As an introduction to this first English post I’d like to express some preliminary thoughts about my aims in this blog :
First, I have a masters degree in Sociology, obtained at EHESS Paris. So my concerns here will mainly be about sociology. but not about sociology as it is done today. They will be about what I feel are the necessary changes that have to occur into the discipline if it ever evolves into a more practical and proper « science » discipline. My main concern here will be about the necessity of grounding sociologists discourse not only in an empirically grounded discourse but on a materialistic explanation, and therefore about the necessity of building the tools to make the new kinds of measurements it will imply. I feel that not only, if this path was chosen, sociology could become a science discipline like any other, but also that by not doing it, sociology leaves the destiny of our social groups in the mysteries of a process that maintain the powers of some, without any chances of controlling how it is distributed and used. While only a science would be able to question that situation, sociology doesn’t seem to be there yet. Why ? Because it still needs to work on itself to overcome it’s own internal ideologies. So this post, and the others to come, will be about introducing you to those concerns.
Secondly, I should say that I’ve always been puzzled by the lack of support I had from French sociologists in following this interest since I had my masters, to the point where I thought that maybe sociology wasn’t the discipline to take in charge such empirical research. But if we take sociology and it’s claim to be, or become, a « science », and the seriousness of it’s object – the social -, than sociology is the only discipline available and concerned about such matters. However, sociology, and I should better say French sociology, seems to be on that strange path of turning it’s back to the production of the knowledge it would need to understand it’s object. As if « social » was more valuable as a political concept than as a reality. Therefore, writing is French, considering the very few responses and encouragement I’ve had so far, seemed quite pointless after all this time.
Finally, I’d like to present my apologies for the quality of the English you’ll be reading here. This is the first time I try to express my thoughts in English and I never had the chance to practice it for anything other than everyday talk. So taking the time to write in English is for me quite a challenge. I imagine the main consequence will be that my ideas will stay quite simple in the way they are expressed. Anyway, I hope that in the following posts on this blog, I will be able to go more into the details of my thinking and ideas to contribute to the study of social phenomenons. By the way, if you ever read French don’t hesitate to have a check on my previous posts. They explore the same questions.
This being said, and, as you might have understood, I love sociology… but not in the way traditional French sociologists do. So why and how can we think about sociology differently ?
Social reality is a major aspect of the reality we live in as social beings. An aspect of reality that, I think, we still don’t consider and understand as we should. And, therefore, as many other aspects of reality, like the physical or like the biological one, should be studied more closely. But because sociology is what it is, some questions stay unanswered. Do we want to understand who we are ? Do we want to understand the processes and the consequences of our collective decisions ? And maybe more important, do we want to be in a position of being able to say « what can we do now to improve those social issues ? » ?
We always tend to take reality for granted, as if everything was self-evident when in fact it is not. The way we organize and relate to each other is a process, and it works the same way as any other natural phenomenon : causes are leading to consequences. Always. Every social phenomenon follows this principle : War and peace, politics and economy, morality, values and judgements, law & Justice, are all working within that same framework. So understanding the causes of social reality, and even more important, putting ourselves in the position of being able to use such knowledge for the choices we make about ourselves, will be, I believe, an important step of our evolution.
To achieve that understanding I always thought sociology was the path. This is what led me to do my masters degree at EHESS in Paris. But after passing my masters degree and after 3 years unsuccessfully fighting to find a Ph.D. supervisor I think the problem is less about our understanding than about our absence of willing to confront the outcomes of our understandings. So the first step should be to go back and rework the definition of the discipline itself and ask « what question are we trying to answer ? and why ? ».
If we think about sociology nowadays, in France and from what I can perceive worldwide from the bias of the keyhole of my internet connection through social media like Twitter or Facebook – sociology is focused on answering two kinds of questions :
A philosophical one. Their question being : « How to speak and how to make social reality thinkable ? ».
An expertise one. Their question being : “What empirical answers can we give – and therefore what methods can we use – to help people who are facing problems with social reality, understand them ? »
To respond to those questions, we have on one side sociologists who use philosophers tools : concepts and theories ; and on the other side, we have sociologists who use experts tools : because they believe in scientificity and in empirical analysis – quantitative and/or qualitative – they undertake field and/or statistical studies.
