Structure and Agency

I feel that I’ve never understood what the word ‘agency’ is supposed to mean.

In social science it commonly appears as the opposite term of ‘structure’ as in the phrase ‘structure vs. agency‘. This duality connotes the supposed opposition between social forces and individual autonomy in causing the actions of human beings.

I have no trouble understanding how human action is socially caused, i.e. the ‘structure’ side of the duality. But I cannot even imagine what the other side of the equation is supposed to refer to.

6148881840_36f01005b0_zLet me explain:

Assume an imaginary world in which all human beings have the same motivations and the same perceptions. For the sake of simplicity let’s assume also that the world is objectively real and that people perceive it objectively.

In this world, human action would be caused entirely by the availability of opportunities for people to realize their motivations.

In this world, if there were no probability or chaos then understanding human nature and knowing objective reality would enable us to predict human action with perfect accuracy. We would know what a given person or any number of people would do next on the basis of what opportunities were available to them. Economists and rational choice theorists build abstract models aimed at precisely this kind of prediction. Of course, they tend to base their models only on instrumentally rational motivations, i.e. motivations for personal gain defined in some objective, quantifiable way. But even without those limiting assumptions, the principle would still hold that, in our imagined world of universal fixed motivations and perceptions, knowledge of human and nonhuman nature would allow us to explain human action as a function of the opportunities available for people to realize their motives.

In other words, we could explain human action entirely by studying the distribution and movement of opportunities.

Let me use the word ‘structure’ to refer to this distribution and movement. In particular, let me shed the notion that ‘structure’ refers to something fixed and static, like the structure of a building; let us use the word ‘structure’ to embrace a wide range of concepts of emergent order, including relation, process, figuration, system, and so on.

To the extent that opportunities are produced by human interaction, and not simply by nonhuman nature alone, then opportunity structures are social structures.

To sum up: if human motivations were constant and universal, and if the opportunity structure were entirely a product of human interaction, then all variation in human action would be determined by social structures.

RatMazeDestroy1

Let me clear up a few misconceptions that might arise:

  • The causal importance of social structure in this model has nothing to do with political oppression or liberty; i.e. ‘structure vs. agency’ does not map onto ‘authoritarianism vs freedom’. The actions of a person who has all the freedoms of the modern white male heteronormative bourgeois subject are still just as socially structured as those of a slave or a prisoner in a concentration camp.
  • Similarly, the causal importance of social structure in this scenario has nothing to do with the extent to which people exercise individual creativity or intelligence in deciding their actions. This is because we are assuming (for the sake of illustration) that all people have basically the same cognitive facilities, so that variations in how they use those cognitive facilities are caused by variations in their social situation.
  • Social causality is not the same as societal causality. Social structure exist on any level of scale from the global to fleeting interactions between two people. The actions of a person who violates societal norms because the local structure of opportunities makes doing so the more effective path to realizing their motives are, in this model, just as socially determined as those of a normative conformist. In the former case, they are caused by local social structures (maybe even features particular to one interaction between two people) which happen to conflict with more dominant or widely distributed social structures.

Furthermore, as far as I can tell, complicating this model by introducing confusion or ignorance into people’s knowledge of the opportunities available to them, or by making the consequences of action dependent on chance (probability) or chaotic (stochastic) causality does not modify the conclusion: as long as human nature is constant, then variations in human action must be explainable by variations in the structure and system of opportunities for the realization of people’s motives.

* * *

Obviously this account of human action as completely determined by social structure depends on highly artificial and unrealistic assumptions. I’ve made these assumptions to clarify what I mean by social structure, not because I think they obtain. So let’s open things back up.

As soon as we allow that people’s motives vary, as they obviously do in real life, things get considerably more complicated. Then we must ask: where do motives come from? What causes people to have the motives they do?

From the perspective of a naturalistic social science – that is, an investigation that refuses to invoke the soul or any other theological or metaphysical notions – any explanation for human motivation must lie in one or more domains of the natural universe. Broadly, these can include physiological factors (genetics, hormones, etc.), psychological factors (cognitive dispositions, concepts, the unconscious, etc.), social factors (relationships, institutions, norms, etc.), and ecological factors (the living and inanimate nonhumans to which people relate) — recognizing that these three domains overlap considerably.  Explanation in any of these domains necessarily invokes some concepts of structure.

Whether my motives arise from my physical environment, biology, my cognition, or my social relations, or some complex interaction of all four, a scientific explanation of my actions necessarily explains my motives in terms of some combination of structures.

This is still the case even I observe that I act reflexively on myself (e.g. through meditation or therapy or whatever) to change my own motivations.  I am still acting out a motivation to change my motivations, and that motivation came from somewhere.

If my actions are caused by my motivations relative to my opportunities, and my motivations themselves are caused by some combination of ecological, biophysical, psychological, and social structures (or, more precisely, my motives are themselves physical, psychological, and social structures simultaneously), then there seems to be no meaningful sense in which my actions are ‘self-determined’ for the purposes of scientific explanation.  ‘Agency’ defined as ‘self-determination’ seems

So … what is agency supposed to be? What is left over?

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(Addendum for system theorists: is ‘agency’ just that portion of my action which is determined by the personality system as distinct from the social or cultural systems? Is that really all that the word is supposed to mean?)

72 thoughts on “Structure and Agency

  1. ********************
    “”If my actions are caused by my motivations relative to my opportunities, and my motivations themselves are caused by some combination of ecological, biophysical, psychological, and social structures…then there seems to be no meaningful sense in which my actions are ‘self-determined’ for the purposes of scientific explanation.””
    ********************

    On the contrary: if anything, it is arguably a scientifically problematic use of language to say that action is “caused” by either the etiology of its motives or the situation (e.g. “opportunity structure”) in which it takes place, since the causal mainsprings of action are *internal to the agent at every step*. The etiology of motivation cannot be said to “cause” action in the same way that a pool cue causes a billiard ball to move. Once a motive is formed, it is phenomenally integral to the agent, part of his own make-up, and not an external mover. Thus any subsequent action on the basis of that motive is properly called “self-determined” (cf. Parsons’ “voluntaristic theory of action”).

    Nor can the situational opportunity structure be said to “cause” or “determine” action in a rigorous sense, since, once again, the ends and other causal wherewithal of action are given within the agent, and not in the opportunity structure. Opportunities do not “cause” action; rather, agents *make use* of opportunities, on the basis of a calculus of costs and benefits, and in the pursuit of goals- and both of those causal springs reside within the agent. Again, the agent is properly called self-determined in the use he makes, or fails to make, of any given opportunity. The horse drinks not because he’s been led to water, but in order to satisfy his thirst- and, an old cattleman said, you can’t make him drink in any case.

    Thus, the agent enjoys a measure of theoretical independence on both sides of the social environment. Social and other factors constitute the agent, but subsequently do not exert direct causal control over him the way a typist controls text. Opportunities may activate the inner causal sequence of action (or fail to do so), but likewise cannot be said to exert direct causal control. Social structures inform; they entice; but they do not “cause”.

    It is in this space of independence between the formative influences of the subject and the situation, between the past behind him and the opportunities yet before him, that agency resides. It resides there in the form of an independent decision-making mechanism through which any “causal” system input must pass- which input is not guaranteed a corresponding output, both because the decision-making mechanism always selects from among a multiplicity of inputs but also, to the extent that it selects from alternate means as well as ends, selects from among a potential plurality of potential outputs of any single given input as well.

    For example, the social systems of present-day North America try to inculcate, in the average subject, a desire to see to it that people are treated fairly, and to take a political stand accordingly. But here there are alternate means to the shared ends. Some will take the stand that the regulatory and redistributionist State is the best means of attaining the goal of fair play; others, that strict Constitutional limits on the power of the State are the only truly efficient and effective guarantor of fairness.

    It is undeniably true that the point of diffraction between so-called “progressives” and “conservatives” is, in the first place, given in the space of “structure” and not “agency”, namely, in the structure of the political episteme of these societies, which is a social system-level variable that cannot be reduced to the agency of the subject. But even Foucault- as aggressive a “structuralist” as they come- freely admitted that, where a discursive formation has a point of diffraction, it is entirely up to the subject to activate it and select from among the alternatives it makes possible.

    Thus, one role that agency can be said to play in the transformation of social structures is of translating structural potentialities into actualities. (N.B. this is true even where structural transformation follows an internal logic that the subject isn’t even aware of).

    Another example of how agency exerts independent effects on the social system are the infamous “unintended consequences” that follow from social-system efforts- particularly when carried out by the modern State- to leverage or otherwise mobilize action by modifying the structures of opportunity. Today, these debacles typically are grounded in some pseudo-scientific theory of public policy or other, all of which are based on the move of first constructing a hypothetical model in which any potential independent effectivity on the part of the subject is either abstracted away or held constant (e.g. the fictive economic models you mentioned), and then claiming that the abstract model is perfectly adequate to concrete reality. The typical technocratic producer of this discourse was famously characterized by Adam Smith:

    “He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that…in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles…are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

    The ensuing policy recommendations, once implemented, are inevitably and promptly subverted by those subject to them, often with hilariously ironic results. (One of my faves was the infamous 1990s-era gun buy-back programme in the USA, which sought to change the opportunity structure of crime by reducing the number of illegal guns on the streets, and sought to do this by inducing people to forfeit their illegal guns for cash. This promptly resulted in a rash of thefts of legally-owned guns that were then resold to the buy-back for quick cash. Various criminal types also took the opportunity to get rid of their decrepit old and/or broken zip guns and Saturday Night Specials- and put the cash towards upgrading to newer and much more potentially lethal armament).

    In conclusion: It is both legitimate, and indeed, necessary, for sociology to treat social structure as primus mobilis vis-a-vis itself and its own transformations. If social structures cannot be said to “cause” action, the reverse is also true. The great structures studied by sociologists- social classes, the State, religion, ideology, and so on- cannot be said to be “caused” by agency, e.g. they are not the pure and simple resultant of a prior play of individual desires and interests, no matter how densely complex. Nothing in the foregoing implies any form of agent-driven “emergentism”, e.g. the “methodological individualism” of Hayek. Such “emergent” phenomena, inasmuch as they can be said to exist, are the proper objects of economic science; the classic objects of sociology almost certainly do not figure among them.

    The point, rather, is that “cause” or “determination” in the conventional scientific sense of the term is far too rigid and coarse to capture the relations between structure and agency. It would be far more precise to say e.g. that a social structure, in the course of realizing itself as such, and in going through the paces of its transformations, must *make use* of agency, by informing the agent’s motives, structuring the horizon of his possible thoughts (episteme), and “incentivizing” him at the level of the cost-benefit calculus (cf. the “mobilization series” as defined in structural-functionalism). In short, social structures (to borrow a neo-Foucauldian argot) “act upon action.”

    Finally, we cannot simply write the agent out of the analysis by fiat. The vast positivist junkyard of efforts to hold the independent effectivity of agency constant- even if ostensibly as a pure fiction for purposes of analysis- testifies to how this move threatens much more than it offers. As Parsons points out, we can at least imagine the agent existing in isolation from structure- but the reverse would do violence to the mind.(i.e. it would be absurd even as a fiction).

    -Kevin

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    • Wow, this is really helpful. I want to reply in substance, but first I have a terminological question. You criticize ’emergentism’ as a form of methodological individualism, and I’m a little surprised by this because I had gotten used to thinking of emergence as a concept that can justify non-individualist social ontologies, i.e. by virtue of the notion that emergent properties are properties found in an aggregate which are not found in its constituent parts, which thereby justify treating the aggregate as a distinct class of phenomena). How do you understand the concept of emergence, and how is it incompatible with the practice of treating “social structure as primus mobilis vis-a-vis itself and its own transformations”?

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      • To invoke the now-widespread distinction between “weak” and “strong” emergence (as I understand those terms):

        Weakly Emergent: “Markets” as they figure in mainstream bourgeois economics; the notion of the “parallelogram of forces” (see discussion in Althusser, For Marx); game-theoretical constructs e.g. “prisoner’s dilemma”; “social networks”.

        In all of these cases, the emergent property is genetically explicable in terms of the prior interaction of actors. The most appropriate disciplinary venue for the study of these phenomena would be the departments of economics and psychology; they are probably safely viewed as marginal to sociology for the most part.

        Strongly Emergent: The biological organism (life); the sociocultural systems properly studied by sociologists. The special emergent property that defines each of these phenomena can only be explained tautologically (e.g. the anthropologist’s dictum that “culture can only be explained in terms of culture”), that is to say, its genesis cannot be scientifically accounted for *at all* within the limits of the present scientific episteme, and must for the duration be regarded as a scientific phantom or paradox.

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  2. An Example: Charisma

    McCarthy and Zald pointed out, some decades ago, that structural conditions are necessary conditions with respect to the emergence of social movements, but not sufficient causes with respect to their success or failure. Structural conditions can give rise to a plurality of social movements. Some of these succeed, while others fail, even though the same structural conditions lie behind them all- and you can’t explain a variable by a constant. It follows that a successful movement, in order to succeed, must also be able to mobilize various types of resources- which structural conditions alone can’t be counted on to just hand to the movement- including among them, talented leadership.

    A sociologist, let’s say a classic structural-functionalist, might explain the rise of e.g. Christianity, Buddhism, or the American Revolution in terms of a structural transformation in which particularism is displaced by universalism, ascription by achievement, and so on. But this leaves open the question of the mechanism(s) that successfully effectuates the break that intervenes between one of the structure’s variable states and the next.This means that the “explanation” is still merely descriptive. What exactly has to happen for particularism-ascription to actually (not just potentially) give way to its successor, and for structure to pass from one moment in its growth cycle to the next?

    Structural conditions certainly provided a viable terrain of emergence for Christianity, Buddhism, and the American Revolution; they made the contents of their respective programmes thinkable at the very least; and they must have assisted in their victory in various ways. What they couldn’t do, though, was conjure up Jesus, Lord Buddha, or the Founding Fathers as though from the back room of an ad agency. Where traditional ways of doing things are invested with the Sacred (the Law, the caste system, the authority of the Crown), not just anybody- no matter how favorable the structural conditions are- can just step up and tell the crowd that “It is written- but I say unto you…”, or that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [traditional authority], and to institute new Government”. The average person foolish enough to try this would likely be killed as the words left his mouth- and a leader must not only be capable of pulling it off, but of getting the crowd to follow him on what it must needs perceive as a very dangerous road. Such men as can are born, not merely made.

    Hence Hegel’s theory that the dialectic of History realizes itself by finding and enlisting a “great man” capable of “telling his time what it wills” is supported by the facts. This task captures how structure and agency, social and personal variables, indelibly interpenetrate one another. A given time already wills something implicitly, indicating that a social/structural transformation is in the process of taking place- indeed, in large measure already has taken place. But the process is not yet complete- in Hegelian terms, the time has yet to come to consciousness of itself- and it can’t be completed without the personal contribution of an agent in the form of the great man. A contemporary example was the late Steve Jobs, who is said to have had a genius for creating and marketing products people didn’t know they already wanted. (Granted, Jobs is an especially unheroic, vulgar, and trivial example of a Hegelian great man- but, then again, his time was especially unheroic, vulgar and trivial, so I don’t think I do violence to Hegel by invoking it).

    The Max Weber’s category of “charismatic legitimation” also captures the indelible interpenetration of the social/structural and the agential/personal. Charisma is as much a socially-structured form of authority as any other in that society specifies the qualities that charismatic authority must have. At the same time, the socially-specified qualities happen to be personal; not just anybody has them.

    Chief among those qualities are agency, in the highest sense: a willingness to throw out precedent and rewrite the rules (e.g. “it is written- but I say unto you…”; “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish, and to institute new Government”). To the extent that society is traditional, and authority invested with the Sacred, charisma is an indispensable mechanism of social, technological, and other innovation of all sorts, since it creates an exception to the law of tradition, and makes otherwise-inconceivable change possible in the moment of exception.

    -Kevin

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  3. Example 2: “Normal” v. “Pathological” Social-Structural Transformations: The Case of Eliot Rodger.

    This case needs no introduction: proceed to the meat of it, namely its explanation. Philosophical humanists might disdain any type of explanation, arguing that what this sordid young man did amounted to nothing more or less than a freely-willed act of malevolence. But this position properly belongs to juridical and not scientific rationality; most everyone can, over and above the question of criminal culpability, also perceive various social-structural factors at work- factors that can precisely be grouped under the classes under discussion in this thread. To wit:

    a) Formative cultural and social-structural influences.

    Among others: the American “entitlement mentality”; the typically modern phenomenon of “ressentiment” dissected by Nietzsche; the sort of seething misogyny that festers on the Internet; various forms of “anomie” including family breakdown, social isolation, and material/status frustration; and (especially pertinent to the latter) class-structural position.

    b) Situational facilities and opportunities.

    Availability of knives and firearms; legal lack of preventive incarceration procedures; unsecuritized or “soft” targets unable to effectively respond or to mobilize effective response.

    All of these comprise “normal” aspects of the structure of the American social system in that they are both empirically average states and formally constant features of that system. But here, the “normal” structures, in the course of their workings, have yielded transformations that are flagrantly “pathological” in that they are both wholly unintended and at radically cross purposes with system norms and goals, as well as profoundly abnormal from a statistical point of view. What went wrong?

    The typical answer slurs over, or even erases, the distinction between the normal and the pathological. One reason is the slurring of fact and value. The motivational impetus towards identifying various structural factors is often indelibly bound up with an implicit or explicit moral critique (private gun ownership is uncivilized; kids today are spoiled rotten; and so on). This promiscuous admixture of fact and value thus deems the “normal” factors pathological in and of themselves, and then concludes that pathology begets still more pathology, and that America’s putatively vast flock of diseased chickens have simply come home to roost.

    Among the many scientific shortcomings of this answer is the “sociological fallacy” it entails. Social structures emerge as self-executing phenomena that magically produce outcomes without intermediation. We instantly recognize the footprint of classical philosophical idealism here, with its skipping over or “short-circuiting” across the many steps that intervene between structural conditions and concrete outcomes. Further, potentiality not only magically makes its own actuality, but seemingly chooses to realize only one of its several possibilities as a (pathological) actuality. It is as though somebody forgot to tell this ideology that you can’t explain a variable through a constant, and that, at any given time, there are over 9000 Americans who are in the very same structural boat as Rodger, but don’t mass-murder as a result.

    The best way to straighten out the whole mess is to focus on agency. N.B. this is the very same space that existentialists and other humanists demarcate as the sovereign terrain of “free will”. But we need not see the goings-on within this space as indeterminate. On the contrary: if we reject the explanation from “free will” as misplaced juridical rationality, we can, in the same phenomenal space, see just how and where exactly normal social-structural constants acquire the variable values they need in order to actually realize their potentially abnormal-pathological outcomes.

    In this respect, Rodger’s confessional discloses the missing link: an obvious physiological disorder of arousal/reaction that, inter alia, inflated the subjective feelings of entitlement, seething ressentiment, status frustration, misogyny, etc. that define the “normal” bourgeois American subject to decidedly abnormal and dangerous levels, in a process involving multiple morbid feedback loops, and which all aggravated a baseline level of aggression that was abnormally and co-morbidly high to begin with.

    -Kevin

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    • Kudos. I find this a powerful exposition of the proposition that individual and society constitute interrelated but distinct and mutually irreducible orders of phenomena. Your simultaneous critique of unscientific uses of the concept of dysfunction and defense of its scientific validity is very nicely put.

