Gabriel Tarde was an important rival to Emile Durkheim on the scene of French sociology in the 1880s and 1890s. Durkheim essentially won the field, however, and Tarde’s reputation diminished for a century. Durkheim’s social holism and a search for social laws prevailed, and the sociology of individuals and the methodology of contingency that Tarde had constructed had little influence on the next several generations of sociologists in France. In the 1990s, however, several important strands of thought were receptive to a rediscovery of Tarde’s thinking; Gilles Deleuze and Bruno Latour each found elements in Tarde’s thinking that provided intellectual antecedent and support for ideas of their own. In the past fifteen years or so there has been a significant revival of interest in Tarde.
An important volume edited by Matei Candea represents the most extensive reconsideration of Tarde’s views of sociology to date. Contributors to The Social after Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments provide highly provocative and stimulating discussions of various aspects of Tarde’s philosophy of sociology, and the book represents an important contribution to new thinking about the social sciences. The introductory essay by Candea is very useful and is available for free as a sample of the Kindle edition. Bruno Latour’s contribution to the volume is available on Latour’s website (link), as are two short pieces on Latour’s thoughts about Tarde (link, link).
Several aspects of Tarde’s philosophy of sociology stand out. First is his rejection of Durkheim’s holism. He was consistently critical of the idea of finished social wholes; instead, he recommended a focus on the components of social interactions and practices. This might be understood as a focus on the individual and his/her psychological properties (methodological individualism); but it also might be seen as a more radical disassembly of the social into sub- and supra-individual constructions. This is where Latour finds inspiration; he suggests that Tarde is an intellectual precursor to Actor Network Theory (ANT), which does not give ontological priority to either individuals or social wholes.
Another important feature of Tarde’s philosophy of the social is his emphasis on heterogeneity and contingency within the social. He revels in the fact of variation among and within social processes, and he emphasizes the deep degree of contingency that characterizes social outcomes. Here is one example in Social Laws: “Science is the co-ordination of phenomena regarded from the side of their repetitions. But this does not mean that differentiation is not an essential mode of procedure for the scientific mind” (8).
The contributors to the Candea volume illustrate this deep contingency in a different way; they ask the question of how the science of sociology might have developed differently if Tarde’s views had taken deeper root. Here is how Candea puts this point in the opening words of the volume:
Some theorists have intersected with history in such an odd way that they seem to require an introduction in the form of a thought experiment: What if Durkheimian sociology had had, from the very beginning, a thoughtful and vocal opponent; one who queries the ‘thingness’ of the social and the holistic, bounded nature of societies and human groups; one who accused Durkheim of disregarding the contingency of history in the search for scientific ‘structure’; one who proposed a radical reversal of the organic analogy, claiming that organisms are societies and not the other way around; one who foregrounded imitations, oppositions and inventions where Durkheim saw conformism to a rule as the key component of the social; one who had already found a way to dissolve the linked contrasts between individual and society, micro and macro, agency and structure, freedom and constraint — Durkheim’s main (and for many, troublesome) legacy to twentieth-century social science?
And, of course, that critic is none other than Tarde.
Here are a few of Tarde’s ideas as expressed in his 1897 volume, Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology (translated into English in 1899).
