Dream of a Social Theory, conclusion

In my last post I wrote, only half joking, that Karl Marx is the greatest social theorist there is but that that isn’t saying much. Any social theorist who didn’t hate the first half of that sentence probably hated the second half.  But I write from a love of social theory and a desire to see it accomplish wonders. It’s a funny kind of love, to love such an abstract and incohate endeavour, but we don’t always choose whom or what we love.

So now I’m going to go a step further towards alienating absolutely everybody and say that most of what passes for social or cultural theory, that I’ve ever read, isn’t what I’d call theory at all, in the full sense of the term, but only analytics. I’m stealing this term from Foucault, who once said in an interview that he “in no way” constructs a theory of power, but only “at most” constructs an analytics of power. I think this is a worthwhile distinction, one that I wish people would remember and take seriously when they overstate Foucault’s merits or castigate his supposed failings, but that’s another story.

An analytics gives us sensitizing concepts, orienting questions, framing assumptions, as a basis for a detailed idiographic empirical study of some problem. An analytics takes a bewilderingly complex domain of phenomena and enables us to parse it into something we can understand. An analytics enables us to find connections we couldn’t otherwise perceive.  It allows us to turn our dispersed practical experience into a more consolidated knowledge so that we can think strategically and act more effectively. And it allows us to pool our knowledge so as to think and act collectively.

So an analytics does a lot. Most of what passes for ‘theory’ in the social sciences and in the arts, that I have read, is really just analytics. (Maybe this says more about what I haven’t read than about what’s out there. Please feel free to leave angry comments in the comments section below telling me whom I should read! Do it now – don’t even read the rest of this post!)

I say this not to denigrate those works, but only to indicate that there is something more that could potentially be done.  An analytics cannot really go beyond our empirical knowledge. It can only help us understand what we already have experienced and give us some ideas – only ideas – for what to try next.

So here are my four criteria for what a theory should have or do:

  1. A theory needs to have moving parts.
  2. A theory needs to be able to tell us things which we don’t already know.
  3. A theory needs to to tell us how to do things that we otherwise don’t know how to do.
  4. The things that the theory tells us how to do must contribute to human emancipation and equality.

Let me explain.

1. A theory needs to have moving parts.

This is what separates a theory in the full sense of the term from an analytics.

An analytics takes a complex situation and makes it easier to understand by simplifying it into categories. The discrete local particular events, each unique unto themselves, become instances of one or another type of activity or process or relation or what have you.  This enables us to say things like “sexuality is produced through power/knowledge relations”. Despite the phrase “is produced” there is no generative mechanism being proposed; the sentence is only a simplified description of complex processes. It’s very useful, but there are no moving parts.

A theory takes the added step of proposing generative mechanisms which operate in the same way across differing contexts.  To say “capitalists dehumanize and impoverish workers to produce profit” is merely analytic; to say that “capitalists exploit workers” is theoretical. The difference is the concept of exploitation, which is not just a simplified description but a generative mechanism. Exploitation make things happen; it produces phenomena. And, importantly, it does not need to be part of the conscious intentionality of any of the involved actors in order to do its work.

Only by proposing generative mechanisms with this non-subjective, non-intentional efficacy can our theories go beyond merely re-articulating what is already implicit in the subjective meanings attached to social practice.

2. A theory needs to be able to tell us things which we don’t already know.

An analytics directs our attention to questions which, upon further investigation, show us phenomena which we hadn’t previously observed. A theory tells us not only where to look but what we will find there.

An analytics helps us walk into an unfamiliar situation and, more quickly than otherwise, interpret and make sense of the events we experience. A theory enables us to walk into a situation of which we have incomplete knowledge, observe part of it, guess what is going on in the parts of the situation that we can’t directly observe, and be right.

Both types of theoretical thinking help us learn from experience and avoid having to reinvent the wheel or learn by trial and error; a theory just does so more powerfully.

3. A theory needs to to tell us how to do things that we otherwise don’t know how to do.

This is where the rubber meets the road. A theory finds its validation in practice.

(Incidentally this is the reason for points #1 and #2.)

By “we”, here, I mean the human species collectively. Someone might read a piece of analysis, or even just a good piece of thick description, and discover that it’s possible to do something which they had not thought possible, or which really wasn’t possible for them before because they had lacked crucial information. This is important and exciting, but it’s not what I mean.

A good theory will tell us how to do something that no human beings have ever done before.

I’m willing to say, perhaps contentiously, that there is in fact no such thing as a social theory, so far, which meets this standard.  There have been theories of this type in the natural sciences, but not in the social sciences or the humanities. If anyone would like to show me that I’m wrong, please do! I would be super excited to find examples of this happening.

I realize this is an incredibly tendentious and polemic way of conceptualizing theory. And, again, I don’t wish to denigrate or exclude work that doesn’t meet this standard. But I do wish to express my own perception. I find myself dissatisfied with literally every work of social theory that I have ever read, and this is why.

4. The things that the theory tells us how to do must contribute to human emancipation and equality.

If theory finds its validation in practice, we must ask: what kind of practice? Patently, there is no such thing as a value-neutral practice. Drinking water is not a value-neutral activity, much less the instantiation of a revolutionary social theory.

Developing a theory that lets us do human-universally new things just for the sake of doing so, with no regard for what it is that is being done – this is the path to technocracy and totalitarianism.

Of course theory cannot do this in isolation from the practice of egalitarian struggle. By the very nature of its goal it must be usable not only by elite specialists but by so-called laypersons. The theory itself must prefigure the end towards which it aims.

There is much more to be said but this is enough for the moment. I’ve defined in the most general terms what I think the aims of social theory could be and what they are for me personally in the work that I do. Obviously I haven’t said anything specific about how to achieve those goals. But the goals themselves are distinctive and not shared by everyone.

Nothing I’ve ever read has convinced me that this is impossible, only that it hasn’t been done yet.  I don’t expect to do this myself. But if I could contribute to the doing of this, that could be enough.

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35 thoughts on “Dream of a Social Theory, conclusion

  1. Thanks Chris. I found this post extremely interesting and useful. Here’s why. I think for the first time in our history, we’re actually working on the same thing, albeit from different theoretical perspectives. I found hearing the problem described in those different terms illuminating and it helped my clarify my thoughts on the matter. Here’s the problem as I see it. Observations are in the present, and records of observations are of the past. Observations don’t come with instructions on how to extrapolate into the future, and they certainly don’t tell us how to create the future we want; we need to go beyond the empirical in order to do this. We need theory, which is beyond the strictly empirical. Theories detail mechanisms, and more importantly, they support counterfactuals (which we need if we want to say something like, “if we structure society in some way other than how it is, we’ll get result x”). Counterfactuals are a huge problem for the strict empiricist precisely because they are about what didn’t happen (so a survey will never answer a question about counterfactuals, only about actual beliefs about counterfactuals). One standard approach is to claim that observations support claims of the truth of some theory. Then the only problem for social theories is that they are dealing with a complex and chaotic system (so we have to figure out all the variables, and figure out the margins of error given the parameters we give our computer model). This is a non-trivial problem, but it isn’t an in principle problem. Better computers and a better understanding of the relevant variables will get us closer to predictive accuracy. However, you and I both (it seems) reject the role the concept of truth plays here (although probably for rather different reasons). My reasons are epistemological; we can’t access it. But I’m agnostic on its existence and lean in favor of it. So I need a surrogate concept, one that is accessible and plays the same role of supporting the move to theory which then supports counterfactuals. That’s why I like subjective Bayesianism. It analyzes the probabilities of theories in terms of the strength of our beliefs (accessible), and the requirement of continually updating our beliefs in the presence of observations (accessible) is supposed to do the job of keeping our theories in contact with the actual (rather than some fantasy) world. That, combined with my dismissive rejection of standard global skepticism arguments (“but what if there’s an evil demon?” “what if we are living in a matrix world?” are questions I simply ignore), gets me back to reducing the problem of social theories to the (non-trivial) problems inherent in complex and chaotic systems. Or so I hope. The truth-advocates don’t buy my story on one of two grounds: either I don’t have a surrogate concept that does the work that I need it to, or I’ve presented a concept of truth in different terms.


