The New Sociological Imagination


Steve Fuller

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    Several years ago Sujatha Raman urged me to write a book explicitly dedicated to ‘social theory’, since it was clear that social theorists were no less parochial than any other speciality and were especially allergic to the sort of reflexive considerations introduced by the sociology of knowledge. Indeed, the ease with which social theory detaches its concerns from empirical sociology makes it a sitting duck for ideology critique. Little surprise, then, that social theory's rise as an autonomous field over the past quarter century has corresponded to ideology critique's terminal decline. In contrast, I have always believed that the most interesting social theory is never about theory per se but some empirical domain or pressing policy matter.

    My opportunity to write this book came at the instigation of Chris Rojek, who had liked my review of Adorno's Introduction of Sociology that appeared in the Autumn 2000 issue of The European Journal of Social Theory. The original idea was for me to write a 21st century version of C. Wright Mills' 1959 classic, The Sociological Imagination. This book shares Mills' somewhat paranoid political sensibility, his broadly positivistic methodological sympathies, his allergy to trendy academic Newspeak (with structural-functionalism here replaced by postmodernism) and his conviction that social science is vital to confronting the (now very different) future that awaits us. A sense of just how much the world has changed since Mills' day can be gleaned by glancing at the terms and definitions listed in this book's Glossary, only about half of which he would recognize.

    I have delivered parts of this book on various occasions over the past five years. However, in terms of presenting more-or-less the book's entirety, special thanks must first go to my students in two Warwick University MA courses, Philosophy and Social Theory and Sociology of Modernity, and the graduate summer school at the University of Lund, Helsingborg, both held in 2004. Thanks to Anne Kovalainen and Pekka Selkunen, who invited me to present the annual Westermarck Lecture to the Finnish Sociological Association in 2002. A debt is also owed to Davydd Greenwood and Immanuel Wallerstein, who permitted me to develop my thoughts in the context of projects sponsored by, respectively, the Ford and Gulbenkian Foundations. Some of my past and present graduate students whose work has engaged me with relevant issues that I might have otherwise neglected include Ahmed Bouzid, Nigel Christian, Jim Collier, William Gisby, Kirk Junker, Joan Leach, Bill Lynch, Hugo Mendes, James Mittra, Govindan Parayil, Peter Schwartzman, Mark B. Smith, Milena Stateva, Maiko Watanabe. Others who have offered me insight and inspiration, as well as useful criticism, include Zainal Abidin, Alf Bång, Babette Babich, Randall Collins, Gerard Delanty, David Depew, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Aditi Gowri, Paul Griffiths, Patrick Heelan, Meera Nanda, Greg Radick, Greg Ransom, Amanda Rees, Francis Remedios, Gene Rosa, Arnaud Sales, Zia Sardar, Skuli Sigurdsson, Nico Stehr, Roger Trigg, Stephen Turner, Anne Witz. Finally, this book is dedicated to my former partner, Stephanie Lawler, without whom I would have been much less human.

  • Conclusion: Is There No Escape from Human Nature?

    The past quarter century has witnessed a revival of the classical interdisciplinary and international conversation over ‘human nature’ that became dormant in the third quarter of the 20th century with the rise of the welfare state. It is now hard to believe the confidence of anthropologists like Ashley Montagu (1945) and my old teacher, Marvin Harris (1968), who however much they disagreed with each other – Montagu's genial scepticism was too rationalist and idealist for Harris's more explicitly ecological and materialist approach – were united in championing ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’. The increasing attention given to cognitive neuroscience, behavioural genetics, evolutionary psychology and, of course, sociobiology since 1975 would have struck them as a barbarous regression, one that specifically overestimated the similarities between Spencer and Darwin. They were inclined to dismiss the very idea of human nature as an illusory phenomenon in search of an impossible explanation – perhaps even an atavism of a pre-scientific world-view. A vestige of this Enlightenment sensibility remains in the pious incantation that race is a ‘myth’ or ‘superstition’ – though the old chant does not quite fit with today's increasing emphasis on ‘ethnicity’ and ‘genetic diversity’ as markers of social identity.

    More typical of our times is the following remark by the developmental psycholinguist and self-styled evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker:

    Moral and legal proscriptions are not the only way to reduce discrimination in the face of possible group differences. The more information we have about the qualifications of an individual, the less impact a race-wide or sex-wide average would have in any statistical decision concerning that person. The best cure for discrimination, then, is more accurate and more extensive testing of mental abilities, because it would provide so much predictive information about an individual that no one would be tempted to factor in race or gender. (Pinker, 2002: 147)

