Society and Culture: Principles of Scarcity and Solidarity


Bryan S. Turner & Chris Rojek

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

    EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University


    Roy Boyne, University of Durham

    Mike Hepworth, University of Aberdeen

    Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    Roland Robertson, University of Aberdeen

    Bryan S. Turner, University of Cambridge


    The Theory, Culture & Society book series, the journals Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and related conference, seminar and postgraduate programmes operate from the TCS Centre at Nottingham Trent University. For further details of the TCS Centre's activities please contact:

    Centre Administrator

    The TCS Centre, Room 175

    Faculty of Humanities

    Nottingham Trent University

    Clifton Lane, Nottingham, NG11 8NS, UK



    Recent volumes include:

    Development Theory


    Jan Nederveen Pieterse


    Modernity and Subjectivity

    Couze Venn

    Simulation and Social Theory

    Sean Cubitt

    The Contradictions of Culture

    Cities: Culture: Women

    Elizabeth Wilson

    The Tarantian Ethics

    Fred Botting and Scott Wilson


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    The idea for this study emerged over the last fifteen years, following the publication of an earlier study The Body and Society. More recently, the basic framework of the dynamic of solidarity and scarcity grew out of a series of lectures that were given at York University, Toronto, Canada. We want to acknowledge an intellectual debt to John O'Neill and Egin Isin at York University.

    The critique of decorative sociology emerged during the development of this volume and a version of the argument was published by Sociological Review (2000). Chapter 1 on the discipline of sociology was initially given as a lecture at the University of Liverpool and we are grateful to Gerard Delanty for his critical comments on the original formulation. Chapter 2 on the organic analogy was originally given at the University of Aberdeen to celebrate five hundred years of its history. Mike Hepworth helped to organize the seminar and assisted the development of the argument. The chapter on rights evolved out of a comparison of Heidegger, Lyotard and Rorty from The Politics of Jean-François Lyotard.Chapter 8 on intimacy emerged from research conducted with Anne Riggs, Deakin University Australia in the middle of the 1990s. Aspects of the argument about ageing and intimacy have been published previously. The argument about cosmopolitan virtue was developed at a 1998 conference organized by Engin Isin at York University on the city and citizenship. The chapters on ‘Disorder’, ‘Choice’ and ‘Solutions’ benefited from the TCS seminar programme at Nottingham Trent University. We wish to acknowledge the contributions of Roger Bromley, Stephen Chan, Mike Featherstone, Sandra Harris, Joost Van Loon and John Tomlinson. In particular, Roger Bromley's work on the politics of ‘new belonging’ and John Tomlinson's study of ‘globalization and culture’ were helpful. We also wish to acknowledge the seminar programme held at Charles University, Prague in April 2000, which helped to clarify many aspects of the argument on ‘Solutions’. The conclusion of our account depends on a view of the role of religion and citizenship in modernity. Aspects of these arguments will appear as ‘The Erosion of Citizenship’ in the British Journal of Sociology and as ‘Cosmopolitan Virtue: Religion in a Global Age’ in the European Journal of Social Theory. A version of Chapter 5 appeared as ‘Scarcity of means and solidarity of values’ in “Osterreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie” 2000, volume 6, pp. 239–56. A version of Chapter 8 appeared in A.K. Carlstrom, L. Gerholm and I. Ramberg (eds) (2000) Embodying Culture Tumba, Sweden: The Multicultural Centre pp. 15–45.

    Bryan S.Turner, University of Cambridge
    ChrisRojek, Nottingham Trent University


    Our study is an attempt to rebuild contemporary sociology around the classical theme of social action, but action understood from the perspective of embodiment. Our aim is to rejuvenate the sociological imagination from a theoretical standpoint that takes the human body seriously, and that draws out the connections between environmental politics and the vulnerability of human embodiment. This account of sociology in terms of the vulnerability of the social actor provides a sociological perspective on ‘the human condition’. In order to restore what we take to be the central issues of sociological theory, it is necessary to adopt a critical attitude towards many contemporary trends in sociology. Although we believe that sociology has to include the study of the cultural dimensions of social life, as a discipline sociology has, through the so-called cultural turn, been devolved and dissolved into a series of related fields – cultural studies, women's studies, urban studies and media studies. We intend to show that the pedagogic merits of multidisciplinarity very neatly satisfy the managerial needs of the commercially driven higher education system rather than a deeper commitment to scholarship. Our critical stance is directed against a contemporary tendency that we call ‘decorative sociology’, namely a sociology that is obsessed with the immediacy of commercial and popular cultures, has no sense of historical depth, does not engage in comparative research, and has little political relevance.

