Ludwik Fleck and “thought styles” in science

Let’s think about the intellectual influences that have shaped philosophers of science over the past one hundred years or so: Vienna Circle empiricism, logical positivism, the deductive-nomological method, the Kuhn-Lakatos revolution, incorporation of the sociology of science into philosophy of science, a surge of interest in scientific realism, and an increasing focus on specific areas of science as objects of philosophy of science investigations. And along these waypoints it would be fairly easy to place a few road signs indicating the major philosophers associated with each phase in the story — Ayer, Carnap, Reichenbach, Hempel, Nagel, Hanson, Hesse, Kuhn, Lakatos, Putnam, Boyd, Quine, Sellars, Bhaskar, Sober, Rosenberg, Hausman, Epstein …

So we might get the idea that we’ve got a pretty good idea of the “space” in which philosophy of science questions should be posed, along with a sense of the direction of change and progress that has occurred in the field since 1930. The philosophy of science is a “tradition” within philosophy, and we who practice in the field have a sense of understanding its geography.

But now I suggest that readers examine Wojciech Sady’s excellent article on Ludwik Fleck in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (link). Fleck (1896-1961) was a Polish-Jewish scientist and medical researcher who wrote extensively in the 1930s about “social cognition” and what we would now call the sociology of science. His biography is fascinating and harrowing; he and his family survived life in Lvov under the Soviet Union (1939-1941) after the simultaneous invasion of Poland by Germany and the USSR; occupation, pogroms, and capture by the Germans in Lvov; resettlement in the Lvov ghetto; transport to Auschwitz and later Buchenwald; and survival throughout, largely because of his scientific expertise on typhus vaccination. Fleck survived to serve as a senior academic scientist in Lublin. In 1957 Fleck and his wife emigrated to Israel, where their son had settled.

Fleck is not entirely unknown to philosophers today, but it’s a close call. A search for articles on Fleck in a research university search engine produces about 2,500 academic articles; by comparison, the same search results in 183,000 articles on Thomas Kuhn. And I suspect that virtually no philosopher with a PhD from a US department of philosophy since 1970 and with a concentration in the philosophy of science has ever heard of Fleck. 100% of those philosophers, of course, will have a pretty good idea of Kuhn’s central ideas. And yet Fleck has a great deal in common with Kuhn — some three decades earlier. More importantly, many of Fleck’s lines of thought about the history of concepts of disease in medicine are still enormously stimulating, and they represent potential sources of innovation in the field today. Fleck asked very original and challenging questions about the nature of scientific concepts and knowledge. Thomas Kuhn was one of the few historians of science who were aware of Fleck’s work, and he wrote a very generous introduction to the English translation of Fleck’s major book in the sociology and history of science, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact (1979/1935).

Here are Fleck’s central ideas, as summarized by Sady. Understanding the world around us (cognition) is a collective project. Individuals interacting with each other about some aspect of the world constitute a “thought collective” — “a community of persons mutually exchanging ideas or maintaining intellectual interaction” (Sady, sect. 3). A thought collective forms a vocabulary and crafts a set of concepts that are mutually understood within the group, but misunderstood by persons outside the group. A “thought collective” forms a “collective bond” — a set of emotions of loyalty and solidarity which Fleck describes as a “collective mood”. There are no “objective facts”; rather, facts are defined by the terms and constructs of the “thought collective”. And the perceptions, beliefs, and representations of different “thought collectives” concerned with ostensibly the same subject matter are incommensurable.

So it is not possible to compare a theory with “reality in itself”. It is true that those who use a thought style give arguments for their views, but those arguments are of restricted value. Any attempt to legitimize a particular view is inextricably bound to standards developed within a given style, and those who accept those standards accept also the style. (Sady, sect. 7)

And scientific knowledge is entirely conditional upon the background structure of the “thought collective” or conceptual framework of the research community:

As Fleck states in the last sentence of (1935b), “’To see’ means: to recreate, at a suitable moment, a picture created by the mental collective to which one belongs”. (Sady, sect. 5)

Thus, it is impossible to see something radically new “simply and immediately”: first the constrains of an old thought style must be removed and a new style must emerge, a collective’s thought mood must change— and this takes time and work with others. (Sady, sect. 5)

These ideas plainly correspond closely to Imre Lakatos’s idea of a research community and Thomas Kuhn’s idea of a paradigm. They stand in striking contrast to the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle being developed at roughly the same time. (And yet Sady notes that Moritz Schlick offered to recommend publication of Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact in 1934.)

Upon first exposure to Fleck’s ideas from the Sady article I initially assumed that Fleck was influenced by Communist ideas about science and knowledge (as were Polish sociologists and philosophers in the 1950s). The “collective thoughts” that are central to Fleck’s account of the history of science sound a lot like Engels or Lenin. And yet this turns out not to be the case. Nothing in Sady’s article suggests that Fleck was influenced by Polish Communist theory in the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, his ideas about social cognition seem to develop out of a largely central European tradition of thinking about thinking. According to Sady, Fleck’s own “thought collectives” (research traditions) included: (1) medical research; (2) the emerging field in Poland of history of medicine (Władysław Szumowski, Włodzimierz Sieradzki, and Witold Ziembicki); (3) the Polish “philosophical branch” of mathematical-philosophical school (minor); (4) sociology of knowledge (Levy-Bruhl, Wilhelm Jerusalem; but not Max Scheler or Karl Mannheim; also minor). Sady also emphasizes Fleck’s interest in the debates that were arising in physics around the puzzles of quantum mechanics and relativity theory.

So there is a major irony here: one of Fleck’s central ideas is that individual thinkers can achieve nothing by themselves as individuals. And yet Fleck’s ideas as developed in his history of the medical concept of syphilis appear to be largely self-generated — the results of his own knowledge and reflection. The advocate of the necessity of “thought collectives” was himself not deeply integrated into any coherent thought collective.

This story has an important moral. Most importantly, it confirms to me that there are always important perspectives on a given philosophical topic that have fallen outside the mainstream and may be forever forgotten. This suggests the value, for philosophers and other scholars interested in arriving at valuable insights into difficult problems, of paying attention to the paths not taken in previous generations. There is nothing in the nature of academic research that guarantees that “the best ideas of a generation will become part of the canon for the next generation”; instead, many good and original ideas have been lost to the disciplines through bad luck. This is largely true of Fleck.

But here is another, more singular fact that is of interest. How did Sady’s article, and therefore Fleck himself, come to my attention? The answer is that in the past year I’ve been reading a lot about Polish and Jewish intellectuals from the 1930s with growing fascination because of a growing interest in the Holocaust and the Holodomor. That means a lot of searches on people like Janina Bauman, Leszek Kołakowski, and Vasily Grossman. I’ve searched for the histories of places like Lvov, Galicia, and Berdichev. And in the serendipity of casting a wide net, I’ve arrived at the happy experience of reading Sady’s fascinating article, along with some of Fleck’s important work.

Here is the prologue to Fleck’s Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. It expresses very concisely Fleck’s perspective on science, concepts, and facts.

What is a fact?

A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as something definite, permanent, and independent of any subjective interpretation by the scientist. It is that which the various scientific disciplines aim at. The critique of the methods used to establish it constitutes the subject matter of epistemology.

