Fear and Loathing in the Summer of Covid

As one of Malthus’ four horsemen of human death, disease (& plague & epi/pandemic) has been a central force in human societies. Besides the obvious illness, death, and general misery diseases bring, despite being hidden in plain sight from humans until the 1880s, disease have been responsible for far more of human history and evolution than sociologists often realize. Consequently, sociology might benefit greatly from taking more seriously the role disease has historically played and the unique effects it has in modern, complex societies. 

Disease as Evolutionary Force
How has disease been a force producing selection pressures on human evolution? First, for a significant span of time, disease gradients, or ecological zones hospitable to humans that are surrounded by invisible ecological (disease) barriers, restricted geographic movement (McNeill 1996 [1976]). Like mountains or oceans (Carneiro 1970), disease reduced the space with which a given society could expand; at least without the appropriate technology for reducing the viability of the disease (e.g., clearing jungles). Less obviously, the lack of mobility also intensified pressures for political evolution, as population growth and density increased the odds of resource scarcity, internal conflict, and the need for centralizing risk (Johnson and Earle 2000; Abrutyn and Lawrence 2010). 

McNeill (1996) also underscores two forms of parasitism, macro and micro. Part analogy, part realism, he poses an interesting framework. Humans live by eating other organisms (macroparasitism), while parasites survive by using us as their host (microparasitism). The more “successful” a human society, the more disease becomes a prevalent risk. This is particularly true about 12-10000 years ago when sedentary human societies grew increasingly normal (Fagan 2004), accelerating exponentially with the evolution of urban societies in southern Iraq (Mesopotamia), Egypt, China, and the Indus Valley 5000 years ago (Adams 1966). “The result of establishing successful government is to create a vastly more formidable society vis-à-vis other human communities,” writes McNeill (1996;72-73):

[Hence,] a suitably diseased society, in which endemic forms of viral and bacterial infection continually provoke antibody formation by invading susceptible individuals unceasingly, is also vastly more formidable from an epidemiological point of view vis-à-vis simpler and healthier societies. Macroparasitism leading to the development of powerful military and political organization therefore has its counterpart in the biological defenses human populations create when exposed to microparasitism.

Success, then, meant greater precarity, which, ironically, set these societies up for greater success. What do I mean? With no value judgment in mind, societies that are bigger, have more advanced technology, and are better organized tend to conquer, colonize, and, sometimes, destroy their counterparts; while disease may ravage a population in the short-term, surviving an epidemic means immunity in the longer run. And, immunity usually adds an invisible devastating weapon that can lay waste to a neighbor, enemy, or innocent bystander in ways that make the bigger society even stronger and more likely to survive. Indeed, while we think of disease-wielding states as bad actors, McNeill reminds us that disease chains – or the circuits along which disease travels – are often built upon quite unintentional, normal human activities like foreign trade and tourism/travel; points quite salient in the summer of covid. Thus, like parasites that are unintentional organisms seeking to survive, sometimes human evolution proceeds accidentally and other times, like in modern biological warfare, purposefully.

The Hidden Consequences of Disease
At the nexus of evolution and political economy, there are other reasons to take seriously how diseases affect human societies. For instance, schistosomiasis, a water-borne disease that affects the exposed over their entire life course (Olivier and Nassar 1967), would have been a major problem beginning 5000 years ago at the dawn of the Urban Revolution (Adams 1966). Because it causes debilitating lethargy, the political elite’s survival in ancient Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia (Ruffe 1921) was always tenuous as an outbreak meant potential famine as peasants grew increasingly less efficient, dramatically reducing the surplus elites could expropriate.

A second example comes from a provocative – if controversial – theory posited by Rodney Stark (2006) suggesting disease is intimately connected to Christianity’s spread and, eventual, success in Rome and Europe. Using various sources of data, Stark argued that the two plagues that struck Rome (166 CE and then 249 CE) produced pressures that favored Christians who embraced the moral imperative to care for family, friends, and neighbors rather than see them as dangerous. The common solution to dealing with the sick was total quarantine, yet smallpox and measles (McNeill 1996) could be overcome with basic care like fresh water, rest, and monitoring. Christians, Stark argued, would have been more likely to care for their sick, and to extend this care to pagan neighbors. Surviving the plague, then, could motivate conversion either because of the affectual attachment to neighbors who helped and/or because of supranatural belief that the Christian God proved more efficacious and helpful than the pagan alternatives.

Sociology and Disease
What makes disease outbreaks sociologically interesting, then, is that they are an external exigency that molds human societies and social disasters – that is, ‘physical, cultural, and emotional event(s) incurring social loss, often possessing a dramatic quality that damages the fabric of social life” (Vaughan 1999:292). They are, however, a fascinating sub-category of disasters. On the one hand, diseases are connected to industrial/technological innovation, but not quite like nuclear meltdowns. Rather, the intensivity and extensivity of transportation and communication technology today, particularly the former, greatly amplifies the typical disease chain routes, as travel is easier, quicker, and more robust. The latter technological advance contributes by connecting humans in time and space, increasing the possibility of panic, collective trauma, and, conversely, potentially greater resistance campaigns to public health mandates.

On the other hand, disease are a natural disaster, sharing much in common with tornadoes and earthquakes, yet being qualitatively different. Specifically, it shares more in common with Malthus’ other horsemen of death (warfare, pestilence, and famine). For one thing, the effects are totalistic, in that they pose biological, psychological, and sociological risks . Threats of debilitation and potential lethality have obvious physical consequences, as well as metaphysical pain as actors question why and how a disease could indiscriminately affect loved ones and strangers alike. Disease also threatens social relationships, as all people – kin, kith, and strangers – are potential carriers of something invisible and harmful; something that can contaminate and pollute, as well as injure, maim, and kill.

Covid-19 has exposed just how vulnerable we are. To be sure, Trump has mismanaged and, perhaps, made significantly worse the consequences of the disease, but no country has escaped this unscathed, save for New Zealand. What is most disconcerting is that eight months into the pandemic, the specific reasons for why San Francisco and Vancouver have managed to reduce or constrain the negative outcomes while Los Angeles and Toronto have not remains murky. Indeed, mask-wearing reduces the spread, yet Canada has a lower rate of mask-wearing than the U.S.; and by most accounts, is handling the pandemic “better.”

Additionally, it has raised legitimate questions: how large and dense can a city, region, or nation can get before the dangers and risks outweigh the benefits? Is the model of neo-local, geographic mobility preferable to living near extended family and other close systems of support? Are pandemics going to be common? How do we mitigate the inequitable distribution of safety, security, and risk? How do we deal with segments of the population that see risk as individualized, thus putting strangers and friends alike in harms way? How does the federal government, in the U.S. respond to recalcitrant communities that see state intervention as anathema to local control?

These questions, and many others, remain unanswered and are worth digging deeply into; especially in the connected world we live in today. For instance, while marginalized groups are at higher risk of being exposed and dying from Covid-19, privileged groups do not have as many options for avoiding exposure as in the past. When Yellow Fever struck the American south in the late 1800s, the solution for those with means was to simply move further from the urban cores near the Mississippi River. Nearly 1/3 of Memphis’ population – mostly wealthy whites – simply picked up and left, leaving the poor and marginalized to deal with the disease (Rushing 2009). Disease chains, however, extend further and further into what was once isolated, safe space.

While Malthus’ predictions have been severely criticized, perhaps it is prudent to wait to see the final score. Or, more practically, to begin re-imagining a world in which diseases are real forces to contend with.

Posted in Evolution, Musings on Sociological Theory | 2 Comments

Patrimony and Bureaucracy: Explaining the Age of Trump

And now for something completely different…The Daily Beast recently reported that Donald Trump’s son-in-law

Jared [Kushner] had been arguing that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it… That advice worked far more powerfully on [Trump] than what the scientists were saying. He thinks they always exaggerate.

Nevermind the veracity of this claim. Rather, reflect on the emotion it elicited. Reflect on the emotions previously elicited when reports of his sprawling influence on the executive office bubble up. I know this subject has been exhaustively discussed by pundit and social scientist alike, and at risk of being redundant or even obvious, I look to some sociological theory to maybe offer a different take on why many of us feel the way we do.

Systems of Domination
Alongside Max Weber’s more famous ‘types of authority” (traditional; legal-rational; charismatic) are his less explored types of domination. Of course, most sociology students know his work on bureaucracies, which is one of the most important pieces in his oeuvre. In line with his general historical argument that all social organization evolves towards greater routinization and rationalization, Weber lays out three types of domination: patriarchy, patrimony, and bureaucracy; all of which present different logics of domination and subordination.

The first two are very close cousins differentiated only by the whether or not there is an administrative staff. Over time, as the administration grows larger and the tasks more complex, a proto- and then more ideal typical bureaucracy evolves. Though patriarchy concerns us a little, it is really patrimony and bureaucracy that stand at the center of our focus. First, however, a table highlighting some of the principal differences between the latter two political forms of domination:

Patrimonial System Bureaucratic System
No Distinction Between Public and Private Spheres Offices/Administration are Clearly Separated from Incumbent
Subjects Exist to Support the Patrimonial Household Administration Designed to Manage Needs of Population
Commitment predicated on Individual’s Authority over Others Commitment to Impersonal Purposes of Department/State
Domination Rooted in Personal Subjection Domination Rooted in Legal Norms
Power Used Arbitrarily w/ Competing Interests only Potential Barrier Power Constrained by Custom, Norms, and Law
Appointment/Promotion Based on Personal Loyalty Appointment/Promotion Based on Formal Rules
Competence Based on Fidelity and Loyalty Competence based on Technical Training
Compensation Based on Benefice and Reward Compensation Divorced from Ruler, Based on Salary/Wage

Weber, of course, famously argued that the modern world was becoming increasing rationalized across many different social orders. The Catholic Church, for instance, was a monument to bureaucratized religion (or, a hierocracy in Weberian terminology), which soon was followed in the mid-17th century by the construction of the nation-state and the slow rise of a civil bureaucracy. Although patrimonialism, in the form of absolute sovereignty, stubbornly held on for several centuries after, but with the spread of democratic republics throughout the west, bureaucracy became the central organizing principle of state and church (Collins 1986). The bureaucratization of every sphere was accelerated by the growth of rational western law that was both a consequence and cause of church bureaucratization (Berman 1983). Eventually, the democratic state and the separation of its branches accelerated the growth of formal economic organizations (corporations), the bureaucratization of universities and education more generally, and so forth. In short, the world we have inherited is one in which mass societies composed of millions and millions of people; and, the most efficient and effective means of dealing with those masses, thus far, is bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy and its Discontents?
A less obvious point Weber makes because most people abhor the “red tape,” snail-like pace, and dehumanizing qualities of, say, the DMV or a university’s administration, is that bureaucracies also improve the lives of more people. For instance, the first feature of bureaucracies in the table underscores the separation of incumbent from personal possession of office. We take for granted just how big of a deal this is, but it prevents families from owning a title or office and passing it on from one generation to the next. Combined with formal and explicit promotion/hiring standards and the elevation of achieved status markers (e.g., a bachelor’s degree), bureaucracy offers greater mobility and equity than previous systems of domination. And though regulations can be personally stressful or encourage inertia, there are positives to a system designed to reduce the chances of arbitrary abuses of power – even if they do, obviously, occur. (I realize it is in fashion, especially in the social sciences, to decry all authority and power because it is assumed nefarious and rife with malfeasance, but like the anti-vaccine crowd that struggles to understand how wretched pre-vaccine society was compared to today, I think it genuinely difficult for people to conceptualize how truly unfair and disastrous patrimonial systems of domination were/are for the vast majority of humans).

In any case, we are all very used to the bureaucratic system of governance in the U.S. Though political opponents often try to point to the subversion of bureaucracy as a polemic and, indeed, sometimes these accusations are correct, the vast majority of politicians are constrained by the system. To my knowledge, know congressperson or Senator has tried to sell their seat or pass it directly to their progeny. At least since the early 1900s, the physical abuse or assault of subordinates by a politician is also rare. And, while people are promoted for reasons other than their qualifications, the civil bureaucracy in the U.S. has been pretty effective at being non-partisan. Indeed, dystopian novels ranging from Brave New World1984, and even the popular Hunger Games books/movies demonstrate just how inured we are to bureaucratic domination: all roads of tyranny lead not only to the callous violence found in satire like Brazil, but to the brutalization and dehumanization exemplified by the Nazi or Stalinist regimes.

Trump Administration as Patrimonial Domination
Now, consider some of the points Weber makes about patrimonial domination and think about who this sounds like:

  1. The patrimonial ruler [and his acolytes] sees his authority and office as his “personal right, which he appropriates in the same way as he would any ordinary object of possession” (1978:232)
  2. “The exercise of power is oriented towards the consideration of how far master and staff can go in view of the subjects’ traditional compliance without arousing their resistance.” (227)
  3. In terms of decision-making: “There is a wide scope for actual arbitrariness and the expression of purely personal whims on the part of the ruler and the members of his administrative staff.…Patriarchalism and patrimonialism have an inherent tendency to regulate economic activity in terms of utilitarian, welfare or absolute values [thereby breaking] down the type of formal rationality which is oriented to a technical legal order.” (bid. 239-40)
  4. “In the patrimonial state the most fundamental obligation of the subjects is the material maintenance of the ruler” (ibid. 1014)
  5. “The ruler recruits his officials in the beginning and foremost from those who are his subjects by virtue of personal dependence, for of their obedience he can be absolutely sure. [When he must recruit extrapatrimonial officials, he insists] the same personal dependency” (ibid. 1026)
  6. “The patrimonial office lacks above all the bureaucratic separation of the “private” and the “official” sphere….Of course, each office has some substantive purpose and task, but its boundaries are frequently indeterminate” (ibid. 1029-1030, emphasis mine)

What is striking about these points is the fact that the tensions between Trump and democracy are not the kind fiction or social science have feared, but a throwback to ancien régimes. In many ways, this isn’t surprising or even novel a conclusion. Trump appears to have run his organization as a mafiosa-type system (also patriomonial domination, but without the full weight of the monopoly over the legitimate right to violence). It also may account for why every venture has failed, as patrimonial logic does not work well with formal rational capitalism (see quote #4 above). And thus, there are tensions and real consequences when logics of domination cross streams; especially when they are ill-fitted to each other.

