Archive for the ‘obscure sociological theory’ Category
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.