So the point I will try to make here is not to say that those two concerns are wrong. They are important questions, but only for the purposes they carry out. Philosophy is about making us being able to think and develop that ability of thinking about such and such matters when expertise is about trying to give empirical answers and if possible to solve the problems when they occur about the social issues we face in our lives. But philosophy and expertise are facing a major problem, they will never be able to produce a knowledge about the world and for a very good reason : it’s not their purpose. They can certainly show it and make it visible, but certainly not give any answers about it.
So my actual concern here, is that sociology is missing a very important question about reality : The understanding of social phenomenons for themselves from a materialistic perspective. The science questioning. And therefore that they lose the only ability they have to produce an applicable knowledge of their own.
To understand what science is about and why it is so different from philosophy and expertise we should first agree on two fundamental and obvious distinctions that, I feel, are too often blurred by our tendency to simplify our arguments :
– First, that there is a difference between a word and the material thing that is designated by the word. This should be obvious and you might think it is, but considering the importance and the space that philosophers take in the so-called « social sciences » this is certainly not an evidence. Here, in sociology, many researchers still think about « humanity », about our capacity of « reasoning », about « morality », about « values » etc. as concepts that can only be understood through a theory, not as empirical realities that need to be themselves materially understood and explained. Understanding how they come into our existence, how they evolve, how they die are not questions worth the time for a research. What is important is to focus on why we « think » this is happening. Of course, thinking is a very important part of science but what makes it different from philosophy is the materialistic ending, by engaging and confronting our comprehension through reality itself, through a process of experimentation. You could say that empirical field study is exactly about responding to that need of empirical arguments and proof but it is as if you expected biologists to have been able to accomplish all their knowledge just by putting themselves in a forest or in any natural place to observe and describe the wilderness around them. Of course its a first important step when you want to emphasize an argument but then if you want to give a serious answer, not only this field observation is not relevant any more, but it is an actual limit to the ability of the researcher to think and understand what he sees. But in France, and I think even more widely, this concern seems to be absent of sociological thinking and goals… while, and this is the point, still pretending to be a science or at least to be able to produce scientific knowledge.
– Secondly, there is a distinction to make between science and scientificity. Science is not scientificity. When scientificity is about giving a certain type of methodological answers – empirical ones – and about testing the limits of our understanding of the situations we choose to study, science is about trying to find new questions to solve about our material understanding of reality. Where scientificity is about studying the complexity of reality as it appear to us, science is about conducting experiments to understand the simple and usually invisible basic processes that lead to that complexity. So science is about building a knowledge that can extend our capacity of actions on matter but is not about answering directly to any of the complex practical problems we face. Those will only be an indirect consequence of its use. I don’t say that scientists are not concerned about answering those practical problems, I’m just saying that people who take in charge applying new knowledges are not the same ones that the ones who seek for new knowledges. And there is a simple reason for that separation between those two : scientists know exactly the gap that separates their findings from the more general applicable concerns of others and they accept that irreducibility while, on the opposite, experts will always try to work on reducing that gap to offer better understanding and solutions to the general public. So the difference here is really about the goal that we define for ourselves, and I feel many researchers in social sciences are not clear in defining it. Is it really about science or is it more about expressing a political/citizens engagement ? I bet most sociologist will have a hard time responding for themselves to that question.
So while expertise will build practical solutions to respond to the complexity of situations people are confronted with, and, while philosophers will build concepts and theories to think about those problems, scientists guided by a science questioning would instead build tools to better observe reality. Where is sociology when addressing those concerns ? From my experience, simply nowhere. When we talk about observing reality sociologist still think field work and statistics are enough when in fact those tools are now outdated from a science perspective. And when we address our ability of producing knowledge by questioning reality and by defining what it is, sociologist just turn their back. Not only they think experiments are not a matter of interest but sometime they even argue that they are not possible. This is bad thinking, and even more than that, as a matter of fact it is an anti-scientific thinking.