      So to answer my own question, what I take you to be saying is, in a sense, quite simple: that ‘agency’ is a name for the distinctive contribution which individuals make to the production of phenomena. That is, even within a naturalistic framework we make distinctions among differing types of systems, so that even if the individual human being is entirely built up out of components mobilized by other systems (e.g. material component mobilized by ecosystems, meaningful elements mobilized by social systems, etc.), nonetheless the internal structural differentiation of the human organism is complex enough to make that organism a system unto itself, bounded and distinct from other systems which serve as its environment, and whatever the inputs into that system provided by it environment, the action outputs of the human being can only be explained in terms of concepts that postulate structures/processes internal and distinct to it, and the transformation or translation of effected by those internal structures is what we call agency. Moreover, if we seem to be privileging the systemic dynamics of the human organism by giving them this distinctive name, as opposed to speaking of the ‘agency’ of all transformative structures/processes (the agency of trees, of rivers, of machines), it is the case that we simply claim the right to do this by fiat. Is this about right?

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      • Agreed, but with reservations about the last sentence concerning fiat. It isn’t pure fiat to give different names to different things. As per the Latour thread, actors properly so-called exert an efficacy distinct from that of inanimate and non-teleological things and tools, and they exert it in a different way. The likes of rivers and firearms, and even living but inanimate beings such as trees, do not make decisions; rather, actors (individual or collective, human or non-human) make decisions *about* them. To be sure, their nature, in its stubborn material facticity, both influences and imposes limits on the decisions that can be made about them in terms of both the uses to which they can be put and the obstacles they pose. But to call these constraints and facilities “decisions” or “acts” would be a problematic use of language to say the very least (cf. Homer Simpson’s excuse for his misbehavior: “It wasn’t my fault- liquors drunkened me!”).

        For example, it is undeniably true that any comprehensive analysis of the present social system of the island of Montreal must take cognizance of the geological fact that the island happens to be immediately adjacent to a body of water that lets out into the Atlantic Ocean, and is wide and deep enough to accommodate a certain level of shipping traffic. But the St. Lawrence River cannot, on that basis alone, be considered an “actor” in any truly meaningful sense of the word- and this is no mere arbitrary act of fiat. For example, while the river can be said to “carry” freight, it would do the members of the West End Gang no good to plead, in a court of law, that it is really the St. Lawrence River that is culpable of “carrying” tons of dope to the port each year. That would be manifestly and comically absurd. At the same time though, and equally, no amount of fiat could with any less absurdity justify the proposition that the material presence and properties of the river don’t shape the North American dope traffic in a decisive way. They quite plainly do- just not by “acting”. In either case, violence to either the mind or the real comprises the limiting-case of legitimate fiat (and also goes to show the superiority of moderate realism over hard nominalism- but that’s a different conversation).

        -Kevin

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      • So, to rephrase again what I take to be your position: “agency” is the name for the distinctive type of efficacy generated by the *reflexiveness* of sentient beings, especially humans. While, e.g., a tree may ‘decide’ which way to grow in response to sunlight etc., this stimulus-response process is still of a different order from that of a being which is capable of *representing to itself* its conditions of action and deciding on that basis. The capacity to represent the world to oneself introduces a level of complexity into behaviour which severs any deterministic relation between environmental ‘input’ and behavioural ‘output’ and requires a distinct domain of theory, i.e. theories of subjectivity, which is not reducible to theories of the social or any other environment.

        Is that correct? I.e. your notion of ‘decision’ refers, by definition, to some process of mental representation of the world? This makes sense to me because on the one hand it justifies treating sentience as categorically distinct from nonsentience, and privileging human beings among sentient beings, and on the other hand because it justifies the subject-object dualism which seems to be a necessary feature of the distinction between personality systems and social systems or the like.

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      • I’ve been wanting to say for a while: I think here you are arguing by appeal to common sense, which is of course non-binding for a scientist. Just because it would be nonsensical (according to established notions of sense) to treat the St. Lawrence River as an actor in a court of law does not mean that we cannot construct rigorous conceptualizations of a river or other nonhuman as social actors in our social theorizing.

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      • “I think here you are arguing by appeal to common sense, which is of course non-binding for a scientist. Just because it would be nonsensical (according to established notions of sense) to treat the St. Lawrence River as an actor in a court of law does not mean that we cannot construct rigorous conceptualizations of a river or other nonhuman as social actors in our social theorizing.”

        Common sense is non-binding for the physical sciences, but in the case of the social sciences, it is every bit as binding as the laws of logic, at least inasmuch as common sense, just like the laws of logic, refers to universal categories of human experience. A proposition in the physical sciences that scandalizes common sense is *counter-intuitive*- but in the social sciences, just *wrong*.

        The lived experience of being an intentional actor, and of experiencing the world through intentional categories, puts any human being who has ever acted (or thought about acting) in a privileged position to know, with apodictic inner certainty, just what it is to be an actor, and to know another actor when he sees one. It isn’t for want of conceptual sophistication that we don’t assign criminal culpability to a river- for the idea of treating a river as an intentional actor is not merely counter intuitive, but must strike the human mind as self-evidently absurd, in the same way that the proposition, “two and two make five”, must equally appear absurd, and ultimately for the same reason.

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      • This argument from common sense as you present it is vulnerable to two lines of criticism.

        Let me briefly qualify that I didn’t characterize nonhumans like the St. Lawrence River as intentional actors, only as social actors.

        The first is that common sense is not so common, in the sense that it is not the same everywhere. Animists might readily characterize the St. Lawrence River as alive, as possessing a spirit, possibly even as sentient. Of course a scientist would disagree with the animist’s way of framing things. The scientist and the animist use different criteria of validity and hence play different language-games, operate within different epistemes, or what have you. But science can conflict with common sense.

        Of course in this instance the scientist happens to agree with the common sense of a Western Enlightenment humanism informed by Judeo-Christian tradition. But this is no matter. It would be ethnocentric to privilege Enlightenment humanism over other common senses, and it would be a serious mistake to suppose that just because the mainstream of scientific knowledge agrees with Enlightenment humanism, this agreement validates either one of them. Although modern science emerged historically from the Western Enlightenment, like Jesus returning to Nazareth it must be ready to renounce its parents at a moment’s notice.

        The second and more general criticism concerns the notion of “universal categories of human experience”. This is a very problematic and contestable notion. We can all readily observe how non-universal, how very particular, our subjective experience of the world is, every time we get in an argument with someone. The differences are greater between entire cultural worldviews.

        If universal categories of human experience are as binding as the laws of logic or mathematics, then we should be able to find empirical examples of propositions that no human being would honestly dispute. What are these? The claim that nonhumans cannot be social actors is not one of them.

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      • OK admittedly my argument is kind of lame in some ways, and I’m not sure if it’s worth defending. However:

        “common sense is not so common, in the sense that it is not the same everywhere. Animists might readily characterize the St. Lawrence River as alive, as possessing a spirit, possibly even as sentient.”

        I’m far outside of my scope of competence here, but I wonder if there isn’t more to the lifeworld of an animist than an enchanted garden full of talking trees and sentient rivers and so forth. I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s a lot more complex than that. By way of analogy, ethnographers have shown that people from cultures in which magic plays a prominent role are not only perfectly conversant with the idea of mechanical/physical causality, but self-consciously aware of the role that mechanical/physical causation plays in the very occurrences they explain in terms of magical causes. See Evans-Pritchard, “Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande”, p.63 et seq.

        “The second and more general criticism concerns the notion of “universal categories of human experience”. This is a very problematic and contestable notion. We can all readily observe how non-universal, how very particular, our subjective experience of the world is, every time we get in an argument with someone. The differences are greater between entire cultural worldviews.”

        True, but it’s important- for reasons that go far beyond the subject of this thread- to avoid drinking the po-mo/historicist kool-aid and consequently positing an impassable mental chasm separating cultures and people. No matter how far removed I may be from someone’s particular personal/cultural/historical horizon of lived experience, no matter how incomprehensible his intellectual position may appear to me, I am inwardly certain that he has thoughts, wants, and desires, must make decisions, must struggle against material obstacles in order to realize his ends, in short, that he is a human being and an actor just like me. There are universal structural elements of action that make understanding possible.

        I have no idea what exactly it is the old guy who used to show up outside my building every week and remove the empty wine bottles from the recycling bins was trying to accomplish. But I am inwardly certain that he was trying to accomplish *something* (he wanted empty bottles for some reason- perhaps in order to bottle some homebrew, or something- and was taking steps to get some). But I have no such immediate inward certainty of witnessing purposive action when I see a branch fall off a tree on a windy day.

        “If universal categories of human experience are as binding as the laws of logic or mathematics, then we should be able to find empirical examples of propositions that no human being would honestly dispute.”

        Well, I can’t give you any, because there probably aren’t any. The a priori is not absolutely and proactively deterministic of human thought and action the way the laws of physics are with respect to motion. All sorts of people and cultures propose things that stand in flagrant dereliction of the laws of logic, math, and plain sense- and in fact do so all the time, and with perfect sincerity.

        Just a few weeks back I read a think piece by some doe-eyed transhumanist who asserted, in evident seriousness, that future generations will not be able to comprehend the idea of death, because Technology will have abolished death. The author did not specify just how Technology will trump the laws of thermodynamics, nor address whether or not it will occasionally happen, in the technological land of Cockaigne, that someone’s erstwhile-immortal robot body will be run over by the monorail and damaged beyond repair. This sort of silliness, however, does not prove that there are no universal categories, only that it is possible for humans to *lapse* from the Universal; it is what they call a “failure of common sense”. You can lead a human to reason, but you can’t make him think…

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      • I think we are again talking about the boundaries and definition of a concept (elsewhere, ‘system’; in this case ‘social actor’), rather than about how to apply a concept whose meaning we both agree on.

        For instance: in her article on buffalo genocide in Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America, Tasha Hubbard (2014) asserts that “An indigenous paradigm expands the conception of people to include other-than-human animals. … Implicitly and explicitly, American Indians are driven by their culture and spirituality to recognize the personhood of all ‘things’ in creation. In other words, being ‘a people’ is not a domain exclusive to humans” (p. 294).

        Now, part of this recognition involves perceiving human qualities where Europeans do not: e.g., that “buffalo feel grief for their dead” (p. 300). But I have no doubt that the plains Indigenous people understand quite well that the subjectivity of a buffalo is very different from that of a human being. Rather, the recognition of personhood in a buffalo involves a different conception of personhood than which a European humanist would employ.

        In a very different context, when the actor-network theorist treats nonhumans as social actors (or ‘actants’), they do not for a moment imagine that the scanning electron microscope is self-aware and worries about the fate of its immortal soul as some humans do. Rather, they omit consciousness from their definition of a social actor.

        People disagree not only on what takes place empirically but on the criteria and boundaries of concepts. The existence of these disagreements refutes any argument from common sense. Empirically, there is no common sense of where precisely the boundary lies between ‘person’ and ‘non-person’. Still less is there any common sense of the meaning of the term ‘social actor’, which, being a sociological neologism, doesn’t belong to common sense in the first place.

        Your own assertion that “All sorts of people and cultures propose things that stand in flagrant dereliction of the laws of logic, math, and plain sense” undermines the claim that “common sense is non-binding for the physical sciences, but in the case of the social sciences, it is every bit as binding as the laws of logic, at least inasmuch as common sense, just like the laws of logic, refers to universal categories of human experience”. Common sense cannot simultaneously refer to and stand in flagrant dereliction of the same object without becoming internally heterogeneous and therefore no longer common.

        I could also argue that the notion of reason you’re deploying here is either metaphysical or normative, but that’s a whole other conversation so I’ll just flag it.

        I acknowledge that the way you’re defining the concept of ‘social actor’ is, indeed, one coherent and fruitful way of doing so. It’s just not the only possible one that a sociologist could reasonably employ.

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      • “In a very different context, when the actor-network theorist treats nonhumans as social actors (or ‘actants’), they do not for a moment imagine that the scanning electron microscope is self-aware and worries about the fate of its immortal soul as some humans do.”

        “Actant”- I think that’s a very important word (why am I only hearing it for the first time now?). It dispels a lot of potential confusion..

        What the ANT needs is a taxonomy of actants classified according to their specific mode of actantionality. One might e.g. distinguish between the rational-teleological (fully-fledged purposive social action involving meaningful linguistic communication between subjects), the teleological (dynamic adequation to various norms on the part of non-human organisms and other teleological systems capable of purposive action, but which can’t talk and aren’t talked to), and the mechanical (the constraining and/or enabling, but passive and static, role of e.g. the electrical circuitry that acts as the relay between the nodes of a social network on the Internet).

        (For all I know such a classification exists already).

        Such an approach makes both Procrusteanism and conceptual gerrymandering irrelevant. There is no need to force-fit the electron microscope into the definition of “social actor” (or vice-versa), since the ANT isn’t a sociological theory (at least not in the conventional sense) to begin with, and need not consider the social actor as its privileged and exclusive theoretical object, but only as a particular species of actant among others. N.B. this proposition is nonetheless very different from the proposition that the human subject is just one instance of a social actor among others. The latter implicitly reproduces traditional sociological exclusionism; instead of truly decentering the social actor, it merely expands access to the privileged title of social actor by way of a fiction, in much the same way that environmentalists petition the law courts to extend legal personhood to non-human natural resources.

        ***

        Re: common sense: Notwithstanding all the difficult issues involved, I think it would be a boon for sociological theory to explore the extent to which our theories can be grounded on what Alfred Vierkandt called “phenomenological insight”: “i.e. what we directly experience personally in ourselves and can convey to our consciousness with apodictic evidence”. According to Vierkandt, “the basic facts of life in society are known to us all, because, by nature, we are immersed in them, experience them directly, and therefore find them in the depths of our intuition”.

        The possibility of being able to discover the nature of social reality within ourselves on an immediate basis strikes me as sociology’s ace in the hole vis-a-vis the natural sciences- especially in light of the dismal and embarrassing failure of the endeavour to apply the methods of the natural sciences to the social sciences, even economics (to say nothing of sociology). Why bother with e.g. statistical models that aren’t going to work anyways when we can have what no physical scientist can ever have: direct inner knowledge of my object obtained by virtue of participation in the species-being of our object?

        ***

        “I could also argue that the notion of reason you’re deploying here is either metaphysical or normative.”

        Nope- just plain old, meat-and-potatoes logico-scientific rationality (if I wanted to make speculative or moral judgments, that’s what I would do, and say so).

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    • Let me ask also a question I’ve always wondered about. Taking the perspective you are taking, how do we distinguish between a pathology and what we might call ‘counterhegemony’? For instance, in a society where owning slaves is well established and tightly integrated into the law, education, theology, and so on, is abolitionism a pathology?

      Or to focus on the example of the Isla Vista killings: you note that Rodger’s actions are obviously pathological in the sense that they are at ‘radically cross purposes with system norms and goals’. But some feminists are concerned that this is not entirely the case. Specifically, part of Rodger’s motivation appears to be a sense of entitlement to sexual access to women, combined with a sense denial of this entitlement was humiliating for him, and the feminist argument is that this motivation-perception complex is part of normative American masculinity, as is the practice of punishing women who refuse to make themselves sexually available, and furthermore that this is part of a larger complex of patriarchal norms which still inform US society. Of course the feminist goal in making this argument is to expose these norms and contest them. So, where does pathology end and normality begin in this case? If norms are contested, then is the minority position by definition pathological? Or, if not, what distinguishes normal conflict from pathological conflict and what allows us to distinguish ‘system norms and goals’ from those of pathological individuals, especially in cases where what the system norms are and what they ought to be are themselves matters of contestation?

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      • There is a painful process of picking apart several distinct issues here. Sooner or later the study of pathology would end up overwhelmed by the study of the social politics of who gets to define what as pathological. This is exactly what happened to criminology in the post-war period. It eventually dawned on people that “crime” and “deviance” are always, to at least some extent, socially defined; criminal codes, after all, don’t write themselves, and furthermore are revised and amended all the time. What ensued was the proliferation of studies of the “social construction” of crime that weren’t even about crime anymore and did not even pretend to be (my own M.A. thesis was of this genre). From there, it was only a short step to asserting that there is no such thing as crime and deviance, because it is “socially constructed”; the public reputation of sociology continues to pay a very high price for this sort of muddled thinking. I don’t think the problem is altogether insurmountable- it is possible for everybody involved to have their cake and eat it too, if we can rigorously figure out how to divide it. However, that process is very painful, and I can’t address it in this space beyond indicating it.

        Kevin

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  4. I want also to ask about something specific. You write:

    “Weakly Emergent: “Markets” as they figure in mainstream bourgeois economics; the notion of the “parallelogram of forces” (see discussion in Althusser, For Marx); game-theoretical constructs e.g. “prisoner’s dilemma”; “social networks”.

    In all of these cases, the emergent property is genetically explicable in terms of the prior interaction of actors. The most appropriate disciplinary venue for the study of these phenomena would be the departments of economics and psychology; they are probably safely viewed as marginal to sociology for the most part.”

    Why do you say that these phenomena are marginal to sociology for the most part? Is economic action not social action? Is not a great deal of psychology concerned with social relations?

    This speaks to my more general question about what is a social system.

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    • And, concomitant to that, what characterizes the strong emergence which you say is proper to social systems? If you were going to make a case to someone skeptical that any such emergence exists (which is not me, but which is a type of interlocutor I think about a lot), what kinds of phenomena would you point to to make your case?

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      • I would start by politely but firmly inviting my interlocutor to negotiate a protocol concerning burden of proof, as a condition of possibility of having the discussion. I would set the terms of the negotiation around the following hypothesis:

        There exists a class of cognitive-behavioral phenomena, which will be named “strongly emergent”. A strongly emergent phenomenon exists as an observable, measurable, and determinate regularity in what an individual actor, or set of actors, thinks and/or does. Negatively, this regularity cannot be said to derive its existence in entirety from:

        a) Other, and logico-empirically independent, properties (considered individually or together) of any given actor (e.g. explanation by “direct generalization”)

        b) The interaction of two or more actors, inasmuch as the etiology of the interaction derives from properties of the actors involved as defined in point a. above.

        Positively, and as implied in point b. above, this regularity is an independent variable, one which, as a matter of definition, both exists as such and exerts its effects by way of directly informing pertinent aspects of the cognitive-behavioral apparatus of the actor on a more or less durable basis, as opposed to merely establishing situational conditions to which the actor subsequently and independently responds.

        It should be underscored that, as an independent variable, the strongly-emergent property exists only as its own effect; it is an independent variable only in an analytical sense. Concretely, its relationship to its effects is one of existential identity. This means that, in the concrete, it is meaningless to speak of the strongly-emergent property as a “cause”, since its relationship to its “effect” is nothing more than its relationship to itself, i.e. what is analytically a relationship between cause and effect is concretely tautological; cause and effect are two moments of a single entity under transformation. Furthermore, the negative propositions set out above guarantee, as a matter of definition, that the transformations of this entity are tautologically self-sufficient.

        This implies another negative proposition: There can be NO scientifically satisfactory (i.e. materialist) positive abiogenetic account of the “emergence” of any strongly emergent property real or hypothetical. Any phenomenon subject to a positive materialist account of its genesis is not a strongly-emergent phenomenon by definition. The most we can do within the limits of the material frame of reference is to delimit the necessary pre-conditions of its existence on the hand and the properties it needs in order to exist on the other.

