Concrete sociological knowledge

Is there a place within the social sciences for the representation of concrete, individual-level experience?  Is there a valid kind of knowledge expressed by the descriptions provided by an observant resident of a specific city or an experienced traveler in the American South in the 1940s?  Or does social knowledge need to take the form of some kind of generalization about the social world?  Does sociology require that we go beyond the particulars of specific people and social arrangements?

There is certainly a genre of social observation that serves just this intimate descriptive function: an astute, empathetic observer spends time in a location, meeting a number of people and learning a lot about their lives and thoughts.  Studs Terkel’s work defines this genre — both in print and in his radio interviews over so many years.  A particularly good example is Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.  But Studs is a journalist and a professional observer; does he really contribute to “sociological knowledge”? (See this earlier post on Studs.)

Perhaps a better example of “concrete, individual-level experience” for sociology can be drawn closer to home, in Erving Goffman’s work.  (Here is an earlier discussion of some of Goffman’s work; link.)  Here are the opening words of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956):

I mean this report to serve as a sort of handbook detailing one sociological perspective from which social life can be studied, especially the kind of social life that is organised within the physical confines of a building or plant. A set of features will be described which together form a framework that can be applied to any concrete social establishment, be it domestic, industrial, or commercial. 

The perspective employed in this report is that of the theatrical performance; the principles derived are dramaturgical ones. I shall consider the way in which the individual in ordinary work situations presents himself and his activity to others, the ways in which he guides and controls the impression they form of him, and the kinds of things he may and may not do while sustaining his performance before them. In using this model I will attempt not to make light of its obvious inadequacies.  The stage presents things that are make-believe; presumably life presents things that are real and sometimes not well rehearsed. More important, perhaps, on the stage one player presents himself in the guise of a character to characters projected by other players; the audience constitutes a third party to the interaction — one that is essential and yet, if the stage performance were real, one that would not be there. In real life, the three parties are compressed into two; the part one individual plays is tailored to the parts played by the others present, and yet these others also constitute the audience. Still other inadequacies in this model will be considered later.

The illustrative materials used in this study are of mixed status: some are taken from respectable researches where qualified generalisations are given concerning reliably recorded regularities; some are taken from informal memoirs written by colourful people; many fall in between. The justification for this approach (as I take to be the justification for Simmel’s also) is that the illustrations together fit into a coherent framework that ties together bits of experience the reader has already had and provides the student with a guide worth testing in case studies of institutional social life. (preface)

 Goffman’s text throughout this book relies on numerous specific descriptions of the behavior of real estate agents, dentists, military officers, servants, and medical doctors in concrete and particular social settings.  Here are a few examples:

[funerals] Similarly, at middle-class American funerals, a hearse driver, decorously dressd in black and tactfully located at the outskirts of the cemetery during the service, may be allowed to smoke, but he is likely to shock and anger the bereaved if he happens to flick his cigarette stub into a bush, letting it describe an elegant arc, instead of circumspectly dropping it at his feet. (35)

[formal dinners] Thus if a household is to stage a formal dinner, someone in uniform or livery will be required as part of the working team. The individual who plays this part must direct at himself the social definition of a menial. At the same time the individual taking the part of hostess must direct at herself, and foster by her appearance and manner, the social definition of someone upon whom it is natural for menials to wait. This was strikingly demonstrated in the island tourist hotel studied by the writer. There an overall impression of middle-class service was achieved by the management, who allocated to themselves the roles of middle-class host and hostess and to their employees that of maids — although in terms of the local class structure the girls who acted as maids were of slightly higher status than the hotel owners who employed them. (47-48)

[hospitals] Thus, if doctors are to prevent cancer patients from learning the identity of their disease, it will be useful to scatter the cancer patients throughout the hospital so that they will not be able to learn from the identity of their ward the identity of their disorder. (The hospital staff, incidentally, may be forced to spend more time walking corridors and moving equipment because of this staging strategy than would otherwise be necessary.) (59)

[hotel kitchens] The study of the island hotel previously cited provides another example of the problems workers face when they have insufficient control of their backstage. Within the hotel kitchen, where the guests’ food was prepared and where the staff ate and spent their day, crofters’ culture tended to prevail, involving a characteristic pattern of clothing, food habits, table manners, language, employer-employee relations, cleanliness standards, etc. This culture was felt to be different from, and lower in esteem than, British middle-class culture, which tended to prevail in the dining room and other places in the hotel. The doors leading from the kitchen to the other parts of the hotel were a constant sore spot in the organization of work. (72)

So Goffman’s sociology in this work is heavily dependent on the kind of concrete social observation and description that is at issue here.  Much of the interest of the book is the precision and deftness through which Goffman dissects and describes these concrete instances of social interaction.  This supports one answer to the question with which we began: careful, exacting and perceptive description of particular social phenomena is an important and epistemically valid form of sociological knowledge.  Studs Terkel contributes to our knowledge of the social world when he accurately captures the voice of the miner, the hotel worker, or the taxi driver; and a very important part of this contribution is the discovery of the singular and variable features of these voices.

At the same time, it is clear that Goffman goes beyond the concrete descriptions of restaurants, medical offices, and factory floors that he offers to formulate and support a more general theory of social behavior: that individuals convey themselves through social roles that are prescribed for various social settings, and that much social behavior is performance.  (This performative interpretation of social action is discussed in an earlier post.)  And this suggests that there is a further implicature within our understanding of the goals of sociological knowledge: the idea that concrete descriptions should potentially lead to some sort of generalization, contrast, or causal interpretation.