Just to give a quick example of how French sociology has been fighting against it’s own ability to be a science. We could take the example of one of the most famous French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. He has been writing about science and promoting it throughout his work, but for anyone who has read him closely, it is obvious that his work has never been about improving social science. In fact, it was quite the opposite. His work was all about philosophy and about providing a sociological expertise through conceptual tools. And as I said before, this is not a problem in itself. I do think he is one of the researchers that has had the best understanding of social phenomenons up to now. But, let’s take the famous concept of « Habitus » he developed and used widely in his sociology. This concept is in fact all about psychology and if it has a difference from a psychological thinking it is all about its purpose. It’s all about the solutions it can bring to the ones who think and work on social phenomenons. So the problem is, this concept not only doesn’t give a single understanding of what social reality is for itself, but even worse, it has contributed to the blurring of the frontier between sociology and psychology and therefore has lowered sociologists abilities to build cumulative knowledges and strong arguments about the reality they have chosen to study compared to psychologists. I could also argue about an other expression he promoted : « symbolic violence » or « symbolic power » which both have contributed to that same blurring of our understanding of the meaning of what the word « symbolic » in those expressions could mean. For the political and moral purpose he had given himself, his work has been a great achievement, and for some very good reasons that I won’t take the time to explain here, but if we think about the science issues of studying and understanding social phenomenons, the consequences of his success could certainly be described as disastrous.
So what is social reality about ?
This leads us to a major concern about sociology that sociologists tend to refuse to clarify. Every time a sociologist will talk about his work, he will be, at some point, using the word « social », because that’s what he is interested in and recognized for. Sociology from it’s very meaning is composed of the two words « socio » and « logos » which define the discipline as the one which produces a discourse on and about « social ». But what I’m worried about is that, after so many years studying sociology at university, this word as never had a proper definition. So, if sociology wanted to become a science it should first reconsider its use of the word « social ». A word that is widely used but without any caution even in the scientific community. Many disciplines are interested in talking about the social concerns of their findings so what does it mean to study « social » from a sociological point of view when psychology, economy, geography, demography and so many other disciplines can have their own thinking about that aspect of reality ?
If we take a broad definition, « social » is usually understood as a phenomenon that correspond to the specific way a group of individuals organize themselves. The problem is, we don’t use this term when we talk about individual stars forming a galaxy or about individual trees when they constitute a forest. So this definition is far from even being an acceptable one. Therefore we need to be more specific.
First we should say that « social » is about biological organism and more precisely about biological organism that have developed a certain number of senses and capacities of interacting with others and with the world around them to be able to survive. But then, those interactions can either be explained with a biological questioning – what are those senses and how can an organism actually respond and act when he feels a stimulation from the world ? Does he have muscles, organs, members, a brain and how do they relate to one another etc…) ; either, when the organism has a brain, by a psychological explanation. Therefore, the questioning will focus on the specific effects of the brain and how the memory of past experiences can orientate or modify a brain to develop certain reactions when the individual face certain situations (fear, anger, hunger, hate, desire, etc). Those are the two actual main general ways that we can use to understand social phenomenons from a science perspective : we could call the first one socio-biology and the second one social-psychology. Other ways to question social reality do exist, some are more specialized like cognitivism, some are more general like anthropology, others are more interested about the specific effects of certain characteristics of the environment like geography or demography, but from a science perspective, I feel the disciplinary frontier that draw biology and psychology are sufficient to embrace all those concerns.
Anyway, when facing our societies, not only those disciplines have shown their deficiency to respond to our questioning about us and about why we do the things we do, but sociology, since it’s emergence, has proven their limits. Understanding what is « power », what are « norms » or why we tend to « conform » to “values”, exceed the capacities of those disciplines. And if we stayed to those restricted point of views, societies could still be seen as mysteries.
Since, sociology has tried to give its answer to those issues and, I have to say, with some success in it’s early years. Sociology has proved it was worth the time and energy that was put into the studies it conducted. In particular it was successful in showing the situations where other disciplines failed. But when sociology tried to give its answer, if at first those answers seemed powerful because they gave a sense of going beyond our understanding, talking about the general structures of societies or about class struggles. But those theories have been widely criticized since, accused of being too general, vague and in some ways when people wanted to apply them to real situations, too normative. They weren’t describing real humans in real societies. They were just too far from the reality experienced by the people it tried to talk about. In other words it was accused of looking at the world from above. To solve this problem some sociologist have tried to adopt a new point of view and give answers by coming back to the ground and conduct field work, close to the people they were studying and also less theoretical. But then, if the new arguments provided by sociologist was better in fitting people need for more understandable and practical answer, then critics changed and started to say that those answers were stuck to the time and place of the research and therefore were not as valuable in other situations, and sometime even worse, sociologists were accused of making believe that peoples accounts were trustworthy and therefore to be less scientific and more politically orientated.
