the Great (and Small) Divides
Fuchs/Douglas A. Marshall
Zusammenfassung: Postmoderne Theorien
können den Dualismus von Natur und Gesellschaft nur anthropozentrisch
und aristotelisch überwinden. Die konstruktivistische Theorie
des Beobachtens ist dieser Aufgabe besser gewachsen. "Person"
und "Ding" können dann als Resultat von Attributionen
begriffen werden, die mit den Sozialstrukturen des Beobachtens
variieren. Dinge und Personen sind demnach keine ontisch separaten
Gegebenheiten, sondern durch ein Kontinuum von Übergängen verbunden.
Von dieser Warte aus kann die Besonderheit der Moderne darin gesehen
werden, daß mehr und mehr Beobachter mehr und mehr Verbindungen
zwischen Natur und Gesellschaft herstellen.
Structure and Observation
A central observation of Luhmanns (1997,
92ff., 134ff., 776ff.) work is that any order must be accomplished,
or does not come about at all. This latter possibility is actually
now more likely than ever, given that modernity can no longer
rely on kinship, the fatherly Prince, the Good Society, shared
standards of rationality, or the moral community of all well-meaning
people to serve as "skyhooks" of order, to use Dennetts
(1995) metaphor. Neither can
it be expected that all arguments will any day now converge on
HaberMaster reasons in discourse. Order is improbable and precarious.
Under conditions of multiple contingency, there are no guarantees
that independent experiencing and communicating "systems"
will couple and coordinate their experiences and communications
at all. Contingency makes order improbable and unstable, and it
makes consensus precarious and revokable at any moment.
If they do emerge, order and consensus are never widespread in
the beginning; let alone universal, or even a priori. They can
only start as local, temporary, and contested selective couplings.
Under certain rare conditions, however, they might extend over
time and space to include those who were not present when the
initial arrangement was made. These strangers have no memory of,
or obligation to, the original settlement. Their commitment cannot
be relied upon and taken for granted. They could, and often will,
reject a settlement and re-negotiate a different order. A critical
problem, then, is when one or the other of these two outcomes
will tend to occur.
We start, again, with Luhmann, and observe that all events are
local. All events disappear; all events disappear immediately
and forever if they are not followed by similar events; the method
or machine that produces similar events is the key to producing
structure. A "machine" is defined here, in loose connection
to Heidegger, as anything that does what it does without reflecting
on how this is possible. Machines aim for indifference toward
variations to assure repetitions and condensations. Machines can
be Human or Nonhuman, conversational or organizational; the important
difference is habitualization, not the substance or essence of
that which is being habitualized, domesticated, or caged.
Machines of this substrate-neutral kind can generalize local
and temporary couplings beyond their local circumstances and points
of origin. But this never happens by necessity or automatically.
It must be made to happen, or does not come about at all. Seen
sociologically and constructivistically, universality is an outcome,
not cause, of an order being extended across space and over time(1).
When this happens, the micro turns into the macro, a local convention
turns into the law of the land, and agency turns into structure
which constrains further agency. The "intrinsic force"
of the better argument is never forceful enough to make order
binding, although those who make order happen will, and must,
later invoke just such rational forces. "Rationality"
is a reconstructive justification of a frontstage observer, who
explains success by truth, and progress by reason. History notwithstanding,
order either happens or doesnt. If it happens, someone or
something made it happen, usually against resistance and competition
from other efforts (White 1992,
Once order is accomplished, "against all odds", it
must be maintained against entropy, or the disappearance of structure
and coupling. In the last analysis, social entropy results from
the fact that it is always more work to maintain relationships
than it is to let them disappear. There are many more ways not
to be connected in relationships than to be so connected. Modernity
increases the ratio of possible, yet absent, to actual ties and
connections dramatically. Much of modern society is "structural
holes," or the absence of possible ties within a network
(Burt 1992). Compounding the
problem, order must not only be stabilized against noise, but
also against alternative orders, which may profit from the "normative
force of the factual," especially when they have been around
for several generations. What is more, some social fields, including
science and avantgarde art, even encourage and reward disorder
in celebrating innovativeness and creativity. Such fields constantly
produce and search for noise and disorder, most of which must
then be discarded and demarcated from the few "true"
advances and "real" breakthroughs. Modernity may not
be more rational, more true, or more objective than previous social
formations, but it certainly is more restless, lacking any possibility
to constrain its own future in a stable ontology or teleology.
To the extent that it does emerge and endure, a social structure
effectively constrains the "underdetermination" and
"interpretive flexibility" that are endless and "fundamentally
irresolvable" only in abstract philosophical principle, not
in actual social and scientific practice. Flexibility often happens
after the fact, when more can be seen, and when alternatives can
be contrasted with what actually happened. Some postempiricist
philosophers, and some "soft" constructivists, have
inferred relativism from underdetermination, but this ignores
that not just anything goes once a structure is in place that
effectively constrains what is possible next. Structure comes
with history, and together they set the parameters for the future.
The best predictor of a systems current state is its immediately
preceding state, ceteris paribus(2).
Revolutionary ruptures remain possible, but become more improbable
and rare. In Kuhnian terms, meaning incommensurability and relativism
do sometimes occur, but are not the standard cases in any culture.
Incommensurability is more frequent between cultures, but
its actual degree depends on the extent of interactions between
them. When there is some interaction across the borders, "trading
zones" emerge in which "pidgins" and "creoles"
mitigate incommensurability (Galison
1997, Ch. 9).
Sociologically, relativism indicates a crisis in social solidarity
and cohesion, not a "theoretically" unlimited number
of "logically possible" alternative worldviews. To be
sure, an observer of a structure can perceive more, and different,
alternatives or states, especially as a detached "theorist"
or remote "critic." He can observe what happened, and
contrast the actual outcomes with possible ones, including ideal
speech situations and other utopias. At the same time, this observer
observes within his own "unmarked state," which consists
of his own modes and frameworks of observing. The hows
of his observing remain invisible to himself at the time he observes
what he observes. There are always fewer alternatives in
practice than in theory.
Variable Constructs and Constructions
Since they do not follow philosophical legislation as to what
science, or any culture, can and cannot do, various networks and
their cultures are not of one piece, as if molded after one essential
logic, and demarcated from their environments once and for all
by some fixed and stable "demarcation criteria." Consider
science. All of it is, of course, "constructed"
in the sense that there would be no science if no one was doing
it. But, by itself, this is a rather trivial point. The reason
this point has attracted so much angry publicity and polemic is
that "social construction" has been confused with referential
inadequacy. That this is a non sequitur can be seen
in the fact that cars, refrigerators, and children are constructed
as well, but no one makes a big epistemological deal out of that,
and starts doubting their reality. Constructions are real as well.
In fact, some constructions appear unconstructed to those who
live in and by them. They turn into the stuff that "lifeworlds"
are made of, including unproblematic background assumptions, institutions,
and paradigms. In a nutshell: While all networks and cultures
must be constructed, only some of them are constructivist.