    Pinker quickly adds in parentheses: ‘This, however, is an idea with no political future’. Unless Pinker is a master of irony, he greatly underestimates the ease with which his observation could be adopted by policymakers. Indicative of the early 21st century Zeitgeist is that racism and sexism are seen as problematic not because they are discriminatory but because they don't discriminate well enough. One thus needs more finely grained indicators that will ultimately replace judgements of surface anatomy with readings of a mapped genome. The biologization of social policy doesn't disappear: it simply intensifies. Of course, discrimination is central to the allocation of resources associated with distributive justice. In that context, the allocations are made to compensate for deficiencies seen as the products of past injustices, so as to achieve a rough sense of the relevant sorts of ‘equality’ among individuals in society. Unfortunately, Pinker also believes that the factors configuring our brains and genes may lie outside our control, regardless of how deeply we understand them. Indeed, his willingness to sever the Enlightenment link between knowledge and power extends to claiming that we may need to admit a scientific basis for what humanists have traditionally called ‘fate’ (377–9). Whatever his intentions, Pinker's message is bound to be music to the ears of those who doubt the need for additional political reforms that might compel a greater sense of social responsibility.

    It is a conceit among today's Darwinists that people generally recoil from the idea that our capacity for change is genetically constrained. Actually, only those imbued with the spirit of social science recoil. Everyone else is relieved. Coping with the inevitable is much less troublesome than contesting the available. Pace Lepenies (1988), it is unlikely that the social sciences ever intended, let alone succeeded, to bridge the ‘two cultures problem’ between the humanities and natural sciences. More likely they created it. Certainly, the social sciences have contributed to severing the good will that had traditionally existed between the natural sciences and the humanities by exemplifying the qualities that each culture most disliked in the other, perhaps by each reminding the other of how it has failed to better the human condition. Thus, after encountering the social sciences, natural scientists became more vocal in their disdain for humanistic woolly-mindedness (a.k.a. ‘contextualism’), while humanists bemoaned the philistinism of natural scientists (a.k.a. ‘reductionism’). In both cases, the proximal targets were usually social scientists.

    If one wishes to trace the 20th century history of the entente cordiale between the humanities and the natural sciences that tactfully excludes the social sciences, one could start with the ‘Great Books’ and ‘Classics of Western Civilization’ curricula that surfaced on US campuses after the First World War. The German scientific community's explicit backing of the war plus the success of Lenin's Marx-inspired Russian Revolution conjured up the spectre of a ‘social science’ that mixed the worst elements of the humanities and the natural sciences to produce an ideologically repressive war machine. Offering immunity against this prospect was University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins, who believed all knowledge could be unified under a Neo-Aristotelian world-view enhanced by Darwin – but not Marx, Weber or Durkheim. Nowadays this tradition (minus Aristotle) is continued on the website,, maintained by literary agent to the scientific stars, John Brockman, under the rubric ‘third culture’. In this context, social scientists are portrayed as too parochial, ideological, incompetent or incomprehensible to enter into such civilized conversation – though occasionally we manage to come up with some interesting data that demand a ‘deeper’ explanation than we can muster.

    Unsurprisingly, then, the purveyors of the new sciences of human nature, as synthesized in, say, Wilson (1998) and Pinker (2002), notwithstanding their intriguing research findings, display an almost studied ignorance of the social sciences. Moreover, when they try to come to terms with social science's explanatory (as opposed to descriptive) side, they quickly revert to philosophical views – such as Hobbes' or Rousseau's – that predate the actual emergence of social science and consequently are not centred in the social institutions and organizations that characterize the modern world. Rather, these seminal but empirically outdated philosophical positions are generalized as a ‘blank slate’ approach to the human condition, which is then made the basis of the so-called Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) that would explain the full range of human behaviour in terms of corresponding differences in learning and context. It is remarkable that book reviewers and cultural commentators have not made more of this simple but devastating observation. Still more remarkable is how rarely we social scientists have done so. Such silence allows us to be defined by our opponents, as if we tacitly conceded their criticism, thereby positioning ourselves as theologians did to the onslaught of Darwin's defenders over a century earlier.

    Ultimately social scientists are excluded from the great conversation over human nature because they take the subject too seriously. The intriguing hypotheses advanced by Brockman's ‘third culture’ are little more than pleasant parlour games – and the stuff of bestsellers – until they are tried out on flesh-and-blood people, as opposed to the bits of us that most resemble the bits of other animals. This means taking problems of method more seriously than, say, Wilson or Pinker is inclined to do. Shall we conduct experiments or ethnographies? Will this research be funded by business or government? Whose consent shall we need to secure and under what terms? Whom shall we believe when testimony conflicts with theory and observation? To whom will our research be made available and are we liable for any adverse applications? These questions form the matrix in which the social sciences have developed over the last two centuries. Moreover the field's track record is much better than our detractors claim, especially when seen over the long haul and extended to include the social formations that social science has helped to create and maintain, as well as describe and explain. (Perhaps we need to update Deutsch et al., 1986?) To be sure, bitter experience has shown that social scientists have often got it wrong. However, this is something to learn from, not to avoid by retreating to thought experiments about humanity in ‘the state of nature’ or treating the human genome like an astrologer's star chart. Without a strong social scientific presence in the human nature debates, these pre-modern modes of thought may well be reinvented as our own.

