DeLanda on historical ontology

A primary reason for thinking that assemblage theory is important is the fact that it offers new ways of thinking about social ontology. Instead of thinking of the social world as consisting of fixed entities and properties, we are invited to think of it as consisting of fluid agglomerations of diverse and heterogeneous processes. Manuel DeLanda’s recent book Assemblage Theory sheds new light on some of the complexities of this theory.

Particularly important is the question of how to think about the reality of large historical structures and conditions. What is “capitalism” or “the modern state” or “the corporation”? Are these temporally extended but unified things? Or should they be understood in different terms altogether? Assemblage theory suggests a very different approach. Here is an astute description by DeLanda of historical ontology with respect to the historical imagination of Fernand Braudel:

Braudel’s is a multi-scaled social reality in which each level of scale has its own relative autonomy and, hence, its own history. Historical narratives cease to be constituted by a single temporal flow — the short timescale at which personal agency operates or the longer timescales at which social structure changes — and becomes a multiplicity of flows, each with its own variable rates of change, its own accelerations and decelerations. (14)

DeLanda extends this idea by suggesting that the theory of assemblage is an antidote to essentialism and reification of social concepts:

Thus, both ‘the Market’ and ‘the State’ can be eliminated from a realist ontology by a nested set of individual emergent wholes operating at different scales. (16)

I understand this to mean that “Market” is a high-level reification; it does not exist in and of itself. Rather, the things we want to encompass within the rubric of market activity and institutions are an agglomeration of lower-level concrete practices and structures which are contingent in their operation and variable across social space. And this is true of other high-level concepts — capitalism, IBM, or the modern state.

DeLanda’s reconsideration of Foucault’s ideas about prisons is illustrative of this approach. After noting that institutions of discipline can be represented as assemblages, he asks the further question: what are the components that make up these assemblages?

The components of these assemblages … must be specified more clearly. In particular, in addition to the people that are confined — the prisoners processed by prisons, the students processed by schools, the patients processed by hospitals, the workers processed by factories — the people that staff those organizations must also be considered part of the assemblage: not just guards, teachers, doctors, nurses, but the entire administrative staff. These other persons are also subject to discipline and surveillance, even if to a lesser degree. (39)

So how do assemblages come into being? And what mechanisms and forces serve to stabilize them over time?  This is a topic where DeLanda’s approach shares a fair amount with historical institutionalists like Kathleen Thelen (link, link): the insight that institutions and social entities are created and maintained by the individuals who interface with them, and that both parts of this observation need explanation. It is not necessarily the case that the same incentives or circumstances that led to the establishment of an institution also serve to gain the forms of coherent behavior that sustain the institution. So creation and maintenance need to be treated independently. Here is how DeLanda puts this point:

So we need to include in a realist ontology not only the processes that produce the identity of a given social whole when it is born, but also the processes that maintain its identity through time. And we must also include the

downward causal influence

that wholes, once constituted, can exert on their parts. (18)

Here DeLanda links the compositional causal point (what we might call the microfoundational point) with the additional idea that higher-level social entities exert downward causal influence on lower-level structures and individuals. This is part of his advocacy of emergence; but it is controversial, because it might be maintained that the causal powers of the higher-level structure are simultaneously real and derivative upon the actions and powers of the components of the structure (link). (This is the reason I prefer to use the concept of relative explanatory autonomy rather than emergence; link.)

DeLanda summarizes several fundamental ideas about assemblages in these terms:

  1. “Assemblages have a fully contingent historical identity, and each of them is therefore an individual entity: an individual person, an individual community, an individual organization, an individual city.” 
  2. “Assemblages are always composed of heterogeneous components.” 
  3. “Assemblages can become component parts of larger assemblages. Communities can form alliances or coalitions to become a larger assemblage.”
  4. “Assemblages emerge from the interactions between their parts, but once an assemblage is in place it immediately starts acting as a source of limitations and opportunities for its components (downward causality).” (19-21)

There is also the suggestion that persons themselves should be construed as assemblages:

Personal identity … has not only a private aspect but also a public one, the

public persona

that we present to others when interacting with them in a variety of social encounters. Some of these social encounters, like ordinary conversations, are sufficiently ritualized that they themselves may be treated as assemblages. (27)

Here DeLanda cites the writings of Erving Goffman, who focuses on the public scripts that serve to constitute many kinds of social interaction (link); equally one might refer to Andrew Abbott’s processual and relational view of the social world and individual actors (link).

The most compelling example that DeLanda offers here and elsewhere of complex social entities construed as assemblages is perhaps the most complex and heterogeneous product of the modern world — cities.

Cities possess a variety of material and expressive components. On the material side, we must list for each neighbourhood the different buildings in which the daily activities and rituals of the residents are performed and staged (the pub and the church, the shops, the houses, and the local square) as well as the streets connecting these places. In the nineteenth century new material components were added, water and sewage pipes, conduits for the gas that powered early street lighting, and later on electricity and telephone wires. Some of these components simply add up to a larger whole, but citywide systems of mechanical transportation and communication can form very complex networks with properties of their own, some of which affect the material form of an urban centre and its surroundings. (33)

(William Cronon’s social and material history of Chicago in Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is a very compelling illustration of this additive, compositional character of the modern city; link. Contingency and conjunctural causation play a very large role in Cronon’s analysis. Here is a post that draws out some of the consequences of the lack of systematicity associated with this approach, titled “What parts of the social world admit of explanation?”; link.)

A new exposition of assemblage theory

Manuel DeLanda has been a prominent exponent of the theory of assemblage for English-speaking readers for at least ten years. His 2006 book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity has been discussed numerous times in this blog (link, link, link). DeLanda has now published a new treatment of the subject, Assemblage Theory. As I’ve pointed out in the earlier discussions, I find assemblage theory to be helpful for sociology and the philosophy of social science because it provides a very appropriate way of conceptualizing the heterogeneity of the social world. The book is well worth discussing.

To start, DeLanda insists that the French term “agencement” has greater semantic depth than its English translation, assemblage. “Assemblage” picks up one part of the meaning of agencement — the product of putting together a set of heterogeneous parts — but it loses altogether the implications of process and activity in the French term. He quotes a passage in which Deleuze and Parnet explain part of the meaning of assemblage (agencement) (1):

What is an assemblage? It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns — different natures. This, the assemblage’s only unity is that of a co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind. (Dialogues II, 69)

This passage from Deleuze and Parnet highlights the core idea of an assemblage bringing together heterogeneous pieces into a new whole. It also signals the important distinction for Deleuze between interiority and exteriority. DeLanda explicates this distinction as indicating the nature of the relations among the elements. “Interior” relations among things are essential, logical, or semantic; whereas exterior relations are contingent and non-essential. Identifying a pair as husband and wife is to identify an interior relation; identifying a pair as a female architect and a male night club bouncer is an exterior relation. This is what Deleuze and Parnet refer to when they refer to alliances, alloys, contagions, epidemics: conjunctions of otherwise independent things or processes.

