People as Actors

J.Z. Young

  • Social Being by Rom Harré
    Blackwell, 438 pp, £15.00, November 1980, ISBN 0 631 10691 X

We often read attacks on linguistic philosophy as an arid, inhumane and unproductive academicism. It is refreshing to find a sustained and ingenious attempt to build a whole theory of human action on ‘the extremely subtle analysis of ordinary language developed by the Oxford School of Philosophers’ – especially, one may add, by John Austin. Unfortunately Dr Harré finds it necessary to develop his thesis by the use of language that is very far from ordinary. Those who are not familiar with the jargons of philosophy and sociology will find it hard to follow. Nevertheless, for me, the effort has been well worth while.

The central aim is ‘the exposition of an increasingly more detailed analytical scheme for revealing the nature of social entities … both people-structures such as institutions and action-structures such as episodes of social life’. Before developing his scheme Dr Harré gives a brisk critique of other general theories of how human beings co-operatively produce a social order. He lists these in four categories, exemplified by the theories of Aquinas, Locke, Marx and Freud. The first is the Natural Law theory: that God’s creatures, in living socially, fulfil His will. Locke’s is the political theory of a social contract between rational men. Marx gives an economic analysis of human beings as puppets within a system necessary for production of the means of life. Freud, the biologist, sees social relations as ‘a resolution of the tensions created by the bonds of organic life’.

The author’s analysis finds all these inadequate as explanations of human social life. Nor does he agree with more recent attempts at a scientific study of the problem by the methods of statistical and experimental sociology. He is sceptical of surveys and opinion polls, and of experiments such as that of Milgram, because they make unjustified assumptions about the moral character of people and their relations to each other. Harré emphasises that what Milgram was really studying when he and his assistants persuaded subjects to give shocks to others was the trust that some people have in the veracity of scientists. This criticism points the way to what Harré regards as the centre of human social life. The basic inquiry that is needed for a valid sociology has to do with relations between people, and how they acquire their tendencies to act in particular ways towards each other.

The procedure that he advocates is what he calls an ‘ethogenic approach’. This, however, must not be modelled on animal studies. He is rightly critical of simple ethological analogies such as those of Lorenz and Morris, and suggests we would do better to examine domestic animals: ‘We are more like, I claim, dogs, cats, cows and so on, living contentedly in human society, than we are like a zoo full of wild caged animals.’

But he does not think that any strictly biological studies can lead us very far. He believes that it is necessary to find explanations for the evolution of social behaviour beyond those suggested by neo-Darwinism or sociobiology: ‘The complexities of our social activities go far beyond the apparent necessities of survival.’ He finds it ‘extraordinarily difficult to grasp how it could be that a semi-aquatic life along the shores of the warm lakes of the Rift Valley could have provided selection pressure that would … lead to brains sufficiently elaborate to formulate the Special Theory of Relativity, the Summa contra Gentiles, symphonic music and the like.’ To him, the biological basis of life is a source of problems for which social solutions have been invented, rather than a source of solutions to problems. Unfortunately, this does not answer the questions he has posed, which indeed puzzle us all. Current evidence is that the human brain has doubled in size in the last million years, and this must have involved a genetic change, not only a social one. Very intense selection must have been at work. However, he is probably right to argue that we shall not find much about human social life by studying that of animals: ‘men have invented rather than inherited society.’

He believes that the key to a better method for sociology is the fact that in all societies the form of public life is the result of an interplay between a practical order concerned with production of the means of life and an expressive order concerned with honour and reputation. Western emphasis since the 19th century on the practical aspect of activity he believes to be unusual. He tells us that anthropologists give a figure of 8 to 10 per cent of living time ‘devoted to the sustenance of life in most pre-industrial societies. That leaves a lot of social space and time for dressing up, gossiping and chasing other people’s spouses.’ This startling statement is supported by only one reference, alleging that Bushmen live this jolly life. But even if it is an exaggeration, his point remains that a major part of human interactions is concerned with the impressions people make on each other.

A study of society must therefore begin with what he calls a ‘dramaturgical investigation’ of the ‘scenarios’ of daily life. This is where the philosophy of ordinary language comes in. By examining ‘real societies’ he believes that we shall find that ‘the system of production is soon turned from reproducing the means of life to producing predominantly goods of symbolic value for expressive self-presentational purposes.’ So we may apply the analogy of semantics in order to understand societies. We shall find the meanings of social actions and speeches by looking for what Austin called their performative and illocutionary functions. The things that we do and say are not usually concerned with the practical needs of life, but with expressing social commitments and expectations to each other. He insists that even apparently simple social signs such as a smile are largely conventional, rather than ‘natural’. In order properly to interpret them, we need to have social knowledge about the persons and conditions involved. So a smile is not simple, after all. Though it may be just a public sign of an inner state, say of contentment, in a social context it is often considered as a sign of approval. But to take it as such without understanding the situation may lead to great mistakes. A smile ‘might convey a threat, a warning, a triumph or many other acts depending on its location in an action-sequence, and on whose lips it forms.’ To understand social life, we have to be familiar with the scenarios in which the various signs are used.

The method that Harré recommends is therefore the study of ‘microsociology’. The idea seems to be to consider people as actors and ask what they are trying to represent to each other. In practice, this means the examination of the meanings of the actions of people in daily life. Quite a lot of anthropology already seems to consist of doing this, and he quotes some of it. In the course of his argument he has many interesting things to say about the goings-on at introductions, weddings, meals, funerals. Many of his examples are also quite funny. But the way he expresses them is often rather heavy, even on such fascinating topics as the genesis and spread of fashions in hair length and clothes. Moreover, the appalling language of sociology is annoying to a general reader. Hands up who knows the difference between paradigmatic and syntagmatic? Sentences are often very long and involved.

Harré may hold that serious sociology is bound to be technical, like serious chemistry. Fair enough, but one of his strongest points is that his subject is Persons, and that they must not be treated with too much ‘biologism’ (let alone chemism). He might like to consider that one fact of social life today is that many ordinary persons want to follow what clever academics are thinking about them. He tries to make it easier to do so by beginning each chapter with a summary, but the long words sometimes come into these too. This sort of criticism in a review in a lay journal must not obscure the value of the sustained attempt, in the later part of the book, to produce a theory of universals of social change. Harré bases this on a blend of dialectic and evolutionary views. Change is due to a process of selection which can be described by a cautious analogy with biological evolution. As befits a lecturer in the Philosophy of Science, he is well aware of the problems involved in the use of analogy with allegedly familiar biological concepts. His idea is that we can consider the evolution of the rules of society on the analogy of genes as replicators. It is characteristic of his caution that before he makes the analogy he follows a long side-track into the nature of genes – a matter on which the last word cannot be said by philosopher, biologist or chemist.

Selection in the microsociety of sociologists will decide whether his analogy of the rule as a replicator provides a powerful explanatory tool. The rest of us, if we are patient, can learn a great deal from this book – not only about society, but about ways of looking at many of its oldest problems. The author has the advantage of a good knowledge of science as seen from the outside. This enables him to provide unusual insights. For instance, he gives an interesting analysis of three ‘modes’ in which we can consider the relation of mind and brain. It is a good thought that each of these two alleged ‘entities’ is so complex that we may need to look at their relationship in several different ways.