    Human nature seems to burn anyone who dares come near it. This book has been largely concerned with social scientists, whose raison d'être has been to marginalize, if not outright eliminate, human nature in the name of research programmes and policy horizons aimed at extricating us from our animal roots if not quite turning us into gods. In return, human nature has wreaked its revenge, or at least is credited with having thwarted our ambitions by posing various biologically based barriers. Today these barriers appear quite formidable because greater scientific understanding of our biological makeup has coincided with the increased devolution of societal decision-making. Now suppose we were to conclude that social science is incapable of meeting these challenges. It still would not follow that human nature can be absorbed into sociobiology or evolutionary psychology. For the more human nature is blended into the sort of ecumenical natural science promoted by Brockman's ‘third culture’, the harder it becomes to distinguish the specifically human from the generically natural. This is because human nature is itself a conceptual throwback from a pre-Darwinian past, when organic species were held to possess essential qualities. Human nature really does not belong in a properly Darwinized world.

    The debate between ‘nurture’ and ‘nature’ historically turned on how an individual acquires the properties that make them who they are: in philosophical terms, a priori or a posteriori; in sociological terms, inheritance or achievement. However, according to the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, species are not essences. You are a human simply by virtue of your capacity to enter a relationship that produces more humans – that is, you can perform what biologists define as ‘being human’. To be sure, this capacity is causally underwritten by a possible range of amino acids strung along your genome, but there is no consensus over where to draw the line between a ‘human’ and a ‘non-human’ genomic string. Moreover, allowances are made for the obvious cases when individuals function as humans in every sense except that they cannot procreate. Ultimately, then, your humanity rests on an evolutionary biologist's ability to find a place for you somewhere in the genealogical narrative entitled ‘Homo sapiens’. In this important sense, human nature in modern evolutionary biology is an indeterminate concept subject to ongoing social construction by the self-appointed experts. (I say ‘self-appointed’ only because it is unclear when biologists were formally delegated with the task of defining the human.) This is a point that deserves greater publicity and reflection in secular scientific culture. So far only monotheistic religious leaders and theologians have fully appreciated its import.

    Steven Pinker, nowadays the public face of evolutionary psychology, provides a vivid, albeit unwitting, demonstration of the point. Pinker (2002) contains an Appendix that lists over 400 ‘human universals’, that is, behavioural tendencies and mental and physical capacities that have been observed in all human cultures studied. The list is presented as the best scientific guess at the constitution of human nature. Let us grant Pinker at the outset that his list puts paid to relativists who hold that people vary radically across cultures. This still leaves a problem. The list contains very many properties that humans share with many other animals: ‘age statuses’, ‘classification of colours’, ‘memory’, ‘pain’, ‘rhythm’, ‘sex statuses’, etc. Perhaps Pinker would respond that only humans possess all 400+ properties. A glance at the list suggests this might be true today. The first two items certainly look very ‘human’: ‘abstraction in speech and thought’, ‘actions under self-control distinguished from actions not under control’. However, Pinker can hardly take comfort from such cases, since much of the excitement surrounding evolutionary psychology concerns precisely the prospect of discovering animal, especially primate, versions – and perhaps even roots – of traits traditionally seen as exclusively human. To a devotee of the programme, those exceptional items on Pinker's list are simply clever experiments waiting to be conducted that will reveal hidden analogues, if not common causal mechanisms, between ourselves and the rest of nature. Moreover, the devotees have reason for their enthusiasm, given the history of animal behaviour studies since Darwin's day. Indeed, the increasing respectability accorded to Peter Singer's call to expand the circle of moral concern across species is one by-product of our ability now to see qualities in animals that in the past we could only perceive in humans.

    Put harshly but not inaccurately, the new sciences of human nature are dedicated to reabsorbing the human into the natural. They are ‘natural sciences’ in the strictest sense, whose corresponding world-view is more ‘karmic’ than ‘anthropic’, in the terms introduced in Part Three of this book. But will these new sciences succeed? Taking the long view once again helps. The recent breakthroughs and speculations surrounding the sciences of human nature concern virtually every part of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis. Not only has the evidential base of natural history improved, but also the human genome has now been mapped. Assuming the persistence of neo-liberalism, whereby no state agency is sufficiently powerful to control the flow and use of this knowledge, the relevant historical comparator becomes the Protestant Reformation, in which the Renaissance's recovery of the original classical – including Biblical – languages, was complemented by the translation and mass dissemination of the classics in the ‘vulgar’ modern European languages, as symbolized by the printing press. In that case, Craig Venter may turn out to be our Johannes Gutenberg.