Epistemology often commits a fundamental error: almost exclusively it regards well-established facts of everyday life, or those of classical physics, as the only ones that are reliable and worthy of investigation. Valuation based upon such an investigation is inherently naive, with the result that only superficial data are obtained.

Moreover, we have even lost any critical insight we may once have had into the organic basis of perception, taking for granted the basic fact that a normal person has two eyes. We have nearly ceased to consider this as even knowledge at all and are no longer conscious of our own participation in perception. Instead, we feel a complete passivity in the face of a power that is independent of us; a power we call “existence” or “reality.” In this respect we behave like someone who daily performs ritual or habitual actions mechanically. These are no longer voluntary activities, but ones which we feel compelled to perform to the exclusion of others. A better analogy perhaps is the behavior of a person taking part in a mass movement. Consider, for instance, a casual visitor to the Stock Exchange, who feels the panic selling in a bear market as only an external force existing in reality. He is completely unaware of his own excitement in the throng and hence does not realize how much he may be contributing to the general state. Long-established facts of everyday life, then, do not lend themselves to epistemological investigation.

As for the facts of classical physics, here too we are handicapped by being accustomed to them in practice and by the facts themselves being well worn theoretically. I therefore believe that a “more recent fact,” discovered not in the remote past and not yet exhausted for epistemological purposes, will conform best to the principles of unbiased investigation. A medical fact, the importance and applicability of which cannot be denied, is particularly suitable, because it also appears to be very rewarding historically and phenomenologically. I have therefore selected one of the best established medical facts: the fact that the so-called Wassermann reaction is related to syphilis.


Lvov, Poland, summer 1934

Skilled bodily capacities

When philosophers think of action they generally have in mind a combination of intentionality and simple motor movements. “John flips the switch to turn on the lights.” But a great deal of human action is substantially more complex than this. Skilled bodily performance — playing the piano, returning a tennis serve, fabricating a guitar — seems to require a sustained treatment from within cognitive science. Bodily action is a cognitive activity. It is enlightening to learn that there is in fact such a field. It turns out that the cognitive science of skilled bodily action is creating a great deal of highly interesting work. Some of that research is happening at Ruhr University-Bochum, and my exposure to this group of researchers last month was very rewarding. (Thanks, Albert Newen, for your warm introduction to the work your group is doing.)

Elisabeth Pacherie has made major contributions to this field, bridging philosophy and cognitive science in her effort to contribute to a richer understanding of skilled bodily action. Her perspective has been to argue that bodily action is intentional and cognitive all the way down, and is dependent on mental representations of the field of action. She emphasizes that skilled action involves situated awareness and flexible control, at a granular level of bodily action. She and collaborator Myrto Mylopoulos provide a recent statement of their views in “Intentions and motor representations: the interface challenge” (link).  Here is the abstract to their article:

Abstract A full account of purposive action must appeal not only to propositional attitude states like beliefs, desires, and intentions, but also to motor representations, i.e., non-propositional states that are thought to represent, among other things, action outcomes as well as detailed kinematic features of bodily movements. This raises the puzzle of how it is that these two distinct types of state successfully coordinate. We examine this so-called “Interface Problem”. First, we clarify and expand on the nature and role of motor representations in explaining intentional action. Next, we characterize the respective functions of intentions and motor representations, the differences in representational format and content that these imply, and the interface challenge these differences in turn raise. We then evaluate Butterfill and Sinigaglia’s (2014) recent answer to this interface challenge, according to which intentions refer to action outcomes by way of demonstrative deference to motor representations. We present some worries for this proposal, arguing that, among other things, it implicitly presupposes a solution to the problem, and so cannot help to resolve it. Finally, we suggest that we may make some progress on this puzzle by positing a “content-preserving causal process” taking place between intentions and motor representations, and we offer a proposal for how this might work.

Another useful presentation of their work is offered in “Intentions: The dynamic hierarchical model revisited”; link.

Another key contributor to this field is Ellen Fridland. Her article, “Skill and motor control: intelligence all the way down” provides a compelling framework for analyzing skilled bodily action (link). Her fundamental insight is that we are not justified in analyzing bodily activity into higher processes (thought and decision) and lower processes (habits of motor control, learned reflexes). Intelligence comes into skilled action only at the higher level, the “propositional” level. What this fails to see, however, is that intelligence pervades skilled action all the way down, with fine-grained motor movements being affected by perception and opportunity at a very granular level. “In short, for [Stanley and Krakauer (link), Papineau (link), and Stanley and Williamson (link)], skill combines intelligent guidance by propositional knowledge with the noncognitive, basic, subpersonal, low-level motor and perceptual abilities. The propositional bit of skill is knowledge-involving while the motor acuity bit is not” (1543). She quotes an interesting passage from Papineau 2013:

At any stage of an inning, a competent batsman will have assessed the situation and formed a view about how to bat—a conscious intention to adopt a certain strategy. As with any intention, this will then set the parameters of the basic action-control system. It will direct that system to bat aggressively, say. It will take one raft of conditional dispositions from the batsman’s repertoire, and reconfigure that basic control system so that it embodies just those dispositions…Having been so reset, the basic action-control system will then respond accordingly, without any further intrusion of conscious thought’’ Emphasis in original, (2013, p. 191). (1544)

In this paper Fridland goes through a careful examination of the assumptions underlying the strong distinction made by S&K between propositional (intellectual) knowledge and motor acuity (habit or reflex), and shows that these assumptions are not well grounded. She makes use of “optimal control theory” to make her point (Todorov and Jordan 2002; link). Here is the Todorov-Jordan abstract describing this approach:

A central problem in motor control is understanding how the many biomechanical degrees of freedom are coordinated to achieve a common goal. An especially puzzling aspect of coordination is that behavioral goals are achieved reliably and repeatedly with movements rarely reproducible in their detail. Existing theoretical frameworks emphasize either goal achievement or the richness of motor variability, but fail to reconcile the two. Here we propose an alternative theory based on stochastic optimal feedback control. We show that the optimal strategy in the face of uncertainty is to allow variability in redundant (task-irrelevant) dimensions. This strategy does not enforce a desired trajectory, but uses feedback more intelligently, correcting only those deviations that interfere with task goals. From this framework, task-constrained variability, goal-directed corrections, motor synergies, controlled parameters, simplifying rules and discrete coordination modes emerge naturally. We present experimental results from a range of motor tasks to support this theory. (Todorov and Jordon 2002)

One important issue that emerges is the question of where learning occurs as a subject improves his or her skill level. Is it at the reflexive level of motor acuity, or is it at the intellectual and “model-building” level of intention? Here again, Fridland gives reasons to believe that the motor level improves effectiveness through the construction of models of the actions being performed — or in other words, that there is flexible cognition in play at the motor-acuity level as well as at the strategic, intentional level. Here is the conclusion to her paper:

I hope that it has become clear that a hybrid view of skilled bodily action where the intelligence of skill is cashed out in propositional, intentional terms and motor control is characterized in bottom-up, brute-causal, unintelligent ways is unsustainable. Instead of thinking of independent intentional states and automatic reflex-like basic actions or of independent action trajectories and the execution of those trajectories by processes of motor acuity, it seems that we must revise our view of skill in order to reflect findings which show that even those processes responsible for the automatic, low-level, fine-grained sensorimotor executions of motor skills are sensitive to high-level goals.

