Disjunction and Analysis

Ralf Dahrendorf

  • Sociological Journeys: Essays 1960-1980 by Daniel Bell
    Heinemann, 370 pp, £12.50, December 1980, ISBN 0 435 82069 9

The proof of a theory may lie in its application, but application means very different things in different corners of the universe of the mind. Expecting an eclipse of the sun at a certain time and place, and for a certain duration, is one kind of application. Producing a silicon chip which programmes certain operations is another kind. But in the social sciences there are no such tangible applications (and we all pay the price for the fact that some seem to believe that economics is different). It is true, I have sometimes dreamt of the weatherman after the television news being followed by a ‘social processes man’ who points at various parts of the globe and describes the unstable and thunderous condition in the Middle East, the stable high-pressure area over the Soviet Union, and the disturbing influence of Atlantic depressions on Europe. However, this is not going to happen, and if it were, it would still be different in kind from the application of theory in astronomy. It would be an exercise in Verstehen rather than straight application.

This is why social analysis is the queen of the social sciences. Pure theory, in most social sciences, remains strangely barren. To be sure, nobody should be precluded from playing the glass bead game, even if it leads to a conceptual salad of Parsonian irrelevance: but the game does little to bring social processes to life. Analysis, on the other hand, combines at the best of times three elementary virtues of human understanding: immersion in the facts and figures of a case; thought about their structure and dynamics (‘theory’); and a sense of direction which probably has to have a normative component.

Social analysis cannot be taught other than by example. Moreover, since it requires the ability to embrace a subject without merging with it – an ability which comes with experience – social analysis is an unlikely method for writing a dissertation. There are the great examples of the past, of course – Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, Durkheim’s Suicide, Weber’s Protestant Ethic. The social analysis of total societies may be almost too much to try. Today, it has in part fallen into the hands of charlatans, who do little more than invent yet another name for the world in which we are living. Serious scholars, like Norbert Elias or Reinhard Bendix, have turned to the past as the key to the present. Some try to develop what they like to call Marxism, though Jürgen Habermas is one of the very few who do so with any degree of originality. Raymond Aron’s name must be mentioned, but his great analyses – though not Clausewitz and certain other books – are now somewhat dated. In this distinguished company, Daniel Bell has an undisputed and well-deserved place. Long before The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, he had established himself as one of the world’s foremost social analysts; since then, he has taken his analysis further in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. The collection of essays written between 1960 and 1980, and published under the title Sociological Journeys, offers a welcome opportunity to follow his paths and encounters during a crucial period.

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