    The ‘Book of Nature’ that Galileo aspired to map in mathematical terms is now the ‘Book of Life’ mapped as biochemical sequences of amino acids (Kay, 2000). Given this analogy, we should understand today's leading popularizers of the biologistic world-view – including Wilson, Dawkins, and Pinker – as latter-day descendants of Desiderius Eramsus who have mastered the ancient languages but continue to believe that the spread of Christianity in the vulgar tongues will not dislocate people's fundamental belief in the unity of humanity under a common God ministered, in this case, by state-sponsored Neo-Darwinism rather than the Roman Catholic Church. However, if nothing else, history has taught that greater access to a code eventuates in a wider range of messages. Thus, widespread access to the map of the human genome in a time of weak states – let alone states incapable of enforcing international law – is likely to lead to consequences unintended and perhaps even unwanted by those present at the original mapping. Consider the proliferation of Protestant denominations in the wake of the Reformation, which emerged from the interpretive ambiguities revealed in the Bible's original languages. These are like today's proposals to distinguish human and non-human on bases other than the default patterns of biological reproduction. The relevant analogue is that arguments about, say, how we incorporate the disabled, the animal or the android into ‘society’ will be conducted along lines similar to debates about divine properties or the requisites for salvation in the 16th and 17th centuries. Corresponding to the internecine textual debates that in the past had resulted in civil war will be (hopefully) public discussion and, when necessary, civil disobedience that eventuates in electoral resolution that stops short of civil war.

    My general point here is twofold. The first is a recognition that we have always wanted to be human. The second is that barring the establishment of some global regulatory regime, we may come to treat ‘human’ as we currently treat ‘Christian’, that is, a universal project with which those potentially implicated may not wish to be associated. It may be, as I believe, that to be human is to be difficult. Since animals by definition adapt to circumstances, humans have always been reluctant to identify themselves with their biology. The history of Western philosophy and theology bears witness to this fact. All of the objects nominated as essential to our realization as human beings – reason, truth, justice, goodness, beauty – have been traditionally defined without reference to what cognitive neuroscientists nowadays call a ‘wetware constraint’. From Plato through the medievals to Descartes and the Enlightenment, there has been considerable speculation and complaint about the restrictions our animal nature places on our capacity to achieve humanly desirable ends. The more Gnostic of these thinkers concocted strategies to enable humans to liberate their divine spirit from their material containers. Secular versions of these strategies are emblematic of the modern era. Two exemplary projects stand out: the construction of rational machines that avoid the friction of the passions and the design of revolutionary politics that escape the fetters of tradition.

    My point here is less to valorize these projects than to present the problem their existence poses to the new sciences of human nature. Just because humanity was discovered by a creature with a certain physical constitution, why should we suppose that this constitution is required for humanity to be fully realized? Suddenly those preoccupied with the biological basis of humanity look rather like purists in political theory who believe that democracy is possible only in societies having the physical parameters of classical Athens. Both appear to rely on a superstitious understanding of history: that is, things are essentially as they began – the arché of archaeology.

    But how does this point bear specifically on the future of social science? An interesting feature of the trajectory of human progress is that it corresponds not merely to increased production but more importantly to productivity. Progress has not simply been a matter of enabling more people to enjoy benefits previously limited to the wealthy. Rather, it has entailed periodic changes in the sources of power and value, as new things – typically of less material substance – come to set the standard of a high quality human existence. Much of the sociological literature on ‘symbolism’ should be understood in this light. This point may be interpreted as an indefinite extension of the value of efficiency. Yet, the spiritual character of efficiency is rarely noted. The desire to get ‘something for nothing’, the ultimate expression of efficiency, secularizes creation ex nihilo in Western monotheism (cf. Gouldner, 1973: 269–99). Depending on whether humans are regarded as pale imitations of the Creator or the actual achievers of Creation, this viewpoint has appeared as blasphemous or revelatory.

    The history of chemistry as an autonomous discipline – that is, not as something that exists before or after physics – provides the most reliable narrative thread for this tradition. It includes medieval alchemists like Roger Bacon, Enlightenment natural philosophers like Joseph Priestley, as well as ergonomists like Andrew Ure and Wilhelm Ostwald (Rabinbach, 1990). All preached a gospel of asceticism that went beyond the alleviation of suffering in the short term (as in the Eastern religions) to the promotion of welfare in the long term. Sociologically speaking, efficiency emerges as a dynamic principle under conditions of ‘scarcity’ in its most abstract sense – when more people are formally entitled to the valued goods than are materially available. In that case, society seeks substitutes, which at first may consist of cheaper synthetic versions but over time raise questions about the exact nature of the value served by the good – and whether some entirely different, less material good might not suffice instead. The replacement of the struggle for survival with the struggle for recognition, raised in Chapter 9, is the philosophical expression of this development.