Of course, both of those paths were problematic. Now it is believed that sociologist should be able to do both. Talk about the general and about the particular, use concepts and theories but at the same time, be able to describe the smallest details of interactions, combine human-human interactions and human-tools and human-objects interactions etc.… This situation has led sociology to become a very specialized discipline. And if we ever wanted to make a serious jock about the discipline – I heard it from one of my sociology teachers – we could say that there are maybe as many sociologies that there are sociologists to conduct sociological studies.
This situation seems very strange from a science perspective. How can you have an object and so many ways to study it ? This weirdness of sociology, on the contrary of what usually argue sociologist, does absolutely not relate to the specificity of its object. No, this is mainly due to the choice that was made of how to interpret and understand the meaning of « social » at the very beginning. About uncovering the political and moral complex products and constraints of our societies instead of uncovering the basic principles that make them exist. Social, being understood not as an element of the process that can explain societies and how they exist, but as the result of a process that needs to be described. Therefore, sociologists have made the choice to stay on the surface of our understanding. Is this conscious or not ? I don’t know. If I was Pierre Bourdieu, I would certainly say that it is just a matter of accepting to play within the rules of the game you have been learned to play. Sociology being one of those games, like any other organized human activity.
Let’s take an example to make things clearer. Imagine a tree. You can describe it in every details using as many factors as you want (next to the sea, in the mountains, in windy or dry places, surrounded by rocks or sand or any other kind of ground etc, compare it with other trees or non trees, talk about their similarities and/or differences, look at the past and compare with the present, etc…) and try to find regularities in those descriptions that could fit with a theory. The good thing about that kind of research is that you’ll always find specificities and particularities to think about, to talk about, and even to forge concepts with. They’ll be endless and therefore researchers in that field will, if they are paid for, never be out of work. Because all the specificities and the theories that will be found will at some point, meet the needs of some people. But the problem is, if those researchers were asked « what is a tree ? » they’ll have countless responses to give, but none that will be able to agree to what is a tree for itself as a biological fact, because nobody will ever have built a microscope or built any experiment to study the biological process in itself. It will always be a general relative response related to a general perspective, upon a subjective classification and understanding. This is where sociology stands nowadays. Subjective endless possibilities of research, but not a single one aimed to understand the phenomenon by considering « social » as a unique empirical and specific part of reality that can be explained by itself and for itself.
Many explanation could be provided to try to explain why sociologists are stuck in such way of thinking. I imagine one could be found in the confusion sociologists tend to maintain between the word « social » and its close friend the word « societal ». Societal being the word to express issues about societies. If I’m true about the aim of sociologist to study the surface, the end result of a social process, than sociologist are more concerned about societal issues than by social ones. Why would they use the word social when they instead express societal concerns ? My explanation would be that « social » has a value as a word that « societal » doesn’t have. It is more mysterious, aiming for more general concerns when « societal » has the bad political and moral reputation to be used in partial political debates. Therefore sociologist avoid using it and I feel this is a problem in the way to address our social understanding of societies. Because by not naming our concerns properly, sociologist are misled and misleading others about the knowledges they produce and, as a consequence, in fact are confused about what they really intend to demonstrate through the studies they conduct considering the place they occupy as researchers in a science discipline.
There is also an other reason to this, I suspect a more profound one that relies on the believes we want to maintain about ourselves. We don’t want to be reduced to a material scheme of causalities and consequences. Of course, I do understand why we tend to think that. On one side, it is morally satisfying to think we are over such simple explanations of the world we live in; and on the other side, it can be quite frightening to think we could erase the frontier between us and the world around us. We always think we are on top, different, that we have the right to do what we do and live the way we do because we are what we are. But by wiping that frontier out, we might fear of being weakened because the hierarchy that we always thought was true, putting us on top as privileged ones, doesn’t appear as clear any more and we might think that if we do so, then, an animal or even a thing might become an equal or even worse, scientifically more valuable than us. This fear is right but also wrong. Right if we consider the way humans have been treating other humans throughout history and because of the way we have used science since. But also wrong because this is applying an old way of thinking to a new way of seeing reality. In fact, we might fear it because we have learned to do so.
Science has always been over those concerns and the knowledge it produces never has a moral or a political orientation. This only comes afterwards, when we ask what we can do about it. And yes, indeed, this is the time when the problems might appear, but it is also a time for solutions. In fact when we fear science, we fear the people who will use that science « against« someone or something, and therefore what we fear, in fact, is us. Not the science. Yet, sociology is just about that, a discipline that my help us overcome the fears we have of ourselves. A discipline that could help us understand and improve the way we socialize, understand and improve the way we use the tools and knowledges we have, understand and improve the way we act to each other.