    • Hi Rhonda, Thanks for this long and thoughtful reply. I’m glad to hear that this is connecting up with your own train of thought! 🙂

      For me the surrogate concept is practice. That is, we explain or maybe just perceive things a certain way, and this way of perceiving enables certain kinds of practice, e.g. enables us to cross a busy street without dying or negotiate delicate unspoken political agreements in civil society or what have you, and therefore people go on using that way of perceiving, and so it persists. Or not: what gets defined as shamanism in one social context appears as schizophrenia in another; an increase in ambient sound in the ocean disrupts whales’ ability to sing to one another; and the mode of perception dies out. That’s what I mean when I say that knowledge validates itself in practice; by ‘validate’ I really mean ‘reproduces itself’. There’s no deeper meaning, just endless non-teleological evolution of matter and energy. The only goals to be found in any of it are the goals of subjects themselves, myself included.

      So some explanations contribute to ongoing scientific practice, and thereby reproduce themselves. To vulgarize Kuhn, normal science is the business of producing solved puzzles; some theories help scientists do that better than others; paradigm shifts are like major retoolings in a production plant (which get less and less common as the cumulative capital investment gets bigger and bigger). It’s all *work*.

      But as you say, there is the problem of counterfactuals. If I want to explain social events in terms of some structured social process that doesn’t reduce to the subjective intentions of individuals, and hence are not immediately empirically observable, then how do I justify this to my fellow scientists? The easiest move is to say that these structures are real and/or that structural explanations are true. My alternative is to say that I expect such explanations will do some work that intention-oriented explanations will not. But then the question arises, what work? So I feel obliged, out of epistemological honesty, to state that my goal is some kind of egalitarian social revolution. But then of course not everyone thinks that possible or desirable.To me it seems that part of the work done by the concept of truth is to allow us to sidestep or defer or at least sublimate these questions of practical political orientation. Once we take that away, we’re thrown back on having to declare the ultimate practical point of our work, which we inevitably will disagree about.

      But I don’t know – does that speak to your concern? Why is it that you are interested in counterfactuals? And how does this relate to the need for a surrogate or substitute for the concept of truth? Having written all this, I feel as if I’ve missed something crucial in what you were trying to say.


  2. Thanks Chris. The concept you describe of practice seems like an interesting proposal for a surrogate in this context. It strikes me that there are probably a number of important differences between a social theory and, say, an astronomy theory (I’m a pluralist about method). The one that the concept of practice relates to, if I’m understanding you correctly, is that while we (must) lay an interpretive framework on astronomical phenomena, the interpretative framework is not constitutive of the astronomical objects. Whereas an interpretative framework is constitutive of social phenomena (including the social phenomena of studying astronomy). Part of what it is for a social event to be a certain type of social event is the practice of it (there’s no such thing as a cocktail party that nobody is aware of). So the concept of practice may not be necessary for astronomy, but it strikes me that it might be for social theory (including a social theory about the practice of astronomy). I’m going to guess that you’ll reject my implicit realism about astronomical objects. I take a Kantian view here, that the things in themselves are not objects of our epistemic access.

    As for counterfactuals, the reason I think they are important is because they will justify your claim that the structures you appeal to in explanations will succeed in producing your goal. Since we haven’t yet achieved the goal of an egalitarian social revolution (which you and I agree on the importance of), we have to instead talk about what would happen if we changed certain conditions. Alternately, we could try a bunch of things and see what works, but without any direction or idea of which options might plausibly work, we’re breaking a lot of eggs in the process of making our omelette.

    It seems there are two distinct questions: Why this goal? Why think that these practices will lead to success in achieving your goal? So I don’t think that truth or some surrogate will defer the question of a practical political orientation, because I see truth or a truth substitute as being about the second question rather than the first. Some moral/political philosophers also try to give a truth-based answer to the first question as well. Obviously they haven’t succeeded in convincing the world.

    As to why I’m interested in counterfactuals, it really has to do with my studies of the history of astrophysics. Kepler produced a theory of the causes of planetary motion that did not support counterfactuals. It only accounted for the actual (known) planets. A new planet might well follow different laws. Newton, on the other hand, had a theory that would apply to any massy body, including new ones. This allows for the possibility of novel predictions, including the discovery of Neptune. On one view, novel predictions build more confidence in a theory than old predictions because we can’t explain the success of the prediction by proposing that the theory was gerrymandered to cover the prediction. So my initial interest in counterfactuals has nothing to do with what you’re working on, but on reading this post of yours, it struck me that they were relevant. I’m still reaching for the exact nature of the relevance and just thought I’d throw them into the mix to see if you found them interesting or useful.


    • Exciting. What you say about Kepler vs. Newton, this is exactly what I’m trying to express. I’m saying that social theory has yet to find its Newton. For me Marx is the best contender that I’ve studied but he still falls well short. This puts me in disagreement with three general camps: (i) people who think Marx was the Newton-figure already, (ii) people who think that someone else is the Newton-figure, like Parsons or Luhmann or Blau or whomever, (iii) people who think there neither can nor should be a Newton figure for social science. It’s from the first and third groups that I’ve tended to get abuse, for some reason.

      The distinction you raise between planets and cocktail parties nobody is aware of actually bears on this point. I agree that there is a distinction worth making. For me it’s one that seem simple but turns out to be really complicated. But I’ll try to keep it simple.

      On the one hand, I see a commonality between social theory and physical theory that you’ve left out. Observing, discovering, explaining, these are all practices, whether they pertain to planets or cocktail parties. So I would say that physical theory vindicates itself in practice when it helps astronomers to make new observations or explain existing ones, etc. In this sense it doesn’t matter that the planet is nonliving, nonhuman matter while a cocktail party is a network of interacting human beings.

      In another sense it does matter fundamentally. The interacting human beings relate to each other through subjective meanings. The scientist relating to their object also does so through subjective meanings, because a theory, social or physical, is subjectively meaningful. But planets do not have subjectivity, as far as we are aware. So the physicist theorizing the movement of planets is projecting subjective meanings onto phenomena that can never reciprocate, will never understand his theory or internalize it or act on it, have no subjectively meaningful motivations of their own, and are in this sense meaningless. Whereas the sociologist theorizing cocktail parties is projecting subjective meanings onto an already-meaningful situation. It’s even possible, perhaps necessary, for the sociologist to incorporate the subjective meanings of the party-goers into the sociological theory. Or so the story goes; there are problems with this but we’ll leave them aside for now.

      The sociologist can do something the astronomer cannot: they can incorporate the actors’ subjective meanings into their own (subjectively meaningful) theory. Now, for many sociologists, this is *all* that sociologist should base their theories on. That is, the sociologist can and should do nothing more than observe and analyze the patterns immanent to the field of subjectively meaningful human social action. They might find patterns and unintended consequences that nobody has observed before, but the only object of study is meaningful social action.

      But for a social theory to have ‘moving parts’ it must have some objects that do not reduce to human action; it must propose structures or systems or figurations or what have you which are comprised of human action but which are at least given their own epistemological status (they are allowed to explain things) and which are treated the way the astronomer treats planets, as nonhuman, non-meaningful phenomena.

      This is part of what I’m trying to do. And of course the easiest move would be to be realist about these things, give them ontological status, but of course I’m making my own life more difficult by deliberately sticking to an irrealist line.


  3. OK, now I think I know why I’m talking about counterfactuals in this context. If practice is all about knowledge reproducing itself, then isn’t it conservative at its core? Don’t we need some way of thinking about producing rather than reproducing?


    • Yes, you’re right! Reproduction is the wrong concept. It implies stasis, the thing staying the same, like a carbon copy. Whole social theories, even some with emancipatory aims (like Bourdieu’s), have made themselves tacitly conservative by focusing on the ‘reproduction’ of social structures. We need another concept, like growth or flow or something the refers to the movement from past to future, that incorporates change.


  4. I think it is very odd/unfortunate that you get abuse from those who think there can’t be a Newton figure for the social sciences. Is it because they think that there are unavoidable ineffables, that social relations are too complex for any possible theory/computer combination to handle in principle, or that humans and social relations are somehow beyond nature and thus not subject to scientific study (perhaps because intentionality is beyond nature somehow along some sort of dualist lines)? But why don’t they just sit back and see how far you get? What’s the worst that can happen? Do they have a worry about that?

    I’ll need to think more about your concept of practice to have anything to say about that.

    On your last comment, I take it you are wanting some concept of growth or flow that is non-teleological (in the Aristotelian objective sense), but is still goal-oriented. One problem I had with Monique Wittig’s work is that she seemed to be saying (emphasis on ‘seemed’ because I didn’t feel I understood her) that we should break down the system and just see what happens. My worry is that the “what happens” could just as easily be worse as better, which is why some sort of way to think about the plausibility of obtaining a certain goal is important to me. Her view seemed to be that it couldn’t be any worse than what we have now, which I thought was patently false.

    Thanks for the discussion, by the way. I’m finding this very interesting.