Make no mistake, there are many reasons to be frustrated with the last few years besides this disjunction. Besides the GOP ramming through judicial nominees that are retrogressive and the failure of the popular/electoral vote to produce a satisfying outcome, there are many, many things to concern us: Trump’s xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, misogyny, and so on. More problematic, if you were to ask me, is his complete and utter lack of empathy to the degree that he appears sociopathic. Yet, I think this disjunction in logics is the crux of the problem: I would argue that the disjunctions between his patrimonial style and the crystallized expectations we have about governance and domination are as much a source of consternation as the personality quirks and blemishes of a narcissist. Running a casino into the ground for his own vanity pales in comparison to incommensurate logic patrimony produces amidst a serious public crisis, like a pandemic.

For instance – and germane to the intro to this essay –  non-elected staff – his daughter, son-in-law, valet, and other close confidants – have no clear boundaries between their private and public selves, nor between a specific project in which some expertise might be handy. However, when grafted uneasily onto a different system of domination, it invites far more confusion and inefficiency then either system would produce under incompetent leadership. In part, it is because the former system attempts to subvert all organs of the state to ruler’s material and symbolic gain while bureaucracies – even those rife with corruption – are oriented towards resolving the problem, if only to prevent being voted out of office or fired.

Patrimonialism and its Discontents
It is an interesting and open question whether Weber could have imagined a retrogression of domination. Though I believe Weber was not an historical determinist, having learned much from Marx’s failures, I do think it fair to say that organizations of all kind lurched towards greater rationalization. By rationalization, I mean formalization (e.g., written rules), standardization, quantification of metrics, and forward-thinking (e.g., predictability as a key value); add to this motivation to replace human error with non-human technology. Rationalization, for Weber, was not so much an immovable object but rather an irresistible force.

Had he lived long enough to see Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, he would have seen charismatic individuals embrace bureaucratic domination to pursue their ends and probably wouldn’t have been surprised.Though they were brutal and sometimes arbitrary in their decision-making, they sought to use the bureaucracy and were, thus, beholden to rationalized forms of mass brutality.

For Trump, this rationalized brutality is only really present in his immigration policies, which like the aforementioned dictators, used state force and mass incarceration to achieve their goals. It is expected that any party and president will choose political appointees committed, to some degree, to enacting his or her vision and policy goals. Trump, however, has only one goal: using the state to enrich himself materially and affectually (through adoration and fealty). His cabinet, in many ways, have become miniature patrimonies because, on the one hand, they owe their fealty to Trump with two key rules governing their decisions: do not outshine Trump’s news coverage and do not contradict him. However, on the other hand, they have one job: evade the bureaucracy and dismantle it if necessary. Politics as usual expects that Obama’s EPA or labor secretary will be pro-environment and unions and that Bush’s will be far more pro-business than not. However, it is entirely a different thing to essentially choose purely self-interested actors whose motives are, in fact, the opposite of the department they are running.And, in nearly every other regard, his patrimonialism throws into sharp relief just how different he is from every other president. Even Nixon, ultimately, resigned before the customs, norms, and laws constraining his use of power caught up with him. 

Thus, while much of the outrage can be correctly pinned on the explicit cruelty of the Trump administration, I would argue that it runs deeper. Amidst the incongruence between two different systems of domination, a sense of structural chaos and, worse, unpredictability emerges. Perhaps this is why sociology exalts Weber’s types of authority, which “make sense” in a modern democratic republic, and not his types of domination, where patriominalism seems distant structurally, culturally, and phenomenologically from the system most of us are born and operate in. And while Weber worried about the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy – effects which unfolded in their full horrifying display during the Holocaust – like most of the classical theorists he was deeply suspicious of “irrational” systems of domination; systems that usually were extensions of an individual and his household’s personal pleasure. Hence why every action of Trump or his staff become subject to being viewed through a patrimonial lens and, thereby, corrupt. Meanwhile the bureaucracy atrophies, and sincere as well as partisan fear and anger rages around the norms and laws that seemed to protect the U.S. from the very thing Trump’s most ardent followers decried Obama and Clinton being guilty of (and which the rallying cry of the COVID “liberate” protestors: tyranny. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Posted in Musings on Sociological Theory | Leave a comment

Cultural Trauma and Total Social Facts

Since Durkheim, sociology has had the habit of looking at psychological phenomena and attempting to co-opt it in the name of social facts and forces. A promising phenomena, one with some relevance for the current COVID pan-pocalypse we are all enduring, is trauma. Once a subset of neurosis or anxiety found in soldiers who saw combat, PTSD has become a common diagnosis for a wide range of individuals whose experience or experiences have lasting cognitive and affectual consequences. Trauma is no joke.

Predictably, sociologists have borrowed this term, applying it, recently, to moments in which “members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways” (Alexander 2004:1). In typical sociological fashion, sociological phenomena – like collective or cultural trauma – is not reducible to biology or psychology: “Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity” (ibid. 10). Since Durkheim’s “discovery” in the 1950s/1960s and subsequent canonization in the 1970s/1980s, American sociology has hewed closely to his forceful denial of the overlap between psychology and sociology in both his Rules of the Sociological Method and Suicide. (Never mind his Elementary Forms of Religious Life, which I could argue was the first and one of the greatest pieces of social psychology sociology has ever produced!). What if, however, cultural trauma could be empirically distinct from the types of intrapersonal trauma abused women and children or soldiers who witnessed their entire platoon decimated, yet still have biological and psychological roots? Would that undermine sociology’s claims, or would it bring these disciplines closer together while asserting sociology’s rightful place?

Total Social Facts
In a series of lectures on psychology and sociology, Durkheim’s nephew, student, and collaborator, Marcel Mauss (1979), argued there were some types of social facts that were total social facts.  Social facts are external, “coercive” forces that give shape to how a group’s members tend to think and feel. Some are structurally patterned while others travel like “currents” of electricity or public opinion, spreading from one person to the other in a recurring game of telephone. Social facts become internalized through ritualized occasions; both the ceremonial and spectacular discussed by Durkheim and the mundane emphasized by Goffman, but remain external in the symbolic representations of meanings etched into words, physical and social objects, and, even geographically and temporally distinct spaces.

A total social fact is one that is fundamentally rooted in our biology and psychology, yet is made real and meaningfully through social interaction and patterned by structure and cultural formations. Mauss, for instance, pointed to language as a total social fact. As Meštrović (1987) interprets this, language is manifest sociologically in the written word, psychologically in speech, and physiologically in evolved features that allow for the mechanics of speech, like the larynx. With advances in cognitive sciences since the 1980s and their spread into sociology, we can push this idea a little further: sociologically, language is shaped by both the actors, environment, and the way in which actors are distributed in space; psychologically, speech is rooted in the mechanisms facilitating actor-environment interface, like mirror neurons that allow for toddlers with no language to track and internalize subtle muscle movements around phonemes; and, biologically in terms of the larynx and language centers of the brain. Thus, on the one hand the speech act is actually a mixture of biological and psychological forces, but on the other hand, it is wholly determined by the structural and cultural context in which significant symbols used in speech are acquired. We need not be afraid of the brain, both biologically and cognitively, because social forces remain ever-present in their ability to coerce patterns of thought and behavior.

Mauss, as Meštrović notes, did not fully leverage the idea of a total social fact, and mostly assumed the listener’s/reader’s familiarity with Durkheim and his acolytes’ sprawling work on religion and kinship, so like Meštrović, we are free to extend the idea with some creative imagination. Can something presumed psychological – PTSD – be a total social fact too?

Return of the Organismic Analogy
One possible way to imagine trauma as both sociological and as a total social fact is to reconsider the organismic analogy. In classical functionalism, society (or, more accurately, collectives) were conceptualized as an organism or supraorganism. Often, this analogy was metaphorical: the large, complex proto-industrial and industrial societies sociology emerged within were composed, like the body, of differentiated “organs” that look different form each other and did different things. However, some, like Herbert Spencer (1873) and, arguably, Durkheim in his Division of Labor, went beyond the metaphor to argue that, in fact, social units were organisms (with special caveats). However, sociologists summarily rejected both the analogous and literal organismic perspectives. But, it remains an open question whether the rejection was too hasty or made on empirical grounds.

For instance, in Kai Erikson’s (1978) incredible study of several West Virginian hollow communities that had been suddenly destroyed and dislocated by a severe coal mining flood, we are presented with evidence that some types of social organization can resemble an organism. Echoing Durkheim’s vision, Erikson compares Buffalo Creek communities to the types of foraging and pastoral societies made famous by anthropological investigation:

persons who belong to traditional communities relate to one another in much the same fashion as the cells of a body: they are dependent upon one another for definition, they do not have any real function or identity apart from the contribution they make to the whole organization and they suffer a form of death when separate from the larger tissue…a community of this kind being discussed here does bear at least a figurative resemblance to an organism…It is the community that cushions pain, the community that provides a context for intimacy, the community, that represents morality and serves as the repository for old traditions” (Erikson 1978:194, emphasis mine).

In interview after interview, Erikson found themes that bubbled up regardless of the individual and the community and network she belonged to prior to the flood. The same pain; apathy; moral disanchorage; disorientation; tendency to develop psychosomatic physical ailments; confusion. He concluded that “when you invest so much of yourself in that kind of social arrangement you become absorbed by it, almost captive to it, and the large collectivity around you becomes an extension of your own personality, an extension of your own flesh” (ibid. 191). This description anticipates the conceptual frame Alexander provides to understand cultural trauma. However, it also suggests something more fundamental than just external social facts: there is something social psychological (Abrutyn 2019) and, even, biological. Erikson (1978:191) continues: members of the community were not only “diminished as a person when that surrounding tissue is stripped away, but [they] are no longer able to reclaim as your own the emotional resources [they] invested in it.”

Cultural, collective traumas, then, have the ability to act as total social facts in cases of tight-knit communities where members have tremendous material and ideological stakes. At the social-level, collective trauma is a function of structural factors, like network density – and cultural factors, like the tightness/coherence of culture. Moreover, it is found in the loss of social relationships and identities that triggers the experience of shared trauma (Abrutyn 2019), thus bringing the level of analysis of trauma into the social psychological and, presumably, psychological. It is accurate to say that the loss of social ties and other things that represent them – like our identities, routines, and so forth – have the effect of eliciting social pain. Social pain, interestingly, affects areas of the brain that overlap with physical pain (Panksepp & Watt 2014; Tchalova & Eisenberger 2015; Matheson et al. 2016), which brings trauma into the neurobiological. And because collective trauma traverses all three levels, yet remains tethered to each, we can conclude it is indeed a phenomenon that truly resembles Mauss’ vision of total social facts. That said, a set of interesting and germane questions revolve around whether or not collective, cultural trauma can extend beyond these tight-knit networks?

Trauma in a Depersonalized and Digitally Mediated World?
I conclude this essay with less certainty and more speculation. Currently, we are all experiencing the effects of the coronavirus. For some, it is moderate in its effects: our favorite haunts are shut down and we may be working from home For others, it means strict social isolation and seriously reduced human contact beyond the denizens of our home. And, for others – particularly members of disadvantaged communities and/or classes of people – it is a high-risk situation: working with or without PPEs; struggling to balance the need for a paycheck with the lack or reduced childcare; working in essential organizations in which contact with symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals is common or, even, the description of the job.

However, the majority of the Earth’s population lives in urban areas with another significant proportion living in the types of non-urban communities that are too large and too diverse across an array of categoric distinctions to create supraorganismic conditions. So, we live in two worlds more than the tight-knit worlds of Buffalo Creek: an encompassing depersonalized world (Lawler et al. 2009) and a digitally mediated world. The former is everywhere as most interaction involves people occupying generalized role positions (e.g., doctor or patient) that carry well-worn patterns of thinking and doing that reduce the need for personal relationships. The latter, however, is no less common, especially now in times of social isolation. Both raise questions about whether the disintegrative consequences of COVID can be understood as collective trauma. Depersonalized contacts involve “thin” exchanges that differ from the dense, multiplex nature of tight-knit communities, while it has become painfully obvous that face-to-face interaction is dynamically different from its digitally mediated cousin (e.g., zoom; twitter).

