Latent Discontent

W.G. Runciman

  • Solidarity and Schism: ‘The Problem of Disorder’ in Durkheimian and Marxist Sociology by David Lockwood
    Oxford, 433 pp, £48.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 19 827717 2

David Lockwood is the sociologist’s sociologist in the same way that Ken Rosewall used to be the tennis player’s tennis player: he’s the one the other pros turn out to watch. But you need to know the fixture list. To switch to an older metaphor, he is apt not only to hide his light under a bushel but to hide the bushel as well. He never writes book reviews or goes on television or airs his views about the state of the nation on Radio Three. It is typical of him that he should choose, as he has, to publish one of the most effective criticisms of the Marxist theory of action in an obscure American symposium, one of the most illuminating recent comments on the so-called ‘Weber thesis’ in an otherwise unmemorable festschrift, and one of the most valuable discussions of the alleged proletarianisation of clerical labour in a subsection of a postscript to a second edition of his influential monograph of 1958 on The Black-Coated Worker. So when he publishes in book form his long-considered views on some central issues in macrosociological theory, it is an event not only to be celebrated within the cloisters of academic sociology but to be drawn to the attention of anyone interested in the questions about the workings of human societies which have exercised him over more than three decades.

This said, the way in which he has chosen to do it may deter readers who are not, and have no wish to be, versed in backward-looking disputes between rival commentators over well-worn texts. Why, such readers may ask, does Professor Lockwood not go straight to his own answers to the questions he thinks important instead of addressing other people’s? Isn’t the literature of sociology too full of books about books already? Doesn’t he accept Whitehead’s dictum that a science which hesitates to forget its founders is lost? But in Lockwood’s case, these questions are much less to the point than in all too many which could be cited from the literature of recent Anglo-American sociology. Solidarity and Schism is not an easy read. But this is a reflection of the long gestation of Lockwood’s ideas, the scrupulous fairness of his treatment of other authors, and the inherent complexity of much of his argument. To someone who wants to object that it can hardly matter any longer where or why Marx and Durkheim were right or wrong, the answer is: read this book and find out.

Before I discuss its significance further, however, it may be worth my emphasising three things which the book is not. First, it is not an explication de texte: it does not purport to tell us what Marx and Durkheim ‘really’ said. Second, it is not a history of ideas: it does not set out to trace the course of either Marx’s or Durkheim’s influence on other authors or to explore the reasons for which they have received the attention they have. Third, it is not an exercise in what is best labelled (as by Lockwood himself) ‘philosophical anthropology’: that is, it is not about alienation, inter-subjectivity, the human condition, the Post-Modernist dilemma or the death of socialism. The point calls for emphasis because there is very little (some readers will say, too little) in the book about the workings of specific societies as documented in the historical and ethnographic record. But that is, all the same, what it is about.

Its central contention is that Marx and Durkheim between them set what is still the agenda for macrosociological theory, and that despite the apparent incompatibility of their basic presuppositions the residual categories of each are analytically central to the other. To the satisfaction of this reviewer, at least, he has made his case. Once he has, two things follow. First, it becomes possible to see why so much (but not quite all) of both Marxist and Functionalist sociology is not merely unilluminating but fundamentally misconceived. Second, it becomes possible to see how the long-standing debate between the ‘normative’ and ‘conflict’ schools of sociological theory can be reformulated in more constructive terms.

Marxism, admittedly, has never lacked critics as ready as Lockwood to point out its inability to account for the failure of the proletariats of advanced capitalist societies to behave as Marx predicted they would. But the force of Lockwood’s argument lies in his claim that the underlying reason for this failure is a refusal to acknowledge that the normative status order by which all societies are to some degree held together is not something to be explained away but to be explicitly incorporated into any theory of class conflict and class-consciousness which will be capable of accommodating the known historical facts. All the permutations and variations of Marxist diagnoses of capitalist societies, from ‘community fetishism’ to Gramscian ‘hegemony’ and back again, are merely different attempts to circumvent, if not simply to ignore, this critical weakness.

Similarly, although Functionalists in all of its various guises has never lacked critics equally ready to point out its inability to account for outbreaks of disorder and radical change, the force of Lock wood’s argument lies in his claim that the ‘Durkheimian scheme’ defines out from the very beginning the possibility of class polarisation and social schism except in terms of the breakdown of a previous system of shared beliefs and values. The critical weakness in the treatment of these topics by Durkheim and his intellectual descendants is not that they deny the existence of disparities of resources and the antagonisms which they generate. How indeed could they? It is that they refuse to incorporate them explicitly into their theories of ‘anomic declassification’, thereby mirroring the refusal of Marx’s intellectual descendants to incorporate the normative status order into their theories of the ‘proletarian end-shift’.

