| Soziale Systeme 4 (1998), H.1,
Across the Great (and Small) Divides
Stephan Fuchs/Douglas A. Marshall
Zusammenfassung: Postmoderne Theorien
können den Dualismus von Natur und Gesellschaft nur anthropozentrisch
und aristotelisch überwinden. Die konstruktivistische Theorie des
Beobachtens ist dieser Aufgabe besser gewachsen. "Person"
und "Ding" können dann als Resultat von Attributionen
begriffen werden, die mit den Sozialstrukturen des Beobachtens variieren.
Dinge und Personen sind demnach keine ontisch separaten Gegebenheiten,
sondern durch ein Kontinuum von Übergängen verbunden. Von dieser
Warte aus kann die Besonderheit der Moderne darin gesehen werden,
daß mehr und mehr Beobachter mehr und mehr Verbindungen zwischen
Natur und Gesellschaft herstellen.
Structure and Observation
A central observation of Luhmanns (1997,
92ff., 134ff., 776ff.) work is that any order must be accomplished,
or does not come about at all. This latter possibility is actually
now more likely than ever, given that modernity can no longer rely
on kinship, the fatherly Prince, the Good Society, shared standards
of rationality, or the moral community of all well-meaning people
to serve as "skyhooks" of order, to use Dennetts
(1995) metaphor. Neither can
it be expected that all arguments will any day now converge on HaberMaster
reasons in discourse. Order is improbable and precarious. Under
conditions of multiple contingency, there are no guarantees that
independent experiencing and communicating "systems" will
couple and coordinate their experiences and communications at all.
Contingency makes order improbable and unstable, and it makes consensus
precarious and revokable at any moment.
If they do emerge, order and consensus are never widespread in
the beginning; let alone universal, or even a priori. They can only
start as local, temporary, and contested selective couplings. Under
certain rare conditions, however, they might extend over time and
space to include those who were not present when the initial arrangement
was made. These strangers have no memory of, or obligation to, the
original settlement. Their commitment cannot be relied upon and
taken for granted. They could, and often will, reject a settlement
and re-negotiate a different order. A critical problem, then, is
when one or the other of these two outcomes will tend to occur.
We start, again, with Luhmann, and observe that all events are
local. All events disappear; all events disappear immediately and
forever if they are not followed by similar events; the method or
machine that produces similar events is the key to producing structure.
A "machine" is defined here, in loose connection to Heidegger,
as anything that does what it does without reflecting on how this
is possible. Machines aim for indifference toward variations to
assure repetitions and condensations. Machines can be Human or Nonhuman,
conversational or organizational; the important difference is habitualization,
not the substance or essence of that which is being habitualized,
domesticated, or caged.
Machines of this substrate-neutral kind can generalize local and
temporary couplings beyond their local circumstances and points
of origin. But this never happens by necessity or automatically.
It must be made to happen, or does not come about at all. Seen sociologically
and constructivistically, universality is an outcome, not cause,
of an order being extended across space and over time(1). When this
happens, the micro turns into the macro, a local convention turns
into the law of the land, and agency turns into structure which
constrains further agency. The "intrinsic force" of the
better argument is never forceful enough to make order binding,
although those who make order happen will, and must, later invoke
just such rational forces. "Rationality" is a reconstructive
justification of a frontstage observer, who explains success by
truth, and progress by reason. History notwithstanding, order either
happens or doesnt. If it happens, someone or something made
it happen, usually against resistance and competition from other
efforts (White 1992, 9).
Once order is accomplished, "against all odds", it must
be maintained against entropy, or the disappearance of structure
and coupling. In the last analysis, social entropy results from
the fact that it is always more work to maintain relationships than
it is to let them disappear. There are many more ways not
to be connected in relationships than to be so connected. Modernity
increases the ratio of possible, yet absent, to actual ties and
connections dramatically. Much of modern society is "structural
holes," or the absence of possible ties within a network
(Burt 1992). Compounding the problem,
order must not only be stabilized against noise, but also against
alternative orders, which may profit from the "normative force
of the factual," especially when they have been around for
several generations. What is more, some social fields, including
science and avantgarde art, even encourage and reward disorder in
celebrating innovativeness and creativity. Such fields constantly
produce and search for noise and disorder, most of which must then
be discarded and demarcated from the few "true" advances
and "real" breakthroughs. Modernity may not be more rational,
more true, or more objective than previous social formations, but
it certainly is more restless, lacking any possibility to constrain
its own future in a stable ontology or teleology.
To the extent that it does emerge and endure, a social structure
effectively constrains the "underdetermination" and "interpretive
flexibility" that are endless and "fundamentally irresolvable"
only in abstract philosophical principle, not in actual social and
scientific practice. Flexibility often happens after the fact, when
more can be seen, and when alternatives can be contrasted with what
actually happened. Some postempiricist philosophers, and some "soft"
constructivists, have inferred relativism from underdetermination,
but this ignores that not just anything goes once a structure is
in place that effectively constrains what is possible next. Structure
comes with history, and together they set the parameters for the
future. The best predictor of a systems current state is its
immediately preceding state, ceteris paribus(2).
Revolutionary ruptures remain possible, but become more improbable
and rare. In Kuhnian terms, meaning incommensurability and relativism
do sometimes occur, but are not the standard cases in any culture.
Incommensurability is more frequent between cultures, but
its actual degree depends on the extent of interactions between
them. When there is some interaction across the borders, "trading
zones" emerge in which "pidgins" and "creoles"
mitigate incommensurability (Galison
1997, Ch. 9).
Sociologically, relativism indicates a crisis in social solidarity
and cohesion, not a "theoretically" unlimited number of
"logically possible" alternative worldviews. To be sure,
an observer of a structure can perceive more, and different, alternatives
or states, especially as a detached "theorist" or remote
"critic." He can observe what happened, and contrast the
actual outcomes with possible ones, including ideal speech situations
and other utopias. At the same time, this observer observes within
his own "unmarked state," which consists of his own modes
and frameworks of observing. The hows of his observing remain
invisible to himself at the time he observes what he observes.
There are always fewer alternatives in practice than in theory.
Variable Constructs and Constructions
Since they do not follow philosophical legislation as to what science,
or any culture, can and cannot do, various networks and their cultures
are not of one piece, as if molded after one essential logic, and
demarcated from their environments once and for all by some fixed
and stable "demarcation criteria." Consider science. All
of it is, of course, "constructed" in the sense
that there would be no science if no one was doing it. But, by itself,
this is a rather trivial point. The reason this point has attracted
so much angry publicity and polemic is that "social construction"
has been confused with referential inadequacy. That this is a non
sequitur can be seen in the fact that cars, refrigerators,
and children are constructed as well, but no one makes a big epistemological
deal out of that, and starts doubting their reality. Constructions
are real as well. In fact, some constructions appear unconstructed
to those who live in and by them. They turn into the stuff that
"lifeworlds" are made of, including unproblematic background
assumptions, institutions, and paradigms. In a nutshell: While all
networks and cultures must be constructed, only some of them are
constructivist. This explains why skepticism and realism
are distributed differentially across the intellectual field and
over time (Collins 1998).