This is a place where cognitive science, neuroscience, and philosophy meet and shed very important new light on the nature of intentionality, action, and bodily skill. It is a very exciting field of research. Joshua Shepherd captures the intellectual challenges of the field very aptly in a recent paper, “Intelligent action guidance and the use of mixed representational formats”; link. Here is the abstract to this paper:

My topic is the intelligent guidance of action. In this paper I offer an empirically grounded case for four ideas: that [a] cognitive processes of practical reasoning play a key role in the intelligent guidance of action, [b] these processes could not do so without significant enabling work done by both perception and the motor system, [c] the work done by perceptual and motor systems can be characterized as the generation of information (often conceptually structured information) specialized for action guidance, which in turn suggests that [d] the cognitive processes of practical reasoning that play a key role in the guidance of intelligent action are not the abstract, syllogistic ones philosophers often treat as the paradigm of practical reasoning. Rather, these cognitive processes are constrained by, and work well with, the specialized concepts outputted by perception and the feedback outputted by sensorimotor processes.

One immediate thought that I had in listening to Elisabeth Pacherie present some of her work at a symposium in Bochum earlier this month is that this approach has the potential of solving the problem Norbert Elias was wrestling with in his own account of action. (Here is an earlier post on figurational sociology; link.) Elias used the example of skilled soccer play and proposed that we need to consider the unit to be the configuration (several players) rather than the individual player. But the real-time cognitive adaptiveness in skilled behavior described in this field of research provides a different and perhaps simpler way of understanding the rapid, intelligent adaptiveness of the players on the soccer field. Their bodily motions are indeed intelligent and adaptive, and their motions and reactions are responsive to the small clues available to them about the motions and intentions of the other players on the field. But at the other end of the research spectrum, it seems evident that research in this area is very relevant to work in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Emotions as neurophysiological constructs

Are emotions real? Are they hardwired to our physiology? Are they pre-cognitive and purely affective? Was Darwin right in speculating that facial expressions are human universals that accurately represent a small repertoire of emotional experiences (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals)? Or instead are emotions a part of the cognitive output of the brain, influenced by context, experience, expectation, and mental framework? Lisa Feldman Barrett is an accomplished neuroscientist who addresses all of these questions in her recent book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, based on several decades of research on the emotions. The book is highly interesting, and has important implications for the social sciences more broadly.

Barrett’s core view is that the received theory of the emotions — that they are hardwired and correspond to specific if unknown neurological groups, connected to specific physiological and motor responses — is fundamentally wrong. She marshals a great deal of experimental evidence to the incorrectness of that theory. In its place she argues that emotional responses and experiences are the result of mental, conceptual, and cognitive construction by our central nervous system, entirely analogous to our ability to find meaning in a visual field of light and dark areas in order to resolve it as a bee (her example). The emotions are like perception more generally — they result from an active process in which the brain attempts to impose order and pattern on sensory stimulation, a process she refers to as “simulation”. She refers to this as the theory of constructed emotion (30). In brief:

Emotions are not reactions to the world. You are not a passive receiver of sensory input but an active constructor of your emotions. From sensory input and past experience, your brain constructs meaning and prescribes action. If you didn’t have concepts that represent your past experience, all your sensory inputs would just be noise. (31)

And further:

Particular concepts like “Anger” and “Distrust” are not genetically determined. Your familiar emotion concepts are built-in only because you grew up in a particular social context where those emotion concepts are meaningful and useful, and your brain applies them outside your awareness to construct your experiences. (33)

This theory has much in common with theorizing about the nature of perception and thought within cognitive psychology, where the constructive nature of perception and representation has been a core tenet. Paul Kolers’ motion perception experiments in the 1960s and 1970s established that perception is an active and constructive process, not a simple rendering of information from the retina into visual diagrams in the mind (Aspects of Motion Perception). And Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained argues for a “multiple drafts” theory of conscious experience which once again emphasizes the active and constructive nature of consciousness.

One implication of Barrett’s theory is that emotions are concept-dependent. We need to learn the terms for emotions in our ambient language community before we can experience them. The emotions we experience are conceptually loaded and structured.

People who exhibit low emotional granularity will have only a few emotion concepts. In English, they might have words in their vocabulary like “sadness,” “fear,” “guilt,” “shame,” “embarrassment,” “irritation,” “anger,” and “contempt,” but those words all correspond to the same concept whose goal is something like “feeling unpleasant.” This person has a few tools — a hammer and Swiss Army knife. (106)

In a later chapter Barrett takes her theory in a Searle-like direction by emphasizing the inherent and irreducible constructedness of social facts and social relations (chapter 7). Without appropriate concepts we cannot understand or represent the behaviors and interactions of people around us; and their interactions depend inherently on the conceptual systems or frames within which we place their actions. Language, conceptual frames, and collective intentionality are crucial constituents of social facts, according to this perspective. I find Searle’s arguments on this subject less than convincing (link), and I’m tempted to think that Barrett is going out on a limb by embracing his views more extensively than needed for her own theory of the emotions.

I find Barrett’s work interesting for a number of reasons. One is the illustration it provides of human plasticity and heterogeneity. “Any category of emotion such as “Happiness” or “Guilt” is filled with variety” (35). Another is the methodological sophistication Barrett demonstrates in her refutation of two thousand years of received wisdom about the emotions, from Aristotle and Plato to Paul Ekman and colleagues. This sophistication extends to her effort to avoid language in describing emotions and research strategies that embeds the ontology of the old view — an ontology that reifies particular emotions in the head and body of the other human being (40). She correctly observes that language like “detecting emotion X in the subject” implies that the psychological condition exists as a fixed reality in the subject; whereas the whole point of her theory is that the experience of disgust or happiness is a transient and complex construction by the brain behind the scenes of our conscious experience. She is “anti-realist” in her treatment of emotion. “We don’t recognize emotions or identify emotions: we construct our own emotional experiences, and our perceptions of others’ emotions, on the spot, as needed, through a complex interplay of systems” (40). And finally, her theory of emotion as a neurophysiological construct has a great deal of credibility — its internal logic, its fit with current understandings of the central nervous system, its convergence with cognitive psychology and perception theory, and the range of experimental evidence that Barrett brings to bear.

Getting inside people’s frames

It seems clear that human beings bring specific frameworks of thought, ideas, emotions, and valuations to their social lives, and these frameworks affect both how they interpret the social realities they confront and the ways that they respond to what they experience. Human beings have “frames” of cognition and valuation that guide their experiences and actions. The idea of a practical-mental frame is therefore a compelling one, and it should be a possible subject for empirical sociological investigation.

