Crisis in the Social Sciences?

23 Mar

写真 (1)

Professor Gary Sigley lecturing in the Asian Studies department of UWA

Professor Gary Sigley lecturing in the Asian Studies department of UWA


Today in a lecture Professor Gary Sigley talked about “theory” in the broad sense of the word. When I think of “theory” I tend to recall something Nabokov I think said of style in writing; namely, that you don’t just write something and then throw in a bit of style to spruce it up, but rather that the style in which you write ought to condition the very way in which you approach something.

This of course raises the subsequent question of reflexivity in theory. How do we know that our theoretical approaches to a given subject are necessarily appropriate? Once we accept that no theory is disinterested, and furthermore that there is no epistemological standpoint outside of theory, do we wring our hands in hopeless aporia, or embrace the freedom of questioning the very basis from which we begin to write (such as a self-reflexive model would seem to allow for?)

For example, suppose we wanted to measure the number of women and men sitting in a classroom. We could do so and on the basis of our findings create policies for schools, but what if we began to question the idea of men and women itself? What if we said that, rather than being disinterested, research on men and women presupposed a simple gender binary between male and female, and would fall short of explaining those other forms of gender troubling these boundaries (there are many, but some of the more well-known descriptions now used often refer to trans- and cross-gender positions and so on).

The point here is that, although authors like Bryan Turner in his introductory reader The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory claim that theory should be “about something” and not simply “theorising about theory”, without the latter there is always the risk that we are being less than disinterested in our epistemology, insofar as theory itself conditions the choices we make in choosing to investigate something.

Turner makes the distinction between first-order and second-order theories or judgements. First-order theorising involves “an original conceptual framework that is addressed to something”, while second-order theorising, in Turner’s interpretation, is closer to “exegesis and interpretation”, and, insofar as it could be defined as simply “theories about theorising”, has a tendency “to become narcissistic”. The distinction here is somewhat confusing, given that other authors have defined second order judgements as occurring “when any aspect of any object being investigated is granted a status (perhaps this is labelled a ‘cause’, perhaps something else, which draws its authority from another investigation” (Kendall, G. and Wickam, G. Using Foucault’s Methods, London: Sage, p. 13). That is, they are value judgements which condition our own argument when we unwittingly adopt another someone else’s theoretical perspective. Without a meta-theoretical level of analysis – something Turner seems to wish to reduce to “theories about theorising” – it is difficult to see how such second order judgements could ever be identified and countered in our analyses.

Furthermore, Turner does not suggest how we could identify an important object of study without metatheory. Since theory conditions our ability to see and identity objects of knowledge, there is an unproblematised discrepancy inhering in statements like, “For social theory to exist in some sense as a vibrant and important part of sociology as a discipline, it has to throw light on problems of major contemporary concern. A relevant social theory should not be a theory about theorizing, that is, it must be something more than a metatheory.” Turner goes on to provide a list of those areas of “major contemporary concern”, including cosmopolitanism, environmental degradation, globalization, the growing incivility of the public sphere, the relationship between technology, science, and society, and others. “In all of these situations”, Turner concludes, “the assertion of and claims for rights are central issues.”

Yet how could we identity these as “central issues” without metatheorising – that is, without a self-reflexive critique of why an object of knowledge in considered to be such? Without a sense, say, that human rights were a positive normative value worth struggling for? Data and research after all do not tell us, in and of themselves, that there is a thing called human rights “out there” worthy of being defended. Metatheory, however, does. The idea, in other words, is ideological; and ideologies in their turn can only de de-naturalised and re-examined with the aid of meta-theory, the ability to theorise, reflexively, theory. Without metatheory it would be difficult to see how concepts like, for example, the “white man’s burden” could ever have been critiqued. According to the ideology of their times they too were after all seen as positive social projects, ones that promoted a kind of social justice for the people involved. Indeed, within many post-colonial countries there are still those citizens who will praise or draw attention to aspects of colonisation that they found positive: think for example of countries like Taiwan, which has a numer of ordinary citizens as well as establishment figures seemingly more inclined to praise than to criticise the history of Japanese colonisation in Taiwan (see Leo Ching, ‘” ‘Give Me Japan and Nothing Else!’: Postcoloniality, Identity, and the Traces of Colonialism”, South Atlantic Quarterly, Fall 2000 99(4): 763-788).

