A History and Theory of the Social Sciences: Not all That is Solid Melts into Air


Peter Wagner

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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 Pittsburgh

    Bryan S. Turner, University of Cambridge


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    Recent volumes include:

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    Cultural Theorist

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    From Modernism to Hypermodernism

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    Subject, Society and Culture

    Roy Boyne

    Norbert Elias and Modern Social Theory

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    Simulation and Social Theory

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    Principles and Scarcity and Solidity

    Bryan S. Turner and Chris Rojek


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    This book is elaborated on the basis of previously published articles, which have been edited and revised for the purpose of the overall argument developed here. It has not been possible, however, to fully update the historical analyses in the first part of the book. The original version of Chapter 8 was co-authored with Heidrun Friese. The following list gives the full bibliographical information, including the original titles, on the loci of first publication. Thanks are due to the publishers for permission to re-use the material.

    Chapter 1: ‘Science of society lost: On the failure to establish sociology in Europe during the “classical” period’, in Discourses on society. The shaping of the social science disciplines, edited by Peter Wagner, Björn Wittrock and Richard Whitley. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991, 219–45.

    Chapter 2: ‘The place of the discourse on politics among the social sciences: Political science in turn-of-the-century Europe’, in Texts, contexts, concepts. Studies on politics and power in language, edited by Sakari Hänninen and Kari Palonen. Helsinki: Finnish Political Science Association, 1990, 262–81.

    Chapter 3: ‘ “Adjusting social relations”: Social science and social planning during the twentieth century’, in The Cambridge history of science, vol. 7, Modern social and behavioral sciences, edited by Theodore Porter and Dorothy Ross. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Chapter 4: ‘Social sciences and political projects: Reform coalitions between social scientists and policy-makers in France, Italy, and West Germany’, in The social direction of the public sciences, edited by Stuart S. Blume, Joske Bunders, Loet Leydesdorff and Richard Whitley. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1987, 277–306.

    Chapter 5: ‘Liberty and discipline: Making sense of postmodernity, or, once again, toward a sociohistorical understanding of modernity’, Theory and Society, vol. 21, no. 4, August 1992, 467–92.

    Chapter 6: ‘The bird in hand: Rational choice: the default mode of social theorising’, in Rational choice theory: resisting colonization, edited by Margaret Archer and Jonathan Tritter. London: Routledge, 2000, 19–35.

    Chapter 7: ‘Dispute, uncertainty and institution in recent French debates’, The Journal of Political Philosophy, vol. 2, no. 3, 1994, 270–89.

    Chapter 8: ‘Not all that is solid melts into air: Modernity and contingency’ (with Heidrun Friese), in Spaces of culture. City/nation/world, edited by Mike Featherstone and Scott Lash. London: Sage, 1999, 101–15.

    Chapter 9: ‘“An entirely new object of consciousness, of volition, of thought”: The coming into being and (almost) passing away of “society” as an object of the social sciences’, in Biographies of scientific objects, edited by Lorraine Daston. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, 132–53.

    Chapter 10: ‘Crises of modernity: Political sociology in historical contexts’, Social theory and sociology. The classics and beyond, edited by Stephen P. Turner. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1996, 97–115.

    Chapter 11: ‘Modernity – One or many?’, in Blackwell companion to sociology, edited by Judith Blau. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.

  • Notes

    1 Let me again avoid here the broader philosophical issues and just refer in this respect to my Theorising modernity (Wagner 2001), which is in fact a companion volume to this book.

    2 For a comprehensive discussion of the impact of such work on social theory and social science see Wittrock (1999); and for implications for the theorising of modernity Wittrock (2000). The analyses in the first part of this book, in particular, owe much to a long-standing cooperation with Björn Wittrock.

    3 To avoid misunderstandings, I should add that I do not think that a sociologisation of law can solve the problem of normative political theory, namely the grounding of state action in social theory and political philosophy. This was, of course, the major dispute on law and politics in the inter-war period, with Heller, Schmitt and Kelsen as main participants in German-speaking areas, Duguit an important contributor in France. The legal positivists doubtlessly posed relevant questions, which remain of importance for more liberal states as well. Their legalistic purification, however, was quite obviously not the right direction when searching for answers.