Cultural authenticity and the market

Images: cover illustration from Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House; Chinese neolithic pot c. 1500 BC

People often return from their travels with objects they’ve purchased to represent the culture and traditions of the place they’ve visited — Alsatian pottery from Betschdorf, masks from Kenya, or Navajo pots from Arizona. And sometimes they purchase such artifacts at home in Cleveland or Sacramento to gain a little resonance from a distant culture — Tibetan temple bells, Chinese funeral figures, Mayan woven goods. And there is generally a desire that these goods should be “authentic” — that is, they should have been produced by artisans situated in a continuous tradition with the culture the artifact represents. Imagine the traveler’s disappointment to find that his beautiful artisanal Alsatian vase was mass-produced in a factory in Guangdong.

Here I’d like to dwell a bit on this idea of authenticity. The idea seems to have two somewhat distinct components: expression and artisanship. The first involves the idea that the artifact is to be valued because it somehow expresses and reveals some of the meaning, symbols, and practices of the other culture. This relates the idea of authenticity to one of Clifford Geertz’s most famous statements about culture: that a culture is a web of significance (The Interpretation Of Cultures). The “authentic” cultural object is valued because it reveals some of those meanings and relationships; it fits into this web of signification.

The second dimension here involves the idea that the artifact is the material product of social practices embedded within or deriving from that culture. Here the idea is that the actual human, practical history of the object makes all the difference between authentic and inauthentic — the way it was made, the human communities and practices within which the artisan performed his or her work in creating the object. We might imagine a fishing net created by a team of anthropologists who have painstakingly reproduced the techniques of knot-tying, braiding, and decorating that were characteristic of a certain human community at a certain point in time. The product may be highly “accurate” from the first point of view, in that it accurately depicts the results and signification of the product within its historical setting. But it is nonetheless not “authentic” because it is an a posteriori simulation of the culture’s fishing net — not a direct product of the culture.

Take a few examples at the extremes. At one extreme are the African dolls one might buy in the Disney store in conjunction with the latest cartoon adventure about Africa. No one would imagine that these dolls are authentic in their correspondence to any real African culture or artisanal tradition, past or present. (Though perhaps they are authentic expressions of Disney culture!) At the other extreme, consider the objects on display from Benin at the Chicago Art Institute recently, representing local society and Portuguese colonialism (Benin–Kings and Rituals; Court Arts of Nigeria; link). No one would doubt the authenticity of these beautiful and engaging artifacts — even though they embody a deep and complex collision and mingling of western and African modalities. Or consider the sculpture that Kwame Anthony Appiah used as the cover illustration of his important book, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. It looks highly traditional and “African” — until we look closely and discover the old bicycle parts incorporated into the design. Is this sculpture an authentic expression of African culture? Or is it “contaminated” by the intrusion of western technologies and products? Appiah’s view is a nuanced one: it is an authentic expression of something, but not of a hypostasized essential “African cultural identity.”

And the story only gets more complicated. What could be more authentic to the native American cultures of North America than Inuit carvings and Navajo blankets? Surely each emerged from the material cultures and aesthetic sensibilities of Inuit and Navajo people. But there are two complications here. First, there certainly are workshops in China and elsewhere industriously turning out soapstone bears and woolen Navajo rugs. And their products may be very persuasive imitations indeed. But they aren’t “authentic” — they are simply well executed fakes. They lack the second characteristic mentioned above; they don’t have the right lineage of production.

But here is the deeper problem. The genres themselves are deeply intertwined with external market forces and consumer tastes. The Navajo blankets of the 1850s existed; but they were utilitarian, drab productions, intended for use rather than display. It was the tastes of eastern consumers, conveyed through brokers, traders, and trading posts, that shifted the design and coloration of the rug to its current “traditional” form. (Here is a rough and ready summary of the history of Navajo rugs.)

And the tradition of Inuit carving is even more market-driven.

While Canada’s Inuit do have a rich visual history that dates back more than a millennium, Inuit carvings, prints and jewelry are actually the product of a relatively recent transformation in the Arctic, beginning with the emergence of an “outside” market during the whaling years, which gave rise to the birth of the contemporary Inuit art movement starting in 1949. (link)

So the practice of animal carving in soft stone perhaps did not even exist in Inuit culture prior to the arrival of traders. So we might say that blankets and soapstone polar bears are inauthentic in the first sense above: they don’t correspond to deep and abiding features of the other culture, but are rather informed by the tastes and preferences of the consumer market. (This fits the history of Chinese export porcelain as well; I’m sure there are endless additional examples that could be provided.) Are either of these artifact traditions “authentic”? Do they express Navajo or Inuit culture and tradition? Or does the fact that an indigenous artisanal tradition has been self-consciously directed towards creating products that “fit” with the tastes of a distant public undermine the authenticity of the work?