        -Kevin

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    • Upon reflection, “marginal” seems like a bad choice of word; perhaps I should have said “nearby”, defined as “closely related, and also interrelated, but theoretically distinct”. That having been said, I’ll elaborate and defend the term, “marginal”, this time with reference to how sociology itself appears from the point of view of other behavioral/action sciences and paradigms.

      Consider the science of economics. There’s not a whole lot at the strictly theoretical level that sociology has to bring to that fight. Sociology serves to pencil in some things that stand at the margins of economic theory, among them:

      -institutional exigencies that come to bear on the market and market actors (e.g. the judicial and regulatory apparatuses of the State)

      -non-rational forms of economic action (e.g. crazes and panics as analyzed by the various theorists of “collective behavior” such as Neal J. Smelser)

      -consumer wants and tastes at the demand side of the analysis (today, this work is done almost entirely outside of academic sociology- but the work itself is pretty much the same).

      It should be noted that the first of these, in particular, is theoretically situated on the outside of the market, and is accordingly named the “political/legal/regulatory environment”. The second and third, meanwhile, are not only marginal, but, in the case of the abstract models of rational economic action based on utility theory, are altogether banished by abstractive fiat to complete theoretical invisibility (especially to the extent that the rational economic actor is specifically striving to make money).

      Sociological concerns are similarly marginal to game theory. The game of “prisoner’s dilemma” assumes the existence of the prison, as data for the application of the theory; Foucault’s social history of the penitentiary brings nothing to that fight.

      Likewise, in the analysis of social networks, socio-cultural factors are relegated to the external environment right along with non-human rocks and trees and so on, all of which figure as so many constraints and facilities in the formation of the network, and are visible at all only in that role. For example, the old American anti-miscegenation laws are relevant only inasmuch as they could be said to have hindered the formation of kinship alliances between Blacks and Whites; from the point of view of network theory, questions concerning the nature and etiology of 19th c. racialist ideologies cannot be answered and, in any case, need not be. Network theory can shed no more light on these social phenomena than it could on say, the irruption of geological fissures that might equally separate the nodes of a potential network.

      Finally, the only truly distinctive object social psychology could conceivably have would encompass the spontaneous forms of order (and disorder) that emerge from the interaction of a plurality of individuals- which order comes to light only when strongly-emergent factors (i.e. various norms and roles already socially prescribed prior to their interaction) are abstracted away or held constant (e.g. Piaget’s “genetic” account of the spontaneous emergence of rules in children’s games).

      In no case, though, can “marginal” phenomena be understood as condemned to ignominy forever. The difference between pure abstract theory and the analysis of Weber’s “historical individual” should be noted here. Marginal/residual categories and limit-cases acquire more and more import, and more and more content, as we move from the abstract to the concrete, and accordingly the analysis of historical individuals becomes multi-paradigmatic by necessity. For example, any “economic” analysis of the 2008 economic crisis, to the extent that it is truly comprehensive, would have to have quite a bit to say about non-economic/non-rational factors e.g. the political environment (the impending ascendance, in 2008, of a putative crypto-Socialist to the U.S.A. Presidency), or the irrational exuberance that drove the 2006 housing bubble (further inflamed both by various State policy choices and also, in part, by TV reality shows).

      The implication for the theory of the social system is as follows: Many sociologists past and present seem to be uncomfortable with drawing aggressively rigid lines of demarcation and exclusion in the sand of theory. However, theoretical systems that are highly closed in the abstract, by necessity, become open systems of interchange in the concrete. For instance, smart-aleck empiricist/historicist/humanist critics of Marxist theory often smugly point to the contrast between the steelhard rigidity of the Marxist theoretical system and the subtle nuance of Marx’s own historical analyses; the contradiction is supposed to demonstrate “the poverty of theory”. But the contradiction is merely apparent; it is simply the index of the difference between essence and existence, species and specimen, universal generalization and existential instantiation. Likewise, Parson’s attempt (in The Social System) to construct a pure theory inclusive enough to fit the proverbial kitchen sink, epically heroic as it was, was unnecessary. The pure theory of the social system need not, for example, catalogue every psychological mechanism of “internalization” or other socialization; and the economic sub-system need not be endowed with a whole lot of positive content at that level of abstraction.

      On these grounds, I wonder if it’s really necessary to agonize over the status of non-human tools, rocks, trees, etc. at the moment of theory construction; they will make whatever important part they have to play known to us at the moment of the case-study. At that level, the diverse theoretical systems and theoretical objects will let their hair down as they move down from the ivory tower, with all its stuffy decorum, to the far less formal world of life on the ground; there they will open up, and thence be seen to promiscuously interrelate and interpenetrate within the concrete space of the historical individual.

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      • The post above was meant to reply to the question about marginal categories; it did not appear where it was supposed to. Stupid WordPress…

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  5. “This implies another negative proposition: There can be NO scientifically satisfactory (i.e. materialist) positive abiogenetic account of the “emergence” of any strongly emergent property real or hypothetical. Any phenomenon subject to a positive materialist account of its genesis is not a strongly-emergent phenomenon by definition. The most we can do within the limits of the material frame of reference is to delimit the necessary pre-conditions of its existence on the hand and the properties it needs in order to exist on the other.”

    This paragraph is to be stricken from the record pro temp.

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    • Come to think of it, the whole response re: strongly emergent properties ought to be regarded as withdrawn indefinitely.

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  6. In the course of backwards-tracking the strongly-emergent property from its complex to its elementary forms, one eventually arrives at a primitive structure, an innate system of mental categories in the form of an elementary diagram of social relations. The diagram is very much like the internalized system of roles and role-expectations studied by symbolic interactionists, except that it is innate and probably rather minimalistic.
    I
    t should be noted that the diagram is, to borrow a term from dissenting biology, “irreducibly complex”; it cannot be understood as a complex of “mental modules” that “evolve” one by one on a piecemeal basis and subsequently collated together. Just like the abiogenesis of life itself, the abiogenesis of the diagram has to be regarded as a limiting-case of “evolutionary” explanation (although, once constituted, it can certainly be said to have a greater or lesser adaptive value). But, like life, it has to be regarded as “intelligently designed” by a Creator who stands in relation to the order of Creation as an uncaused cause. (There. I said it.)

    The diagram is accompanied by a set of innate elementary rules of a normative character. These primitive norms are probably what the natural-law theorists had in mind when they said that the natural law is already “in the heart of all men.”

    The diagram probably serves as the innate and constant infrastructure from which a superstructure of more complex and historically-variable forms of social structure and normative systems emerges, serving as a basic template of the latter. The process of differentiation and elaboration is probably analogous to biological growth, except of course we know that human societies do not follow a uniform sequence of stages of a determinate life-course the way an organism does.

    Kevin

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    • “But, like life, it has to be regarded as “intelligently designed” by a Creator who stands in relation to the order of Creation as an uncaused cause”.

      I had better explain sooner rather than later that this is strictly analogous to a legal fiction, e.g. an assumption one must make for certain purposes, whether one believes in it or not (and even if the assumption is manifestly untrue), in order to make a certain procedure logically operable (cf. e.g. the reference to “the sovereignty of God” in the 1982 Constitution Act).

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  7. It’s too bad you retracted the point that “There can be NO scientifically satisfactory (i.e. materialist) positive abiogenetic account of the “emergence” of any strongly emergent property real or hypothetical”. I was going to ask why that is. My guess was going to be that you would claim that the difference between the emergent property and its material substrate was essentially informational, hence “nonmaterial” in the usual sense (excluding my monist materialism which treats cognition and information as types of material phenomena). Now I’m curious why you retracted it. Right or wrong, it’s an interesting point to examine.

    Your invocation of “intelligent design”, even as a theoretical fiction, is also interesting. I take it this doesn’t express a literally spiritual or religious conviction of yours? But if not, then I do and do not see why you’d make it. I think I take your point about it serving as an enabling condition for the functional analysis of social systems. If we presume that social systems have objective functional prerequisites à la Aberle et. al. 1950 then it must always already be the case that any existing social system will be satisfying them, and the question of how society evolved in the first place has to be bracketed off. But do we need to evoke ID in particular to achieve this? Why not just say, “every social system is premised on these fundamental categories as an outcome of the evolution which produced society itself, and since that evolution is prehistoric and is universal to all historic, current, and possible future social orders its origins can be treated as an entirely separate problem for the purposes of sociological inquiry”?

    I have a broader question. In your long post on June 13th you laid out the distinction between social and individual-level phenomena quite compellingly, so much so that I’m using that distinction (as I understand it) in an article I’m writing now. But for me then two questions arise.

    First, if the strongly emergent features of society and the actions and experiences of individuals appear at different levels of analysis, and as such do not interact directly, then can sociology explain the latter, and if so, how, or can sociology only explain societal-level phenomena?

    Second, can sociology contribute to the efforts of activists who work to increase individual liberty and equality – i.e. to praxis – and if so, how?

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  8. Re: The withdrawn remarks: The proposition that “[t]here can be NO scientifically satisfactory (i.e. materialist) positive abiogenetic account of the “emergence” of any strongly emergent property real or hypothetical” was supposed to mean that the strongly emergent phenomenon can’t be explained outside of Divine intervention, e.g. “material” is understood precisely in the monist sense as you would understand that term.

    The ideas expressed were withdrawn because they were half-baked, in the strict sense of that figure of speech. The last paragraph, in particular, was something I altogether made up as I went along. I quickly spotted a few potential problems:

    -Although I stand by the broad sense of the proposition that that the concrete object is a self-referential or “tautological” system, it seems overblown. In its sloppy and uncontrolled language, it implies that the social system is a continuous consubstantial unity, a sort of homogeneous blob, when that is clearly not the case; individual actors, tools, communication media, etc. quite plainly exist as discrete concrete entities in time and space, and can be situated vis-à-vis one another as independent/dependent variables in the strongest sense of causal analysis, perhaps even amenable to statistical regression analysis. Additionally, the image of the thing-in-itself as a primordial unity upon which the categories of causal analysis are imposed by theory, on an implicitly artificial basis, strongly savors of romantic-mystical nominalism of the exact sort I’d ordinarily and pompously exhort people to run away screaming from.

    -This is very embarrassing to admit, but as soon as I hit the submit button I realized that I wasn’t sure what I was talking about anymore. The main intent of the remarks on the tautological character was to decisively lock the door on certain forms of reductionism that I’ll address below. But I may or may not have had a second agenda: to simultaneously lock the door on the type of causal analysis that assumes the form of a general hypothesis that production, the State, ideology, or something else is determinant with respect to the rest- all of which strike me as about as plausible as a theory of physiology that would take up, as its constitutive starting-point, a general hypothesis that the skeleton (or whatever) self-sufficiently explains the other structures of the body. Certainly, it is possible to trace, in the workings of the human body, causal relationships of the strongest possible sort between discrete parts (e.g. by regressing them onto one another to reveal mathematical functions of the form y(f)x). But here, too the system ultimately assumes a “tautological” character: all of the parts are united by a thread of continuity- the unity of the living organism and its teloi of growth and equilibration- that at once unites and explains all of them. But I’m not sure that is what I was talking about.

    Finally, I decided that the main, anti-reductionist thrust was irrelevant in light of the ID thing.

    Kevin

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  9. Re: ID:

    There is NO religious or spiritual significance here whatsoever. I came up with this (highly tentative and tenuous) idea as a theoretical deadbolt lock against an exasperating species of reductionism, which I name associationism: a form of causal analysis that traces the social to an original moment of association between hitherto pre-social human actors. Sometimes the fallacy is obvious, as in the case of Hobbes. But sometimes it isn’t: the “historical” theory of the origin of patriarchy proposed by the late Shulamith Firestone was intuitively plausible and parsimonious in an almost irresistibly attractive way, but ultimately of the exact same species (this time, by way of a feminist riff on Rousseau). The intuitively plausible forms of associationism are often exasperatingly painful to debunk, and admitting that sociology can’t account for origins would probably attract various associationist quacksalvers the way an open door attracts burglars. Hence the search for a good deadbolt.

    Years ago, I came across an ingenious idea of some evo-psych guy who proposed that the various forms of social system could be referred to an innate mental module that is not a mere constant in the form of e.g. a stereotypical fixed-action pattern, but a variable whose variable-values would comprise blueprints of the different possible social systems, considered as adaptations to various ecological environments. The latter would, in the causal chain, play the role of activating the appropriate adaptive mode the way one selects from among the tools of a Swiss army knife.

    Within the Darwinist problematic, this concept occupies a dangerous theoretical blind spot. To wit, it offends Reason to propose that an organism could “evolve” in such a way as to carry an adaptive trait tailor-made to an ecology it has never been in. That would contradict Darwinian evolutionary theory at the level of its first principles, which propose that it is the exigencies of the immediate actual environment that explain adaptations, not possible future environments. To do otherwise would be to admit teleology, which is radically excluded by the Darwinist problematic. The only way out of the dangerous reductio ad absurdum would be to admit that this sort of thing is a limiting-case of evolutionary theory. The only rational explanation is that it was designed by an intelligent entity that had advance knowledge of the ecological circumstances to which the human would subsequently have to adapt.

    I’m more interested in the problems such a mechanism would solve with respect to the internal social environment than the external non-human environment (although the two functions aren’t mutually exclusive). Aristotelian natural sociability would be vindicated, and associationism locked outside for good: the theory would predict that humans, wherever we find them, would IMMEDIATELY sort themselves into socio-political units, without the mediate intervention of: a plenary contract that ends an aboriginal state of war between each individual and binds them socially in the State (Hobbes); a foundational act of conquest of women by men that forms the family (Firestone) and/or of peaceful farmers by warriors that forms the State (Rousseau); or the more gradual emergence of money, market prices, and common-law courts that both simplify and regulate the increasingly innumerable acts of exchange between individuals that, over time, binds them socially in an inescapably dense web of economic interests (Hayek).

    A functionally adequate social system would be the end of human association, not a mere by-product; the system would acquire all of its pre-requisites instantly, instead of waiting to acquire them one-by-one, as though on an assembly-line, in an imaginary and impossible time-ordered sequence.

    A problem with this solution is that the war would be won at the cost of the utter annihilation of sociology as a self-sufficient discipline; since any human society could now be deduced directly from a priori properties of any human, society would be reduced to one case of individual-level adaptation among others in the study of biology. But this mechanism need not contain all the modes of production pre-formed within it. That would hinder rather than help dynamic adaptation, and thus be less likely to be true from the point of view of biology than a hypothesis of the emergence of an autonomous higher-order system (culture) on the basis of an innate but rudimentary diagram itself equipped with only the minimum of statuses, roles, and norms needed to make a primordial social system operable. Since the emergent system, both by its status as a higher-order system and by its nature (i.e. as a system of fluid and flexible linguistic codes as opposed to physiological structures set in the organism as though in stone by comparison), can generate a much larger and more sophisticated adaptive repertoire, and with far less response lag, than biological structures that change only by mutation, the theory of biology is forced to give its imprimatur to sociology instead of coveting the latter’s domain.

    I have no idea how this process of emergence is supposed to work, though. The place to look for models would be emergentist/genetic theories of mind that posit the emergence of higher-level structures that arise on the basis of, but subsequently circumscribe and are irreducible to, lower-level structures, with the lowest-level structure comprising a set of rudiments given in biology (e.g. Piaget’s “genetic epistemology”).

    The elements of the diagram would figure as cultural universals found in all human societies; while they would not of course exhaust them all, they would play indispensable constitutive roles in them. Examples include categorical imperatives e.g.: Who saves, can destroy; one ought to willingly obey commands backed up by overwhelming force, which force ought not to be resisted, because it cannot be (“might makes right”); one ought to render obedience to those that provide for one’s protection; to fight for the one that feeds or pays you; to give due social deference to those who bear arms, and to the aged who by right dictate, to armed youth, who shall fight, when, and for what reason. (This class of imperatives can be named the “political rudiments”).

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  10. (N.B: Pretend for now that the whole ID detour never happened, as it may or may not complicate and/or outright vitiate what I have to say here- and I’m not willing to stake my life on the hypothesis of the so-called “diagram” or anything else I improvise online. What follows is rather something I’ve put a LOT of systematic thought into).

    “First, if the strongly emergent features of society and the actions and experiences of individuals appear at different levels of analysis, and as such do not interact directly, then can sociology explain the latter, and if so, how, or can sociology only explain societal-level phenomena?”

    I am not sure I understand the question, but the following may be the answer you’re looking for: “Level” is a mere metaphor; it does not denote spatially separate orders of being separated as though by a shelf-floor. Everything resides at one level, namely the personality system (or, for Marxists, the synonymous concept of the subject without which there can be no material practices). Everything that happens in there not only can, but by definition must, interact. Example: “Charity is a virtue” is a social-level variable; it belongs to an “ideology”, in this case, a Christian deontological system that cannot be read off of pre-given “individual-level” traits (as even the Thomists, who insist that the whole system is given in our rational nature and written “in our hearts”, had to admit). But charity becomes a social practice only through its internalization by the subject, by a process that shapes malleable features of emotional responses given in biology so as to create a want to be charitable. Then an innate “individual-level” trait- Bentham’s hedonic calculator- may make the following calculation: “It would produce more pleasure, and no more pain, to spend this idle evening visiting the elderly, than sitting around watching TV and swilling down some Chardonnay”. Now “caritas” is a fully-fledged praxis.

    It should be noted that the praxis assumes the form of a rational utility-maximizing act indistinguishable from what economists study; indeed, there is a big demand for charity products (e.g. goats for families), which comprise a formidable sector of the present market economy. But this does not mean that economics becomes a branch of sociology or vice-versa. Individual and social-level, and, a fortiori, weakly and strongly emergent, phenomena interact not by way of mutual reduction, but by articulations that preserve their analytical independence.

    Readings: Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”; and esp. Parsons, “The Structure of Social Action”.

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  11. “can sociology contribute to the efforts of activists who work to increase individual liberty and equality?”

    If “individual liberty” denotes an end in itself, or a means towards alternate ends, all regarded as equally valid

    If “equality” means raising everybody to the level of an aristocrat, with all the attending vanity, arrogance, and sense of entitlement, then:

    I don’t care- for, if this liberty and equality is really our destiny, I have no further interest in sociology other than a purely speculative interest in whether or not this “liberty” may cause individual and social pathology.

    But:

    If “liberty” denotes a means with respect to the ends that define the nature of a rational being, rank-ordered into higher and lower, and is understood as the ability to virtuously discharge our duties without undue hindrance

    If “equality” means a humbling sense of common subjection before our natural duties, then:

    Sociology should serve as “civic prudence”, that is, knowledge of human affairs intended to provide guidance to policy-makers and activists. Above and beyond merely stating what has to be done in order to effectuate this or that result, it would hopefully encourage these actors to the habit of “thinking things all the way through”. It would make visible EVERY step that intervenes between goals and their realization as actual states of affairs, and the obstacles and pitfalls that can thwart the realization of goals, or produce pernicious unintended consequences.