In both cases, the question of whether a generation or cohort of individuals are experiencing the type of collective trauma that Buffalo Creek’s communities did remains open. If so, why and how does the process resemble the sudden disintegrative reality imposed on those West Virginian’s? More interestingly, how is it different? How does it differ across categories of people and regions? If the trauma, however, is in fact different, how so? Is there a sociological process occuring or are people alone on their island? These are, ultimately, empirical questions of which I lack the data to even hazard an intelligent answer. But, they are really important questions. The world is not going to suddenly shrink and personalize and, short of the end of electricity, social media and digital communications are not likely to disappear; indeed, one consequence of COVID will probably be the expansion of these technologies into more and more facets of our lives. I’ve made the case elsewhere (here and here) that the pain we are experiencing – the grief, panic, anxiety – is rooted in loss. Loss of recurring ritual occasions; of taken for granted routines; of both the annoyances and small gifts daily life provides us; and, even, the places and other objects that implicitly are extensions of our self. The question, though, is whether or not this pain can be characterized as a total social fact in the sense that it is shared and cultural, and fundamentally tied to our biopsycho architecture?

If so, what does the search for a new collective identity look like in a digitally mediated or depersonalized world? One consequence Alexander underscores is that the identity anchors are torn apart and new shared sense of community identity must be built up. But, in less deeply dense networks, how does this proceed and what does this look like? Alternatively, what becomes of the current arrangements of cities? Do we try to create new structural and cultural supports to build these identities? And if so, how? And what do those look like? Again, lot’s of unanswered questions…And, lots of opportunity for new types of research!

 

Posted in Culture, Emotion, Musings on Sociological Theory | Tagged | 1 Comment

Initial Results: Teaching Grad Theory

Well, the term is over. Not simply because of Covid, but because UBC is on a 13-week semester and class ended last week. I am reporting, unscientifically, initial evidence from my experiment. First, a note on how the class ended up being organized.

  1. The first week was devoted to “what is theory,” with several papers like Abend’s now-classic and Jon Turner’s defense of positivism. At the same time Paul Reynold’s primer on theory construction was read to provide a sense of what formal scientific theory does and looks like. The second half of the class was devoted to actually deconstructing a theory-driven article (in this case, it was Ridgeway/Berger’s 1986 ASR). The point was to find a clear “formulaic” article that allows us to discuss both the practical side of writing/publishing theory-heavy or theory-driven papers and the exercise of deriving propositional statements from less-than formalized work. Any article would suffice here.
  2. Weeks 2-6 were devoted to broad strategies of writing, presenting, publishing, and conceptualizing theory. Formal theory was first; followed by a week on how some theorists/subfields/strands of scholarship develop and engage with a classical theorist or a specific work (in this case, Suicide, but anything will do fine here; next we read an assortment of theoretical pieces that employed different strategies synthesizing theory – this meant, synthesizing subfields, concepts, and so forth; we then shifted gears to how a theoretical idea, like schema, evolves within a given subfield; and then looked at a range of works that are interpretivist/hermeneutical. The one received best was the integrative week, perhaps because it was the most creative, but there was a lot of love for the first and second weeks too. The former was enjoyed because it helped them see how propositions come in different presentational forms and also how helpful they are in outlining an article and using it for comps, dissertation ideas, and actual empirical work. The latter was enjoyed because we looked at both theory and empirical work that sought to deal with serious theoretical dilemmas in Durkheim’s work. While the students liked the less-positivist nature of interpretivism, the criticism was the articles were overly detailed in their historical/archival data and one could get lost too easily in the weeds.
  3. The remaining weeks were devoted to large thematic areas: the self; emotions; commitment; power; social capital; and meso-micro linkages (e.g., networks; Fine’s idiocultures; Glaser/Strauss’ awareness contexts; community; strategic action fields). These weeks were devoted to seeing each of these conceptual themes from different angles while also noting the overlapping, commensurate aspects. If I were to change anything here, it would have been a couple of the readings and some of the themes. Mostly, these are placeholders for me to change year-by-year for the sake of freshness.

Now, the pros and cons.

  1. Pro #1: A nice balance between pragmatic concerns (writing publishable theory) and substantive concerns (a theory class is supposed to give students breadth of some sort). A lot of class – before Covid destroyed in-person meetings – was devoted to how to read theory, which was good. It also exposed students to a wide ranging body of theory that I think they would miss. By not focusing on areas or theorists allowed me to assign diverse readings each week tied together by writing or theorizing strategies (integrative theory, for instance). This mean both a practical side (what do people try to integrate and how many different ways do they try to accomplish it), and a substantive side (what is the actual theory?). We ended up covering a lot. I snuck evolution in, for instance, through the aforementioned gender strat paper and in Turner’s 2007 book on the evolution of emotions and social relationships. I was able to jump back and forth between social psych and organizational sociology. And, ultimately, I gave a decent survey of the discipline. Also, by including exercises devoted to thinking about how theory is used in more empirically-driven articles, we could spend time thinking about the role theory plays in research and not just in navel-gazing or canon-worshipping.
  2. Con #1: In the background, a serious problem kept bubbling up: the macro-micro dilemma. Some sociologists can and do think macro, historical, and in patterns; the vast majority do not. Many are, rightfully so, devoted to contemporary issues whether they are race or sexuality because they matter to them. The time and energy and resources needed to learn history to the level that one is comfortable even engaging big historical theories is also a major cost and, as Marx would have found out had he really tried to raise the proletariat’s historical consciousness, too often met with resistance, frustration, and questions of relevance. For instance, we read a great article by five authors positing a general theory of gender stratification. Now, admittedly, the article was on gender, which meant some students were simply going to critique it on critical grounds. But, the point of the article was to take four major areas that gender scholars focus on in explaining stratification, examine the historical and ethnographic record, and posit a theory that explains variations across time and space in how inequitable gender relations are. Its big and necessarily complex in its parts, but the article does a valiant job condensing a lot of ideas into a small space, drawing links between different research areas, and demonstrating how and why gender stratification varies. In any case, it is a great example of integrative macro-theory, induced by extant empirical evidence in order to produce deductive testing. The criticisms were typical: it is too simple (four big areas with two or three dozen concepts that could be operationalized in five or six dozen ways!!?!); it ignores the experiences of women (that’s the point, experiences are for a different type of sociology, but that doesn’t make this any less valid or worth reading). The lack of engagement with theorythe theory was astounding across the board. I shouldn’t be surprised as that tends to be the case year after year, no matter how or what I taught. If you asked me, it is really the disconnect between theory as philosophy, theory as critique of everything one hates or sees as the enemy of their group’s mobility, and theory as social science. Students aren’t sure what they are supposed to be getting out of it, and the theorists they often gravitate to are like Rorschach tests: garbled, obscurantist, and thus easy to impose whatever one wants to see.
  3. Pro #2: You know what did work out? My students increasingly became aware of the fact that there are 20-24 basic dimensions of social life (on continua like formal-informal, intimate-impersonal, etc) and that there are a delimited number of conceptual issues, themes, and so on. They came to this realization early, so I like to think the readings and the format of the front end of the class was the cause of these realizations (but, I have no data nor did I even deign to try collecting such data). To be sure, a couple of students I think came in believing sociology wasn’t a science and science is a white male oppressive, hegemonic ideology, so they would never be persuaded, though I think one became more critical of that knee-jerk perspective. Ultimately, I think it worked. It also worked that students became proficient at drawing propositions out of various types of work, both journal articles and monographs like Kai Erikson’s Everything in its Path.
  4. Con #2: Even with two more weeks as is common in the US, there are areas I would have missed because of the time constraints. For instance, I love evolutionary sociology, but it seemed not to fit and would have required a lot of time talking about evolution itself. Likewise, I study institutions and it would have been nice. In the past, and to some extent now, I have used theory to expose students to the stuff electives and methods classes usually don’t expose them to. It is often as though other subfields, like evolutionary sociology, are less important than hotter fields, and thus if they don’t get it in my class, then would they choose an elective on human societies and social evolution? Doubtful, but that is a hypothesis worth testing.
  5. Con #3: This is a little self-serving, but I continue to miss the joy I felt when I first was exposed to theory in my MA program. I was given free-reign by a hardcore Marcusian Marxist trained by a sociobiologist to explore. I read widely. Freud, Fromm, Fanon, Luhmann, Comte, and so on. Two years and so much reading. To be sure, that was as much my own use of time as it was a programmatic. But, theory to me was about reading widely and having serious conversations. A class on theory can be that, but it also raises serious questions about what the point of theory is. If you have students who are learning to write grants or develop research programs, does knowing Nietzsche, Plato, or Rousseau matter? Is it important to debate how much of an influence Kant had on Durkheim? Is it worth spending precious time exploring critiques like Marcuse’s when they are rooted in impossible to prove critical analyses? Just what are we up to?
  6. Pro #3: The class is getting closer to what I think is a good theory class. The end result was to produce a theoretical paper, not just a review of a literature or subfield. The five papers (I have read their outlines and intros, to date) are actually amazing ideas. Will they be executed the first go-around? I don’t know. Is it a case of randomness (five really great students) or the class provided certain tools? Also, unknown. But, I can say for the first time every paper – even those that sit outside of what I would write as theory – look really great and potentially publishable under the right circumstances. Students took chances, in many cases, and are trying really difficult but creative things. So, that is a win.
Posted in Teaching | Tagged | 1 Comment

PANIC/GRIEF, or the Pain of Social Distance

Do you feel it? The pain of being stuck inside, apart from the people you love? Apart from the routine movements that fill the rounds of daily life that are blindly taken for granted? The patterns of interaction or exchange that, like signposts on a road, made these routine movements meaningful – i.e., innocuous small talk with a co-worker whose office you passed every day; the familiar feel of your desk or warm glow of your screen; the distaste for a fellow co-worker or a voice that grates on you? The feeling of others present in unfocused encounters like riding a train or bus, walking through a hotel lobby or department store, or people watching from your upstairs window? You’re not alone. As apes, our brains evolved to crunch complicated calculations about conspecifics; about one’s position relative to others; about one’s love, lust, like for another and their evaluation of one’s self; about one’s status or reputation; about past interactions and anticipation of future ones. Indeed, our supercomputer of a brain seems designed to handle up to 150 relationships in a network of others (Dunbar 1992). Social intelligence, perhaps; a powerful need, definitely. We are designed to be “nosy,” to talk about each other, to gossip, to want to “groom” each other, to compete and be co-present. Why?

Late-neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp (1998; 2005; see, also, van der Westhuizen and Solms 2015) identified seven structurally discrete affectual systems in mammalian brains that he theorized evolved to coordinate – and sometimes command – the behavior of mammals facing the same sorts of evolutionary challenges. [The all-caps was Panksepp’s strategy for emphasizing the motivational component over the usual emphasis on primary emotions – however, each affectual system corresponded with one or a set of related emotions]. (1) SEEKING, or the motivation to pursue resources; (2) RAGE, or the motivation to defend those resources; (3) FEAR, or the motivation to avoid pain and destruction; (4) LUST, or the motivation to bond intimately with some others; (5) PANIC/GRIEF, or the motivation to avoid rejection, isolation, and exclusion; (6) CARE, or the motivation to nurture the young; and (7) PLAY, or the motivation to bond with others through vigorous interaction. In primates, particularly apes, the latter three are bigger in size because of their obvious importance to sociality. A key insight from Panksepp is that these affectual systems are primary systems like our digestive or endocrine systems: though they may work in coordination with cognitive functions, they usually serve as executive controls (that is, they stimulate and control other functions like memory or behavior) and, in intense moments, as command functions taking over the entire body and forcing “instinctual” reactions. This is not to say that we are automatons, but that affect is primary to cognition (Damasio 1994; LeDoux 2000); which, really isn’t controversial.

That all said, our brains are plastic in so far as these affectual systems are designed to aide in learning (Davis and Montag 2019). Memory, for instance, is predicated on information being selected as important or not based on the affectual intensity it elicits and valence it triggers. Thus, more emotionally intense events become more easily remembered, more easily recalled, and more likely to be deemed relevant to the self and/or a relationship (Conway 2005). Thus, as George Herbert Mead theorized, our self is constructed through interactions with others – real, imagined, and generalized – such that we acquire the meanings that make physical, social, and ideational objects significant and, therefore, something we can coordinate our actions in pursuit or use of. The resources we SEEK or when, why, and how we RAGE (that is, how and why we express or suppress anger), and whom we LUST after is a mixture of our evolved affectual systems, unique genetic factors, and, very often, the sociocultural environment we acquire Mead’s meanings.

SOCIAL PAIN
One of the most powerful systems, in my opinion, is the PANIC/GRIEF system. Panksepp notes that all neonates trigger the PANIC system automatically when they lose sight of their mothers and, conversely, all mothers trigger PANIC when they lose sight of their young. Any parent who cannot find their child in a crowded mall or any reader that recalls being separated for even the shortest period in an unfamiliar place knows the feeling. We are, essentially, wired to feel the emotions centered in PANIC when suddenly isolated and when we a bond is dissolved or we are excluded or rejected. Interestingly, Panksepp gave the PANIC system a second name, GRIEF, to reflect the intertwined relationship between losing sight of a caregiver and threats to and losses of social bonds. To be sure, isolation, rejection/exclusion, and loss all elicit different culturally appropriate emotions and different levels of intensity based on the many factors including the significance of the person with whom we lose a bond, the duration of the relationship that is threatened and, thereby, the time, energy, and other resources we’ve invested, and the source of blame to which we attribute the affectual response (self, other, group, abstract system). Exclusion and rejection are particularly painful, often eliciting intense social emotions like shame and humiliation (Retzinger 1991; Gilligan 2003), whereas losing a bond because of death triggers grief in all of its forms. But the point stands: the loss of anchorage to person or group, for a variety of reasons, triggers a deeply evolved affectual system that, subsequently, pushes us into action. Why does this matter?