    4 Originally used by Pannwitz with reference to Nietzsche's analysis of the crisis of European culture, and later taken up by Arnold Toynbee and Irving Howe, among others, the notion has most extensively been applied in debates in literature, art and architecture; see Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie (1989: 1142–5). The term became popular, however, really only after Jean-François Lyotard had used it in a prominent place in his The postmodern condition (1984a, first in French in 1979). Since then, it has gratefully been received by many social scientists who struggled unsuccessfully with conceptual disorder.

    5 The supportive evidence behind this brief exposition of the argument may require a note. On the one hand, I rely on my own work in a political sociology of the social sciences, in which the intellectual discourses on society are analysed in comparative and historical terms; see Wagner (1990) as well as the preceding chapters. If I present my analysis in the following by looking at ‘modern societies’ through the eyes of contemporary social theorists of the respective periods, I do so to point out the long-term evolution and transformation of certain epistemological and political problématiques (more detail on this in Wagner 2001). On the other hand, however, I want to go beyond a mere comparative intellectual history, as interesting as it is, and try to relate these accounts to the historical transformations of societies (as developed in Wagner 1994). My interest here is twofold: conceptually, it is in the rethinking of categories for the analysis of contemporary society; and epistemologically, it is in the location of discourses with regard to social reality.

    6 The term was coined by the social democrat theorist Rudolf Hilferding in 1915; for its more recent analytical usage, see Winkler (1974) and the special issue of Geschichte und Gesellschaft 1984.

    7 For analysis of this period in terms of early welfare institutions, see de Swaan (1988), Evers and Nowotny (1987), Ashford (1986), Ewald (1986). Some of the contributions to Rueschemeyer and Skockpol (1996) focus on the changes in the self-understanding of turn-of-the-century European societies.

    8 Originally a concept of Italian political debates, this notion has been used in a more general sense (see Stone 1983; for Italy see Seton-Watson 1967). It refers to the opening of bourgeois politics to working-class representation or, at least, working-class concerns.

    9 A comparative and historical discussion of economic indicators is provided by Maddison (1982). For a historically oriented economic theory of these transformations see Aglietta (1976), Boyer (1979). For a historical approach to the spreading of large-scale technological networks see Hughes (1983; 1989).

    10 A classical analysis of such political reorganisation, using the Dutch example, is Lijphart (1975) on the ‘metamorphosis of the problem of the masses’ (a term suggested by Masses et politiques 1988); see, for instance, Kornhauser (1959), Agnoli and Brückner (1968).

    11 Baudrillard draws widely and basically affirmatively on Marshall McLuhan's media theory, which is firmly rooted in the intellectual context of the post-industrialist discourse. Lyotard's Postmodern condition can be read as a somewhat radicalised version of the theorem of the ‘knowledge’ or ‘information society’.

    12 In the 1960s, there was hardly a word about postmodernity. An exception was Talcott Parsons who ended his little book on The system of modern societies (1971: 143) by concluding that any ‘talk of “postmodern” society is thus decidedly premature’.

    13 Again, these observations can be cast either in terms of a loss of both intelligibility and manageability of the world or in terms of an achievement, a recovery of what had been repressed by the imposition of homogenising modernist discourses and institutions on a heterogeneous social world. For the latter version of the argument, see prominently de Certeau (e.g. 1988: 4). See also Maffesoli (1988: 98), who distinguishes a (modern) functionally organised society from a much more open (postmodern) sociality.

    14 These statements are not merely ex post analytical ones; varieties of them can be found throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in liberal debate about social organisation (see ch. 3).

    15 That ‘modernisation’ is a socially uneven process is, of course, widely accepted. The main affirmative argument would state that people have to forgo present preferences and to subject themselves to externally induced change to reap a better future. The argument is much more difficult, however, not to say impossible in liberal terms, if it has to be assumed that these people have to give up their identity, as it is historically constituted, in favour of a, to them unknown, transformed self of future generations; and that they would do so under the pressure of a hegemonic representation of society. This holds for liberal theories (of ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’) as well as for theories of socialist transformation.