    Our argument is that social analysis from the standpoint of human embodiment provides a foundation from which sociology can regain its original concerns with economics, politics and ethics. We need a sociological viewpoint that can facilitate understanding of large-scale historical processes that have shaped modern societies – war, industrialization, reproduction, the nation state, technology and secularization.

    Sociology has at its best sought to comprehend social change and provide solutions to its negative consequences. Decorative sociology has detached sociological theory from both ethics and politics, and thus our agenda is to provide a general sociology of modern societies that is driven simultaneously by a respect for classical sociology and an intellectual concern that it must forever address contemporary issues with critical responsiveness and openness to new ideas. This study provides both an overview of the key issues of classical sociology and a catholic engagement with contemporary developments (such as postmodernism, reflexive sociology, risk society and globalization theory). We engage with Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Simmel, but also evaluate the contributions of Bourdieu, Elias, Giddens and Castells. Although this list is obviously a list of men, our interest in embodiment has drawn upon feminist analysis of the ethnics of embodiment, care and voice. We draw much of our inspiration from Mary Douglas, Juliet Mitchel, Rosi Braidotti, Carol Gilligan, Luce Irigaray and various feminist philosophies of the body. Our approach to embodiment does however diverge importantly from much feminist epistemology of deconstruction. Whereas feminist theory has been concerned to problematize the body by an examination of its representational politics, we are more concerned with the phenomenology of embodiment that has its roots in Feuerbach, Marx, Heidegger and Lukács, namely with an approach that attempts to grasp the alienation of human embodiment in social institutions – the family, religion, law, labour and war – and the possibilities for freedom and justice.

    Our account opens with classical social science. We start with the view, central to Max Weber's sociology, that the social sciences are primarily sciences of social action and interaction. Action and interaction are the basic stuff of the discipline of sociology, that is the endless actions of human beings in satisfying their needs, creating social relations and institutions, building meaningful systems of culture and interpretation, and establishing communal life forms. This stuff of social interaction, exchange and reciprocity we call ‘social life’. In short, sociology is a science that begins with the social relationships of everyday life and the conditions that shape it.

    The origins of nineteenth-century sociology can be found in a continuous criticism of the individualistic and rationalist assumptions of economics. Our contention is that Talcott Parsons's The Structure of Social Action (1937) closed the classical period of sociology and opened the contemporary debate about action and structure, sentiments and actions, values and meaning. Parsonian sociology was a critique of marginalist economics, because it argued that rational actors in pursuit of their ends would, in a context of scarcity, employ fraud and force to satisfy their needs, other things being equal. Such a theory of rational action cannot produce a convincing theory of society, because it cannot explain social order. How do co-operation and solidarity exist if economic rationalism is the only or principal guide to action? Conventional economics artificially solved the problem by inventing explanations that could be derived from their basic rationalist assumptions – such as the hidden hand of history or sentiment. Parsons solved the problem of order by arguing that human beings can engage in economic activity without destroying society, if they share common values and norms. The solution of economic and social order was to be found in culture and institutions, not in the psychology of Economic Man. Social actors are socialized into a common system of values when their social actions are psychologically rewarded. Our study of society and culture can be understood as an attempt to understand the structure of social action from the perspective of a post-Cartesian view of human embodiment and action.

    Parsons developed an interdisciplinary model of the social sciences within which economics is a science of scarcity. It is essentially a study of the rational application of effort to the satisfaction of wants in an environment of competitive scarcity. Sociology by contrast involves the analysis of the conditions of social solidarity through shared rituals, common values and consensual norms. For sociology, religion (especially religious rituals and ceremonies) has been the fundamental social cement of social existence. Psychology is the study of the motives and drives that underpin commitment to society and motivation to act. Finally, politics is a discipline that studies the coercive element in the allocation of goals. In the work of the mature Parsons, society is a complex dynamic between two requirements: allocation of scarce resources (politics and economics) and the integration of society (sociology and psychology). The social science disciplines exist in an intellectual division of labour within which they consider different elements of social action. In this sense, Parsons's interest in social systems was always an interest in action-systems.

    Our study takes the dynamic contradictions between solidarity and scarcity as the driving force of social organization. Human beings are exposed to problems of scarcity (of resources), but the social roots of scarcity are more profound. Critical theorists, like Herbert Marcuse, provided a powerful analysis of how capitalism creates artificial wants and stimulates needs through advertising and other means of sales promotion. Although economics has traditionally assumed that scarcity is a function of natural shortages, the sociological tradition claims that scarcity is a function of social closure whereby powerful social groups attempt to establish monopolies. We treat social stratification, primarily social class, as the essential element of scarcity. In this sense, we live in a state of social competition that was first fully stated by Thomas Hobbes, according to whom rational men in conflict over scarce resources form a social contract in order to avoid the violence of the state of nature. We use the word ‘men’ here deliberately since classical politics and economics largely assumed that the public domain of exchange and power was occupied by men. In the psychoanalytic version of Hobbes, men fight over women as a scarce resource in the competence struggle to reproduce and ensure their continuity.

