Sociology in Cambridge

Geoffrey Hawthorn

Cambridge has re-appointed to its chair of sociology. The chair is still not established, and will have to be argued for again when it’s vacated. The argument for filling it at least once more was conservative: there has been a professor since 1970, there was a department of social and political sciences and a degree which included the subject, and these had to have a head. The consequence of filling it is conservative too. It is a determination to try to establish sociology by separating it still further from the subjects that are close to it. But this curricular victory will be intellectually empty. Sociologists have certainly abandoned the pretension to a scientific ethic which long made them so suspicious to others. Having done so, it is not clear that, left to themselves, they have left themselves much to say.

It was Henry Sidgwick who best exposed the pretension. And it was Sidgwick who, from well beyond the grave, did as much as anyone to keep the subject out of Cambridge. Yet he was not an obvious enemy. In the 1860s he had lectured on philosophy and political theory in the Moral Sciences Tripos. In order to extend the teaching of politics, he had helped J.R. Seeley and Alfred Marshall start another Tripos in History. Having caught sight of Comte ‘through Mill’s spectacles’, he had all the while been contemplating ‘a complete revision of human relations, political, moral and economic, in the light of science’. His ambition was grand and his sympathies were systematic. ‘Principles will soon be everything,’ he had declared in 1865, ‘and tradition nothing.’ And he was awesomely conscientious. ‘Take notice that I have parted from Mill and Comte – not without tears and wailings and cuttings of the hair.’ Though he had concluded that sociological theory would not do, he had not done so in haste or out of a simple longing for the ineffable virtues of the past.

Sidgwick delivered his conclusions to the British Association in the summer of 1885. He agreed that ‘if we could ascertain from the past history of human society the fundamental laws of social evolution as a whole, so that we could actually forecast the main features of the future state,’ then, of course, ‘the science which gave this foresight would be of the highest value.’ ‘What has to be proved,’ however, ‘is that this supremely important knowledge is within our grasp; that the sociology which professes this prevision is really an established science.’ As it is, he said, ‘guidance, truly, is here enough and to spare: but how is the bewildered statesman to select his guidance when his sociological doctors exhibit this portentous disagreement?’ Politics and morality could not be reduced to this. ‘Our Association’, he insisted, must ‘take no step calculated to foster delusions of this kind’. And for another seventy-five years, neither it nor Cambridge did.[1]

But sociology has now arrived. And theoretically, it has softened. The sociologists no longer propose social laws. They almost all agree that there are no non-trivial ones to be had. And even if there were, it is clearer now than it was a hundred years ago, when men were still mesmerised by pre-determination, that we can reject and invent them. Anthony Giddens, the new professor at Cambridge, has recast this more modest view into what he calls a sociological theory of ‘structuration’. Structuration is ‘the structuring of social relations across time and space, in virtue of the duality of structure’; duality of structure is ‘structure as the medium and outcome of the conduct it recursively organises’: that’s to say, if one wishes to say it like this, ‘the structural properties of social systems do not exist outside of action but are chronically implicated in its production and reproduction.’ They are not immutable.

The sociologists are also now disinclined to guide. Giddens again explains:[2]

Every analysis of existing conditions of social life, because it is ‘historical’, i.e. concerned with the temporality of institutions in their reproduction by human actors, generates an understanding of their potential transformation. This is a logical point, not one that specifies what a given course of action or programme can actually achieve. All social analysis, put another way, is implicitly social critique and also has transformative implications for whatever it describes. These provide the ‘grounding’ of critical theory, but do not in and of themselves indicate how immanent possibilities in a given set of circumstances can be actualised, or what connection that actualisation might bear to more inclusive goals.

All, it seems, is open. Only portentousness remains – which, after all, is merely a matter of taste. And since it cannot now be claimed, as Sidgwick did in 1899, that ‘there is no elementary manual of English manufacture by which a student may learn to pass an examination in sociology with the least possible trouble,’ we might as well relax: the extravagant ambition has gone, the subject is domesticated, and its adherents may safely graze.