Let’s look at some of the high-level concepts that play an important role in DeLanda’s exposition.

Individuals

DeLanda makes the important ontological point that assemblages are individuals: historically unique persistent configurations. “Assemblages have a fully contingent historical identity, and each of them is therefore an individual entity: an individual person, an individual community, an individual organization, an individual city” (19).

All assemblages should be considered unique historical entities, singular in their individuality, not as particular members of a general category. But if this is so, then we should be able to specify the individuation process that gave birth to them. (6)

In other words, the whole [assemblage] is immanent, not transcendent. Communities or organizations are historically individuated entities, as much so as the persons that compose them…. It is not incoherent to speak of individual communities, individual organizations, individual cities, or individual countries. The term ‘individual’ has no preferential affinity for a particular scale (persons or organisms) but refers to any entity that  is historically unique. (13)

These passages make it clear that the idea of an individual is not restricted to one ontological level (biological human organism), but is rather available at all levels (individual, labor union, farmers’ cooperative, city, corporation, army).

Parameters

Several important meta-level distinctions about relations among components of an assemblage arise in DeLanda’s exposition. The distinction between relational interiority and exteriority is familiar from his earlier exposition in New Philosophy. Interior relations are conceptual or intrinsic — uncle to nephew. Exterior relations are contingent — street vendor to policeman. A second distinction that DeLanda discusses is coded/decoded. This distinction too is developed extensively in New Philosophy. Relations that are substantially fixed by a code — a grammar, a specific set of rules of behavior, a genetic program — are said to be coded; relations that are substantially indeterminate and left to the choices of the participants are decoded. A third distinction that DeLanda discusses in Assemblage Theory is that between stratum and assemblage. An assemblage is a concrete particular consisting of heterogeneous parts; a stratum is a more or less uniform group of things (organisms, institutions).

Here is a passage from New Philosophy on the concept of coded relations:

[Organizations] do involve rules, such as those governing turn-taking. The more formal and rigid the rules, the more these social encounters may be said to be coded. But in some circumstances these rules may be weakened giving rise to assemblages in which the participants have more room to express their convictions and their own personal styles. (16)

And in Assemblage Theory:

The coding parameter is one of the knobs we must build into the concept [of assemblage], the other being territorialisation, a parameter measuring the degree to which the components of the assemblage have been subjected to a process of homogenisation, and the extent to which its defining boundaries have been delineated and made impermeable. (3)

(In a later post I will discuss DeLanda’s effort to subsume each of these distinctions under the idea of a parameter or “knob” inflecting a particular concept of assemblage (city, linguistic practice). Also of interest there will be DeLanda’s effort to understand the ontology of assemblage and stratum in analogy with the idea in physics of a phase space (gas, liquid, solid).)

Emergence

DeLanda believes that assemblage theory depends on the idea of emergence for macro-level properties:

The very first step in this task is to devise a means to block micro-reductionism, a step usually achieved by the concept of emergent properties, the properties of a whole caused by the interactions between its parts. If a social whole has novel properties that emerge from interactions between people, its reduction to a mere aggregate of many rational decision-makers or many phenomenological experiences is effectively blocked. (9)

Notice that this is a weak conception of emergence; the emergent property is distinguished simply by the fact that it is not an aggregation of the properties of the individual components. This does not imply that the property is not derivable from a theory of the properties of the parts and the causal interactions among them. (Several earlier posts have raised questions about the validity of the idea of emergence; link.)

And in fact DeLanda shortly says some surprising things about emergence and the relations between higher-level and lower-level properties:

The property of density, and the capacity to store reputations and enforce norms, are non-reducible properties and capacities of the entire community, but neither involves thinking of it as a seamless totality in which the very personal identity of the members is created by their relations. (11)

Up to the level of national markets the main emergent property of these increasingly larger trading areas is synchronized price movements. Braudel uncovers evidence that average wholesale prices (determined mostly by demand and supply) move up and down in unison within urban regions, provinces, or entire countries. (15)

These are surprising claims as illustrations of emergence, because all of the properties mentioned here are in fact reducible to facts about the properties of individuals and their relations. Density is obviously so; we can derive density by measuring the number of individuals per unit of space. The capacity of a group to store reputations is also a direct consequence of individuals’ ability to remember facts about other individuals and communicate their memories to others. The community’s representation of “reputation” is nothing over and above this distributed set of beliefs and interactions. And the fact of synchronized price movements over an extended trading area likewise has perfectly visible microfoundations at the individual level: communications and transportation technologies permit traders to take advantage of momentary price differentials in different places, leading to a tendency for all accessible points within the region to reveal prices that are synchronized with each other (modulo the transportation costs that exist between points).

These observations lead me to suspect that the concept of emergence is not doing much real work here. The paraphrase that DeLanda offers as a summary conclusion is correct:

Thus, both ‘the Market’ and ‘the State’ can be eliminated from a realist ontology by a nested set of individual emergent wholes operating at different scales. (16)

But this observation does not imply or presuppose the idea of strong emergence.

It seems, then, that we could put aside the language of emergence and rest on the claim that assemblages at various levels have stable properties that can be investigated empirically and historically; there is no need for reduction to a more fundamental level. So assemblage theory is anti-reductionist and is eclectic with regard to the question of levels of the social world. We can formulate concepts of social entities at a wide range of levels and accommodate those concepts to the basic idea of assemblage, and there is no need for seeking out inter-level reductions. But likewise there is no need to insist on the obscure idea of strong emergence.

Assemblage theory and social realism

This treatment of social theory from the point of view of assemblage theory is distinctly friendly to the language of realism. DeLanda argues that assemblages are real, mind-independent, and ontologically stable. Assemblages are in the world and can be treated as independent individual things. Here is a representative statement:

The distinction between a concept and its cases also has an ontological aspect. The concept itself is a product of our minds and would not exist without them, but concrete assemblages must be considered to be fully independent of our minds. This statement must be qualified, because in the case of social assemblages like communities, organizations, and cities, the assemblages would cease to exist if our minds disappeared. So in this case we should say that social assemblages are independent of the content of our minds, that is, independent of the way in which communities, organizations, and cities are conceived. This is just another way of saying that assemblage theory operates within a realist ontology. (138)

The most important transcendent entity that we must confront and eliminate is the one postulated to explain the existence and endurance of autonomous entities: essences. (139)

Both points are crucial. DeLanda emphasizes that social entities (assemblages) are real items in the social world, with a temporally and causally persistent reality; and he denies that the ideas of “essence”, “kind”, or “inner nature” have a role in science. This is an anti-essentialist realism, and it is a highly appropriate basis for social ontology.