The issue is more difficult than it might appear, because there is one interpretation of “authentic” that will not stand up, cultural essentialism. This interpretation depends on the idea of a cultural essence underlying a given people at a certain time — a pure form of Hopi, Navajo, Alsatian, Tokugawan, or Armenian culture in terms of which we might define the authenticity of cultural products. Here the misguided idea would be that a product is authentic if it corresponds accurately to the cultural essence to which it refers — a strict interpretation of the first characteristic mentioned above. This won’t do, however, because cultures are not fixed, uniform realities, but rather ongoing, dynamic processes of creation and change. So the story told by the Benin exhibition above is very illustrative; the cultural content and depictions of the two communities — Benin and Portugal — interpenetrate each other in the next moment in time, and neither is unchanged as a result. So we cannot understand authenticity as “correspondence to a cultural essence”; there are no such essences.
There is, however, a weaker form of correspondence that remains a valid characteristic of “authenticity” — the idea that an artifact is itself a meaningful object, and its meaning needs to be fitted into the meanings and practices of the broader culture from which it emanated. The Chinese neolithic pot depicted above is dated from about 1500 BC. The distinctive crosshatching pattern can be found on many of the pots of this period, and it is striking. Why does the culture incorporate this decorative feature into many of its small pots? It is hypothesized that clay pots replaced an older container technology of tightly woven baskets; and the artisan was offering a representation of quality and continuity by decorating the pot to resemble a woven basket. This may or may not be a valid explanation; but plainly the decorations of the pot are meaningful, and — if historically authentic — the pot can provide content for an interpretation of various elements of the contemporary culture and its artisanal practices. (See the Minneapolis Institute of Arts page on Chinese neolithic ceramics.)
Perhaps the reason that market influences on artisanal traditions are unsettling and “inauthentic” goes back to a tension between the first and the second criterion mentioned above (expression and artisanship). A market-shaped artisanal tradition satisfies the second criterion; it results in products that are created by an artisanal tradition linked to the other culture (blankets, carvings, export porcelain). But there is the nagging fear that the influence of external consumer demand has deformed the artifact with respect to the first criterion — fit with the culture’s own values and meanings. The influence of consumer tastes may have driven the product and the tradition far away from more genuine expressions of local culture. Here, we might say, authenticity requires that the product be created according to the values and meanings of the indigenous culture — not the profit-seeking adaptive behavior of skilled artisans aiming to create the “traditional” product that will sell best with the tourists.
If forced to answer my own question here, I think I would focus on the second criterion — the concrete historical relationship between the product, the artisan, and the tradition. And I would then look at it as an open question for hermeneutic investigation to attempt to determine the complex and fluid ways in which the product corresponds to, expresses, contradicts, or invades the meanings of its background culture.

What is Alsace?

It may seem like a strange question: What is Alsace? It is a region of France. It is a culturally and linguistically distinct population of 1.8 million people. Most visitors would observe that there is a distinctive Alsatian style in life, in architecture, and in culture. It possesses one great city (Strasbourg), many middle-sized cities (Hagenau, Wissembourg, Colmar), and hundreds of small villages. It is a beautiful collection of landscapes, villages, fields, forests, and vineyards. It is the homeland of Hansi and Marc Bloch. It is a region that has suffered acutely in warfare — eastern Alsace was the site of most of the battles of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, and it was the site of the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge and the German counteroffensive, Northwind, with intense tank fighting and destruction in dozens of villages. The sufferings of World War II are still remembered by the octagenarians. It is a border culture, with influences from Germany and France establishing aspects of culture and social attitudes over several centuries. And there is always choucroute, kougelhopf, and Kronenberg. In short, Alsace has a history and a set of traditions that set its people apart.

So from the point of view of travel-writing, the question has an easy answer. But the social reality is more complex and fluid. The social reality of Alsace today is highly heterogeneous, within and across villages, towns, and cities. And ongoing processes of nation-building and globalization raise the question of its cultural survival.

Take the issue of language. Stop into any grocery store or hospital in rural Alsace and you will find elderly people gossiping and talking in Alsatian. For many of these people Alsatian was their native language; for some it remained their only language. But the situation is different if you pause to watch boys playing ball in the public square; their chatter is in French — or sometimes Arabic. So it is an open question whether the Alsatian language community will remain a vital one, or whether it will retreat into the archives. Current estimates indicate that fewer than 10 percent of children in Alsace are fluent in Alsatian. So the question arises, whether the language will reproduce itself into the the next several generations.

Or consider folkloric customs and cuisine — the colorful costumes and dancing that are still very much a part of village festivals. How long will these customs survive in an age of mass-based entertainment and a homogenizing media culture? How are the customs transmitted across generations? How long can tarte flambée persist as an Alsatian specialty in the face of an onslaught by Pizza Hut?

And how about the distinctive modes of class relations that you find in Alsace — the ways in which the local bourgeoisie dress and interact with each other, and how they relate to other social strata — farmers, bus drivers, shop clerks? In what ways are these class relations distinct from those of Bourgogne? And how distinct are they from their counterparts in the United States?

More fundamentally, consider the range of contemporary social problems that Alsace faces, in both its cities and its villages: drug use, youth unemployment and disaffection, hooliganism, poorly assimilated immigrant communities. How will Strasbourg or Hagenau deal with these problems? And will “Alsace” remain? Or will the national strategies of social services, public policy, and legislation lead to a more socially uniform Alsace — just a quaint set of historical markers on the autoroute?

So really, the question posed here has two distinct parts, both very interesting. The first is historical: what were the rich pathways of culture formation through which Alsace came to be Alsace? How did this particular mix of values, attitudes, modes of behavior, language, and culture come together?

The second part of the question is forward-looking: where is Alsace going? Will it preserve its cultural distinctiveness and its language? Or will it become simply another interchangeable part of France and the world? How much staying power does a traditional culture have in the face of the impulses of nation-building, mass communication, and globalization of consumption that the contemporary world imposes?

These questions are interesting in consideration of Alsace. But they are even more interesting in the context of thinking about globalization itself. Is it possible for local and regional cultures to successfully negotiate the challenges of the twenty-first century in ways that permit the survival of their cultural uniqueness? Or is the global world of the future destined to look more like a very large shopping mall, with the same foods, clothes, and ethics everywhere?