    Sociology would show how its object, like that of any science, has limits of possible variation, and is as stubbornly determinate a phenomenon as a rock, indeed even more so. For, unlike a rock, it is a vital system, with its own teloi and norms of growth and adaptation, and equipped with the ability to dynamically compensate for disturbances introduced into its equilibria, and to surmount obstacles to its growth. Moreover, in excess of its limits of variation, and its ability to try to rest within them, there lies, not Utopia, but deformation, disorder, pathology, and potentially, death of both the system and its human nodes.

    However noble our ends may be, on the material plane of spatio-temporal objects, they run into the brickwall limit of the reality principle, which makes the Christian precept that we cannot attain perfection in this life science fact. To those given to invidiously comparing the present to an ideal state of human affairs, sociology should exhort them thusly:

    (If Conservative): The lost Atlantis of your nostalgia either never existed, or at best shades off into myth. There was more there made of lead than gold, and real practices far more depraved than e.g. the inflamed fantasies of our libertines, which, by and large, are exactly that: so many wet dreams and locker-room boasts of semi-virginal teenagers writ large. You may be right; the West may be in irreversible “decline”; but all history shows that humanity lives on as empires come and go; and, as long as humans come to knowledge of their duty- which, social science shows, is a destiny inscribed their nature- then all is not lost.

    (If Progressive): Stop, you’ll kill us all! Do you think that your convictions, just like the faith you reject as irrational, can really move mountains? Can they change men into women, or induce a creature designed by nature for self-preservation to renounce power over others for good? Sociology shows that there indeed a type of social system where workers own no property, where the family is debased- and yes, Ms. Firestone, where normative heterosexuality is abolished and the difference between man and woman blurred. The technical term for this system is a “barracks”; its residents, “slaves”; and their activities are directed, not by self-administering means of production, but by a second class of people, “slaveholders”: patriarchal heads of households, of which latter the slaves are listed at law as “chattels”. You propose to eliminate patriarchy and exploitation – but sociology must note that “it just so happens” that your plan of action reproduces its structural elements. Could it be, as per the sociology of Marx, that your praxis is implicated in a dialectic that eludes your awareness, and offers to your consciousness an inverted and imaginary representation of things as they are? That you make your history, but not as you please?

    Consolation: Sociology does not conclude that everybody should just give up, stop thinking, and resign themselves to a life of buying consumer products as instructed by commercial advertising. On the contrary: just as, say, chemistry discloses how to transform chemical matter into many useful products, sociology discloses, to the prudent reformer, a wealth of opportunities to make the present a more agreeable place to live. But the chemical engineer must first apprehend certain uniform laws and constant structural features of chemical matter in order to proceed. So, too, the successful reformer must apprehend that:

    -(if Conservative) Any social system tends towards increased rationalization- which means, over time, e.g. more individualism and State power, and less religiosity and traditional/family values (gemeinschaft==>gesellschaft)

    -(if Progressive) There are, in any social system, certain structural constants and uniform modes of relation between them. There is e.g. always a political authority, some form of property relation, some dissymmetry in the relations of men and women.

    The reformer ignores all this to his peril and that of others. If attempts to thwart the laws and/or remove or carelessly dislocate the constants do not exceed the system’s capacity for equilibration, we can expect humiliatingly ironic unintended consequences as our reward- if we’re lucky that is. If the disturbances introduced by the reform exceeds that capacity- let’s just say the results will more closely resemble a panel in a Hieronymus Bosch triptych than they will either Atlantis or Schlaraffenland.

    Readings: Joseph Rickaby, “Moral Philosophy: Ethics, Deontology and Natural Law”; Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”; Graham Burchell et al. eds., “The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality; Aristotle, “The Politics”; Parsons, “The Structure…” and “The Social System”.

    Kevin

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    • (sorry; very long reply ahead)

      This is interesting. I know you don’t want to put too much weight on the “diagram”, but your comments about it have given me a strong sense of how your theory works. That, and your point that everything resides in the personality system. So let me see if I understand you correctly, and then let me make some internal and some external criticisms.

      In your view, the social system (and also the cultural system; it seems that you do retain this distinction) exists as information – as mental modules, normative rules, encoded in human brains. In old dualist terms your conception of society is idealist in the same sense that, e.g., Habermas’s is, not in the sense of proposing that Mind somehow transcends spacetime and materiality, but in the more modest sense of proposing that spacetime and materiality, i.e. Nature, are part of the environment of the social system, not a variable element of the system itself. This works just fine in a monist materialist scheme, in terms of which you are asserting that human thought, as a material process, distinguishes itself from non-cognitive material processes by its cybernetic properties and its reflexivity.

      Right so far? To me this makes sense of your retracted assertion that the emergent features of the social system could never appear in a purely materialist theory; I thought perhaps you retracted this because you realized that in specifically monist materialism they could, at least in principle, but that the labour of doing so would be formidable, unnecessary to sociological explanation as such, and would open the door to all sorts of reductionist errors.

      The social system, if I understand you correctly, consists of the ensemble of norms and roles which enable the mutual orientation of action and therefore social life as such. Many of these are highly variable, of course, but some core element of these are functionally indispensable and comprise the innate system of mental categories which comprise your ‘diagram’. These include, among other things, an orientation to hierarchy as such and to certain specific hierarchies (you mention those concerning the use of physical force and the provision of material sustenance in particular).

      If I’m on track so far, then this next point is where I get confused. At times you seem to describe the diagram in synchronic terms: it is innate, hence always-already-there, and always active in social action (“humans, wherever we find them, would IMMEDIATELY sort themselves into socio-political units”). If this were the case, then the diagram would always be an objectively accurate map of any existing social system; depending on one’s sensibilities we would say that it is tautologically true or that it is universally nomothetically valid in the strongest possible sense, on par with, say, the laws of thermodynamics.

      But at other times you seem to characterize the diagram in diachronic terms – sometimes teleological (“a destiny inscribed their nature”), sometimes evolutionary (“Stop, you’ll kill us all!”). In these terms, it is possible for human beings to flout the diagram – to their ultimate ruin, perhaps, but possible.

      Aside from the logical contradiction or at least tension between these two ways of speaking, in the latter case I don’t see how the diagram can be innate. I have trouble imagining what you mean by ‘innate’ other than ‘genetically encoded’, hence pre-social. If we don’t inherit the diagram at birth through our genes then we learn it through socialization as the only possible and hence necessary solution to a set of collective action problems endemic to all human social life – but we learn it imperfectly and unreliably, hence the need for us to “come to knowledge of [our] duty” and the possibility that not everyone will do so and that the system could be disequilibrated.

      If this is your meaning, then I take it that knowledge of the diagram functions, for sociologists, as something less than a law of nature, and also something more: less, because humans do not always reliably obey the diagram, more because the sociologist is uniquely qualified to say that we ought to.

      If all of this is correct, then of course your theory has some major challenges to be scientifically convincing: at a minimum it needs to specify the terms of the diagram, show that its imperatives really are necessary to any possible form of human sociality and not just to certain particular kinds of societies, and clarify how it is that individual human beings acquire them.

      Of course you probably know this, and of course you can’t do all that in a blog forum like this. I’m just rounding out my thoughts. But this bridges into my external criticisms.

      The first of these is skepticism about your strong functionalism. I take you to propose not only that there are emergent social systems but that they are comparable to living organisms in their autonomous self-organization and functional integration, such that there are objective conditions for their life or death (normality vs. pathology) and that these are simultaneously the conditions for life or death of human sociality as such. These are strong claims, even within the domain of emergentism. How could they be validated?

      To clarify: one can imagine a range of positions on the emergence of social forces, starting at radical methodological individualism (no emergence) and proceeding through the constructionism of, say, Berger and Luckman (limited emergence of reified social institutions but their functional coherence is an illusion produced by the human cognitive tendency to assemble parts into whole), through the middle-range structuralism of say Bourdieu (there are multiple social systems or ‘fields’ but no common underlying logic and only a limited coherence among them) through what I take to be Marx’s position (overarching social system in the form of the means of production, but it is not functionally integrated, it is internally contradictory and inimical to the full realization of human well-being) to what I take to be your position.

      In addition there is the whole question of the incorporation or lack thereof of Nature into the terms of a sociological system theory. One can treat Nature as environment but it seems to me just as reasonable that one can treat time, space, matter, energy, and physical embodiment as integral elements of social systems. To go back to an earlier example: a group of people sitting around talking can be understood, not as a social system without tools, but as crucially determined by the audibility of speech, the time it takes to form thoughts and say them, nonconscious bodily dispositions and responses, the provision of adequate nutrition and physical safety, and so on.

      The question is: how would one adjudicate among these? For instance, is it theoretically possible to construct a test whereby these various conceptions of emergent systematicity could generate predictions, only one of which could be empirically confirmed?

      My own sense is, probably not. More likely, these various metatheoretical strategies can be shown to each generate solvable scientific problems, a la Kuhn, in various not-strictly-commensurate terms, in which case none of them is falsifiable, only more or less useful depending on the problems at hand and one’s own inclinations … and the latter being formed through habitus, or ideology if you prefer, the criteria of validity of social scientific theory are inseparable from political or ethical disagreements. In which case, talk about where we disagree might be just as valuable as the formation of bodies of agreement.

      Of course my most obvious external criticism, which I’m sure you saw coming, is: your theory is informed by a moralism which is different from my own and which I don’t accept, as evident in your use of moralizing terms like “virtue”, “duty”, and the various judgments you pass regarding which modes of human subjectivity you admire and which you despise, which often seem diametrically opposed to my own. Of course you are entitled to your moralism as I am to mine. But how can we disentangle scientific and moralistic claims?

      For instance, the categorical imperatives that make up your political rudiments don’t seem, to me, like categorical imperatives at all but like the rules of an authoritarian state society. Are there conceivable arguments that would enable us to reach an agreement on a question like this one? Or is it fair to say that, with respect to human beings, there is not one science but many, each informed by the ultimate extrascientific values towards which it is oriented?

      (I may be getting a little incoherent towards the end due to fatigue, so I hope you can see the substance of my points even if I haven’t presented them entirely sharply.)

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  12. I’m not a very good writer in many ways, and I think I may have given a wrong and odious idea of who I am and what I stand for that I want to correct right now. The ill-advised term, “categorical imperative”, and careless use of words like “duty”, “destiny”, and “virtue”, cannot help but produce the impression that the diagram is to serve as the basis of a deontological system in which the validity of the rules of some authoritarian State would be guaranteed, not by their putative agreement with Revelation or Reason, but with the facts of social life as explicated by sociology. The deontological laws of life would emerge as etched into human nature as opposed to stone tablets, and the authoritarian State would stand in relation to these laws as the Church vis-à-vis the Ten Commandments. Finally, the sociologist would emerge as this State’s secular Jeremiah, issuing dire warnings of the swift, certain, and severe deserts that would follow from abandoning the Law for the worship of false idols in the form of various liberation movements. But I am not some kind of Fascist whackjob; I don’t goose-step up and down St-Catherine Street in a Nazi uniform; and I would never, EVER even THINK about trying to predicate right on fact.

    Some background: The diagram, and especially the “political rudiments”, is a very schematic and partial presentation of a model I developed for a study of authoritarian Statist discourse and practice (which, due to external misfortune, could not be completed). Part of the research problem was to account for how:

    -these discourses keep coming back, again and again, even after apparently being historically superceded by Liberalism, so that e.g. we’re still debating gun rights 326 years after the Glorious Revolution was supposed to have established, once and for all time, the right of the individual to keep and bear arms.

    -no amount of Liberalism has been able, in the long run, to keep the frontiers of State power from advancing and its apparatus from expanding- not even the institution of judicial review of legislative acts as it exists in Canada/the U.S.

    -Utopian political programmes, where implemented, always dramatically inflate the power of the very State that is supposed to wither away there.

    It quickly and plainly became evident that the political rudiments play a constitutive role not just in nominally “authoritarian” discourse, but ALL political discourse- even, and perhaps especially, liberal and radical discourses, which comprise a moment in the rationalization (i.e. expansion-inflation) of State power. N.B. this effect is not a simple “unintended consequence”; one way or another, these discourses always explicitly spell out their designs for all to see. Marx, for example, made it abundantly clear that the present Liberal State must be made to assume the form of a totalitarian dictatorship, and that those who resist the laws of Nature are so many diseased people in need of treatment. The Liberal tradition, for its own part, from Machiavelli to the Scientific Whigs took a self-consciously instrumental view of the hallowed Liberties of The Individual as so many means to the ends of the (enlightened) power-State.

    Thus, the exhortation to progressives, “Stop- you’ll kill us all!” is not a prophecy of naturalistic retribution in the wake of the heresy of imagining a Stateless society. It is rather that the rationalization of State power proceeds by enticing the subject into practices with precisely the promise of liberation from the shackles of State power as their reward; it is thus that the bird is induced to both light the oven and baste himself with the marinade in which he is to be roasted, on the premise that he’ll be safe from his natural predators once inside.

    To return to the register of pure theory: you are correct to observe that the diagram has both a synchronic and diachronic aspect. Rationalization is the law of development of the social system; one of the things that gets rationalized is patriarchal authority, which, to the extent that rationalization proceeds, grows (“evolves” would be the wrong word) from its rudimentary forms to e.g. kingship and thence the modern State. I’ll elaborate on a few other theoretical points of order in another post.

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  13. The diagram does not, and cannot, provide an “accurate map” of every social system. It rather picks out certain universals that are highly abstract, e.g. invariant in form and fact but highly variant in contents. Nor can the “categorical imperatives” be said to provide the set of axioms from which the totality of the contents of any possible system of values, norms, statuses, and roles may be directly deduced. Rather, they define the conditions of emergence (cf. Foucault’s “rules of formation”) of values, norms, etc. not immediately given in the diagram, and assign limits of possible variation. Also, neither the diagram nor any secondary complex of values, norms, etc. can suffice for a sociological description of the social system, since all sorts of factors related to material production and other material exigencies (e.g. means of production and other technology, ecological mode of relationship to other social systems and the non-human environment) must necessarily be taken into account.

    The diagram must be at least partially innate as a condition for socialization to proceed. For example, “internalization” of moral values by definition cannot take place unless the child is already equipped to make the calculation that parental commands + overwhelming irresistible force (or symbolic violence: yelling, confiscating toys, etc.) as pains of disobedience = moral duty (i.e. an internalized sense of moral duty is very different from a simple apprehension of likely pains of non-compliance, and endures into adulthood after parental commands lapse into impotence and desuetude)

    “I take you to propose not only that there are emergent social systems but that they are comparable to living organisms in their autonomous self-organization and functional integration, such that there are objective conditions for their life or death (normality vs. pathology) and that these are simultaneously the conditions for life or death of human sociality as such. These are strong claims, even within the domain of emergentism. How could they be validated?”

    I think that the annals of the colonial encounter contain a wealth of highly suggestive case studies, of which the hell of pathology introduced into Iraqi society by the actions of the Bush Administration is the most timely. Whether or not the Iraqi State will undergo, as a result of this pathology, a process of dissolution as a boundary-maintaining system analogous to biological death is an open question as of right now.

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  14. “[T[here is the whole question of the incorporation or lack thereof of Nature into the terms of a sociological system theory. One can treat Nature as environment but it seems to me just as reasonable that one can treat time, space, matter, energy, and physical embodiment as integral elements of social systems. To go back to an earlier example: a group of people sitting around talking can be understood, not as a social system without tools, but as crucially determined by the audibility of speech, the time it takes to form thoughts and say them, nonconscious bodily dispositions and responses, the provision of adequate nutrition and physical safety, and so on.

    The question is: how would one adjudicate among these? For instance, is it theoretically possible to construct a test whereby these various conceptions of emergent systematicity could generate predictions”

    There is a question as to whether or not this inventory of necessary conditions could even be made to fit into a prediction inasmuch as what they do is to provide the existential conditions of possibility of making a prediction of any kind. In order to sit around chatting, two or more humans must exist as biological organisms with the basic wherewithal of communication (a locus in space to gather, the ability to hear or otherwise process language, etc.). So far, so good- so what? Can we, on this basis, predict what they’re talking about- or even that they’ll ever talk at all? Would it really add anything to positive explanation to observe that the discussants must first meet the criteria of existence? Can the latter even show up as variables in a multiple-regression or other positive explanatory model? Alternately, would it enrich positive explanation to re-describe the interaction as a set of energy-transfers, in terms of relevant units as defined in the study of physics, or in terms of every neural mechanism involved the way a neuroscientist would- or would that just be redundant?

    With respect to “adequate nutrition and physical safety”: humans are known to chatter in concentration camps and battlefield trenches much as they do in well-appointed lounges- so I think that one can be falsified, at least beyond the point that nutrition and safety merely establish the bare fact of physical existence, which again can’t really explain anything.

    Can you give some indication of how to fit the natural into theory in a way that standard-model social science (structural-functionalism, Marxism, etc.) doesn’t do already (e.g. all the comprehensive theories already take basic ecological adaptation, technology, and things like that into account), and perhaps how doing so might solve some problems that the standard-model can’t, or alternately pose new ones? I know you’re a very busy guy- but could you maybe give an application of the new theoretical scheme, however brief and schematic, to some either timely or contentious issue?

    -Kevin

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  15. Hi! I’ve been a bit overwhelmed finishing an overdue paper, and this conversation has been one of those pleasures I have to ration. But I have a bit of free time this morning, so let me reply as concisely as I can manage to a few of your points.

    “Utopian political programmes, where implemented, always dramatically inflate the power of the very State that is supposed to wither away there.”

    Yes, this is a concern of mine too, actually one of my central concerns. I have an idea about why this happens, but it’s worth a whole blog post, so stay tuned.

    “I’m not a very good writer in many ways …” etc.

    I’ve never thought of you as any kind of bad writer. Certainly you have a flair, in the tradition of Marx and Nietzsche, for weaving bold and even slightly over-the-top value judgments into careful reasoning in a way that keeps things interesting. But yeah, I had gotten the impression you meant to build your theory on the foundation of a naturalistic deontology in which might makes right. Your revised description sounds closer to my own preoccupations. Certain social forms keep recurring even where people specifically try to abolish them, e.g. the reproduction of the alienation of labour-power in the Soviet Union, the general entrapment of 20th-century radical socialism by the state, etc. For a long time I’ve approached this in terms of the idea that certain social forms reproduce themselves very effectively, independently of the intentions or even awareness of the human actors who participate in them.

    My book on genocide was basically a look at this exact thing with respect to state power: at the heart of sovereignty is a relationship in which one prince defers to another in order to defer the other’s violence, and this battlefield relationship is reproduced in the symbolic performances of everyday manners among well-socialized subjects, so that, e.g., even radical feminists and socialists feel, through their habitus, a subliminal impulse to define their subjectivity in terms of domination and submission, and so keep reproducing authoritarianism within nominally egalitarian movements.

    Lately I’ve gotten interested in the idea of “collective action problems” as a further explanation for why structures reproduce themselves through habitus. Certain problem-situations come up in social life and certain social forms represent familiar and predicable ways of dealing with them. For instance, a group is planning a political action and the action will only be effective if the whole group goes along together with one strategy, but different members have different ideas and desires, so how to resolve these differences? The imposition of authority through practical or symbolic violence is one tried-and-true method, and it works – all the more effectively when it is not recognized as such. etc.

    Maybe this gives a further sense of why I prefer a structural to an agential perspective on action; I find that actors’ intentions only cloud the issue. But I have proposed (in the article I was writing this week) that ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ not be understood as two different kinds of forces, but as two different terminologies for parsing the same phenomena.