Constructivism has generated much angry controversy and hostile
polemic (Fuchs 1996). At bottom,
the current science wars in academia rest on failures to distinguish
between levels of observation, or between the what and the
how of observing (Luhmann
1992). In observing how some science constructs, the constructivist
observer cannot contribute to that science, only to his own, since
his observations are not to be fed into the network that is the
science he observes, but into the network surrounding that second
level observer. This network can be, for example, philosophy, sociology,
or history of science. This means that constructivism has nothing
to say about the "truth" of the science it observes. However,
insofar as the networks into which such observations are to be fed
are part of science as well, they raise their own truth claims
constructivism understands itself as an accurate account
of some science, superior to, say, traditional epistemology.
As a result, first- and second-order observers are united by the
"code" of truth and its systematic elaborations, such
as objectivity, empirical adequacy, logical non-contradiction, and
the like (Fuchs 1997). From here,
we can go one step further, and suggest that what matters for second-order
observing is not the truth of the first level, and not even social
construction per se, but how social and cultural constructions
vary and covary with other variables, and how this affects
the outcomes of work, including philosophical rationalizations of
practice. Constructions vary, and they co-vary with other variables,
including the social structures in which such constructions take
As a result, we expect to observe a wide empirical variety of networks
and their cultures or self-descriptions, differing in the way they
construct and re-construct their own realities. For example, at
the height of their imperial success and explanatory confidence,
some well-established and mature networks produce solid realism
and normal science, while more fragmented, insecure, and loosely
coupled networks behave more skeptically and relativistically.
Overcoming essentialism and allowing for variation avoids the "New
Wars of Truth" between science and its constructivist observers
by suspending epistemological arguments about the "correctness"
of various philosophical rationalizations of practice. For science,
of course, science is about reality, not society; this is the "unmarked
state" of any observing which cannot observe itself at the
same time (Luhmann 1997, 49).
Any science, including sociology of science, explains itself as
the outcome of its chief epistemic virtues and merits. The role
of philosophy is to rationalize such self-descriptions into a coherent
frontstage account that can convince outsiders and novices.
In addition, a structural constructivism that is sensitive to variations,
including variations in itself, can observe various philosophies
as the ideologies of cultural workers located in different positions
in time and social structure. For example, instead of asking: is
relativism or realism the "correct" account of science?,
structural constructivism turns relativism and realism into "dependent
variables." Then, one can observe when, and for whom, a certain
science appears as universal and objective truth, and when science
is seen as a local social construct. Allowing for variation, we
could investigate when and why one or the other outcome occurs,
and which social forces either extend or restrict the extension
and stabilization of order. Once variation is introduced, the attention
shifts from "science as such" to various empirical sciences
doing very many different kinds of work, their "subcultures,"
local settings, and historical changes. This does not mean that
there is no unity to science at all, only that this unity must be
observed at a very abstract level. At the same time, the unity of
science exists only for an observer of science within
science, and so is not itself unitarian, but a part of science,
and therefore "partial."
We need to overcome essentialism, get rid of the remaining Aristotelianism
and agency humanism in social science, turn natural kinds, such
as "rationality," into dependent variables, and replace
substance by relation everywhere, including in persons (Fuchs
1999). One benefit from allowing for variation is to see various
epistemologies as the "ideologies" or "rational myths"
of intellectual workers, located in different positions and networks
in time and social space (Fuchs 1993a). Another benefit concerns
the unhelpful and hopelessly outdated Science/Humanities division
and opposition. The traditional explanations of cultural and epistemological
diversity, centered around methodological and ontological divisions
between the Two Cultures and the Double Hermeneutic, no longer suffice.
While the Humanities/Science division may survive in academic organizations,
its philosophical elaborations are becoming less convincing
all the time.
For example, important variations in scientific cultures cut
across the Nature/Society divide (Schneider
1993). With Schneider, we would expect to observe "soft"
enchanted physics (e.g., 16th century alchemy) and "hard"
realist literature (state socialist art). New research networks
are generally weaker than older ones, whether they deal with Nature
or Society. Some soft fields have harder catnets inside of them,
often crystallizing around some solid equipment with black boxes.
Some research frontiers in hard science behave rather softly, exploring
new areas of uncertainty. While the traditional "object"
or, in more modern terms, the "referential ecologies"
of certain specialties may make a difference in all this,
it is impossible to tell just which difference they make before
the science we want to explain informs us about its object. As observers,
we have no independent access to some referential ecology prior
to specialist investigations, for this would mean we were specialists,
not (specialist!) observers of specialists. Therefore, sociology
cannot explain science as a result of that sciences referential
niche in the world.
In sum, constructivism implies that we cannot support or advance
ontological explanations for variations in intellectual cultures
because we cannot participate in, only observe, these cultures.
Sociological explanations of a science must differ from the explanations
that science offers for itself, if only to avoid redundancy. The
sciences explanations of themselves as corresponding to some
reality and reason are not a premise for constructivist observing.
Sociological constructivism must bracket truth claims. This indifference
was already one of the basic principles of the Strong Program. Sociology
of science is sociology, not the science it observes. It cannot
contribute anything to the science it observes. It cannot settle
a sciences controversies, only its own. Sociological constructivism
advcances its own truth claims on a second level, but cannot resolve
truth matters occuring on the level of the science it observes.
Postism: Words and Worlds(3)
One of the deepest divisions in academic culture separates the
Two Cultures of Science and Humanism. In cultural and science studies,
especially their "postist" wings, there has been much
excitement lately about breaking down modernist barriers, collapsing
metaphysical distinctions, inverting and subverting rationalist
hierarchies, narrowing the gaps between opposite ontological poles,
and deconstructing Western Enlightenment metaphysics. With great
drama and fanfare, the "end of the modern age" is being
announced, usually without a good sense of what will or should take
its place, or what exactly the "postist" changes are that
make the present or imminent future so radically different from
the classical modern age.
In the larger culture, "postism" is a construct of cultural
workers who specialize in the manipulation of symbols, texts, and
the commodification of signs. Therefore, postmodernism is concentrated
in the tertiary sector, especially in the reflexive and avantgarde
branches of capitalist aesthetics, such as fashion, architecture,
cinema, or high art and literature. The new professions specializing
in images seem to be particularly receptive to postism because their
work consists of creative and reflexive manipulations of symbols,
which gradually seem to lose their connection with what they used
to represent, and become a "virtual" reality in its own
right. This loose play of free-floating signs leads to a semiotic
skepticism where signs seem only to point at each other, never to
an underlying reality. All that is solid melts into air.