Furthermore, without metatheorizing, we cannot identify the limits of our epistemology – if our epistemology says man should evolve, then a social justice project would conceivably mean subjugating women and animal, as well as other not epistemologically recognized as “men”.

Without metatheory we are prone not recognise – or to simply discount –  our own epistemological limitations. Turner’s concern for cosmopolitanism and globalization as contemporary issue for example downplays the idea that colonial history has for centuries forced the inhabitants of colonised countries and areas into a “cosmopolitan” awareness long before the subject began to be explored by Europe (some of whom, like Kant in his essay “Perpetual Peace”, were concerned to delineate normative rules for cosmopolitan organisation that were in part a response to and criticism of the increasingly voracious colonialism emanating from Europe). 

For Turner, contemporary social theory can “be said to be in a crisis” promoted by “the rise of postmodernism” (notably, Turner does not refer to “postmodernity”, suggesting the redemptive promise that the postmodern may be a mere movement or fashion rather than a new historical conjuncture for the contemporary period to grapple with), as well as the collapse of “world communism” (though the current power of China should give us pause in attempting to understand its own situation as a major power who has yet to completely abandon communism) and the “globalization of neoliberal economics”. Turner locates the crisis as ultimately inhering in a “revolution” of epistemology whereby “the certainties of positivism, empiricism, and objectivism have waned before the insistence that there are no theory-neutral observations of reality, that all theory is context-dependent, and that the pretension of scientific neutrality is just that — a pretension.” The result is a “fragmentation of social theory into cultural theory, film theory, critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, and so forth.”

The embattled rhetoric of such statements will be familiar to many working in various disciplines of the humanities (my favourite among the many examples of this “embattled discipline” rhetoric still, I think, has to go to Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath for a passage in their book Who Killed Homer?: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom: “Classicists can no longer huddle to the rear in the surf as waves of their greenhorn Greek and Latin 1A-ers are machine-gunned in the sand. If we are going to lose Greek, let us do so with burly, cigar-chomping professors, red-eyed from overload classes, wounds oozing from bureaucratic combat, chests bristling with local teaching medals and complimentary Rotary pens from free lecturing, barking orders and dragging dozens of bodies forward as they brave administrative gunfire, oblivious to the incoming rounds from ethnic studies and contemporary cinema” (NY: The Free Press, 1998, p. 171)). Disciplines have indeed been faced with various challenges, but I myself am more inclined to see these as productive rather than indicative of “crisis” (if there is any crisis the disciplines are facing, it’s more likely to be found in the macro-structural changes of universities and the way teaching and classes are being re-organised then from feminists, queers and people who like film).

Sadly, a divide and conquer enforcement of disciplinary boundaries neglects to engage with the productive history of disciplinary fragmentation. Area studies became far more vibrant after it began to more proactively engage with post-colonial and other theory (see for example Harootunian and Miyoshi (eds), Learning PlacesThe Afterlives of Area StudiesDurham: Duke University Press, 2002 ). Cultural studies (itself highly – or productively? – “undisciplined” in maintaining neither a canon of theory nor of theorists) has been illuminating for a number of disciplines, and grew from the inability of people like Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams among others to pursue their research within existing disciplines (sadly, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies that Hoggart founded was closed in 2002). So-called “French theory” is, at the moment of being criticised, already revealing of its success: to say the term in English should serve to remind us that its theories are less “French” then they are the products of a diverse range of influences and interpreters, particularly U.S. academies that helped publish and spread its ideas beyond the Francophonie and into the Anglosphere). 