    Sociologists, generally speaking, have been critical of social contract theory. Parsons, drawing upon Durkheim, argued that social contracts would not be binding without the prior existence of shared values and beliefs, and therefore the social contract that creates the state to enforce civilized society has in fact to presuppose the existence of society. Social contract theory was thus circular. Parsons laid the foundations of contemporary sociology by demonstrating the failures of utilitarian economic theory and Hobbesian theories of the state. Parsons's sociology has rightly been subject to persistent criticism, much of which was driven by the view made popular by C. Wright Mills that Parsons's sociology was abstract and conservative. By contrast, we see the weakness of Parsons's sociology to lie in his treatment of action theory. Parsons's social actor is capable of affective responses to social situations. For example, Parsons distinguished between the cognitive orientation to the social situation in terms of the actor's definition of interests and the cathetic orientation that involved the gratification of the actor. Nevertheless, Parsons's social actor remained strangely disembodied. In fact Parsons regarded the human body, at least in his early work, as part of the conditions of social action. Our principal criticism of the classical tradition of sociology is its failure to come to terms with embodiment of social actors, and it is this criticism that opens the way into our study of sociological understanding of the main dynamics of modern social life. We draw heavily on Martin Heidegger's far more robust and vibrant account of social existence and embodiment through his critique of metaphysics.

    Much of this study involves an attempt to define embodiment. We prefer the notion of ‘embodiment’ to ‘body’, because we want to suggest that the corporeal existence of social actors is a process that changes throughout the life cycle rather than a static phenomenon, and secondly we want to recognize that embodiment takes place within the social world rather than in ‘nature’. We derive this notion of embodiment from many classical sources in philosophy and social theory – Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. Our use of the term is not primarily rooted in biology. In fact it is closely related to Marx's analysis of labour and alienation in the Paris Manuscripts. Human beings in order to exist must labour on their environment in the collective satisfaction of their wants. They are sensuous and practical agents who, in satisfying their needs, constantly transform their environment and transform themselves. Marx rejected mechanistic versions of materialism in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847). Marx claimed that history was nothing other than the continuous and constant transformation of human nature.

    By claiming that human beings are embodied, we, like Marx, do not want to embrace a reductionist form of materialism in which the biological characteristics of human beings determine their history. We are quite hostile to the claims of contemporary versions of Darwinism and evolutionary psychology. The principal feature of any social action theory is the premise that social relationships require individuals who make choices between alternative courses of action and are therefore reflexive about their social being. In Weber's sociology, intentionality and self-reflexivity distinguish action from mere behaviour. Social actors have agency and in order to exert that agency they require identity and memory. Consciousness of past actions is a precondition of memory without which purposeful and coherent activity would be impossible. We have to be self-reflexively aware of ourselves as individuated social actors in order to engage meaningfully with others as other individuated social beings. Successful embodiment also goes along with what we will call the process of enselfment, that is the process by which human beings become self-reflexive, purposeful and individuated social agents. Socialization into selfhood (or enselfment) is continuous and contingent. The capacity for memory is eroded with the process of ageing, and memories have to be constantly reconstructed to match the vicissitudes of one's passage through time. We do not posit a fixed or coherent self. Enselfment is a precarious process, but against postmodern notions of flexible selfhood, we argue that some consistency across the life course is a condition of effective or successful social action. The idea of a reversible self is simply incompatible with social life.

    Our view of embodiment has been influenced by Heidegger's Being and Time (1962). From Heidegger, we have developed a sociological awareness of the embodiment of social actors in the everyday world. Heidegger employed the term Dasein (literally There-Being) to describe existence. From this term, we have developed the obvious point that embodiment has always to be embodiment in time but also in a specific place. Sociologists have been somewhat neglectful of the specificity of place in their analysis of social action. Perhaps only Erving Goffman had a clear sense of the setting of social action in his notions of fronts, stages and behind the scene activities. For example, the management of the back stage is crucial for Goffman's discussion of the presentation of self (Goffman, 1959). We call this aspect of social relations ‘the emplacement of action’ to indicate the placing of acts in a physical and social context. Emplacement is an important corrective to contemporary Utopian writing about the social consequences of the internet as a means of social intercourse. The body is always present in virtual reality, and embodiment limits the scope of virtual communities. Building a home and creating a garden remain, in an age of breathtaking technology, fundamental activities of everyday life.