This explains why skepticism and realism are distributed differentially
across the intellectual field and over time (Collins
Constructivism has generated much angry controversy and hostile
polemic (Fuchs 1996). At bottom,
the current science wars in academia rest on failures to distinguish
between levels of observation, or between the what and
the how of observing (Luhmann
1992). In observing how some science constructs, the constructivist
observer cannot contribute to that science, only to his own, since
his observations are not to be fed into the network that is the
science he observes, but into the network surrounding that second
level observer. This network can be, for example, philosophy,
sociology, or history of science. This means that constructivism
has nothing to say about the "truth" of the science
it observes. However, insofar as the networks into which such
observations are to be fed are part of science as well, they raise
their own truth claims constructivism understands
itself as an accurate account of some science, superior to, say,
As a result, first- and second-order observers are united by
the "code" of truth and its systematic elaborations,
such as objectivity, empirical adequacy, logical non-contradiction,
and the like (Fuchs 1997). From
here, we can go one step further, and suggest that what matters
for second-order observing is not the truth of the first level,
and not even social construction per se, but how social
and cultural constructions vary and covary with other variables,
and how this affects the outcomes of work, including philosophical
rationalizations of practice. Constructions vary, and they co-vary
with other variables, including the social structures in which
such constructions take place.
As a result, we expect to observe a wide empirical variety of
networks and their cultures or self-descriptions, differing in
the way they construct and re-construct their own realities. For
example, at the height of their imperial success and explanatory
confidence, some well-established and mature networks produce
solid realism and normal science, while more fragmented, insecure,
and loosely coupled networks behave more skeptically and relativistically.
Overcoming essentialism and allowing for variation avoids the
"New Wars of Truth" between science and its constructivist
observers by suspending epistemological arguments about the "correctness"
of various philosophical rationalizations of practice. For science,
of course, science is about reality, not society; this is the
"unmarked state" of any observing which cannot observe
itself at the same time (Luhmann
1997, 49). Any science, including sociology of science, explains
itself as the outcome of its chief epistemic virtues and merits.
The role of philosophy is to rationalize such self-descriptions
into a coherent frontstage account that can convince outsiders
In addition, a structural constructivism that is sensitive to
variations, including variations in itself, can observe various
philosophies as the ideologies of cultural workers located in
different positions in time and social structure. For example,
instead of asking: is relativism or realism the "correct"
account of science?, structural constructivism turns relativism
and realism into "dependent variables." Then, one can
observe when, and for whom, a certain science appears as universal
and objective truth, and when science is seen as a local social
construct. Allowing for variation, we could investigate when and
why one or the other outcome occurs, and which social forces either
extend or restrict the extension and stabilization of order. Once
variation is introduced, the attention shifts from "science
as such" to various empirical sciences doing very many different
kinds of work, their "subcultures," local settings,
and historical changes. This does not mean that there is no unity
to science at all, only that this unity must be observed at a
very abstract level. At the same time, the unity of science exists
only for an observer of science within science,
and so is not itself unitarian, but a part of science,
and therefore "partial."
We need to overcome essentialism, get rid of the remaining Aristotelianism
and agency humanism in social science, turn natural kinds, such
as "rationality," into dependent variables, and replace
substance by relation everywhere, including in persons (Fuchs
1999). One benefit from allowing for variation is to see various
epistemologies as the "ideologies" or "rational
myths" of intellectual workers, located in different positions
and networks in time and social space (Fuchs 1993a). Another benefit
concerns the unhelpful and hopelessly outdated Science/Humanities
division and opposition. The traditional explanations of cultural
and epistemological diversity, centered around methodological
and ontological divisions between the Two Cultures and the Double
Hermeneutic, no longer suffice. While the Humanities/Science division
may survive in academic organizations, its philosophical
elaborations are becoming less convincing all the time.
For example, important variations in scientific cultures cut
across the Nature/Society divide (Schneider
1993). With Schneider, we would expect to observe "soft"
enchanted physics (e.g., 16th century alchemy) and "hard"
realist literature (state socialist art). New research networks
are generally weaker than older ones, whether they deal with Nature
or Society. Some soft fields have harder catnets inside of them,
often crystallizing around some solid equipment with black boxes.
Some research frontiers in hard science behave rather softly,
exploring new areas of uncertainty. While the traditional "object"
or, in more modern terms, the "referential ecologies"
of certain specialties may make a difference in all this,
it is impossible to tell just which difference they make before
the science we want to explain informs us about its object. As
observers, we have no independent access to some referential ecology
prior to specialist investigations, for this would mean
we were specialists, not (specialist!) observers of specialists.
Therefore, sociology cannot explain science as a result of that
sciences referential niche in the world.
In sum, constructivism implies that we cannot support or advance
ontological explanations for variations in intellectual cultures
because we cannot participate in, only observe, these cultures.
Sociological explanations of a science must differ from the explanations
that science offers for itself, if only to avoid redundancy. The
sciences explanations of themselves as corresponding to
some reality and reason are not a premise for constructivist observing.
Sociological constructivism must bracket truth claims. This indifference
was already one of the basic principles of the Strong Program.
Sociology of science is sociology, not the science it observes.
It cannot contribute anything to the science it observes. It cannot
settle a sciences controversies, only its own. Sociological
constructivism advcances its own truth claims on a second level,
but cannot resolve truth matters occuring on the level of the
science it observes.
Postism: Words and Worlds(3)
One of the deepest divisions in academic culture separates the
Two Cultures of Science and Humanism. In cultural and science
studies, especially their "postist" wings, there has
been much excitement lately about breaking down modernist barriers,
collapsing metaphysical distinctions, inverting and subverting
rationalist hierarchies, narrowing the gaps between opposite ontological
poles, and deconstructing Western Enlightenment metaphysics. With
great drama and fanfare, the "end of the modern age"
is being announced, usually without a good sense of what will
or should take its place, or what exactly the "postist"
changes are that make the present or imminent future so radically
different from the classical modern age.
In the larger culture, "postism" is a construct of
cultural workers who specialize in the manipulation of symbols,
texts, and the commodification of signs. Therefore, postmodernism
is concentrated in the tertiary sector, especially in the reflexive
and avantgarde branches of capitalist aesthetics, such as fashion,
architecture, cinema, or high art and literature. The new professions
specializing in images seem to be particularly receptive to postism
because their work consists of creative and reflexive manipulations
of symbols, which gradually seem to lose their connection with
what they used to represent, and become a "virtual"
reality in its own right. This loose play of free-floating signs
leads to a semiotic skepticism where signs seem only to point
at each other, never to an underlying reality. All that is solid
melts into air.
In fact, however, this postmodernism is rather modern. Contingency
and antifoundationalism already are major themes in modern sociological
theory. If the classics "converge" on anything, it is
not, via Parsons, "general values," but the growing
suspicion that modernity has irrevocably lost its metaphysical
anchors and bearings. This suspicion is strongest in Webers
Nietzschean moments, in Durkheim, and the later Mannheim. Sociology
is precisely the result of the realization that there is nothing
transcendental, and that everything that exists is empirical.