Appraisal

There is much more to discuss in DeLanda’s current treatment of assemblage, and I expect to return to other issues in later posts. What I find particularly interesting about DeLanda’s current book are the substantive observations DeLanda makes about various historical formations — cities, governments, modes of production, capitalism. Assemblage theory is of real value for social scientists only if it provides a better vocabulary for describing social entities and causes. And DeLanda’s illustrations make a persuasive case for this conclusion.

For example, in discussing Braudel on the difference between markets and capitalism he writes:

These are powerful words. But how can anyone dare to suggest that we must distinguish capitalism from the market economy? These two terms are, for both the left and the right, strictly synonymous. However, a close examination of the history of commercial, financial, and industrial organizations shows that there is indeed a crucial difference, and that ignoring it leads to a distortion of our historical explanations. (41)

This discussion has some significant parallels with the treatment of the modern economy offered by Dave Elder-Vass discussed earlier (link). And DeLanda’s closing observation in chapter 1 is quite insightful:

Much of the academic left today has become prey to the double danger of politically targeting reified generalities (Power, Resistance, Capital, Labour) while at the same time abandoning realism. A new left may yet emerge from these ashes but only if it recovers its footing on a mind-independent reality and if it focuses its efforts at the right social scale, that is, if it leaves behind the dream of a Revolution that changes the entire system. This is where assemblage theory may one day make a real difference. (48)

More than the logical exposition of various esoteric concepts associated with assemblage, it is DeLanda’s intelligent characterization of various concrete social and historical processes (for example, his extensive discussion of Braudel in chapter 1) that cements the intellectual importance of assemblage theory for historical and social scientific thinking.

Another important virtue of the treatment here is that DeLanda makes a strong case for a social ontology that is both anti-reductionist and anti-essentialist. Social things have properties that we don’t need to attempt to reduce to properties of ensembles of components; but social things are not transcendent, essential wholes whose behavior is independent from the activities of the individuals and lower-level configurations of which they consist. Further, this view of social ontology has an important implication that DeLanda explicitly calls out: we need to recognize the fact of downward causation from social configurations (individual assemblages) to the actions of the individuals and lesser configurations of which they consist. A community embodying a set of norms about deference and respectful behavior in fact elicits these forms of behavior in the individuals who make up the community. This is so through the very ordinary fact that individuals monitor each others’ behavior and sometimes retaliate when norms are breached. (This was the view of community social power developed several decades ago by Michael Taylor; Community, Anarchy and Liberty.)

ANT and the philosophy of social science

What does Actor-Network Theory have to add to the kinds of issues in the foundations of the social sciences that are of interest here?

ANT is primarily associated with Bruno Latour (Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts), John Law, and Manuel DeLanda (A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity), deriving ultimately from philosophical ideas expressed by Gilles Deleuze. The idea of assemblage is the key construct that I’ve found appealing in this general field (link, link). This concept originates in skepticism about the validity of large social concepts like “society”. In place of an ontology that postulates fixed social entities and contexts, ANT puts forward the concept of assemblage to capture social stuff at every level.

Here is Latour describing the alternative approach he favors:

The other approach does not take for granted the basic tenet of the first. It claims that there is nothing specific to social order; that there is no social dimension of any sort, no ‘social context’, no distinct do-main of reality to which the label ‘social’ or ‘society’ could be attrib-uted; that no ‘social force’ is available to ‘explain’ the residual features other domains cannot account for…. (RS 4)

Whereas, in the first approach, every activity—law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc.—could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society—or doesn’t produce one. (RS 8)

And here is DeLanda’s effort at providing a simple preliminary description of assemblage:

The concept of assemblage is defined along two dimensions. One dimension or axis defines the variable roles which an assemblage’s components may play, from a purely material role at one extreme of the axis, to a purely expressive role at the other extreme…. The other dimension defines variable processes in which these components become involved and that either stabilize the identity of an assemblage, by increasing its degree of internal homogeneity or the degree of sharpness of its boundaries, or destabilize it. …

The components of social assemblages playing a material role vary widely, but at the very least involve a set of human bodies properly oriented (physically or psychologically) towards each other…. Illustrating the components playing an expressive role needs some elaboration because in assemblage theory expressively cannot be reduced to language and symbols. (NPS 12)

But of course there is more to ANT than assemblage theory. Latour organizes Reassembling the Social around five puzzles for the social sciences: the nature of groups, the nature of actions, the nature of objects, the nature of facts, and the nature of “social studies.” In each case Latour argues that there are major uncertainties and unsolved questions concerning the specification of these various “things”. And he argues for a long, slow process of discovery rather than an over-quick glossing of the meaning of these concepts.

ANT prefers to travel slowly, on small roads, on foot, nod by paying the full cost of any displacement out of its own pocket…. The task of defining and ordering the social should be left to the actors themselves, not taken up by the analyst. (23)

The most esoteric thread within ANT is the idea that “actors” are found at every level of analysis, from a protein to a world trading system, and that there is no reason to privilege one level over the other. This is an idea that traces back to Deleuze. Actors — whether intentional, organic, or mechanical — interact in heterogeneous sets of relationships (networks), giving rise to novel properties and behaviors. DeLanda moderates the idea to some extent in NPS:

Although Deleuze considers all entities, even nonbiological and non social ones, as being capable of expressions he argues that the historical appearance of these specialized entities allowed a great complexification of the kinds of wholes that could be assembled in this planet. (14)

An important thread within ANT is the contribution that Latour has made to science and technology studies (Laboratory Life). This amounts to a sustained case for the social construction of knowledge. The approach depends on a methodological principle worth acknowledging — the importance of recognizing knowledge activities as socially constructed and carried out. Much as Thomas Kuhn revolutionized the philosophy of science by insisting on the social and historical specificity of the laboratory and the research tradition, so STS studies and Latour have demonstrated the value of examining scientific practices in detail. Unavoidably a concern for epistemology needs to be coupled with attention to the concrete social practices through which knowledge is created, and STS provides numerous good examples of how to do this. This is the social constructivist thread of ANT.

Another important theme in ANT is the conjunction its theorists forge between material and semiotic social facts. Latour and DeLanda emphasize the importance of this conjunction repeatedly: the social is an inextricable mixture of structuring circumstances and meanings. This is expressed in the passage from DeLanda quoted above.

So which among these ideas makes a useful contribution to the philosophy of social science as understood here?

The social constructionist approach to the social sciences is important for the philosophy of social science. Philosophers are often interested in the rationality of science — including the social sciences — and may be suspicious of the claims of the social constructionists. But there is a core pragmatism in the constructionist approach: scientific theories and research strategies are human projects, undertaken within specific sets of constraints and opportunities. And it is important to be able to investigate the contingent processes through which scientific ideas and findings come about. This doesn’t mean that scientific beliefs are groundless or rationally unsupported. But it does mean that scientific research is a sociological process, and one that demands investigation. The new sociology of ideas advocated by Neil Gross and Charles Camic illustrates a way of doing this that allows for both contingency and rationality (link).