    To go back to your original reply to my post: rereading it, my first impulse is to disagree with every point you make, point for point. I would “argue”: the motive is not phenomenally integral to the agent, action is not thereby self-determined, the elements which you describe as internal to the agent are not internal at all, the social system is not an environment but the agent is on formation among others within the social system, etc. etc. But that would be boring. Because what would be happening there would be that each of us would be articulating a language for parsing events, and the ‘disagreement’ between us would reduce to the observation that these two languages are incommensurate on their own terms – though not necessarily incommensurable.

    What do you think?

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    • “Lately I’ve gotten interested in the idea of “collective action problems” as a further explanation for why structures reproduce themselves through habitus. Certain problem-situations come up in social life and certain social forms represent familiar and predicable ways of dealing with them. For instance, a group is planning a political action and the action will only be effective if the whole group goes along together with one strategy, but different members have different ideas and desires, so how to resolve these differences? The imposition of authority through practical or symbolic violence is one tried-and-true method, and it works – all the more effectively when it is not recognized as such. etc.”

      See, we were on the same page all along- notwithstanding all the arcane Scholastic hoopteediddle over the classification of the social sciences and what exact elements comprise the true object of sociology. You’re probably correct that it comes down to a question of terminology; when I was reading that book chapter you sent, I kept thinking to myself along of the lines of: “this is true- but I would have said it differently”. I still have to wonder how you can talk about habitus and the importance of the unsaid and then immediately go on to assert that a focus on intentionality clouds the issue (what is a habitus, if not a machine for structuring and directing intentional action, and the psychological seat of intentionality more generally?)- but I’ll let that slide for now.

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      • Yes, there is a substantial overlap between our conceptions of things.

        Although I hope it’s obvious that when I say that the imposition of authority through violence “works” this is not my endorsement of it, but part of my effort to make visible and de-naturalize the operation of symbolic violence so as to begin to think towards more egalitarian and emancipatory ways of solving collective action problems. This is my ‘dream of a social theory’ – a theory that could provide new techniques for solving old problems, and thereby help us transform society in practice away from the entrenched authoritarianisms of Western civilization towards a hitherto unachieved radical egalitarianism.

        Based on our conversation, my sense is that social action theory does not have much to contribute to this project. It is not designed with this aim in mind and its defining assumptions imply only the ultimate impossibility of such a project. Is that right?

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  16. Re. validating the position that social systems exhibit strong emergence comparable with biological life, I was initially excited by your example of Iraq because it does get at the strong interdependence and nonlinear feedback characteristic of such an emergent system: obviously the outcome in Iraq is far other than what the Americans wanted and the complex structural interactions engendered by the occupation account for this. But on reflection the example seems also to work in the refutation of your claim. If indeed the Iraqi state dissolves entirely and, e.g., the country is partitioned – as is not too unlikely — what will result will not be the total death of all the constituent elements of Iraqi society, i.e. of all institutions, practices, and even individuals that made up that society, as would happen in the case of the death of a living body. Instead, most former Iraqis would still be alive, and family life, religion, the economy, and so on would continue, with some disruptions to be sure, but in many ways continuously from before. To me this scenario weighs against the specifically Parsonian account of emergence.

    Parsons’s is not the only emergentism out there. Let me pick three alternative examples:
    1) Berger and Luckmann claim that social institutions do have a life of their own once they have been reified, but that the total social order, i.e. ‘society’ in the Parsonian sense, does not have the functional coherence attributed to it; it only seems to because individuals are disposed to see patterns
    2) Luhmann theorizes social systems as strongly emergent from social action in a way that is directly based on Parsons, but proposes that (a) these systems do not operate at equilibrium, as Parsons supposed, but stochastically, perpetually far-from-equilibrium, and (b) (I think) the multiplicity of these systems – e.g. the system of family, the system of politics, the system of morality, the system of romantic/sexual love – do not cohere into an overall totality in the manner that organs in a living body do, but are related more like the elements of an ecosystem
    3) Wallerstein proposes a functionally coherent social system but that system is the global capitalist world-system; individual nation-states, in his model, are not systems but subsystems

    All three of these models would account for the scenario I described, whereas it has always seemed to me that Parsons’s does not. Or does it?

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    • Good call on the case of Iraq. As Locke said centuries ago, dissolution of formal government doesn’t necessarily entail dissolution of society- and I suppose that this is especially true in a place like Iraq where State power isn’t as totalized as it is here in North America and the State has much less of an effective and pervasive presence in workaday social life. I would also endorse Luhmann’s proposition that a society doesn’t have the same level of lock-step functional integration seen in the biological organism. That having been said, the pathology introduced into Iraqi society by the cavalier recklessness of the Bush administration (which really ought to have known better) can’t be treated lightly, and there are documented cases in which entire societies were altogether destroyed by contact with Western social engineers. My fave was the case, famous in anthropology, where well-meaning development workers gave out cheap mass-produced tools to the inhabitants of some village somewhere, with the unintended effect of destroying, at once, this society’s economy and system of social solidarity (i.e. in this society, goods circulated by way of reciprocity- which act of economic exchange also crucially cemented social ties- and the mechanism of reciprocity depended on scarcity). By the next time the anthropologists came back, the place was empty (presumably its inhabitants survived and were subsequently assimilated by other social systems, but the society itself indeed underwent something analogous to biological death).

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      • You wouldn’t happen to remember a reference for this case, would you? That would make a very a propos addition to my work on genocides of indigenous cultures. Maybe I’ll find them with a little digging.

        But I’m with you on the point that in a case like the one you describe there has been the death of something, analogous to a biological death. However, I’d have trouble convincing my more classically liberal colleagues, who would argue: ‘what has “died” is only a certain pattern in people’s actions; if individuals choose to abandon their traditional ways of acting that is their right and it would be perverse to expect them not to do so because we Westerners find their ways quaint’ etc.

        The advantage reductionism has is that at the outset of a debate it can always begin by claiming to be more parsimonious and empirical than any strong emergentism or holism: show me your systems, reductionists can say, show me how they can be observed empirically and how they cannot be reduced to lower-order phenomena.

        I think as sociologists we can make good intuitive arguments in favour of systems thinking, but do we have anything like a proof?

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  17. With respect to materialism and including nature in society —

    The glib answer is to say, yes, “humans are known to chatter in concentration camps and battlefield trenches much as they do in well-appointed lounges” but what they chatter about differs considerably. The discourse that people *can* produce and the discourse they are *likely* to produce varies with their material conditions.

    In other words, material factors — time, space, tools, resources — are not just existential conditions of possibility for social action but constituent elements of social practice, and they are not just constants, they are variables.

    To give a banal example: every term I assign my students a certain amount of reading and some writing assignments. Some of my students have to work full-time to pay for their education, most have to work at least part-time, and some do not have to work at all. This affects the amount of time, physical energy, and mental concentration they have available to do the work. This in turn affects the quality of work they can produce: specifically, it affects how much more they can learn about how to read and write social theory than what they knew when they came in. Etc. And of course the whole reason they are in my classes is to improve their position in the job market …

    When you write:

    “With respect to “adequate nutrition and physical safety”: humans are known to chatter in concentration camps and battlefield trenches much as they do in well-appointed lounges- so I think that one can be falsified, at least beyond the point that nutrition and safety merely establish the bare fact of physical existence, which again can’t really explain anything.”

    – Honesty, I find this a very difficult statement to understand sympathetically. To me it seems obvious that a very great part of human communication throughout history has been entirely motivated by the quest to find adequate nutrition and physical safety. These factors explain a very great part of what people do.

    Obviously there is some variability to how people achieve these goals, such that we cannot reliably read the entirety of human culture off of its material base à la crude materialism. But the opposite does not thereby become true – materiality does not thereby become an irrelevance. Underdetermination does not mean nondetermination. Nor can the material constituents of social activity simply be read off of our communicative systems due to cybernetics.

    Supposing that you and a stranger bump in to each other on the street and the stranger gets angry and starts yelling and verbally abusing you. A conversation is taking place. Now suppose that one or the other of you has a loaded gun. Now a very different conversation is taking place … The gun does not determine the exact final form of the conversation, but it certainly is a relevant variable in this system.

    When people work together to make things, the physical properties of the materials they work with and of the thing they are trying to make condition what they do: how much effort is required, how many people, how much coordinated decisionmaking, etc.

    To me it seems that the Parsonian way of drawing boundaries, which is unfortunately shared by many Marxists, is part of what creates problems. Once we decide that the material world is an ‘environment’ for the social system, which in turn is an ‘environment’ for the individual, such that we must try to isolate a material cause for a social action, etc, we are in a swamp.

    On the other hand, if we start with practices – not with action in the Weberian sense but with what people do – then we perceive these things as integrated. I am writing to you on a laptop, over the internet, in a blog forum, while sitting on a couch on a Saturday morning while my partner sleeps in and her daughter is at the father’s house. All of these elements are phenomenally integral to the practice I am engaged in. And all of these elements inform not only the fact of my communication to you but its tone and content. My decisions about what to say are shaped by considerations of the linearity of communication, the time it takes to write things and the time I think it will take you to read them, by the sound of words, by the thousands of hours each of us has invested in reading and thinking and writing about social theory, by our ability to remain fairly calm, etc. etc.

    For more robust examples you could turn to the literature in the social study of science and technology, or to social ecology. Practitioners in these fields often find it useful to dispense with the distinction between ‘social’ and ‘natural’ altogether. Latour’s work advocating the inclusion of nonhumans in human social networks belongs to the former field the brilliance of his insight was this: the sociologists of scientific knowledge worked out that it was unsatisfying to propose sociological explanations only for false scientific claims (“ideology” in the pejorative sense) while allowing that true scientific claims are somehow devoid of sociological content. Both truth and false scientific claims must be sociologically explicable. So far so good, except this seems to slide towards an idealism in which Nature has no part in the production of scientific knowledge, in which we could predict future correct science on the basis of knowledge of society alone, which obviously is absurd. So Latour and Callon and Law and other actor network theorists proposed that Nature enters in to the social networks whereby scientific knowledge is produced. But proposing this erodes the distinction between Nature and Society. Latour argued that this very distinction was not a cause but a consequence of human effort, a product of labour …

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    • Re: The Sociology of Chit-chat

      In another post you wrote:”a group of people sitting around talking can be understood, not as a social system without tools, but as crucially determined by the audibility of speech, the time it takes to form thoughts and say them, nonconscious bodily dispositions and responses, the provision of adequate nutrition and physical safety, and so on.” I took this to mean, inter alia, that idle conversation can only proceed if adequate nutrition and safety exist as givens. My remarks should be interpreted accordingly.

      Re: The Material and the Natural

      “But the opposite does not thereby become true – materiality does not thereby become an irrelevance. Underdetermination does not mean nondetermination.”

      Nobody’s saying that it does. I personally deride idealistic emanationism as a variant of the Freudian wish-fulfillment belief that has yet to encounter the reality principle in all its obstinacy (cf. Smelser’s analysis of “short-circuited” thinking in various types of social movement). In fact, this is the heart of what I had to say about the relationship of social science to praxis, namely that ideal ends must not only be willing to take into account real (social and/or material) conditions, but under some circumstances allow themselves to be conditioned by those conditions if there’s to be any serious hope of realizing those ends through practice.

      That having been said, the danger of logically inadequate explanation (“reductionism”) seems to loom as large over any sociology that emphasizes that material and the economic as its counterpart, idealistic emanationism, does over modern political programmes of reform. The (strictly theoretical) dangers of reductionism vis-a-vis emanationism seem to be the greater in that, as per earlier remarks, it is possible without doing violence to the mind to imagine a social system without tools and so on, in much the same way that physicists imagine massless springs and frictionless machines. As long as the human essence is held, in this thought experiment, to be structurally wholesome, human natural sociability would guarantee that the residents of this silly system would still find things to talk about and fight over, absent any external material duress [1]. But without humans, there would be neither system nor speech, just deathly silence; and the things men made, along with the tools they made them with, all once elements of rational Culture, would be by libidinous Nature overwhelmed in the ultimate truth and finality of social ecology [2].

      ___________

      [1] Try spending two weeks alone and without talking when the house is full of groceries and there’s no actual compelling instrumental reason to go out and talk to anybody, and see how it goes. I did that once- and was discovered (rescued is perhaps a better word) actually tottering on the brink of psychosis and moreover in a floridly irrational and dangerously self-destructive state. It appears that, in the human being, there is some motor tension that can only be discharged by talking to people, both because of the motions and effort involved in speech and because humans are physiologically aroused by the presence of other humans. Yes, these are “material” factors, but the thrust of argument stands.

      [2] Yes there is a value-judgement here: in order to conform to his nature, man must master two orders of nature: the passions within him and the natural world outside him. This explains why the most elementary material marker of the distinction between Nature and Culture is the article of clothing that covers the genitalia, which at once embodies the actual rational mastery of the external natural (it is made from some animal skin or plant matter that has been rationally mastered and transformed) and symbolic rational mastery of the internal natural.

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      • Qualification to n.1 above: There are several different biological drives that impel human beings to seek each other out, among which are the desire to talk, to have sex, and to engage in actual or symbolic violence and aggression. But- and as counter-intuitive as it may seem- these mechanisms of natural sociability and others like them, and whatever social forms emerge on their pure basis, cannot comprise the true object of sociology, which must amount to more than mere hedonism. The study of the mechanisms themselves is the province of the neurological sciences, while the study of social forms and solidarities whose source of integration is purely hedonic rightfully belongs to economic science.The truly distinctive object of sociology is the set of normative rules that, while internalized and thereby followed on a largely voluntary and hedonic basis, in the first instance have an obligatory and non-voluntary character. Sociology is a “deontological” science, not in that it prescribes rules of right conduct (something that no empirical science can do, or ought to try to do), but in that it must concur with deontology (albeit on different ontologico-epistemological grounds) that man, in order to conform to his nature, must subordinate other aspects of his nature to the ethical rules. Again, and contra the moralists, this doesn’t come about through pure anhedonic willpower, nor on the basis of pure Reason- but every human being has to face the social fact that e.g. you can’t have sex with whoever you want, no matter how agreeable or even irresistible the idea may seem from a hedonic point of view.

        This all raises the ever-painful question of the relationship between the various social sciences, and of the lower aspects of human natural sociability (biological urges to have sex, fight, and so on) to the higher aspects (man as a law-giving and State-making animal) in making up society. The lower are necessary and sufficient causes of human association- but they are not sufficient to the structural-functional adequation of systems of human relations and don’t come close. On the contrary: the same natural drives that impel humans to associate always also threaten to fatally disorder their association in obvious ways unless they are circumscribed and regulated by something higher than themselves (the moralists were right on this one). As a digression, and contra certain conceits of economists and fantasies of libertarians, this is also true of the less immediately hedonic and more abstract forms of utility-maximizing rational economic action. The various social equilibria touted as self-sufficient “spontaneous order” by the cheerleaders of the “free market” could never exist if both the State and Foucault’s swarm of disciplinary micro-powers had not first forged Homo Economicus out of a mass of fecklessness and emotional volatility and thereafter held him, and induced him to hold himself to, an extraordinarily dense and minutely totalizing system of formal and informal ethical norms.

        It follows that the object of sociology circumscribes the social forms, equilibria, and solidarities studied by other social sciences. It is at the sociological level of analysis where the mechanisms that see to the “regulation of regulation” are given. The association studied by sociology is perfectly self-regulating; the others are only imperfectly self-regulating, and cannot except in abstraction self-sufficiently secure their own functional conditions of existence (hence they are “weakly emergent”).

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      • It is fair to say, then, that there is an essentialism at the heart of your social theory, i.e. that your conception of the social system directly incorporates value-judgements about what human beings ought to be like? And that this essentialism is a (moderately) conservative one?

        I’m not trying to dismiss your position by labeling it, but it’s good to identify the extrascientific values that inform our science.

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  18. Sorry, one more comment …. actually a question. You wrote a while ago:

    “Sociological concerns are similarly marginal to game theory. The game of “prisoner’s dilemma” assumes the existence of the prison, as data for the application of the theory; Foucault’s social history of the penitentiary brings nothing to that fight.”

    I was rather puzzled by this. Yes, Foucault’s history of the penitentiary brings nothing to that fight, but isn’t the prisoner’s dilemma a social form in the Simmelian sense? Why exclude game theory from sociology?

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    • It is a social form whose source of integration consists entirely in straight-up utility-maximizing economic rationality and nothing more. The boys over at the Dept. of Economics are within their rights to assert title of theoretical ownership over this particular social form. And also, as long as we were talking about “weak emergence”, this particular equilibrium seems remarkably fragile; a single miscalculation on the part of one of the prisoners would disorder it fatally.

      Contrast a cognate phenomenon that is almost an ideal-type of the true object of sociology: the culture of honour and loyalty of the old-school 1% bike clubs, under which a member would actually and gladly forfeit his life before betraying his bros. To be sure, to do the latter would comprise a capital offense against the laws of outlaw bikerdom, but there’s a lot more to it than that; the norms of honour and loyalty are constitutive of the identity of the club and its members, internalized by each brother and literally inscribed on their material bodies with indelible material marks (that long pre-date a certain contemporary fashion, and can in no way be reduced to a fashion statement). The outlaw MC only appears anti-social from the point of view of the State. Considered sociologically, next to a religious community (with which it shares several key features) it is as perfectly social a phenomenon as is found in the empirical world

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  19. “Based on our conversation, my sense is that social action theory does not have much to contribute to this project. It is not designed with this aim in mind and its defining assumptions imply only the ultimate impossibility of such a project. Is that right?”

    Social action theory, as I understand it, is the proposition that “structures reproduce themselves through habitus” plus whatever other propositions are needed to make the latter logically adequate to its object. You’ll note that this proposition isn’t a logically adequate stand-alone sociological theory and doesn’t come close to being one; it is rather a core component common to most of the theories found in the average sociology department, and also certain branches of philosophy. It follows that the problems and prospects for an emancipatory politics aren’t given at the outset. Whatever pessimistic statements I’ve made in this.regard were originally arrived at, not on the basis of action theory, but its limiting case: Foucauldian discourse analysis, which self-avowedly is neither a theory of action nor of sociology.per se; they shouldn’t be regarded as inexorably following from the action frame of reference.

    Kevin

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    • I may have mis-spoken; just based on our conversation I jumped to the conclusion that ‘social action theory’ or ‘social action philosophy’ was short-hand for the general parameters of sociology as you conceive it.

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  20. Re: The society destroyed by tools: Unfortunately that case came from an undergraduate course handout over 20 years ago and it’s long lost. Maybe some of the anthropologists from among your colleagues would know? Perhaps a search under the keyword, “reciprocity”?

    “However, I’d have trouble convincing my more classically liberal colleagues, who would argue: ‘what has “died” is only a certain pattern in people’s actions; if individuals choose to abandon their traditional ways of acting that is their right and it would be perverse to expect them not to do so because we Westerners find their ways quaint’ etc.”

    I’d ask these guys to think it all the way through and consider the aftermath of an abrupt dissolution of a traditional culture. A safe empirical generalization is that its members move to the city, and generally don’t do so good there, with many getting trapped in a revolving door that takes them from the sidewalk to jail and back.