Technical practices

What is involved in providing a sociology of technical practices? (An earlier posting is also devoted to this question.) Here I am thinking primarily of technical material practices — building a house or a boat, distilling spirits, weaving a basket, maintaining a biological research lab, or repairing a photocopy machine. There is a degree of continuity in the “tacit knowledge” and embodied skills and methods that are represented in the plans and actions of practitioners of these different human activities. These bodies of knowledge and skill define the activity in a fairly specific way. And there are indefinitely many other configurations of practices that might have accomplished the same task. So a practice is historically and socially specific; it is the result of prior experimentation and adaptation in the context of needs, materials, and a physical environment within specific communities and locations.

Here is a simple formulation of what I’m calling a technical practice:

A practice is an ensemble of techniques, skills, and stylized responses, embedded in a population at a time, accomplishing a specific range of domestic tasks, and sustained through social mechanisms of transmission.

There are a number of fundamental questions that this definition raises. How are practices embodied in individuals or groups? How do they proliferate, from one generation to the next and across social space? How does a given state of practical knowledge change over time, through transmission, mutation, and deliberate refinement? Do practices have a degree of stability over time, or do they morph so flexibly as to defy analysis? Are there “signatures” for given ensembles of practices — e.g. a set of features of device design in boat building or a set of techniques of water management in farming — on the basis of which we can observe the proliferation and change of a practice over time and space? Is there a self-referential element in practices—do practitioners deliberately or consciously modify their practices?

The example of traditional boat design and building is a good one to illustrate a technical practice (suggested in the images above). The boat-building traditions of medieval Scandinavia represent a body of skill and technique transmitted from master to apprentice, with variation over time and place. Farming practices in traditional agricultural societies provide another good example. In this case, the practice involves knowledge concerning crops, animals, seeds, irrigation, fertilizer, timing, and response to the unexpected. (This is the kind of local practical knowledge that James Scott describes in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.) It is embodied in local knowledge, folk beliefs, techniques and tools, and customs of a given population at a particular time. It is transmitted from practitioner to practitioner (perhaps parent to child) through training and imitation. Sometimes organizations play a causal role in transmission (e. g., a guild of boat designers and builders may deliberately control the transmission of relevant knowledge and skills from one individual to another). And it seems likely enough that historians can in fact observe the proliferation of technical practices such as these over centuries of time by observing the spatial distribution of artifacts associated with the practice. (Jon Elster discusses some aspects of the technical practices associated with traditional boat building in Explaining Technical Change: A Case Study in the Philosophy of Science.)

A particularly interesting question is the degree to which technical practices are “plastic” over time and space. How readily do they morph over time and space (akin to the way in which messages morph in the game of “telephone”)? Is there an analogy between a practice and a gene, in which the gene encodes instructions for the phenotype—producing a next-generation genotype? The stability of species through biological evolution depends on the fact that gene transcription is a highly accurate process, so the offspring is highly likely to encode the same bits of information as the parent. Is there the requisite stability within the domain of practices, or are we more likely to find significant differences in ostensibly similar practices across the villages of a region?

The stability question turns on the mechanisms of replication that social practices embody. Traditional social practices are not embodied in standard “handbooks” of best practice; instead, they are transmitted through networks of training and imitation. So changes are likely to occur during the replication of the practice at the local level. Innovation occurs as local illiterate but intelligent farmers or builders discover enhancements. These innovations are imitated and reproduced by neighbors and changes accumulate. Naturally, there is nothing inherently optimal or progressive about such a process. Good ideas and innovations die out; mediocre practices persist; and sometimes genuine advances occur.

Finally, the question about whether a technical practice has a specific signature — a characteristic set of tools, patterns of land use, and products — is crucial for our ability to track changes in practices historically. With a signature — for example, a characteristic form of ceramic glazing — it is possible to track the spread of a practice across time and space. It is then possible to track changes in practice over time and geography by tracking the dispersion of tools and products. For example, a new technique in ceramics can often be pinpointed in a place at a time; then through archeological research it is often possible to track the diffusion of the innovation over the next century to other places. And once we’ve done that, we can ask productive questions about what the mechanisms of the diffusion of practical knowledge were: migration of farmers and artisans, trade routes, the sale of books and pamphlets, …

It seems that technical practices in pre-modern societies are of particular interest for a couple of reasons. They give us a subject matter where it is possible to study local knowledge and skill in some detail. They represent a domain of human activity where it is possible to track change over time and to form some hypotheses about the social mechanisms that underlie the diffusion of techniques. And they are a fairly visible manifestation of some basic features of social life — the harnessing of knowledge and skill to solving some of the practical problems of life, and the creation of innovations through which these basic material needs might be satisfied in a marginally better way. And it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that the mechanisms that underlie the maintenance and diffusion of traditional techniques are also found in the practical knowledge communities of technicians in the modern world — photocopy machine repair specialists, airline mechanics, or lab technicians.

Arguments for social holism

The topic of methodological individualism (MI) came up in a recent posting, and I underlined the connection between MI and some version of reductionism. Here I’d like to take a different approach and ask the question, what considerations can be offered in support of some version of social holism?

Here are a couple of arguments that avoid the accusation of “spooky holism”. (By spooky I mean “disembodied.”)

First is a very reasonable point deriving from pragmatic objections to reductionism. If we know on ontological grounds that the behavior of the whole depends upon the features and behavior of the constituent parts and nothing else — the heart of the theory of supervenience — but also know that it is entirely hopeless to attempt to calculate the one based on facts about the other — then perhaps it is justified to consider the whole as if it embodied causal processes at the macro-level. So there is a pragmatic argument available that recommends the autonomy of social facts based on the infeasibility of derivability.