Right now, most if not all of those who chose to read this are sitting alone, at a computer, socially, responsibly distancing from others. The pangs of anxiety you feel are natural activation of FEAR to the uncertainty of when this will end and what that end will look like. The activation of GRIEF we have is premised on not being able to have the small or the large, the mundane or the spectacular co-present rituals affirming our social ties. And, for some of us, when both are activated, we probably do feel a sense of PANIC. That we have three affectual systems devoted to different types of social bonding (LUST/intimacy; CARE/nurturance; and PLAY/social joy) underscores the variety of interactions we are being excluded from; even those we have long taken for granted and which a survey would surely miss as most people do not even realize just how much we yearn for the simple exchanges as much as the more complex. Indeed, I would argue the former are more important than the latter, which may help explain why my twitter feed features as many people isolating with their family feeling anxiety and grief as those who are alone for one reason or another. That is, we would expect those stuck with the significant others to feel supported and warm and not social pain. So, why is this the case?

APE SOCIAL NETWORKS
In previous posts on this site, I have presented Alexandra Maryanski’s (1987; also, Maryanski and Turner 1992) network analyses of the four remaining ape species (Gibbons; Orangutans; Gorillas; Chimps). One of the central arguments is the counter-to-the-conventional-sociological-assumption that apes – of which we belong – prefer to have only a couple strong ties and many weak ties. Chimps, for instance, live in communities that share a territory, but have few strong ties. Mothers and their young are obviously strongly bonded, but that is the extent to which those types of ties exist. Male-male bonds do form between hunting partners who reciprocate meat sharing, but when females reach child-bearing age, they leave the natal group and join another and so do some of the males. Female-female bonding is also quite rare. Hominins, which split from chimps and therefore shared a Last Common Ancestor, also preferred autonomy, independence, and few strong ties/moral obligations. That means, the earliest human societies likely included a lot of freedom of movement.

Our brains, then, are theoretically designed to make complex social calculations about a lot of weak tie relationships. There is pleasure found in gossip; in associating with people who we share a single interest with; in friendly and intense status competitions; in the banter that comes and goes, but which is as routine as the road we take to work everyday, the seat we occupy in every lecture in a class, and familiar occurrences that make us mildly content or annoyed. So, the general feeling is we are missing significant others, but we really are missing the extensive networks we belong to as direct, indirect, fringe, or bridge members. The familiar has melted away.

To put it more colloquially: we are mourning. Your friends and family over social media and facetime are going through the five stages at different paces and over different social bonds. The world is grieving over social ties and panicking over what this means for the self in the future.

Furthermore, when we take a walk or brave a supermarket, the rules of distancing and the paranoia many feel and express, has created unsatisfactory small, weak tie exchanges. We have all become Goffman’s (1963) “normals” and everyone is now a non-person; someone to fear, The dynamics of interpersonal interaction are now mechanical and conscious instead of fleeting, taken for granted, and mildly contenting.

But, why are people stuck with their significant others feeling isolated and anxious? Well, there is sociological evidence that strong ties are not always our favorite ties (Small  2017). They are exhausting, mentally draining, and filled with obligations – everything we, as apes, dislike. To be sure, I love my family; and, I think there have been a lot of good things to come from being stuck for almost two weeks in a small space together. But, the lack of freedom of movement and escape from the “social cage” as Maryanski – putting a twist on Weber’s “iron cage” – call’s it, is stressful and just as anxiety-riddled. If variety is the spice of life, then the bonds built on familiarity and the totality of self blur the thrill of backstage/frontstage divisions; of the transition from one to the next; of intrigue; of being only a tiny sliver of oneself and having secrets that give depth to our weak tie relationships. Reputation in our family life matters much less on a day-to-day basis. Social calculations are mundane and rote. In a word, the thrill is gone.

 

Posted in Emotion, Evolution, Musings on Sociological Theory | 2 Comments

What Is the Point of Sociological Theory?

This morning, I will be embarking on graduate contemporary theory for the eighth time in my career. Every year, it has evolved – sometimes quite significantly – making me the guy who won’t commit to a recurring syllabus and, thereby, taking advantage of the amazing teaching load UBC offers research-oriented faculty. This year, it has taken one final step forward, but that is not the specific point of this specific entry (though, I do want to revisit what happened last term with my undergrad theory course and discuss the way I’ve designed this current course in future entries…entries which I hope come at a more consistent and quicker pace). For now, I want to build a little on a abbreviated twitter thread I left yesterday. In short, the title of this essay is the subject of the post.

What is The Point of Theory?
In re-reading Abend’s (2008) piece on the meanings of theory and Turner’s (1985) piece defending positivism, alongside the first couple of chapters of Reynold’s *Primer on Theory Construction*/Homans’ *The Nature of Social Science* – all assigned for day one, the question once again was as salient as it can be. I was once again excited to read Abend’s arguments, which, in essence, put the burden, first, on the discipline to work out, politically, what exactly we mean by theory; and, second, on individual sociologists – in their reviews of papers, for instance – to not just say something like: “it does not sufficiently advance theory,” but rather be self-reflexive and specify which of his seven commonly attributed meanings of theory the reviewer implies. Both of these points seem wise, and in fact useful. That I have never seen a paper of mine reviewed this way or reviewed a paper this way, a decade plus later, I would say Abend’s practices have not been adopted.

What I didn’t like about Abend’s argument, however, kept haunting me. Especially as I read Turner’s argument for science and positivism (which, is a loaded word with myriad meanings and really not the point of this essay, so will be left alone for now). On the one hand, Abend’s first, second, and third types of theory share several key features the others do not; mainly, a commitment to engagement between theory and empirical reality. The others are exercises belonging to the humanities. To be sure, my argument ultimately is not that these do not belong in the discipline – surely they do, and some of my most favorite work comes from scholars mining the depths of a specific theorist – but that Abend does not go far enough in distinguishing what is theory – by the actual definition of the term – from that which is something else. Of course, that is not his intention or rhetorical strategy. Yet, I was left unfulfilled as I have always been in reading his otherwise excellent paper.

If the point of sociological theory is not to engage with the empirical world through some type of methodological strategy, then it is probably best not to call it theory. Why? Well, for one reason, there is a scientific community that is significantly larger than sociology that has adopted this meaning; and as we know, what is believed to be real becomes real in its consequences. Intersubjectivity is a foundational element of any community, and if the scientific community, writ large, defines theory in terms of its application to empirical facts and regularities, then who are we to take a term and use it however we want. If it was subversive, then I might understand. But, I think Abend is right: people have usurped the term in order to fight other political battles in the discipline, and this fact does not make it right or better or appropriate.

So, in a few hours, my students will be hearing that they have four tasks this term: learning substantive theoretical frameworks/theories (something I am simply no longer able to focus my primary energies on in course); how to read theory and/or theoretical-elements of research articles; how to extract, write, and draw formal social scientific theory; and how to publish the types of theory offered by Abend, Turner, and Alexander. My first thoughts about this compromise is that it is a lot. But, it really isn’t as much as one might surmise. I have taught theory in several ways for over a decade plus, and I have realized students will glean what they glean, regardless of your efforts. It is, like stats and many other classes at the grad level, there for the student’s taking and up to the student. So, substantively, I give them as much range and depth as I can and they choose their level of weekly engagement. In terms of the reading of theory, every week is split into the first/second half of the course, with the latter reserved for posting PDFs of articles with detailed notes about how people present theory in different ways when writing papers. This also contributes to the substantive goal and to the writing/publishing goals. Its the latter two that are potentially in conflict.

Scientific Theory
Abend cautions us against pushing a scientistic epistemological and ontological solution to the so-called semantic problem. He worries practically and politically about the outcome, for good reason. But, I am less worried about these problems. After all, as Turner has said: if we aren’t doing science, then what are we doing that is unique? Critical literary analysis? Covered in another department whose training is primarily focused on this. Philosophy of science. Covered. Ideographic historical case-studies? Covered. We study societies, social organization, social behavior and attitudes and feelings, and the like. And, our contribution to social problems comes most cogently from our best methodological practices. Turner’s extremism, unfortunately, obscures the better parts of his argument. Arguments I know well having been his student and also having countless conversations with him. He is much less ideologically-rigid than his polemics presume.

First, Turner is agnostic methodologically. For many reasons the word positivism has become synonymous with quantitative orthodoxy, but neither Comte nor Turner think this way. Positivism for both simply states: we should be working towards identifying the key properties of the social world, the law-like relationships regardless of time and space, and proximate rather than ultimate causality. These are lofty goals, and we can debate if there are laws or not (there are, incidentally). But, neither staked out a side as to how we achieved these goals. Turner is somewhat un-empirical, but he prefers historical and ethnographic data to stats (he is quite critical of complex modeling strategies that pretend to be theory). Comte argued that naturalistic observation was as important as anything else.

Second, while Turner says there are better strategies for building cumulative theory, he recognizes that any theory committed to empirical analysis is, by definition, scientific. It just falls short in the ultimate goal of cumulative knowledge. That said, like many general theorists of his generation, middle range theories, historical explanations, analytic schema, etc. all serve as inspirations for the the sociological imagination in building systems of causal laws. [Side note: I am not even sure Turner is committed to laws, as laws are empirical regularities and less abstract than the systems of interrelated propositional statements he prefers (see 2010, 2010, 2011). His broader argument is we know a lot more than we act like we do, and we could teach our students a common theoretical language before they move on to their own specific interests and without robbing them of the sociological imagination].

Third, Turner accepts that there are other goals of science that can serve as criteria for evaluating the value of theory. In Reynolds’ (1971) archetypal text on the construction of sociological theories, several goals are listed besides cumulative knowledge, and overlap/extend Abend’s types 1, 2, and 3 theories. The first is description/classification. Theories can be descriptive! This is actually nice. Note description for description sake is the weakest criteria of theory-building, because, presumably, one’s taxonomic efforts should also contribute to explanation and, potentially, prediction; the next two goals.

In terms of explanation, Reynolds, like Turner, is agnostic. He clearly prefers those explanations that are independent of time/space, but also realizes historical explanations of specific cases are useful. This heterodoxic stance also pries open space for qualitative research committed to scientific rigor. In my own experiences, qual is essential to revealing mechanisms, processes, and, of course, meanings that should – in a perfect world – inform future deductive research in terms of the questions asked and the instruments developed to answer them. This is not always the case, but I would argue this is more a function of a false divide between quant and qual and, worse, the idea that theory shouldn’t be rooted in scientisim. Again, other types of activities not scientistic are not less than, subordinate to, or non-sociological; they just aren’t theory. If we push back and see explanation as a central goal to theory, then description strives to reach explanation. Quant folks maybe read qual folks more, or collaborate, to improve surveys and analytic strategies; and new qual folks emerge to deal with the ever-present gaps science, as an epistemology, purposefully creates.

The bogeyman, here, is prediction. I won’t dive too deeply here. But, I do think sociologists can predict some things. And, by prediction, I am going by other science’s standards – e.g., biologists can predict the general time a leaf will fall and specify why their prediction is as such, but they cannot give you a day or time. We know the conditions under which ethnic or class conflict should arise. Like the leaf falling on Tuesday, conflict may not happen next week or month; it may simmer. And like a chance fire burning the tree to the ground before the leaf falls, other intervening variables may change the trajectory of the conflict. This is not precise, to be sure, and thus sociology does not necessarily lend itself to an applied physics, but we know a lot about issues like mental health stigma, poverty, formal organizations, and so on. We can actually predict, within reason, more than we presume. More broadly, this is but one of five goals I’ve delineated, and as such, not a make-or-break criteria for sociology’s status as a science.

The final two goals Reynolds discusses are “understanding” and control. He dismisses the latter, arguing that scientists have a tough time controlling lots and lots of things (e.g., earthquakes), so most of what we study is also probably quite difficult to control. But, understanding, for Reynolds, is related to the construction of paradigmatic (for lack of a better word) systems of causal relationships. It is more a framework that a set of scholars work within that informs their decision-making. Evolution in biology, for instance, is a perfect example: it guides most of the assumptions, questions, and explanations biologists deal with. Again, one criteria among others.

To these goals (cumulative knowledge; description; explanation; prediction; paradigmatic; control), I would add the more conventional sociological meaning of understanding as a part of the theory-building process, though perhaps not really a criteria for evaluating theory (I continue to think and evolve on this). I think interpretivist sociology, when done well and with serious rigor, can become explanatory over time. Scholars committed to a particular milieu, process, set of actors, etc. can build, over several projects, clearer explanations. With abductive strategies, this logic is already built in to the approach (Tavory and Timmermans 2012). However, I see a place for understanding as a goal of science too. Especially when the scholar abandons the outdated pretense of the naive observer. In a highly diverse world, where little pockets of the world are distant cognitively and geographically, illuminating the discrete attributes and meanings may, in fact, lead to powerful social science. I know our work on suicide has benefited from trying to understand a community’s meanings surrounding suicide, and we believe with more research, much of what we found can be made more abstract and generalized. Not so much the details on the ground, unique to Poplar Grove, but the processes and what not. In this sense, understanding can begin the process of developing practical tools for dealing with social problems.