Postism has a tendency to infer arbitrariness from contingency.
But even if there are no true and transcendental universals, some
institutions are still stronger than others, still reach further
than others, and endure longer than others. One might say that
transcendence is a rare and emergent property of immanence. There
are some modern institutions, such as the Liberal Self, which
have successfully ruled out alternatives for the moment,
and until further notice. That is, transcendence is itself
the improbable outcome of empirical stabilizations and condensations
of order. Modernity makes such stabilizations more unlikely by
increasing empirical and historical diversity and contingency.
The postist attitude or mentality is that of a remote and detached
observer, ironicizing from a distance what
appears only natural and valid elsewhere. The ironist will do
well in the company of other ironists, but not in a fundamentalist
religious sect, not in a Senate subcommittee hearing, and not
as a speaker during an official ceremony. Within the academy,
the ironist and skeptical observer emerges in intellectual fields
with very loose coupling, weak policing, and high practitioner
discretion. Such fields are very conversational and textual, soon
imagining the whole world as a large text. Deconstructivist irony
is less of an option when work must be done fast in intense competition
with others who also try to get more grants to do more work earning
more grants, and so on. Irony is not an option when one needs
to justify ones budget proposal, respond to outside critics,
or teaches students. It is the ironists who are skeptical of physics,
not the physicists. Many ironists are very serious about irony.
In academia, postism expresses a vague and generalized skepticism
toward foundations and truth, supported by multicultural politics
and the ascriptive entitlements of standpoint epistemologies.
This skepticism extends from the "crisis of representation"
to the "illusions of presentism," from the "end
of logocentrism" to the "Death of the Author" (see
Rosenau 1992). What runs through these motifs are rather
idle doubts about the possibility of objective knowledge per
se. Do not authors continue to claim credit for the discovery
that authors dont really exist? This sort of skepticism
makes it difficult to get any work done, and so we would expect
it to be most widespread in intellectual fields that dont.
Indeed, postism is most prominent in soft fields with little
equipment and machinery, such as literature and literary criticism
(Fuchs/Ward 1994). In sociology,
postism is almost hegemonic in anti-hegemonic critical theory,
gender, and cultural studies, but shrugged off as an annoying
disturbance in more solid and research-oriented sectors, such
as survey centers, status expectation research, or the network
exchange tradition. Correspondingly, sociology has both postmodernism
and postmodernity. Postmodernity tracks empirical changes in society
with the usual methods, whereas postmodernism is more of a global
ideological and political attack on science and representation.
In addition, postism is prominent whenever traditional methods
become unworkable or unrewarding, such as in anthropology, where
the tribal societies are disappearing together with the classical
realist ethnography. In literature, there are now many more critics
and epigones than classical authors and texts, resulting in an
emphasis on "theory" and "reflexivity." Habermas
(1990, 192) says that, by questioning the authorial privileges
of classical intentionalist hermeneutics, postism also raises
the status of the critic vis-a-vis the classic.
What Is Modern about Modernity?
The most famous postist approach in science studies is actor-network
philosophy(4). In the footsteps
of poststructuralist semiotics, Bruno Latour and his followers
in the very influential "actor-network" network have
set up their own favorite target for collapsing and inverting.
This is the "Great Divide" between Society and Nature,
or human vs. non-human "actants"(5).
The Great Divide was erected in the 17th century, in the debates
between natural and political philosophers, most prominently Boyle
and Hobbes (Shapin and Schaffer
1985). The 17th century established the "constitution
of truth" calling in the modern era. This constitution denaturalizes
society and desocializes nature, setting up the two separate poles
like two branches of Government: "I define a world as modern
when the political constitution of truth creates those two separate
parliaments, one hidden for things, the other in the open for
citizens" (Latour 1993, 15).
According to actor-network "theory,"(6)
in each of these branches a regime of representation is set up.
Science represents things natural that cannot speak at all; the
state represents citizens that cannot all speak at the same time.
In these orders of representation, Nature and Society have been
separated and purified, but can still be called upon to explain
each other: Nature explains Society in naturalist and physicalist
theories of knowledge and behavior; Society explains Nature in
social constructivist accounts of science. That is, the modernist
transcendence of Nature is also immanent, and the immanence of
Society is also transcendent: Nature can be controlled and manipulated;
Society cannot be changed at will because it is larger than the
sum of its parts. Somehow, this dialectic allows "us moderns"
to rule the rest of the world.
At the same time, modernity separates itself from premodern times
by means of yet another Great Divide. This one consists of a series
of retrospective revolutionary breaks with the past. These breaks
paper over an essential historical continuity that links all "collectives"
whose Nature and Culture still form seamless webs or networks
in a unified cosmological order. To compensate for the resulting
loss of spirituality, the moderns remove God from the external
order of Nature, and internalize Him in their Soul during the
Reformation. This is how clever Latour believes "we"
are, whoever this "we" may be.
After Latour and the other persings(7)
have shown how this modern constitution was drafted and protected,
they go on to say that it has never existed, really (1993, 39).
In fact, "modernity has nothing to do with the invention
of humanism, with the emergence of the sciences, with the secularization
of society, or with the mechanization of the world" (34).
This is a tall order indeed, announced with the chuzpe typical
of this school, disregarding centuries of evidence with a quick
gesture. Instead, so the story goes on, human and nonhuman actants
have always formed "technoscientific" networks
that cut across the Great Divides, with no respect for metaphysical
and ontological boundaries. Nature and Society have always been
co-constructed through coaltions and alliances that know no borders.
These coalitions and alliances produce "hybrids," "quasi-objects,"
and "cyborgs" that are never purely social, purely natural,
or purely textual and discursive. These entities populate the
fabulous "Middle Kingdom," before the invention of both
Society and Nature. It is this Kingdom Latour wants to rule. Needless
to say, it is not the quasi-objects that have elected him to be
their spokesman. As all Kings, Latour is self-appointed.
While modernity seems to have effectively separated the two realms
through the work of "purification," this has paradoxically
accelerated the process of mutual interaction and diffusion between
humans and non-humans. Actually, it is in this acceleration that
the power of modernity lies. The moderns deceive themselves; they
claim separation but practice integration, and must wait for Latour
to explain to them what they have been doing all along. Latour
is, in this sense, the last great modernist and destroyer of deception,
despite his self-identification as an "a-modernist."
From an a-modern perspective, "we" whoever that
is "have never been modern." Rather, the modernist
dualisms and distinctions are the work of "purifications,"
once "translations" and "mediations" have
crossed the boundaries of the Great Divide and created the hybrids
and quasi-objects of the Middle Kingdom. Nature and Society form
a seamless web that can be untangled and separated only artificially,
and only after the fact of boundary-crossings. Neither side of
the Nature-Society pole can be privileged in any explanations.
Instead, what must be understood are the processes of "enrolment"
and "interessement," in which certain actants manage
to establish "centers of translation" from which they
claim to be the spokespersons of integrated technoscientific networks.