Second is the plausibility of the idea that there are large historical or social forces that are for all intents and purposes beyond the control of any of the individuals whom they influence. The fact that a given population exists as a language community of German speakers or Yoruba speakers has an effect on every child born into that population. The child’s brain is shaped by this social reality, quite independently from facts about the child’s agency or individuality. The grammar of the local language is an autonomous social fact in this context — even though it is a fact that is embodied in the particular brains and behaviors of the countless individuals who constitute this community. But this is probably similarly true when we turn to systems of attitudes, norms, or cognitive systems of thinking. (See a posting on social practices on this subject.)

It is obvious but perhaps trivial to observe that the vector of influence flows through individuals who possess the grammar, norms, or folk beliefs — this is the ontological reality captured by the microfoundations thesis. But perhaps a point in favor of a modest holism is this: the fact of the commonality of Yoruba grammar can be viewed as if it were an autonomous fact — even though we know it depends on the existence of Yoruba speakers. But the point of the holism thesis here remains: that the social fact of the current grammar is coercive with respect to current Nigerian children in specific communities. And, perhaps, likewise with respect to other aspects of social cognition and norms. And this takes us some distance towards Durkheim’s central view — the autonomy of social facts.

Now what about social structures? Can some instances of social structures be treated as if they were autonomous with respect to the individuals whom they affect? Here is how the home mortgage system works — we can specify a collection of rules and practices X, Y, Z that regulate the transactions that occur within this system. The individual who wants to borrow from a bank or other financial institution is simply subject to these rules and practices. He/she doesn’t have the option of rewriting the rules in a more rational or fair or socially progressive way; at a given point in time the rules and practices are fixed independently from the wishes or intentions of the people involved in the institution. Once again it is trivially true that these rules are embodied; but they function as if they were autonomous. And this is true for institutions at the full range of scope, from the local to the global.

The advocate for a modest social holism might maintain two plausible positions: first, that all social facts are embodied in the states of mind and behavior of individuals; but second, that some social facts (institutions, social practices, systems of rules) have explanatory autonomy independent from any knowledge we might be able to provide about the particular ways in which these facts are embodied in individuals. The first is an ontological point and the second is a point about explanation.

These points in favor of a modest holism are compatible with other important points about social entities — the points about heterogeneity, plasticity, and opportunistic transformation that have been made elsewhere in this blog. In other words, we aren’t forced to choose between “agent” and “structure”; rather, agents influence structures and structures influence agents.

These arguments suggest two things. First, holism and individualism are not so sharply opposed as perhaps they appear.

But more important, two styles of social explanation are validated and compatible: the compositional or aggregative model of explanation — explain the outcome as the aggregative consequence of the behavior of large numbers of individuals — and constraining or filtering explanations — the structuring of individual behavior that is created by the workings of social institutions. The first model of explanation corresponds well to the assumptions of methodological individualism, while the second corresponds to the idea that structures and large social factors cause patterns of individual behavior. And neither has antecedent priority over the other. (Some of this variety of explanatory strategies is highlighted in an earlier posting on explanation.)

Wittgenstein and "understanding society"

Does Wittgenstein’s philosophy in the Philosophical Investigations have anything distinctive to add to better ways of understanding society? And is there anything in Wittgenstein’s philosophy that contributes to the philosophy of social science? (These are different questions, even though they seem to be closely related; the first question is conceptual or ontological, whereas the second is epistemological and methodological.)

There are some reasons for expecting that Wittgenstein’s later writings are in fact relevant to non-routinized thinking about the social world — perhaps in ways that have not been highlighted in existing discussions of his thought. For example — his understanding of language as a deeply social product; his criticism of naive ideas about “meaning” in language; his idea of language games; his critical discussions of “following a rule”; his thoughts about the interpretation of behavior; his idea of a set of social practices setting a context for action and meaning; his notion that learning a language is learning a way of life; … — all these threads have some suggestive implications for how to think about social behavior and the social world.

These questions have been raised before, of course; most famously, by Peter Winch in The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. Winch’s main line is to insist on an anti-positivist grounding for social “science”, and to offer a determined critique of the idea that the social sciences should resemble the natural sciences. Instead, Winch argues that the social sciences should model themselves on philosophy. He pays a great deal of attention to the question of defining action and rationality, and in “Understanding a Primitive Society” (American Philosophical Quarterly 1964), he brings in the anthropological descriptions of Evans-Pritchard and other anthropologists who emphasize the radical differences that apparently exist across conceptual systems (magic, rationality, …). This is probably the most celebrated effort to link Wittgenstein’s thought to the social sciences, but I’m not sure it adds much to the conversation today.

But another very interesting effort that takes off from Wittgenstein’s philosophy and tries to draw out some implications for social philosophy is Hanna Pitkin’s Wittgenstein and Justice: On the Significance of Ludwig Wittgenstein for Social and Political Thought. This is a truly valuable and original book, and well worth working through. Pitkin’s central goal is to make a contribution to the foundations of political theory by thinking carefully about Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and behavior. (A lot of her work here is inspired by Stanley Cavell’s readings of the Investigations.) Here is how she begins:

It is by no means obvious that someone interested in politics and society needs to concern himself with philosophy; nor that, in particular, he has anything to learn from an obscure, misanthropic, enigmatic philosopher like Ludwig Wittgenstein, who never wrote about such topics at all. Wittgenstein’s interests were philosophy itself, language, and the relationship between the two. Yet his investigations can yield insights of the most fundamental significance for social science or political theory…. What he has to offer is something like a new perspective, a new way of seeing what has always been visible, what has gone unnoticed precisely because of its familiarity. (1)

This book is genuinely original, and Pitkin makes a whole series of connections between Wittgenstein’s thought and some difficult problems in the definition of political theory.