    Economic revolutions are not alone in being driven by entrepreneurs with a visionary sense of efficiency. The same tendency is more generally implicated in the social and political spheres. Today the possession of money and literacy enables forms of power that 200 years ago could only be secured by property ownership and religious sanction. Carrying this line of thought to its logical conclusion, the German sociologist Nico Stehr (2001) has recently suggested that the world's increasingly paperless knowledge-based economy permits an optimistic forecast that we may still square the circle of an ecologically sustainable yet increasingly wealthy world. Knowledge that required leisured wealth two centuries ago and a university degree a century ago is now readily available with the click of a mouse on the internet: Fewer resources are required to get comparable results – or so it seems. Arguably this view underestimates the vast, perhaps even increasing, numbers of humans still living in conditions of bare subsistence and the historical trend for new forms of technology – now computer-based – to reconstitute, if not exactly reproduce, class distinctions. Nevertheless, Stehr's reasoning points to the larger truth that standards of humanity have tended to shift to enable more members of Homo sapiens to meet them. However, the fugitive, perhaps de-materializing, and in any case increasingly efficient nature of these democratic standards calls into question the exact locus of our humanity (Fuller, 2002a: Chapter 3). It is epitomized in a question that is bound to loom large as the century wears on: What is distinctly human that must be retained across episodes of social reproduction? This should be the fundamental question of social science in the new century.

    Certainly the material baseline of humanity, an inalienable right to bodily integrity, has received a one-two punch from biotechnology. In this book I have concentrated on the first punch served by Singer's Darwinian Left, which observes that the 90+% genetic overlap between humans and most animals shifts the burden to those who would pursue a project of humanity distinct from that of animal welfare more generally. However, the second punch is rather alien to Singer's world-view but bears on Stehr's more Gnostic vision of a de-materialized knowledge economy. It is the cyborg vision that regards carbon-based organs and organisms as potentially replaced by or combined with silicon-based ones – without loss of value. It covers the gamut from prosthetic extensions of human life, including the implantation of computer chips and the nanotechnology of ‘smart molecules’, to full-fledged computerized automata with human-like interfaces, or ‘androids’. The cyborg enthusiast thus asks, ‘Why privilege pure carbon-based creatures, as Singer still does, rather than a cyborg hybrid whose internal and external operation performs most of the same functions that have traditionally qualified entities for moral concern and political rights?’ To be sure, the reproduction of human wetware in all its exactitude may provide an aesthetic or engineering challenge, but if semi-siliconized cyborgs excel at qualities – such as scientific or artistic achievement – that have been traditionally considered definitive of humanity, why can't they be simply identified as members of the human community? (Indeed, why can't they be considered superior to ‘disabled’ humans?)

    Once so informed by a cyborg sensibility, the new developments in biotechnology and nanotechnology may unwittingly tip the balance in favour of social constructivism over evolutionary psychology as a framework for explaining the human condition. This prospect has been long recognized within science and technology studies (Haraway, 1990), and android ethics has already received some serious philosophical attention (Ford et al., 1995). It reflects the founding moment in the history of artificial intelligence research, the development of the so-called Turing Test, which marked the realization that the capacity for thought is no more than the ability (of a man, woman or machine) to pass as a thinker – an insight that should bring a smile to ethnomethodological lips (cf. Fuller and Collier, 2004: Chapter 5). However, because so much of the cyborg discussion draws inspiration from science fiction writers like Karel Capek, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson, there has been an unfortunate tendency to invoke the rhetoric of ‘posthumanity’ to describe this development, which leaves the misleading impression that it constitutes a break with historic pro-human sensibilities (cf. Hayles, 1999). This overlooks the original inspiration that the sociological imagination received from what Hobbes called the ‘artificial person’ – the legal category of universitas or corporation – an entity brought into being to pursue ends of a distinctly ‘human’ character that transcend the personal interests of the particular individuals who happen to constitute it at any given moment. The universitas is the social entity that makes the sharpest break with humanity's biological origins, while retaining the capacity to meet the cyborgian challenge that we ‘incorporate’ in new ways. It has the potential to reinvent humanity for a social science worthy of the 21st century.