    16 See, for instance, Jean Baudrillard's (1986) description of the United States, which, all critical elements notwithstanding, does not lack fascination for the object. Another expression of this ambivalence can be found in the high-tech romanticism of Wim Wenders’ movies: see (i.e. literally watch) Bis ans Ende der Welt (1991).

    17 Thus, I concur with Umberto Eco's (1975) remark that the notion of representation has been in crisis from the very day it was coined. More important than the philosophical is the historico-sociological difference in this regard.

    18 Wittrock and Lindström (1984). On the extraordinary character of this growth period, one can consult Maddison (1982); on the difficulties of understanding this extraordinary character, see Lutz (1984). A broader — and somewhat different — discussion of the historical experience of modernity is offered in Wagner (2001: ch. 4).

    19 But note the remarks made by Michel Maffesoli (1988) on a general need for ‘religion’ in the broad sense of reconnecting an individual to a social group and a collective representation. Significant also is Alan Wolfe's (1989) argument for a renewed concern for morality and, one could suggest, civil religion. See now Eisenstadt (1998).

    20 In this perspective, I propose to talk about a second major crisis of modernity rather than about postmodernity, ‘crisis’ here denoting a historical period of particularly strong expression of the general ambivalence of modernity (see Wagner 1994).

    21 Or at least not for the purposes of my reasoning. Arguably, there are sexual connotations in this proverb as in the other ones in different languages that I will quote below. A consideration of those connotations would make this introductory argument much more complex. Since it seems safe to assert, however, that my line of reasoning would only be further strengthened through their inclusion, I will largely leave them out for the sake of brevity.

    22 If this were the case, however, one could also ask why the ‘Germans’ did not develop or appropriate the much clearer form of ‘English’ wisdom. As we know, even folk wisdom travels. Those who may be inclined to think that the German form typifies the common obscurity of continental thinking should be aware that there is a version of this wisdom in French which is closer to the English than to the German, at least with regard to the quantitative aspect. In ‘Un “tiens” vaut mieux que deux “tu l'auras’”, the temporal dimension is explicitly introduced in addition as an aspect of human interaction (bringing in issues of trust). Rational choice theorising is notorious for having difficulties in dealing with future time, since the preferred strategy, namely discounting the future, is open to a number of objections.

    23 May it not be the case that these proverbs refer to birds, among the many goods one may want to have, because they are always inclined to fly away, because of the difficulty of durable possession?

    24 Eagles as well as doves can symbolise freedom, but possibly the eagle — as a state symbol – stands rather for collective freedom and collective self-determination and the dove for individual freedom.

    25 This is, however, far from saying that communication and compromise are impossible, as is sometimes alleged.

    26 In the view of its own proponents, the real history of rational choice theory only starts in the middle of the twentieth century, but an insight into its deeper roots or ‘predecessors’ can occasionally be found. Similarly and significantly, rational choice thinking also lacks a long historical view on the development of Western societies, although it could and should have one, a matter to which I return below.

    27 Whatever dissonance there may be between sensations and this image will then be treated as the secondary problem of the relation between theory and empirical observation.

    28 But then it may be the cunning of reason rather than its progress of which we find evidence here. From the middle of the twentieth century onwards, we find the earlier European view of America partially confirmed when, even if no overall individualist-rationalist way of life emerges in America, at least its intellectual foundations proliferate at — predominantly — US universities.

    29 This issue can obviously not be pursued here. Let it just be noted that approaches that see modernity strongly in terms of the destruction of ‘traditions’, i.e. of the withering away of common registers of moral-political evaluation, tend to underestimate the human ability to recreate richer forms of social life, even after crises. This is a theme insistently put forward by Hans Joas (1992a; 1996).

    30 As doves of rationalism have recently argued: ‘In the absence of strong environmental constraints, we believe that rational choice is a weak theory, with limited predictive power… The theory of rational choice is most powerful in contexts where choice is limited’ (Satz and Ferejohn 1994: 72). The authors, however, move from that insight to arguing for the compatibility of rationalism with ‘structuralism’ without considering the criticism the latter approach has encountered over the past twenty years. Chapter 7 will show how such resort to structuralism can be avoided.