So there are some existing efforts to connect Wittgenstein’s thought to the challenge of understanding society. But let’s ask the question anew: is there anything in Wittgenstein’s philosophy that is a fertile source of ideas for analyzing, conceptualizing, imagining, and explaining society?

I don’t think that Wittgenstein has much to offer on the subject of the methodology or epistemology of social knowledge — how we acquire and justify beliefs about society. Wittgenstein wasn’t much interested in the question of empirical justification of belief, and I don’t think he was especially receptive to the effort to create a rigorous philosophy of science that was the primary task of Vienna Circle philosophy. If anything, this task lines up better with Wittgenstein’s thinking in Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, but it doesn’t resonate with the Investigations.

But I’m more intrigued by the notion that there may be pervasive metaphors and mental frameworks in Wittgenstein’s writings that offer a different way of thinking about social behavior and social interaction. That is, there may be a fragmentary social ontology in Wittgenstein’s thought that pushes new thinking. So a question worth posing is this: does Wittgenstein provide any new insights about how to characterize or understand social world? And I’m inclined to think that he does — for example, in the form of his ideas about rule-following, social practices, family-resemblance concepts, and understanding other minds.

Perhaps most immediate contribution is Wittgenstein’s emphasis on social practices and his umbrella concept of “forms of life” as a totality of practices, regularities, bodily circumstances, and rules within which we behave. Pitkin describes the concept of “forms of life” this way:

That notion is never explicitly defined, and we should not try to force more precision from it than its rich suggestiveness will bear. but its general significance is clear enough: human life as we live and observe it is not just a random, continuous flow, but displays recurrent patterns, regularities, characteristic ways of doing and being, of feeling and acting, of speaking and interacting. Because they are patterns, regularities, configurations, Wittgenstein calls them forms; and because they are patterns in the fabric of human existence and activity on earth, he calls them forms of life. The idea is clearly related to the idea of a language game, and more generally to Wittgenstein’s action-oriented view of language. “The speaking of language, he says, “is part of an activity, or of a form of life.” (132)

To me, anyway, this is an important idea; it provides a different way of locating individuals and their subjectivity within a broader social, inter-subjective context. Neither individual nor collectivity is privileged; instead, we have a conception of a mutual “society-making” through the intentional and oriented actions and thoughts of multiple social beings. We can ask whether this concept bears any relation to the idea of a mentalité (discussed in a previous posting). And we can ask — does Wittgenstein imagine one form of life or many, corresponding to the circumstances of different historical and cultural settings. Answering this question goes a way towards deciding whether we need a single social science or multiple ethnographies.

Another line of thought is also helpful: Wittgenstein’s deep critique of the search for philosophically simple theories (of meanings, concepts, or theories); and in place of logically simple analysis, his suggestion of social life as an overlapping set of practices and uses with no underlying essence. This is the most obvious contrast between the Tractatus and the Investigations; the former tries to give a single, logically austere definition of language and meaning; whereas the latter understands language more along the lines of an old, medieval city, with criss-crossing layers and paths — a messy, complex, and somewhat contradictory reality. (Pitkin suggests this in highlighting the contrast between Roman-law and common-law systems; the former proceed on the basis of logically articulated principles, and the latter on the basis of overlapping and sometimes contradictory precedents; 50.)

There are probably another half-dozen threads and metaphors that could be highlighted as well.

So there probably are new insights to be gained from Wittgenstein about society. It is worthwhile to do a careful re-reading of the Investigations with a fresh set of eyes: what is the framework of thought in terms of which Wittgenstein thinks about social relations, social interpretation, and social action? How can some of these ideas give us some new insights into the task of framing an adequate social science? And how would some central tenets of current philosophy of social science look when treated from the point of view of the Investigations?

Microfoundations of social practices

By a practice I mean such things as agricultural techniques, craft technologies, and customs of ordinary life — how to greet a neighbor, how to discipline one’s children, how to decorate the home for a holiday. A practice is a combination of concrete knowledge, a string of practical techniques, and a set of attitudes and judgments. (It would be interesting to look at practices as being “coded”, along the lines of a gene or a sentence.)

How about the other half of the question? A “microfoundation” is a set of local-level pathways and mechanisms through which a social process is caused or mediated. It is a particular set of individual circumstances that create the patterns of behavior that aggregate to the observed social outcome. For example, the microfoundation for an observed failure to carry off a successful tiger hunt is the set of circumstances of recruitment through which eligible participants are enabled to “free-ride” on the participation of others.

So — do social practices have “microfoundations”?

First, consider the social reality of a practice like wine-making. Pre-modern artisanal wine makers possess an ensemble of techniques through which they grow grapes and transform them into wine. These ensembles are complex and developed; different wine “traditions” handle the tasks of cultivation and fermentation differently, and the results are different as well (fine and ordinary burgundies, the sweet gewurztraminers of Alsace versus Germany). The novice artisan doesn’t reinvent the art of winemaking; instead, he/she learns the techniques and traditions of the elders. But at the same time, the artisan wine maker may also introduce innovations into his/her practice — a wrinkle in the cultivation techniques, a different timing in the fermentation process, the introduction of a novel ingredient into the mix.