    • Anthropic world-view: The world-view common to the great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and secular humanism, all of which identify humans as the ‘measure of all things’. Generally speaking, monotheism has been more egalitarian than humanism, as the former values individual humans intrinsically by virtue of their common divine ancestry, whereas the latter has often distinguished between ‘the best’ and ‘the rest’, as if only some humans ever fully realize their humanity. For contrast, see karmic world-view.
    • Beveridge, William (1879–1963): Political economist and director of the LSE who, as a member of Winston Churchill's wartime cabinet, designed Britain's welfare state as an instance of applied ‘social biology’.
    • Bioliberalism: The emerging dominant ideology of our time, characterized by a politically devolved eugenics sensibility, in which decisions concerning the design, commercialization and termination of life are taken with minimal state intervention. Bioliberalism indirectly promotes the karmic world-view by easing the passage of humans in and out of existence, that is, the casualization of the human condition. It may be seen as the natural outcome of neo-liberalism when the biomedical industries are the ascendent mode of production.
    • Biology: The science of life, first named by Lamarck in 1810, having been central to Aristotle's science but marginal to Newton's. It regained respectability in the modern era from two countervailing strands of secularism that recognized (1) the finality of death – the discovery of the fossil record, which implied a natural history of extinct organisms; (2) the extension of survival – the advancement of medicine beyond the prevention of harm and suffering to the enhancement of human life.
    • Bioprospecting: The physical extraction, chemical synthesis and commercialization of the genetic material of plants and animals, including humans. Bioprospecting is increasingly central to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, where it has spearheaded the literal conversion of life into intellectual property, effectively rendering racism profitable in the global marketplace. See genetic diversity.
    • British sociological tradition: The national tradition in which the relationship between sociology and socialism was most tightly forged. Its most significant achievement was the welfare state, the intellectual legacy of which remains in departments of ‘Sociology and Social Policy’. The tradition's signature figures, Hobhouse and Beveridge, provided idealist and positivist reconstructions of the concept of social progress in response to Darwinian evolutionary theory.
    • Comte, Auguste (1798–1857): The founder of both positivism and sociology, which he regarded as aspects of a common social movement designed to modernize society by replacing theology with science as the cornerstone of education. Sociology was meant to be the ultimate positive science, comprehending all previous sciences and showing the way to a progressive future.
    • Condorcet, Marquis de (1743–94): Quintessential Enlightenment source of modern social science who believed that growing human societies and redistributing the surplus of their collective production would eliminate poverty. He was also the seminal theorist of voting as a method for democratic decision-making.
    • Corporate environmentalism: A business strategy that aims at maximizing profits with minimum damage to the natural environment typically by continuing to exploit human labour. It provides a vivid example of the tradeoff between ‘Red’ and ‘Green’ political values.
    • Counterfactual historiography: A kind of writing made possible once the contingency of history is taken seriously. It requires understanding history in prospect (namely as decisions available to the agents in their day) rather than in retrospect. The trick is to locate in the actual history the moment when things could have plausibly taken a course other than they did, resulting in some specified alternate outcome, such as (discussed in the text) a Nazi victory in the Second World War.
    • Darwinian Left:Singer's attempt to have Darwin replace Marx as the scientific basis for progressive politics in the 21st century. It would extend the left's constituency to cover all of nature, while de-centring its traditionally human focus. In a world of scarce resources, it would thus increase equality across species and diminish it within species to produce an ecologically sustainable polity.
    • Durkheim, Émile (1858–1917): The person who finally institutionalized Comte's vision of sociology. Unsurprisingly it coincided with the secularization of the French educational system in the Third Republic.
    • Enlightenment: The 18th century European cultural movement most responsible for secularizing the anthropic world-view, whose main 19th century legacies included positivism and sociology. Its association of human emancipation with the spread of science came under increasing attack in the 20th century, in light of the two world wars, culminating in postmodernism.
    • Eugenics: A term coined by Darwin's nephew, Francis Galton, for the policy of selectively breeding the best traits of humanity for purposes of raising the overall level of social welfare. Originally presented as part of scientific socialism, albeit before the advent of modern genetics. Nowadays bioliberalism continues a scientifically updated and politically devolved version of the same policy. See racial hygiene.
    • Evolutionary psychology: The laboratory and field study of animals, especially primates, for clues to understanding and explaining human behavioural dispositions. Essentially an updated version of sociobiology, it has rekindled interest in human nature.
    • Foucault, Michel (1926–84): Totemic postmodern theorist whose emphasis on the transience of humanity as a scientific and political object unwittingly contributed to the decline of sociology's salience.
    • Fundamentalism: Nowadays portrayed as a politically reactionary movement, especially within Christianity and Islam, but better seen more broadly as a monotheistic backlash to secularism based on identifying the divine with the weakest of those created in the image and likeness of God, itself the theological basis for modern socialism. See Occidentalism.
    • Genetic diversity: A politically correct term, associated with geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, for the fine-grained racism that is enabled by a wide range of biotechnology-based research. Bioprospecting promotes genetic diversity by encouraging inbreeding in populations bearing rare genomic sequences.