    A core notion behind our attempt to rebuild sociological theory around embodiment is vulnerability. Human beings are vulnerable because they are exposed to disease, sickness and the ageing process. This frailty is central to our humanity and a bond that unites human beings, regardless of social differences in status and wealth. While much has been made of the cultural relativism of the emotions in modern social theory, this neglects the moral solidarity that is possible because there is a bond of frailty. The Merchant of Venice has it perfectly – if you prick us do we not bleed? if you tickle us do we not laugh? Although we are persuaded by the force of the argument for human rights from an assumption about the commonality of our frailty, in this study we prefer the term ‘vulnerability’, which suggests our openness to the world and our capacity to respond to that openness in ways that are creative and transformative. World-openness is an idea developed by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann to register the fact that human beings must work together to fashion a cultural world to manage their vulnerability. Because human beings are not determined in some mechanical fashion by their instincts, they stand in a flexible relationship to their biology and immediate environment. This world-openness is, however, biologically and psychologically intolerable, and thus human beings construct stable structures through their own collective activity. The creation of social institutions is the core of this world-constructing activity (Berger, 1980: ix).

    Shortly before completing this study, we were fortunate to read Alasdair MacIntyre's Dependent Rational Animals (1999). In this new work, MacIntyre criticizes Western philosophy for its neglect of two central facts about human beings – their vulnerability and their afflictions. He goes on to argue that vulnerability explains our dependence on others for protection and sustenance. Vulnerability is derived intellectually from the legacy of Aristotle's view of animality. Although MacIntyre's view of vulnerability is compatible with the approach taken in this sociological study, we note certain important points of departure between the two arguments. Our own approach, as we have suggested, is part of a legacy of sociological analysis that includes Karl Marx, Karl Löwith, Arnold Gehlen, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann rather than Aristotle and Aquinas. While Maclntyre (1999: 6) quotes Merleau-Ponty with some approval to suggest that ‘I am my body’, our approach is concerned to explore ‘embodiment’ as a process rather than ‘body’ as a phenomenon. Our view of the vulnerability of our embodiment is connected with a notion of the precarious nature of institutions and the interconnected nature of the social world. We wish to develop a general sociology of everyday life based on embodiment, institutions and social networks that in turn lays the foundation for the justification of human rights. We locate this discussion of vulnerability and rights within a global social system, where the hybridity and fragmentation of culture brings us to a discussion of cosmopolitan virtue. While Maclntyre also employs ‘vulnerability’ to sustain an analysis of virtues, his approach is derived from the Aristotelian tradition.

    The concept of ‘vulnerability’ derives from the Latin vulnus or ‘wound’. It is instructive from our point of view that ‘vulnerability’ should have such an obviously corporeal origin. In the seventeenth century, vulnerability had both a passive and an active significance: to be wounded and to wound. To ‘vulnerate’ is to wound, but in its modern usage it is solely the human capacity to be open to wounding. Again in its modern form, vulnerability has become, in one sense, more abstract: it is the human capacity to be exposed to psychological or moral damage. Our openness to wounding is part of what Peter Berger has called our ‘world-openness’, namely that we do not live in a biologically determined or species-specific environment. To be vulnerable is to possess a structure of sentiments and emotions that enable us to steer a passage through the social order. Our vulnerability is also part of our capacity to draw sensual pleasures from our openness to experiences. In our view, therefore, Marx rather than Aristotle offers a more promising starting point for a study of our wounding, because he points to the sensual, practical and active components of the structure of social action. We depart from MacIntyre's position (with its exclusive emphasis on disability and affliction) in wanting to argue that vulnerability is not merely passive.

    While attempting to avoid a wholly melancholic social science (Lepenies, 1992), we recognize that the world that human beings fashion collectively to form social worlds is inherently and alarmingly precarious. The social arrangements we create are never entirely perfect or reliable. We live in a world of perpetual, ceaseless social change, with the result that our associational world is never perfectly suited to human needs and intentions. The social world is contingent and unstable, so it is unpredictable. We live in an institutional setting where management strategies constantly demand the amalgamation, restructuring and reorganization of the corporate world. The risky character of social arrangements is particularly evident under conditions of rapid modernization. There is no perfect blueprint for institution building, and we are all subject to the whimsical outcomes of action. We live in a world of unanticipated consequences. In the words of Robert Burns, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.