Before that happens, however, things natural contribute as much
to the construction of hybrids as persons social, which makes
them co-equals in the process of defining and assembling reality.
Against social constructivism, actor-network persings maintain
that the social which they falsely and narrowly reduce
to the "interests" prominent in the explanations of
science by early Edinburgh Strong Programmers cannot "explain"
the natural since interests and interactions are not prior to
technoscientific outcomes. Rather, interests are constructed and
re-constructed in the very same process of producing these outcomes.
Following scientists around, they are observed to assemble "heterogeneous"
networks of support which are made from a variety of things social
and natural, without clear distinctions.
Some Problems in the Middle Kingdom
There are some serious flaws in this philosophy, the most important
one being that it is still philosophy. In part, this flaw follows
from a narrow and distorted misconception of the social and sociology.
To begin with, it is inaccurate to reduce sociology to interest
explanations. While these were popular in the work of some Strong
Programmers in the 70s, "interests" do by no means exhaust
the sociological arsenal. Social science can also not be reduced
to the intentional actions of persons. Sociology does not equate
society with subjects or persons, and it does not say that social
structure is not itself constructed (Latour
In their unsplendid Parisian isolation, Latour and his followers
disregard US organization and network science, which have always
combined things and people, but without adding any special metaphysics
and ontology. This is especially true for technological and contingency
theories. In network and organizational accounts, things and objects
have always appeared as raw materials and means of production,
as congealed and reified structures, as physical constraints on
communication, as technological cages of complexity, as dramatic
simplifications of natural processes, or as sacred totems of group
solidarity. Actor-network philosophy also pays no attention to
the Neodurkheimians, who have long shown that modernity isnt
that modern after all, but remains premodern in such structures
as urban tribes and everyday rituals.
Investing non-humans with independent agency in a "symmetrical
anthropology" also comes dangerously close to anthropocentrism.
The principle of symmetry is paradoxical, because such "investing"
must still be done by someone, and cannot be done by the things-in-themselves.
As Collins and Yearley (1992a),
amongst others, have observed, generalized symmetry in fact restores
realism by making the "inner properties" (Latour
1993, 52) of objects a factor in accounts and explanations.
Latour wants to reveal and rescue the innocent thing-in-itself,
before all representation, delegation, translation, and construction.
But the dramatic fanfare with which this antimodernist metaphysics
is announced we are being assured that nothing less than
a "Copernican Counter-Revolution" is happening here
(Latour 1993, 76) conceals
the rather old-fashioned character of the empirical work produced
under its umbrella. This work "takes us directly back to
the scientists conventional and prosaic accounts of the
world from which we escaped in the early 70s" (Collins/Yearley
1992a, 322). The Pasteurization of France, for example,
tells a rather traditional individualistic story of a scientist-hero,
whose cunning machinations and manipulations almost singlehandedly
transform French society.
Latour remains squarely stuck in metaphysics because, in trying
to overcome metaphysics, he accepts the very metaphysical way
in which the Nature/Culture dualism has traditionally been framed.
Instead of really collapsing the poles, "generalized symmetrical
anthropology" performs an even grander metaphysical trick:
It sets up a mega-pole, prior and even more fundamental than to
the other two poles. This mega-pole, the most original and truest
reality underneath all secondary constructions, consists of collectives
of quasi-objects and quasi-subjects. Instead of saying, there
is only nature or, there is only society, this
amodern metaphysics says, there are only networks and hybrids
and their center of translation is in Paris, at
the Ecole des Mines.
The Ecole des Mines is part of the academy, not the Middle Kingdom.
Far from anchoring to a primordial bedrock reality, generalized
symmetrical anthropology is still simply a part of "science."
That is, it is published in books and articles, talked about at
conferences, cited in other books and articles, and taught to
students. That science is part of society, not nature, and not
the Middle Kingdom. Actor-network research occurs only in
and as society, not nature. The symmetrical anthropology
must still be communicated to, and rewarded by, other (social)
scientists, not scallops (Callon), bubble chambers (Pickering),
or the anthrax bacillus (Latour). The fact that scallops and bubble
chambers cannot communicate may not be a good reason to draw a
deep distinction between Society and Nature, but it does put a
damper on attempts at telling a scientific story from their perspectives.
This means that "the social" is still "privileged,"
because we dont learn anything about scallops if there isnt
any research about them; we dont know about the air pump
except from reading Shapin and Schaffer and other historians,
and we would know nothing about hybrids and the parliament of
things were it not for good old Harvard University Press, that
crown jewel of modernism, publishing Latours books. These
basic social realities have not changed at all, despite the symmetrical
ontology of the new "parliament of things" having supposedly
liberated objects from their encroachment in sociology. Symmetrical
anthropology cannot go to a deeper level before and underneath
science, nature, and society because there is no such deeper level.
Actor-network persings do not, of course, give objects their
own voice. In his famous analysis of scallop domestication, Callon
(1986) claims to give the scallops
equal ontological capacities and status with humans. But without
scientific communications and representations, the scallops simply
do not enter the picture. "This means that when the scientist
says scallops we see only scientists saying scallops.
We never see scallops scalloping, nor do we see scallops controlling
what scientists say about them" (Collins/Yearley
1992b). One cannot tell the story from the side of the scallops,
just as one cannot know what it feels like to be a bat. Things
are still not speaking for themselves that would
be truly antimodern. In effect, then, Callon must either claim
that the scallops speak through him, or through the scallop scientists.
In the first case, he turns from a sociologist into a scallop
scientist, albeit a bad one, due to lack of training and expertise.
In the second case, he repeats what scallop scientists are already
saying, adding nothing to their picture of the world. Since Callon
does neither of these, he actually proceeds in a quite straightforward
sociological way: He brings a descriptive and theoretical apparatus
consisting of the familiar actor-network repertoire such
as "translation," "enrolment," and "interessement"
to bear on a scientific episode. This apparatus is neither
that of the scallops, nor that of the scallop-scientists, but
that of the sociologist. Instead of a "Copernican counter-revolution"
and an "amodern political constitution of truth" we
get old sociological wine in new rhetorical bottles.
To be sure, the reason for the impossibility of perfect symmetry
is not some "essential difference" between things natural
and things social, between subjects and objects, action and behavior,
or science and hermeneutics. In this regard, our argument differs
from that of Collins and Yearley, and other "double hermeneuticians"
and interpretivists, who want to maintain the special humanist
privileges and distinctions for mysterious spirits such as intentionality,
subjective meaning, action, Verstehen, and the rest of
the romantic arsenal. We do indeed need to get rid of essentialism
and overcome dualism, but the way to do this is to overcome metaphysics
altogether, not to replace it by another, antimodern one. While
there may be no "grand" metaphysical and ontological
differences between things social and things natural, people,
including Parisian actor network theorists, have usually very
little trouble taking the "intentional stance" (Dennett
1987) toward some systems but not others. It is this
sort of variation we need to explain. To do this, metaphysics
is not necessary; sociology will do just fine.