    31 This chapter is dedicated to the memory of Michael Pollak, who contributed to the approach analysed here.

    32 Here are early traces of the distinction between conscious and unconscious parts of social life which was to become of great import in structuralism: ‘Even when we have collaborated in their genesis, we can only with difficulty obtain even a confused and inexact insight into the true nature of our action and the causes which determined it’ (Durkheim 1938: xlv; see also König 1991: 66–8; Schülein 1987: 38). In attempts to bridge this dichotomy, Anthony Giddens (1984) elaborated the concept of ‘practical consciousness’, Pierre Bourdieu (1979) the one of sens pratique.

    33 Thévenot (1989: 154) provides a deconstruction of the classical economic assumptions on the coordination of action, counterposing to the three postulates on rationality, on the commodity character of goods and on the market nature of social relations the three open questions as to the competence of persons, the qualities of objects and the forms of coordination.

    34 Boltanski (1990: part I), Quéré (1992: 51–2). As in many of the situations that have been studied verbal reasoning was a key element in reaching an agreement, linguistic competences figure strongly in the analyses. However, the French researchers do not merely follow the ‘linguistic turn’ prominent in much of recent work in the human sciences, but try to link studies of languages of dispute and justification to other resources that may be brought into situations, not least material objects. I shall return to this issue below.

    35 See also Boltanski's ambition to overcome the isolation of the ‘human sciences of the specific’ from those dealing with the general aspects of human life, speaking of a ‘separation on which the division into disciplines is built’ (1990: 22). In his view, a ‘catastrophic distinction [is made] between the disciplines of the collective and the disciplines of the singular, a distinction that cuts deeply through the human sciences — as well as through the institutions to whom these sciences deliver their insights’ (1990: 262; see also 255, 323–34).

    36 Other examples are the investigation of the formation of the social category of the cadres that had already been published by Luc Boltanski in 1982. Alain Desrosières and Laurent Thévenot have studied the emergence of socio-professional categories more generally in France as well as in cross-national comparison. Thévenot has looked at Taylor's ‘scientific work organisation’; Robert Boyer and André Orléan have read Henry Ford's wage policy as the beginning of new economic conventions. Some studies dealing with the construction of historical phenomena, such as those by Noiriel (1992) and, in a broader understanding, by Charle (1990), may also be ranged under the ‘new social sciences’.

    37 See also Thévenot (1993: 286): ‘This type of explanation provides a good representation of those spaces of action in which a way of qualifying that achieves consensus guarantees the evaluation of behaviour.‘

    38 Thévenot (1993: 286). This distinction is related to different possible ways of dealing with the unforeseen, namely whether to interpret it as irrelevant ‘noise’, as an error on the part of the actors which has to be pointed out to them, as a deficiency of a thing or a person in need of durable correction, or — most seriously — as entailing the need to introduce new objects for a general restructuring of the situation; see Thévenot (1993: 280).

    39 The concept of safeguarding order by shared belief leads to the cultural approach to social analysis discussed in ch. 8; for the idea of systematic articulation to the concept of society, see ch. 9.

    40 Boltanski and Thévenot (1991: 18). The recourse to something general is a typical element of decision-making in the course of a controversy. A denunciation of socially unacceptable behaviour, for instance, has to indicate criteria for what is allowed and what is forbidden and has to create a link between these criteria and the situation in question. Any denunciation is an appeal to some sort of universality (Boltanski 1990: 256).

    41 Cités marchande, inspirée, de l'opinion, domestique, civique, industrielle. The approach has now been further developed towards a comparison of societally acceptable forms of justification across situations in the US and France (Lamont and Thévenot 2000) and towards a historical analysis of changing modes of justification leading to overall societal transformation (Boltanski and Chiapello 1999).

    42 Boltanski and Thévenot (1991: 189). Functionalists — as well as their critics — may want to discover subsystems and their codes here. It seems more appropriate, though, to say that Boltanski and Thévenot try to stand such reasoning on its head; see their use of the term ‘complexity’, for instance (1991: 57, 266).

