Posts Tagged ‘Durkheim and Mauss

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.