So as I pointed out when I mentioned Pierre Bourdieu’s example, this is not only an intellectual problem, it is also a very real and practical one, because, by missing the science and by missing the purpose of the research that are made, we not only miss the understanding, we also miss the capacity of being able to do something about it. Concepts like « power », « charisma », « habitus », « norms », « beliefs », « classes », « hierarchy », « structures » are certainly significant for a description of reality as a whole, but we should never forget that those words are concepts : constructions to express a personal or a collective understanding of reality but not to talk about reality as it is. A confusion that happens way to often in the so-called « social sciences ». Therefore, and this is an experience from my studies, because sociology is more about thinking about reality than about reality itself, what makes the quality of a research is more about the quality of expression, the writing skills, the use of existing arguments, the societal status of the one who formulates his thinking or if the field or subject meets any political/moral/news agenda… when the science perspective, the capacity of demonstrating a real understanding, seems less relevant if not completely irrelevant.
So if we had to ground sociology on a specific kind of argument and if we had to draw a disciplinary frontier what would it be ? As far as I’m concerned I think the answer is quite obvious but it would require that sociologists, as we have just seen it, change a few thing. One of the most important thing to change being their definition of the word « social ». Because then, they would abandon their ambition to think that they are the only ones who have a valid answer for the understanding of society when so many other disciplines have some answers to provide on the subject. If this was done, then maybe sociology could take the path of a more practical and empirical discipline and focus on it understanding :
So what is sociology about from a science perspective ?
To do so, first we should reject all explanations that are taking the body and/or the environment as a possible explanation. This is obvious but needs to be reaffirmed. Sociology as a science cannot be about general concerns that include issues that other disciplines can already answer. But at the same time the explanation must be material and therefore should have the quality of being measurable and because it is about interactions it should be found within those particular events. The answer is quite simple if you take the time to think about it. The only measurable reality that is not attached to any existing discipline but that still can be found between people is a very specific product of psychology that has taken its independence when it became a tool used for communication. I have introduced it in my previous writings (in French) : I’m talking here about language. Why language ? Because it is, objectively, the only reality by which human individuals, as a group – and I should add here, as any other social group from any species -, organize themselves. Language is something that is learned, so it cannot be attached to our bodies (biologically or psychologically) and it’s not imposed on us by the environment because we made it ourselves through time. Still, we need it between us to be able to communicate ideas, thoughts, information, in order to organize ourselves in space and time, on specific actions we want to produce, situations we want to achieve, etc…
Language is about producing organized symbols in phrases, which, when they are linked together in a certain way, give the ability to the individual to produce real empirical elements that can be observed and measured (symbols are sounds (oral) or forms drawn in space (written). But sometimes they can also be specific actions, colours, smells, made for a purpose), and those sounds, shapes, actions, always have to pass by a learning stage in order to be effective in a social process, therefore there is no language that cannot be objectively understood. The only times when this is not relevant is when the people themselves haven’t been through that learning process and therefore are themselves misguided by false interpretation. But in those cases, interactions don’t carry on and therefore are not relevant for the a more general purpose of understanding and explanation of the social reality from a sociological perspective (except if the research is interested in looking into what happens at those very specific moments when sociological explanation fades away). But when it is learned, the social links and ties created by language can be strong. It give us the ability to describe aspects of the world to others, aspects that are generally inaccessible at the time they are expressed to the person they are aimed at. It can be an invisible inner feeling, it can also be something seen in the past that we want to share with someone who wasn’t there when the events we describe has occurred, it can also be about sharing a story told by someone else which had an effect on us and that we know might have the same effect on someone else, like a joke.
In a sense, this is exactly why education and learning has become so important in our early years. Spending all that time in learning grammar and vocabulary in order to be able to understand the language and symbols produced by others and about being able to formulate our own phrases. Saying those simple phrases : « I am hungry » or « I need to go to the bathroom » is about being able to express a very specific phrase for a very specific purpose that the one you are expressing it to can’t see by himself but that he can nevertheless understand by that specific use of symbols and therefore make him act accordingly to that new situation. Loosing that ability would be loosing an important part of our capacity of action and in fact, it would be loosing that very specific social capacity that make the specificity of the world we built so far and in which we live in.