In fact, however, this postmodernism is rather modern. Contingency
and antifoundationalism already are major themes in modern sociological
theory. If the classics "converge" on anything, it is
not, via Parsons, "general values," but the growing suspicion
that modernity has irrevocably lost its metaphysical anchors and
bearings. This suspicion is strongest in Webers Nietzschean
moments, in Durkheim, and the later Mannheim. Sociology is precisely
the result of the realization that there is nothing transcendental,
and that everything that exists is empirical. Postism has a tendency
to infer arbitrariness from contingency. But even if there are no
true and transcendental universals, some institutions are still
stronger than others, still reach further than others, and endure
longer than others. One might say that transcendence is a rare and
emergent property of immanence. There are some modern institutions,
such as the Liberal Self, which have successfully ruled out alternatives
for the moment, and until further notice. That
is, transcendence is itself the improbable outcome of empirical
stabilizations and condensations of order. Modernity makes such
stabilizations more unlikely by increasing empirical and historical
diversity and contingency.
The postist attitude or mentality is that of a remote and detached
observer, ironicizing from a distance what appears
only natural and valid elsewhere. The ironist will do well in the
company of other ironists, but not in a fundamentalist religious
sect, not in a Senate subcommittee hearing, and not as a speaker
during an official ceremony. Within the academy, the ironist and
skeptical observer emerges in intellectual fields with very loose
coupling, weak policing, and high practitioner discretion. Such
fields are very conversational and textual, soon imagining the whole
world as a large text. Deconstructivist irony is less of an option
when work must be done fast in intense competition with others who
also try to get more grants to do more work earning more grants,
and so on. Irony is not an option when one needs to justify ones
budget proposal, respond to outside critics, or teaches students.
It is the ironists who are skeptical of physics, not the physicists.
Many ironists are very serious about irony.
In academia, postism expresses a vague and generalized skepticism
toward foundations and truth, supported by multicultural politics
and the ascriptive entitlements of standpoint epistemologies. This
skepticism extends from the "crisis of representation"
to the "illusions of presentism," from the "end of
logocentrism" to the "Death of the Author" (see
Rosenau 1992). What runs through these motifs are rather
idle doubts about the possibility of objective knowledge per
se. Do not authors continue to claim credit for the discovery
that authors dont really exist? This sort of skepticism makes
it difficult to get any work done, and so we would expect it to
be most widespread in intellectual fields that dont.
Indeed, postism is most prominent in soft fields with little equipment
and machinery, such as literature and literary criticism (Fuchs/Ward
1994). In sociology, postism is almost hegemonic in anti-hegemonic
critical theory, gender, and cultural studies, but shrugged off
as an annoying disturbance in more solid and research-oriented sectors,
such as survey centers, status expectation research, or the network
exchange tradition. Correspondingly, sociology has both postmodernism
and postmodernity. Postmodernity tracks empirical changes in society
with the usual methods, whereas postmodernism is more of a global
ideological and political attack on science and representation.
In addition, postism is prominent whenever traditional methods
become unworkable or unrewarding, such as in anthropology, where
the tribal societies are disappearing together with the classical
realist ethnography. In literature, there are now many more critics
and epigones than classical authors and texts, resulting in an emphasis
on "theory" and "reflexivity." Habermas
(1990, 192) says that, by questioning the authorial privileges
of classical intentionalist hermeneutics, postism also raises the
status of the critic vis-a-vis the classic.
What Is Modern about Modernity?
The most famous postist approach in science studies is actor-network
philosophy(4). In the footsteps of
poststructuralist semiotics, Bruno Latour and his followers in the
very influential "actor-network" network have set up their
own favorite target for collapsing and inverting. This is the "Great
Divide" between Society and Nature, or human vs. non-human
"actants"(5). The Great
Divide was erected in the 17th century, in the debates between natural
and political philosophers, most prominently Boyle and Hobbes (Shapin
and Schaffer 1985). The 17th century established the "constitution
of truth" calling in the modern era. This constitution denaturalizes
society and desocializes nature, setting up the two separate poles
like two branches of Government: "I define a world as modern
when the political constitution of truth creates those two separate
parliaments, one hidden for things, the other in the open for citizens"
(Latour 1993, 15).
According to actor-network "theory,"(6)
in each of these branches a regime of representation is set up.
Science represents things natural that cannot speak at all; the
state represents citizens that cannot all speak at the same time.
In these orders of representation, Nature and Society have been
separated and purified, but can still be called upon to explain
each other: Nature explains Society in naturalist and physicalist
theories of knowledge and behavior; Society explains Nature in social
constructivist accounts of science. That is, the modernist transcendence
of Nature is also immanent, and the immanence of Society is also
transcendent: Nature can be controlled and manipulated; Society
cannot be changed at will because it is larger than the sum of its
parts. Somehow, this dialectic allows "us moderns" to
rule the rest of the world.
At the same time, modernity separates itself from premodern times
by means of yet another Great Divide. This one consists of a series
of retrospective revolutionary breaks with the past. These breaks
paper over an essential historical continuity that links all "collectives"
whose Nature and Culture still form seamless webs or networks in
a unified cosmological order. To compensate for the resulting loss
of spirituality, the moderns remove God from the external order
of Nature, and internalize Him in their Soul during the Reformation.
This is how clever Latour believes "we" are, whoever this
"we" may be.
After Latour and the other persings(7)
have shown how this modern constitution was drafted and protected,
they go on to say that it has never existed, really (1993, 39).
In fact, "modernity has nothing to do with the invention of
humanism, with the emergence of the sciences, with the secularization
of society, or with the mechanization of the world" (34). This
is a tall order indeed, announced with the chuzpe typical of this
school, disregarding centuries of evidence with a quick gesture.
Instead, so the story goes on, human and nonhuman actants have always
formed "technoscientific" networks that cut across the
Great Divides, with no respect for metaphysical and ontological
boundaries. Nature and Society have always been co-constructed through
coaltions and alliances that know no borders.
These coalitions and alliances produce "hybrids," "quasi-objects,"
and "cyborgs" that are never purely social, purely natural,
or purely textual and discursive. These entities populate the fabulous
"Middle Kingdom," before the invention of both Society
and Nature. It is this Kingdom Latour wants to rule. Needless to
say, it is not the quasi-objects that have elected him to be their
spokesman. As all Kings, Latour is self-appointed.
While modernity seems to have effectively separated the two realms
through the work of "purification," this has paradoxically
accelerated the process of mutual interaction and diffusion between
humans and non-humans. Actually, it is in this acceleration that
the power of modernity lies. The moderns deceive themselves; they
claim separation but practice integration, and must wait for Latour
to explain to them what they have been doing all along. Latour is,
in this sense, the last great modernist and destroyer of deception,
despite his self-identification as an "a-modernist."
From an a-modern perspective, "we" whoever that
is "have never been modern." Rather, the modernist
dualisms and distinctions are the work of "purifications,"
once "translations" and "mediations" have crossed
the boundaries of the Great Divide and created the hybrids and quasi-objects
of the Middle Kingdom. Nature and Society form a seamless web that
can be untangled and separated only artificially, and only after
the fact of boundary-crossings. Neither side of the Nature-Society
pole can be privileged in any explanations. Instead, what must be
understood are the processes of "enrolment" and "interessement,"
in which certain actants manage to establish "centers of translation"
from which they claim to be the spokespersons of integrated technoscientific
networks. Before that happens, however, things natural contribute
as much to the construction of hybrids as persons social, which
makes them co-equals in the process of defining and assembling reality.