Who Cares?
One could argue these points are implicit, baked into the sociological enterprise. As with everything I muse about re theory, it all returns to how we teach it; and, by way of, how we train students to use and be theoretically-minded. The way we teach it is a mess. It lacks coherence and consistency. If we all began with the guiding principle of scientific criteria, we would no longer be able to teach the canon without re-engaging with what it is we are even teaching. If we began with science, then contemp theory courses would cease to be eclectic, arbitrary exercises in pet theorists, ideological axes, and the like.

This underlying epistemological stance will, hopefully, guide the course I am teaching this term. The goal is to provide practical tools for those who gravitate towards writing more theoretically pieces, but really for all students to be able to more clearly articulate what their theories are, how they inform their research, and what their contribution is. I have always made clear that my position is not the only position, and that they need to decide for themselves what kind of sociologist they want to be. Moreover, I do not discriminate against those pursuing Abend’s other types of theory. But, to accomplish the four goals of the class, and make well-rounded, competent, prepared sociologists, it seems scientism is the best thread to tie it all together.

Posted in Musings on Sociological Theory, Teaching | 1 Comment

The Pedagogical Dead-End Known as “Classical” Sociological Theory

This is the first in a series of (increasingly more practical) posts about teaching classical theory; or, perhaps, not teaching it. I have written about  this elsewhere, recently tweeted a thread, and recently recorded two different podcasts (here and here) about this issue in two different ways. It seems intractable, to be honest, as one side seems entrenched and unable to imagine a discipline that does not constantly reiterate and socialize its neophytes in the lore and theoretical morass of the classics. Hell bent on resurrecting long-lost theorists, returning to old philosophical questions of Kant or Plato, or simply raising (legitimate) critique of the who, what, why of the canon. On the other side, is merely a bunch of unrelated scholars who “know” something is wrong, but who do not know how to reconfigure something so ingrained in sociology: the dichotomy between classical and contemporary sociology. I want to do a couple of things here, beginning with briefly pointing our why this is a problem, both in practico-pedagogical terms and in theoretico-scientific terms. From there, I use another brief example (one which my colleague Anna Mueller and I have written about many, many times in many, many places). Finally, I present the (on-going) solution I have settled on for the time being. I will return in future posts, some soon to come as reflections on what has and hasn’t worked thus far, and a sort of final take after this term is over.

Crystallized, Sedimented Navel Gazing
At the core of my argument is what I have termed the twin issues of the time crunch and the arms race. The former refers to the fact that undergraduate and graduate departments in North America are faced with cramming almost 200 years (or more if, say, you begin with Adam Smith) sociological theory and social philosophy into two 13 to 15 week courses (or, worse, sometimes in one “blended course” – something I am familiar with from my tenure at U Memphis). It’s frankly impossible, and invites arbitrary decision-making and, for non-specialists, reliance on (pretty crappy) textbooks. The latter is the current trend, driven partly by textbook revision demands, but also by many social theorists’ proclivity to search for the etiological meaning of a concept or term, look for a philosophical precursor, or simply revive old dead people because god knows we need more papers on more super obscure sociologists (for a fun read, check out what was “contemporary” theory in 1928). Both of these issues are creating a wide-range of problems for both pedagogical practices and for training future social scientists such that theory is something they can use and not something they find dry, obscurantist, esoteric, dense, vague, or something that weird old guy in our department does in his free time instead of collecting data. Here are some of the consequences…

Thought or Theory? Social or Sociological? The biggest issue I see, is what we are teaching. I am 100% for a course on the history of social thought and/or sociology, but Classical THEORY is theory, not thought, history, or philosophy. For the latter, there are both great tomes written on the subject (for the best, in my opinion, see Becker and Barnes [1961] from Lore to Social Science), and, I presume, entire departments like philosophy already devoted to this area of study. Theories are, by definition, sets of concepts and statements about their relationship. That’s it. Just because we get to invent neologisms like institutionalization or habitus, and debate conceptual definitions about power or class, does not entitle us to redefine an entire practice (science) that already has widespread consensus. A course on classical theory, then, should not be interested in Weber’s mental breakdown, or Comte’s goofy invention of a religion; nor should it care what Nietzsche speculated about. It’s chief concern is distilling what theoretical principles the classics provided us with, the methodological approaches built on or from these principles, and the lasting legacy today. For instance, it is ok to teach Marx’s stage-model, but if one does, we shouldn’t teach it as taken for granted fact, but actually interrogate its crappiness in theoretical and empirical reality. He not only knew nothing about preliterate societies, he substitutes his own philosophical commitments on human nature for good social scientific theory building. That’s the lesson there. I’ll say more on this with another example, soon, but let’s consider the fall out here (also, feel free to skip the rant here and move to the suicide stuff below).

  1. Who teaches theory? Whether or not there are  theorists anymore, or whether the discipline needs a specialization in theory is besides the point here. The simple fact is that the push back I receive about how we teach theory and why classical is necessary is always from established scholars. I am sure they have the time and leisure, like myself, to think a lot about theory and craft intensive courses that actually mitigate many issues I see as plaguing the false dichotomization of theory. But, let’s be honest: not only is theory not a specialization, but most jobs hire people for other things and ask if they can teach theory. Moreover, more departments than not “farm” theory (along with intro, methods, etc) to vulnerable, underemployed adjuncts, lecturers, and so forth. Overworked, these folks smartly rely on the resources available to teach sociology, and thus they use textbooks and these textbooks reinforce and reproduce all of the problems. It is not their fault, it’s the discipline’s weird infatuation with theory (we hang our hat on the belief that we are the best social science because everything we do is oriented towards theory), yet its near total ambivalence towards theorists, theory training, theory construction classes, and scientific theorizing.
  2. They Did This, Don’t Do That. Relatedly, one argument for keeping the course as conventionally taught is the sociological imagination. To be sure, Durkheim’s Elementary Forms or Marx’s German Ideology are inspired, creative pieces. Indeed, we revere the classics for the scope, scale, and imaginativeness. But we achieve the opposite by teaching them the way we do. We ignore the sociological lessons gleaned about written work and its powerful taken for granted authority. The beatification of Marx or Durkheim in textbooks, courses, and implicitly in the oft-repeated dictum that we must teach the saints lest the discipline lose its integrative capacity, makes their work seem dead; finished; crystallized. It transforms the reader’s relationship to the texts, making them artifacts from which we might conduct archaeological digs or biblical exegesis. It defames and disfigures and obscures the very freedom to create with which those authors took liberties. I cannot tell you how many times Anna and I have had a reviewer respond to a paper on suicide that is trying to push beyond Durkheim by asking: “but which type would this be in Durkheim’s model”? This is not creativity. It ignores that Durkheim’s work is excellent for the very reason that he was not saddled with the baggage of some sedimented tradition that everyone must know, recite by heart, and worship in orthodoxy.
  3. Learning by not learning. 1 and 2 often lead to many students learning “facts,” that simply aren’t facts. It is irresponsible to teach Marx’s “primitive” communism without setting the empirical record straight; or crystallizing Durkheim’s four-fold model without noting that only one of the four types has received consistent, enduring empirical support; or that the classical theorist’s ingrained fear of urbanization and its discontents was not based on empirical science, but on speculation about human nature (cf. Maryanski and Turner 1992). We have a responsibility not only to impart meaning to anomie and alienation, but also the fact that there is not a consistent definition of these concepts, nor has there been any effort to create operationalized consistency such that we can actually evaluate what these concepts are and whether they actually do things to people.
  4. Institutionalizing (Not) Theorizing. In sociology, as Abend’s (2008) article notes, there are myriad definitions of theory – and, don’t get me wrong, all of them are legitimate scholarly practices. Many of these are borne of the classical convention, and most aren’t theory by any scientific standard. There are, for instance, the exegetical deep-dives. I love reading, by the way, new letters Durkheim sent to Mauss or marginalia by Weber when he was in a particular manic phase. But, revealing them is not theory, it is exegesis and should be called as such. We’ve all engaged in it, but the question is always end result. I recently dug through Durkheim’s myriad thoughts on anomie, as well as many others (Abrutyn 2019). The end result, however, was not a descriptive piece on what we missed, but a theory building exercise that offered propositional statements designed to operationalize anomie more efficaciously and consistently. One is free to add or subtract propositions, but they stand as effort to do theory instead of look for ways other theorists did it.A second, and more nefarious, tendency is the creeping nature of philosophic deep-dives. These are, in essence, well-intentioned, but ultimately gatekeeping activities. Consider the following: having taught undergrad theory for almost 13 years every year, and grad theory in one capacity or another for 9, I can tell you that most sociologists are not and never will be theorists; nor do they want to; nor does the discipline need them to be. I bet, however, if you took a poll, most would say they hated their theory course because it seemed so detached from the rest of their training. Why? Because the philosophization of theory is not theorizing or scientific. There is a reason Comte placed positivist science as the next evolved stage after the metaphysical; there is a reason some classical theorists have been elevated over the very extensive range of possibilities:those committed (besides Marx) to the rigorous empirical verification of what would have once been called moral philosophy make more sense to a science than those speculating endlessly about human nature. Most students want to study “X”, not spend years reading further and further into a Kantian rabbit hole. They don’t have the time, desire, or perhaps training. Nor should they, because it doesn’t really matter. I am not saying theory shouldn’t be hard, it should. It should be abstract. But, by keeping the deep-dives we make it unnecessarily esoteric and strip it of its parsimony and potential power to guide research. Particularly classical theory, which is cited in introductions and lit reviews and discussions, but the mystery behind the direct relationship between a classical theorist/theory and empirical work is often disjointed as conscious and unconscious gatekeeping of theorists and their spheres of (decreasing) influence.
  5. But, We Must Contextualize Theorists! Knowledge is a Social Construct. My biggest pet peeve: “we must contextualize the theorists, otherwise we miss why they did what they did!” Nonsense. Either a concept or set of concepts is generalizable over time and space, or its not. If it’s not, then it is a more serious indictment that a social science spends an entire semester studying theory that is constrained to its time (mostly 19th century) and place (mostly continental Europe). Yet, we draw from it today, so it has applicability, presumably, with advanced or post-industrial societies, and thus implies generalizability. Why should anomie be restricted to urban societies? Or rationalization a process only found in contemporary formal organizations? By pushing contextualization we continue to reproduce the myth that premodern and modern times were drastically different in every way. They weren’t. We want to them to be, because radical change easily accounts for why society is so bad today, or why human societies are so unnatural. But, that isn’t rooted in empirical analysis, but rather ideology and golden ageism.
  6. The Double Problem: Lost Generations and Old Wine, New Bottles. Finally, we have the double problem of the classics. Mostly, this is rooted in the arbitrary decisions teachers must make in the face of the time crunch. The first problem stems from the question of what is classical? Is it pre-20th century? If so, then Mead/Blumer/Park and many others are out. So, is it pre-Parsons or is The Structure of Social Action the break point? So, what about “lost generations” of theorists like Sorokin, Elias, Eisenstadt, Shils, and so on, and on, and on. Or can we say dead theorists are classical as they aren’t writing any more? They aren’t actively contributing to the discourse. Goffman is dead, is he classical? Berger, Blau, and many others. If not, what is contemporary? The last 20 years? The 1960s, forward? It makes no sense.A second problem stems from the arbitrary choices we make: we are habitually engaged in pouring old wine into new bottles. In part, we are trained to forget key concepts and ideas, so we “rediscover” them constantly, only to find out sooner or later than someone else already posited it. Then, once we’ve reinvented the wheel we spend a ton of time using logic to argue why our concept is different and, presumably, superior to the old ones. Rather than just engage in cumulative knowledge construction, we spend inordinate amounts of time searching for distinction and uniqueness. So much has been lost, only to be found again. It may seem boring to suggest every sociologist should learn a basic set of principles (after all, it is not as exciting as reading Marx’s anger in the manifesto or Durkheim’s gorgeous creativity in the elementary forms), but why not build a discipline from some basic, mundane, boring principles, and then add layers of excitement to it.