The skepticism that Latour and other ANT scholars offer for the grand concepts of sociology is also helpful for PSS. The error of reification is an all-too-easy one to make, where we make use of an abstract noun (e.g. social class) and then assume that there is some reality lying behind it. So Latour’s critique of “society” and “social context” is an important contribution that needs to be addressed.

Corresponding to this skepticism about “society”, the ontological concept of assemblage is a useful contribution as well. ANT and assemblage theory suggest a profoundly different way of thinking about the social, and these alternative ideas may in fact turn out to be better suited to the fluid, plastic, and heterogeneous world of the social.

What is completely absent in ANT is a positive conception of explanation and of causation. In fact, Latour is explicitly unreceptive to the ambition of offering social explanations: “This proves again with what energy the notion of social explanation should be fought” (RS 86). He recalls his ethnographic experience in Roger Guillemin’s laboratory in these terms: “No experience was more striking than what I saw with my own eyes: the social explanation had vanished into thin air” (RS 99). And later: “As we will see later on, our job as social scientists is to generate hard facts and passionate objectors that resist social explanations. In effect, sociologists have always studied up” (RS 101). Finally:

However, we worry that by sticking to description there may be something missing, since we have not ‘added to it’ something else that is often call an ‘explanation’. And yet the opposition between description and explanation is another of these false dichotomies that should be put to rest—especially when it is ‘social explanations’ that are to be wheeled out of their retirement home. (137)

So perhaps the ingredients that would be listed on this can of soup would read something like this:

Critique of common social ontology (50% daily allowance)
Outline of an alternative approach to social ontology — assemblage theory (75% daily allowance)
Critique of the goal of social explanation (2% daily allowance)
Exemplars of the study of the social construction of science (25% daily allowance)
Model of how to conduct social research (trace amounts)

And this suggests ample reason to add consideration of ANT to the menu for the philosophy of social science, at least as a condiment if not the main course.

Latour’s invisible Paris

Almost the first words of Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory include this intriguing statement:

This somewhat austere book can be read in parallel with the much lighter Bruno Latour and Emilie Hermant (1998), Paris ville invisible, which tries to cover much of the same ground through a succession of photographic essays. It’s available online in English (Paris the Invisible Citylink.

This multimedia essay is fascinating, and equally so for the suggestion that it somehow illustrates the main ideas of Reassembling the Social. Since those ideas are fundamental to “actor-network theory” and to the theory of assemblage, it is worthwhile spending some time on the multimedia essay.

The presentation is described as a “sociological web opera.” Here is how Latour describes its purpose:

The aim of this sociological opera is to wander through the city, in texts and images, exploring some of the reasons why it cannot be captured at a glance. Our photographic exploration takes us first to places usually hidden from passers-by, in which the countless techniques making Parisians’ lives possible are elaborated (water services, police force, ring road: various “oligopticons” from which the city is seen in its entirety). This helps us to grasp the importance of ordinary objects, starting with the street furniture constituting part of inhabitants’ daily environment and enabling them to move about in the city without losing their way. It also makes us attentive to practical problems posed by the coexistence of such large numbers of people on such a small surface area. All these unusual visits may eventually enable us to take a new look at a more theoretical question on the nature of the social link and on the very particular ways in which society remains elusive. 

We often tend to contrast real and virtual, hard urban reality and electronic utopias. This work tries to show that real cities have a lot in common with Italo Calvino’s “invisible cities”. As congested, saturated and asphyxiated as it may be, in the invisible city of Paris we may learn to breathe more easily, provided we alter our social theory. 

If one wants to work through the presentation it is necessary to download the PDF that contains the text of the essay, to be read in conjunction with the photography and images at each stop (link). Now we are ready to run the multimedia version (link).

Here is a screenshot from Plan 9:

And here is the accompanying text:

Step two: Aligning 

PLAN 9

With her eyes Mrs. Lagoutte looks at the name “rue la Vieuville” in white letters on a blue background. With her forefinger she points at the same name “rue la Vieuville” in bold type on the map she’s holding with her other hand. With a quick movement of the chin she accommodates her gaze to these two very different texts: one, written diagonally on the page, is 1mm big and requires short-sightedness; the other, horizontal, is 6cm high and requires long-sightedness. A miracle! The two match, letter for letter, despite the glaring differences. She’s arrived! This is the street she was looking for… and here’s number five! In a single glance at her map she embraces the entire eighteenth arrondissement. By lifting her head she sees only a white wall, very much like all the others, that she couldn’t have identified without having been born in the neighbourhood or living there for a long time. Fortunately she also sees the street nameplate and the name written on it. What does she see? What is she touching with her forefinger?

The reader navigates the presentation by choosing “Traversing,” “Proportioning,” “Distributing,” and “Allowing” on the top bar, and then navigating from Plan to Plan in the sidebar.  It is possible, of course, to go through the presentation in a fully linear mode; but it is also possible to jump easily from “Traversing” to “Distributing” or from Plan to Plan.

The images in the frame switch with each movement of the mouse. They do not have an apparent order; instead, the viewer gets a rush of images at each stop. It takes attention to register even how many images are presented.  [It is possible this is an artefact of the web engine — the “Distributing” sequence provides a scroll bar of images within the frame, but this is lacking in “Traversing.” This would be ironic, analogous to the representational errors Latour identifies in maps and signposts!]

So go ahead — take the journey and come back for some discussion!

….

So what does the production show us? What has Latour illustrated in this work that “covers much the same ground” as Reassembling the Social? Here are a few fairly superficial observations.

  1. First, the presentation highlights “invisibility” — the fact that this complex social scrum is partially visible, but partially hidden, no matter what perspective we take.
  2. Second, the issue of scale is constantly under scrutiny. We zoom from micro to macro to meso and back constantly through the presentation.
  3. Third, the notion of “representation” is key: maps, street signs, department store panoramas, satellite images. This is a “knowledge-reality” problematic: what is the status of the knowledge (veridical representativeness) of the map or the satellite image?
  4. Fourth, there is a persistent attention to technical knowledge and technical specialists throughout the essay: infrastructure specialists, computer experts, GIS technicians, schedulers, drainage specialists, traffic engineers, … And much of what they do falls on the “invisible” end of the spectrum for most observers.
  5. Fifth, there is a recurring theme of “composition” — the idea that the social scrum of the city is an amalgam. “In this sociological opera we’re going to move over from the cold and real Society to warm and virtual plasma: from the entire Paris set in one view to the multiple Parises within Paris, which together comprise all Paris and which nothing ever resembles” (Plan 4).
  6. There is a recurring and seemingly important use of temperature — hot, cold — as a scale for considering social situations and “data”. “At low temperature we have the impression of an isolated and fragile passer-by circulating in a frame that’s older, harder and bigger than himself” (Plan 26).
  7. There is the idea that the “players” in social interactions are not uniquely human persons. The objects and gadgets of the city play their roles: “Should we count all those gadgets among the inhabitants of Paris? Partly, because they anticipate all the behaviours of generic and anonymous inhabitants whom they get to do a number of actions, in anticipation. Each of these humble objects, from public toilet to rubbish bin, tree protector to street name, phone booth to illuminated signpost, has a certain idea of the Parisians to whom, through colour or form, habit or force, it brings a particular order, a distinct attribution, an authorization or prohibition, a promise or permission.” (Plan 32)