    One of the most annoying things about classic liberals is that they just sort of assume that every member of another culture is a middle-class Canadian/American in a Halloween costume; the Americans have paid a very high price for this sort of naïve thinking in the Iraq debacle.

    “show me your systems, reductionists can say, show me how they can be observed empirically and how they cannot be reduced to lower-order phenomena.”

    Show me “mass”, “velocity”, or for that matter, “cause”, I say to the reductionist. Nope, I don’t see any of those things- just a bunch of stuff that happens. I also say: Give me a LOGICALLY ADEQUATE reductionist explanation for the facts I address- and I myself will acknowledge your rightful claim of theoretical dominion over them, and gladly cede that part of my territory to you. I won’t hold my breath…

    “but do we have anything like a proof?”

    Like any science, it stands or falls on its ability to provide internally consistent and adequate explanation of the facts demarcated by the theoretically-constructed entity, “system”.

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  21. I’m still not sure I completely understand.

    I recognize a distinction between the two types of phenomena you describe. If we’re taking Weber’s conception of social action as our unit of analysis, then the scenarios of game theory belong only tenuously to sociology: in a nutshell, one observes a prisoner’s dilemma if and only if the actors in the situation perceive and reason as do the hypothetical actors in the prisoner’s dilemma. As you say, one miscalculation by one of the actors and the prisoner’s dilemma no longer has subjectively adequate descriptive validity.

    On the other hand, the game theory scenarios are designed to have a type of validity quite different from that of, e.g., a verstehen account of a biker club’s code of honour: they describe what Weber might call the ‘meaningless’ formal properties of social relations. Consider for instance Simmel’s elementary observation that the social dynamics of a triad are different from those of a dyad. Although we may be talking about social relations in Weber’s sense and hence meaningful social action, the topological distinction between dyads and triads is in itself non-subjective and hence non-meaningful (in the sense of not being constituted by subjective meanings).

    It is impossible by definition for a group of people to have a ‘code of honour’ without any of them being aware of it — perhaps one person could be enrolled in a code of honour without realizing it but they will soon be set straight or suffer the consequences; a code of honour is fundamentally constituted by the subjective meanings which inform action. But it is quite possible for a group of people to be in a prisoner’s dilemma situation without any of them realizing it, especially if each actor is unaware of the opportunities and costs which the others face. Or a group of people can be in a Tragedy of the Commons situation without any of them realizing it — as indeed we very often are.

    These non-subjective, non-meaningful social forms may or may not constrain people’s actions at any given moment (usually one can choose to cooperate or defect) but they constrain *what happens* in the sense that the constrain the outcomes of action, and thereby the distribution of resources, and thereby people’s subsequent capacity for action.

    It seems to me that Simmel declared these types of social forms part of the subject matter of sociology while Weber’s definition of social action implies them to be exterior or at best marginal to sociology. It also seems to me that Parsons follows Weber on this question

    And yet, at least from The Social System onwards if not earlier, Parsons’s theory depends on the assumption that all action is constrained by the imperative to the functional integration of social structures, the dynamics of which are presumably nonsubjective or else we would not need sociology to reveal them to us.

    I do not find the proposition of the necessary functional integration of social structures altogether convincing, but when I imagine what this might involve I imagine some combination of game-theoretic collective action problems, network topologies, and similar ‘meaningless’ or non-subjective emergent properties of social interaction, operating at the level of sociality as a total system. The only alternative I can think of is to imagine the functional imperatives of system integration as tautologies on the order of “A or not-A”. But if that were the case then it would seem to me that the social system would be always already functionally integrated and dysfunction would be impossible.

    (And of course for me, if the functional imperatives of the social system can be expresses as the dilemmas of a game-theoretic action problem then this opens up the theoretical possibility of superceding those imperatives by finding an alternative solution to the game or finding some way to change the rules of the game. Hence, for instance, my interest in the notion of sovereign authority as a difficult-to-escape “solution” to dilemmas arising from the combination of violence and social difference.)

    Does this make sense? I am simultaneously asking two questions. First, why exclude non-meaningful structures from sociology at all, even partially? Why not make them part of the central subject matter of sociology? And second, what is the precise nature of functional imperatives?

    Once again I have to apologize because I know you’ve been trying to explain this to me for a while now. This isn’t a rhetorical move to invalidate what you’re saying, but a genuine confusion — and one I’ve had for a very long time, really, not specifically about your ideas but about much sociological theory.

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  22. Re: The Material and the Natural

    First, let me say that I take —and agree with — your point that there is a generic human drive towards sociality, and also that this drive underdetermines the specific forms that social relations take.

    Let me ask, then, as clarification: are you proposing that the group of people sitting around chit-chatting is a kind of ideal type of social systems in general? Habermas proposes the ‘ideal speech situation’ as an ideal type of the instantiation of communicative action (and also as a normative ideal for resolving certain problems of modern society). I suppose he would acknowledge that in practice it’s very difficult or perhaps impossible to eliminate *all* instrumental interests from a conversation but once we make a conceptual distinction between communicative and instrumental rationality then we can theoretically eliminate the latter in the manner of a scientist who constructs a model involving frictionless forces. So should I take your example of general sociability in the same spirit?

    If I’m right about that then I think I generally understand what you’re saying if not entirely why.

    [from earlier:] CP: “But the opposite does not thereby become true – materiality does not thereby become an irrelevance. Underdetermination does not mean nondetermination.” KD: “Nobody’s saying that it does.”

    I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that Parsons, and Weber before him, and Habermas after him, say that it does, in a specific sense.

    Parsons defines the social system in terms of the action frame of reference, where ‘action’ is what it was for Weber: oriented in its subjective meaning towards the actions of others. Thus Weber excludes sneezing, or opening an umbrella against the rain, from the domain of social action and from sociology. Parsons likewise excludes all ecological factors, all of Latour’s “nonhumans”, and even human embodiment itself, from his conceptual terminology for talking about social systems. To be sure, the ecosystem does appear as an ‘environment’ for the social system; so too does the human body in the form of the biophysical organism.

    Contrast this with Marx who makes these things part of his conception of society. Coal, for instance, appears in Marx’s theory as an integral component of social relations – not just because of the symbolic meanings or values which people invest in it, but in its non-meaningful physicality, its chemical properties, which — in *practical* relations to human beings — give it its use-value. Its use-value involves it in social relations and makes it part of the mode of production, hence part of society. In The Social System, on the other hand, there is simply no terminology for treating coal as part of society. It is part of the environment of the social system, and thus of marginal concern at best to sociologists. In strictly theoretical terms, coal makes no difference *within* the social system.

    Likewise when I invoked air and water, adequate rest, time and space, as constitutive factors for a group of people sitting around chatting idly, your initial response was to argue that these are existential conditions for sociality and as such are non-differential. If I understood you, you argued that these kinds of factors make a difference as conditions of possibility for a social system but make no difference *within* the system.

    Am I correct so far? I can offer a rebuttal, or at least an alternative account of things, but I want to make sure I’ve got your argument correctly.

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  23. “It is fair to say, then, that there is an essentialism — that your conception of the social system directly incorporates value-judgements about what human beings ought to be like — and a moderate conservatism at the heart of your social theory?

    I’m not trying to dismiss your position by labeling it, but it’s good to identify the extrascientific values that inform our science.”

    I don’t know exactly what you mean by “conservatism”- there are many definitions- but I can’t get with any of the political parties or political programmes going right now. They all have interesting, valid, and important things to say (even the radical feminists turned out to be presciently right about porn), but they all have one or more planks in their platforms that I find insufferably odious. That said, the following can be regarded as a fully-fledged scientific law of sociology: “On any given issue, progressives are more likely to be logically and/or factually and/or morally wrong than conservatives.”

    I think what you’re noticing is that I like to liven up boring-snoring scientific discourse with occasional philosophical and rhetorical digressions. I interpose these digressions at points where the precepts of my philosophy and the results of my science overlap; like most modern people, I feel somehow vindicated when my non-scientific philosophical positions appear to be supported by the scientific facts. I presently have a big crush on Thomistic deontology (without a long-term commitment), so what you’re seeing in these digressions is mostly either Thomism or my own variants and imitations thereof. This philosophy long pre-dates the progressive-conservative dichotomy (which makes no sense and has no meaning outside the modern West that gave birth to it); its object is right against wrong, not tradition against innovation. On the other hand this philosophy is radically out of tune with the dominant utilitarianism-libertinism-Statism of right now, so I suppose it could be called “conservative” in a certain oblique sense.

    Also, I have become extremely skeptical and/or critical of: the myth of progress; the delirium of technology; the Schlaraffenland of pleasures promised but never actually delivered by our libertines and sex educators; the structurally dilapidated and sub-functional detritus of, or poor plastic surrogates for, wholesome religion (e.g. transhumanism and other techno-eschatology, the “new atheism”, environmentalism, etc.); the degradation of leftist discourse, which once produced Marx, but today is reduced to a smattering of politically-correct ritual utterances for the socially and politically ambitious; the revival and rehabilitation of bigotry, especially towards Catholics and Muslims, and corresponding programmes of religious persecution in both Canada and the USA; and of course, State capitalism.

    I am also rather pessimistic about the (irreversible) ongoing rationalization of the social system, which has already given rise to terrifying forms of anomie: in America, a full-blown epidemic of mass homicides among the least powerful, and a cognate anomic partisanship among the most powerful that has rendered one of the world’s great States pitifully dysfunctional and even altogether paralyzed in gridlock. This anomie can in no way be understood in terms of degeneration (“social entropy”), nor as an unintended consequence; rather, the disciplinary-therapeutic complex intentionally and systematically produces it, and indeed expends incredible amounts effort and resources in doing so (something Foucault should have seen, but was in this area blinded by his own libertinism and depravity).

    If all this is “conservatism”, then so be it- but I think that rigorous, intelligent, and sensitive men of the left can reach the same conclusions (some already have) without abandoning their own progressive ethical project in any really basic way.

    But notwithstanding all that, there are NO “extra-scientific values” informing my science of which I am aware. (What I had to say about sociology as “civic prudence” a few points back doesn’t count since, by definition, praxis is where non-scientific ends and scientific means are articulated). Any point of convergence between ought and is amounts to no more than mere triangulation, i.e. moralists of all epochs and civilizations have formulated certain insights into the human condition that, while not necessarily arrived at by the methods of empirical science, are nonetheless logically and factually adequate, and permanently valid from a scientific point of view.

    Also, and again, I’d like to point out that the “is” and the “ought” belong to different orders of knowledge arrived at by different methods. The first is positive knowledge that takes men and things as they are; the second, to at least some extent, negates the positive order of fact. It is the case that last night, I got drunk; but I ought not to have done it, since drunkenness is a crime against the intellect. The positive fact is invidiously compared to what the fact ought to be.

    It is illogical and futile to attempt to torture the ought from the is, and extremely dangerous to both science and morality to pretend to have succeeded in doing so. An especially pernicious recent specimen is Sam Harris, who, I’m told, in the name of Science and Enlightenment and whatnot proposes a first-strike nuclear genocide against Islamic people. Evidently, we’ve now reached a stage of Progress advanced enough to spare those who are different from us the inhumanity of sending them to the gas chamber, as was the practice in less Enlightened times. Yay Progress…

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  24. Re: Game theory, the meaningless, etc.

    I don’t argue for excluding game and network theory from sociology on the grounds of meaninglessness. The game and the network absolutely depend on subjectivity. The outcome of the game may be “unintended”- but that outcome absolutely depends on a very specific form of intentional action (economic rationality oriented to a highly specific set of subjectively known facts). As for the network: it necessarily entails meaning for a new guy to join the net. If he’s totally invisible, he’s not part of the group, and the network hasn’t changed. (Thus Wellman categorically- and on pure grounds of network sociology, rightly- rejected the Marxist concept of class).

    What makes me want to exclude them (aside from the fact that they already belong to other sciences, which puts the sociology dept. at risk of being declared redundant by University administrators no doubt already looking for an excuse to do it) is that they do nor bear the conditions of their own integration and reproduction. The game has to hope that players continue to act rationally and intelligently. The network can’t repair itself if some of the guys have a fight and one or more of them leaves for good. To be sure, the human nodes can, and in many cases will, repair the network. But this process of homeostasis can’t be explained in terms of a telos proper to the network itself, since the network, like the game, can’t produce the forms of subjectivity their existence depends on. The most they can do is provide various incentives and opportunities to which actors may or may not respond. That, BTW, is why they are “weakly emergent”.

    Here is a little Darwinian story of social evolution from weak to strong emergence (it probably isn’t very original). Once upon a time, men and women began to associate, on the basis of their natural sociability; they sought one another out to talk, have sex, fight, produce, defend, and all that. Here they formed cliques in the form of networks; there, unintentionally created social equilibria on the basis of a plurality of individual calculi of interest. These forms were inherently unstable and tended to quickly collapse. Eventually, some of them developed normative rules on a purely instrumental basis, which had much the same character and function as e.g. the rules of sport. These rules were passed on to children by their parents, in particular, their fathers. Since the children know they owe their life to their fathers, both in origin and maintenance, and know that their father could allow or, for that matter, cause them to die, the rules assumed a sacred and absolutely obligatory character above and beyond self-serving instrumental rationality. Because of the biologically intrinsic emotional bonds between parent and child- children do not merely fear, but love, their parents and very much want to please them- the rules were internalized.

    (Here the mother, who gives but can also withdraw love, plays an indispensable part. And both parents play a part in the following scenario, familiar to anyone who grew up with two parents: “How could you do that to your mother”, Father shouts, as Mother weeps- a tactic that, when successful, produces extremely disagreeable feelings in the child).

    The social forms based on sacred and internalized rules were much more stable than the others, and produced much more voluntary co-operation with far less expenditure and attrition due to enforcement- and also had the enormous competitive advantage of the willingness of group members to give their lives to defend and maintain the Law and, by extension, the group. Finally, since the rules are sacralized, rule-bound activities assumed the form of ritual; meanwhile, the parental Lawgivers eventually assume the form of Gods or, at the very least, ancestral spirits with tremendous magical powers. The basic elements of religion were thus in place; now there emerged a genuine superstructure articulated on the basis of material/instrumental practices. And that’s how the first strongly-emergent social systems were created.

    But enough silly speculation.

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  25. Re: functional imperatives:

    If a society exists, it’s meeting them; if not, it doesn’t exist (or not for very long). Yes this is tautological and has been roundly critiqued as such. I don’t really think this is a problem by itself. What’s a big problem, though, is the tendency of many sociologists, especially the structural-functionalists, to slip into thinking that a social system exists because it can. This particular tautology is extremely pernicious (all the more so in that neither it nor its corollaries are explicitly formulated as such, but operate as unstated assumptions) in that it presents itself as causal explanation. The result is the surreptitious postulation of a metaphysical teleology in the form of an unseen intelligence, as it were, a giant brain that is prior to the social system and commands functional structures into being. A very common and pernicious cognate error in evolutionary biology is to attribute the external environment with the same metaphysical intelligence; this ecological superbrain seemingly dials up functionally-optimized life-forms as God created Adam from dust.

    I think a prophylactic against both fallacies is to a) prioritize the study of structure over function, b) aggressively assert that structure is determinate and thus assigns limits of possible functionality; it can’t become anything functional imperatives need it to be (cf. S.J. Gould), and nor can functional imperatives metaphysically create something out of nothing. Last but not least, c) bear in mind that functional integration is a variable, not just an existential constant condition. Some societies are very well-integrated, others much poorly so (and yet function, however poorly); according to Marx, some function quite well for a time, but later structurally twist themselves apart.

    Finally, I disagree with your assessment of the role of the “meaningless”, and take the liberty of offering, in good faith, a constructive observation of an arguable foible in your thought. You correctly argue that, if everything there is to know about the social system is already known to its members, then there’s no need for sociology. But you seem to be operating under the assumption that this unknown- the “objective”- always resides completely outside the mind in, variously: non-human things, the mathematical properties of networks, externalities that are not only entirely unintended, but (symptomatically) altogether unknown to their authors.

    No doubt, all of those things and more enter into the constitution of the social system. Yet I notice, in sixteen years of having known you, that you give them an exceptionally privileged role (for a shifting set of reasons that always lead to the same result) and moreover give them that role to the exclusion of other possible forms of unknownness/objectivity. But surely, to at least some extent, the unknown-objective resides in the UNCONSCIOUS regions of the mind, and not just outside it. For example: Marx says that value, in part, depends on a mental calculation that economic actors make without being aware they’re doing it. This is less “meaningless” than it is prior to meaning. Similarly, the deep structures of the habitus and of “ideological” and other discourses, although they reside nowhere else than the mind, are not given to consciousness and cannot be except where the legitimacy of the existing order is being profoundly contested. Are they less “objective” for residing within the mind than spatially outside it? Are they less “objective” than the properties of coal? Why, for that matter, is coal more important than habitus? Remove coal, and we find another energy source: hydro, nuclear, etc. Remove or alter habitus- and the social system disintegrates.

    One way or another, your position seems to turn on the axiom that the social sciences are only scientific to the extent that they actually ARE physical sciences. Where the guys doing quant/stats are content to import the methods of physical sciences, you take that extra step and import their objects instead. (Hence the privilege of the meaningless and, above all, non-human).

    It is the case that the object of any conceivable sociology is, first and foremost, a system of action and must necessarily be conceived as such, in exactly the same way that the object of classical mechanics must be conceived as a spatio-temporal phenomenon, or the object of biology an organism. To give undue weight to the non-human and the meaningless, or to be too rigidly exclusive about it, sooner or later will incur logical and factual error that Kuhnian relativism won’t be able to cover.

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  26. “Let me ask, then, as clarification: are you proposing that the group of people sitting around chit-chatting is a kind of ideal type of social systems in general?”

    No. I only brought it up against the Marxist notion that human social relations are intrinsically mediated by technology/material production. I also disagree with Habermas; if you strip away all instrumental purposes from communication, then there’s no motive to talk. Minimally, each discussant in a conversation is using the other as a means to satisfy his want to speak and/or listen. All action has an instrumental dimension; even the sternest Christian moralist would have to admit that ethical action is a means of attaining eternal happiness in the Beatific Vision.

    “I may be mistaken, but it seems to me that Parsons, and Weber before him, and Habermas after him, say that it does, in a specific sense.”

    Weber and, by the sound of it, Habermas, were influenced by a tradition of German idealism that Parsons went blue in the face rejecting. For Parsons, any theory that ignores the social and material conditions of action isn’t a theory of action, but “idealistic emanationism”, and Parsons, on this ground, differentiates cultural analysis and sociology as two distinct fields of study with distinct theoretical objects.

    Situating the non-human and the body in the environment of the system isn’t the same as ignoring or trivializing them. Far from it: in biology, they make the exact same distinction, for the same reason- and yet, in the analysis of Darwinian evolution, the organism often appears to be hyper-determined by the environment, sometimes to the point of being (erroneously) construed as a pure dependent variable or even, in the extreme case, an artifact.

    Also, afaik Marx doesn’t actually incorporate ecological factors into his abstract theoretical object. I could be wrong, but Marx, unlike e.g. Gerhard Lenski, does not classify societies according to energy source. Coal enters the analysis at the level of the concrete historical individual (at which level Parsonian sociology would presumably be able to see it, too). But in the abstract, coal- or, for that matter, inanimate energy of any kind- isn’t logically indispensable to the theoretical concept of the capitalist mode of production. For that matter, capitalism isn’t tied in theory or practice to ANY particular form of technology. I personally know a guy who owned a mining junior in Africa, and in a pinch hired a gang of a thousand locals to dig the company property with shovels. He was still a capitalist; the company owned and provided the means of production, gave the workers enough of a wage to reproduce their labour-power, and realized a profit on the basis of their labour power.