The notion of a frame seems to originate (in sociology anyway) in the writings of Erving Goffman. Here is how he formulates the idea in Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience:

When the individual in our Western society recognizes a particular event, he tends, whatever else he does, to imply in this response (and in effect employ) one or more frameworks or schemata of interpretation of a kind that can be called primary. I say primary because application of such a framework or perspective is seen by those who apply it as not depending on or harking back to some prior or ‘original’ interpretation; indeed a primary framework is one that is seen as rendering what would otherwise be a meaningless aspect of the scene into something that is meaningful…. Whatever the degree of organization, however, each primary framework allows its user to locate, perceive, identify, and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms. He is likely to be unaware of such organized features as the framework has and unable to describe the framework with any completeness if asked, yet these handicaps are no bar to his easily and fully applying it…. Social frameworks … provide background understanding for events that incorporate the will, aim, and controlling effort of an intelligence, a live agency, the chief one being the human being…. Taken all together, the primary frameworks of a particular social group constitute a central element of its culture, especially insofar as understandings emerge concerning principal classes of schemata, the relations of these classes to one another, and the sum total of forces and agents that these interpretive designs acknowledge to be loose in the world. (21-22, 27)

The term “cultural sociology” is sometimes used to try to capture those research efforts that try to probe the meanings and mental frameworks that people bring to their social interactions. We can postulate that human beings are processors of meanings and interpretations, and that their frameworks take shape as a result of the range of experiences and interactions they have had to date. This means that their frameworks are deeply social, created and constructed by the social settings and experiences the individuals have had. And we can further postulate that social action is deeply inflected by the specifics of the mental and emotional frameworks through which actors structure and interpret the worlds they confront. At least a part of the disciplinary matrix of cultural sociology might be understood as the field of inquiry that tries to probe those frameworks as they are embodied in specific collectivities — working class people, women, African Americans, American Muslims, or college professors, for example. (Erving Goffman and Harold Garfinkel might be viewed as progenitors of this aspect of the sociology discipline; linklink.)

Wendy Griswold addresses part of this viewpoint on sociological research in her very good overview of the field in Cultures and Societies in a Changing World.

Most sociologists now view people as meaning makers as well as rational actors, symbol users as well as class representatives, and storytellers as well as points in a demographic trend. Moreover, sociology largely has escaped its former either/or way of thinking. The discipline now seeks to understand how people’s meaning making shapes their rational action, how their class position molds their stories—in short, how social structure and culture mutually influence one another. (kl 195)

So how have sociologists attempted to investigate these kinds of subjective realities? Here is how Al Young describes his research goals in The Minds of Marginalized Black Men: Making Sense of Mobility, Opportunity, and Future Life Chances:

I wanted to get a sense of whether poor black men looked beyond their immediate surroundings and circumstances when thinking about the future. Hence, the story told here is about how these men think about themselves as members of a larger social world — not just their communities and neighborhoods, but American society. (lc 134)

Part 2, “Lifeworlds,” explores the men’s own accounts of their past and contemporary circumstances. It is here that the experiences and situations that have positioned them as poor, urban-based black men are explored. Chapter 2 provides a vision of the social contexts that circumscribe these men’s lives and shape the comments and opinions that they shared with me. (lc 195)

In order to answer these questions Young conducted several dozen interviews with young black men on the south side of Chicago, and his interpretation and analysis of the results is highly illuminating.

Or take as another example the highly interesting work of sociologist Michele Lamont in Money, Morals, and Manners: The Culture of the French and the American Upper-Middle Class. Here Lamont studies the mentalities of high-status white men in the United States and France. Her question is a fairly simple one: how do these men formulate their judgments of success and failure in themselves and others? What features do they admire in others and which do they dislike? She conducts interviews with 160 men in four cities in France and the United States, and makes a sustained effort to discern the profiles of culture and value that she finds among these individuals.

I compare competing definitions of what it means to be a ‘worthy person’ by analyzing symbolic boundaries, i.e., by looking at implicit definitions of purity present in the labels interviewees use to describe, abstractly and concretely, people with whom they don’t want to associate, people to whom they consider themselves to be superior and inferior, and people who arouse hostility, indifference, and sympathy. Hence, the study analyzes the relative importance attached to religion, honesty, low moral standards, cosmopolitanism, high culture, money, power, and the likes, by Hoosiers, New Yorkers, Parisians, and Clermontois. (kl 179)

This kind of research is inherently interesting because of the light it sheds for readers about the lives and experiences of others. Reading Al Young or Michele Lamont offers the reader a window into the experience and meaning frameworks of people whose lives and experiences have been substantially different from our own; it helps us understand the ways in which these various individuals and members of groups understand themselves and their social worlds. All by itself this is a valuable kind of research. (Why did so many African Americans respond differently to the acquittal of OJ Simpson than their white counterparts and peers?)

But this kind of research becomes especially interesting if we find that the mental frameworks and systems of meanings that actors bring with them actually make substantial differences to their social actions and the choices that they make. In this case we can actually begin to create explanations and interpretations of social outcomes that interest us a great deal. (Why are some extremist militants so ready to put on suicide vests in actions that are almost certain to bring about their own deaths?)

A key issue with this kind of inquiry is methodological. How should we investigate and observe the subjective characteristics of thought and feeling that this work entails? What are appropriate standards of validity on the basis of which to assess assertions in this area? Sociologists like Alford Young and Michele Lamont have often chosen a methodology that centers on open-ended unstructured interviews — very much the kind of thing that Studs Terkel was so good at. What these sociologists add to the approach of a Studs Terkel or an Ira Glass is an effort to analyze and generalize from the interviews they collect in order to arrive at mid-level statements about the mentality and symbolic frameworks of this group or that. And both Young and Lamont succeed in providing portraits of their subjects that are highly insightful and sociologically plausible — we can understand the mechanisms through which these frameworks take hold and we can see some of the meso-level consequences that follow from them in specific social settings.

In a number of prior posts I’ve argued for an actor-centered sociology (link). And I’ve argued that we need to have better and more fully articulated theories of the actor if an actor-centered sociology is to be valuable.  What I am calling cultural sociology here is one way for the discipline of sociology to get down to business in providing more nuanced theories of the actor.

(I should note that the description provided here of cultural sociology makes the field seem highly actor-centered; but this isn’t entirely accurate. There are macro and meso zones of research in cultural sociology that are distinctly uninterested in the mental frameworks of the individual actors. Wendy Griswold captures this multi-level division of the field by referring to a “cultural diamond”, and the actor-centered aspect that I’ve described here is probably the smallest in terms of the volume of research conducted in the field. Here is Griswold’s description of the diamond:

I use the device of the “cultural diamond” to investigate the connections among four elements: cultural objects — symbols, beliefs, values, and practices; cultural creators, including the organizations and systems that produce and distribute cultural objects; cultural receivers, the people who experience culture and specific cultural objects; and the social world, the context in which culture is created and experienced. (kl 218)

In fact, the actor-centered dimension of the field gets relatively little spotlight in Griswold’s Cultures and Societies in a Changing World. If anything, one might argue that there should be more attention to the interface between frame and actor, so that individuals are not viewed as simply the passive bearers of this cultural icon or that.)

Expert knowledge

We often want the judgment of “experts” as we make important decisions in life, health, and business. But what exactly is an expert?

One aspect of the idea is the possession of a large fund of specialized knowledge. A civil engineer specializing in bridge design is an expert in part because he or she has mastered the mathematics and physics describing the mechanics of large physical systems, the chemistry and properties of various materials, and the best practices that currently exist for ensuring safety. So the expert can be relied upon to have command of the most up-to-date and scientific specialized knowledge about a topic area.