And here is a fascinating bit that places the circulation of French Sociological Theory within the city:

For instance, here in the group formerly headed by Mr. Raymond Boudon, social phenomena consist of individual aggregations that produce perverse effects through a series of involuntary transformations, without for all that forming social structures. Further on, with Mr. Pierre Bourdieu at the Collège de France, individual action must always be situated within a field that may not determine it but that is the only thing to give it meaning. If we go up the Rue Laplace to the CREA, to Mr. Jean- Pierre Dupuy, we notice that structures do exist but through a phenomenon of self- organization resembling neither aggregation alone nor the field. There’s nothing shocking about this dispersion: a sociogram of Parisian cosmologists would show no more agreement on the evolution of white drawf stars or the origins of the Big Bang. Moreover, the matter – identified, isolated, transformed – on which each of these laboratories works differs entirely: here, statistics and stylized examples; there, extensive inquiries by questionnaire; elsewhere, models borrowed from economics. The word ‘sociology’ has all the characteristics of a faux ami, and its definition will change again if we go down the Montagne Ste. Geneviève to the GSPM, to Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, on the other side of Luxembourg, or at the bottom end of the Boulevard St. Germain, to visit Mr. Michel Crozier’s group, or else if, in a rare act of open-mindedness, we went up the Boul’Mich to have a coffee with the researchers at the CSI, at the Ecole des Mines. Despite the megalomania to which the social sciences are so partial, there would be little sense in saying that just one of these laboratories had summed up all of Society. (Plan 30)

This is a fascinating and open-ended piece of work — not philosophy, not sociological theory, not pure artistic creativity; and yet some of all of this. Do other readers have their own interpretations of the work and its significance within ANT theory and the theory of assemblage?

Here is a lecture by Latour on ANT theory at USC. (The audio is better when Latour begins speaking.)

 

Gabriel Tarde’s rediscovery

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.

What exists in the social realm?

What sorts of social things exist?  Does the “proletariat” exist as a social entity? There are certainly workers; but is there a “working class”? What is needed in order to attribute existence to a social agglomeration?

We might want to say that things exist when they have enough persistence over time to admit of re-identification and study from one time to another.  Persistence involves some degree of stability in a core set of properties.  A cloud shaped like a cat has a set of visible characteristics at a given moment; but these characteristics disappear quickly, and this collection of water droplets quickly morphs into a different collection in a short time.  So we are inclined not to call the cat-shaped cloud an entity.  On the other hand, “the Black Forest” exists because we can locate its approximate boundaries and composition over several centuries.  The forest is an agglomeration of trees in a geographical space; but we might reasonably judge that the forest has properties that we can investigate that are not simply properties of individual trees (density and canopy temperature, for example).  The forest undergoes change over time; the mix of types of trees may shift from one decade to another, the density of plants changes, and the human uses of forest products change.  And we can ask questions like: “How has the ecology of the Black Forest changed in the twentieth century?”  So it seems reasonable enough that we can refer to the forest as a geographical or ecological entity.

We can also classify individual forests into types of forests: temperate rain forest, tropical rain forest, coniferous forest, etc.  (Here is a 26-fold classification of forests by UNEP-WCMC; the map below represents the global distribution of these types of forests.)  And we can ask ecological questions about the properties and processes that are characteristic of the various types of forests.

So what characteristics should a putative social entity possess in order to fall within the working ontology of the social sciences?  Here are a few possible candidate ontological features that might be associated with thing-hood in the social realm:

  • persistence of basic characteristics over time — spatio-temporal continuity and social analogs such as nucleated population with shared norms and identities
  • an internal structural-functional organization
  • some sort of regulative social process that maintains the thing’s identity over time, either internal or external 
  • social cohesion among the individuals who constitute the entity deriving from their social orientation to the entity (labor union, religious community, ethnic group)
  • an account of the particular material-social mechanisms through which the identity and persistence of the entity are maintained

According to these sorts of criteria, we might say that social things like these examples exist:

  • United Auto Workers
  • General Motors corporation
  • First Presbyterian Church of Dubuque
  • Missouri Synod
  • Kylie Minogue Facebook fan club 
  • 18th Street gang of Los Angeles
  • Michigan Legislature
  • Internal Revenue Service
  • University of Wisconsin
  • apprentice system for electrical workers
  • social practice of Islamic charity

Here is a slightly more abstract formulation.  We might say that these kinds of social entities exist: organizations, both formal and informal; networks of individuals oriented to each other and/or a social goal; social groups unified by features of consciousness or existential circumstance; bureaucracies of the state; enduring social practices; institutions possessing internal organization, rules, and purposes.

Social entities are composed of socially constituted individuals.  So the sinews of composition are important.  We can recognize a wide range of ways in which individuals are composed into larger social entities: agglomeration, adherence, mutual recognition, coercion, contractual relationships, marketing, recruitment, incentive systems, …  This is one place where “assemblage” theory seems to be useful (Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity.)

Part of the confusion in this topic is the distinction between things and kinds of things. We might agree that the Chicago Police Department exists as a social entity.  But we may remain uncertain as to whether “police departments” or “state coercive apparatuses” exist as higher-order categories of social things. And perhaps this is a confusion; perhaps the issue of existence applies only to individual entities, not kinds or classes of entities. On this approach, we would stipulate the minimum characteristics of existence we would want to require of individual social entities and then be “nominalistic” about the higher-level categories or concepts into which we classify these singular individuals.

In considering the ontology of the social world it is important to be attentive to the fallacy of reification: the error of thinking that the fact that we can formulate an abstract noun (proletariat, fascism) allows us to infer that it exists as a persistent, recurring social entity.  So when we identify a given social entity as an X, we need to regard it as an open question, “What do X’s have in common?”  We can avoid the fallacy of reification by focusing on the importance of providing microfoundations for the enduring characteristics of social entities.  It is the underlying composition of the entity rather than its location within a classificatory system that provides an explanatory foundation for the behavior of the entity.