Suicide and its Discontents
I am not going to spill a lot of computer ink here, but the status quo teaching of classics has real life consequences for doing innovative, good research that has real-world impacts. We all know peer-review is the necessary evil, and we all know publishing work in the most visible journals is key to both a strong career and perhaps pushing your work beyond the boundaries of the profession. Yet, sociology remains unconsciously wedded to the idea that we have to cite all of the relevant masters in most of our research (fine), and, especially, in ANY research related to one of the saints. So, every time I write a paper about suicide, I HAVE to cite Durkheim, otherwise, predictably, a reviewer or two will call me out. Call me out with nonsensical points like: what would Durkheim have said? Or, which of the “boxes” in his four-fold model would this fit? Worse, is the assumption what we are saying was said, in some way, shape, or form, by D himself. Look, I am not bragging, because it is exhausting to think this: I have read Suicide about 50 times in the last four years (front to back) and specific individual chapters another 50 times. I think I comfortably know what he said, not what my grad class from 15 years ago taught me or what Ritzer said or what anyone thinks they’re sure of. Some basic facts that are never taught with Suicide in theory:

  1. His own student, Maurice Halbwachs (1978) wrote a book, The Causes of Suicide, several decades after Durkheim’s death, demonstrating two key things. Explicitly, he demonstrated that a lot of D’s analyses suffered from data limitations (Halbwachs used similar data, but over a long period of time) and overly simplistic notions of multivariate logic (e.g., it wasn’t Protestants, per se, but urban Protestants). Implicitly, Halbwachs cast significant doubt on the integration/regulation dimensions, appearing to place the former front and center and making the second disappear.
  2. To that effect, in the mid-century, Barclay Johnson (1965) published an important paper that cogently argued Durkheim only had one dimension, integration. Since then, sociologists have struggled to reconcile Durkheim’s own ambiguities about regulation, as he himself sometimes treated them independently, and other times as caused by the other (particularly regulation caused by integration).
  3. Never mind the fact that his chapter on anomie is filled with vagaries and inconsistencies. For instance, how can economic recessions and booms both cause lack of regulation? The former seems to narrow one’s life choices, and thus is really the cause of greater regulation! Or, what he would have termed fatalism. Unsurprisingly, anomie means nothing and everything (but mostly the Mertonian-Parsonian interpretation of normlessness) (Abrutyn 2019), and its relationship to suicide rates is extremely inconsistent in empirical verification (Breault 1994).
  4. And, what of D’s theory’s generalizability? Well, how about the fact that only one of the four types has empirical consistency (egoism)? And, worse, how about the fact that virtually zero studies on altruism and fatalism exist ()Stack 2010; Abrutyn and Mueller 2018). These two types, in Durkheim’s description, leave traces of his own implicit, Eurocentric biases and, whenever we try to fix them, we always get pushback from someone who thinks reconceptualizing Durkheim’s great work is blasphemous.
  5. Finally, for five decades, the best suicide scholarship has focused on diffusion between personal role models (e.g., how/why having a friend or family member attempt/compete suicide puts the exposed at risk; Bearman and Moody 2004; Baller and Richardson 2009; Abrutyn and Mueller 2014) and why some places are more vulnerable to diffusion processes than others (Haw et al. 2014; Mueller and Abrutyn 2016). Yet, based on requests for manuscript reviews, you would never know this. 95% (if not more) of everything I am asked to review is testing/retesting Durkheim’s nineteenth century hypotheses. Zero consideration of theoretical advances (and not just my own, but Pescosolido; Bearman; Baller/Richardson; so on), and with the only real hook being new data and/or new statistical technique. No contribution, but an easy publication because journals love the appearance of revisiting the classical theorists! But, they too are complicit in the reproduction not of knowledge, but cultural capital and poor pedagogy.

Moving Forward
The most serious solution would be the recreation of a theory specialization that combined learning the wide expanse of theory/theorists with courses in theory construction, but, to be sure, this is not only unlikely but probably unrealistic. In my younger days, my thought was a shift from classical/contemporary to, perhaps, two courses on macro and then microsociology. But, without a theory specialization, it is difficult to ask a typical sociologist to be well-versed in both realms, let alone the fact that true macrosociology has become the provenance of historical sociologists, pseudo-functionalists, and world-systems-like social scientists. Generally, meso-level (e.g., orgs, fields, communities) are blended with some type of micro-level stuff. Moreover, this approach might simply recreate the same problems related to the arms race and time crunch.

At this point, I made a decision two weeks ago to overhaul my classical theory course. It is hybridized because the syllabus and textbook (Jonathan Turner’s Emergence of Sociological Theory) had already been designed and a total-overhaul the day before the first day seemed overwhelming. The course itself returns to a basic organizing principle I borrowed from a little read book by Eisenstadt (1985) that I had used before but with the original texts and focus on theorists. In short, he distinguishes three overarching “problems” or concerns in the central classics: integration, regulation, and legitimation. He unfortunately assigns one to each saint (Durkheim, Marx, and Weber), but that is easy to disentangle. To this, I add a fourth problem: the social self in which the underlying concerns of past and present (how is “society” at once external and internal) are fused together in a micro-level sociology. The strategy makes a lot of sense to me, as all of the theorists (both canonized and not) speak at length about one or more of these, even if they did not use the terms themselves. It also sets up a principles and concepts of sociology more readily. I will talk about these in greater detail in a follow up post, but for now, here is sort a of a sketch of what I am thinking.

  1. Integration: at the root of all sociology is the social relationship, broadly defined, and the connection between individual to individual, individual to collective, individual to social category, and collective to collective. For Durkheim, this was a moral bond built from mutual interdependence and recurring ritualized interaction. Easily, this allows me to abandon teaching the great works and instead focusing on bigger issues with this approach (e.g., are integrative ties always good? Modern soc would say no!), as well as slipping “contemp” theory into classical (Goffman’s mundane ritual order + Collins’ group/ceremonial order + Lawler’s formal, joint-task affectual order). Yet, one could carry the social relationship thread throughout the unit on integration (Marx’s sense of the economic foundations of social relationships, Simmel’s forms of relationships, Weber’s communal/associational + legitimate orders, and so forth).
  2. Regulation: at the root of all sociology is the twin problems of      control and coordination, or what Michael Mann distinguished as distributive and collective power. For Spencer and Durkheim, it was more about coordinating social units  that were different, while for Marx it was purely about (external) control, while Weber put limitations on power vis-a-vis rationalized organizations. To be sure, Durkheim’s voluntaristic model is explicitly about control too, as is Simmel’s formal sociology, Du Bois reconsideration of Marx’s simplistic division of workers-owners into a racialized division of labor, and so on. Like integration, this type of sociological theory invites principles like Lenski’s (1966) principles of power or Blumberg’s (1984) or its later modified version with various colleagues (1993), while also leaving room for the cultural Marxism of the Frankfort school, Bourdieusian fields, Foucauldian power, Blau/Emerson’s power-dependence exchange stuff, and on and on.
  3. Legitimation: at the root of all sociology is the question of how reality comes to be shared (or believed to be shared) and, conversely, how it shapes/constrains emotions and behavior. Thus, besides normative and external forces of power, symbolic reality is central to the work of Mead and his generalized other; Weber and his thoughts on social orders, action, and authority; Marx and alienation; Durkheim and the bottom-up construction of social knowledge; Simmel and his oft-ignored but excellent thoughts on money and media of exchange; Du Bois’ double-consciousness; and so on. To be sure, from Weber, Simmel, Husserl, and Schutz, we can easily bring in ethnomethodology, Berger/Luckmann, Bourdieu, Geertz, much cultural sociology, socialization and enculturation, and a lot of other related topics.
  4. Selfing: at the root of some sociology is the question of how the self is constructed, maintained, and changed (though, the latter issue is much less developed). Here we have the American tradition in full-force, though it would be silly to suggest Durkheim, Simmel, and Weber were totally naive to the self. But, we also get threads central to sociology today: structural microsociology (Goffman; Stryker; Burke; Heise) v. agentic (Blumer); meaning/role-taking and meaning/role-making; again, socialization, enculturation, practice, and so forth; marginalization, phenomenology, lived experience, and a whole host of methodological, ontological, and other philo of sci issues. Roles, status, identities, encounters, exchanges, small groups…the gamut of stuff this final unit can cover is immense, which is partly why my previous thought was to go macro and micro over two terms. But, this thread brings to a close many of the loose ends found in integration, regulation, and legitimation.

More to come…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Musings on Sociological Theory, Teaching | 1 Comment

On Institutional Entrepreneurship

For the most part, social scientists either intentionally/unintentionally make vague the unit of selection, or what is being selected on (Runciman 2009; also, a previous post), or turn to the meme or something analogous (Blute 2010; Lenski 2005). But, much cultural evolution is not equivalent in reality or metaphor to its biogenetic cousin (also, Atran 2001; Boyd and Richerson 1992). We are left, then, imagining what exactly social forms of selection might work on. To this, I would argue institutional entrepreneurs (Eisenstadt 1980; Colomy 1998; Abrutyn 2009, 2014; Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015), or special collective actors who monopolize the production/distribution of “solutions” to key universal human concerns, parlay this monopoly into structural and symbolic independence, and, ultimately, carve out autonomous physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space that qualitatively transforms social reality for a significant portion of the population. Entrepreneurs are late sociologist, S.N. Eisenstadt’s, updated and modified version of Weber’s (1946) charismatic carrier groups who, in his estimation, carried various types of ethics capable of being the switchmen of history by changing the material and ideal interests adopters of these ethics pursued and, therefore, their practices and beliefs.

My argument, in essence, is that sociocultural evolution works on two inextricably linked things: the material, corporeal aspects of institutional entrepreneurs and the content of what Colomy (1998) has called their institutional projects – the construction of new “ethics” in Weberian terms or, in my terms, cultural assemblages (2016). The two are tough to decouple because they shape each other reciprocally. Well organized and structured groups are better able to activate and mobilize collective power in consequential ways, but organization and structure depend tremendously on the assemblage of cultural elements that justify and motivate (or legitimate) this collective action, while also fostering integration (and thereby some semblance of self-sacrifice) and regulation (in the form of internalization of normative emotions, attitudes, and actions). Moreover, the two work hand-in-hand in the two key measures of success or fitness: they facilitate or constrain the group’s desire and ability to reproduce and expand its human and material resource base, and they play an outsize role in the crystallization of autonomous institutional space that concomitantly elevates/protects the entrepreneur’s power and privilege as well as authority to impose their vision of social reality on a wide swath of people.

Before detailing their usefulness more clearly and also sketching greater descriptive and explanatory theoretical elements, it is worth address a key criticism my own work has received: the economic nature of the term entrepreneur. Admittedly, there are some assumptions that go along with this, and a rich literature on entrepreneurs as special economic actors (DiMaggio 1988; Aldrich and Ruef 2006). Yet, the term is quite fitting for several analogous reasons. First, entrepreneurship implies innovation. All evolution works on variation and diversity, and entrepreneurship is an apt term for denoting the creation of variation. Second, they are associated with high-risk, high-reward projects. The difference in evolutionary terms, particularly beyond the economic sphere, is that risks (particularly in many pre-liberal democractic times) scale all the way up to exile and death. Many a prophet and her closest charismatic confidants have been unceremoniously killed, squashing their institutional projects. However, the rewards are also far more than the money and prestige that comes with being an Bill Gates or Elon Musk. The elevation of an institutional entrepreneur implies some degree of ability to steer society (Luhmann 1995). That is, they not only reshape the realities of large portions of the population, and gain power, prestige, and wealth, but they also contribute to the broader trajectory of the society. Thus, like Bourdieu’s capital which reeks of economic determinism, sometimes co-opting words from currently-dominant institutional spheres serves a greater purpose than inventing a new term altogether.

What are Entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs are not just any group, but they work to monopolize the resources associated with one or more universal human concerns, and thus become agents of qualitative transformation. They often are built by a charismatic founder and/or charismatic group surrounding that founder, but become a force of evolution as they attract an “army” of members who carry their assemblage throughout a population. The Buddha and his disciples were charismatic carriers, but the rank and file monks become the entrepreneur (even though there remain leaders/elites). During the Gregorian Reformation (c. 1075-1200 CE), Gratian and a group of legal professors/scholars in Bolonga, Salerno, and Paris were the charismatic carriers, but the emergence of a legal profession whose practices and beliefs were relatively standardized through training became the entrepreneur. Some other notable elements are listed below:

  1. Entrepreneurs pursue institutional projects in which they (a) assemble cultural elements around real, perceived, or manufactured exigency(ies), (b) mobilize human and material resources, (c) articulate a frame about existing elites/structures/cultures as morally bankrupt or suspect while promoting their own, and (d) attempt to pry open structural holes to secure some independence in their activities, including producing, transmitting, and applying knowledge.
  2. Their innovations come in four independent, yet interrelated forms. Technological, both in the form of material objects (e.g., the plow) and knowledge of their use (e.g., metallurgy). Organizational, or the reconfiguration of divisions of labor, role-sets, and status positions. Normative, or the invention of new moral criteria for evaluating emotions, attitudes, and behaviors. And, symbolic, or the creation of new interpretations of social reality and/or bases of legitimacy.
  3. Their success is predicated on their assemblages ability to tip the balance of the ratio between integrative and disintegrative forces. On the one hand, this means the greater is their assemblages ability to generate internal solidarity, the greater the degree to which they are likely to reproduce themselves and their assemblage over, including drawing new members (if all things remain equal). On the other hand, once institutionalized, their assemblage must be able to sustain commitment from a broader, more diverse population and thus, again, its integrative capacities are paramount. To be sure, integration in the case of structural evolution may mean that the elite are unified in their activities and the closest ring of entrepreneurs are committed to the project, even though they often bear the brunt of inequities perpetrated by the elite. If these two rings are in lockstep, then even brutal social control and stark uneven distribution of resources can be sustained over several generations, even if the balance between integrative and disintegrative forces is nearly zero. Thus, the greater is the degree to which an institutionalized cultural assemblage generates external solidarity and/or the greater the degree to which this assemblage reduces sources of disintegration, the greater is the degree to which entrepreneurs and their assemblages will outlive the founders’ natural lives and their cultural blueprint will be reproduced intergenerationally.  

There are other notable characteristics (see Abrutyn and Van Ness 2015). But, for brevity’s sake, we turn to the utility these entrepreneurs have for evolutionary sociology.

The Theoretical Utility for a New Evolutionary Sociology
Institutional entrepreneurs offer social scientists a significant advantage over the vague cultural alternatives and the poor analogies between genetic replication for several reasons. For one thing, I have argued previously that sociocultural evolution has to take seriously the very real likelihood that evolution is not linear, progressive, towards greater [insert your favorite outcome such as complexity], or complete. Entrepreneurs, being human actors, are prone to mistakes, lack of information, overestimation, blind spots, the limits of existing technologies, and existing economic/political/cultural/historical contexts and contingencies. But there are other reasons for their utility.