A second aspect of what we have in mind from an expert is a person who has had significant experience in acting and judging in a particular context (and who has refined his/her behavior according to the outcomes of those experiences). An experienced pilot has had the experience of landing an Airbus 330 at O’Hare Airport many times in many different weather conditions. As a result, he/she is ready to respond quickly to unusual wind conditions in a subsequent landing. Essentially this aspect of expertise comes down to trained behavioral skills and responses, permitting the expert to quickly adapt to somewhat unusual circumstances in the future. This is a combination of “muscle memory” and refined habit; it is the trained sensibility and physical awareness of an expert player.

Another aspect of expertise is refined sensibility and perception. This is more akin to the trained palette of a wine connoisseur — a refined ability to discern the flavors and odors of a pinot noir that are perceived more generically by the occasional wine drinker. Here the idea is that there are aspects of the world around us that can only be perceived and discerned by a trained observer. Michael Polanyi describes this aspect of medical training in Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (link).

A skilled physician has elements of all three kinds of expertise: the background fund of knowledge of physiology and disease that comes from medical training, the body of experience from which he/she has learned to judge and act, and a refined sensitivity to the minor indicators of disease that a non-expert would likely overlook. A skilled physician can diagnose an illness in a patient based on a body of symptoms, and he/she can prescribe a course of treatment that is likely to lead to alleviation of the disease or its symptoms.

An experienced news reporter may have an unusual ability to “see” the story that underlies a few unusual activities by the city planning commission, and he/she may have a skilled ability to summarize the facts of a story in a logical and readable way. The former is a developed skill of reading a situation; the latter is a developed skill in presenting a sequence of statements in a logical way. Both of these abilities are skills the reporter has cultivated through prior experiences and the feedback that came from success and failure. Further, the reporter may be an expert concerning the facts of a story — he/she may understand real estate law, the business of real estate development, and the forms of collusion that are common in major development projects.

The reason we seek out the advice of an expert in any of these senses when we are confronted with a high-stakes decision is that we think the expert has a better basis for understanding the problem we face and the options that are available to us, and a better basis for weighing the options. We think the expert can help us make the most reliable judgments and decisions in difficult cases. So appeal to an expert is a strategy for us to reach either knowledge or strategy that is better aligned with the world than our own intuitions and analysis would permit.

As we consider the role of experts in helping us reach personal and collective decisions, it is important to keep track of the epistemic warrant of various kinds of expert judgments. When we consider how best to respond to a nuclear power plant accident like Fukushima, we want nuclear engineers as experts who can advise the best short and medium-term remedies to the immediate hazards. But we might be more skeptical about the judgments of these same experts when it comes to assessing the long-term viability of nuclear power. The assumptions on the basis of which the expert offers the latter kind of judgment may actually be very shaky, whereas the knowledge of nuclear design and physics that is the basis of the former kind of judgment is very strong.
There is a place within the sociology of science and the sociology of science for study of “expertise”, and some sociologists like Marion Fourcade have turned their attention in this direction. Expertise can be viewed as a kind of social capital, on the basis of which the expert and those who employ his/her services are able to gain various kinds of advantages. Fourcade’s Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s is not specifically focused on the social composition of expertise, but it offers a good example of how the question might be pursued.

(I’ve addressed some of these issues earlier under the rubric of skilled cooperation (link) and technical knowledge (link).)

How things work

Social scientists have a set of abstract goals in approaching their work.  They want to formulate specific research questions about limited aspects of the social world and then arrive at empirical and explanatory insights into those matters. They look for the evidence of social structures and systems, regularities of social behavior in populations and groups, and so on. They are looking to provide abstract, general knowledge about how society works. They would like to arrive at clear “diagrams” of the social structures and mechanisms that constitute the contemporary social world.

But think about the challenge of understanding society from the other end of the stick — the perspective of the ordinary participant. From the participant’s perspective the situation often looks more like an environment of black boxes: how will the world respond if I do X, Y, or Z? And for a significant part of society, how the boxes work is a life-affecting mystery.

There is a significant proportion of almost any society for whom these kinds of questions can be answered with a satisfying routine: if I go to work today I can count on getting a day’s pay; my pay will permit me to satisfy my ordinary needs reasonably well; and tomorrow will be equally routine. The police won’t hassle me, my home won’t be broken into, my health is good, and my children’s school situation is good.  So there isn’t much at stake for this group of people as they consider how the social world around them works.

What about people for whom life is not routine and comfortable, however? Put yourself in the position of an African-American high-school-educated worker who has just lost his job in Taylor, Michigan. Suppose you’ve got an apartment for your family of five that costs $750/month. You’ve got an old car that breaks down frequently. While you’ve been working your family has just barely scraped by. Now that you’ve lost your job things are no longer routine. Unemployment insurance brings in less than 60% of the wages you’d been making. That’s not enough to cover all the bills you’ve got — rent, food, clothes for the children, gas for the clunker, a few medical bills.

So what choices does the environment offer now? The largest part of the family budget is the apartment. So maybe moving out early is a good choice — find something even cheaper, live in a shelter for a few months, live in the clunker. These are desperate choices — being homeless is desperate, and it’s hard to find an apartment for less than $500. Also, the landlord will probably want first and last month rent deposit as well as proof of employment, and you haven’t got that. So maybe it’s the shelter or the car.

Looking for a new job is an obvious choice. But the unemployment rate in Wayne County is much higher than the rest of the state and the nation. So that’s iffy. How about borrowing? Like many of your friends and family, you don’t have a credit card and you don’t have assets that could be the basis for borrowing. There’s nothing in the house that can be sold. And you’ve got about $1000 in cash. So what to do? Your landlord won’t be patient after a few months of missed rent checks.

Maybe looking for work outside of Wayne County will occur to you. Maybe there are jobs in Texas. But how would you find out? Would you use part of the thousand dollars and take a bus to Houston where you have a cousin, or to Dallas where you don’t know anyone? That leaves about $800 for your family to survive on while you’re gone — is that a good risk? And how likely is it that you’ll find work in Texas that will permit you to send enough money back home to make the difference? 

Or maybe another part of Michigan might have more jobs. Not Flint, that’s for sure. But what about Grand Rapids? Now the question of race comes into the picture. How receptive is Grand Rapids to an unemployed black man looking for work? How will the police treat you when you arrive in the bus station? Are there social services that might help out till you found work? How would you know? Have you got any friends in GR who might be able to get you started?

You might be very well aware that a lack of education is holding you back. So maybe you can get some training at a community college to boost your job skills — welding or health tech, perhaps. But that takes time, and you’ve only got a thousand dollars and an unemployment check. That would have been a good idea a while ago, but it’s hard to see how to make it work now. 

And what about the criminal options? Maybe you know some guys who sometimes break into stopped rail cars in Detroit. Once in a while they find stuff that can be sold. Does that make sense? What’s the likelihood of being caught? Is there money in this kind of racket? How would you sort that out?

My point in this thought experiment is to draw out how different the “social epistemics” are for the marginalized 30-40% in our society from the rest of us. The routine relationships they have with the social world around them don’t satisfy their most basic needs. They’ve got to do something different. And none of the options are obvious in their mechanics or outcomes. There are uncertainties everywhere, and every choice is a bet against disaster. This is a very personal kind of social calculation: it requires figuring out which play may push destitution off for a few weeks or months. 