There is nevertheless a question. If this now is all that is going on, why go on at all? Or more constructively, if there is something rather than nothing going on, what can it be? The optimists’ answer is that the demise of the old ambition has brought about the end of all inhibition. A hundred years ago, as Sidgwick said, the ambition was total and any inhibition was difficult to discern. The intention was to determine social laws, to authorise them as science, and to direct. That was naturalism. But naturalism took itself seriously and in so doing turned back on itself. Statements of fact, it came to be argued, stood in no rational relation to declarations of value. Be as scientific as you can, the new anti-naturalist injunction ran, but be sure never to be seen to infer anything that has a hint of value, and if you wanted to be safe, it was best not to be seen even faintly suggesting any commitment at all. The old ambition bred an extreme inhibition.

This has now vanished. The double-headed Hydra, prescribing science and proscribing value, has been slain. The suggestion that even in the physical sciences all theory, in Quine’s famous formulation, is underdetermined by all possible evidence – that we can accordingly decide between all the theories there are and might ever be by criteria that are pragmatic, or aesthetic, or a function of our interests in the world – has made the old authority look a good deal less authoritative. It has also reconnected science to our values. This has as a result come in the human sciences to license what the elderly Kant, reading young Kantians, decried as ‘an infinity of self-made conceptions’. Like young Fichte in the heady days of the 1790s, we are free again.

But free to do what exactly? Here the optimists are coy and the scene somewhat confused. The confusion is in a general way caused by the fact that in the past twenty-five years or so there has been an inward rush of what in the aggressively English Oxford of the 1950s used rudely to be referred to as ‘noise and exhaust’ from abroad. It’s true that the double-headed Hydra itself, at least in its strong form, had been born in Vienna. It had even affected the Marxists there. But it had been born again off Regent Steet, where A.J. Ayer wrote Language, Truth and Logic, and naturalised. (And meanwhile, it had fled its native city. Its most fantastical progeny, the Encyclopaedia of the Unified Sciences, issued, although stillborn, in Chicago.) The more avowedly self-made conceptions that rushed into Britain and the United States from France and Germany in the 1960s and 70s were conceptions of a very different and altogether more alien kind.

They attacked both the old naturalism and its anti-naturalist variant. They had almost all been prompted to do so by a distaste for the rigidities of orthodox Marxism. And they were almost all exhilaratingly equivocal. In none of the arguments which deployed them, as Raymond Aron used repeatedly to say, was there a straight answer to the straight question: was revolution desirable, and if it was, how then was it to be brought about? Was it, as Aron himself hoped, introuvable, or wasn’t it? The gist of the answer was that for the moment, it was. But the gist of the answer also was that if it was trouvable, it could not be found in any of the old familiar places. Nor would it be made in the name of any of the old familiar faces. Everyone was accordingly free to invent and imagine, and in their different ways – though often going to considerable lengths to disguise the fact – Sartre, Althusser, Habermas, Lacan, Foucault and many others all did. And they did so not so much by avoiding Aron’s question as by insisting that it was not the question to ask. The PCF in France, the Communist Parties in Italy and, later, in Portugal and Spain were all, like Aron, irredeemably mired in the old historicisms. They were still trying to get from what they took to be an unproblematic Here to the old and hoped-for although increasingly hazy There. And they were still using their habitual authority to impress their view. They could not or would not see that this authority and the theory on which it rested had all but collapsed. One had to start again and reconsider what and where Here and There were.

These are real questions, and, asked plainly, not confusing at all. What can socialism be? Is it still something that is in the real – if not acknowledged – interests of the working class? Is there still what used to be described as a working class? And what of the Party? Should it collude with others and seek electoral success? Or should it, in the modern nation-state and given the existing international constraints on that state, take another line? These are questions that have been asked in Europe for more than a hundred years. Giddens asks them in what he calls his ‘critique of historical materialism’. And in the end, as many others have done, he evades them. The obstacle, he says, is not just capitalism, but the state itself, the socialist state as much as the capitalist state, with all its ‘apparatuses’, as Althusser described them, of indoctrination, surveillance and power.

This is scarcely an arresting re-appraisal. Indeed, in its disinclination to re-assess what Giddens calls our ‘inclusive goals’, and in its refusal to distinguish between actual governments and suggest what the ‘immanent possibilities’ in any of these governments might be, it is an unusually disappointing one. It is simply a bland rehearsal of what others have been saying for twenty years. But it is conventional also in a deeper sense. For the drift of the more truly radical of the new theories has been not merely to insist that we should dispense with the old historicism. It has been to insist that in so doing we dispense with any ordinarily empirical appraisal at all. It has been to insist – as Derrida has insisted – that we dispense with representation.