Thus science consists in viewing any fact whatsoever under three aspects, corresponding, respectively, to the repetitions, oppositions, and adaptations which it contains, and which are obscured by a mass of variations, dissymmetries, and disharmonies. The relation of cause to effect, in fact, is not the only element which properly constitutes scientific knowledge. (9)
Here is a schematic philosophy of science — an account of what sociology consists of. Tarde emphasizes the discovery of both regularities and variations:
These reflections were needed in order to show what sociology must be, if it is to deserve the name of science, and along what paths sociologists must guide its course, if they wish to see it assume, unchallenged, its proper rank. Like every other science, it will attain this only when it has gained, and is conscious of possessing, its own domain of repetitions, its own domain of oppositions, and its own domain of adaptations, each characteristic of itself and belonging wholly to itself. Sociology can only make progress when it succeeds in substituting true repetitions, oppositions, and harmonies for false ones, as all the other sciences have done before it. And in place of repetitions, oppositions, and adaptations that are true but vague, it must find others that become ever more exact as it advances. (10)
And on a central tenet of methodological individualism–the idea of the strict determination of the whole as a consequence of the characteristics of indistinguishable individual components:
I believe that none of the above-mentioned differences, including even the mere variety of arrangement and random distribution of matter throughout space, can be explained on the theory of exactly similar atomic elements—an hypothesis so dear to chemists, who are in this respect the real metaphysicians; I do not see that Spencer’s so-called law of the instability of the homogeneous explains anything. And hence, I believe that the only means of explaining this exuberant growth of individual differences upon the surface of phenomena is by assuming that they spring from a motley array of elements, each possessing its own individual characteristics. (15)
And rather than seeking out high-level generalizations and regularities about the social world, Tarde advocates for more specific and granular studies:
Fortunately, screened and sheltered from view by these ambitious generalizations, certain less venturesome workers strove, with greater success, to formulate other more substantial laws concerning the details. Among these should be mentioned the linguists, the mythologists, and above all the economists. These specialists in sociological fields discovered various interesting relations among successive and simultaneous facts, which recurred constantly within the limits of the narrow domain they were examining. (18)
Tarde explicitly rejects John Stuart Mill’s particular version of methodological individualism:
In some quarters the feeling has existed that we must look to psychology for any general explanation of the laws and pseudo-laws of economics, language, mythology, etc. No man held to this view with greater force and clearness than John Stuart Mill. At the end of his Logic he represents sociology as a species of applied psychology. Unfortunately he did not analyze the concept carefully enough; and the psychology to which he looked for the key to social phenomena was merely individual psychology—the branch which studies the interrelations of impressions and imagery in a single mind, believing that everything within this domain can be explained according to the laws of association of these elements. Thus conceived, sociology became a sort of enlarged and externalized English associationism, and was in a fair way to lose its originality. (19)
And here is an explicit rejection of a particular kind of Durkheimian social fact — the idea of a national character:
Sooner or later, one must open his eyes to the evidence, and recognize that the genius of a people or race, instead of being a factor superior to and dominating the characters of the individuals (who have been considered its offshoots and ephemeral manifestations) is simply a convenient label, or impersonal synthesis, of these individual characteristics; the latter alone are real, effective, and ever in activity; they are in a state of continual fermentation in the bosom of every society, thanks to the examples borrowed and exchanged with neighboring societies to their great mutual profit. (27)
Here is how Bruno Latour summarizes his appreciation of Tarde in “Gabriel Tarde and the End of the Social” (link):
And yet, I want to argue in this chapter, through a close reading of his recently republished most daring book, Monadologie et sociologie (M&S), that Tarde introduced into social theory the two main arguments which ANT has tried, somewhat vainly, to champion:
a) the nature and society divide is irrelevant for understanding the world of human interactions ;
b) the micro/macro distinction stifle any attempt at understanding how society is being generated.
In other words, I want to make a little thought experiment and imagine what the field of social sciences would have become in the last century, had Tarde’s insights been turned into a science instead of Durkheim’s. Or may be it is that Tarde, a truly daring but also, I have to admit, totally undisciplined mind, needed a rather different century so as to be finally understood.
Latour ends his contribution to the Candea volume with an intriguing section called “Digital traceability … Tarde’s vindication?”. The key idea here is that the twenty-first century permits social scientists to go decisively and transparently beyond the primitive aggregative statistics that underlay Durkheim’s approach to the “social whole.” Tarde, and Latour, look at Durkheim’s social whole as no more than a crude statistical aggregation of data; and, according to Latour, Tarde had envisioned a time when the statistics and quantitative data deriving from social behavior would be transparent and visible. This, Latour suggests, is becoming true. Today we can look at social data at a full range of levels of aggregation, moving back and forth from the micro to the macro with ease. Here is Tarde’s version of the vision:
If Statistics continues to progress as it has done for several years, if the information which it gives us continues to gain in accuracy, in dispatch, in bulk, and in regularity, a time may come when upon the accomplishment of every social event a figure will at once issue forth automatically, so to speak, to take its place on the statistical registers that will be continuously communicated to the public and spread abroad pictorially by the daily press.
And here is Latour’s comment:
It is indeed striking that at this very moment, the fast expanding fields of “data visualization”, “computational social science” or “biological networks” are tracing before our eyes, just the sort of data Tarde would have acclaimed. … Digital navigation through point-to-point datascapes might, a century later, vindicate Tarde’s insights.
This is only the briefest of samplings from Tarde’s work, from one short book. But it is perhaps enough to give substance to the idea that Tarde is as much of an innovative founder of scientific sociology as Weber, Marx, or Durkheim; and he is a thinker from whom a new generation of sociologists can gain new ideas.