    The uncertainty of life is a function of the vulnerability of our embodiment and the precariousness of social institutions, but nevertheless social life persists. Human beings as individuals and social groups have a surprising capacity for recovery, survival and renewal. Any account of the divisions and conflicts that surround the scarcity of means to the achievement of ends (in economic theory) must also take note of the co-operation, reciprocity and sharing that are the building blocks of social existence. In addition to social conflict over resources, there is also a celebratory quality to social relationships which we find in ceremonials, rituals and festivals. In our secular society, we have lost touch with what we might call the elementary forms of the ecstatic life so characteristic of shamanism and early religion. Ecstasy, or the experience of being outside ourselves, is perhaps glimpsed in modern sport, and it stands as a reminder of the religious roots of the social. We call this propensity for social reciprocity and interpersonal relatedness in social life ‘interconnectedness’.

    We have a dynamic view of social relations where embodiment, enselfment and emplacement refer to the necessary preconditions of social action. They are in this sense the ‘pre-structures’ of action. The social actor in these prestructural conditions is characterized by vulnerability and frailty, and social action takes place in a context of the precariousness of social institutions. This picture of social life might suggest a pessimistic model of society, somewhat related to the dilemma of Malthus's population theory in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population (1976). In the Malthusian world, life is precarious because the sexual drive to reproduce results in over-population where it is not restrained by morality, and hence famine, disease and warfare reduce population density. Because population outstrips food supply, human beings must live in misery.

    This negative view of social conditions is, in our approach, offset by the necessary and always present interconnectedness of social actors, and by their sensuous capacities for resistance, innovation and change. This view of the social actor, as we have said, is compatible with the materialism of Marx in which human beings labour collectively to produce social life. Marx's view of praxis and human ontology emerged from his encounter with Ludwig Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity of 1841 in which Feuerbach had attacked the abstract idealism of Christian theology by celebrating the sensuous existence of humanity (Feuerbach, 1957). It was Feuerbach who on reading the medical materialism of Moleschott declared, punning on ‘to eat’ (essen) and ‘essence’ (Essenz), ‘Man is what he eats’. Although these theological debates are now primarily matters of historical interest, Feuerbach's vision of the importance of our sensual existence should not be neglected (Wartofsky, 1977). As sensuous and practical agents, we are open to the ecstatic possibilities of the shared life. The structure of social action is organized around the dynamic of scarcity and solidarity.

    While we start our account of sociology in terms of social action, we agree with Durkheim's definition of sociology in The Rules of Sociological Method as the science of institutions (Durkheim, 1958). Sociologists are interested in the shape or pattern of social actions and the conditions under which they take place. Durkheim, in De la méthode dans les sciences of 1909, declared that the three principal branches of sociology were the study of religious, legal and economic institutions (Traugott, 1978). One can see how Durkheim selected these institutions to illustrate his notion of social facts, that is institutional structures that are independent of individuals and exercise normative constraint over their actions. Our study of society is also organized around an interest in what we call ‘the institutions of normative coercion’ and we have attempted to illustrate these arrangements through reference to religion, law and medicine. These institutions exert a normative organization over action at the micro level and in this respect they are not unlike Michel Foucault's notion of governmentality – the micro regime of normative regulation and production of social life. These institutional norms are an important part of the conditions of social action.

    However, we are also aware that in contemporary society globalization and the information revolution have brought about a radical transformation of society. The nation state that was the taken for granted in the context of social theory in the nineteenth century has been challenged by globalization and information technology. While we do not think that the sovereignty of the state has been removed by the globalization of the economy, these changes do raise profound difficulties for classical sociology. Our argument is however that our social action framework does provide an effective analytical paradigm for connecting everyday life to global society, especially through the notion of embodiment. Technological and industrial change has brought about a profound degradation of the environment, destroyed many aboriginal cultures, and compromised the authority of different civilizations through processes of standardization and McDonaldization. There is therefore an immediate connection between our embodiment and the globalization of environmental risk. Our emplacement as illustrated by the management of our urban garden connects us automatically with commercial exploitation through global horticulture. The planting of buddleias connects us to the extraction of booty from the Americas and the creation of a global economy, because ‘Picturesque England’ (Pevsner, 1955) has been an important part of the system of colonial power since Quaker merchants brought plants back to England from Pennsylvania and Virginia. These circuits of power and culture in the global system create a systematic linkage between the individual and society through embodiment and intensify the dynamic between vulnerability and precariousness. An understanding of the necessary connections between environmental politics, institutional precariousness and embodied vulnerability provides an analytical platform upon which ethics and politics can be reintegrated in modern sociology.

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