Against social constructivism, actor-network persings maintain
that the social which they falsely and narrowly reduce to
the "interests" prominent in the explanations of science
by early Edinburgh Strong Programmers cannot "explain"
the natural since interests and interactions are not prior to technoscientific
outcomes. Rather, interests are constructed and re-constructed in
the very same process of producing these outcomes. Following scientists
around, they are observed to assemble "heterogeneous"
networks of support which are made from a variety of things social
and natural, without clear distinctions.
Some Problems in the Middle Kingdom
There are some serious flaws in this philosophy, the most important
one being that it is still philosophy. In part, this flaw follows
from a narrow and distorted misconception of the social and sociology.
To begin with, it is inaccurate to reduce sociology to interest
explanations. While these were popular in the work of some Strong
Programmers in the 70s, "interests" do by no means exhaust
the sociological arsenal. Social science can also not be reduced
to the intentional actions of persons. Sociology does not equate
society with subjects or persons, and it does not say that social
structure is not itself constructed (Latour
In their unsplendid Parisian isolation, Latour and his followers
disregard US organization and network science, which have always
combined things and people, but without adding any special metaphysics
and ontology. This is especially true for technological and contingency
theories. In network and organizational accounts, things and objects
have always appeared as raw materials and means of production,
as congealed and reified structures, as physical constraints on
communication, as technological cages of complexity, as dramatic
simplifications of natural processes, or as sacred totems of group
solidarity. Actor-network philosophy also pays no attention to the
Neodurkheimians, who have long shown that modernity isnt that
modern after all, but remains premodern in such structures as urban
tribes and everyday rituals.
Investing non-humans with independent agency in a "symmetrical
anthropology" also comes dangerously close to anthropocentrism.
The principle of symmetry is paradoxical, because such "investing"
must still be done by someone, and cannot be done by the things-in-themselves.
As Collins and Yearley (1992a),
amongst others, have observed, generalized symmetry in fact restores
realism by making the "inner properties" (Latour
1993, 52) of objects a factor in accounts and explanations.
Latour wants to reveal and rescue the innocent thing-in-itself,
before all representation, delegation, translation, and construction.
But the dramatic fanfare with which this antimodernist metaphysics
is announced we are being assured that nothing less than
a "Copernican Counter-Revolution" is happening here (Latour
1993, 76) conceals the rather old-fashioned character
of the empirical work produced under its umbrella. This work "takes
us directly back to the scientists conventional and prosaic
accounts of the world from which we escaped in the early 70s"
(Collins/Yearley 1992a, 322).
The Pasteurization of France, for example, tells a rather
traditional individualistic story of a scientist-hero, whose cunning
machinations and manipulations almost singlehandedly transform French
Latour remains squarely stuck in metaphysics because, in trying
to overcome metaphysics, he accepts the very metaphysical way in
which the Nature/Culture dualism has traditionally been framed.
Instead of really collapsing the poles, "generalized symmetrical
anthropology" performs an even grander metaphysical trick:
It sets up a mega-pole, prior and even more fundamental than to
the other two poles. This mega-pole, the most original and truest
reality underneath all secondary constructions, consists of collectives
of quasi-objects and quasi-subjects. Instead of saying, there
is only nature or, there is only society, this
amodern metaphysics says, there are only networks and hybrids
and their center of translation is in Paris, at the
Ecole des Mines.
The Ecole des Mines is part of the academy, not the Middle Kingdom.
Far from anchoring to a primordial bedrock reality, generalized
symmetrical anthropology is still simply a part of "science."
That is, it is published in books and articles, talked about at
conferences, cited in other books and articles, and taught to students.
That science is part of society, not nature, and not the Middle
Kingdom. Actor-network research occurs only in and as
society, not nature. The symmetrical anthropology must still be
communicated to, and rewarded by, other (social) scientists, not
scallops (Callon), bubble chambers (Pickering), or the anthrax bacillus
(Latour). The fact that scallops and bubble chambers cannot communicate
may not be a good reason to draw a deep distinction between Society
and Nature, but it does put a damper on attempts at telling a scientific
story from their perspectives.
This means that "the social" is still "privileged,"
because we dont learn anything about scallops if there isnt
any research about them; we dont know about the air pump except
from reading Shapin and Schaffer and other historians, and we would
know nothing about hybrids and the parliament of things were it
not for good old Harvard University Press, that crown jewel of modernism,
publishing Latours books. These basic social realities have
not changed at all, despite the symmetrical ontology of the new
"parliament of things" having supposedly liberated objects
from their encroachment in sociology. Symmetrical anthropology cannot
go to a deeper level before and underneath science, nature, and
society because there is no such deeper level.
Actor-network persings do not, of course, give objects their own
voice. In his famous analysis of scallop domestication, Callon (1986)
claims to give the scallops equal ontological capacities and status
with humans. But without scientific communications and representations,
the scallops simply do not enter the picture. "This means that
when the scientist says scallops we see only scientists
saying scallops. We never see scallops scalloping, nor do we see
scallops controlling what scientists say about them" (Collins/Yearley
1992b). One cannot tell the story from the side of the scallops,
just as one cannot know what it feels like to be a bat. Things are
still not speaking for themselves that would be truly
antimodern. In effect, then, Callon must either claim that the scallops
speak through him, or through the scallop scientists. In the first
case, he turns from a sociologist into a scallop scientist, albeit
a bad one, due to lack of training and expertise. In the second
case, he repeats what scallop scientists are already saying, adding
nothing to their picture of the world. Since Callon does neither
of these, he actually proceeds in a quite straightforward sociological
way: He brings a descriptive and theoretical apparatus consisting
of the familiar actor-network repertoire such as "translation,"
"enrolment," and "interessement" to bear
on a scientific episode. This apparatus is neither that of the scallops,
nor that of the scallop-scientists, but that of the sociologist.
Instead of a "Copernican counter-revolution" and an "amodern
political constitution of truth" we get old sociological wine
in new rhetorical bottles.
To be sure, the reason for the impossibility of perfect symmetry
is not some "essential difference" between things natural
and things social, between subjects and objects, action and behavior,
or science and hermeneutics. In this regard, our argument differs
from that of Collins and Yearley, and other "double hermeneuticians"
and interpretivists, who want to maintain the special humanist privileges
and distinctions for mysterious spirits such as intentionality,
subjective meaning, action, Verstehen, and the rest of the
romantic arsenal. We do indeed need to get rid of essentialism and
overcome dualism, but the way to do this is to overcome metaphysics
altogether, not to replace it by another, antimodern one. While
there may be no "grand" metaphysical and ontological differences
between things social and things natural, people, including Parisian
actor network theorists, have usually very little trouble taking
the "intentional stance" (Dennett
1987) toward some systems but not others. It is this
sort of variation we need to explain. To do this, metaphysics is
not necessary; sociology will do just fine.