And yet in one sense they’re dealing with the same realities as the social scientist: large institutions (labor market, state social service agencies), informal social practices and networks (networks of people willing to share what they’ve got, networks of people preying on the formal economy), large social realities like racism and police violence.

One of the things I appreciate in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels is the care Mosley takes to work out the ordinary street knowledge that Easy needed — and mastered — as he survived and thrived in the gritty world of Los Angeles in the fifties and sixties. Easy had a very strong street epistemology, not as a sociologist but as an intelligent observer of a complicate set of social black boxes. Here is one good example, A Little Yellow Dog : Featuring an Original Easy Rawlins Short Story “Gray-Eyed Death”.

Mundane knowledge: Toronto street people


There is a lot of interesting stuff we encounter every day, if we stop to think. Often we don’t have the knowledge necessary to make sense of it, so it remains interesting but opaque. And plainly each vignette has a dense set of social facts standing behind it that need to be teased out if we are to understand the vignette.

Here is an example. I’m in Toronto this morning and I’ve seen something here I haven’t seen in other cities — young people, mostly men, sleeping on the sidewalk at busy intersections. They look comfortable in down sleeping bags — as if they were camping out. But they aren’t camping; they’re sleeping in full daylight, with pedestrians and drivers passing in the hundreds every hour. Here is a specific guy sleeping on Bay St Sunday morning.

He looks to be in his twenties, lightly bearded. And, by the way, he’s got a plastic St Patricks Day hat near his head. As pedestrians walk by they take a curious look and then pass on. No one stops. It doesn’t look like a safe place to sleep — cars are passing in the street on the turn from Queen St, and just a slight mistake takes them onto the curb and onto the guy.

Now here’s an interesting development — a real homeless guy, over sixty, heavily bearded, dressed warmly, happens by. He takes a close look, then walks around the sleeping guy to check him out; stands and thinks for a minute, then moves on.

Why are they here? There was an Occupy Toronto demonstration in City Hall Park nearby yesterday — is this young guy an Occupy protester? The Old City Hall and green space is just across Queen St. Why hasn’t this guy chosen to locate himself on the grass somewhere more secluded? Perhaps because the police would make him move on; perhaps because more secluded space is also more vulnerable space. And why not in a city shelter? They exist, so why has this young guy chosen the street?

This one sleeping guy is perplexing enough; but in the past few days I’ve seen several other similar instances within ten blocks of City Hall. So it’s not an isolated example. Why does this take place here in Toronto but not Boston or Chicago? (I mean sleeping right in the middle of the sidewalk; of course there are homeless people in all those cities.)

But here is another interesting point to me: I’m observing this scene without any special background knowledge. What would a social worker, a street activist, or a policeman see that I don’t notice in this scene? The policeman might quickly have registered the fact that the green spaces across Queen St aren’t actually that attractive for sleeping because the police patrol them and evict sleepers. The activist might notice some features of the guy allowing her to identify the political statement he might be making. The social worker would have a much clearer idea about the shelter system. 

But now I get a chance for a little clarity. A block away I encounter two young guys (20s) sitting on the street, right at the curb, panhandling on Queen St. They greet me. I stop and talk to them. I ask why the guy down the street is sleeping right there on the sidewalk. G1 said that he sleeps there too sometimes. I asked why not in the park. He says because Mayor Ford has ordered that people be ticketed for sleeping in the park. He himself has been banned from City Hall grounds because of panhandling. And if you go near the Marriott entrance just down the block, Marriott security make you move. I asked why they don’t choose more secluded spots. G2 says you need to sleep near a vent for the warmth. The good secluded spots are taken. Sometimes these two guys find a spot under a structure down the street.

I ask about Occupy Toronto. G1 is enthusiastic. He says he was welcomed into the biggest tent, the Communist tent, and slept there while Occupy was going on. It was a 12-person tent. But the guys say the demonstration that I heard yesterday wasn’t Occupy, it was a demo about Syria. G1 says, why demonstrate against Syria when people here are suffering?

I ask if it is safe sleeping on the street. G1 says he’d been robbed recently. The thief ripped his inside pocket out and took a bag with 35 cents, a tooth brush and toothpaste. G1 says indignantly, “You’re going to rob a man for his toothpaste?” They say people have been killed down the street a ways. 

I ask about the city shelters. Neither of them wanted to go there: they refer to bedbugs, diseases, and seriously crazy people who might hurt you.

I ask about their educations. G1 says he’d failed 9th grade 5 times. G2 says he was close to graduating high school. G2 says people on the street sometimes have parents they can go back to, but G1 says his parents are both dead. G2 says it’s hard to get together “first and last” to get a place to live, but he’s trying. (First and last month rent for a lease.)

G1 gives me some advice about street people. He holds out his jacket, which is clean and in good shape aside from the ripped-out inner pocket. He says, when you see a guy who’s all dirty, bad clothes, bad teeth, that’s a crack-head. Whatever you give him he’ll just turn around and buy crack. He then grins to show me his teeth, all in good condition.

Both guys are friendly and very willing to talk. (Is there a personality type that does best as a panhandler? Are the same attributes of gregariousness that work well in business also good in this part of the street?) I liked these young guys, and it’s painful to know that there’s nothing for them in Toronto or in their futures.

Toronto people — what am I missing here? How do you understand this scene?

Sociology of knowledge: Berger

Sociology of knowledge: Berger

I’ve treated several approaches to the sociology of knowledge in the past month.  Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann describe their book, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, as fundamentally a contribution to this subject as well.  So this post will examine the assumptions they make about the topic.  Berger and Luckmann link their theorizing to George Herbert Mead and the “so-called symbolic-interactionist school of American sociology” (17).  This is a very suggestive link, and a promising starting point for an analysis of ordinary commonsense knowledge.  My complaint will be that Berger and Luckmann don’t in fact carry it off. 

Berger and Luckmann want to show that reality is socially constructed.  This can mean two things: that the objective features of the world have assumed the shape they have as a result of social action; and the features of the objective world can only be understood through one or another conceptual schemes that are both incommensurable and irrefutable.  What they actually show pertains to the first interpretation, not the second. The most enduring contribution they make is to work out the case for this proposition: We as persons, and the social relations and processes within which we act, are iteratively created by previous social processes and individual actions.  So the book isn’t about knowledge; it’s about social reality.

It is apparent from page 1, that Berger and Luckmann have a non-standard conception of “knowledge”.  They define knowledge as “the certainty that phenomena are real and that they possess specific characteristics.”  This definition has more to do with the degree of subjective confidence that persons have in their beliefs, and less to do with the nature of those beliefs themselves. And yet the topic of knowledge, whether philosophical or sociological, is really only interesting if it sheds light on the ways in which cognitive entities arrive at and formulate representations of the world around them.

Berger and Luckmann want the sociology of knowledge to focus on commonsensical beliefs, not specialist or scientific knowledge.  “The sociology of knowledge must first of all concern itself with what people ‘know’ as ‘reality’ in their everyday, non- or pre-theoretical lives” (15).  This is a perfectly legitimate point.  But it doesn’t erase the need for conceptual analysis: what is the structure of commonsense knowing?  How do ordinary people “parse” their daily experiences into an organized representation of their worlds?  These questions are just a much of a philosophical issue for commonsensical knowledge as they are for Kant in his consideration of all empirical knowledge.