This might at first sight seem simply to be an extravagant extension of the new post-empiricist philosophy of science. If all theories of the way the world is are underdetermined by the way the world is, they may even be entirely undetermined, and we have only talk to talk about. There are such extensions – for instance, in Richard Rorty’s writing – and they are extravagant. They are also puzzling. They reject the long-standing attempt to represent the world, to picture stuff, while seeming themselves, maybe unavoidably, to suppose at least one such picture, of an inventive and talkative human stuff, and to do so from the transcendental standpoint they disavow. They can nevertheless remain conventional, if not altogether consistent with themselves, in insisting on some order in the talk, on what used to be called reason. They can also be consistent with themselves, if then quite incoherent, in disdaining this too. This is what the radical turn in the new move has been. Aggressively, like Mondrian, who turned his back to the window to avoid the colour green, or ironically, like Borges, who threw up his hands at ‘all those incompatible things which, because they co-exist, are called the world’, or simply in play, the new theorists can license to themselves ‘an infinity of self-made conceptions’. And these do not have to make any sort of what used to be called sense at all. ‘Damn him, how various he is,’ said Gainsborough of Reynolds. Even the young Fichte might have said the same about the new theorists.

A few – the philosopher who is now academically embalmed as ‘the middle Sartre’ was one, Habermas has been another – have attempted to hold onto some sort of human essence. Habermas indeed has gone on to reject the Existentialists’ disconnection of this essence, and attempted also to hold onto reason, and thus to the idea of a convergent cumulation of rational understanding. He has been not so much the most recent of the Marxists as the last of the young Kantians; in his belief in the possibility of selves being able without regress rationally to reflect on themselves, the one Fichtean after Fichte. But the others have wanted to lose such humanisms. There is no human essence. There is no autonomy. There is no constituting consciousness. There is accordingly no cumulation and no sense to be given to any idea of progress. There is only talk: talk to deconstruct the talkers and the framework within which they used to think they were talking. The new conceptions are self-made by not-selves in not-time-and-space.

The social theorists are understandably perplexed. Are they still trying to represent social reality, or not? Some are. The failure of the old historical schemes has even prompted a few into an intellectually more orthodox reappraisal of the long run. Some are not. They just play. And some cannot make up their minds. Thus Giddens. He rejects ‘objectivism’ and ‘naturalism’ and all the other constraining old ‘isms’. He will have nothing to do with laws or even with generalisations about people. Generalisations, he says – is this one exempt? – can always in principle be subverted by those they are generalisations about. He nevertheless dislikes disputes and avoids the more subversive of the Modernists’ claims. He simply distils the common denominator. ‘The best and more interesting ideas in the social sciences (a) participate in fostering the climate of opinion and the social processes which give rise to them, (b) are in greater or lesser degree entwined with theories-in-use which help to constitute those processes, and (c) are thus unlikely to be clearly distinct from considered reflection which lay actors may bring to bear in so far as they discursively articulate, or improve upon, theories-in-use.’

His equivocation is accordingly complete. Talk has done much to create the patterns there are. These patterns, these ‘social systems in time-space’, are not therefore immutable. They are mutable if we decide they are, but we cannot decide how to decide if they are, because there are no fixed points or pointers. And deciding or not deciding is itself part of the pattern. If this is a joke on modern paradoxes, it is very solemnly done. If it is not, it is not clear what there is in it to interest us more than our own ‘lay’ and everyday ‘theories-in-use’. In fact, Giddens is interesting merely because in trying at this desperate and unilluminating level of abstraction both to hold onto history and to deny it, both to talk of all the world and to talk of a world which is only talk, he reveals the dilemma into which general social theory has now precipitated itself. It is caught between a nostalgia for the old search for certainties across all time and space and the Modernists’ cheerful rejection of that search; and as a result, it has come to haunt a nether world of nearly nothing.