From a sociological perspective, things social and things natural
are not separated by a grand ontological divide, but by more or
less contingent, though never arbitrary, social distinctions. These
distinctions distribute intentional and causal effects unequally
across the landscape of various populations. Sociology, practiced
as structural constructivism, can identify some variables that make
a difference in such attributions. Since there are many variables
operating at the same time, the effect of each depends on the effects
of all the others, so that all following causal arguments obtain
only ceteris paribus.
Our basic premise is that "action" and "behavior,"
"persons" and "things," "Nature" and
"Society," "science" and "humanism,"
and the other dichotomies are indeed not opposite poles of Being,
separated by an unbridgeable essentialist gap. Rather, they are
social devices of description and explanation that covary with other
sociological variables, such as the status of observers, the conditions
of observing, and the degree to which an observed system has been
rendered predictable through normal science.
All other things being equal which they never are
intentional interpretations and Verstehen are more likely
to occur when observers and observed are socially close, and when
the observed are few in number. Then, the observer is more likely
to use such "soft" and very time-consuming methods as
participant observation and Verstehen. One can verstehen
but not that many people. Therefore, when observer and observed
are separated by some large distance, and when there are very many
systems to be observed, the observer is more likely to conceive
of the observed behaviors and effects as driven by impersonal causal
forces, to be measured by quantitative formulas, and explained by
general theory. Distance and size are, of course, variables, which
means that we are dealing with a continuum here, bracketed by "understanding"
and "explanation" as opposite ideal types, and Latours
"hybrids" or "quasi-objects" somewhere in between.
One extreme pole is the pure understanding of one person: love.
The opposite extreme pole is pure explanation of all organisms:
genetics and molecular biology.
Allowing for variation makes it possible to explain when systems
move across the continuum, when they tend to become more person-like
or more thing-like, and when they occupy some intermediate position,
or the Middle Kingdom. In addition to distance and size, another
factor is time. Over time, some systems tend to get better understood
and routine, and so move closer to the mechanistic and deterministic
thing-pole. Their behavior gets more predictable and, as a result,
"intentionality" and "free will" or "decision"
decrease. At the same time, time will be counteracted by social
closeness and moral boundaries around groups (Smiley
1992, 12, 114). Within those boundaries, intentionality is a
stronger assumption than outside. Whatever is far outside the moral
boundaries separating "us" from "them" acquires
a more thing-like character, implying that "they" cannot
participate as equals in "our" constructions of "their"
behaviors. However, this may change over time as well, since boundaries
are not static and inflexible.
Such mutual exclusions are characteristic of ideological observing,
for example. Ideological observing moves the observed closer to
the thing-pole of the continuum. The opponent is caused by social
forces without being aware of them. If "they" are stuck
in ideology, they are unwilling or unable to see through their self-constructed
maze of deception, and need to be explained from the outside. Then,
"they" become a target for "our" science and
explanation, not equal hermeneutic partners in conversation. The
explanations ideological enemies give for themselves are symptoms
of deception, and so cannot be "in the truth."
The cases at the borders are ambivalent and ambiguous these
are Simmels strangers and Kuhns anomalies or Latours
hybrids. On the one hand, strangers are not well known; their mysteriousness
and exoticism call for interpretation, rather than explanation.
On the other hand, they are not really part of the group, and so
are objects rather than subjects, or some of both. That is,
object- and subject-status are ascribed, but ascriptions covary
with other variables, such as time and distance, which implies that
ascriptions will change over time and with interaction as well.
Consider a more concrete example. One does not normally understand
ones spouse as an impersonal system, driven by causal forces,
and not being responsible or accountable for her actions. This does
not mean that her actions cannot be explained by science, only that
science does not reach into love. What the spouse does may indeed
be explainable as the result of chemistry, neuroscience, or social
class, but explanations of this kind do not work in close
and intimate relations. Here, "individuals" occur, and
each is supposed to appreciate and understand the other as "really
special," not "just" as a particular configuration
and outcome of empirical forces and causes. In intimacy, agency
terms are more expected and appropriate; not even the hardest-nosed
neuroreductionists could approach their wife and kids as a neural
network, algorithm, or artificial intelligence, at least not while
and during intimate encounters and interactions. As an intimate
relationship breaks up, of course, mutual explanations and attributions
may change, moving once again closer to the thing-pole.
Scientific explanations of spouses and other intimates may become
more serviceable when making sense of some behavior in the common
agency terms becomes increasingly difficult. "Insanity"
is one concept that signals a break-up of a moral community, when
insiders who used to have special privileges in accounting for their
own behaviors turn, to some extent, into outsiders and objects
for some sort of "scientific" explanation. When social
scientists explain the behavior of large crowds, or of structural
systems such as states, they conceive of reality as more object-like
and physical. What matters is not the essential properties of different
natural kinds, but the social contexts in which different observers
attribute different faculties to systems for different pragmatic
Interpretation and explanation also vary with the amount of perceived
uncertainty. When some observer is very uncertain about the erratic
behaviors of some rather hard-to-predict system, he is more likely
to assume that that system has an internal center where it makes
decisions and choices according to unobservable rules, beliefs,
and preferences. In the movie Backdraft, the fire inspector,
played by de Niro, muses that a fire does not grow because of the
physics of flammable liquids, but because it "wants to."
Agency is being attributed here to the behavior of fires as a result
and expression of uncertainty and unpredictability. Another way
of saying this is that "agency" is the expected or observed
capacity of a system to surprise its observers. Upon being surprised,
the observer might try to get closer to this system by softer and
more interpretive methods. He might try to develop a "feeling
for the organism," and to understand this system "from
the inside" as if it had agency. "Agency"
is a moral capacity that a system receives from an observer
who is not, at present, entitled or able to make sense of that system
in deterministic terms.
Outside of close relationships, most observers will probably try
to construct deterministic explanations first, because these are
simpler, faster, and more generalizable across classes of systems.
Deterministic explanations economize on explanation costs. They
are more accomodating to the "bounded rationality" of
all observers, or their limited ability to deal with complexity
and novelty. This is especially so for organizational observers,
because the organization sets the parameters for how and what its
workers are supposed to observe, what they are expected to ignore,
and because organizations try to simplify and routinize as much
as they can. However, when this proves infeasible or inappropriate
for some reason, when exceptions and surprises accumulate, these
very same systems may be granted faculties such as "spontaneity,"
"creativity," and "originality." In this case,
the organization and its observers make special amends to the rules
and routines, such as special programs for "gifted" students
who stand out of the pack, and cannot be processed by the routine
In contrast, the observer will tend to become a "scientist"
explaining the behavior of his systems from the outside when that
behavior is serviceable under the assumption that it is simple,
repetitive, and invariant across time and place. For this, it does
not matter whether the system is a person or a thing, since "personhood"
and "thingness" are the outcomes, not causes, of observations,
attributions, and cultural work. At least, this particular
way of assigning causes is the specific contribution of sociological
An example for an account located toward the middle of the thing-person
continuum is rational choice. Rational choice conceives of actors
as "persings," combining the "soft" ambiguity
and uncertainty of individual preferences with the "hard"
maxim that all actors will optimize. Rational choice-type explanations
arose when markets increased the numbers of actors one had to deal
with. To assume that everyone is behaving "rationally,"
regardless of individual differences and idiosyncracies, is a strategy
chosen when it is no longer possible or necessary to "empathize"
with all of ones partners in exchange. The algorithmic machine
of rational action is a radically simplified construct that can
be chosen in circumstances when one observes and interacts with
very large numbers of strangers. One cannot possibly know or care
what all of them actually think or feel, and so everyone assumes
that everyone is behaving rationally.