    • Hobbes, Thomas (1588–1679): English philosopher whose classic Leviathan (1651) is the founding modern philosophical reflection on science and politics. Hobbes promoted a contractual view of society that systematically redistributes power to escape the struggle for survival. Hobbes controversially held that redistribution requires a corporate super-agent (see universitas). One of Hobbes' translators, the legal scholar Ferdinand Tönnies, established sociology in Germany.
    • Hobhouse, Leonard Trelawny (1864–1929): The LSE's first sociology professor, whose attempts to reconcile German idealism with evolutionary theory led to an emphasis on rights and citizenship that came to characterize the distinct British contribution to sociology.
    • Humanity: The ‘human’ as a collective project undertaken by Homo sapiens to transcend its animal nature (a.k.a. human nature), including one historically associated with social scientific inquiry and leftist politics since the Enlightenment. See universitas.
    • Human nature: An ancient concept that defines the ‘human’ in terms of certain genetic properties of Homo sapiens that may be promoted or inhibited by the environment. Marginalized by much of social science, the concept has enjoyed a revival under evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. See third culture.
    • Huxley, Thomas Henry (1825–95): Contrary to his popular image as ‘Darwin's bulldog’, Huxley's medical background instilled nagging doubts about the anti-humanistic implications of evolutionary theory. He formally broke with more die-hard evolutionists like Spencer in his 1893 Romanes Lecture, ‘Evolution and Ethics’.
    • Karmic world-view: The world-view common to the great Eastern pan- and poly-theistic religions and the neo-Darwinian synthesis. It stresses the massive genetic overlap in organic species deriving from a generic life force. It reduces the supposed ‘uniqueness’ of humanity to marginal inter-species differences that are not necessarily valuable in themselves. Huxley first drew attention to the scientific significance of this world-view when pondering Darwinism's implications for the ‘meaning of life’.
    • London School of Economics (or LSE): Perhaps the world's foremost higher education institution dedicated to the social sciences, founded in 1895 by the ‘Fabians’, liberal intellectuals sympathetic to both socialism and eugenics. It is the spiritual home of the British sociological tradition.
    • Malthus, Thomas (1766–1834): Classical political economist whose observations about human population cycles provided the basis for Darwin's theory of natural selection and lurks behind much of today's ecological pessimism, if not fatalism.
    • Marx, Karl (1818–83):Socialism's greatest theorist and publicist, who remains capitalism's ablest diagnostician. With socialism's decline, Marx's original intellectual struggles – especially between a humanist individualism and a materialist collectivism – have come to be reified as a theoretical debating point in sociology.
    • Mill, John Stuart (1806–73): Underrated founder of social science who first promoted Comte in Britain and reconciled utilitarianism with the anthropic world-view.
    • Neo-Darwinian synthesis: The integration of lab-based and field-based biological research ranging from molecular genetics to ecology under an updated version of Darwin's theory of evolution. The synthesis, which provides the explanatory framework for contemporary biology, dates only from the 1930s.
    • Neo-Liberalism: Liberalism seen from the historical perspective of socialism as a failed project rather than an attractive prospect. The political analogue of postmodernism, in which the Enlightenment corresponds to socialism. Margaret Thatcher and her guru Friedrich von Hayek are associated with its ascendancy. See Vienna circles.
    • Occidentalism: A pejorative for the decadent form of Western liberal ‘tolerance’ that devolves such global problems as poverty and inequality to matters of individual or sub-national discretion, such that letting people die is always better than forcing others to ensure their survival. The term acquired salience after 11 September 2001, when it became the ideological target of Islamic fundamentalism.
    • Orientalism: A pejorative for the decadence of Asia that acquired currency in the early 19th century as Europe began to overtake China, India and especially the Islamic world in global economic and cultural significance. As Edward Said observed in a 1978 book by this name, Islam in particular came to represent for Europeans all they loathed and feared in themselves, given the common ancestry of Christian and Muslim cultures.
    • Parsons, Talcott (1902–79): The world's leading sociologist in the third quarter of the 20th century whose ‘structural-functionalism’ was intended as a metatheory for all the social sciences based on a conception of society tailored to the welfare state. He was largely responsible for presenting Durkheim and Weber as participants in a common disciplinary project.
    • Positivism:Comte's name for both the scientific method and the principle of universal governance, which was to assume the institutional form of the Roman Catholic Church in realizing the Enlightenment's project of humanity. Under the influence of Mill, positivism took on a more Protestant inflection with stronger ties to liberalism. Nevertheless much of the old Comtean zeal remained in 20th century logical positivism's call for the unity of the sciences. See Vienna circles.
    • Postmodernism: A broad-gauged movement of largely French provenance predicated on the failure of the Enlightenment, which it diagnoses as either having self-destructed or simply been illusory all along. Postmodernism began to gain currency in the late 1970s with the decline of socialism. See Foucault.
    • Racial hygiene: Nowadays seen as the quintessential ‘Nazi science’, it had originated in late 19th century German medical schools, where it was treated as a rival to the emerging science of sociology. Much of German sociology's interest in Hobbes' ‘artificial’ conception of society was constructed in opposition to racial hygiene's appeal to Spencer's more ‘natural’ conception.
    • Schutz, Alfred (1899–1959): The self-styled phenomenological sociologist who provides the missing link between the Austrian school of economics and the ‘social construction of reality’, a politically correct expression for capitalism's invisible hand when invoked as a surrogate for macro-social entities. See Vienna circles.