    43 ‘Reality, in such a perspective, is exactly the critical space that opens the possibility, available to persons, to move between different worlds, to tie into them, or to deny validity to one of them by making recourse to another one’ (Boltanski 1990: 86).

    44 See Thévenot (1992), describing objections to Michael Walzer's theory of spheres of justice in institutional terms. I will leave undiscussed here the question of whether Walzer indeed tends to see his ‘spheres’ as empirically identifiable institutions.

    45 Boltanski (1990: 30). Striking parallels to such reasoning can be found in Axel Honneth's recent Struggle for recognition (1995 [1992]).

    46 To give an example, I may refer to the state of debate on institutions in international sociology. Time and again it is repeated that institutions have to be analysed from a double perspective, as being constructed in human interaction and as pre-existing the human beings whose actions they shape (see Schülein 1987: 40; Göhler and Schmalz-Bruns 1988: 322; Hechter et al. 1990). As a very general statement, this is certainly valid. To rest content with it, however, means to accept and consolidate a basic cleavage in sociology as well as in the other social sciences — a cleavage between theories of interaction and constitution of sociality on the one hand, and theories of societal developments to which individuals are exposed, on the other.

    47 Non-French relatives can be found in that tradition of the social sciences that reaches from Max Weber to Norbert Elias to Anthony Giddens and Michael Mann. For my own attempt see Wagner (1994). One thought, appearing only at the margins hitherto, seems to be particularly promising. The emphasis on the situativity of action and on varieties of exigences of coordination makes it possible not only to distinguish historically varying criteria of justification, but also to consider the need for an accord itself in historico-sociological terms. Historical social configurations may be distinct not only with regard to validity and strength of criteria of justification, but also with regard to the extent to which ‘situations have to be dealt with in common’ at all (Boltanski and Thévenot 1991: 51).

    48 Beyond the recent shift which is in the centre of our interest here, both modes of construction obviously have a long history in the human sciences and the direct comparison of structural and cultural analyses is part of the sociological stock in trade (for a useful recent example see Wuthnow 1992).

    49 The key terms we will need are used in confusingly variable ways in the literature. ‘Social theory’ is meant here in comprehensive terms, referring to every theorising interested in relations between human beings. It specifically includes both of what we call ‘structural’ and ‘cultural’ theory.

    50 And if there is a reflexive impact of social theory on the world, then, even more perversely, it may be regarded as enhancing the dissolution of its own object, which tends to disappear, not least, under the analytical gaze of the sociologist, to rephrase a common conservative reasoning.

    51 In the tradition of structural anthropology, the term more profoundly refers to basic, and mostly unconscious, ways of ordering the social life.

    52 The difference between the two kinds of theorising on this point has implications for the role of the theorist, an issue we will only mention but not elaborate on in this chapter.

    53 Some readers may want to dispute whether these views on structure and culture are still held. We shall come back to this question. For a general confirmation, one may consult Light and Keller (1985), which is a fairly open-minded sociology textbook. For recent contributions which raise issues related to ours see Sewell (1992) and Emirbayer and Goodwin (1994).

    54 For an ambitious critique see Turner (1994). Searle (1995) resorts to biological explanation for ‘collective intentionality’, which is at the root of bounded social institutions.

    55 The relation between political and intellectual positions is never unequivocal. Thirty years ago, the term ‘structure’ had a rather critical flavour and ‘culture’ a conservative one. This relation has almost been reversed.

    56 For comprehensive discussions see Friese (2001a). What is at stake here, politically speaking, is what could be termed the inevitability of (some kind of) liberalism.

    57 We should also at least mention two important kinds of reasoning which do not neatly fit our categorisation. Daniel Bell's Cultural contradictions of capitalism (1976) and Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism (1991) link cultural to structural factors by means of a theoretical reflection on contradictions and affinities. As stimulating as the reading of these works may be, they are but very thinly rooted in empirical observations. In contrast, works such as Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction (1984) and, more comprehensively, Michèle Lamont's Money, morals and manners (1992) connect cultural to structural phenomena via sophisticated empirical designs and open thus a way to discuss interrelations without imposing the one on the other.