    • Me too!

      “Why don’t they just sit back and see how far you get?” – I like this lot. I think I’ll use this the next time I’m in an argument that gets really heated. But abuse is probably too strong a word; hostility and defensiveness, yes, but then I’ve been guilty of that in my time also. Although, to answer your question: the worry in debates over social theory is always informed by the overlap between theory and ideology or, more precisely, by the perception that all sociological statements are constative and performative at the same time. Scientism in sociology has a history of being linked to conservative or even technocratic politics. I’m trying to chart a different path, of course, but that might not always be obvious to people.

      Yes, I quite agree with you that the “what happens” after a system is pushed into a phase change could just as easily be worse as better, or more precisely that with no adequate theoretical model we have no way of estimating the likelihood of worse vs. better. I very much want theory to help give me some confidence that a particular, untested course of action could lead to better and not worse. Extreme scenario: if I were going to sacrifice my life for a cause, I would want some degree of confidence better than blind faith that this sacrifice would not be in vain.

      * * *

      One addendum I’d like to make about how I’m using the word ‘validity’: when I write “science validates itself in practice” all I mean by “validates” is that it convinces some people of its validity. I do not mean that it convinces me of its validity or that the rational observer ought to be convinced of its validity or anything along those lines. In a sense I’m making the falsifiable empirical assertion “what convinces most people most of the time that they should believe scientific truth-claims is that those truth claims enable the production of practical results which they find impressive”. Of course this has no logical bearing on whether one should believe scientific truth-claims. Rather it’s a way of saying that we don’t need the concept of truth to explain why science exists as a social practice.

      But also at the same time I’m saying something tautological which could be translated as “in practice, science validates itself through practice” or “the practice of science perpetuates itself through practices that produce conditions which somehow motivate actors to continue its practice”. There is maybe some small empirical and falsifiable content to this claim but mainly it’s a way of shifting one’s frame of reference.

      Either way the word ‘validity’ no longer connotes anything prescriptive; validity and validation become purely descriptive concepts. To me, this makes it easier to use them to explain actual practice (e.g. why one explanation or way of explaining becomes institutionalized). But a reflexive or recursive problem sets in: you can explain why people adopt a theory without invoking a truth, but then how do you convince others to adopt your own explanation? Especially when your audience is invested in the concept of truth?

      What do you think? Does this speak to your interests in astronomy and such?


  5. Thanks for your interesting posts here on theory, Chris. I am just catching up on your blog-theorizing! As for your grand claim that no Theory exists (I assume that it has a capital T by the way you are describing it), I want to ask why you don’t consider something like psychoanalysis to fulfill your four criteria. I’ll be brief here, but these are my points:
    1. A theory needs to have moving parts: The unconscious is a mechanism (of subjectivity, desire, “self/identity”). It is a relation that constitutes human understanding. It also, it so happens, provides an analytic schema.
    2. A theory needs to be able to tell us things which we don’t already know: Prior to Freud, the object of the unconscious did not yet exist in western (social) science. Freud (arguably) created a new epistemological terrain: knowledge about the structure of the unconscious.
    3. A theory needs to to tell us how to do things that we otherwise don’t know how to do: Psychoanalysis allows us to rationalize our unconscious, give reason to our desires, and heal our anxieties.
    4. The things that the theory tells us how to do must contribute to human emancipation and equality: By learning how to overcome (or at least “make friends with”) our anxieties, we can heal the cause of much (if not all, according to some psychoanalytic thinkers) human suffering.
    Forgive the oversimplification of your concepts and my “rebuttal”. I’m interested to hear what you think about that.
    PS, just because the word “analytic” is a part of psycho*analy*sis does not mean that it fails to meet your litmus test 😉


      • Well. I was wondering if maybe you just aren’t happy with the Marxian tradition because it can’t explain the links between your second and third criteria (or, even worse, it is inconsistent).
        Others… Bourdieu has Habitus (as mechanism), but, in my perspective, makes similar errors when “switching” to its emancipatory politics. Given your first criteria, I don’t think that there are many other theories that would satisfy you. The necessity of all Theory having a “mechanism” as its “moving parts” precludes any theory that doesn’t have a structural element. Must all Theory contain such a principle?


      • Hm. Why wouldn’t it? Do you have a counterexample in mind?

        One reason I haven’t been more into psychoanalysis, btw, is that I don’t perceive it as addressing the types of mechanisms/structures that I’m particularly interested in. I get it that psychoanalysis understands mental phenomena as produced through social relations, e.g. there must be social interaction for there to be an Oedipus complex, and after Lacan the phallus is not so much the phallus as male power, etc. But I can’t shake the perception that the principle mechanisms which psychoanalysis theorizes are basically internal to the individual mind. Whereas, to put it glibly, I would say that capitalism is not a neurosis. Would you disagree?


      • Counterexample? Probably one that will not be well articulated on the fly here… But how about the tradition of phenomenology? The Horizon of Being (or World, if you’re Heideggarian, Gadamerian, etc.) is the condition of possibility (not a mechanism though) for any “moving part”. World opens us us to the possibility of understanding things we didn’t already know. It allows us to expand our understanding of the nature of social life, which might be emancipatory (thinking here of the world of Arendt and the polis).

        And, on your second point, the beauty of the unconscious is that it isn’t an ideal phenomenon — it actually decentres the individual subject. It is something that escapes “reason” or “thought,” yet can be rationalized by speech and action. Surely, speech and action are not ideal phenomena, they occur within a culture, subject to certain structures, morality, contexts, and culture. Capitalism is not a neurosis per se, but an unconscious anxiety occurring within a capitalist society may have certain patterns, characteristics, which are a product of the structure of capitalism (thinking a little of Zizek here). And the analyst who “reads” that neurosis is able to do so because of a specific social and historical context that allows that particular anxiety to be understood as such. I think an idealist (and individualist) reading of psychoanalysis forgets that it is a theory of subjectivity, which need not only refer to specific individuals or specific psyches. It is not my reading of psychoanalysis that we are “born with human subjectivity” (that is far too Kantian — and in fact, Lacan, for example, even states that psychoanalysis is “contra-Hegel” and that tradition).


  6. Ariane: I haven’t read much phenomenology and what I have is Berger & Luckmann, Garfinkel and Schutz not Heidegger or Gadamer. What is the Horizon of Being? Sounds interesting!

    I do recognize that psychoanalysis decentres subjectivity and theorizes subjectivity as a product of social relations not as a product of our inherent nature or something we are born with. My question is: the mechanisms, the moving parts, proposed by psychoanalytic theory – where are they located? Where is the unconscious, materially speaking? My impression is that for Freud at least the unconscious resided in the physical body and brain of each individual, and that this is true even for Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious (i.e that the collective unconsciousness resides in the body-mind of the individual but its contents are those materials common to all members of the species). Whereas a social structure, as I understand the term, does not need to be present in anyone’s mind in order to exist. Does contemporary psychoanalysis posit the unconscious as a social structure in this sense?

    The other question I have is, even if psychoanalysis offers a social theory of subjectivity, does it offer a social theory of capitalism, of state power, of patriarchy, as social formations irreducible to subjectivity? Yes capitalism is intertwined with subjectivity, such that both capitalism and subjectivity shape each other in crucial ways, but this does not mean that we could know everything we wish to know about capitalism by approaching it through a study of subjectivity, or vice-versa.

    This is what I mean by “mutual irreducibility”. My main criticism of Marx is that, by assuming the reducibility of political power to class relations his theoretical framework fails to grasp important dynamics of state power, hence its failure to reckon adequately with the challenges of using state power to implement communism, and its inability to serve as a tool for constructing political institutions that actually give workers effective control over the means of production … hence my view that we are better off assuming the mutual irreduciblity of capitalism and sovereignty.

    How do you see the connection between subjectivity and other social formations?


    • Here’s my bastardization of World: World is understood as not the totality of all beings, but a space of meaningfulness in which we relate to the objects we always already find ourselves alongside and understanding. It is an ontological condition of understanding, but it’s not in individuals, per se, its a metaphysical “space.”

      But, to get to your other points… I see your formulation of Freud and Jung. I think that they can be read philosophically for their methodologically individualist logic. From a social theory perspective, however, i think that may a little too dogmatic. If we take the unconscious seriously, it does not reside in the human mind or individual body. This is my biggest beef with a lot of empirical work, or social theory that dismisses the psychoanalytic tradition. Actually, i went to an entire social theory conference on Lacan a few years back which was excellent, but also disappointing. A lot of work is focused on (especially “after” brain science) finding the unconscious in the brain, or that the unconscious is a “thing” in a literal sense. I remember that at the end of my talk, which was about labiaplasty actually, an analyst in the audience said, “Isn’t this great? We are finally getting to genitals themselves! The real site of the problem all along!” It is these kinds of readings that I think leave out some of the meatiest and exciting potential that the theory can offer.