    • Secularization: The decentralization of the production and distribution of knowledge, be it religious or scientific. The first wave of secularization followed the Protestant Reformation, when the Roman Catholic Church lost its state-backed monopoly in northern European countries. We are now witnessing the second wave, as nation-states devolve their stakes in the funding and authorization of science. Secularization typically results in a sensitization of knowledge producers to market conditions, what to an onlooker might appear to be a ‘relativization’ of knowledge interests.
    • Singer, Peter (1946-): The leading theorist of ‘animal liberation’ (the title of his first major book) and devotee of utilitarianism. The originator of the Darwinian Left, Singer is perhaps the world's leading public philosopher at the dawn of the 21st century.
    • Socialism: The political movement most explicitly associated with the project of humanity, a dialectical synthesis of early 19th century liberal and conservative responses to the emergence of industrial capitalism, as epitomized in the Marxist slogan, ‘From each according to their ability to each according to their need’. The most successful version of socialism has been the welfare state.
    • Sociobiology: The title of a controversial 1975 book by Harvard ant specialist E.O. Wilson that began the recent natural scientific backlash against sociology. Originally demonized as providing ideological cover for eugenics, it is now treated respectfully as the forerunner of evolutionary psychology.
    • Sociology:Comte's name for the empirically informed normative discipline designed to realize the project of humanity as the culminating stage in the history of science.
    • Spencer, Herbert (1820–1903): Self-styled ‘Social Darwinist’ and adopted father of racial hygiene, whose theory of evolution predated Darwin's and drew on many of the same sources, especially Malthus. Responsible for popularizing the word ‘sociology’ in Britain, which for him ranged over spontaneously self-organizing associations across all forms and levels of life.
    • Standard Social Science Model (or SSSM): A caricature of the social sciences invoked by sociobiology and evolutionary psychology in both popular and scientific settings. Social scientists are depicted as ignoring universal, especially genetic, factors in favour of explaining all human traits in terms of environmental differences. This stereotype purports to capture the fundamental error common to historicists, relativists and behaviourists. SSSM's most disturbing feature is its very status as an object of ridicule, rather than a reasonable research strategy for further elaboration and improvement.
    • Struggle for SurvivalvsRecognition: A distinction associated with Francis Fukuyama, which captures the difference in existential horizons between the concepts of human nature and humanity. In terms of philosophical lineage, the former is associated with Hobbes, the latter Hegel.
    • Sympathy: A term associated originally with Adam Smith for those whose predicament we can understand. In utilitarianism, it defines the circle of moral concern. The open question is the principle by which sympathy is established, especially whether knowing more about someone increases one's sympathy – or rather, ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. On the latter basis, some animals may appear more sympathetic than some humans.
    • Third Culture: Originally, a term for the social sciences as the dialectical synthesis of the humanities and natural sciences but now increasingly used to refer to the reconciliation of the humanities and the natural sciences – to the exclusion of the social sciences – in a common inquiry into human nature.
    • Universitas: The Latin word for ‘corporation’, a 12th century Roman legal innovation that enabled the creation of such ‘artificial persons’ as city-states, churches, guilds, monasteries and, of course, universities. All of these entities share a non-hereditary, typically elected, mode of succession that enjoys legal protection in perpetuity because they are dedicated to ends that transcend the interests of its current members. The nation-state has been the dominant universitas of the modern era. Business firms, what are today normally called ‘corporations’, are relative latecomers to this status. The distinctness of sociology lies in its focus on universitates as the unique expression of humanity. See Hobbes.
    • Utilitarianism: The signature British contribution to modern ethics, epitomized in Jeremy Bentham's slogan ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’. It also captures the principle of distributive justice that underlies the welfare state. The open question is the range of beings whose ‘greatest good’ is of concern – all living humans, all able-bodied humans, all sentient creatures and/or future generations? Mill and Singer represent contrasting answers.
    • Vienna circles: In the decade before Hitler's rise to power, two intellectual circles flourished in Vienna, the disapora from which seeded the golden years of social science methodology. The more famous logical positivist circle – including Wittgenstein, Carnap and Popper – had a generally socialist, macro-social, quantitative orientation. The less famous circle of ‘Austrian economists’ – including Mises, Hayek and Schutz – tended to be liberal, micro-social, and qualitative. Both claimed the legacy of the Enlightenment, the former more French the latter more Scottish.
    • Weber, Max (1864–1920): German social scientist grounded in law and political economy who gradually saw himself as a ‘sociologist’, especially after the First World War, when he helped to draft Germany's first republican constitution. Notable for having anticipated the de-humanizing effects of the spread of natural scientific thought in the wider culture, though without succumbing to antiscientism.
    • Welfare state: The original ‘third way’ between capitalism and socialism, philosophically rooted in Mill's version of utilitarianism, whereby the principle of diminishing marginal utility is deployed to redistribute incomes so as to ensure the most freedom compatible with the least inequality. However, the concrete welfare state began as a piece of Bismarckian Realpolitik, introduced to immunize German workers against more Marx-inspired forms of revolutionary socialism. It reached its heyday in the third quarter of the 20th century and has since then declined, reflecting the state's fiscal burdens and loss of ideological salience.
    • Westermarck, Edward (1862–1939): The LSE's first anthropologist, whose work seems to conform to the Standard Social Science Model caricature, except that Westermarck universalized cultural relativism to make it continuous with evolutionary adaptationism. Thus, he anticipates today's convergence of postmodernism and the Neo-Darwinian synthesis.


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