Much of the social world that we confront and about which we form beliefs has to do with institutions. Berger and Luckmann have a particular and narrow definition of an institution. “Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution” (53).  The examples they give of institutions are practices that have grown up organically — e.g. conventionalized ways that a traditional village may have come to have organized the annual stag hunt.  But it would seem that there are many things that we would call “institutions” that fall outside this paradigm.  For example, the Internal Revenue Service is an institution. It consists of hundreds of thousands of employees, organized by a set of rules, disciplinary processes, and oversight mechanisms.  It is true that this institution specifies regular forms of conduct by the various people who are part of the institution.  But it certainly didn’t come about as the “sedimentation” of simpler forms of practice. More generally, their definition of an institution doesn’t seem to do justice to the social realities represented by organizations.

That said, this definition of an institution gives concrete meaning to one sense in which Berger and Luckmann mean to say that “social reality is a construction”: the institution itself is socially created by a group of people. “It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity” (60).  This is certainly correct.  But it doesn’t support or convey the other important implication of “social construction” — the idea that the world we experience is fundamentally constructed in terms of the concepts that we impose upon it.  This is the sense implied by Whorf and other conceptual relativists; but it doesn’t find expression in B-L’s analysis.

My overall assessment of the arguments offered by Berger and Luckmann here is somewhat negative: I don’t think they are offering a “sociology of knowledge” at all.  Instead, they are offering an interpretation of the actor(constituted by processes of socialization before biology is even completely finished) and of the social world in which we act (created by the practices, actions, and habits of concrete human beings over time).   It is essentially a sociological theory of the actor-in-social-context.  The discussions of primary and secondary socialization are empirically useful, in that they help steer us towards the concrete situations through which individuals learn about the roles and values they “should” recognize.  Seen from that perspective, the key chapters (II and III) are interesting and helpful. 

But the book has very little to do with the problem of mental representation; and it doesn’t have much to say about social cognition.  And the recurring theme, that there are alternative social realities, needs to be understood as relating to the social-stuff side rather than the knowledge side: social relations, habits, and patterns of social behavior could have unfolded differently.  There is nothing inevitable about the specific forms of interaction “our” society has codified.  We could have created different institutions.  But given the institutions and practices we’ve got, the task of knowledge is determined: we need to discover through participation and practice how they work.

So I’m not too excited about this book as one that contributes to a better understanding of cognition — I don’t find Berger and Luckmann’s analysis of knowledge and the social world very helpful.  The problem is, that they don’t have anything like a nuanced analysis of the relationship between thought and the world: the nature of conceptual schemes, the relationship between concepts and observations, and something like a naturalized analysis of evidence and belief acceptance.  In other words, they aren’t doing enough of the philosophical work that is needed in order to have a genuinely insightful basis for talking about the social construction of beliefs.  We need to know what goes into beliefs about the world before we can get very specific about how those belief systems are socially conditioned or constructed.  They acknowledge this limitation of their approach:

We therefore exclude from the sociology of knowledge the epistemological and methodological problems that bothered both of its major originators. By virtue of this exclusion we are setting ourselves apart from both Scheler’s and Mannheim’s conception of the discipline, and from the later sociologists of knowledge (notably those with a neo-positivist orientation) who shared the conception in this respect. (14)

They don’t seem to think this avoidance of philosophical issues reduces their ability to shed light on the topic.  Unfortunately, I think they were mistaken.

In fairness, I should acknowledge that the kind of analysis I’m looking for isn’t wholly absent.  Here is a statement that comes closer to the kind of analysis that I find generally lacking in their book:

I apprehend the reality of everyday life as an ordered reality. Its phenomena are prearranged in patterns that seem to be independent of my apprehension of them and that impose themselves upon the latter. The reality of everyday life appears already objectified, that is, constituted by an order of objects that have been designated as objects before my appearance on the scene. … In this manner language marks the co-ordinates of my life in society and fills that life with meaningful objects. (21)

This is the beginnings of a philosophy of knowledge.  It provides place-holders for some of the chief aspects of cognitive representation: the identification of permanent “objects”, a field of inter-related objects and relations, and a language in terms of which these items are represented and in terms of which one’s beliefs about them can be formulated.  Or in other words: this paragraph postulates concepts, a conceptual system, and an intensional orientation of the  subject towards the world (applying language to the “objects” around him or herself). And this world is “intersubjective” — other people share concepts and language with me, and are in similar relationships of interaction with the stuff of the world we inhabit (22).

So we have a start on the more conceptual side of the problem.  Unfortunately, this strand of thought is not further developed throughout the rest of the book.

Garfinkel on social competence

Harold Garfinkel made highly original contributions to the field of micro-sociology in the form of his program of ethnomethodology, and the fruits of these contributions have not been fully developed. His death a few weeks ago (link) has led quite a few people to look back and re-assess the importance of his contributions. This renewed attention is very much warranted. Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967) is the primary place where his ideas reached a broad public, so let’s take a look at some of the ideas advanced there.

The interest that I take in his work flows from the idea of agent-centered sociology that I’ve found so appealing — the idea of the situated actor, the idea that we need to have a substantially richer set of concepts in terms of which to characterize the actor’s thought processes, and the idea that current conceptions of the rational actor or the cultural actor are inadequate (link). In order to provide a basis for explanations of social outcomes deriving from the interactions of purposive agents, we need a developed and nuanced set of ideas about how agents tick. And theorists like Garfinkel and Goffman provide substantial resources in this area. (Here are discussions of Goffman; linklink.)

Here is a key statement of Garfinkel’s research goals in Studies in Ethnomethodology:

The following studies seek to treat practical activities, practical circumstances, and practical sociological reasoning as topics of empirical study, and by paying to the most commonplace activities of daily life the attention usually accorded extraordinary events, seek to learn about them as phenomena in their own right. (1)

A central empirical interest of Garfinkel’s is the nuance of the ordinary knowledge — commonsense knowledge — that people use to navigate their daily lives and tasks.  What presuppositions about actions and motives do jurors rely on as they reach judgments about truth and falsity of testimony?  What ellipses occur in ordinary conversations that are nonetheless intelligible to the participants because of unspoken background knowledge?  What implicit beliefs and standards do coders for the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center use to classify unexpected deaths (11 ff.)?