      The unconscious is not in an individual’s mind, nor is it the study of individuals. We can examine the unconscious of a group (e.g., online gaming community, protesters at G20, etc.) or an entire institution (e.g., medicine, education, politics). The unconscious manifests in symbolic orders (discourse, speech, actions, representations like art, an article, film, models), but it does not “reside” there. For example, one of the anxieties of evidence-based medicine is uncertainty. It has many various tests for scientific validity that were created and are undertaken to produce the best possible results about the likelihood of the outcome of any given medical intervention. What this tells us about the structure of the unconscious of medicine is that it has a neurosis: an attempt to master the unknown through a set of standards. Yet, these scientific tests do not always eliminate uncertainty. There remains the possibility that tests are wrong (e.g., false positives), or that the diagnostic criteria are insufficient (e.g., MS is an illness whose diagnostic criteria have been revised three times in the last decade because of the non specificity of the illness and its presentation of symptoms). The desire to master or control uncertainty has produced these measures and tests for validity. They do not rely on individual consciousnesses to exist, and they exist in materialities (the actual test apparatus, rules for diagnosis, etc.). And, there isn’t just “one” unconscious for any given group/institution; there may be multiple collections of representations, with varying or differing anxieties and structures.

      So, the unconscious has structural properties, but it is not a theory of capitalism, patriarchy, and so on. To study the unconscious of capitalism would be to analyze to what anxiety capitalist representations (symbolic realm) are a response to. Or, what, for example, capitalist accumulation is a symptom of?

      PS, it’s been really fun thinking about some of this stuff again — I haven’t written on it in a few years time. Again, forgive my brevity and errors…


      • Yeah, it is fun, isn’t it?

        You describe World as a metaphysical concept and an ontological condition. What is your take on these words? Does the metaphysical connote some nonphysical reality, or is it merely the set of all those meta-level claims which are logically inferrable from claims people make about natural phenomena, or something else? For the sake of argument I’m going to talk as if you mean the former.

        My own worldview is, for lack of a better term, obsessively naturalistic, hence materialist and anti-essentialist. So I approach metaphysical ideas in roughly the way that Durkheim approached religious ideas: as opportunities for sociological inquiry, and in a spirit for which agnosticism is almost but not quite the right word. Metaphysical ideas, like religious ideas, refer by definition to phenomena outside the bounds of naturalistic inquiry and therefore cannot be part of scientific statements. Such ideas appear to the scientist as phenomena in need of explanation.

        So when a philosopher proposes a concept like World as an ontological condition of understanding, my response is to pose sociological questions aimed at understanding this act of metaphysical essentialism as the local and contingent result of some historical and relational social process. What ideas, shared with others, what subjectively experienced feelings and sensations, what relation to the world, does this idea express? What contests of strength inform its sociogenesis and so what power relations does it fetishize? Through what contexts of practice does it circulate and what functional transformations does it effect? And so on.

        Hence for me concepts like World or Being or Truth for that matter do not form part of sociological theories but are fruitful objects of sociological interrogation.

        The trouble, of course, is that one cannot get very far in the academic world without being asked to legitimate one’s scientific work in terms of concepts which we have inherited from metaphysical philosophy, concepts like “truth” or “reality” which most practicing scientists believe in with unthinking devotion just as scientists in earlier centuries believed unthinkingly in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Nor is this surprising; social science is a historical enterprise like everything else and can only emerge from within the very figurations against which it distinguishes itself, remaining tangled up in them inextricably until and unless they wither away somehow, which is not about to happen. So I propose theoretical frameworks which explain an event in terms of certain phenomena and not others and inevitably someone accuses me of making a truth-claim, an accusation which I refuse but cannot quite refute; my framework includes reference to certain kind of entities (social relations) and not others (gods, demons, Being, World) and someone will accuse me of formulating an ontology, which again I cannot quite refute; always I must struggle to say what I feel the need to say using words which I find inadequate to my purposes, I must struggle to make new words or use old ones in new ways, and I do this in cracks in between teaching, grading, committee work, having friends, dealing with my family, and looking after a seven year old; I do it out of some mixture of passion and fear which I can’t fully articulate; and these are only some of the words I would use to describe my experience of the condition of possibility for the understanding I find myself trying to construct.


      • Re. the unconscious – this makes sense to me, and I wonder if we can push it further. It’s one thing, at the level of general imagery, to say, let’s treat the group or the network or what have you as a thing and attribute to it qualities which we more commonly attribute to individuals, like a ‘character’ or ‘interest’ or an ‘unconscious’; it’s another thing to work out how a collectivity can have these properties, in material terms. This question always fascinates me.

        One way I can imagine this happening is by using Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. At any given time in a relational field there is an overall distribution of forces which individuals might understand perfectly, imperfectly, or not at all, but which shapes individual habitus. So my fundamental dispositions, proclivities, desires, even categories of perception are conditioned by my embodied experiences which in turn are conditions by an overall strategic configuration of forces and resources of which I might be completely unaware; I might think that I just prefer red wine and independent cinema to beer and blockbusters but my taste is a product of my position within a struggle for distinction which I scarcely perceive as such.

        Or, a perhaps simpler version: at any given moment the opportunities for action available to me at any given moment are, again, a product of a configuration of historical social relations which I may or may not have any personal awareness (conscious or otherwise). When I reach for a cup of coffee, that coffee is there on my table by virtue of a global network of class relations; the entire history of the capitalist mode of production informs every petty act of consumption. As generative processes, then, figurations like capitalism, state sovereignty, etc. serve as the collective, social unconscious from which individual consciousness emerges.

        What do you think?


  7. My Dream of a social Theory: Sociological Fundamentalism

    From its pre-history as a subset of general philosophy and/or a more purely practical body of wisdom concerning the arts of governing (Aristotle in the Ancient world; Machiavelli, Harrington, Montesquieu, Rousseau, et al. in the early Modern) to its epistemologization as a distinct and self-sufficient discipline in the late 19th /early 20th c. (the quadrivium of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons), sociology, of self-evident necessity, took as its object the social relations of Man in all their states, considered as an ontologically self-sufficient and sui generis order of facts that could not be subsumed or resolved into any other.

    The new discipline, by the necessary inner order of its constitution, was thus, from the second of conception, before it even had a name, set in opposition to religious and philosophical idealism. The sociological imagination imagined the warp and woof of human history as something that can neither be explained in terms of the hand of Providence nor the progressive unfolding of Reason, but only understood as a material process forged in a purely material and temporal milieu. In the process, and for obvious reasons, it made instant life-long enemies of the theologians as well as moralists both religious and secular.

    At the same time, sociological materialism found even more formidable enemies within the ranks of “scientific” materialism itself. Having won its freedom from metaphysics and deontology, the new territory was seemingly destined to be annexed to that of some other natural-material science in much the same way that Texas was annexed by the USA following independence from Spain. The relations between men were to explained as “material” phenomena- but only inasmuch as they could be construed as so many epiphenomena of individual desire and/or physical geography, eventually as “heredity” and “environment”, and the study of social relations accordingly divided between the grand positivist duchies of utilitarianism, behaviorism, and Darwinism.

    As though that weren’t bad enough, idealism attempted a Restoration of its old monarchy, this time in scientific costume, eventually styling itself as “semiotics”, “discourse analysis”, the “cultural turn”, and so on. Sociologists were exhorted to turn away from social relations and towards the Logos once again- this time understood neither as the voice of God, nor as the light of pure Reason, but as the resultant of the play between signs. To be sure, this play was supposed, at least initially, to have been indelibly bound up with social relations; for the likes of Dumezil and Levi-Strauss, significant relations provided the form of social relations, and social relations the content of significant relations. Eventually, though, and surely enough, the significant came to be elevated to a rather rarified sphere far above and beyond the mundane world of mere human relations. The result was that even noticing a formal homology between significant relations and social relations was deemed methodologically inadmissible (1960s Foucault), or alternately conceptualizing the significant as the vector of a mysterious will to power that somehow transcended all actual social relations of power and resistance (1970s Foucault).