‘Nothing’ of course, said Heidegger, the modernists’ eminence, ‘noths’. But if one resists this deep move, the conclusion would seem to be that the effect of the new freedom, of the casting-off of the old inhibitions, can indeed be what we think of as nothing rather than something. As social theory at last abandons its 19th-century pretension and meets Sidgwick’s conditions, and yet at this level of abstraction mistakenly insists, as Giddens does, that ‘it is not primarily a philosophical endeavour,’ it seems to self-cancel. There remain all the interesting questions that were once calmly called ‘empirical’ – questions about what used uncontroversially to be thought of as the world. These are no one subject’s prerogative. But what now of social theory itself? What kind of theory can it now be, and what can it be a theory of?

The first question is a good deal more difficult to answer than the second. The move to underdetermine all theory by reference to the world has resulted in the radical underdetermination of theory itself. But the resultant infinity of new conceptions and of new conceptions of what conceptions are does not have to be an infinity of conceptions that are self-made. An imagination that works on nothing except itself can generate nothing except degenerating conceptions of itself. Hence the bleak and blank and in effect provincial solipsism of so many modern attempts. In literature, there are books. In life, as Sidgwick said against the abstract utilitarianism of his day, there is ‘the existing social order, and the existing morality as part of that order’. If we are to avoid the indulgences, self-deceptions and emptinesses of excessive abstraction, we should start from existing and substantive ideas of who and where we are. In what continue, despite it all, to be described as the human sciences, there is the accumulating record in history and in some empirical sociology too, but above all in anthropology, of actual imaginings from past times and other places. A sympathetic and – if that is what one wants – a synthetic modernist sociology is not condemned to onanism. Nor is she, as Auguste Comte suggested, the queen of the sciences: she is, at her best, an active tart. She compares. Other minds, one might say, are her texts.

At the same time, the belief which produced the more deliberately social of the human sciences – sociology, social anthropology, social history and economics – is not now convincing. The 18th-century notion that there is a social world which is self-creating and self-governing, to be explained neither by legislation nor by character but by principles that are distinctively its own, has been subverted by events. It makes some sense still for those European worlds which even in the 18th century were beginning to disappear. It has subsequently made some sense for those which Europeans and their anthropologists had begun to discover elsewhere. But it has increasingly been overturned, in strong modern states, by the outcome of the enthusiasm for popular rule which inspired it. And if one wants to understand that fact, certainly if one wants to think constructively about how to change it, one has now to think of politics as something other than the epiphenomenal expression of other sorts of event. One certainly has to think with something more than a muddily undifferentiated ‘sociology’.[3] The odd historical relation in this respect between thought and reality, the fact that political thought predominated when the scope of politics was limited, and that social thought replaced it when the scope of politics was extended, has always owed more to hope than to reality itself.

But Cambridge is to take the conservative turn. In refusing institutionally to reconsider the relation between the newer sorts of philosophical conversation and a social theory which might interest us; in insisting on the sharp separation of sociology from anthropology; and by implication insisting also on its super-ordinate relation to politics, it is set to re-invent misunderstanding and ensure sterility.

[1] The arguments in Cambridge in the later 19th century have been recovered by Stefan Collini in That Noble Science of Politics by Collini, Donald Winch and John Burrow, reviewed here by Peter Clarke (LRB, 1 February 1984). A history of the later comparable moves and non-moves in Oxford, Norman Chester’s Economics, Politics and Social Studies in Oxford, 1900-85 (Macmillan, 203 pp., £27.50, 10 July, 0 333 40837 3) does not include sociology in its introductory conspectus of ‘social studies’ and mentions it only in two short paragraphs in the main text. A picture of the moves made elsewhere, especially at the LSE, can be put together from Essays on the History of British Sociological Research, edited by Martin Bulmer (Cambridge, 257 pp., £25, 1985, 0 521 25477 9).

[2] The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration, Polity, 402 pp., £19.50, 1984, 0 7456 0006 9; The Nation Slate and Violence: Vol. II of a Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, Polity, 399 pp., £19.50, 14 November 1985, 0 7456 0031 X.

[3] This line of argument is developed and much of the pervasive perplexity unravelled in the three remarkable volumes of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s Politics, Social Theory, False Necessity and Plasticity into Power, to be published later this year by Cambridge. Unger’s Passion, in which he discusses the Modernist view of the self, was reviewed by Paul Seabright (LRB, 4 July 1985).