Localism and assemblage theory

Several earlier posts have described the idea of “methodological localism” (post).  This is part of an argument I want to defend in support of the idea that we need new and better ways of thinking about the “stuff” of society. We need to thoroughly question and rethink the assumptions we make about social objects — groups, mentalities, structures, forces, power, states, and organizations. In short, we need a better social ontology — one that is free from the patterns of thinking we have inherited from positivism and the natural sciences (post).

Here is the thrust of methodological localism. The only ontologically stable stuff that exists in the social world is the socially constructed and socially situated individual actor, embedded within a set of relationships with other concrete social actors. There are higher-level social frameworks — police departments, professional soccer leagues, and civil wars. But these higher-level structures and events derive all their properties and powers from the extended systems of local activity that they encompass. And they are plastic and deformable in their properties over time (post, post).

One way to put this point is to say that higher-level social structures and entities are only composites or assemblages of lower-level structures, all tracing back ultimately to an extended set of local contexts of activity (post).

And this paraphrase brings the view into some kind of relationship with the theory of “assemblage” that has emerged from several strands of continental thought, including especially some writings of Gilles Deleuze. Manuel DeLanda’s book A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity presents an appealing and accessible version of the perspective. Nick Srnicek’s master’s thesis “Assemblage Theory, Complexity and Contentious Politics” is a good exposition and critical discussion of the theory.  And Bruno Latour’s book Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory provides a coherent and useful reconstruction of “actor-network theory” (ANT) within the general framework of assemblage theory.

Latour’s theory stems significantly from the tradition of “social construction of technology” and recent sociology and history of science and technology. Reassembling the Social is a radical call to action in the social sciences. Latour wants us to dispense entirely with traditional sociological concepts when they purport to refer to fixed, stable social things.  And he wants a new conceptual scheme that puts the emphasis on relationships and associations, on dynamic patterns of action and coordination, rather than on structures and institutions.

The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.(1)

The key task for social science research, according to Latour, is systematic tracing of compound associations among diverse elements.  Here is a description of what this might mean:

In such a view, law, for instance, should not be seen as what should be explained by ‘social structure’ in addition to its inner logic; on the contrary, its inner logic may explain some features of what makes an association last longer and extend wider. Without the ability of legal precedents to draw connections between a case and a general rule, what would we know about putting some matter ‘into a larger context’?  Science does not have to be replaced by its ‘social framework’, which is ‘shaped by social forces’ as well as its own objectivity, because its objects are themselves dislocating any given context through the foreign elements research laboratories are associating together in unpredictable ways.

And the same is true for all other domains. Whereas, in the first approach, every activity—law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc.—could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society—or doesn’t produce one. Such is the crucial point of departure between the two versions. To be social is no longer a safe and unproblematic property, it is a movement that may fail to trace any new connection and may fail to redesign any well-formed assemblage.  (7,8)

The social realities of “law”, “science”, or “technology”, then, are to be understood in terms of the network of associations that they encompass among actors and other elements.  These social “things” are not static realities, but rather assemblages of dynamic actor relationships or “associations”.

John Law provides a similar statement of some of the fundamental starting points of ANT in “Notes on the Theory of the Actor Network” (link), emphasizing the same skepticism about existing assumptions of social ontology:

Here is the argument. If we want to understand the mechanics of power and organisation it is important not to start out assuming whatever we wish to explain. For instance, it is a good idea not to take it for granted that there is a macrosocial system on the one hand, and bits and pieces of derivative microsocial detail on the other. If we do this we close off most of the interesting questions about the origins of power and organisation. Instead we should start with a clean slate. For instance, we might start with interaction and assume that interaction is all that there is. Then we might ask how some kinds of interactions more or less succeed in stabilising and reproducing themselves: how it is that they overcome resistance and seem to become “macrosocial”; how it is that they seem to generate the effects such power, fame, size, scope or organisation with which we are all familiar. This, then, is the one of the core assumptions of actor-network theory: that Napoleons are no different in kind to small-time hustlers, and IBMs to whelk-stalls. And if they are larger, then we should be studying how this comes about — how, in other words, size, power or organisation are generated.

I said above that there is a convergence between methodological localism and assemblage theory. But it is an uneasy convergence, on both sides. What the two perspectives have in common is easiest to identify. Each calls for a radical rethinking of social ontology. Each emphasizes plasticity, heterogeneity, and contingency in social life and structure. And each works with a metaphor of construction or composition as a way of understanding complex social stuff — cities, for example (post).  So far, so good.

But I have a suspicion that Latour would have more to criticize than to applaud in my approach. For one thing, it may appear to be reductionist: it attempts to ground social statements and theories in facts about the local circumstances of action. And it is unsympathetic to the idea of “emergent” social properties — properties of the social whole that do not derive from the properties of the underlying social actors and their behavior. (Though see this post for a qualified defense of holism.) Further, contrary to Latour, my perspective asserts that there is a distinctive domain of social stuff; it is the domain of purposive actors in interaction, cooperation, and competition with each other. Third, the ML approach provides a basis for attributing relatively stable causal powers to higher-level social structures — provided we can offer appropriate microfoundations for these powers (post). Finally, in spite of my insistence on not reifying higher-level structures, Latour would probably still feel that I’m giving a degree of “thing”-ness to states and organizations that is inconsistent with his view of sociology as a study of associations among actors rather than a study of social entities and forces.

These considerations suggest there are important disagreements between the views. However, it still seems to me that there are important areas of convergence between the two bodies of thought as well: the need for a new social ontology, emphasis on the composition of the social, and an insistence on the fluidity of social life.

What seems particularly worthwhile is to probe in detail how either perspective may turn out to have real utility when it comes to framing an empirical research programme in sociology. How does either perspective help to contribute to a more successful empirical study of society?  If it is just philosophical theory with no implications for doing better science, then neither framework should be taken seriously by working social researchers. But I think there is concrete practical value in these ideas; most fundamentally, if we misconceptualize a domain of inquiry, we are not likely to succeed in understanding it.  Delanda, Latour, and other theorists of assemblage are worth reading carefully.

Technology and culture

Photo: Charles Sheeler, “Power, wheels”, 1939; MFA, Boston

Technology is sometimes thought of as a domain with a logic of its own — an inevitable trend towards the development of the most efficient artifacts, given the potential represented by a novel scientific or technical insight. The most important shift that has occurred in the ways in which historians conceptualize the history of technology in the past thirty years is the clear recognition that technology is a social product, all the way down. And, as a corollary, historians of technology have increasingly come to recognize the deep contingency that characterizes the development of specific instances or families of technologies.

Thomas Hughes is one of the most important and prolific historians of technology of his generation. His most recent book, Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture, is well worth reading. It looks at “technology” from a very broad perspective and asks how this dimension of civilization has affected our cultures in the past two centuries. The twentieth-century city, for example, could not have existed without the inventions of electricity, steel buildings, elevators, railroads, and modern waste-treatment technologies. So technology “created” the modern city. But it is also clear that life in the twentieth-century city was transformative for the several generations of rural people who migrated to them. And the literature, art, values, and social consciousness of people in the twentieth century have surely been affected by these new technology systems.