Here is Garfinkel’s explication of a conversation between husband and wife about their son’s putting a penny in the parking meter:

An examination of the colloquy reveals the following. (a) There were many matters that the partners understood they were talking about that they did not mention. (b) Many matters that the partners understood were understood on the basis not only of what was actually said but what was left unspoken. (c) Many matters were understood through a process of attending to the temporal series of utterances as documentary evidences of a developing conversation rather than as a string of terms. (d) Matters that the two understood in common were understood only in and through a course of understanding work that consisted of treating an actual linguistic event as “the document of,” as “pointing to,” as standing on behalf of an underlying pattern of matters that each already supposed to be the matters that the person, by his speaking, could be telling the other about. (39-40)

Garfinkel devised an experimental method for probing presuppositions that he referred to as “breaching” experiments: interactions with subjects that deliberately challenged their conversational or practical expectations. For example, a subject was invited to play the game of tic-tac-toe; and the researcher erased the subject’s first move and placed the subject’s mark in another location. The subject was incensed.  Another example:

My friend said to me, “Hurry or we will be late.” I asked him what did he mean by late and from what point of view did it have reference. There was a look of perplexity and cynicism on his face. “Why are you asking me such silly questions? Surely I don’t have to explain such a statement.  What is wrong with you today? Why should I have to stop to analyze such a statement? Everyone understands my statements and you should be no exception!”

Garfinkel takes the discomfort and irritation expressed by the subjects in these experiments to be an indicator of their expectations about normal social interaction. Here is one of his reflections about this dynamic:

Despite the interest in social affects that prevails in the social sciences, and despite the extensive concern that clinical psychiatry pays them, surprisingly little has been written on the socially structured conditions for their production. The role that a background of common understandings plays in their production, control, and recognition is, however, almost terra incognita. (49)

Here is a summary statement of Garfinkel’s goals:

I have been arguing that a concern for the nature, production, and recognition of reasonable, realistic, and analyzable actions is not the monopoly of philosophers and professional sociologists. Members of a society are concerned as a matter of course and necessarily with these matters both as features and for the socially managed production of their everyday affairs.  The study of common sense knowledge and common sense activities consists of treating as problematic phenomena the actual methods whereby members of a society, doing sociology, lay or professional, make the social structures of everyday activities observable. (75)

The way that I would like to paraphrase Garfinkel’s work is that he is offering an empirical research program designed to fill in a rich theory of the human actor’s “competence” in engaging in ordinary social interactions. What does the actor need to know about immediate social relationships and practices in order to get along in ordinary social life? And how can we study this question in empirically rigorous ways? The program of ethnomethodology is intended to focus attention on the knowledge of rules and practices that ordinary people employ to make sense of their social surroundings.

One objection that some purists might offer of this formulation is that it puts the object of investigation “inside the head,” rather than in the behavioral performances — primarily conversations and classificatory tasks — that Garfinkel primarily studies. It is thought that Garfinkel’s method is formal rather than mentalistic.  It is true that he says repeatedly that he is not interested in getting inside the head of the individuals he studies. But the logic of his findings still has important implications for the cognitive systems of the individuals, and this is in fact the only reason we would be interested in the research. So I want to understand his research along the lines of a Chomskian linguist: making inferences about psychologically real “competences and capacities” on the basis of analysis of non-mental performances (utterances).

On this approach, Garfinkel did not pretend to offer a full theory of agency or actor consciousness; instead, his work functioned as a sort of specialized investigation of one aspect of social cognition — the competences, rules, and practices we can attribute to specific actors on the basis of careful analysis of their observable performances.

(John Heritage’s Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology is generally recommended as a highly insightful survey and discussion of Garfinkel’s work.)

Connecting the dots

There isn’t very much transparency about the deep structure of almost any complex modern society. For most people their primary impressions of the society’s functioning comes from the mass media and their own personal experiences.  We each see the limited bits to which we are fairly directly exposed through our ordinary lives — the newsroom if we happen to be a beat reporter, the university if we are professors, the play-and-learn center if we are in the business of preschool education.  We gain a pretty good idea of how those networks of institutions and organizations work. But it’s very difficult to gain a birds-eye picture of the social system as a whole.

The most basic goal of Marx’s economic programme was to demystify the workings of the political economy of capitalism.  He wanted to sweep aside the appearances that capitalism presents and to lay bare the underlying social relations of inequality and exploitation that really constituted the causal core of the system. (This is the point of his theory of the fetishism of commodities; link.) And he believed that active systems of ideology and false consciousness conspired to conceal these workings from ordinary participants. In particular, he wanted to demonstrate the process through which wealth is created within capitalism, and the relations of inequality through which its benefits are distributed.  It is a class-based analysis, and Marx proposes to the proletariat (and the rest of us) that we look for the class mechanisms of our ordinary economic experiences.

What is unsatisfying about Marx’s theory in the current context is that in the end it isn’t really very much of an empirical demonstration.  It is an abstract model of how the theorist thinks capitalism works, rather than a detailed empirical exposure based on rigorous and diverse data that demonstrates the flows that he postulates.  It offers a schema for connecting the dots of our ordinary experience, but it doesn’t actually carry out the effort.


Other researchers have done so, of course; researchers who demonstrate the widening inequalities of income and wealth that market democracies contain, the consequences of these inequalities for people at both ends of the divide, the often degrading conditions of work that the majority of the working population experience, and so forth.  So on the dimension of wealth, income, and privilege, it isn’t too difficult to gather the information we need to better understand our current economic realities based on information that is readily available; but most Americans don’t seem to bother to do so. The ease with which the right has succeeded in setting the terms of popular ideas about organized labor, racial inequalities, and immigration bears that out. Lies and slogans replace honest factual argument.

And what about the other large determinant of outcomes in modern society, the workings of political power? Here too there are founding theorists who sought to lay bare the “real” workings of power in a market democracy.  Foucault is one; Domhoff and Mills sought to do so a generation earlier.  The goals of C. Wright Mills (The Power Elitelink) and G. William Domhoff (Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominancelink) were similar to Marx’s, but in the sphere of political power within a democracy.  They wanted to demonstrate how the language of pluralism and representative democracy works to conceal a system of power and influence that was anything but egalitarian. They wanted to shred the ideologies and obscurantist narratives that conceal these political realities.

But, like Marx to some extent, their writings too remained schematic. They offered a framework for thinking about political power that was radically different from that of the pluralists. But they didn’t really provide a detailed empirical exposure of the workings of this system in real time.  So here again, we’d like to have an organized way of connecting the dots within the contemporary world.  How do corporations use lobbying firms and campaign PACs to shape policy and legislation to their liking? How is it going on today? And, as is the case of the domain of economic inequalities, there are plenty of sources today shedding light on aspects of these processes.  But these political realities seem if anything, even more difficult to perceive.

The blog Naked Capitalism approximates the kind of dot-connecting that I’m describing, with specific application to the financial industry. Here a group of very expert observers are taking the trouble to track the complexities and the hidden interests involved in the financial industry, and to try to make sense of what they find in an honest way. I. F. Stone was a one-man dot-connector in the 1960s when it came to the Indochina War (Best of I. F. Stone). The opening chapter of Frances Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America does a good job of sketching out the influence systems that set the planets in motion in American democracy. And Bob Herbert’s last column for the New York Times does it as well (link).  We need exactly these kinds of effort in other areas too — defense contracting, influence peddling, the pharmaceutical industry, news media, …  We need help connecting the dots of how our society works, who pulls the strings and who benefits.

Blogging, critical journalism, and crusading thinkers like I. F. Stone and Frances Fox Piven can help a lot. And, by the way, it must be done in a way that is committed to high standards of empirical fidelity; it needs to inspire the kind of trust that Stone was able to do fifty years ago. And maybe, with the makings of a more truthful shared understanding of how our society actually works, we will succeed in creating a politics that transforms it.


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