We Are the Collective (or, Damn Sociology Redux), Research Time, 02/04/2015

One of the earliest concepts to have been figured out in network theory is the primary group. In his introductory book on social network theory, Charles Kadushin includes a quote from Charles Cooley, writing in 1909. I’ll include it here in full.
“By primary groups, I mean those characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation. They are primary in several senses, but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of the individual. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one's very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group. 
Perhaps the simplest way of describing this wholeness is by saying that it is a ‘we;’ it involves the sort of sympathy and mutual identification for which ‘we' is the natural expression. One lives in the feeling of the whole and finds the chief aims of his will in that feeling.”
When a contemporary person like me reads Hayek
talking about sociologists, this is the image that
comes to mind from his talk of people who
understand humanity as essentially collectives. Yes,
he's that intense about it.
It’s quite a coincidence to have come across this so soon after reading The Road to Serfdom, the foundational text of the modern liberal conservative political movement, which expressed such hostility to the discipline of sociology. The ideology implicit in sociology was so repugnant to Friedrich Hayek, such an egregious insult to human freedom, that his descendants in modern politics (to take the example of my country) consider sociology something you “commit” like a crime, and they destroy the government's ability to conduct detailed sociological studies of its population to provide the ground for policy.

Consider the notion that “one lives in the feeling of the whole,” and that this feeling arises from the everyday associations of our neighbourhood, jobs, families, friendships, and volunteer organizations. Taken at face value, it implies that, because humans are inherently social creatures, we are only complete through our membership in groups. As such, we would not be true individuals. 

Individuality is about disconnection, separating yourself from your neighbours and friends, shedding your relationships and the moral obligations that come with them. Remember Robert Nozick’s story of the community radio show: I have no obligation to produce a radio show for the other members of my community even though they’ve all produced hundreds for me, because as an individual I’m free to do as I wish.

According to a few online encyclopedia articles I found about Cooley’s life and work, this paragraph is widely quoted in sociology textbooks throughout the discipline when introducing people to concepts like social groups and social ties. As such, it’s fantastically influential. When almost all practicing sociologists think on their own cultural narrative of the discipline’s genesis and development, Cooley’s concepts are part of their core self-definition.

The problem with this interpretation, of course, is that there’s an entire book surrounding this quote, Cooley’s influential book Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind. Now, I haven’t read this book, so I don’t know what else about its analytic framework would mitigate this strong collectivist interpretation of this quote. However, I’m sure the more detailed study of Cooley’s work would find a more nuanced picture of humanity. 

There are far more interesting things to say about
images of a humanity that's stripped itself of its
individuality than Hayek's scaremongering, like
Phil Sandifer's trippy exploration of Doctor Who's
Sociology in practice doesn’t claim that the social phenomena and group identities that are the objects of the discipline say all there is to say about humanity. The problem is that because sociological analysis focusses on this, a skeptical outsider could easily claim that sociologists see humanity entirely as collectives, and not as individuals. And they can point to passages like that quote from Cooley that have become canonical in the discipline to justify their accusation.

Yet sociology itself still faces a problem in its origins. A simple point is that collectivist interpretations of human nature were actually quite widespread in the years before the Second World War. It’s entirely possible that Cooley did think in such an extreme collectivist manner, and that it was quite ordinary to do so at the time.

A more complex point is about contemporary sociological education and practice. You see, one thing I learned about sociological education from my sociologist friends and colleagues is that sociologists rarely read the founding texts of their own discipline. I come from philosophy, where many university-based researchers make whole careers out of the interpretation of texts that are centuries old. 

But sociology operates differently. There’s a march to the future in that discipline, a culture of moving to the next problem and the next theory. Even though theoretical roots are old, the classical texts are things to stand on for further theoretical work, not sources to continually plumb for further ideas. 

A concept that was never openly acknowledged at the time can still do work, sneaking into thinking. There can be philosophical unexploded bombs in the history of thought, leaving a whole discipline vulnerable to an external attack that could have been taken care of much more productively had it been an internal critique. The implications of collectivism that radical individualist philosophers and economists see in sociology may be one such conceptual bomb.

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