    Thus sociology, and human sciences more generally, were doomed to walk along the edge of a giant razor-blade and sooner or later fall into a bottomless abyss of error; pseudo-scientific reductionism on the one side, thinly-disguised metaphysics on the other, with the result that entire disciplines have fallen to either half-digested “postmodern” gibberish or the caviling pseudo-scientific charlatanry of evolutionary psychology and neuro-whatsit.

    I thus dream of a fundamentalist turn in sociology: an old-fashioned tent-show religious revival in which all sinners and backsliders will be exhorted to repent and return to the plain, inerrant, and whole Word as revealed in the Gospels of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons, which taught that social relations are the Alpha and Omega of sociological analysis: they are the starting and end-point of all sociological inquiry, and they can only be explained in terms of themselves, in the same way that the object of any science worthy of the name explains its object only on the self-sufficient constant grounds of that object, i.e. the strictly immanent, internal, and irreducible laws of transformation of the object. Social relations occupy an ontologically distinct human domain between Heaven and Earth; they are neither Nature nor Culture, although the natural and the cultural, the sacred and profane, enter into them as constitutive elements (but never in such way that would give any one of them the status of a “determinant” factor).



    • Kevin: So after agreeing with you in spirit (with a rousing hallelujah!) I’m going to nit-pick in detail. You write, “Social relations occupy an ontologically distinct human domain between Heaven and Earth; they are neither Nature nor Culture, although the natural and the cultural, the sacred and profane, enter into them as constitutive elements”. I have two questions.

      First, how do you define the distinction between Nature and Culture? Are you following Parsons? To be honest, I’ve never properly understood Parsons’s distinction between the social system and cultural system, or rather (since how he makes that distinction is clearly stated) I’ve never understood his reasons for making that distinction, i.e. for proposing that the cultural system is distinct from and irreducible to the social system.

      Second, does making an epistemological distinction between sociology and the physical sciences, such that sociology is not reducible to e.g. neuroscience or what have you, require us to situation society ontologically *outside* of nature? What’s your objection to the approach of treating social phenomena as a subset of natural phenomena, distinctive because of its emergence and complexity in the same way that ecosystems are distinctive from individual organisms or life is distinctive from chemical reactions?

      My own inclination is towards this latter position. This is one reason I really like Latour’s work, even though I find him really frustratingly anti-theoretical in many ways: he and his fellow ANTs provide a really elegant model for incorporating nonhumans into the study of social relations, and this allows us to be materialists without being reductionist, which in turn allows us to be philosophical naturalists without lapsing into positivism or resorting to dualism. What do you think?


  8. “First, how do you define the distinction between Nature and Culture?”

    Yeah, don’t sweat that- I only used that terminology for purposes of style, without having assigned it any rigorous theoretical denotation, and it seems that I introduced some unnecessary confusion in so doing. My wrong. What I really meant to say is that both “materialism” and “cultural determinism” as conventionally understood are equally wrong-headed, and that the true object of sociology can neither be reduced to the economic nor resolved into one of Foucault’s epistemes.

    “To be honest, I’ve never properly understood Parsons’ distinction between the social system and cultural system, or rather (since how he makes that distinction is clearly stated) I’ve never understood his reasons for making that distinction, i.e. for proposing that the cultural system is distinct from and irreducible to the social system.”

    I agree that Parsons’ distinction between the “social” and “cultural” systems was one of his most poorly thought-out ideas (although, in fairness to him, an exact cognate is found in Marxist thought under the rubric of “base” and “superstructure”). It’s kind of baffling, but what I think what happened is that Parsons, ironically acting against his exhortations, took the distinction between structure and function literally, instead of treating it as strictly analytical. The result is that we have a “social system” corresponding to structure, and a separate, “cultural” system tasked with maintaining the continuity of structure, i.e. function (cf. “superstructure” in Marxist analysis). Now, it strikes me that all this is analogous to a physical anthropologist deciding to designate, say, the skeleton as the structure of the human body and all the other organs as functions, but what are you gonna do.

    In fairness to Parsons, though, the ultimate motive for these theoretical contortions, with all their absurd implications, was to do exactly what I’ve been talking about here, namely stake out, between the material and ideal, a distinctively social terrain of analysis.

    In more purely venal and worldly terms, I also think Parsons’ imperial ambitions, with their designs of creating an academic empire of “social relations” studies with Parsons himself as Emperor, played a part. I think that a big part of Parsons’ aggressive stance against reductionism of all sorts was to make it possible for scholars of all sorts of human studies to get with the social-relations programme without compromising their disciplinary and professional independence in the process. Perhaps he thought it wouldn’t pay to reduce culture to the social system if doing so would alienate the old-school humanists and literary critics and so on who were already deeply skeptical of sociology to begin with.

    “What’s your objection to the approach of treating social phenomena as a subset of natural phenomena, distinctive because of its emergence and complexity in the same way that ecosystems are distinctive from individual organisms or life is distinctive from chemical reactions?”

    None whatsoever.

    “[Latour] and his fellow ANTs provide a really elegant model for incorporating nonhumans into the study of social relations.”

    Uh-oh. But I’d really like to familiarize myself with a few paradigmatic examples before commenting in detail. Could you provide any, or a link to where I can find some?



    • What you say about Parsons makes sense. I was wondering if it was something along those lines.

      I agree with you about material and cultural determinism. I wrote a post a while back about dualist vs. monist materialism; I’d be curious to hear your response to it. (https://practicaltheorist.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/two-materialisms/).

      Re. Latour: the basic move of actor-network theorists, which he may or may not have originated but which he articulated excellently in his article “Mixing Humans With Non-Humans: The Sociology of a Door-Closer”, is to propose that we can treat non-humans as social actors whenever they do work which is functionally equivalent to work which could be performed by a human being.

      Hence, a door-closer is a social actor because it performs an “action” equivalent to that of a person standing around and closing the door behind everyone; a text is a social actor performing an “action” equivalent to that of reciting a portion of discourse; and so on.

      In “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay”, Michel Callon even broadens this somewhat by implying that a nonhuman is a social actor whenever its action forms an inevitable point of passage for the transmission of human action. Hence, the scallops of St. Brieuc Bay are integral to the action of scientists (as variables in their experiment), fishermen (as an economic resource), policymakers (as elements in a political calculation), and consumers (as food).

      Of course this implies that nonhumans are participants in nearly all social action, and perhaps even that nonhumans outnumber the humans in social networks. I have no problem with this. In my interpretation, sociology remains distinctive from the studies of other kinds of system not because it treats nonhuman factors as “environment” external to society but because it gives epistemological privilege to the actions of human beings; i.e. among all the elements of a complex social system, most of which may actually be nonhuman, it is the actions of human beings that sociology is concerned to explain. In other words, human action is a point of departure not a horizon of investigation.

      I’d be curious to hear how this strikes you.

      DISCLAIMER: The downside of actor-network theorists and Latour especially is that they are are annoyingly dismissive of questions about disciplinary distinctiveness because they (Latour especially) are not terribly concerned with theoretical systematicity or even coherence.

      So, for me, reading We Have Never Been Modern was maddening even though I more or less agreed with Latour’s main point in that book, which is that the society-nature divide is a political institution rather than a brute ontological fact, because his theoretical argument was severely lacking in rigour. Likewise, reading the first half of The Pasteurization of France, the part with his actual sociology of knowledge, was pure pleasure, the second half, the part where he tries to make a general theoretical statement, was an annoying waste of time.

      (Also, while Latour can be witty and charming as a writer he can also be pompous, flippant, and ludicrously self-aggrandazing.)


  9. Re: “monist materialism”

    I think the general gist of the idea is top-notch, very forward-thinking stuff. However, I think it runs into potential problems in the following statement:

    “Cherished philosophical ideas like “reality”, “being”, “truth”, and “reason” are technological products of human labour in exactly the same sense that a hammer is, or the design of a hammer”.

    As long as we’re already on the subject of the autonomy of various disciplines and their domains of applicability, I think that, absent further qualification, that proposition suggests a certain territorial greediness, an implicit intellectual colonialism that could be called “sociological chauvinism.” It is as though every question ever asked by the discipline of philosophy has now been answered, once and for all, by sociology, leaving the poor old professional philosophers with nothing to do other than learn to apply the social theory of technology to their subject matter- which is now just another province in the imperium of sociology. Meanwhile, sociology itself is put in the mightily awkward and embarrassing position of inevitably being asked certain questions about its own proposed answer to the great questions of philosophy- questions that no empirical science can possibly have the wherewithal to answer. Is the proposition that “reality, being, truth and reason are technological products of human labour” true? Does technology exist? What is the exact ontologico-phenomenal status of “human labour”? All of this is exactly analogous to what realist critics loved to sneer about, one or two decades back, in the so-called “postmodernism” and “social constructionism” of the day.