In contrast, "thicker" descriptions and explanations
will be chosen when observer and observed are socially close, or
even intimate, ceteris paribus. In such cases, an objectifying
attitude would violate the moral expectations and taboos of such
associations. One grants the other a "rich inner life"
that cannot easily be algorithmically compressed into a standard
formula, such as self-interest or stimulus-response. This rich inner
life also allows for surprises, which preserve the "magic"
of the relationship. This magic is a vital Durkheimian sacred object,
which would be violated by a "scientific" attitude. This
may be the reason why scientists are not considered perfect spouses.
In a variation of Blacks (1976,
41) law of law, we could say:
There is more explanation between strangers; there is more hermeneutics
However, some strangers deserve an interpretive ethnography; this
happens when there are not very many of them, and when their cultures
are very exotic and mysterious. In any case, personhood and thingness
are outcomes, not causes, of social processes of attribution. People
tend to take the intentional stance toward their own pets, granting
them some amount of agency, and taking a more interpretive approach
towards making sense of them. Pets acquire the "rich inner
life" normally reserved for persons, whereas persons with Alzheimers
stop being observed as having a rich inner life. Such former persons
move closer to becoming physical objects in beds, to be handled
much as other physical objects. The important sociological
difference is not between things and people, but between the attribution
of interpretivism or determinism.
Pets move closer to personhood on the person-thing continuum, especially
when they have been around for some time to become an integral part
of a close moral community, such as a family. Then, they even acquire
"character." "Character" imposes some structure
and consistency on behaviors, makes sense of them in terms of a
network of "characteristic" dispositions, and fits them
into a schema that makes prediction more possible. Over time, "character"
may reify and generalize into "stereotype." This happens
when explanations of behaviors move back along the continuum, closer
to the object-pole. Non-pets, or other peoples pets, are not
part of ones intimate circle of associates, and so are treated
more as "strange" physical objects and biological organisms.
Such organisms may live in ones house, such as spiders, or
even in ones body, such as bacteria, but they are not part
of a moral community, and so do not acquire the privileges of agency(8).
Their behaviors do not express "character," but must be
explained by the causal methods of hard science.
The choice of methods, stances, and approaches is indeed not governed
by intrinsic differences between things social and things natural.
Rather, "social" or "natural" are the consequences
of processes of attribution that vary from observer to observer,
across time and space. Nothing is natural or social in itself. There
is no Ding-an-sich. Rortys (1979,
321) great insight is that science and hermeneutics are not
coextensive with Nature and Culture, but that science turns
into hermeneutics when there is a lot of uncertainty, and
when the "normal" methods do not seem to work anymore.
This happens, for example, in episodes of "revolutionary"
science, when imagination and creativity become more valued than
methodical and systematic reasoning. Hermeneutics is also a tribute
to the modern Self, and its celebrated capacities to invest the
world with meaning (Fuchs 1993b).
Conversely, there are very routine areas of culture, such as large
batch manufacturing or elementary public school teaching. In such
routine bureaucracies, there is little hermeneutics, but much method,
for dealing with many things or thing-like persons that are constructed
as roughly similar before they are subjected to the same treatments.
As a matter of fact, thing-like persons are routinely perceived
as standard cases, holders of ID numbers, and fully describable
by the bureaucratic formulas and classifications. This changes when
there are fewer and richer students in smaller classes in more elite
liberal arts colleges. Such organizations are paid and equipped
to perceive more individualism. Parents expect teachers to expect
that their students are all special in some way. Due to small size,
this is now possible. Larger public educational bureaucracies have
no way of dealing with all these individuals; they process large
numbers of people through standard sequences of courses and examinations,
one cohort after another.
To sum up, we do not need a new metaphysics to overcome essentialism
and dualism if we make full use of the sociological arsenal. In
fact, a new metaphysics does not solve any problems, but simply
displaces them to another level, such as the Middle Kingdom of collectives
of quasi-objects. Instead, once we allow for variation, we can observe
Nature and Society, Subject and Object, Persons and Things, Interpretation
and Explanation, or Hermeneutics and Science as the poles in a continuum
of social attribution and construction. Processes of attribution
and construction depend themselves on other variables, such as size,
time, uncertainty, or moral boundaries. This displaces the metaphysical
problematic. The next question, then, is: How are these variables
chosen and distinguished, and by whom?
The identification of "independent" and "dependent"
variables is itself based on a decision of some observer, and not
to be found in reality itself. We probably learn more about the
observer from the way he draws distinctions than about the referents
of his distinctions. This implies that distinctions are contingent
(but not arbitrary); they can be drawn but do not have to
be, and they can be drawn differently by different observers, and
for different purposes. Different distinctions can be drawn at different
times to separate different aspects of the same object. "Correct"
distinctions must be learned; they are not imprinted on the things
or properties to which they refer. Distinctions are not carved in
stone. There can be as many systems of distinction as there are
ways of approaching and dealing with the world. Distinctions are
sense-making devices that economize on information costs by highlighting
this (but not that). Without distinctions, nothing
makes sense, nothing can be observed, and nothing can be learned.
Even worse, without distinctions nothing matters (Luhmann
At the same time, distinctions can turn into obstacles for further
learning. This happens when they get reified and turn into natural
kinds. Then, they become very inflexible, and violations of the
established "order of things" are punished as moral offenses
and aberrations. One distinction (!) between science and common
sense may be that in science, such reifications are less likely
to be successful over long periods of time because competition over
discoveries increases self-produced uncertainty. In science, unlike
in common sense, violators of established classifications are less
likely to be persecuted as moral failures. This is so mostly because
science rewards innovations, which always include innovations in
classifications and distinctions.
All this is familiar sociological lore since the later Mannheim
and Durkheim(9), and part of the
interactionist, labeling, and constructivist traditions. If no one
draws a distinction, it does not exist. If a distinction is drawn
but no one pays attention to it, it does not exist in and for the
group to whom it is supposed to matter. If distinctions concern
people who draw their own distinctions, controversies and conflicts
over classification are likely to ensue. Conflicts over classifications
and distinctions are thus often conflicts over social order; "correct"
ways of classifying and distinguishing are loaded with moral significance
and righteousness. This is true especially for distinctions and
classifications that concern the sacred possessions of the group,
such as what separates "us" from "them," the
clean from the dirty, me from you, humans from nonhumans, or the
context of discovery from the context of justification. The more
outrage and consternation a violation of cognitive order provokes,
the more central and sacred that order is to the groups form
of life (and vice versa).