This understanding of reality wouldn’t be enough on it’s own. Language is not an action sufficient for itself because language is inevitably stuck to the time and place when it as been produced and received (even if it is a book written at a certain place and time in the 17th century and read at a certain place and time by a researcher of our time, it is always stuck to that basic principle of reality). So if language is not enough what else needs to exist ? Language needs something else to produce a social action and this is a very important aspect of the sociological explanation : it needs to be completed by our capacity to memorize those elements of language and to build what we would call a « symbolic representation » of the world we live in, or if you prefer an other way to express it, a « symbolic idea » of it. This symbolic representation is not the usual psychological representation that merges all our feelings from our senses. It only takes into account the words that have been expressed to us in relation to the situations and experiences we had at the same moment. The link to the bigger biological-psychological representation is to be put aside for the moment. This means that if the « symbolic representation », or the « symbolic idea » if you prefer, is in some ways connected to our body experiences, it should also be considered disconnected when we are interested by a sociological perspective. Because that difference, that gap that exist between the symbolic representation and the psychological representation is exactly what makes the sociological questioning important and worth the effort. This distance is what generates that something new that sociologist could call : our “social ability”. The social ability being our capacity of acting in the world, based on an understanding that we have not only experienced by ourselves but that we have built through the experiences of others through our use of language.
For example, if I have learned that the word « world » means an experience of the environment that surrounds me (ground, sky, landscapes etc) and if I have learned that some of those experiences are called « sheep » and others « white » I can say that « all the sheep in the world are white ». This phrase is a symbolic representation that is true to the person who has expressed it if he only experienced the sight of white sheep throughout his life. Multiple experiences that have been learned to be linked together in order to be able to produce a phrase made of symbols in a specific language. This symbolic representation is totally true for the one who expressed it. Nonetheless, this exact same process can lead to an other symbolic representation if someone sharing the exact same language has an other experience of the world. This person could have felt that some of the sheep were black and some were white and therefore, express the symbolic representation that « all the sheep of the world are black and white ». Both are using the same process of thinking, might have the same physical and psychological capacities but they didn’t have the same experience. Without language this difference would stay unnoticed. This ability to produce agreement or disagreement upon the representations we produce through the use of symbols from the use of a language is what we could specify being a social process by itself for itself. Because with the emergence of that ability, we are confronted to all the material consequences it carries, from the micro-level of the interactions to the macro-level of their consequences when applied to millions of people, whether we consider them to be good or bad.
This is certainly one of the most important insights that sociology has brought to light. We have the power to share symbolic representations of reality we have built with others and to others. Being able to share those representations is being able to prove we are sharing the same reality and therefore, if we do share those symbolic representations of reality, we give a sense of collective, of shared understanding, of a shared capacity of action for the same shared purposes, and therefore a sense of security and strength. We create a link between us that didn’t exist when we were alone with only our bodies to confront the world we lived in. From a very general point of view, this is why societies exist and why they maintain themselves by changing all the time to confront an always changing world.
Just to give an other quick example. If I say « my friends cat is sick », you certainly have an experience of what a cat is, what a friend is and what sickness is. You may never have seen that specific cat in reality, don’t know anything about my friend and never experienced what a cat feels when he is sick, nonetheless you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I mean, and maybe, if you have a cat or are interested in cats, be interested to know more about the cat, he’s sickness or about what my friend might have done to him that was bad. And even if those concerns about this cat might be psychologically motivated it doesn’t suppress the fact that this psychological process was activated by something new, that we don’t usually take into account in our understanding of human interactions. This is the point that a sociology as a science would make. Not only because it will activate or deactivate the ability of other disciplines to be able to propose an answer but because it generates a whole new understanding of how we organize and respond to the constraints of our environment as a group. This environment being the natural environment or, and more important from a sociological perspective, being constituted by others. The fact that we are able to express and understand our subjective experiences through the words we use is creating a whole new reality, that directly impacts our lives, our choices and actions. This is the social reality.
And as a matter of fact, this blog post, like any other one is just about that. Trying to be able to produce, to you the reader, through the use of language, a symbolic representation of a reality. I know that the way you will understand me will depend on your own past personal experiences, but because we share the same language and thus, can understand each other by using the same words, I know that at some point, depending on who you are, this sequence of symbols might produce a re-action, a response coming from your own personal experience. Hopefully, an interested one that will ask me to go further into the details of my thinking about the practicality of such understanding of reality.