So the practice of Alsatian winemaking in the seventeenth century has a complex social reality. There are elements of knowledge and practice common among many wine growers in the region; there are differentiating changes over space and time; and the whole tradition has a history that extends backward in time and space. We might imagine that the geo-history of the winemaking traditions of Alsace would track the continuity, change, and transformation of the complex of practices across time and space — perhaps in the form of a set of dynamic maps illustrating the diffusion of the tradition, and the diffusion of variants and modifications, over space and time.

Now we are ready to come back to the question of microfoundations. There are at least two aspects of this story that require microfoundations, corresponding to persistence and change: the social mechanisms of reproduction of the practice from generation to generation (persistence) and the social mechanisms of transmission of innovation across space and time (change). (There is an interesting analogy here with the reproduction of a genotype over time, with faithful reproduction and mutations.) If we committed the intellectual sin of reification and imagined that there is one unique and extended social practice that is “Alsatian winemaking wherever it occurs,” we would have missed a crucial part of the story just told; there is no essential social practice of winemaking (or greeting a neighbor or decorating the house for Passover). Rather, there are bundles of bits of knowledge, assumptions, judgments, and behaviors that are embodied in the thoughts and actions of individuals at a certain time; and there are social mechanisms through which these bundles of knowledge are transmitted across generations and across space and time.

Seen from this point of view, the study of the persistence, change, and brachiation of a social practice or traditional technology is a genuinely fascinating window into patterns of human activity over time. If it were possible to trace the travel of an innovation in the fermentation process from its origin in a given village, along the circuits of the periodic markets, across a jump to a more distant place (by long-distance ship, for example) we would have a “marker” of the routes of social interaction and travel that were characteristic of seventeenth-century rural Alsace. The logic of this investigation would be similar to that pursued by historical linguistics, observing the gradual transformation of the syntax, phonology, or vocabulary of a language over several centuries and an extended region.

And the topic of microfoundations is an important theoretical question in this story. It invites us to ask several foundational questions:

“What are the social processes within which the complex social practice is embodied in human behavior and knowledge at a certain time?”
“What are the social processes through which this body of knowledge is transmitted relatively intact from one generation to the next?”
“What are the social mechanisms of transmission through which these clusters of human knowledge and their variations are conveyed across space and across social groups (from village to village)?”

New angles on French history

In teaching an undergraduate seminar on the philosophy of history, I tried to come up with some readings that would stimulate some genuinely new thinking on this subject. Several things worked well, including simply reading some talented contemporary historians carefully. But the most truly innovative and stimulating twist was a week spent reading and discussing Robert Darnton’s numerous reviews of books on the period of the French Revolution in the New York Review of Books. (Darnton’s own book, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, was also a great addition to the seminar — but that’s another posting.)

Written over roughly a twenty-year period, Darnton’s smart reviews provide a great perspective on how the historiography of the French Revolution has changed. From the structural, class-centered approach of Albert Soboul, through Richard Cobb’s insistence on mentalités, or Simon Schama’s person-centered telling of the story, it is possible to see a shifting scene of historians’ judgments about causes, structures, ideas, movements, and scale. All by itself this is an important insight into historical understanding. And it illustrates an important fact about historical knowledge: no event is ever known with finality. (This parallels the point made in my recent posting on China’s Cultural Revolution.)

But in our discussions we also found that it is possible to look at Darnton’s reviews themselves as an extended and implicit historiographical essay. In his commentary on the writings of others Darnton also reveals many of his own historical intuitions. And of course Darnton’s own ethnographic turn in The Great Cat Massacre — evidently worked out while Darnton was teaching an interdisciplinary seminar with Clifford Geertz — is itself an important step on the historiography of French social change. And so the project of trying to discover whether there is a coherent and innovative philosophy of history nested within these reviews proved to be a fruitful one — there is. And this provides an interesting new avenue of approach to the problem of formulating a philosophy of history, a different wrinkle on the insight that we can learn a lot from observing the practice of great historians.

Several points come out of this set of reviews quite vividly: for example, the deep contingency of historical change, the importance of the particular, the importance of experience and mentalités, the dialectic of events and agents, and the difficulty of framing a large historical event.

(If you have a subscription to the New York Review of Books, all the reviews are available electronically in the archive.)

What people know

It is interesting to consider what kinds of social knowledge people need in their everyday lives.

This is clearly a question of scale. At the proximate and local level, people need to know how to interact with local social practices and institutions. We need to know how to behave in the doctor’s office, police station, and grocery store. We need to know whether the bus requires exact change. We need some way of understanding the provocative behavior of people we encounter — panhandlers, teenagers, people asking for directions or a match, strangers in a cafe striking up a conversation. (Think about how challenging each of these situations can be in a foreign city — and potentially how consequential.) And, of course, there is a wide range of organizational knowledge that we need in the workplace in order to function well within the organization.

So there are innumerable scripts we need to have in mind in order to navigate everyday life. Some of this knowledge has to do with the protocols of mundane institutions, and some of it involves an ability to interpret the intentions of other people as they seek to interact with us.

Now push back a level and consider another zone of important social knowledge — knowledge of larger institutional practices that we need to take into account as we plan for the more distant future. What choices can I make today that will benefit me tomorrow, or shelter me from risks the day after? For example — How does my retirement account work? What will the interest rate be on this variable rate mortgage in three years? How can my friends in the clubhouse or the statehouse help build my new consulting business? How secure is my job with this employer — should I be looking for work in a more predictable industry? (This might be a question a mechanical engineer asks herself in the auto industry today.)