  1. Entrepreneurs are meso-level – that is, they are located above individuals, but below macro-level abstractions. As such, their efforts may operate on multiple levels highlighting the incompleteness of sociocultural evolution. They may begin by carving out autonomous institutional space or they may focus on reconstructing the stratification system. Their efforts may alter an organization, a field of organizations, or they may begin by altering how people interact within these various units of analysis.
  2. Entrepreneurs also point the way to two different, if interrelated, evolutionary processes in sociology (Runciman 2009). The first is at the “cultural” level, in which “fitness” or success is measured in terms of the degree to which a cultural assemblage diffuses horizontally or across a population. Some of this diffusion is purposive, as entrepreneurs recruit non-members into their movement, while some is unintentional as people conform or learn through weaker ties about the group and its project. The second process is “structural” and involves (a) the crystallization of an assemblage into the invisible frameworks of an organization or institution (e.g., the division of labor) and (b) the vertical transmission of the assemblage. This last point underscores a key difference between biological and sociological evolution: existing or new systems of domination can impose their assemblage on others in ways that increase the entrepreneur and its assemblage’s fitness (even if the assemblage is not beneficial to many who are forced into adopting it).
  3. This last point highlights another key difference that neo-Darwinians tend to ignore. Selection is much more varied at the sociocultural level than the biogenetic. Elevation, for instance, is one path (Verkamp 1991). The Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, and the Roman emperor Constantine, selected Buddhism and Christianity, respectively, by elevating them to official state religions. They imposed these assemblages on the people, and worked to eradicate competitors. (Of course, as Jan Assmann [2011] demonstrates, eradication is rarely as simple or effective in the cultural world as cultural can be stored externally and thus endure). Moreover, evolution is sometimes surprising in that elites may not elevate an entrepreneur, but instead absorb, co-opt, accommodate, or share power with them. In addition to the variety of non-survival of the fittest qualities, entrepreneurs are motivated by a dizzying array of factors. Variation is not always accidental, but sometimes the product of manipulation or nefarious interests being realized. It may, in fact, be innovation in the search for traditional authority. The various waves of Israelite entrepreneurs beginning in the late 8th century BCE shows innovation kept occurring when new entrepreneurs yoked their new projects to old traditions, reworking them and redacting them to suit the changed conditions and interests of the new entrepreneurs.
  4. Though I am wary of the mismatch between biological & cultural analogies, entrepreneurs do open the door to introducing the other evolutionary mechanisms to sociology. The likeness to mutations is obvious, as entrepreneurship is neither guaranteed to do anything, nor is evolution guaranteed to be adaptive for a society, a segment of a society, or for a significant portion of a society. But, we can also think about gene flow, as entrepreneurs are not only capable of leaving their politically/culturally/socially bounded space and traveling to new places, but like Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, assemblages can be made portable and can travel across boundaries through myriad paths. Sometimes adopted wholesale, other times piecemeal.
  5. Finally, we can return once more to the role of memory and cultural storage. Entrepreneurs can reassemble their assemblages by drawing from seemingly-dead cultural artifacts or mining forgotten or peripheral elements of existing assemblage. Culture is never really dead, unless it is forgotten. And, while many preliterate societies and their assemblages are long gone, museums, textual artifacts, and physical artifacts (e.g., walls/buildings) present potential and nascent entrepreneurs with an extensive palette to draw from. It is what makes entrepreneurship so fascinating that they are not only assembling variation that works for their members, but also because they have to react to the reactions of other strata. Powerful people create resistance and change what is most important to the assemblage; a tepid response by an important strata may cause the reconfiguration or change in emphasis of the existing assemblage.

Last Thoughts
A thought beyond the scope of the discussion is worth pointing to, as I want to write more about this moving forward. In short, Weber’s greatest insight into social change – one that is often overlooked in order to emphasize the opposition between charisma and order (traditional or legal-rational) – was his belief that an continuous tension between charisma and routine was always ready to boil over. This tension and its boil point produce crises that demand some sort of attention. Often, these crises are rooted in the over flow of disintegrative forces vis-a-vis integrative ones, but take on many specific forms throughout history. Moreover, this tension and the ensuing crisis explains both punctuated and gradual sociocultural evolution (Abrutyn and Lawrence 2010). That is, quick change may generate revitalization movements capable of reconstructing the world swiftly (Wallace 1956) or they may result from the gradual push towards entropy that is common to all societies. A sociology of crisis is something worth pursuing, even though it has seen some development from a range of scholars including Kai Erikson’s work on natural disasters, Vaughan’s work on organizational failures, functionalisms concerned with the center, such as Edward Shils, and more recently Jeffrey Alexander’s recurring theme of cultural trauma, pollution, and crisis. Fodder for another post and another day.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sociocultural Evolution: Institutions as Survivor Machines

Like the concept culture, institution has so many definitions that it is may be a useless term in the long-run (for a much more in-depth take, see Abrutyn 2014). Nonetheless, sociology, according to Durkheim (1895), is the science of institutions. Institutions were, for him, the “collective ways of thinking and acting” that patterned life across a population, and intergenerationally. For my purposes, institutions are defined as macro-structural and cultural spheres of social reality that (1) carve out physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space that (2) contains horizontal and vertical divisions of labor and, (3) which shapes the cognitive, affectual, and moral experience of a significant proportion of the population. Thus, institutions cross cut all three levels of social reality (macro, meso, micro), and impact the way people feel, think, and do.

Universal Institutions
In a previous essay, I argued that there were universal human concerns, or basic exigencies that could become salient under the right conditions. There are correspondingly, universal institutions – or institutions we see in every society. Kinship, polity, economy, religion, law, and, many argue, education are the six most obvious suspects. One might add military, but I stick with Weber here and suggest that though the military is often a distinct collective vis-a-vis the polity in many times and places, its principle functions, goals, and so forth are not that distinct from the polity (cf Mann 1986).

To this list, it is plausible to add more recently autonomous institutional spheres like medicine (Starr 1982), science (Merton 1979), art (Becker 1982), and some sort of conglomeration of media (Luhmann 2000), entertainment (Abrutyn and Turner 2011), and sport (Abrutyn 2018). These institutions are secondary to the list above, as they usually are deeply embedded in the structure and culture of one or more of the six universal institutions until only recently. Art, for instance, was first a component of the political sphere, as political elite built a luxury good meta-market (Richards and Van Buren 2001), followed by it being embedded in the religious sphere and then the economic sphere.

Survivor Machines?
Jon Turner (2010) refers to institutions as the fundamental unit of cultural evolution, though he does not deny multi-level processes. Institutions are one of the only units of sociological inquiry capable of (a) lasting multiple generations, (b) patterned feeling, thinking, and doing for enough of a given population such that the societal structure and culture endures – even in the face of selection pressures, and (c) spreading to other populations either through conquest/colonization, human capital (e.g., developing country A sends elite to universities in developed country B who then bring institutional ideas from B back to A [Meyer et al. 1992]), cultural transmission/diffusion/imitation, and so forth. This is not to say a given innovation cannot be adopted, like the plow, but evolutionary transformation is likely to occur not only with the borrowing of the material culture, but also the cognitive, affectual, and moral dimensions of using it, making sense of how it changes the divisions of labor, and so on.

Institutional Autonomy
When we say, then, that institutions evolve, what exactly are we talking about? There are, of course, myriad ways to think about this, but I have argued that the evolution of their autonomy is essential to understanding the general evolution of human societies, and to understanding the specific evolution of various cases. By autonomy, I mean that (1) the structure and culture of an institutions grows increasing discrete vis-a-vis other institutions; (2) it develops a “core” in which the universal concerns it deals in are tangibly and intangibly produced and distributed; (3) a unique status hierarchy predicated on the distinctive culture emerges that fuses with other types of intra-institutional rewards to foster commitment to the institutional culture and attachment to the institutional identity people internalize; (4) physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space are carved out that externally and internally (cognitively) cue actors as to “what is happening”; and, (5) a significant portion of the population comes to recognize the institutional sphere and its core as real, and, simultaneously, the (primary or only) source for meeting certain concern and a center of authority (and, therefore, domination/power).

Institutions do not just have or lack autonomy, but rather it grows or shrinks. The more autonomy an institution has, the more distinctive the sphere becomes, and the more identifiably unique the goals, actions, attitudes, sources of status and power, and so on become vis-a-vis other institutions. 5000 years ago, as the polity grew autonomous, political goals and actions became differentiated from their kinship counterparts. That does not mean lines are not blurred, or political actions can be intended or motivated by other institutional spheres, rather they are distinct analytically in the minds of most people and judged corrupt when believed to be about something other than political criteria. Of course, religious motivations, as one example, could shape political actions and goals, but because the two institutions tend to deal in very different logics, the outcomes may not be necessarily successful. A drought can be dealt with through political expediency and the use of rational means to resolving it (Scott 1998) or by appealing to the gods to intervene, and leaving it up to chance. Both may, in the short run, be successful, but the odds favor the former over the long run and, hence, polities that differentiate political goals from other types are more likely to survive (and, thus, more likely to reproduce themselves intergenerationally and cross-culturally, as other group’s adopt what seems to work or have it imposed upon them through conquest).

There is much more to be said about institutions that I have said in various other outlets (Abrutyn 2009, 2013, 2014a, 2014b, 2016), so I will save an exhaustive discussion of autonomy for a later date. For now, this is the master process, I think, for understanding how institutional domains become survivor machines and the primary unit of social evolution. I do, however, want to talk a little more about the ontological nature of autonomous institutions.

Are They Real?
One of the criticisms my own work has received, and indeed macrosociology has suffered since at the least Homans’ (1958) masterpiece, are questions about whether institutions are real in the same sense as a dyad or an interaction – both of which can be directly observed and measured. Yes! They are real. Malinowski (1958) cogently demonstrated that law, even where full-time legal actors and systematic codes were lacking, was understood as different from other types of institutional rules like kinship custom or religious norms. But, with autonomy, institutions become increasingly tangible phenomena. And, they become the most important unit of sociocultural evolution precisely because their realness stretches across every level of social reality.

Macro: 5,000 years ago, or so, the political institution grew autonomous vis-a-vis the kinship sphere (Abrutyn 2013). That is, archaeology and textual evidence show that the four dimensions of structural and cultural space (physical/temporal/social/symbolic) were carved up in ways that affected most of the population consciously (monumental architecture was designed to make people feel small in the presence of the political) and unconsciously (public space affected the daily rounds of life – walking, economic exchange, etc.). In Mesopotamia, the Palace, for instance, was usually located on a hill and surrounded by a miniature city whose denizens served the Palace; around this mini-city was a wall, and then the city itself, and then a defensive wall (Yoffee 2005). Additionally, a pattern that carried on from these early agrarian states was the placement of the most important temple in the capital, often near the Palace as it had important economic functions (e.g., grain storage) besides its religious function (Richards and Van Buren 2001).

Today, in every city of a certain size, we see the physical demarcation of space. Many cities have areas that are comprised of courthouses, law offices, bail bondsmen, police headquarters, jails, and some sort of governmental office. Economic spaces – industrial parks; malls – are differentiated from kinship spaces (neighborhoods); the list goes on.

But, these institutions also carve out temporal space. Working/business hours v. family hours; political and religious holidays; school days v. family vacation. Further, they carve out social space (which will be discussed more below), and symbolic space. Palaces, as noted above, like temples were designed to be big, imposing, representative of power beyond the average person’s purview. Ornate style further supported this. But, even functional architecture serves as symbolic distinction: in a major city, a hospital is legible to most people vis-a-vis a Catholic church, a federal building, a university/school, and a block of row houses. The actors we see walking around reinforce these distinctions. I’ll never forget when I moved to Los Feliz in LA, and drove down Sunset off of Vermont and saw the Scientology headquarters fully surrounded by a massive medical complex. The irony was palpable. Doctors and nurses walking to and fro, while this very different building with extraordinarily different function and culture sat quietly in the background.

Meso: Institutions are also comprised of congeries of organizational actors. If we imagine a given institution as having a “core” or a center in which the institution is made and remade daily – physically, temporally, socially, and symbolically – than we can imagine that there are real actors, usually organized into organizational units, responsible for this reproduction. The US polity, for instance, has three obvious physical sites of daily reproduction: the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. We are not always privy to the processes themselves, but we believe that they are active. Surrounding these “core” sites are myriad support actors whose activities are rather mundane and even less visible – e.g., the IRS, FBI, civil bureaucracies across various Cabinet-level Departments. There are also “liaisons” actors, whose primary function is the translation of other institutional actors’ concerns into the appropriate language of another institution, and then re-translating the institution’s decisions. For example, lobbyists act in the interests of economic, religious, educational, medical, and scientific actors by transforming them into political language and then translating them back again. Finally, every institutional sphere has an environment that stretches from the core into overlapping interstices between institutional spheres. Here various actors go about their business, sometimes orienting themselves to the core (e.g., voting, watching/reading political news), sometimes completely unaware of the polity’s activities or existence.

In theory, every institution can have this diverse array of collective units producing, reproducing, supporting, translating, and so forth. The greater the size and density of an institution’s meso-level, the more distinct its structure and, very likely, its culture. That is, the more collectives there are, the harder it is to manage them by way of a distant institutional core (Rueschemeyer 1986). A second corollary here, is that the greater the number of collectives and the greater the difficulty of managing, externally, the greater is the integrity of the institution’s ability to meet human concerns.