We may wish to recall here the legacy of something so variously situated as “poststructuralism”, itself a very general area sometimes used as a synonym (in critiques that appear to interpret its presence as threatening their own, such as Turner’s) for “postmodernism”, “French theory”, cultural studies, deconstruction and so on. Its most threatening aspect was that it challenged established disciplines’ ways of doing things and the way they conceived of their objects of knowledge. Indeed one of its major influences, German idealism and “continental philosophy”, grew out of a break with the tradition of analytic philosophy (so even the “tradition” itself was grew out of “embattled”origins) . Take for example a figure like Jacques Derrida, whose impact has been felt far outside of philosophy: one of the main complaints about Derrida was simply that what he did was not “really” philosophy; that it was not disciplined enough – yet it would appear that he, and others who lacked “discipline”, provided ways of thinking through things that were helpful to those who may otherwise have been unable to articulate their ideas. Epistemic violence therefore can be as dangerous as physical violence in its material and psychic effects. More importantly, it is never reducible to either (the merely material/psychic). So I’m worried by the disciplinary conservatism, and its potentials for violence, that I sense in these remarks.

What also troubles me about Turner’s distinctions are the value claims involved in delineating a difference between what is merely “narcissictic”, that is subjective, and what is “addressed to something.” It is reminiscent of the distinction C. Wright Mills makes in The Sociological Imagination between “troubles” (“A trouble is a private matter”; see The Sociological Imagination, Oxford Univ. Press, 1959, p. 15) and “issues” (“Issues have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of he individual and the range of his inner life”, ibid.). The problem with this distinction is that the overdetermination of the social tends to mean that dividing events into the private/merely interpretative, and the public/“original conceptual framework”, reduces a myriad of factors and possible causes for what occurs in the world into a structure that risks treating the “political” as not really congruent with what is merely “personal”. Rather I believe that to accept the view that events are overdetermined would mean, as Foucault put it, describing the concept of “eventalisation”,

       “making visible a singularity at places where there is a temptation to invoke a historical constant…to show that ‘things weren’t as necessary as all that’…eventalisation means discovering the connections, encounters, supports, blockages, plays of forces, strategies and so on which at a given moment establish what counts as being self-evident, universal and necessary. In this sense, one is indeed effecting a sort of multiplication or pluralisation of causes.” (Michel Foucault, “Questions of method”, in Burchell, G., Gordon, C. and Miller, P. (eds), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, p. 76).

Indeed, one odd aspect of Turner’s argument is that, later on, he appears to directly contradict himself in saying, “An intellectually exciting sociology can never be merely the study of significant contemporary problems; it has to make a lasting contribution to sociological theory.” It would be curious to speculate what difference the author is presumably intending to draw here between “a lasting contribution to sociological theory” and the “theory about theorising” he criticises elsewhere. Is Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities an example of the former? Where would Edward Said’s Orientalism lie?

Recall our classroom example: where authors might Turner might read in the inability to see the issue of women and men as “addressed to something” but rather as a framing with its own positionalities and values attached, it would be more generous – and sobering – to appreciate that epistemic change carries with it new sets of complications. For example, we could widen the data to allow for “trans-gender” and “other” categories. Yet we do not question the epistemological purpose of taking surveys or using data. Rather the centre invites the periphery in and assimilates it. Or we could scrap the census and use another way of organising knowledge – but still not question the value of the particular ways in which we elect to organise knowledge. In this way the margins become the centre and the marginal centre incorporates new margins. We may take a census of men, women, transgender, and myriad other thoroughly inclusive acknowledgments of the other, yet never do question the value of the census itself. This is why the conclusion of Turner’s chapter in The New Blackwell Companion to Social Theory is so worrying. Turner suggests that,

“I have defended traditional sociology but have also addressed the concerns of modern sociologists over conversation analysis (chapter 15), cultural theory (chapter 19) and actor network theory (chapter 7). I have also recognized the need to develop critical theories relating, for example, to gender (chapter 12) and to postmodernism (chapter 13).