This level of analysis stands at the most generic perspective: how does technology influence culture? (And perhaps, how does culture influence technology?) What Hughes has demonstrated in so much of his work, though, is the fact that the most interesting questions about the “technology-society” interface can be framed at a much more disaggregated level. Consider some of the connections he suggests in his earlier book on the history of electric power (Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930):

  • Invention (by individuals with a very specific educational and cultural background)
  • Concrete development of the artifacts within a laboratory (involving specific social relationships among various experts and workers)
  • “Selling” the innovation to municipal authorities (for lighting and traction) and to industrial capitalists (for power)
  • Finding investors and sources of finance for large capital investments in electricity
  • Building out the infrastructure for delivery of electric power
  • Government regulation of industry practices
  • Development of an extended research capability addressing technology problems

Each part of this complex story involves processes that are highly contingent and highly intertwined with social, economic, and political relationships. And the ultimate shape of the technology is the result of decisions and pressures exerted throughout the web of relationships through which the technology took shape. But here is an important point: there is no moment in this story where it is possible to put “technology” on one side and “social context” on the other. Instead, the technology and the society develop together.

Hughes also explores some of the ways in which the culture of the machine has influenced architecture, art, and literature. He discusses photography by Charles Sheeler (whose famous series on the Rouge plant defined an industrial aesthetic), artists Carl Grossberg and Marcel Duchamp, and architects such as Peter Behren. The central theme here is the idea that industrial-technological developments caused significant cultural change in Europe and America. Hughes’s examples are mostly drawn from “high” culture; but historians of popular culture too have focused on the impact of technologies such as the railroad, the automobile, or the cigarette on American popular culture. See Deborah Clarke’s Driving Women: Fiction and Automobile Culture in Twentieth-Century America for a discussion of the effect of automotive culture. And Pam Pennock’s examination of the effects of alcohol and tobacco advertising on American culture in Advertising Sin And Sickness: The Politics of Alcohol And Tobacco Marketing, 1950-1990 is also relevant.

Hughes doesn’t consider here the other line of influence that is possible between culture and technology: how prevailing aesthetic and cultural preferences influence the development of a technology. This has been an important theme in the line of interpretation referred to as the “social construction of technology” (SCOT). Wiebe Bijker makes the case for the social construction of mundane technologies such as bicycles in Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change. And automobile historian Gijs Moms argues in The Electric Vehicle: Technology and Expectations in the Automobile Age that the choice between electric and internal combustion vehicles in the early twentieth century turned on aesthetic and lifestyle preferences rather than technical or economic efficiency. (Here is a nice short discussion of SCOT.) This too is a more disaggregated approach to the question. It proceeds on the idea that we can learn a great deal by examining the “micro” processes in culture and society that influence the development of a technology.

It seems to me that the conceptual framework of “assemblages theory” would be useful in discussing the history of technology. (See Manuel DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity for a review of the theory, and Nick Srnicek’s blog at accursedshare, which makes frequent use of the framework.) The framework is useful here because technology is a social phenomenon that extends from one’s own kitchen and household to the cities of Chicago or Berlin, to the global internet and the international system of manufacturing and design. And similar processes of shaping and conditioning occur at the micro, meso, and macro levels. In other words — perhaps we can understand “technology” at the molar level, as a complex composition of activities and processes at many levels closer to the socially constructed individual. And the value-added provided by the sociology and history of technology is precisely this: to shed light on the mechanisms at work at all levels that have an influence on the aggregate direction and shape of the resulting technology.

Since we’re thinking about “technology and culture” — it’s worth noting that Technology and Culture is the world’s leading journal for the history of technology, emanating from the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT, established in 1958). The journal has played a significant role in the definition of the discipline over the past thirty years or so and is an outstanding source for anyone interested in the questions posed here.

Composition of the social

Our social ontology needs to reflect the insight that complex social happenings are almost invariably composed of multiple causal processes rather than existing as unitary systems. The phenomena of a great social whole — a city over a fifty-year span, a period of sustained social upheaval or revolution (Iran in the 1970s-1980s), an international trading system — should be conceptualized as the sum of a large number of separate processes with intertwining linkages and often highly dissimilar tempos. We can provide analysis and theory for some of the component processes, and we can attempt to model the results of aggregating these processes. And we can attempt to explain the patterns and exceptions that arise as the consequence of one or more of these processes. Some of the subordinate processes will be significantly amenable to theorizing and projection, and some will not. And the totality of behavior will be more than the “sum” of the relatively limited number of processes that are amenable to theoretical analysis. This means that the behavior of the whole will demonstrate contingency and unpredictability modulo the conditions and predictable workings of the known processes.

Consider the example of the development of a large city over time. The sorts of subordinate processes that I’m thinking of here might include —

  • The habitation dynamics created by the nodes of a transportation system
  • The dynamics of electoral competition governing the offices of mayor and city council
  • The politics of land use policy and zoning permits
  • The dynamics and outcomes of public education on the talent level of the population
  • Economic development policies and tax incentives emanating from state government
  • Dynamics of real estate system with respect to race
  • Employment and poverty characteristics of surrounding region

Each of these processes can be investigated by specialists — public policy experts, sociologists of race and segregation, urban politics experts. Each contributes to features of the evolving urban environment. And it is credible that there are consistent patterns of behavior and development within these various types of processes. This justifies a specialist’s approach to specific types of causes of urban change, and rigorous social science can result.

But it must also be recognized that, there are system interdependencies among these groups of factors. More in-migration of extremely poor families may put more stress on the public schools. Enhancement of quality or accessibility of public schools may increase in-migration (the Kalamazoo promise, for example). Political incentives within the city council system may favor land-use policies that encourage the creation of racial or ethnic enclaves. So it isn’t enough to understand the separate processes individually; we need to make an effort to discover these endogenous relations among them.

But over and above this complication of the causal interdependency of recognized factors, there is another and more pervasive complication as well. For any given complex social whole, it is almost always the case that there are likely to be additional causal processes that have not been separately analyzed or theorized. Some may be highly contingent and singular — for example, the many effects that September 11 had on NYC. Others may be systemic and important, but novel and previously untheorized — for example, the global information networks that Saskia Sassen emphasizes for the twenty-first century global city.

The upshot is that a complex social whole exceeds the particular theories we have created for this kind of phenomenon at any given point in time. The social whole is composed of lower-level processes; but it isn’t exhausted by any specific list of underlying processes. Therefore we shouldn’t imagine that the ideal result of investigation of urban phenomena is a comprehensive theory of the city — the goal is chimerical. Social science is always “incomplete”, in the sense that there are always social processes relevant to social outcomes that have not been theorized.