    58 For the use of the term ‘strength’ for a quite similar purpose, there referring to symbolic boundaries, see Lamont (1992: 181–2).

    59 One might envisage cultural analysis going the same path of increasing empirical sophistication which has led structural analysis to concepts such as ‘contradictory class locations’ (Eric Olin Wright), which keep asking the same question — how is structure related to action? — but have robbed themselves of any possibility to answer it.

    60 Johan Heilbron argues rightly that the term ‘society’ in the early social sciences allowed one to relate concerns of moral philosophy, dealing with manners, to political philosophy proper. My own argument could be read as saying that the creation of this relation also entailed some degree of conflation of concerns.

    61 To avoid some of the epistemological issues related to attempts to describe an emergent entity before it exists or at times when its existence is in doubt (issues to which Bruno Latour 2000 refers), I shall use the terms ‘structure of social relations’ as well as ‘moral-political order’ to denote what often is called ‘society’. The former of these terms places the emphasis on the extension, form and nature of connections between human beings. It tries to be less presupposition-rich than related terms (on the theoretical and methodological issues related to such choice of terminology, see ch. 7). The latter refers to the central concern of the ‘moral and political sciences’, often regarded as the predecessor of the social sciences.

    62 Keith Michael Baker (1990), in particular, has emphasised the changes of political language which took place before the French Revolution and, in his terminology, contributed to ‘inventing’ it. Nevertheless, it was the event of the Revolution that made some intellectual positions almost untenable and thus brought about a considerable shift in the discursive balance. See on this broad topic the works of Michel Foucault and, more recently, François Furet in France; of the Cambridge intellectual historians around Quentin Skinner in England; and the works on ‘history of concepts’ around Reinhart Koselleck in Germany.

    63 Jacques Donzelot traced the long-term developments in France in his essay under the suggestive title L'invention du social. Essai sur le déclin des passions politiques (1984). I should note that ‘the social’ is synonymous with ‘society’, when, as is often the case, it is conceptualised as a realm between ‘the private’ and ‘the political’. Other understandings of the ‘social’, often a result of further differentiations within this discourse, will be dealt with below.

    64 As is reflected, for instance, in the title of Hegel's Philosophy of right, a term, incidentally, which was still used in Germany in the early twentieth century for quasi-sociological undertakings in the study of ‘society’.

    65 In response to Mohl as well as to other authors who separate state and society, Treitschke ponders upon why this ‘erroneous political theory’ of the ‘separation of state and society’ should have emerged at this time and place, the European nineteenth century, and he finds some reason in the unnatural situation, as in the Germany of the 1850s, where state and society do not match (1927: 88). Significantly, he uses here a sociological mode of explanation (though a rather crude one), by deriving an intellectual state of affairs from a socio-political one.

    66 For about half a century, if not longer, Treitschke has to be considered the winner of this dispute in Germany. A re-edition of his Gesellschaftswissenschaft in 1927 — in ‘the era of sociology’ — carries a foreword by Erich Rothacker (incidentally, one of Jürgen Habermas’ teachers) who claims Treitschke for a German tradition of the scientific study of societal life which should be preferred to French and English biologism (Rothacker 1927: VII-VIII).

    67 A useful first step to determine whether a scientific object is said to exist is obviously a look at codified statements on what the science in question is about, i.e. handbooks and dictionaries. As sociology became somewhat codified and consolidated only after the turn of the nineteenth century, such publications emerged from the 1930s onwards, with a second wave of grand attempts being pursued during the expansion of the discipline at universities in the 1960s. Since then, markets seem to have been big enough for a somewhat steady flow of new works and new editions of old works. The closing decades of the nineteenth century abounded with publications on ‘the foundations of sociology’ and the like. However, these are rather the proposals and projects of individual authors, trying to assert their own version of sociology, than attempts at comprehensive representation of a consolidated discipline. It would be an interesting study in itself, not to be pursued here, to trace the changes in the characterisation of ‘society’ in these publications over time, across languages and — given the continued and sometimes deliberate personal imprint of the author(s) in some such works — between authors. The two works discussed are the only two international encyclopaedias of the social sciences up to the present; a new, third one is scheduled to be published in 2001 (Smelser and Baltes in press).