Now push the zoom-slide another notch and consider the knowledge of the larger social environment that the citizen needs to arrive at political judgments. What is the reality of public schools? How many high school students graduate from high school each year? What is happening in the labor market — how much unemployment, how many new jobs are being created, what sectors and skills are in demand? How much hunger, poverty, and inequality is there in my region or state? What are the facts about the availability of health insurance within the general population? How much corruption and abuse of power is there within our government?

At roughly this level of abstraction are topics having to do with science and technology. How risky is nuclear power? How urgent a problem is global warming? What percentage of greenhouse gases stem from autos and what share from coal-fired electricity?

These last areas of knowledge are the most problematic. As we move up the scale from the face-to-face environment to knowledge of more distant social and environmental factors, it is almost certain that most people’s beliefs become hazier, less accurate, and less comprehensive. Our stereotyped representations of things like poverty, opportunity, schooling, and employment levels are notoriously incomplete and inaccurate. And maybe this is entirely predictable from a cognitive “cost-benefit” point of view. It may be that the personal cost of being ignorant of the extent of global climate change, poverty, or urban health deficits is low. But from a collective point of view, this widespread ignorance is disastrous. It is hard to see how an electoral consensus can emerge in support of policies that are intelligently designed to solve major problems if the great majority of voters lack an understanding of those problems.

And here is a large and important question: to what extent is it realistic to expect that the general public can become knowledgeable, at some level of approximation, about how their society works? Is it inevitable that most citizens will have a clear knowledge of their neighborhoods but a very limited and often erroneous knowledge of the broader society? Or is there some hope that universities, news media, and the internet can do a better job of providing a reasonably accurate representation of some of the most pressing social realities and problems, in such a way that the broad population will come to be better informed about the workings of contemporary society?

(See “Folk Sociology” for more on this theme.)

Micro cultures?

Is there such a thing as a “micro”-culture — a culture that is somewhat distinctive of a particular community in a specific time and place, and different from the culture of similar communities in other places?

The sorts of communities I’m thinking of might include sports teams, university faculties, union locals, church congregations, street gangs, or rural villages. Is it possible that Village X is a friendlier place than Village Y? Or that Local W is more militant than Local Z? Or that Gang S is less willing to use violence against younger brothers of rivals than Gang T is? And is it possible that these differences are real, persistent, and self-reinforcing through mechanisms that constitute a basis for dynamic cultural continuity?

Take the Boston Celtics. The players and coaches are all recruited in a national and international labor market; they generally are well acquainted with each other through their high-profile college basketball careers, camps, and leagues; and the NBA spends a lot of money in cultivating a national NBA culture rather than a micro-culture for particular teams. So you might imagine that every team would be simply a generic expression of national basketball culture. And yet it’s possible that the Boston Celtics are a distinctive team, in terms of a number of characteristics. They might have more of a team ethic than, say, the Los Angeles Lakers; they might have some traditions that play out in practices and games; they might have a lore about the Celtics greats of the past — Havliceck, Bird, Dennis Johnson, and they might conceivably have a style of play that persists through changes of coaches and players. So here the question is whether the national culture of NBA basketball is the key, or whether there are important differences in behavior, values, practices, and style that persist for specific teams over time. This speculation raises two sorts of questions: How would we attempt to determine whether there are such differences? And what sorts of social mechanisms would serve to preserve and reproduce such cultural specifics?

The basketball version of this story is pretty speculative on my part — few of us have the close acquaintance with professional sports to have an opinion on the subject of local team cultures. But university faculties — that’s a different story. Here I feel more confident in asserting that there are indeed significant differences of culture across institutions, even institutions that are otherwise very similar. Among select liberal arts colleges, for example, there are wide variations on different campuses about the value of “university citizenship” (service on college committees, for example); the expectations and duties associated with teaching undergraduate students (high commitment versus low commitment to spending time with students; a felt obligation to provide meaningful commentary on student writing assignments); and probably differences around the standards of what is acceptable in gender relations (for example, the acceptability of romantic relationships between faculty and students or senior faculty and junior faculty). A little less tangibly — it seems to me that there are visible differences on different college faculties concerning the depth and extent of social relationships among faculty members. Some faculties are tight-knit, with a lot of socializing independent from official functions; and others are more distant, with few serious friendships among faculty members. Some faculties give an impression of welcoming newcomers; others give a more standoffish or even unfriendly impression. (As a young faculty member on the job market years ago I was very aware of the reputations that different philosophy departments had for the way in which they conducted interviews with prospective assistant professors. One department was legendary for positioning the members of the search committee in a semi-circle surrounding the candidate, so that the candidate couldn’t actually see everyone at once.)

One way of rephrasing the question here is this: is the climate and culture of a place (a university or a basketball team) just the net result of the personalities and idiosyncracies of the group of people who happen to have been recruited into the group; or does the culture of the group have a certain normative persistence, capable of transmission to new arrivals? The example of university faculties seems to support the second interpretation. And in fact it seems possible to identify some of the social mechanisms through which this transmission occurs: for example, imitation, coaching and mentoring, social discipline, and the transmission of narratives of “who we are at University X or College Y”. The behaviors that are valorized through existing group members’ practices and observations serve as a prescriptive model for the behaviors of more junior people. And of course, these processes of transmission are imperfect and malleable. The culture of a place changes over a period of several decades.

So I am tempted to think that small communities do in fact make their own cultures over an extended period of time, and that these cultures — values, practices, modes of inter-personal interaction, experiences of commitment — have some degree of durability. They do in fact succeed in changing the new recruits that come into the community, often enough to allow the mix of values and experiences that characterize the micro-culture to persist across multiple generations.

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