From a sociological perspective, things social and things natural
are not separated by a grand ontological divide, but by more or
less contingent, though never arbitrary, social distinctions.
These distinctions distribute intentional and causal effects unequally
across the landscape of various populations. Sociology, practiced
as structural constructivism, can identify some variables that
make a difference in such attributions. Since there are many variables
operating at the same time, the effect of each depends on the
effects of all the others, so that all following causal arguments
obtain only ceteris paribus.
Our basic premise is that "action" and "behavior,"
"persons" and "things," "Nature"
and "Society," "science" and "humanism,"
and the other dichotomies are indeed not opposite poles of Being,
separated by an unbridgeable essentialist gap. Rather, they are
social devices of description and explanation that covary with
other sociological variables, such as the status of observers,
the conditions of observing, and the degree to which an observed
system has been rendered predictable through normal science.
All other things being equal which they never are
intentional interpretations and Verstehen are more likely
to occur when observers and observed are socially close, and when
the observed are few in number. Then, the observer is more likely
to use such "soft" and very time-consuming methods as
participant observation and Verstehen. One can verstehen
but not that many people. Therefore, when observer and
observed are separated by some large distance, and when there
are very many systems to be observed, the observer is more likely
to conceive of the observed behaviors and effects as driven by
impersonal causal forces, to be measured by quantitative formulas,
and explained by general theory. Distance and size are, of course,
variables, which means that we are dealing with a continuum here,
bracketed by "understanding" and "explanation"
as opposite ideal types, and Latours "hybrids"
or "quasi-objects" somewhere in between.
One extreme pole is the pure understanding of one person: love.
The opposite extreme pole is pure explanation of all organisms:
genetics and molecular biology.
Allowing for variation makes it possible to explain when systems
move across the continuum, when they tend to become more person-like
or more thing-like, and when they occupy some intermediate position,
or the Middle Kingdom. In addition to distance and size, another
factor is time. Over time, some systems tend to get better understood
and routine, and so move closer to the mechanistic and deterministic
thing-pole. Their behavior gets more predictable and, as a result,
"intentionality" and "free will" or "decision"
decrease. At the same time, time will be counteracted by social
closeness and moral boundaries around groups (Smiley
1992, 12, 114). Within those boundaries, intentionality is
a stronger assumption than outside. Whatever is far outside the
moral boundaries separating "us" from "them"
acquires a more thing-like character, implying that "they"
cannot participate as equals in "our" constructions
of "their" behaviors. However, this may change over
time as well, since boundaries are not static and inflexible.
Such mutual exclusions are characteristic of ideological observing,
for example. Ideological observing moves the observed closer to
the thing-pole of the continuum. The opponent is caused by social
forces without being aware of them. If "they" are stuck
in ideology, they are unwilling or unable to see through their
self-constructed maze of deception, and need to be explained from
the outside. Then, "they" become a target for "our"
science and explanation, not equal hermeneutic partners in conversation.
The explanations ideological enemies give for themselves are symptoms
of deception, and so cannot be "in the truth."
The cases at the borders are ambivalent and ambiguous
these are Simmels strangers and Kuhns anomalies or
Latours hybrids. On the one hand, strangers are not well
known; their mysteriousness and exoticism call for interpretation,
rather than explanation. On the other hand, they are not really
part of the group, and so are objects rather than subjects,
or some of both. That is, object- and subject-status are ascribed,
but ascriptions covary with other variables, such as time and
distance, which implies that ascriptions will change over time
and with interaction as well.
Consider a more concrete example. One does not normally understand
ones spouse as an impersonal system, driven by causal forces,
and not being responsible or accountable for her actions. This
does not mean that her actions cannot be explained by science,
only that science does not reach into love. What the spouse does
may indeed be explainable as the result of chemistry, neuroscience,
or social class, but explanations of this kind do not work
in close and intimate relations. Here, "individuals"
occur, and each is supposed to appreciate and understand the other
as "really special," not "just" as a particular
configuration and outcome of empirical forces and causes. In intimacy,
agency terms are more expected and appropriate; not even the hardest-nosed
neuroreductionists could approach their wife and kids as a neural
network, algorithm, or artificial intelligence, at least not while
and during intimate encounters and interactions. As an
intimate relationship breaks up, of course, mutual explanations
and attributions may change, moving once again closer to the thing-pole.
Scientific explanations of spouses and other intimates may become
more serviceable when making sense of some behavior in the common
agency terms becomes increasingly difficult. "Insanity"
is one concept that signals a break-up of a moral community, when
insiders who used to have special privileges in accounting for
their own behaviors turn, to some extent, into outsiders and objects
for some sort of "scientific" explanation. When social
scientists explain the behavior of large crowds, or of structural
systems such as states, they conceive of reality as more object-like
and physical. What matters is not the essential properties of
different natural kinds, but the social contexts in which different
observers attribute different faculties to systems for different
Interpretation and explanation also vary with the amount of perceived
uncertainty. When some observer is very uncertain about the erratic
behaviors of some rather hard-to-predict system, he is more likely
to assume that that system has an internal center where it makes
decisions and choices according to unobservable rules, beliefs,
and preferences. In the movie Backdraft, the fire inspector,
played by de Niro, muses that a fire does not grow because of
the physics of flammable liquids, but because it "wants to."
Agency is being attributed here to the behavior of fires as a
result and expression of uncertainty and unpredictability. Another
way of saying this is that "agency" is the expected
or observed capacity of a system to surprise its observers. Upon
being surprised, the observer might try to get closer to this
system by softer and more interpretive methods. He might try to
develop a "feeling for the organism," and to understand
this system "from the inside" as if
it had agency. "Agency" is a moral capacity that a system
receives from an observer who is not, at present, entitled
or able to make sense of that system in deterministic terms.
Outside of close relationships, most observers will probably
try to construct deterministic explanations first, because these
are simpler, faster, and more generalizable across classes of
systems. Deterministic explanations economize on explanation costs.
They are more accomodating to the "bounded rationality"
of all observers, or their limited ability to deal with complexity
and novelty. This is especially so for organizational observers,
because the organization sets the parameters for how and what
its workers are supposed to observe, what they are expected to
ignore, and because organizations try to simplify and routinize
as much as they can. However, when this proves infeasible or inappropriate
for some reason, when exceptions and surprises accumulate, these
very same systems may be granted faculties such as "spontaneity,"
"creativity," and "originality." In this case,
the organization and its observers make special amends to the
rules and routines, such as special programs for "gifted"
students who stand out of the pack, and cannot be processed by
the routine methods.
In contrast, the observer will tend to become a "scientist"
explaining the behavior of his systems from the outside when that
behavior is serviceable under the assumption that it is simple,
repetitive, and invariant across time and place. For this, it
does not matter whether the system is a person or a thing, since
"personhood" and "thingness" are the outcomes,
not causes, of observations, attributions, and cultural work.
At least, this particular way of assigning causes is the
specific contribution of sociological constructivism.