    68 This is not necessarily exactly the same as saying that microbes did not exist before their discovery/invention by Louis Pasteur, as Bruno Latour (2000) claims. The existence of ‘society’ has sometimes been made explicitly dependent on, even shared, human knowledge of it by sociologists. Latour provocatively extends such a viewpoint to the ‘natural sciences’. But even in the social sciences, the more conventional approaches insisted on a knowledge-independent existence of scientific objects.

    69 Without specification of the term ‘social order’, which Parsons accepted as a problem inherited from Hobbes through all of the history of social philosophy, this sentence reads tautologically. It was left to American sociological approaches inspired by Simmel and pragmatism to disentangle what social order is and how it comes about; see most recently Strong (1994).

    70 I owe the information about Mayhew's position at that time to a personal communication from Neil Smelser. See also Johnson (1961: 10), where society is characterised by ‘(1) definite territory, (2) sexual reproduction, (3) comprehensive culture, and (4) independence’. Or: ‘A society exists to the degree that a territorially bounded population maintains ties of association and interdependence and enjoys autonomy’ (Lenski 1970: 9, as quoted in Horton and Hunt 1972: 49). Or: ‘The most complex macrostructure is a society, a comprehensive grouping of people who share the same territory and participate in a common culture’ (Light and Keller 1985: 93). Other encyclopaedic works consulted include Ogburn and Nimkoff (1947), Mitchell (1968), Lengermann (1974), Geiger (1931), Ambros (1965), Endruweit and Trommsdorf (1989), Reinold (1992), Fuchs-Heinritz et al. (1994).

    71 Harry M. Johnson's (1961: 13) remark that ‘the concept society, although unrealistic, might have as great scientific interest as, let us say, the concept of perfect competition in economics’ is amazingly blunt about the problematic relation between concepts and experience. In his view ‘concepts’ seem to refer to some overarching guides for social analysis and/or social life, but — unlike Weber's ideal types, for instance, which are no real socio-historical phenomena either, but whose validity is measured against empirical findings — their relation to reality is not exactly an issue. The concept of perfect competition in economics has at least had the advantage of having acquired strong discourse-organising power, which cannot to the same degree be said about ‘society’ in sociology (see also Jorland 2000 on the concept of ‘value’).

    72 Significantly, the former is more typically the Scottish-English view, the latter the French one: see Heilbron (1998).

    73 My own choice of terminology is guided by the need to avoid those, often more familiar, terms in other views which are strongly shaped by conceptual or historical presuppositions (see ch. 7). The notion of society, for instance, makes an assumption on the coherence of social practices; the (economic) idea of interest makes an assumption of autonomy and rationality shaping the view on self-identity. An analysis of conceptual transformations over time is seriously hampered by maintaining such loaded terms.

    74 Parallel to this theorising an alternative approach, the critical theories of mass society, was developed which regarded basically the same phenomenon, namely the closure of modernity, as a threat and a loss; see ch. 5.

    75 Politically, the right to diversity — to be different and to handle things differently — is a claim that stems from such reasoning. Other than calls for equality, such claims have proven difficult to deal with under the rules of organised modernity.

    76 A major difference between the two situations is that sociological debate proved to be more continuous and persistent in the more recent one. I would attribute this fact mainly to the firm institutional establishment of social science at universities and other academic institutions. Thus, a minimal precondition for the continuity of a discourse was provided. This continuity meant that much rethinking of theories, concepts and methods could and would take place under the broad assumption of the possibility of a social science.

    77 See Offe (1989: 755); also Hindess (1991). Elements of the debate among communitarians and liberals have focused on this question, with the communitarians arguing for reinforcing coherence, for building polities on identities. However, some of the most reflective contributions to the debate, such as Charles Taylor's (1989b: 532; 1989a) and Michael Walzer's (1990), have, while accepting the proposition, raised the issue of the degree to which such a strong relation is actually required — as well as normatively defendable. See Frazer and Lacey (1993) for a critical assessment of the debate in related terms.


    (Translations from non-English sources are mine.)

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