The most powerful distinctions are institutional labels. These
are constructs whose constructedness has become all but invisible
to those inside, perhaps because no one can seem to remember how
this construction was originally done, and by whom (Douglas
1986). Such distinctions have lost their air of contingency,
and appear to express the necessities of being, or the natural order
of things. As a result, they are guarded by strict taboos and rigid
impossibilities. Bourdieu calls such distinctions the "habitus."
Entrenched institutional labels come with an entire apparatus of
what Foucault would call "disciplinary techniques," although
he may have been too impressed by their pervasiveness and power.
Many distinctions are better described as "permanently failing
operations," because their contingency can easily be revealed,
especially in conflicts over classifications, and when these classifications
are novel and unsure of themselves. Conflicts and controversies
shatter certainties; they denaturalize distinctions and classifications
by demonstrating that they can, in fact, vary. One reason for this
is that conflicts introduce second-order observing: one group uses
its own distinctions to distinguish anothers distinctions.
The latter then appear to the former not as mirroring the real order
of things, but as "mere" constructs, "false"
ideologies, bias and prejudice, and self-serving rationalizations.
Conflicts and second-order observing turn "cultural" certainties
into "ideological" justifications (Berger
Distinctions, including truth or objectivity, are events
that must be made to happen, not independent states of affairs or
things-in-themselves. Likewise, variables themselves do not indicate
whether they are endogenous or exogenous. That distinction makes
sense only within a model of reality, not in reality itself. It
is that model, not reality, that makes the distinctions that matter
to it. The proof of a distinction is thus not its referential adequacy,
its "truth," or its mapping the actual distinctions between
natural kinds in the real world. Rather, the proof of a distinction
is its ability to do work, the most important sort of which is to
generate more useful distinctions for different purposes. Such is
the key insight of pragmatism, the only philosophy of science that
captures something about science-in-the-making.
In science and innovation, "useful" distinctions are
those that let familiar things appear in an unfamiliar light. Useful
distinctions do not redundantly copy what is already there, but
re-arrange things, move them around, switch their contexts, compare
that which usually appears incommensurable, and so on. Matters of
truth, of course, re-appear on a third level of observation ("it
is true that useful distinctions do cultural work"). This inescapability
once more signals that the code of science cannot ever be suspended
without suspending science itself. Berger (1995:95)
captures this paradox nicely in the work of Bourdieu, who demonstrates
the status-driven contingency of even the most "natural"
distinctions, only to introduce his distinctions as the ones
that go beyond ideology to capture objective truth.
Complexity and Prediction Across the Divide
It is possible to describe evolution as increases in complexity,
though not in any teleological sense, and not in the
sense of some kind of optimization or increasing superiority. Gould
has reminded us time and time again that increases in complexity
are not the telos of evolution, and that complexity is not, by itself,
always and everywhere an advantage. It all depends on the
texture of the environment and its turbulence, for example. Lawrence
and Lorsch (1967), and population
ecology, have shown how this correlation shapes organizations and
their divisions in various environmental niches. Briefly, when the
environment is rather stable, uniform, and changing slowly, simple
structures are preferred over complex ones.
Complexity is not an advantage per se. The most important
reason for this is that complex systems are more prone to internally
triggered breakdowns through multiple interacting and spiralling
failures. Complex systems have more internal environments than simple
systems, and these internal environments, if decentralized, are
difficult to coordinate and control from above, or from one single
center. Multiple internal environments produce more internal states
and events than fewer internal environments, ceteris paribus.
Complex brains with many interacting parts, multiple layers, and
decentralized feedback propagation are more prone to mental disorder
than simple brains with loose coupling and more serial hierarchical
processing from a single center. For the same reason, complex and
closely coupled technosystems are prone to internally triggered
"normal accidents" (Perrow
Differences in referential ecologies are not simply coextensive
with the old Nature/Culture separation as if all Nature were
somehow simple, linear, unchanging, and predictable, while all Culture
were complex, subjective, changing, and chaotic. The emerging science
of complexity is rapidly breaking down such old-fashioned dichotomies
on all fronts (Coveney/Highfield
1995). The logic of bureaucratic cages can be described as simple
and linear, while the behavior of particles may be described as
probabilistic and uncertain. Darwinian evolution is still going
on, with new mutations and unpredicted surprises, while aggregate
suicide rates have remained rather stable over several decades.
The simple/complex distinction is primarily that of an observer,
who decides either to reduce or elaborate complexity for purposes
of description and explanation. Generally, complexity is reduced
for prediction, control, mastery, and teaching; it is elaborated
for innovation and discovery. It is observers who decide to reduce
or increase the number of variables that are being taken into account.
It is observers who decide what margins of error are acceptable,
and it is observers who decide whether coarse-grained or fine-grained
descriptions are more suitable for their purposes. This has little
to do with substance or subject-matter, for idealizations, model
assumptions, holding constant, and ceteris paribus clauses
belong to any science, whether of Nature or Society.
At the same time, there will be variations in the possibility
and accuracy of predictions, depending, for example, on the rate
of innovation in a cultural area. It is easier to predict what Stephen
King will write next, but much more difficult to predict what Peter
Handke will. This is because an important part of the "game"
in avantgarde art or literature is to be unpredictable, while
a big part of popular culture is minimizing the risks in investing
and selling a lot of standard products to many consumers whose average
reading habits change more sluggishly. This is an example for the
gravitational collapse toward social averages: The larger a market
or audience for a product, the more sluggish and coarse-grained
its behavior, and the more standard and uniform its commodities.
This is not so because the culture industry deliberately manipulated
false consciousness, but because averages remain longer than individuals
and their scores. Departments gravitate toward intellectual mediocrity;
pluralistic politics moves toward the middle class and compromises
between various constituencies; forests constrain the height of
their trees toward the medium size; regressions regress toward the
mean, and the standard deviation in baseball scores decreases over
time. Life is just a normal curve at least in the long run.
At the same time, normal curves come with many exceptions and surprises
at their tails.
What is more, the best way to predict what King will write next
is to read as many of his previous books as possible, not, say,
an inspection of his current PET scan. Some all-too-eager cognitive
neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists believe they can
"reduce" culture to "the mind" but to
whose? Minds produce romantic poetry, microphysics, and neuroscience.
How could all this "follow" from mental Darwin machines?
Darwinism is not itself the result of natural evolution. To be sure,
brains are the result of natural evolution, but what they might
think is not.
Of course, as with all predictions, the difference between predictions
consists in the amount of error reduction, which means that predictions
are good only relative to worse ones. The maturation of the neurosciences
might make it possible to reduce the errors in PET scan based predictions
of culture, but at present, they dont even yield reasonable
Predictions also differ in how fine-grained and time-sensitive
they are; we can never predict Kings exact next words, and
our predictions will degrade rapidly once forecasts extend into
the distant future. So our best predictions are coarse-grained and
short-term: We can be reasonably sure though by no means
certain that Kings next book will be scary. But when
it comes to what he will write two decades from now (long term prediction),
or just what configuration of characters and plot twists will make
his next book scary (fine-grained prediction), predictions do not
degrade all that gracefully.