An example for an account located toward the middle of the thing-person
continuum is rational choice. Rational choice conceives of actors
as "persings," combining the "soft" ambiguity
and uncertainty of individual preferences with the "hard"
maxim that all actors will optimize. Rational choice-type explanations
arose when markets increased the numbers of actors one had to
deal with. To assume that everyone is behaving "rationally,"
regardless of individual differences and idiosyncracies, is a
strategy chosen when it is no longer possible or necessary to
"empathize" with all of ones partners in exchange.
The algorithmic machine of rational action is a radically simplified
construct that can be chosen in circumstances when one observes
and interacts with very large numbers of strangers. One cannot
possibly know or care what all of them actually think or feel,
and so everyone assumes that everyone is behaving rationally.
In contrast, "thicker" descriptions and explanations
will be chosen when observer and observed are socially close,
or even intimate, ceteris paribus. In such cases, an objectifying
attitude would violate the moral expectations and taboos of such
associations. One grants the other a "rich inner life"
that cannot easily be algorithmically compressed into a standard
formula, such as self-interest or stimulus-response. This rich
inner life also allows for surprises, which preserve the "magic"
of the relationship. This magic is a vital Durkheimian sacred
object, which would be violated by a "scientific" attitude.
This may be the reason why scientists are not considered perfect
spouses. In a variation of Blacks (1976,
41) law of law, we could say:
There is more explanation between strangers; there is more hermeneutics
However, some strangers deserve an interpretive ethnography;
this happens when there are not very many of them, and when their
cultures are very exotic and mysterious. In any case, personhood
and thingness are outcomes, not causes, of social processes of
attribution. People tend to take the intentional stance toward
their own pets, granting them some amount of agency, and taking
a more interpretive approach towards making sense of them. Pets
acquire the "rich inner life" normally reserved for
persons, whereas persons with Alzheimers stop being observed
as having a rich inner life. Such former persons move closer to
becoming physical objects in beds, to be handled much as other
physical objects. The important sociological difference
is not between things and people, but between the attribution
of interpretivism or determinism.
Pets move closer to personhood on the person-thing continuum,
especially when they have been around for some time to become
an integral part of a close moral community, such as a family.
Then, they even acquire "character." "Character"
imposes some structure and consistency on behaviors, makes sense
of them in terms of a network of "characteristic" dispositions,
and fits them into a schema that makes prediction more possible.
Over time, "character" may reify and generalize into
"stereotype." This happens when explanations of behaviors
move back along the continuum, closer to the object-pole. Non-pets,
or other peoples pets, are not part of ones intimate
circle of associates, and so are treated more as "strange"
physical objects and biological organisms. Such organisms may
live in ones house, such as spiders, or even in ones
body, such as bacteria, but they are not part of a moral community,
and so do not acquire the privileges of agency(8).
Their behaviors do not express "character," but must
be explained by the causal methods of hard science.
The choice of methods, stances, and approaches is indeed not
governed by intrinsic differences between things social and things
natural. Rather, "social" or "natural" are
the consequences of processes of attribution that vary
from observer to observer, across time and space. Nothing is natural
or social in itself. There is no Ding-an-sich. Rortys
(1979, 321) great insight is
that science and hermeneutics are not coextensive with Nature
and Culture, but that science turns into hermeneutics
when there is a lot of uncertainty, and when the "normal"
methods do not seem to work anymore. This happens, for example,
in episodes of "revolutionary" science, when imagination
and creativity become more valued than methodical and systematic
reasoning. Hermeneutics is also a tribute to the modern Self,
and its celebrated capacities to invest the world with meaning
Conversely, there are very routine areas of culture, such as
large batch manufacturing or elementary public school teaching.
In such routine bureaucracies, there is little hermeneutics, but
much method, for dealing with many things or thing-like persons
that are constructed as roughly similar before they are subjected
to the same treatments. As a matter of fact, thing-like persons
are routinely perceived as standard cases, holders of ID numbers,
and fully describable by the bureaucratic formulas and classifications.
This changes when there are fewer and richer students in smaller
classes in more elite liberal arts colleges. Such organizations
are paid and equipped to perceive more individualism. Parents
expect teachers to expect that their students are all special
in some way. Due to small size, this is now possible. Larger public
educational bureaucracies have no way of dealing with all these
individuals; they process large numbers of people through standard
sequences of courses and examinations, one cohort after another.
To sum up, we do not need a new metaphysics to overcome essentialism
and dualism if we make full use of the sociological arsenal. In
fact, a new metaphysics does not solve any problems, but simply
displaces them to another level, such as the Middle Kingdom of
collectives of quasi-objects. Instead, once we allow for variation,
we can observe Nature and Society, Subject and Object, Persons
and Things, Interpretation and Explanation, or Hermeneutics and
Science as the poles in a continuum of social attribution and
construction. Processes of attribution and construction depend
themselves on other variables, such as size, time, uncertainty,
or moral boundaries. This displaces the metaphysical problematic.
The next question, then, is: How are these variables chosen and
distinguished, and by whom?
The identification of "independent" and "dependent"
variables is itself based on a decision of some observer, and
not to be found in reality itself. We probably learn more about
the observer from the way he draws distinctions than about the
referents of his distinctions. This implies that distinctions
are contingent (but not arbitrary); they can be drawn but
do not have to be, and they can be drawn differently by different
observers, and for different purposes. Different distinctions
can be drawn at different times to separate different aspects
of the same object. "Correct" distinctions must be learned;
they are not imprinted on the things or properties to which they
refer. Distinctions are not carved in stone. There can be as many
systems of distinction as there are ways of approaching and dealing
with the world. Distinctions are sense-making devices that economize
on information costs by highlighting this (but not that).
Without distinctions, nothing makes sense, nothing can be observed,
and nothing can be learned. Even worse, without distinctions nothing
matters (Luhmann 1997,
At the same time, distinctions can turn into obstacles for further
learning. This happens when they get reified and turn into natural
kinds. Then, they become very inflexible, and violations of the
established "order of things" are punished as moral
offenses and aberrations. One distinction (!) between science
and common sense may be that in science, such reifications are
less likely to be successful over long periods of time because
competition over discoveries increases self-produced uncertainty.
In science, unlike in common sense, violators of established classifications
are less likely to be persecuted as moral failures. This is so
mostly because science rewards innovations, which always include
innovations in classifications and distinctions.
All this is familiar sociological lore since the later Mannheim
and Durkheim(9), and part of the
interactionist, labeling, and constructivist traditions. If no
one draws a distinction, it does not exist. If a distinction is
drawn but no one pays attention to it, it does not exist in and
for the group to whom it is supposed to matter. If distinctions
concern people who draw their own distinctions, controversies
and conflicts over classification are likely to ensue. Conflicts
over classifications and distinctions are thus often conflicts
over social order; "correct" ways of classifying and
distinguishing are loaded with moral significance and righteousness.