This summary might suggest that Lockwood’s own solution will turn out to be some grand overarching synthesis of Marxist and Durkheimian theory. But it is not. On the contrary, he is no less critical of attempts to synthesise the two than of attempts to pit them directly against each other in a knock-out contest. His solution is to recognise, in a way that neither Marxists nor Durkheimians are able to do, that, as he puts it, ‘the most important implication of the idea of the incongruity between power and status relationships is that the material and moral resources which are at any one time embodied in, or appropriated by, structures of institutionalised authority never exhaust the full range of potentially exploitable resources’ – that is, of resources which are ‘free-floating’ in the sense coined by S. N. Eisenstadt in The Political Systems of Empires. The section of Lockwood’s concluding chapter in which this suggestion is expounded is frustratingly brief. But it cannot be better summarised for the purposes of a review than by quoting again from his own words: ‘for the most part, free-floating resources are not random in occurrence; indeed, they are chiefly the consequences of system contradictions, which produce not only patterns of deviant motivation, deriving from a sense of relative deprivation or social injustice, but also the conditions – especially those favourable to innovations in beliefs – under which such latent discontent can be mobilised in the promotion of new social practices.’

This slightly gnomic sentence needs to be glossed with the comment that by ‘system contradictions’ Lockwood means institutional, as opposed to interpersonal, incompatibilities by which conflict is generated. As he points out, interpersonal conflicts may be not merely endemic but intense within a society the structure of whose institutions remains stable; and conversely, institutional conflict can be quite compatible with stable interpersonal relations. But provided that this qualification is given its proper weight, the general proposition which Lockwood is advancing is (or so I believe) correct. It needs to be supplemented by hypotheses derived from it which specify in a form testable against the evidence of the historical and ethnographic record just what conditions mobilise what discontents in the promotion of what new social practices. But it cannot be criticised for being either trivial or circular.

At this point, however, I have to enter one major reservation about Lockwood’s argument. I hesitate to assert dogmatically that I am right and he is wrong. But there is, at the least, an objection to be made which needs more of a rebuttal than he gives it. As Lockwood defines the terms of the debate, the ‘problem of disorder’ is both analysed in retrospect and solved in prospect in terms of an opposition between the rules which govern the distribution of material resources within a society and the rules which govern the legitimation of that distribution according to some collectively-held criterion of value. But what about the distribution of the means of coercion by which, on the one hand, the distribution of resources must be sanctioned and, on the other hand, the legitimacy of their distribution upheld? Lockwood is emphatic that the normative status order is more than a matter of criteria of social inclusion and exclusion, and that the concept of status is not to be reduced to the concept of normative, as opposed to economic or coercive, power. But without sonic notion of the constraints on social action implied independently of the distribution of the means of production and coercion alike, the Durkheimian contribution to the problem of disorder is not merely inadequate but redundant. Of course, Lockwood is right to insist that relations of status are inexplicable without reference to law as well as custom, just as he is right to insist that relations of status and of economic class are interdependent. But the implication that status relations are therefore reducible to coercive and economic relations is an altogether stronger and more controversial claim. If it can be sustained, then it needs to be much more fully expounded and thoroughly defended than Lockwood seems willing to allow for.

The lack of such an exposition and defence is the more surprising because elsewhere in his concluding chapter Lockwood is prepared to say that the problem of social integration ‘cannot be fully understood without taking account of the ways in which changes in both the normative and realistic conditions of action are usually the unintended consequences, or system effects, of the interrelations of a society’s economic, political and religious subsystems’. This proposition is not merely valid, but valid precisely because it recognises that the three are empirically interdependent but analytically distinct. So what then becomes of the inherent inextricability of the status order from relations of economic class and relations underpinned by legal and thereby coercive sanctions?

This reservation is more than a quibble. Indeed, it leads in to questions as fundamental to macrosociological theory as those raised by Lockwood’s contrapuntal juxtaposition of Marxian and Durkheimian theories. But even if I am right, it does not follow that Lockwood’s central thesis is undermined. That thesis could, were he so persuaded, be reformulated readily enough to accommodate my reservation. The much more important point is that this is one of those infrequent books which will have a lasting influence on the way in which its author’s discipline is practised. Once its lessons have been absorbed (as in due course they surely will be), sociologists will no longer be able to write about these topics (as they will surely continue to do) in quite the same way again.