    I recommend an explicit distinction between philosophical concepts considered as socio-technological phenomena, and those same concepts as they pertain to noumena or ultimate reality. This two-state solution, as it were, should both keep anticolonial groups with names like the Philosophy Liberation Front from forming and trying to blow up your office, and also avoid giving the smart-alecks and trolls an opening in classrooms and conferences.

    By no means am I suggesting, with the likes of such humbugs as Alan Sokal (remember him?), that sociology must never dare to comment on other disciplines without express written permission, or suggest that their concepts are mere man-made (“socially constructed”) phenomena. It’s more of a matter of leaving something for those (indisputably man-made) concepts to correspond to. I know you’re not crazy about realism- but sometimes realism just makes things easier.

    Finally- and speaking strictly for myself here- I would strictly qualify “materialist monism” as denoting only the ontological indivisibility of the constituent components of the object of sociology, as opposed to implicitly asserting that the material mode of being is the only one. Ten years ago or more I would have shot myself for saying it- but, as time goes by, and the laughably sophomoric naïveté and utterly deplorable Philistinism of the “new Atheism” holds up an unflattering mirror to my once-cocksure materialism, I personally want to keep at least an open door with respect to the possibility of non-material or “metaphysical” realities and modes of being. (In fact, sometimes I almost want to go as far as to allow for the possibility that the likes of Revelation, pure Reason, or natural law (in the juridical sense) might enter into the constitution of the social system alongside material factors- but I can’t theorize how that would work).


    • Glad to hear you think the general idea is good. And yeah, your criticism has caught me out being careless with language. On the one hand, I appreciate the point you make about intellectual colonialism. I hadn’t thought about it in quite that way and no doubt this is the issue behind some rather nasty conflicts I have gotten into over the years which caught me by surprise at the time. I need to practice a more humble mode of self-expression on points like these.

      Meanwhile, as you say, the mighty awkward and embarrassing questions that come up do so, it seems to me, because I have unwisely used ontological language to make an anti-ontological point, as it were. A relativist should never invoke the concept of being because that concept unavoidably carries realist connotations. I should always instead say “we can understand X in these terms …”, i.e. make epistemological claims in the place of ontological ones. Or, perhaps not even epistemological claims in the grand tradition thereof (“it is true that …”), but claims about knowing as a form of practice (“we can understand it this way …”). Hence, not “ideas like truth are technological artifacts”, but “in this theory, ideas like truth appear as technological artifacts”. I think that would address part of what you have brought up; do you agree?

      I agree, realism does make things easier. It’s interesting that in your example it does so by facilitating a political truce between potentially warring factions of intellectuals. Was this intentional?

      I also notice that realism makes things easier because it operates as the default mode of expression and hence it saves time and energy in expressing things. It’s so much easier to say “the state is …” than to say “we can understand the state as …”. I go through phases of trying to write without using the concept of being and I give up because it’s so much bloody work (notice how many times I’ve used the verb “to be” in this reply alone) and nobody seems to notice.

      But to address the other part of your point – “I would strictly qualify “materialist monism” as denoting only the ontological indivisibility of the constituent components of the object of sociology, as opposed to implicitly asserting that the material mode of being is the only one.” – once again I agree, and you’ve caught me out being lazy. In fact I explored a position similar to the one you describe in a later post, https://practicaltheorist.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/everything-is-real/. Again, I’m curious to know your take on that.


      • ********************
        “Hence, not “ideas like truth are technological artifacts”, but “in this theory, ideas like truth appear as technological artifacts”. I think that would address part of what you have brought up; do you agree?”

        “I agree, realism does make things easier. It’s interesting that in your example it does so by facilitating a political truce between potentially warring factions of intellectuals. Was this intentional?”

        “In fact I explored a position similar to the one you describe in a later post, https://practicaltheorist.wordpress.com/2012/09/27/everything-is-real/. Again, I’m curious to know your take on that.”
        It’s top-notch writing from a rhetorical point of view. Complements the popular (and extremely controversial) “coexist” bumper sticker, which suggests timeliness. Should be re-published as an op-ed or something where more people can see it (I can already see the comments section scrolling by, page after page, in my mind..).

        However, I personally cannot endorse its thesis. Once again, you’ve undertaken to answer just about every religious and philosophical question ever asked by anyone, and do so with one single answer (“It’s all real”). But I don’t think that Muslims, for example, will agree that the Holy Trinity is just as real as the indivisible Allah who has no partners, or that Buddhists will agree that either of them are real, et cetera down the list…My own position is much closer to S.J. Gould’s notion of “non-overlapping magisteria”.



  10. Re: Latour

    I was going to defend the legitimate right of sociology to privilege the human by theoretical fiat, but you took the words out of my mouth in your response, so I’ll instead present an argument for why it’s a very bad idea to place non-human factors on a par with the human in social science. (In what follows, I’ll concentrate on non-human technological instruments).
    The examples you gave from Latour & co. lend support to what I suspected, namely that they seem to be handing out the title of “actor” to just about any link in the causal chain of the social system. The road to arriving at a precise causal classification of all the variables that make up a complex system is no doubt a long and torturous one. But it seems reasonable to reserve the title of “actor” to those entities that, at the very least:

    a) exercise, or are capable of exercising, a self-directed causal effect on some aspect or aspects of the relevant system.

    b) exercise that effect teleologically, in the course of active or passive adequation to a norm. (Where the norm ultimately originates doesn’t matter). This means striving towards the attainment and/or maintenance of some end state of affairs in the face of changes and/or obstacles in its environments. (It doesn’t matter whether the outcome was “intended” or not, only that it follows from purposive adequation as just defined).

    c) are at least capable of selecting from among alternative courses of action, in terms of means, ends, or both.

    In short, an actor is rigorously defined as an agent- and there isn’t much non-human technology that truly meets the criteria here. The automatic door opener certainly doesn’t; a text is a purely passive medium that does absolutely nothing by itself.

    It is important to aggressively underscore the difference between, and the exact causal role of, tools relative to actors here. Tools are means; actors deploy means in the pursuit of ends. After an old Texan proverb: guns don’t kill people, the government does. In any social system, the ultimate causal efficacy of any given tool is constrained by virtue that it is never the first link in the causal chain; it neither creates nor sets into motion the processes it plays a role in (cf. Aristotle’s distinction between formal and efficient causes). In economic terms, tools have utility; actors strive to maximize utility; and the ultimate ends of action are not given in utility itself, but the other way around.

    This means that technology is an independent system variable only to the sole and unique extent that it facilitates, with variable degrees of efficacy, the attainment of the goals of system actors. It also means that the only independent causal effect of technology can have is on some variable dimension of the magnitude of system outputs, i.e. its effects are quantitative and never qualitative in any really meaningful sense of the term (i.e. creating or altering system constants), since the special constants of a social system are social by definition. An automatic door-opener can open doors with a greater magnitude of speed than a doorman, and at a lesser magnitude of expense to the capitalist; a gun can deliver a greater magnitude of lethal energy to a target than a sword. But capitalism is a species of social organization of human actors, by human actors, in relation to economic production; modern government, a special social organization of human actors in relation to legitimate homicide. Neither social system is defined by any particular tool, but rather (after Marx) by the (strictly socially-defined) relations of human actors to tools (in capitalism, workers are separated from the means of production; under the modern State, individuals deemed “private” are separated from the means of violence). The Marxian definitional fiat is supported by the facts: the basic social relations that comprise the modern polity and economy have remained constant for several centuries now in the face of incessant technological change during the same time.

    Sorry for the length of these posts- this past holiday weekend was uncannily conducive to writing and I wanted to make the most of it.



    • These are good points. Certainly we cannot equate the “agency” of a door-closer and the “agency” of a bellhop without anthropomorphizing the one or dehumanizing the other. On the other hand, is there a residual humanist essentialism in the distinction you have drawn? I agree with your three points about self-direction, teleology, and selection. But here is something that has puzzled me for a long time: if my motives, intentions, goals, and so on are themselves the product, at least in part, of some nonhuman structural process – whether that’s genetics, or neural nets in the brain, or my unconscious, or emergent social systems – then isn’t the notion of “I” at the root of statements like “I exercise self-directed causal effects”, “I strive toward goals”, and “I make selections” destabilized? And doesn’t a naturalistic science of social action have to invoke such factors eventually?