This is true especially for distinctions and classifications that
concern the sacred possessions of the group, such as what separates
"us" from "them," the clean from the dirty,
me from you, humans from nonhumans, or the context of discovery
from the context of justification. The more outrage and consternation
a violation of cognitive order provokes, the more central and
sacred that order is to the groups form of life (and vice
The most powerful distinctions are institutional labels. These
are constructs whose constructedness has become all but invisible
to those inside, perhaps because no one can seem to remember how
this construction was originally done, and by whom (Douglas
1986). Such distinctions have lost their air of contingency,
and appear to express the necessities of being, or the natural
order of things. As a result, they are guarded by strict taboos
and rigid impossibilities. Bourdieu calls such distinctions the
Entrenched institutional labels come with an entire apparatus
of what Foucault would call "disciplinary techniques,"
although he may have been too impressed by their pervasiveness
and power. Many distinctions are better described as "permanently
failing operations," because their contingency can easily
be revealed, especially in conflicts over classifications, and
when these classifications are novel and unsure of themselves.
Conflicts and controversies shatter certainties; they denaturalize
distinctions and classifications by demonstrating that they can,
in fact, vary. One reason for this is that conflicts introduce
second-order observing: one group uses its own distinctions to
distinguish anothers distinctions. The latter then appear
to the former not as mirroring the real order of things, but as
"mere" constructs, "false" ideologies, bias
and prejudice, and self-serving rationalizations. Conflicts and
second-order observing turn "cultural" certainties into
"ideological" justifications (Berger
Distinctions, including truth or objectivity, are events
that must be made to happen, not independent states of affairs
or things-in-themselves. Likewise, variables themselves do not
indicate whether they are endogenous or exogenous. That distinction
makes sense only within a model of reality, not in reality itself.
It is that model, not reality, that makes the distinctions that
matter to it. The proof of a distinction is thus not its referential
adequacy, its "truth," or its mapping the actual distinctions
between natural kinds in the real world. Rather, the proof of
a distinction is its ability to do work, the most important sort
of which is to generate more useful distinctions for different
purposes. Such is the key insight of pragmatism, the only philosophy
of science that captures something about science-in-the-making.
In science and innovation, "useful" distinctions are
those that let familiar things appear in an unfamiliar light.
Useful distinctions do not redundantly copy what is already there,
but re-arrange things, move them around, switch their contexts,
compare that which usually appears incommensurable, and so on.
Matters of truth, of course, re-appear on a third level of observation
("it is true that useful distinctions do cultural work").
This inescapability once more signals that the code of science
cannot ever be suspended without suspending science itself. Berger
(1995:95) captures this paradox
nicely in the work of Bourdieu, who demonstrates the status-driven
contingency of even the most "natural" distinctions,
only to introduce his distinctions as the ones that go
beyond ideology to capture objective truth.
Complexity and Prediction Across the Divide
It is possible to describe evolution as increases in complexity,
though not in any teleological sense, and not in
the sense of some kind of optimization or increasing superiority.
Gould has reminded us time and time again that increases in complexity
are not the telos of evolution, and that complexity is not, by
itself, always and everywhere an advantage. It all depends
on the texture of the environment and its turbulence, for example.
Lawrence and Lorsch (1967),
and population ecology, have shown how this correlation shapes
organizations and their divisions in various environmental niches.
Briefly, when the environment is rather stable, uniform, and changing
slowly, simple structures are preferred over complex ones.
Complexity is not an advantage per se. The most important
reason for this is that complex systems are more prone to internally
triggered breakdowns through multiple interacting and spiralling
failures. Complex systems have more internal environments than
simple systems, and these internal environments, if decentralized,
are difficult to coordinate and control from above, or from one
single center. Multiple internal environments produce more internal
states and events than fewer internal environments, ceteris
paribus. Complex brains with many interacting parts, multiple
layers, and decentralized feedback propagation are more prone
to mental disorder than simple brains with loose coupling and
more serial hierarchical processing from a single center. For
the same reason, complex and closely coupled technosystems are
prone to internally triggered "normal accidents" (Perrow
Differences in referential ecologies are not simply coextensive
with the old Nature/Culture separation as if all Nature
were somehow simple, linear, unchanging, and predictable, while
all Culture were complex, subjective, changing, and chaotic. The
emerging science of complexity is rapidly breaking down such old-fashioned
dichotomies on all fronts (Coveney/Highfield
1995). The logic of bureaucratic cages can be described as
simple and linear, while the behavior of particles may be described
as probabilistic and uncertain. Darwinian evolution is still going
on, with new mutations and unpredicted surprises, while aggregate
suicide rates have remained rather stable over several decades.
The simple/complex distinction is primarily that of an observer,
who decides either to reduce or elaborate complexity for purposes
of description and explanation. Generally, complexity is reduced
for prediction, control, mastery, and teaching; it is elaborated
for innovation and discovery. It is observers who decide to reduce
or increase the number of variables that are being taken into
account. It is observers who decide what margins of error are
acceptable, and it is observers who decide whether coarse-grained
or fine-grained descriptions are more suitable for their purposes.
This has little to do with substance or subject-matter, for idealizations,
model assumptions, holding constant, and ceteris paribus
clauses belong to any science, whether of Nature or Society.
At the same time, there will be variations in the possibility
and accuracy of predictions, depending, for example, on the rate
of innovation in a cultural area. It is easier to predict what
Stephen King will write next, but much more difficult to predict
what Peter Handke will. This is because an important part of the
"game" in avantgarde art or literature is to be
unpredictable, while a big part of popular culture is minimizing
the risks in investing and selling a lot of standard products
to many consumers whose average reading habits change more sluggishly.
This is an example for the gravitational collapse toward social
averages: The larger a market or audience for a product, the more
sluggish and coarse-grained its behavior, and the more standard
and uniform its commodities. This is not so because the culture
industry deliberately manipulated false consciousness, but because
averages remain longer than individuals and their scores. Departments
gravitate toward intellectual mediocrity; pluralistic politics
moves toward the middle class and compromises between various
constituencies; forests constrain the height of their trees toward
the medium size; regressions regress toward the mean, and the
standard deviation in baseball scores decreases over time. Life
is just a normal curve at least in the long run. At the
same time, normal curves come with many exceptions and surprises
at their tails.
What is more, the best way to predict what King will write next
is to read as many of his previous books as possible, not, say,
an inspection of his current PET scan. Some all-too-eager cognitive
neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists believe they can
"reduce" culture to "the mind" but
to whose? Minds produce romantic poetry, microphysics, and neuroscience.
How could all this "follow" from mental Darwin machines?
Darwinism is not itself the result of natural evolution. To be
sure, brains are the result of natural evolution, but what they
might think is not.
Of course, as with all predictions, the difference between predictions
consists in the amount of error reduction, which means that predictions
are good only relative to worse ones. The maturation of the neurosciences
might make it possible to reduce the errors in PET scan based
predictions of culture, but at present, they dont even yield
Predictions also differ in how fine-grained and time-sensitive
they are; we can never predict Kings exact next words, and
our predictions will degrade rapidly once forecasts extend into
the distant future. So our best predictions are coarse-grained
and short-term: We can be reasonably sure though by no
means certain that Kings next book will be scary.
