g. sociologists) want our classification of (abstract) things to reflect our (desired?) classification of persons, so that when there is a mismatch, we simply reject the theoretical strategy as wrong and in fact end up producing bland theoretical classifications (“equal interplay of structure and agency”) that in fact reflect our classification of persons. So dualisms are (perceived as) “wrong,” not logically, but socio-logically (Martin 2000). They are wrong because our desired classification of persons tends to reject dualisms (at least in the humanities and some social sciences). And even when abstract dualisms are provisionally allowed (e.g. agency and structure), then we are forbidden from privileging one over the other (because such a privileging is a no no in our [ideal?] social world).
So, the next time somebody tells you that the very fact that you made an analytical distinction is somehow already a logical or theoretical “fallacy,” (see Vaisey and Frye 2011 for an entertaining dispatching of this ridiculous idea) or the very fact that you argued that something is substantively more important than something else somehow makes you unacquainted with the canons of theoretical logic or that your theory in fact requires that everything be at the same level as everything else in order to count as “sound” (see Archer 1982 for the classic demolition of this preposterous notion), turn the tables and point them back to Durkheim and Mauss’ classic essay.
Why are there so few anarchists in the academy? That’s the opening question in David Graeber’s book (free pdf) Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Check it out.
Here are the opening two paragraphs:
What follows are a series of thoughts, sketches of potential theories, and tiny manifestos—all meant to offer a glimpse at the outline of a body of radical theory that does not actually exist, though it might possibly exist at some point in the future.
Since there are very good reasons why an anarchist anthropology really ought to exist, we might start by asking why one doesn’t—or, for that matter, why an anarchist sociology doesn’t exist, or an anarchist economics, anarchist literary theory, or anarchist political science.