      To oversimplify: suppose I am motivated – whether biologically or through socialization – to compete for dominance. In a complex social situation I will pursue this goal and select strategies to achieve it, but the difference between my decisionmaking process and those of a dog or a computer would seem to lie only in the much higher degree of complexity of the former over the latter.

      Of course one could say that a human can decide when to prioritize one motive or another, dominance-seeking vs. emotional connectedness for example; a human can even, through reflection and through work on themselves, even change their own motives. But ultimately to construct naturalistic explanations of how this takes place we must invoke nonhuman factors, from neurotransmitters to social norms and so on.

      In other words, doesn’t scientific naturalism imply that human intentionality will eventually reduce, in our explanations, to the complex interplay of nonhuman, nonintentional forces?

      And if, then, we are left with complexity and self-organization as the distinctive attributes of human agency, might we not also look for complexity and self-organization elsewhere? Could we not even redraw the boundaries of systems so that, instead of treating the human actor as a bounded system a priori of all social formations, we might treat only part of the actor – certain motives, dispositions, or capacities – as elements of a system or figuration whose topology infiltrates the human body-mind without encapsulating it?


  11. By the by, before I forget I might as well use this space to finally get around to commenting on that book chapter. The reason I haven’t gotten around to it is that (for once, and believe it or not) I agree with pretty much all of it. I have one extremely minor, arguably pedantic (even to the point of merely Scholastic) reservation, which concerns abolishing the distinction between the subjective and objective. Although I agree with the gist of this, I think that the distinction is still useful to have around in the theoretical case of what could be called anomic or opportunistic social action, in which social actors manipulate various norms, rules, social conventions, and other social actors for instrumental purposes, in order to get what they want. E.g. the “presentation of self” as analyzed by Garfinkel. In this case, the norms, rules, actors, etc. that the opportunistic actor must successfully navigate are every bit as “objective” as the physical environment (even if they exist only in and through the subject), and fruitfully treated accordingly.



    • I’m really glad to hear that you thought so well of the chapter! That’s affirming. Now I might be opening a can of worms here, but I had intended to abolish the subject-object distinction even for relations between humans and their physical environments. Or more precisely, I wanted to imply that the ‘objectivity’ of, e.g, a rock, can be understood as deriving from (rather than existing prior to) the relationship between the rock and human observers.

      This idea of mine needs a lot more work, I think, before I can properly defend it, because I really don’t want to slide into idealism, but I do wish to evade the terms of realism. Scylla and Charybdis indeed. But the basic idea is that I would like to construct explanations which describe the experience of objectivity or subjectivity as a relational process.

      On the other hand, I had intended (but didn’t, for some reason) to propose the terms ‘quasi-objective’ and ‘quasi-subjective’ to refer to the phenomena which we experience as objective or subjective. Because yes, I agree that the opportunistic actor in your case experiences social norms as quite objective, as does the actor seeking to change those norms, while I experience my preference for gelato over ice cream as quite subjective, and we still need terms to refer to this distinction in our experience.


  12. Re: and contra Latourism:

    I wonder if it really is just so much fiat to privilege the human in the analysis of the social system. We can easily situate the non-human ecology in the category of the “external environment” or some such with no a priori disagreement with the nature of things. We can at least imagine a social system without tools. To be sure, it would be a pure theoretical fiction on a par with the frictionless machines and massless springs imagined by physicists- but we can still imagine it. But what we *can’t* even imagine is a social system without human actors in it. E.g. a ghost town isn’t a social system minus people, but the detritus of the physical infrastructure of a social system that no longer exists (in the same way that an old skeleton is the residual detritus of what used to be a living organism), and can’t be imagined as anything else without comically absurd and/or radically anti-scientific results.

    Nor could we, without the intervention of some really kooky (and radically anti-scientific) metaphysical idealism, situate the system’s people in the external environment of the system. Indeed, we can’t even situate human members of a rival social system in the external environment in a way as altogether unproblematic as we can trees, rocks, or rivers inasmuch as experience shows that, through the medium of *social interaction*, two social systems that come into direct contact with one another inevitably become structurally coupled through some complex of exchange and/or conflict. The boundaries of social systems coupled by social interaction are by definition more open than the boundary between Nature and Culture; it seems reasonable to say that the respective social systems of various Natives and various Settlers in Canada have already exercised a much greater substantive influence on one another than the rocks and trees and fresh-water bodies that surround them all could ever exercise on any one of them.

    It thus seems reasonable, at the level of conceptual definitions, to expect that a social actor actually be capable of social life and social interaction to some minimal extent.

    That said, and for that very reason, it also seems reasonable to view genuinely domestic animals (not “pet” tarantulas and so on) as social actors. However, the limited communicative abilities and utter cultural/symbolic incompetence of those animals warrants defining a new subset of “social actor” in which animals would emerge as fully-fledged social actors with respect to the social, but not at all to the cultural, sub-system. Nature and Culture are still separated by an iron curtain in that a cat has no culture to transmit to me, and nothing to transmit my culture to; it follows that the potential social efficacy of an animal can never be the same as that of a human.


    • What you’ve written is reasonable and well put, and I don’t wish to be combative (a trap I think I have tended to fall into owing to a boyhood diet of video games and 1950s science fiction stories) but I think I disagree with most of what you’ve written. I suspect that the root of it is that we may have different conceptions of the social and hence of what a social system system is.

      Let me start at the end and work backwards. I agree that we can make a distinction between, e.g., cats and tarantulas, in that cats are mammals with the physiological capacity to mentally process social relations (cats form bonds, compete for dominance, etc.) and to form some rudimentary social identity (to whit: cats can feel shame, or at least embarrassment), neither of which a tarantula has. That said, tarantulas mark their territory, which means they interact communicatively with others of their own species, which to my mind makes them social actors. Perhaps you can see where this is going …

      I’m not at all sure that the cat has no culture to transmit to me and I none to it. My cat teaches me how to relate to it, knowledge which I then carry into my relations with other cats; likewise, I teach my cat how to relate to me and it applies this knowledge to its relations to other humans. More broadly, social relations between cats and humans have changed the way that humans relate to each other (engendering a whole complex of human social institutions around cat ‘ownership’, for instance) and have changed the specific patterns of relations among cats. Also of course human selective breeding has modified the genetic nature of cats. Some research indicates that the relationship between humans and domesticated cats and dogs was initiated by the animals, not the humans, as the former sought opportunities for food and safety; of course this was not a ‘conscious’ or intentional process in the strong sense of those terms but as you can see the general tenor of my sociology is to not to put any special emphasis on intention unless I absolutely have to.

      I agree that “two social systems that come into direct contact with one another inevitably become structurally coupled through some complex of exchange and/or conflict” but I disagree entirely that “the boundaries of social systems coupled by social interaction are by definition more open than the boundary between Nature and Culture”. I really don’t see any boundary at all between nature and culture. To me, cultural phenomena appear as a subset of natural phenomena, i.e. Culture is part of Nature, and at every moment cultural action happens by means of ‘nature’ or ‘the material’ or what the ANT people would call “nonhumans”. For instance, it matters greatly that I am writing this to you on a laptop computer, assembled out of rare components gathered from around the planet by a vast network of production relations, and that I am well-fed and so on as I write this …

      Again I agree about your ghost town example but I can imagine a social system without sentient beings, e.g. an ant colony. Of course there are differences between an ant colony and contemporary human society, but I prefer to see these two systems as different points on a continuum – or, better, a matrix – of forms of systems.

      All of this may seem quite kooky to you. And perhaps it is grandiose and incoherent; my ideas are a work in progress and may ultimately fail. All I’ve done in this reply is disagree with you; I haven’t really critiqued your position because I’m not sure I understand it properly (being so wrapped up in my own thing).

      So let me ask: what is it for you that defines the distinctiveness of social systems? For instance, what does a social system without tools look like, even as a theoretical fiction? And what defines the boundary between Nature and Culture, or social systems and the non-human ecology?


      • Hang on – let me back up and restate a bunch of what I just said. Because, thinking it over further, I realize there is a completely straightforward reply you could make to many of my questions, which is that social action is distinguished from (other) natural processes by its *subjectively meaningful* quality, and this provides the theoretical boundary, which I earlier refused to recognize, between Nature and Culture. My interactions with a cat may lead me to think and feel differently about the world, but there is no exchange of subjective meanings between she and I; she does not transmit the meaningful purpose of her action to me in a way that I subjectively understand. And so on.

        Is that right? If so I had acknowledge it right away so as not to exasperate you unduly. And I have to concede that I am not at all qualified to disqualify action theory as a starting point for sociological theorizing. It works on its own terms, it is coherent, it generates fruitful lines of inquiry, it of course has its problems but then so does everything.