But when it comes to what he will write two decades from now (long
term prediction), or just what configuration of characters and
plot twists will make his next book scary (fine-grained prediction),
predictions do not degrade all that gracefully.
For exactly the same reasons, it is squarely impossible to predict
the future "content" of "science." The constructivists
have never defined what "content" really means, how
fine-grained explanations or predictions of "content"
can be, which exact scientific communications in which areas are
predictable, how far into the future such predictions can extend,
or how many of the vast number of papers or communications can
be explained by the same argument. Consider the following illustration.
Elsewhere, we have estimated that the annual output of the biomedical
sciences alone is about 300.000 articles (Fuchs/Westervelt
1996). Of course, these are just a small fraction of all scientific
communications, and even just a small fraction of all communications
in the biomedical field, since published papers do not include
more informal communications and contributions. But even if we
do disregard informal communications, exactly what "contents"
can be predicted and explained here? The contents of all of these
articles? Including footnotes? The distribution of the references?
How far into the future do our predictions extend before they
collapse? Is it possible to predict these predictions as well?
Who could do all this?
On the level of second-order observation, there are no simple
and complex systems in and of themselves almost any
system can be produced or observed, under some possible description
and on some level, as simple or complex. To take Coveney and Highfields
(1995, 38) example, "boy
meets girl, family intervenes, the couple dies," is an extremely
simple and algorithmically compressed, yet possible, rendition
of a highly complex love story, suited to some purposes (such
as this one here), but not to others (such as stage instructions
to the actors). To take Gell-Manns (1994)
example, quarks may be simpler when used as an expedient to account
for and "save the phenomena" in beam collisions, yet
complex when viewed as actual building blocks of matter whose
still smaller building blocks are yet to be discovered. Jaguars
may be complex in their natural habitat, but rendered simpler
when caged, trained, and exhibited in zoos.
Summing up, the simple/complex distinction cuts across the Great
Divide as well, and cannot explain variations in intellectual
and scientific cultures and specialties, either. Why is there
a perceived difference between social and natural facts at all?
"The idea that social facts might be socially constructed
with no necessary relationship with a preexisting reality is not
difficult to understand, or even to accept;" writes Ronald
Giere (1988, 58), probably expressing
majority opinion. But the reason is that some social facts
are more transparent and obviously contingent than others, not
that they are social. The important distinction is between
strong facts and weak constructs, not between social
and natural facts.
What Separates Modernity from Tradition?
Tradition complements modernity in the sense that each
modernity constructs and preserves its own traditions. They are
not opposites, but depend on each other. Modernity does not "replace"
tradition, but continues it according to its own, not the
traditions, specifications. This includes "breaks"
with the past as well, since these breaks and discontinuities
are observed not in the past, but by and within what comes next,
that is, after the break, rupture, or revolution.
Keeping this observer-dependence of "tradition" in
mind, we can probably say that modernity differs from tradition
in size and scale, amongst other things. The impact of size on
social structure is as dramatic as it is neglected, organization
science notwithstanding. Size makes it increasingly impossible
to organize society as one large and extended encounter among
copresent bodies and their blood relations. Not even tribal societies
are encounters, though understanding them as such would yield
fewer misunderstandings than understanding modern societies as
tribes and encounters. This does not, of course, mean that modern
societies have no tribes, or no encounters, or no communities.
The difference is not Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft;
rather, modern Western societies differ from tribes because, in
the former, tribes are only one form of association among others.
At each new evolutionary level, previous modes of social association
are not dropped and replaced by "higher" forms in some
linear and progressive increase in adaptive capacity. Rather,
previous modes and levels survive by nesting within newer forms,
such as organizations. The archaic and traditional persists, albeit
in modified forms. Modern societies have not replaced tribes with
organizations, but they differ from tribes because they have more
tribes, they have different and novel ways to link them, and they
also have non-tribes, such as bureaucracies. At the same time,
bureaucracies may be one site where restructured tribes, such
as scientific specialties, congregate and communicate. Tribal
societies do not have many alternative ways to link their units
and components. When they get too large, they split up; they cannot
accomodate internal changes by differentiation into different
kinds and patterns of non-tribal social organization.
In one important sense, then, tribal societies do differ dramatically
from modern ones: due to size and differentiation, modern societies
produce vastly more social events and outcomes, such as personal
experiences, observations, communications, and behaviors. They
also produce these many more events in much less time because
their modes of association are much further removed from copresent
bodies. In modern societies, billions of conversations can, will,
and do occur at any one point in time, whereas tribal societies
need much more time to process far fewer encounters and kinds
of encounters between far fewer persons.
Modern societies have more observers, none of them "privileged"
in any metaphysical or philosophical sense, and they have more
different kinds of observers and observations as well.
These include families, tribes, science, governments, the UN,
at least one post-post structuralist and feminist deconstructess
of Durkheim, hundreds of millions of bodies, and Parisian actor-network
theorists who believe "we" whoever that is
"have never been modern."
All this is especially true for modern science. Whatever distinguishes
science from myth: it is not truth, philosophical objectivity,
logic, or rationality. But there are differences just the
same, despite postmodern and relativist essentialism. One difference
is that modern science tolerates and encourages vastly more dissidence
and conflict by turning some of it into expected innovation. No
culture is static, and all cultures innovate, but modern science
expects, rewards, and encourages change to an unprecedented degree.
What is more, science rewards innovations "blind," that
is, without being able to define and fix in advance what they
will be, where they will occur, who will make them, and what consequences
they can and will have for the rest of society. It is rather impossible
to "finalize" science without destroying it altogether.
One may set goals for science, but, as in other and all organizations,
these goals are only loosely coupled to actual research and its
outcomes. In any organization, there are always multiple and conflicting
goals, which are also ambivalent, ambiguous, and change over time.
The rhetoric of "goals" is political frontstage talk,
and this talk is not itself the science that can either get the
job done or not. The only thing that is certain in science is
uncertainty and change. Science is home-less and end-less, at
least as long as it is not destroyed. In science, there are only
temporary solutions. All truths collapse over time. Science must
not only reward its own obsolescence; it must also find ways to
do so and prevent complete chaos, cacophonia, and disorder.
This is the main problem of science, not instrumental
control. The main problem in science is that its exponential growth
has made it increasingly impossible to come up with a coherent
account of its current state, let alone predict its future states.
This is aggravated by the fact that any scientific accounts
of science are part of science as well, and so increase the complexity
of that which they try to explain. The paradox is that a small
segment of science, the sociology of science, tries to explain
science, including itself, and in so doing adds even more
to its explanatory burden. All accounts and explanations must
be simplifications, but the sociology of science carries an especially
heavy load. Even scientists probably know less than a fraction
of one percent of all that could be known about all of science
at any given moment in time. We are all amateurs now, especially
the experts, who are non-experts about most other things outside
of their expertise. Congress knows next to nothing about science,
and depends on scientists pushing their respective sciences. Short
of undermining the very conditions of its existence, it is as
impossible to "control" and "finalize" science
as it is to control the weather.