Micro: And, thus, at the micro-level, we see actors going about their daily lives. Perhaps not consciously noticing the Catholic Church or courthouse they walk by everyday to their job. But, on a Sunday, before or after mass, or on the day of a high profile case, they will become aware of the institutional sphere. More importantly, as institutional spheres become autonomous, they are socialized into a world in which compartmentalized generic roles like doctor, judge, athlete, president, parent, artist, scientist, priest/rabbi/imam/etc are simply taken for granted. And, along with these roles, their statuses are taken for granted, as are the divisions of labor that these roles operate within, as are the differences – great or small – between political and kinship goals; religious and economic actions; artistic v. scientific v. religious ways of knowing.

In many ways, then, this is why the divide between urban and rural organization and people is so pronounced. In a big city, physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space are actually and intersubjectively carved into institutional spheres. In a small town, “main street” may house the most powerful economic actors (and the Chamber of Commerce), the main church dignified folk belong to, City Hall, and, not far from it – especially before cars – the neighborhood everyone wants to live in. The boundaries between spheres are blurred, and so are the roles and divisions of labor. The world looks very differently.

Yet, even in these small towns, the wider world is imposed upon them as politics at the local may indistinguishable from economics or religion, yet politics at the state or federal level care little about the local religious or economic concerns. Federal buildings – not just post offices, but prisons, social security offices, and so forth – ensure the physical, social, and symbolic presence of the larger political sphere, while national holidays – even idiosyncratically celebrated – are the temporal reminder of power above and beyond. Indeed, while Marx conceptualized town and country as the great growing chasm of human evolution, I would reframe it and argue that it is the local and the global (or, perhaps, a better fitting term for the latter).

In future essays, this divide will be a central topic as will the agentic side of evolution. For now, it is enough to posit that institutions are indeed the survivor machines of cultural evolution, as they alone are capable of crystallizing or sedimentizing cultural innovations into routinized patterns of activity, physical space, time, architecture, social relationships, generalized role positions, and so forth.

 

 

 

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The Nuts and Bolts of Evolution, IV: General Evolution

Having laid out some key aspects of evolution in previous posts (here, here, and here), I want to turn to the two strategies sociologists may follow that biological evolution takes: general and specific evolution. Specific evolution is phylogenetic, or the comparative study of the evolutionary history between species. That is, the history of when one species grows out of another, usually by way of Darwinian “descent with modification.” In less jargon-y terms, specific evolution focuses on how some structures of an organism become different in structure, function, and specialization in ways that make the species different from its last common ancestor. This process should be familiar to sociologists from Durkheim’s theory of the division of labor. General evolution is the study of “progressive” transformations. Progress is measured less in value-laden terms like “better” or more evolved, and instead in the temporal change in size, scale, and degree of a trait or set of traits like intelligence.

So, for instance, the specific evolution of primates examines how, when, and why monkeys speciated from prosimians, and hominids (the lesser and great apes) differentiated from monkeys. The general evolutionary story would, instead, arrange all of these primates in some terms of progressive development, be it brain size, social life, cultural complexity, and/or linguistic abilities. Thus, the study of specific evolution focuses on population-level gene frequencies, while general evolution shifts to classes of organisms and their characteristics vis-a-vis other organisms. Perhaps the parallels between biological and sociocultural evolution are obvious? But first, a key caveat:

It is possible to speak of evolution without using value-laden terms. It is also possible to take off one’s social science hat and critique the outcome of social evolution as it is not accidental in many cases, but brutally purposive. Conquest and colonization, for instance, can select against a group in ways we can call unjust and inhumane. Yet, this doesn’t take away from the process itself. Furthermore, we can build taxonomies like Lenski’s model of subsistence technologies without passing judgment as to whether society A is better than B or innovation X is superior to Y. Indeed, these judgments are always flawed. For instance, hunter-gatherer societies, on average, worked about 15 hours a week to subsist, having plenty of leisure time (but, of course, few of the leisure devices we have today) (Sahlins 1974). Agriculture tied people to the land, bolstered patriarchy in ways unimaginable, and created the first forms of slavery. More food meant more people, to be sure, but also meant more time and energy consumed, more inequality, and more conflict. Is the former “better” than the latter? This seems a moral question beyond the empirical world, and depends greatly on one’s own ideology and/or their own preferences. The same can be said about innovations: iron ore can be transformed into a more efficient and productive plow, or it can be turned into a more efficient and productive killing machine. Many innovations have these, pun intended, double-edged qualities. And, the tension between material comforts, aesthetics, intellectual pursuits, and “transcendental” experiences ensure that innovations will be judged by myriad criteria as to their betterment or degradation of society. So, we leave these questions aside for philosophers and humanists to debate, and ask what does evolve generally and specifically worth noting.

General Evolution
So, the question is how can we classify societies in such a way as to constrain nineteenth century evolutionism’s tendency towards supremacist progressivism? Sahlins and Service (1970) offer two possibilities: (1) the amount of energy a society captures/harnesses/consumes (see also Leslie White (1959) and (2) the amount of integration. The former makes sense in two ways that offer more substantive, concrete types of classification. The first was made most famous by Gerhard Lenski, whose typology combined economic materialism with anthropological data – something Marx failed miserably at doing. Lenski’s taxonomy is as such: hunter/gatherer/fishing societies; pastoral or horticultural; agrarian; intensive agrarian; industrial; post-industrial. At each step, it is not presumed one society is better or more advanced in some value-laden way, but rather they harness energy for production, distribution, and consumption in radically different ways. What this strategy does, however, is point towards another potential “classification” system – and I use that word loosely.

General Evolution and Institutional Autonomy
What Lenski had in mind was a comparative analysis of what was and was not common across each type. One unit of social organization that is common are institutional spheres or domains. Institutions are the basic building blocks around which social action occurs (Abrutyn 2016). By this I mean all human societies organize the four dimensions of social reality – physical, temporal, social, and symbolic space – around kinship, political, economic, religious, legal, and educational behavior. [Not surprisingly, these are also some of the most important substantive areas in every intro Sociology text and major sections in the American Sociological Association cross-cutting other concerns like stratification/inequality]. What makes these institutional spheres discernible from each other are the things they do: e.g., all polities are concerned with (1) collective binding decision-making about (2) the production and distribution of resources and (3) the use of these resources to achieve one or more goals. They vary, of course, in how effective they are in doing so, as well as how well they do in balancing the ruling elite’s goals with the needs of both the masses as a homogeneous whole and the various strata the masses are lumped into. But, by definition, a polity is a system that organizes who is authorized to make these decisions, how binding they are and how they are enforced, and so on. Even when we see politics occur in small groups like a fraternity or a sports team that are not polities in the macro-sense, we see the same processes.

So, what can we learn about general evolution? Well, one thing that differs across time and space in any given society is which institutional sphere or spheres has/have attained some degree of autonomy vis-a-vis the others. Any student of preliterate societies, for instance, knows kinship is the principle source of social organization (Fox 1984). Political or economic actions are inextricably linked to the basic logic of kinship (loyalty/love). And, a careful examination of the history of humanity will also see that autonomy is not random, but actually follows a general pattern. 5000 years ago, in what is now southern Iraq, northeastern Egypt, northern China, and the Indus Valley, political evolution towards autonomous polities occurred in a rare moment of parallel evolution (Abrutyn 2013). Similar selection pressures + similar environment (alluvial plains) = pressure for political organization. (The reasons for this are beyond our discussion, but you can see my work with Kirk Lawrence (2010) for a primer).

To be sure, autonomy is never total, and anyone familiar with Game of Thrones knows two things: local villages remained deeply tied to kinship logic of loyalty and love, while even the Palace itself was simply elite households, and that kinship mattered (particularly loyalty). But, the Palace was no longer just a household of conspecifics and, perhaps, a servant or slave or two; they were cities within cities, containing complex divisions of labor both horizontally and vertically. And, the political entrepreneurs in the polity were no longer interested only in, or even primarily in, kinship matters. They were suddenly pursuing distinct political goals such that political entrepreneurs and those observing them perceived these goals “as different from other types of goals or from goals of other spheres or other groups in society” in so far as their “formation, pursuit, and implementation became largely independent of other groups, and were governed mostly by political criteria and by consideration of political exigency” (Eisenstadt 1963:19). That is, all polities deal with some very basic generic (practical) problems: defense against (real or imagined) external threats; the production and distribution of resources; the reduction and suppression of conflicts between heterogeneous classes within a population; managing/centralizing risk (e.g., grain storage as a hedge against famines or floods) [Johnson and Earle 2000; Abrutyn 2013]. And, symbolically, the primary currency of political exchange, the force shaping political interaction (and calculation), and the discourse dominating political communication was power and less so loyalty and even less love (Luhmann 1982; Abrutyn 2015). Again, Game of Thrones is instructive: royal problems, though often rooted in romantic or fraternal/paternal/maternal love, are far more rooted in power relations and access to power.

In any case, the student of history can follow along and see that these epochal moments in which a different institutional sphere evolved autonomously for the first time somewhere or in several places are rare, but important. In the first millennia BCE, religious evolution took hold in China, Israel, Greece, and India (Abrutyn 2014, 2015). In the “long” twelfth century CE (c. 1075-1200), legal autonomy emerged out of the Gregorian reformation of the Catholic church and the explosion of legal entrepreneurs, law schools, and standardized western legal codes (Berman 1983; Abrutyn 2009). The Protestant Reformation Weber was so interested in was really the middle of an economic revolution that frightened Polanyi as he warned against too much economic autonomy. Finally, the enlightenment was an epoch in which first educational and then scientific autonomy emerged, followed not long after be medical autonomy.

Each epoch highlights, not necessarily an irreversible moment, but a qualitative transformation in macro structure and culture, meso-level social relationships, and the micro-level experience of social reality. It is not reversible because of continuous improvements to cultural storage. Once a polity, for instance, is autonomous, other political entrepreneurs in the same time period or in later centuries and even millennia can take ideas and practices from the initial founders of autonomy and use them wholesale or integrate new ideas and practices. That is, once autonomous an institution in any time or place can theoretically be made autonomous again. Autonomy also points to a second major advantage to thinking about general evolution as such. It throws into sharp relief the double-edged nature of evolution. On the one hand, more spheres of autonomy mean more routes to social mobility. Students of Game of Thrones knows that prestige, power, and wealth are only secured through kinship and political ties (besides the Iron Bank). In the modern US or Canada, one can pursue a legal or medical degree, as well as a career in sports or academics and make a living, secure prestige, and in terms of the former, even power. On the other hand, as Weber feared, where more autonomous systems of action emerge, the total amount of domination grows. We are increasingly subjected to new forms of power-dependence, as our daily lives are differentiated in terms of physical, temporal, social, and symbolic spaces devoted to economy, religion, law, and so forth. But, knowing that there are epochal moments of institutional evolution is not enough; we can turn towards specific evolution to examine how political or religious evolution, though the same in terms of its growth in autonomy and the consequences that often ensue, takes varied forms based on “local” historical, cultural, political, and economic contexts and unpredictable contingency.

Evolutionary Sociology’s Future
To date, social scientists rarely discuss general v. specific evolution. My guess is the reader is far more aware of the former and less so of the latter. The former, of course, has a rich history in various failed stage model theories, and in the most compelling, sweeping, imaginative, and (sometimes) insightful theories of human history and social evolution (e.g., Quigley 1979; Sanderson 1997; Turner and Maryanski 2009; Nolan and Lenski 2014). But, there is something about specific evolution that seems worth considering.

Herbert Spencer, for instance, offered one theory of specific evolution – or, a set of generic processes that shaped the trajectory of a given social unit as it differentiated, dedifferentiated, specialized, or split into smaller segmented social units (see Turner 1985). The theory, simply stated, posits that there are two countervailing forces in any social organization: centralization/consolidation of regulative functions (control/coordination of social units) and decentralization. Thus, following his general theory, exigencies in the environment (or within the collective) put pressure on the group for solutions, many of which require increased centralization of, say, decision-making and resource mobilization. Once centralized, new problems emerge either because of the initial solution; or because those with less independence and autonomy have more grievances; or in the most cynical moments, those with more power seek to protect, entrench, and expand it. In any case, centralization  has its benefits – large populations can be mobilized quickly to harness their social power – and drawbacks -e.g.,inequality can be easily heightened and domination lead to exploitation – with the latter creating new pressures for decentralization. This tension is obvious across so many cases, it may not even seem insightful, but it is an example of the potential of a more serious sociology of specific evolution.

To return to the example of institutional autonomy above, we see several paths of theoretical and empirical development. If political autonomy was the key process of general evolution 5,000 years ago, a specific evolutionary study would be interested in how each case diverged from the ideal type. Likewise, the evolution of sects, “speciating” from a given religion fits a specific evolutionary model. Of course, what differs from current narratives of sectarian movements is the consideration of selection, variation, and other evolutionary concepts and processes.  For the sake of brevity, I’ll leave a deeper dive into specific evolution for another post.

In the meantime, I will be returning to the theme of institutional evolution, as I see it as a fruitful path forward for evolutionary sociology, as it includes consideration of multiple levels of social reality, including our biological, neurological, and genetic makeup.

 

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