        So I should not write “I disagree” as if these were matters of fact or what have you where there is only one possible answer and we must agree. What I should say is that my approach, or the approach I am trying to develop, makes some different assumptions and leads to different drawings of the boundaries around categories. One of these is that, where action theory privileges the subjective intention of the actor as the definitive element of sociality, my approach is almost the opposite: without denying the subjectivity and agency of the actor, to start elsewhere and to work around these, conceptualizing and studying sociality in terms of those elements which exceed or elude consciousness, the logos, intentionality, and meaning. Which of course leads to altogether different conceptions on the relations between society and nature, among other things. And my challenge is to articulate this in a way that makes sense and is fruitful for others to engage with.


      • P.S. It may or may not be a good idea for purposes of social science theory to posit that domestic animals should be regarded as actors with respect to the social but not the cultural system. But it’s at least interesting, and at most highly suggestive, to note that Canadian society does exactly that in the case of vicious animals. The vicious animal, on the one hand, cannot be put on trial and, a fortiori, cannot be found criminally culpable or subjected to legal pains as set out in the Criminal Code. On the other hand, the vicious animal who attacks a person is invariably ordered, by one or another officer of the State, to be put to death (“destroyed”) even though are any other number of equally plausible alternative dispositions (e.g. the court could order that the animal could be kept indoors, de-fanged, subjected to behavioral rehabilitation, etc.). “Putting the animal down” is quite clearly a punishment, one that is at once legal and extra-legal; it seems that the animal is just enough of a social actor to feel the vengeance of the laws, but not enough of one to enjoy its protections. The animal thus occupies a liminal position between human and non-human.

        Roughly the same goes for classes of humans who for either elective or ascriptive reasons are deemed ritually incompetent in the social system in which they exist, and accordingly relegated to sub-human status. E.g. in Muslim countries, under the Quranic articles on dhimmitude, Jews and Christians, who worship the same God as Muslims but opt out of Islamic worship, are worth exactly one-half of Muslims (e.g. in an Islamic court of law, the testimony of two Jews or Christians is accorded the status of that of one Muslim). Again this liminal status derives from the Jews and Christians are implicitly deemed to partake of the social but not the cultural system.


  13. Re: combativeness: Dude if anything you’re not combative enough. If you should see, in any of my posts, factual errors, logical fallacies, propositions that may lead to absurd or other bad places, or anything that’s just plain implausible- I want you to tell me. I am not some prima donna who’ll get all butthurt about it- for it is knowledge, not self-regard, which is the true end for which a man is made.

    “What does a social system without tools look like”? Easy- it looks like the groups of people you see chatting everywhere you go, all without technological intermediation.

    “What is the boundary between nature and culture/the social system and ecology”? I have to say that I’ve never put any really systematic thought into it. But the answer you gave (it’s all nature) is scientifically unsatisfactory, since it merely states an ontological universal and thus doesn’t make a scientific intervention in the facts, which appear the same after the statement is made as they did before. It’s all nature- but this leaves us in want of a division of the unity of nature into different types of nature that will then become objects for various sciences. Culture is cut from the same ontological cloth as any other naturo-material reality- but it’s different from the wind or a waterfall in certain irreducibly important ways.

    Re: cats, culture, and meaning: I’m inwardly certain that a cat has a subjective life pretty much like my own in many important respects, and that a cat can communicate at least some of its purposes to people, e.g. when she presents her master with a bird or mouse she’s caught out of deference to her master, whom she sees as the alpha cat (we can readily recognize, in this gesture, the rudimentary form of taxation and tribute as it exists between humans). The insurmountable barriers are language and above all, intelligence. I love cats too, but let’s face it- cats just aren’t all that smart compared to people. They certainly have “meaningful” things to say when they meow or purr or growl- but not enough of them to make the cut where culture is concerned.

    “[M]y approach is almost the opposite…conceptualizing and studying sociality in terms of those elements which exceed or elude consciousness, the logos, intentionality, and meaning”.

    The approaches may be closer than you may think. I’ve been meaning to say the following for quite a while now: I think one of the reasons you’re uncomfortable with intentional action is because you’ve got the wrong idea about it. Intentional action does NOT imply an omniscient sovereign subject who makes his history as he pleases, or who is otherwise self-reflexively and exhaustively aware of the etiology and consequences of everything he does. It doesn’t imply that the actor is even aware of most of the contents of his own consciousness- nor, for that matter, of his own acts! The thrust of 20th c. action philosophy led in the exact opposite direction: in opposition to Cartesian rationalism, it proposed that most of what is involved in action is not given to consciousness and moreover CANNOT be when action is actually taking place, since the range of motions and cognitive-perceptual calculi involved are way too complex, and must be carried out way too quickly, to be amenable to step-by-step conscious execution or even conscious awareness. (The next time you talk to somebody, try to think about grammar rules as you speak and see what happens to your performance).

    Likewise, the social system not only can, but to at least some extent MUST, systematically conceal and/or misrepresent its goals and inner workings by way of ideology- a permanently valid insight of Marx. And Parsons pointed out that, in any case, questions concerning the ultimate system goals and inner workings simply aren’t asked in most workaday action to begin with; ultimate ends are simply taken as given and not subjected to circumspection.

    With respect to economics, Hayek showed that the reason that money emerged is that the determinants of the market value of any good on any given day are so numerous and complex as to be insurmountably opaque to any individual or even collective actor.

    Foucault, Parsons, Althusser, and others have shown how an episteme or problematic or whatever is a system in its right, with determinate workings and tendencies that can be shown to operate quite independently of, and even at cross purposes with, the conscious intentions of an author.

    I readily agree that there are many things that “exceed or elude consciousness, the logos, intentionality, and meaning”. Only an extraordinarily dogmatic old-school humanist could hold otherwise. The point is rather that NOTHING can exceed or elude the subject ALL of the time (even Marx had to admit that value has to pass through a surreptitious mental calculus by and by). This qualifying proposition may or may not turn out to be true 100% of the time. But assuming it as a theoretical precept is, to take the point of view of a gambler, the best betting strategy. The worst that can happen by assuming it is being wrong once in a while. In science, as in gambling, that happens sometimes; empirical science is all about successive approximations and minimizing (as opposed to eliminating) margins of error. But simple error isn’t the worst thing that can happen by rejecting it. The worst thing that can happen in that case is lapse into scientifically fatal forms of reification and fetishism- errors that have confounded some of the very best minds and marred some of the very best books of Western civilization, and retarded progress in the human studies to an incalculable extent.



  14. The other evening I had drinks and cigars with a metallurgical engineer who has been involved in several academic research projects and directed several mining operations in the private sector, and who is interested in some of these things. He told me that e.g. modern mineral-processing plants are “like living organisms” with “auto-corrective equilibria” that can in no way be reduced to the intentions of plant designers, and indeed are typically at variance with formal design criteria. These equilibria are “stubborn” with respect to intervention, and that the plant will often and quickly “adapt” to the latter and recover its norms. (However, he was quick to point out the limiting-case of this adaptation: the plant, unlike the biological organism, can’t repair itself). When I mentioned the controversy in social theory as to whether or not non-human technology can be considered an actor, he suggested that, in this case, if anything it would be the status of the human operator that needs to be problematized, for “the plant directs you, not the other way around.” Finally, and suggestively, he said that in order to get results with such a plant, one must use “intuition” and figure out what the plant “likes”, and also suggested that it may prove no easier to concretely identify the emergent property of the plant than the social system.

    I suppose that, in light of this case, many of my comments in this thread and the agency thread should be regarded as either withdrawn or at least qualified accordingly. When I think of technology in relation to human action, one way or another my conceptual prototype is the hand-held tool that serves an extension of the actor’s body (gun, shovel, etc.), since this type of technology is the normative default standard for the human being and still the most common by far. The new “emergent” technologies indeed complicate traditional social theory, but arguably by way of a qualification or limiting-case of the general case (I stand by earlier remarks insofar as they concern the general default case, e.g. guns don’t kill people, the State does).

    Finally, I think that the validity of the Latourian scheme depends on exactly what system it is that the scheme is applied to. Is it The Social System writ large, considered as the abstract system of systems that is the classic object of “grand theory” in sociology (Marx, Parsons, etc.)? Or is it more purely local, concrete, and particular small-s systems: this or that scientific research enterprise, complex-ore treatment plant, and so on? If the latter- and I strongly suspect that Latour constructed the scheme for exactly that analytical purpose- then the scheme has a high index of face validity to say the very least.



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