    Don’t get the wrong idea- I would have to have a head full of coal to deny the historical and present importance of coal, which presently shapes not only the economy in a decisive way, but politics as well. Its objective properties are obviously important. But it is a sociological frame of reference that defines which of those properties are salient, and moreover just how far we have to go in analyzing them. I trust that, when you speak of the importance of coal, you don’t mean that the department of sociology has to hire a geologist (or whatever specialist it is that deals with coal) in order to produce truly scientific knowledge of its own object. Coal is thus, to at least some extent, necessarily marginal to the study of sociology; what we need to know about it can be found on the pertinent Wikipedia page.

    “Likewise when I invoked air and water, adequate rest, time and space, as constitutive factors for a group of people sitting around chatting idly, your initial response was to argue that these are existential conditions for sociality and as such are non-differential. If I understood you, you argued that these kinds of factors make a difference as conditions of possibility”

    I don’t want to be too categorical here. All I really wanted to do was to warn of the danger of a certain form of logically inadequate explanation which is inherently and insidiously present wherever material conditions are invoked. I spoke too soon. To be sure: if people are exhausted they’ll talk less, if really scared, talk more, and so on; whatever induces these variations (food shortages, ecological catastrophe, etc.) are, by definition, independent variables.

    Can the concept of a system encompass every such independent variable? No. A system is a system of INTERdependent variables. A Tsunami can independently change a lot of social system variable values in a drastic way. But the tides do what they do no matter what we do. They vary at random relative to the social system, and their existence depends on the social system in no way. Sociological theory cannot explain them. They therefore exert their effect from the position of the external environment of the system. The same goes for many other ecological factors that are both existential constant conditions of existence and independent variables of the social system: air, water, trees, and so on. If these variables entered into the theoretical specification of the social system, by definition there would have to be a sociological explanation of the atmosphere, of rain and water bodies, of the forest- and, for that matter, time and space.

    Again, the environment is not some sort of peanut gallery where the non-human watches the human action as though so many spectators. N.B. if the specific mode of determination of these factors with respect to the social system is conceived in terms of adaptation (a la the ultra-aggressive and self-avowedly Marxian materialist determinism of Marvin Harris), by definition the latter isn’t even conceivable if there’s no environment to adapt to in the first place.

    Indeed, without boundaries there’s nothing left to analyze- or everything. Where do we make the cut, and on the basis of what exact criteria?

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  27. Interesting as always. Let me start by identifying a number of points where I’m in agreement with you so that my disagreements aren’t exaggerated.

    “Also, and again, I’d like to point out that the “is” and the “ought” belong to different orders of knowledge arrived at by different methods” — I partially agree. Certainly I agree that “It is illogical and futile to attempt to torture the ought from the is, and extremely dangerous to both science and morality to pretend to have succeeded in doing so.” I would describe the relationship between the is and the ought as distinguishable though not separable. More on this later.

    “The game and the network absolutely depend on subjectivity” — Again, I partially agree. If I seem to be trying to exclude subjectivity from the study of social forms, then it’s the case that I am over-stating my position in order to make space for the nonsubjective. Again, more on this later.

    “Yet I notice, in sixteen years of having known you, that you give them an exceptionally privileged role (for a shifting set of reasons that always lead to the same result)” — Yes, this is a fair point — “and moreover give them that role to the exclusion of other possible forms of unknownness/objectivity.” — Perhaps; if so, that’s an error on my part. “But surely, to at least some extent, the unknown-objective resides in the UNCONSCIOUS regions of the mind, and not just outside it.” — Yes, you’re quite right in saying this; it’s only that this is not what I intend to mean by ‘meaningless’.

    “The result is the surreptitious postulation of a metaphysical teleology in the form of an unseen intelligence, as it were, a giant brain that is prior to the social system and commands functional structures into being” — I agree that this is a bad outcome of certain ways of thinking.

    “One way or another, your position seems to turn on the axiom that the social sciences are only scientific to the extent that they actually ARE physical sciences. Where the guys doing quant/stats are content to import the methods of physical sciences, you take that extra step and import their objects instead. (Hence the privilege of the meaningless and, above all, non-human).” — When you put it this way, I’d say that this is an overstated (probably my own fault) but otherwise accurate description of what I’m up to. My conception of science, social or otherwise, is materialistic and naturalistic. I do recognize that subjective meaning, reflexivity, etc. are important and mean that sociology needs qualitatively different kinds of theory and epistemology than, e.g., physics; physics does not need to understand the motivations of quarks but sociology (collectively, at least) does need a subjectively adequate understanding of the motivations of people. If I seem always to privilege the meaningless and the non-human, it’s only because I think we’re already doing a good job theorizing the domain of human meaning, at least in terms of having theoretical tools for getting at this aspect of phenomena. My privileging of the meaningless is rhetorical only; an ultimate theory will integrate the meaningful and non-meaningful components of human practice, just as actually existing sociology integrates (or ought to integrate) quantitative and qualitative research methods, for example.

    “I also disagree with Habermas; if you strip away all instrumental purposes from communication, then there’s no motive to talk. Minimally, each discussant in a conversation is using the other as a means to satisfy his want to speak and/or listen. All action has an instrumental dimension” — You’ve put this just as I would have liked to.

    “Marx, unlike e.g. Gerhard Lenski, does not classify societies according to energy source. Coal enters the analysis at the level of the concrete historical individual” – True, and more broadly there’s no energy economics in Marx aside from the labour theory of value. Marx’s account of social production remains decidedly anthropocentric. I take this as a serious limitation in his theory.

    “A system is a system of INTERdependent variables.” — That’s nicely put and intuitively plausible.

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  28. Re. conservatism: First, let me say that I am of the view that there are ALWAYS extra-scientific values informing our science, beginning with the decision to value science itself as a way of knowing amongst all the other possible ways of knowing, and extending to the problematic we adopt in our individual efforts at science. I think that science is always ideological even if it is not wedded to any specific sociopolitical project. So when I try to identify extrascientific values in your science, I’m certainly not accusing you of some failing.

    What do I mean by conservative? In the same sense that I think Durkheim is conservative; Durkheim takes the view that human beings are not inherently self-regulating, that therefore some form of social regulation or deontology is necessary for society to exist, and he conceptualizes this social regulation in terms of a relation of dominance-subordination.

    What made me think of this was your description of the human essence in terms of mastery. You write “in order to conform to his nature, man must master two orders of nature: the passions within him and the natural world outside him”. There’s a lot going on here:

    – the characterization of humans as “man”, for one, which I presume signals a conscious rejection of the feminist critique of language
    – the notion that it is possible for humans to deviate from their nature instead of taking the more naturalistic approach of assuming that everything which humans can or ever will do is, by definition, consistent with human nature;
    – the characterization of the conformity of “man” with “his” nature in terms of a relation of (implicitly patriarchal) domination as opposed to, say, harmony or interdependence or other concepts which carry other connotations;
    – the identification of all of the above with the human essence as opposed to other conceptions of that essence, e.g. in terms of productive work, or consciousness, or what have you.

    Reading you this way, in light of everything else you’ve said in this conversation, I leapt to the supposition that this mastery of self and nature is, for you, the sine qua non of all possible social systems, the implication being that (a) at the level of positive science, sociology is always and everywhere the study of this elementary relation, i.e. that framing every more specific phenomena under study, and even the problem of double contingency itself, is the inescapable problem of whether and how human beings individually and collectively achieve this self-mastery; and (b) any possible normative or praxical prescriptions which sociology could make must always be reconcilable with this problematic so that, e.g., if one seeks the maximization of human liberty this maximization is to be achieved within the strictures of the necessity of mastering self and nature.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into one statement, but it seems to connect with other aspects of your ethics: your antifeminism, skepticism about socialism, and so on. In this view, the goals of radical feminists and radical socialists are tantamount to the abolition of society — whereas for me they remain valuable goals, and the many obstacles to achieving them are just so many potentially solvable problems which science can help overcome.

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  29. Finally, some specific points of disagreement, by which I hope I can articulate my own position more clearly, mainly as regards the place of the non-meaningful in sociology.

    “The game has to hope that players continue to act rationally and intelligently.” – Yes and no. As I said earlier, the example of the tragedy of the commons illustrates how it’s possible for people to be in games without realizing it. When that happens they will probably lose the game. The game doesn’t exist only as a structure of *motives*; it also exists as a structure of *consequences*. Thus a game can determine how resources move through a network. Resources enable certain actions and the differential availability of resources means that different actors have different actions available to them. Thus games and network topologies can have an evolutionary effect on who does what. This evolutionary effect is not separate from meaningful interaction, but it is distinct from it and requires its own theoretical terminology.

    In other words, games can affect which motives get fulfilled and which get thwarted, and whose, and whose actions will be consequential, and for whom. Sometimes people perceive these dynamics and adapt their motives to the opportunities, sometime they just get selected out or selected in for reasons that have nothing to do with their own subjective apprehension of the situation.

    “the network, like the game, can’t produce the forms of subjectivity their existence depends on” — Perhaps not (although I’m not convinced), but the converse is also true of meaningful phenomena: they cannot produce the forms of nonsubjectivity their existence depends on. The meaningful content of my discourse does not produce the physical infrastructure through which my discourse is transmitted. Subjective and nonsubjective are causally intertwined.

    “Once upon a time, men and women began to associate” — I don’t think so. I think we associated before we were human; sociality precedes language or symbolic representation. As Elias puts it, the existential human condition is not Being, but being-with-others.

    “These rules were passed on to children by their parents, in particular, their fathers …” etc. You’re treating patriarchy as a human universal; I don’t think it is. I don’t see what the example of mother crying as father yells illustrates beyond one situation that might be common to mid-20th century white middle class gender norms (although I never experienced it).

    Nor do I think that rules are as crucial to social systems, or social action as rule-governed, as you make them out to be. I suppose I don’t agree that sociology is a deontological science. Rules are part of social life, but only a part. People break rules, ignore them, change them to suit themselves, and so on. Action tends to expand into the possibility space available to it; rules come later.

    “If a society exists, it’s meeting them; if not, it doesn’t exist (or not for very long). Yes this is tautological and has been roundly critiqued as such. I don’t really think this is a problem by itself” – I agree that tautology isn’t a problem by itself. Where I think there’s a problem is this: if functional integration is tautological, then it must always apply; if it doesn’t always apply, then it’s not a tautological relation but some kind of causality (probably complex and nonlinear, but still). Or so it seems to me. In other words, two different kinds of analysis seem to be getting conflated. I don’t think this is insoluble, but for me there’s a confusion.

    “But surely, to at least some extent, the unknown-objective resides in the UNCONSCIOUS regions of the mind, and not just outside it. … Are they [deep structures of ideology] less “objective” for residing within the mind than spatially outside it? Are they less “objective” than the properties of coal?” — Yes and no. Yes, a subjective belief has an objective physical existence in someone’s mind, and so is just as objective as coal. This is why I used the term ‘nonsubjective’ rather than ‘objective’ since everything that “exists”, so to speak, “exists” objectively. But although the deep structures of ideology, for instance, are one example of the unknown-objective, I think there is also a domain of the unknown-objective that is entirely nonsubjective.

    “Why, for that matter, is coal more important than habitus? Remove coal, and we find another energy source: hydro, nuclear, etc. Remove or alter habitus- and the social system disintegrates.” –The two aren’t equivalent categories – a more correct parallel would be between coal and manners at court, or between habitus and usable energy sources. Coal and court etiquette are historically important in comparable sense, as is the difference between coal and oil and the difference between court etiquette and bourgeois etiquette. We can understand both shifts as changes in technology.

    “It is the case that the object of any conceivable sociology is, first and foremost, a system of action” — I doubt that this is true of ‘any conceivable’ sociology, but let’s suppose I agree to take the system of action as my object. The question is how to define the boundaries of our concept of social system. Parsons defined action in a way such that action could be directed at physical as well as social and cultural objects. But there is no vocabulary in The Social System for talking about the physicality of people or nonhumans and the effect is that of disembodied people and of social order in which physical coercion or the unequal distribution of resources are exterior to the system itself; the “social” part of the social system is entirely communicative, informational.

    “To give undue weight to the non-human and the meaningless, or to be too rigidly exclusive about it, sooner or later will incur logical and factual error” — Yes, and perhaps I’ve been too exclusive about it. But I think the non-human and the meaningless deserve more attention than they’ve been given.

    “A system is a system of INTERdependent variables. A Tsunami can independently change a lot of social system variable values in a drastic way. But the tides do what they do no matter what we do. They vary at random relative to the social system, and their existence depends on the social system in no way.” — This might still be true of tides, but what with global warming etc. there are a great many aspects of the biosphere for which this is no longer true. It has never been true for those plants and animals which we raise for food — if we want to explain how much wheat there is on the planet, for instance, of how many cows, we do some sociology. Latour made this point about penicillin bacteria as well, and we could make it for every substance that human beings have modified in any way. Certainly sociology does not replace the other sciences or reduce to them, but it does mingle with them. Wheat has biological properties, some of which are the product of cultivation: biology and sociology both have things to say about wheat. The sciences are not like nation-states with mutually exclusive territories; they are like mutually interpenetrating networks with different centers of gravity.

    “The same goes for many other ecological factors that are both existential constant conditions of existence and independent variables of the social system: air, water, trees, and so on.” — I think this is quite a serious and telling error. These things are not existential constants. Thinking that they are is one of the great dangers facing our species! At the global level, the relation between human society and atmosphere for instance, very much is one between interdependent variables.

    “If these variables entered into the theoretical specification of the social system, by definition there would have to be a sociological explanation of the atmosphere, of rain and water bodies, of the forest- and, for that matter, time and space.” There can indeed be a sociological explanation of the atmosphere, of rain and water bodies, of the forest, since all of these things are affected by human action as well as affecting it. But to construct these explanations we have to go significantly beyond the conceptual vocabulary of The Social System, because in addition to theorizing interactions among humans we also have to theorize the interactions between humans and nonhumans.

    There is also a possible sociology of time and space, although not in the same sense; humans can’t change how time and space objectively work. But there is a phenomenology of time and space (of the social practices through which experiences of time and space are constituted), and there is a political economy of time and space (of how time and space are distributed through society).

    “Indeed, without boundaries there’s nothing left to analyze- or everything. Where do we make the cut, and on the basis of what exact criteria?” — I think it’s more fruitful to think in terms of networks than bounded Euclidean spaces. One starts with a cluster of relations one wishes to examine, and follows them outwards. So a sociology of this conversation we’re having, for instance, would include consideration of the fact that we both own computers, and how much time we have available to correspond (so, for instance, the fact that my internet was down earlier this week, and that I’m supposed to be writing a conference paper and that I derive a visceral pleasure from this correspondence which allays my paper-writing-anxiety and so on). Humans and nonhumans are both crucially involved in making this interaction possible; why focus only on the meaningful properties of the symbolic exchange between us — other than methodological convenience?

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    • “I’m supposed to be writing a conference paper and…derive a visceral pleasure from this correspondence which allays my paper-writing-anxiety.”

      Not to tell you your business, but I’ve learned through experience that arguing on the Internet to allay paper-writing anxiety is ultimately counter-productive. At the risk of being presumptuous: why have paper-writing anxiety at all? To this outsider, the quality-control standards in the University are pretty loose these days, and I dare say that things you and I both have written here are WAY better than what you get in the typical peer-reviewed journal, to say nothing of a conference (I seriously doubt that the average sociologist today would have the erudition or general intellectual wherewithal to even understand most of the posts in this thread). I therefore think the best thing to do is to take paper-writing no more seriously than blogging.

      I hate to think I’m providing an incentive for you to waste time in obscure disputation when you have a career to think of. Don’t ever feel obliged to give me prompt answers, and for that matter if I post too much or long feel free to tell me to shut up (We Prussians are famously verbose when it comes to matters scientific and philosophical, and sometimes need to be told).

      Kevin

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  30. Re: “Anti-feminism”

    There are a few things here I want to clear up now before saying anything else. It is true that I don’t think very highly of most of the feminisms. But I am vehemently opposed to most forms of paternalism, on the grounds that to depress the human striving for mastery and excellence (which inheres in both sexes) is both immoral and counter-productive to the ends of the State, and that it is both noxious to the ends of the State and, moreover, a grave injustice to stop someone from following their calling on a priori and ascriptive grounds. I have thus always seen the struggle against sexism as my own fight. This is no mere politically-correct ritual incantation- for, under a paternalistic regime, most men are on the receiving end of paternalism, too, and the very State itself ends up in ironic forms of self-defeat. Noxious to the natural rights and proper ends of women, men, and the State alike, paternalistic government does not agree with the nature of things.

    I have endorsed Thomism. But what I don’t endorse is its ultra-aggressive sexism, at least in its original incarnations. This defect has been attenuated over the years, but (switching to the register of science) much Catholic teaching seems to overstate the difference between men and women in an unconvincing and inappropriately essentializing way. Sexual dimorphism is a fact of being for all mammals; the Catholics are perhaps correct to make the phenomenological case that differential embodiment produces irreducibly differential lived experience. But there is NO WAY that human sex roles are a direct emanation of biology, nor of subsequent lived experience. Sex roles are exactly that- roles attached to social statuses into which humans are ascriptively sorted, in a social process, on the basis of actual or fictive sex.

    It is possible that one or more aspects of biological dimorphism enter into the constitution of those statuses and roles. If this is true, my bet is that the average physical strength differential and dissymmetrical average propensity for PHYSICAL aggression is by far the most important. In fact, I think that these particular aspects of dimorphism are of decisive constitutive importance. But, once again, an ascription system, once constituted, trumps biologically-given and other individual skills and talents. For example, from a biological point of view, it is undeniably the case that the average man is better-optimized for warfare than the average woman. Yet, in every society (with a handful of highly aberrant exceptions) warfare is juridically reserved entirely to men. Even in America- notwithstanding the plain spirit and now widely-known original theoretical grounds of the Second Amendment- women are excluded from frontline combat on an a priori basis, for a shifting set of reasons that always lead to the same result, and no matter how superbly fit a particular woman might be for frontline duty. Thus the biological average is socially transformed into an essential universal whose eternal truth is guaranteed by the legal rule against falsifying it.

    Theory aside, it is a long-held personal observation of mine that men and women just aren’t as different as they would like to think; what men and women like to identify as radical Otherness in one another is, for the most part, a “narcissism of small differences” sociologically explicable in terms of the agonism that inheres in conjugal-familial solidarity (which inherent agonism accounts for the long-term popularity of TV comedies centered around domestic squabbles).

    Finally, while I have said that there will always be some dissymmetry in the relations between men and women, the ongoing rationalization of the social system as a whole (not academic crusades to purify the language and grammar of diverse ritual performances at the University) has already severely eroded the sexual ascription system at all levels: status, role, and role-expectation. It seems likely that the next American President will be a woman- who, as such, while ineligible for combat duty will nonetheless be Commander-in-Chief of the national armed forces. The day will soon come when our societies can only be said to be patriarchal in the workaday relations of men and women in the way Canada can be said to be a monarchy.