So you might see now what my main concern is and why I try to focus on the importance of language and representations from a science perspective, but also why I consider tools to observe the reality of social processes at the time and place they occur and the capacity to undertake experiments, as important subjects of interest. This is the only way sociologists will ever be able to express a material understanding of such a reality and produce a ‘knowledge’ that would be truly new.
I should also say that because we agree to some extent to the meaning of the words and symbols we use, we also tend to agree on the objective reality we are referring to when we use those symbols, and therefore tend to think that this link is evident if not objective. This misinterpretation produces a schism. And this schism has powerful consequences if we are interested in politics and morality. On the positive side it has had the consequence of making us able to build the societies we live in. We have been able to build complex human organisations through political and state apparatus and we have been able to build complex material organisations through our ability to develop new tools and technologies. It’s because we trust others through the representations they use and express that we have been able to produce all the positive aspects of the world we live in. But at the same time, it has had a negative impact because since we have learned to trust those representations we also have learned that we can be either mislead because of those shared representations when they are not true (the previous example of the black and white sheep), or worse, that those representations can be false and produced for the only purpose of aiming people actions in a way that is expected from the share of such symbolic representation. Therefore if, from a certain point of view, it has developed a whole new world of possibilities, at the exact same time, it has opened up a whole new capacity to exploit and constrain actions of others. Between those two extremities, you’ll find all the societal issues of human daily life and, potentially, the understanding of many of the so-called « social-successes » and « social-problems« that sociologists are called upon to study.
Of course, when the social process occurs, it is not thought this way by any of those involved in the process, and this is why sociology is so important. Not only it gives a sense of understanding of what is happening, but it is also the only discipline that will be able to justify and promote a scientifically grounded use of such observation and experimentation tools that can actually help us master ourselves.
From these basic principles, what can we say about the bigger picture that sociology, or at least a science of the « social’, would be able to draw ? Because if some people could acknowledge that language is indeed important, they could also say that « there is nothing new ». They could say that everybody knows the importance of language, and for a while already. Say, for example, that if you criticize your boss, he might sack you and that you don’t need to conduct any research to understand that. This is absolutely right, but if we stayed at that level of understanding, we would miss the big picture, the same way that gravity as always been seen as an obvious reality. Nevertheless it wasn’t until Newton and certain societal conditions that we were able to form a knowledge that allowed us to create new ways of inhabiting our world. A world were we can build planes, send satellites in space etc… I’m not saying this is good or bad. I’m just saying that it is science that made the difference by making us able to do things we thoughts were not possible.
You could also certainly argue that many sociologists and philosophers have thought about the importance of language and that I’m certainly not the first one to share those concerns and therefore that there is no reasons my concern to be more valuable than others. You, the reader, might think of many names of great intellectuals who have written about the importance of language, and the first of them that you might think about is for example Pierre Bourdieu whom I criticized previously in this article and who wrote a book titled « Ce que parler veut dire : l’économie des échanges linguistiques » translated in English by « Language and Symbolic power » or also by philosophers like John Langshaw Austin who wrote « How to do Things with Words », translated in French by « Quand dire c’est faire« . Or I could even talk about Michel Butor’s book titled « Transformer le monde par le language » that could be translated into English « Transforming the world through the use of language« , and who died a few days ago. So many of them have expressed their concerns about language. And of course they were right. But science is more than just talking about it. It is about building the tools. It is about taking material reality seriously enough to think that it can be turned into experiments that can help us understand the way something work and how it trully affects the reality of our world. Philosophy has done a great job making people think about it; but now science must take the lead in understanding how language and ideas that have emerged from its use are shaping the world we live in.
This is where I’ll conclude this first part of this introduction to my concerns about sociology. I could summarize them with the idea that the discipline has been limited by its own ambition to talk about everything and, counter-intuitively, that I believe it is by reducing its ambition and focus more on what matters materialistically that sociology will be able to produce a better scientific knowledge of it’s own and offer a better understanding of our world. I also believe that to make such a shift, sociologists will need to stop thinking they are authors, intellectuals, experts, scientists. Instead, they need to free themselves from the present constraints of sociological thinking and start to understand they are themselves the social products they want to describe. Then, maybe, sociology will become the science discipline it ought to be.