Is there any type of social phenomenon that is substantially more homogeneous than this description would suggest — with the result that we might be able to arrive a neat, comprehensive theories of this kind of social entity? Consider these potential candidates: inner city elementary schools, labor unions, wars of national liberation, civil service bureaus, or multi-national corporations. One might make the case that these terms capture a group of phenomena that are fairly homogeneous and would support simple, unified theories. But I think that this would be mistaken. Rather, much the same kind of causal complexity that is presented by the city of Chicago or London is also presented by elementary schools and labor unions. There are multiple social, cultural, economic, interpersonal, and historical factors that converge on a particular school in a particular place, or a particular union involving specific individuals and issues; and the characteristics of the school or the union are influenced by this complex convergence of factors. (On the union example, consider Howard Kimeldorf’s fascinating study, Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers, and the Making of the Union Movement. Kimeldorf demonstrates the historical contingency and the plurality of social and business factors that led to the significant differences among dock workers’ unions in the United States.)

What analytical frameworks available for capturing this understanding of the compositional nature of society? I have liked the framework of causal mechanisms, suggesting as it does the idea of there being separable causal processes underlying particular social facts that are diverse and amenable to investigation. The ontology of “assemblages” captures the idea as well, in its ontology of separable sub-processes. (Nick Srnicek provides an excellent introduction to assemblage theory in his master’s thesis.) And the language of microfoundations, methodological localism, and the agent-structure nexus convey much the same idea as well. In each case, we have the idea that the social entity is composed of underlying processes that take us back in the direction of agents acting within the context of social and environmental constraints. And we have a premise of causal openness: the behavior of the whole is not fully determined by a particular set of subordinate mechanisms or assemblages.

Heterogeneity of the social

I think heterogeneity is a very basic characteristic of the domain of the social. And I think this makes a big difference for how we should attempt to study the social world “scientifically”. What sorts of things am I thinking about here?

Let’s start with some semantics. A heterogeneous group of things is the contrary of a homogeneous group, and we can define homogeneity as “a group of fundamentally similar units or samples”. A homogeneous body may consist of a group of units with identical properties, or it may be a smooth mixture of different things, consisting of a similar composition at many levels of scale. A fruitcake is non-homogeneous, in that distinct volumes may include just cake or a mix of cake and dried cherries, or cake and the occasional walnut. The properties of fruitcake depend on which sample we encounter. A well mixed volume of oil and vinegar, by contrast, is homogeneous in a specific sense: the properties of each sample volume are the same as any other. The basic claim about the heterogeneity of the social comes down to this: at many levels of scale we continue to find a diversity of social things and processes at work. Society is more similar to fruitcake than cheesecake.

Heterogeneity makes a difference because one of the central goals of positivist science is to discover strong regularities among classes of phenomena, and regularities appear to presuppose homogeneity of the things over which the regularities are thought to obtain. So to observe that social phenomena are deeply heterogeneous at many levels of scale, is to cast fundamental doubt on the goal of discovering strong social regularities.

Let’s consider some of the forms of heterogeneity that the social world illustrates.

First is the heterogeneity of social causes and influences. Social events are commonly the result of a variety of different kinds of causes that come together in highly contingent conjunctions. A revolution may be caused by a protracted drought, a harsh system of land tenure, a new ideology of peasant solidarity, a communications system that conveys messages to the rural poor, and an unexpected spar within the rulers — all coming together at a moment in time. And this range of causal factors, in turn, shows up in the background of a very heterogeneous set of effects. (A transportation network, for example, may play a causal role in the occurrence of an epidemic, the spread of radical ideas, and a long, slow process of urban settlement.) The causes of an event are a mixed group of dissimilar influences with different dynamics and temporalities, and the effects of a given causal factor are also a mixed and dissimilar group.

Second is the heterogeneity that can be discovered within social categories of things — cities, religions, electoral democracies, social movements. Think of the diversity within Islam documented so well by Clifford Geertz (Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia); the diversity at multiple levels that exists among great cities like Beijing, New York, Geneva, and Rio (institutions, demography, ethnic groups, economic characteristics, administrative roles, …); the institutional variety that exists in the electoral democracies of India, France, and Argentina; or the wild diversity across the social movements of the right.

Third is the heterogeneity that can be discovered across and within social groups. It is not the case that all Kansans think alike — and this is true for whatever descriptors we might choose in order to achieve greater homogeneity (evangelical Kansans, urban evangelical Kansans, …). There are always interesting gradients within any social group. Likewise, there is great variation in the nature of ordinary, lived experience — for middle-class French families celebrating quatorze Juillet, for Californians celebrating July 4, and for Brazilians enjoying Dia da Independência on September 7.

A fourth form of heterogeneity takes us within the agent herself, when we note the variety of motives, moral frameworks, emotions, and modes of agency on the basis of which people act. This is one of the weaknesses of doctrinaire rational choice theory or dogmatic Marxism, the analytical assumption of a single dimension of motivation and reasoning. Instead, it is visible that one person acts for a variety of motives at a given time, persons shift their motives over time, and members of groups differ in terms of their motivational structure as well. So there is heterogeneity of motives and agency within the agent.

These dimensions of heterogeneity make the point: the social world is an ensemble, a dynamic mixture, and an ongoing interaction of forces, agents, structures, and mentalities. Social outcomes emerge from this heterogeneous and dynamic mixture, and the quest for general laws is deeply quixotic.

Where does the heterogeneity principle take us? It suggests an explanatory strategy: instead of looking for laws of whole categories of events and things, rather than searching for simple answers to questions like “why do revolutions occur?”, we might instead look to a “concatenation” strategy. That is, we might simply acknowledge the fact of molar heterogeneity and look instead for some of the different processes and things in play in a given item of interest, and the build up a theory of the whole as a concatenation of the particulars of the parts.

Significantly, this strategy takes us to several fruitful ideas that already have some currency.

First is the idea of looking for microfoundations for observed social processes; (Microfoundations, Methods, and Causation: On the Philosophy of the Social Sciences). Here the idea is that higher-level social processes, causes, and events, need to be placed within the context of an account of the agent-level institutions and circumstances that convey those processes.

Second is the method of causal mechanisms advocated by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly, and discussed frequently here (Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge Studies in Contentious Politics)). Put simply, the approach recommends that we explain an outcome as the contingent result of the concatenation of a set of independent causal mechanisms (escalation, intra-group competition, repression, …).

And third is the theory of “assemblages”, recommended by Nick from accursedshare and derived from some of the theories of Gilles Deleuze. (Manuel Delanda describes this theory in A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory And Social Complexity.)

Each of these ideas gives expression to the important truth of the heterogeneity principle: that social outcomes are the aggregate result of a number of lower-level processes and institutions that give rise to them, and that social outcomes are contingent results of interaction and concatenation of these lower-level processes.

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