“Finally in this introduction I have referred frequently to the crisis of modern social theory, but a crisis can also be, as in the case of a threatening illness, a turning point where there is a resolution of existing dangers and the emergence of new opportunities for growth and development. The intention in publishing this New Companion has been to answer this challenge, thereby contributing to the growth and renewal of a sociological vision of the social world.”

But is this not simply an example of the typically liberal, inclusivist tendency to simply “incorporate” and “acknowledge” concerns (a word Turner himself uses)? What if crisis were conducive, not to simply acknowledging the challenge of “feminism” and “postmodernism”, but to re-defining one’s ontology to allow for these new engagements? Rather than mis-reading objects so that they fit better a pre-established epistemology, our hermeneutic approaches should be susceptible to changes that better allow for the arrival of and engagement with new objects. And yet always with the persistent awareness that, as Elizabeth Spelman so succinctly remarked, “Welcoming someone into one’s own home doesn’t represent an attempt to undermine privilege, it expresses it” (Spelman, Inessential Women: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988: p. 163). I for my part am in any case more inclined to believe, in desiring something like the aforementioned combination of engagement with scepticism, that crises and “threatening illness” are insuperable conditions in which all of our best intentions and ideals are imbricated, and from which they are necessarily inextricable. They are not resolvable. They condition what we do, and their presence as such allows us to do what we do. The corollary to all this though is my belief – as the hopeful term “engagement” I hope gestures toward – that our positioning and disciplinary boundaries, as well as our epistemic limits and locations, are capable of being regulated differently in achieving the “positive role in modern society” that Turner seeks for them.

The key here then would appear to be an epistemology that could reflexively question – and change – its own conditions. All the while accepting, however, that it could never be fully cognisant of all of these conditions, nor of the objects of its research. What is humbling to remark here is that the cause of much of this inability is due purely and simply to difficulty – how liable we are, as fallible human animals, to miss something “obvious” in even the most comprehensive genealogies and historicisms and deconstructions. Of course sometimes this can be a source of productive engagement: much has been made by various disciplines of Said’s Orientalism, in part because it is never entirely clear who can or cannot be considered “Orientalist” (Orientals in the Orient? Orientals working with others outside the Orient?) And various disciplines in the humanities have had very different things to say about Anderson’s Imagined Communities: for some, novels create national identity; others however may tend to favour a different aspect of Anderson’s claim, such as the idea that newspapers are in fact more helpful in thinking through the process of nationalisation. Indeed, even such an apparently canonical and familiar figure as Marx is routinely “misinterpreted”, in ways both superficial (I, among others, have lost count of the number of times we are told that Marx “stood Hegel on his head”; he of course said (in Capital) that Hegel’s idealism left his dialectic “standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell”) through to the very heart of Marxist philosophy and the famous question of what was determining of human and societal relations “in the final analysis” (productive forces, we are commonly told; but in fact Marx was ambivalent on this point; compare the statements made in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte – “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please…but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” – or the first sentence of The Communist Manifesto about “class struggle” to statements contained in say, the Grundrisse that explicitly posit the forces of production as determining in the final analysis).

Perhaps it would be salutary to recall here the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”, in which the protagonist, C. Auguste Dupin, fails to find a missing letter despite meticulous searching because it happens to be lying on the dining table – which is the last place any highly considered, reflective, and meticulous investigation would think to look (Poe’s epigraph to the story, misattributed to Seneca but in fact coming from Petratch’s treatise “De remediis utriusque Fourtunae”, is Nihil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio (Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness)).

I’ll leave off here for the moment, but if I find time I may write soon about this issue of blind-spots in relation to analysis by way of an essay I read recently by Janet Sturgeon (recommended by Gary Sigley as a class reading) about the use of tea and rubber as cash crops in China and a passage in David Lodge’s novel Nice Work that Bruce Robbins happened to talk about in his last monograph, Perpetual War, which says something abotut the relationship between recognising the labour that lies behind commodity fetishism and actually doing something about it. We’ll see.

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