    For all these reasons, I employ terms like “Man”, and always refer to people in general as “men” or “he” as mere shorthand, and also as an exercise of the liberty that has attended my dishabilitation and excommunication from the ritual community of the Ivory Tower

    Kevin

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  31. “Humans and nonhumans are both crucially involved in making this interaction possible; why focus only on the meaningful properties of the symbolic exchange between us”- well, where do we stop? Every element in the causal chain of the present exchange is, no doubt, related to other elements, which are in turn related to others still, et cetera…It keeps going like that until the all-embracing integrity of mystical pantheism finally puts a stop to it. This totality can’t be analyzed by scientific methods, but only apprehended by an inwardly-certain intuition that can never be arrived at by any formal methodology. This outcome is a bit more serious than mere inconvenience- and it isn’t mere hyperbole to point out the possibility.

    “The sciences are not like nation-states with mutually exclusive territories.” Actually, they are. Modern science is foundationally and indelibly articulated on the basis of juridico-political categories. It’s not a coincidence that science indispensably makes use of concepts like “law”, nor that modern natural science really got going around the exact time the great territorial States did (as Althusser noted, modern science would not be conceivable without the concept of absolute Sovereign power). And the interchange between the sciences accordingly assumes the form of inter-State traffic in the form of trade, travel, or incursion.

    There can’t be a “sociology” of the atmosphere, trees, rocks, etc. unless and until sociology can, on its own epistemological grounds, specify the set of properties that define the nature of those things, and expose their general laws of transformation, the way it does with respect to its own proper object. Sociology can certainly explicate how social action alters certain variable-values of trees, rocks, and whatnot. What social action can’t do, though, is alter or abolish the nature of those things (although it can certainly destroy existential instances of that nature). When humans e.g. succeed at selective breeding, they conform to the laws of biology in the course of exerting their impact on the biological, as a Canadian capitalist on a business trip to the USA obeys American law as a condition of exerting an impact on the American economy with his business deals. Human selective breeders neither give nor alter the laws of biology, and sociology can’t explicate them. Thus, we can rigorously speak only of a sociology of the impact of social action on sui generis animal and plant life, etc. This may all seem rather Scholastic but it is very far from trivial.

    There are, no doubt, all sorts of reciprocal interdependent relationships between human and non-human. Do they add up to a system, a network, or other effective integrity?

    It isn’t guaranteed at the outset. A vital system isn’t any set of interdependent variables. Their interdependence must have an “organic” character, i.e. a change in any one of the parts has causal implications for the rest of the parts. The system must cohere into a determinate pattern in which a unitary inner logic linking ALL of its parts can be discerned. If the system has no boundaries the pattern, in the final analysis, is indeterminate, either fading off into randomness or extending into the infinite (the mystical Absolute that cannot be studied scientifically). Since it would be absurd to speak of a determinate pattern that is the result of random mutation, and meaningless to speak of one liable to instantly and randomly mutate into something else, this logic must be more than a mere construct on the part of the observer, but must correspond to an effective mechanism or mechanisms that both assemble and maintain the pattern in its coherence. The system must therefore both have a dynamic telos (a trajectory of growth or “evolution”) and a static telos (a tendency to homeostasis). And a scientific account of the system must be able to describe and explicate the inner logic, mechanisms, and teloi in terms of general laws of transformation.

    No fooling or sarcasm: if you REALLY think you’ve apprehended a unitary logic linking the human and non-human into this type of effective integrity, you may be at the threshold of epistemologization of a brand new science, and indeed become very, very famous. It won’t be sociology as such anymore, but will either circumscribe sociology the way relativity theory did the classical mechanics, or reconfigure the existing empirical domain of sociology, reconceptualize it in terms of a new problematic, and dispatch the existing problematic and residual data to the same place as phlogiston. It will also do the same vis-à-vis much of biology.

    Alternately, it will assimilate sociology into an existing theory of ecology- which isn’t quite as exciting, but would still be a HUGE scientific accomplishment.

    I see a couple of problems though. A distinguished tradition of German and later, French scholarship has asserted that even the cultural system by itself is so complex that it can be apprehended only by intuition and, while capable of being explicated on an individual/historical basis, isn’t amenable to scientific explication in terms of general laws of an abstract theoretical object. In this regard, it’s probably suggestive that, as noted in other posts, sociology tends to take a lot more variables into account at the level of the concrete than in abstract formal theory.

    It will be a formidable task to make this theory methodologically operational; think a second-power transformation of the problems holistic sociology, and indeed even regional programmes of e.g. discourse analysis, have already. In particular, if the programme is to have any hope of becoming an actual material scientific practice (i.e. funded), it will have to be able to make use of multivariate statistical-analytic methods. We must agree to disagree on this one- but I would urge you to take the observation that some of the proposed factors may not show up as variables in such a model very seriously. It wasn’t made lightly. Better yet: find the smartest quant-stats guy/girl you know and have a marathon talk about it.

    I also wonder if there isn’t some limit in terms of size, scale, complexity, diffuseness, or inclusivity of scope at which an effective integrity (whether system or network) loses its effectivity and thereby, integrity. I’m incompetent to answer or even pose the question, but my gut tells me that there are mathematical limits beyond which things statistically fuzz out into the noisy blather of entropy, or (the same proposition stated differently?) the integrity becomes so weakly effective as to become incapable of functioning and then disintegrates. I have to wonder if the theory of the eco-sociological super-system might join hands with metaphysical pantheism a la the “Gaia hypothesis”.

    These are all hard-assed words that address hard problems, and aren’t meant to discourage. On the contrary: I sincerely hope one day to be able to boast that “I knew him when…”

    Kevin

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    • I find all of your posts to raise important and difficult issues, but this one more than most, and I’ve wanted to reply to it for the past couple of months. So, here goes:

      “Humans and nonhumans are both crucially involved in making this interaction possible; why focus only on the meaningful properties of the symbolic exchange between us”- well, where do we stop?

      Yes, I agree this is a crucial question! Many of the disagreements between you and I have been precisely dependent on this issue of how we draw the boundaries among our concepts and models.

      “The sciences are not like nation-states with mutually exclusive territories.” Actually, they are.

      We could go back and forth on this. First, let me acknowledge that much of what you say in the remainder of your post follows logically from this assumption. But let me substantiate my own view, first on empirical grounds, and then on theoretical grounds.

      Empirically, we can see a growth in genuine interdisciplinarity over the past couple of decades. In the field of science and technology studies (social studies of science, or sociology of scientific knowledge, and also philosophy of science) we see practitioners in arts and social sciences disciplines becoming conversant in the language of the physical sciences and, to a lesser extent, the converse. I think the same is true of ecology. Within the physical sciences there are of course many projects that require the expertise of specialists from number of disciplines, and there is some growth of this in the social sciences as well. And social theory itself is now (once again?) a highly interdisciplinary domain populated by sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, literary theorists, etc. etc. The disciplines may still have territories, but those territories, but those territories overlap.

      Theoretically, we ought to recognize the institutional division of labour as a historically contingent social formation and not reify it further by entrenching the divisions between, say, physical ecology and sociology — let alone those between, say economics, political studies, and sociology — at the level of our concepts or our theoretical imaginations. The same objects can be theorized in multiple ways. Therefore, the fact that the sociologist cannot outperform the climatologist in predicting climate change does not mean there cannot be a sociology of the atmosphere.

      One might object that even if the same objects can be theorized in multiple ways, it is still the case that we might like those differing theorizations to articulate with each other. However, where this is not immediately feasible we can treat it as a goal to work towards. This proposition also holds for the science of sciences that you refer to: the fact that it is not immediately available does not mean that we cannot begin transgressing disciplinary boundaries in the here and now, as part of the groundwork for its ultimate realization. Building takes time and is often messy, especially in the early stages.

      “A vital system isn’t any set of interdependent variables. Their interdependence must have an “organic” character, i.e. a change in any one of the parts has causal implications for the rest of the parts. The system must cohere into a determinate pattern in which a unitary inner logic linking ALL of its parts can be discerned.”

      Again this is a crucial point on which we differ. I think this is ONE way of defining systems, but not the only way. I think I will write a whole post on this, because it’s really very important. But right now let me say two things.

      First, if we use Elias’s notion of functional interdependence (as I do) then any set of interdependent variables a change in any of the parts will, tautologically, have causal implications for the rest of the parts, because this mutual causal reaction is what “interdependence” means. So I think the distinguishing feature of the “organic” character you emphasize must reside in the third sentence above, i.e. in the existence of a unitary inner logic linking ALL of the parts of the system.

      Second, then, I think that a set of elements possessing the first property (functional interdependence) will not necessarily have the second (a unitary inner logic).

      Consider, for instance, a forest ecosystem. Any significant change in one part of the ecosystem will have causal implications for all the others. If one species goes extinct, for instance, or if a new species establishes itself, all the other elements will be affected. But the ecosystem as a whole does not have a unitary inner logic. In this way an ecosystem is different from a single living organism.

      If we examine nation-state societies through ecosystemic concepts as opposed to organismic concepts we get profoundly different theoretical models.

      Prima facie, both approaches are plausible, both generate interesting insights, and both are consistent with a commitment to systems thinking and to sociology as the study of a distinct domain of emergent phenomena generated by human social relations. How could we decide between them? Is there some scientific test or domain of tests we could devise that would allow us to decisively say that one is better than the other? Without such tests, the decision for one of these epistemic strategies or the other (or another altogether) would seem to come down to non-rational factors like convenience, aesthetic appeal, or intuition.

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  32. Me: “There can’t be a “sociology” of the atmosphere, trees, rocks, etc. unless and until sociology can, on its own epistemological grounds, specify the set of properties that define the nature of those things, and expose their general laws of transformation, the way it does with respect to its own proper object. Sociology can certainly explicate how social action alters certain variable-values of trees, rocks, and whatnot. What social action can’t do, though, is alter or abolish the nature of those things (although it can certainly destroy existential instances of that nature).”

    I forgot to mention the true bottom line here: mutatis mutandis, exactly the same is true of the non-human ecology vis-a-vis the social. The new science will be a science of sciences; its object, not a system with relatively autonomous sub-systems, but a system of strongly autonomous (“sui generis”) systems; not a network of atomic nodes, but a network of networks. I sincerely hope very much that this doesn’t turn out to be just another “theory of everything”, nor end up unintentionally and unwittingly relying on Gaia-type pantheistic metaphysical props. What’s needed is some sort of methodological gauge that can throw up a red flag if the theory starts exceeding its own intrinsic limits, BEFORE metaphysical props insinuate themselves beneath the threshold of conscious awareness.

    N.B: This isn’t idle Internet blather. I have considerable expertise in, and acumen for, analyzing exactly this sort of thing. You can ask some people we both know. Anyhow, the process happens insidiously; it can happen (and has, and on an historically seriatim basis) to the greatest scientific minds; and it’s extraordinarily painful to unpack once it happens. It’s analogous to those computer viruses and malware that hide deep in the registry and other places where it’s hard to find them, and from which they simply regenerate after the anti-virus software has evidently deleted them.

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    • I also know how insidious the effects of a bad problematic can be because it happened to me in the enormous folly of my former “cultural determinism”, which error I persisted in not because I didn’t know any better, but in spite of the fact that I knew perfectly well, but was prevented from knowing that I knew better by a blind spot in the malicious idealist problematic/cognitive malware, which disabled my ability to add up what was right in front of my mind, just like some computer viruses will disable anti-virus protection. I persisted in this folly for twenty years even after I not only learned, but actually had mastered (and in fact incorporated elsewhere in my thought), the explanation of just what it is that was wrong with it 18-19 years ago. It took 2.5 years of having totally renounced social theory and indeed empirical science completely in favour of rationalist and expressive/manipulative forms of knowledge (moral science and rhetoric, respectively) in order to, as it were, delete and re-install the OS that it was finally possible (in my first post on this Forum 2.5 months back) to add two and two to make four.

      In fact, just last week I re-read The Structure of Social Action and read, for the first time, something I had not only read several times, but took detailed written notes on, 14-18 years ago. I now TOTALLY get why sociological theory must NECESSARILY draw a distinction between culture and social structure in order to anchor itself to the real and avoid floating away like a loose balloon into the ether of idealism the way Jeffrey Alexander did in his “strong programme for cultural studies”, and I did with “cultural determinism”.

      Again, I knew better, and in fact when still in the University at both the MA and PhD levels had serious academic fights (over which I was quite ready to resign if I didn’t get my way) with the other (Foucauldian) idealists because I argued that structuralist cultural analysis would have to be articulated to a theory of action if it was to actually explain any actual social dynamics in a non-absurd way (i.e. Foucault’s ridiculous theory of a self-executing teleology of power). What I wound up doing- the folly was pointed out to me, but I laughed it off- was to concoct a theory of social action in which social action took place in an ontological space devoid of any reality other than the ideal, even though I was perfectly aware that, in order to exist, this cultural system on wheels would have to effectively adapt to its environment. The result of not thinking this all the way through was- I now see- as comically uproarious as a theory of an actually-existing frictionless machine, or alternately an account of actually walking down the street treading nothing instead of pavement, because it embodied the exact same insanity.

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  33. One final set of remarks:

    Note that game theory and network analysis gain their attractive rigour at a very high cost: neither of them are empirical sciences. They are rather rationalist philosophies, in fact, branches of Scholasticism; internal logical consistency is their sole criterion of validity. These theories begin in the a priori and end there, without ever having passed through the real on the way. They cannot be empirically falsified and need not be, since unlike sociology they aren’t theories of social reality, or indeed any other form of reality external to theory. A theory of sociology can be deemed false if comparison of the theory to the real turns up disagreement between the theory and the facts. But if the games people actually play don’t correspond to game-theoretic models, if the disagreement means anything it is simply that the real-life players aren’t doing what they ought to (the formal convergence with Scholastic deontology isn’t a coincidence, and is of utmost clinical significance here). With respect to networks, in real life networks either exist as such or don’t; the science of mathematics neither knows nor cares.

    This means that the objects of game and network theory are, in the first instance, imaginary, and that any reality that they may correspond to cannot by themselves exert the necessity of cause on other aspects of the real- for how can imaginary phenomena possibly have material causal effects? In this respect, trying to solve problems in sociological theory by invoking them may prove analogous to civic administrators trying to use My Little Ponies to solve actual urban transport issues, or looking to Batman to cause a reduction in the actual incidence of crime.

    To the extent that games and networks can be said to exist at all, they exist entirely in the mind. They are exactly like the Tinkerbelle fairy who vanishes if children stop believing in her, and who can only hope that they won’t. The outcome of a game, and the growth of a network, are pure effects of forms of subjectivity (various motives for playing, and strictly rational economic orientation to the game; a want to affiliate, for whatever reason, with others) that in no way depend in form or existential fact on their own effects here, and are sui generis with respect to whatever mathematical properties of their own behavior it may be that follow from their own behavior.

    Mathematics, to be sure, can certainly pick out certain properties of the real. Two apples added to some set of whatever kind that already contains two apples yields a set of four apples. But empirically, this is a purely descriptive analysis of formal properties. Because these properties are imaginary in first instance, and moreover, since the proposition is tautological, it can never by itself specify a causal mechanism or define the conditions under which someone will place two apples in a shopping cart and then two more to yield the desired quantity of four apples. It must take the fact of the operation as a given, an existential constant that provides data that can then be described mathematically.

    In short, game and network theory can only define the mathematically necessary properties of certain social forms, but never bring those forms into being, nor reproduce them, nor causally drive or power them. In order to have any meaningful sociological role, they must be materially instantiated on a durable temporal basis, i.e. institutionalized- something that necessarily involves the independent constitution of both a set of obligatory norms and underlying values (ideology) and a subjectivity determinate with respect to both motivation and orientation to the real (habitus). N.B. that various unstated assumptions and theoretical props will do this for you beneath the threshold of conscious awareness if you don’t do it explicitly ( for any theory is itself a sui generis teleological system which strives to logical consistency), and not always in a manner that agrees with the exigencies of logical adequacy and factual accuracy. Trust me on this one.

    I doubt, however, that you will; having literally brought everything I have to this fight, I think it’s time to conclude with hoping that you take these critiques seriously in spite of the fact that I have no academic credibility or other symbolic capital whatever. I enjoy these discussions VERY much and hope that in the future we can have one that isn’t articulated in the mutually-unintelligible languages of Kuhnian national-territorial Otherness- perhaps by working something out in advance?

    Kevin

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    • having literally brought everything I have to this fight, I think it’s time to conclude with hoping that you take these critiques seriously

      I do, and I’ve enjoyed them very much as well. I think you’re right that there’s some incommensurability incommensurateness at work here and that we’re operating with paradigmatically differing assumptions or goals. Since fundamental agreement is unlikely, maybe the best we can work towards is mutual intelligibility. If we can agree to descriptions of the key points on which we differ — those theoretical or metatheoretical decisions which, when made differently, lead to incompatible or competing descriptions of particular phenomena — well, such an agreement would be a worthwhile and interesting accomplishment, I think.

      Perhaps it’s fruitful to imagine ourselves as two artists who make differing artistic decisions on a deep level which lead to differing styles or even genres of creation. Imagine the difference between a storyteller whose work uses static characters and another who uses dynamic characters. Both kinds of storytelling can yield fruitful results even though the two may be articulated in terms of incommensurate aesthetic theories. Perhaps even social theories which aim at scientificity have something of this quality …

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  34. P.S.:

    The argument that game and network theory are marginal to sociological analysis needs to be carefully qualified. In particular, the following statement: “trying to solve problems in sociological theory by invoking [game and network theory] may prove analogous to civic administrators trying to use My Little Ponies to solve actual urban transport issues, or looking to Batman to cause a reduction in the actual incidence of crime” should be regarded as withdrawn. For example, no analysis of the State beyond the most threadbare legal positivism could possibly proceed without noticing that the modern State is literally made of networks, and indeed probably could not even function without what at law is deemed graft and corruption. Game and network theory are therefore at least as important to sociology as the science of chemistry to biological anatomy-physiology. What stands is that they are all distinct orders of knowledge.

    Finally, for future reference I’ve been trying to come up with a shorthand working name for your new theory. I was going to suggest “socioecology”, but the network frame of reference makes it inaccurate: the unity of the network explodes the boundaries between systems, and indeed makes concepts like “ecology” irrelevant or even nonsensical (i.e. the relationship between human and non-human can in no way be construed as mediated by “adaptation” whether biological or socio-cultural, since adaptation presumes boundary maintenance) I propose “Latouro-Marxism” instead. Do you accept this, or mind if I use it to describe your enterprise?

    Kevin

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  35. “Marx and some of his followers at times also included natural resources in the notion of material productive forces. But these remarks were made only incidentally and were never elaborated, obviously because this would have led them into the doctrine that explains
    history as determined by the structure of the people’s geographical environment”

    -Ludwig von Mises, “Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution”, p.109, n.5.

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  36. So I was poring over some variants of ancient folk-music lyrics (yes, this is pathetic, but anyways) and had the following thought: Does Marxism disclose more or less truth than a certain traditional genre of European balladry that explicates death in terms of an insurmountable paradox, followed by eternal rebirth in the form of innocent plant life (thus closing the circle of Nature and Culture) ? I don’t claim to know the answer. FWIW.

    Kevin

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