For exactly the same reasons, it is squarely impossible to predict
the future "content" of "science." The constructivists
have never defined what "content" really means, how fine-grained
explanations or predictions of "content" can be, which
exact scientific communications in which areas are predictable,
how far into the future such predictions can extend, or how many
of the vast number of papers or communications can be explained
by the same argument. Consider the following illustration. Elsewhere,
we have estimated that the annual output of the biomedical sciences
alone is about 300.000 articles (Fuchs/Westervelt
1996). Of course, these are just a small fraction of all scientific
communications, and even just a small fraction of all communications
in the biomedical field, since published papers do not include more
informal communications and contributions. But even if we do disregard
informal communications, exactly what "contents" can be
predicted and explained here? The contents of all of these articles?
Including footnotes? The distribution of the references? How far
into the future do our predictions extend before they collapse?
Is it possible to predict these predictions as well? Who could do
On the level of second-order observation, there are no simple and
complex systems in and of themselves almost any system
can be produced or observed, under some possible description and
on some level, as simple or complex. To take Coveney and Highfields
(1995, 38) example, "boy
meets girl, family intervenes, the couple dies," is an extremely
simple and algorithmically compressed, yet possible, rendition of
a highly complex love story, suited to some purposes (such as this
one here), but not to others (such as stage instructions to
the actors). To take Gell-Manns (1994)
example, quarks may be simpler when used as an expedient to account
for and "save the phenomena" in beam collisions, yet complex
when viewed as actual building blocks of matter whose still smaller
building blocks are yet to be discovered. Jaguars may be complex
in their natural habitat, but rendered simpler when caged, trained,
and exhibited in zoos.
Summing up, the simple/complex distinction cuts across the Great
Divide as well, and cannot explain variations in intellectual and
scientific cultures and specialties, either. Why is there a perceived
difference between social and natural facts at all? "The idea
that social facts might be socially constructed with no necessary
relationship with a preexisting reality is not difficult to understand,
or even to accept;" writes Ronald Giere (1988,
58), probably expressing majority opinion. But the reason is
that some social facts are more transparent and obviously
contingent than others, not that they are social. The important
distinction is between strong facts and weak constructs,
not between social and natural facts.
What Separates Modernity from Tradition?
Tradition complements modernity in the sense that each modernity
constructs and preserves its own traditions. They are not opposites,
but depend on each other. Modernity does not "replace"
tradition, but continues it according to its own, not the
traditions, specifications. This includes "breaks"
with the past as well, since these breaks and discontinuities are
observed not in the past, but by and within what comes next, that
is, after the break, rupture, or revolution.
Keeping this observer-dependence of "tradition" in mind,
we can probably say that modernity differs from tradition in size
and scale, amongst other things. The impact of size on social structure
is as dramatic as it is neglected, organization science notwithstanding.
Size makes it increasingly impossible to organize society as one
large and extended encounter among copresent bodies and their blood
relations. Not even tribal societies are encounters, though understanding
them as such would yield fewer misunderstandings than understanding
modern societies as tribes and encounters. This does not, of course,
mean that modern societies have no tribes, or no encounters, or
no communities. The difference is not Gemeinschaft versus
Gesellschaft; rather, modern Western societies differ from
tribes because, in the former, tribes are only one form of association
At each new evolutionary level, previous modes of social association
are not dropped and replaced by "higher" forms in some
linear and progressive increase in adaptive capacity. Rather, previous
modes and levels survive by nesting within newer forms, such as
organizations. The archaic and traditional persists, albeit in modified
forms. Modern societies have not replaced tribes with organizations,
but they differ from tribes because they have more tribes,
they have different and novel ways to link them, and they also have
non-tribes, such as bureaucracies. At the same time, bureaucracies
may be one site where restructured tribes, such as scientific specialties,
congregate and communicate. Tribal societies do not have many alternative
ways to link their units and components. When they get too large,
they split up; they cannot accomodate internal changes by differentiation
into different kinds and patterns of non-tribal social
In one important sense, then, tribal societies do differ dramatically
from modern ones: due to size and differentiation, modern societies
produce vastly more social events and outcomes, such as personal
experiences, observations, communications, and behaviors. They also
produce these many more events in much less time because their modes
of association are much further removed from copresent bodies. In
modern societies, billions of conversations can, will, and do occur
at any one point in time, whereas tribal societies need much more
time to process far fewer encounters and kinds of encounters
between far fewer persons.
Modern societies have more observers, none of them "privileged"
in any metaphysical or philosophical sense, and they have more different
kinds of observers and observations as well. These include
families, tribes, science, governments, the UN, at least one post-post
structuralist and feminist deconstructess of Durkheim, hundreds
of millions of bodies, and Parisian actor-network theorists who
believe "we" whoever that is "have
never been modern."
All this is especially true for modern science. Whatever distinguishes
science from myth: it is not truth, philosophical objectivity, logic,
or rationality. But there are differences just the same,
despite postmodern and relativist essentialism. One difference is
that modern science tolerates and encourages vastly more dissidence
and conflict by turning some of it into expected innovation. No
culture is static, and all cultures innovate, but modern science
expects, rewards, and encourages change to an unprecedented degree.
What is more, science rewards innovations "blind," that
is, without being able to define and fix in advance what they will
be, where they will occur, who will make them, and what consequences
they can and will have for the rest of society. It is rather impossible
to "finalize" science without destroying it altogether.
One may set goals for science, but, as in other and all organizations,
these goals are only loosely coupled to actual research and its
outcomes. In any organization, there are always multiple and conflicting
goals, which are also ambivalent, ambiguous, and change over time.
The rhetoric of "goals" is political frontstage talk,
and this talk is not itself the science that can either get the
job done or not. The only thing that is certain in science is uncertainty
and change. Science is home-less and end-less, at least as long
as it is not destroyed. In science, there are only temporary solutions.
All truths collapse over time. Science must not only reward its
own obsolescence; it must also find ways to do so and prevent
complete chaos, cacophonia, and disorder.
This is the main problem of science, not instrumental control.
The main problem in science is that its exponential growth has made
it increasingly impossible to come up with a coherent account of
its current state, let alone predict its future states. This is
aggravated by the fact that any scientific accounts of science
are part of science as well, and so increase the complexity of that
which they try to explain. The paradox is that a small segment of
science, the sociology of science, tries to explain science, including
itself, and in so doing adds even more to its explanatory
burden. All accounts and explanations must be simplifications, but
the sociology of science carries an especially heavy load. Even
scientists probably know less than a fraction of one percent of
all that could be known about all of science at any given moment
in time. We are all amateurs now, especially the experts, who are
non-experts about most other things outside of their expertise.
Congress knows next to nothing about science, and depends on scientists
pushing their respective sciences. Short of undermining the very
conditions of its existence, it is as impossible to "control"
and "finalize" science as it is to control the weather