Monday, November 26, 2007

On Asking the Right Questions about Communities

I was a senior in high school the year that Lord of the Flies came out in paperback, and I was fortunate enough to have an English teacher who decided that our class should include the book in its curriculum for the year. Before we began she read us a long and tedious essay that William Golding had published, most of which had almost no impact on any of us. However, Golding did end the essay on an intriguing note. I cannot remember the exact words; but, invoking Pontius Pilate, Golding wrote something like, "The fool ends a discussion by asking, 'What is truth?' The wise man uses the question to begin the discussion."

In retrospect this is just the sort of thing that appeals to a high school mind that grasps slogans more readily than concepts and theories. (Lord knows, there are enough of those slogans in Lord of the Flies!) Nevertheless, the underlying principle reminds me of just what it is that aggravates me so much in all of that Web 2.0 evangelism, particularly when the sloganeering turns to communities. That aggravation lies in the overwhelming flood of text, whether within the authoritarian disguise of a book cover or in the unedited blogosphere where confusion can be paraded as a virtue, that purports to deliver "answers" about the nature of communities and how that nature is thriving in the world the Internet has made. By Golding's principle the authors of these texts are all fools, because few, if any, discussions are being held based on first trying to identify the right questions to ask about the impact of current technology on the nature of communities. This was driven home to me when I received a belated comment, from Kai-Uwe Hellman, to a post I wrote back in August in which I tried to lay out the basic principles of interaction rituals. Hellman shares my frustration with the high level of confusion within the "communicative traffic" (his phrase) about communities; and he wants to ask why that level of confusion is so high and, in a related vein, why there should be so much hype (his word choice) over a concept that is so poorly understood in the first place. He also wishes to ask about the validity of one of the fundamental propositions posed by Ferdinand Tönnies, that the very sense of community will be inevitably lost with the expansion of the modern market society (which I happen to see as the "manifest destiny" of the Internet). From this stance he does not see Erving Goffman as a key participant in the discussion, since interaction rituals have more to do with maintaining and sustaining communities but may not figure in their potential demise.

Honoring Golding's principle, I would like to add to this discussion without suggesting that it will be concluded with any answers. Regarding the Tönnies thesis, I have to confess that I shall have to do more reading before delving into his argument structure. Nevertheless, I should note here that I find it interesting (if not logically indicative) that Robert Putnam's "bowling alone" study of the decline of "social capital" in the United States, best known from his 2001 book but introduced in an essay written in 1995, seems to have fallen off the radar of public attention. Putnam did Golding one better: He began by collecting data. The data collection process was probably motivated by questions, probably along the lines of those inspired by Tönnies; but Putnam could then use the data to pose more specific questions. His effort to start a discussion was a noble one, but his voice has now been drowned out by the chaos of all those technology evangelists.

This raises Hellman's more serious questions about the investment of so much "communicative traffic" that does little more than advertise the confusion of the "traffickers?" Those last scare quotes may contain the seed of an answer that needs to be further cultivated, since I deliberately chose a noun whose primary connotation involves marketing narcotics and other illegal substances. It may well be that the behavior that Hellman is examining is a product of a "doubled-edged sword of addiction." One edge involves the addictive nature of Internet usage itself; and the other is that consumerism, in any setting, is also addictive. To the extent that addiction impedes judgment, we often encounter addicts who bubble over with the surface appearances of creative insights; but, when those insights are examined in the harsh light of sobriety, they are rife with fallacies and misperceptions. This is why the Kool-Aid now associated with Jonestown has become such a popular metaphor, since it captures so perfectly how destructive (even to the self) such thinking can be. In other words those who try to cultivate discussion around serious questions are impeded by those who traffic in confusion as a consequence of their addictions. Thus, the loss of community that Tönnies feared may emerge as a side-effect of a broader problem concerned with the loss of communication (which, in turn, would probably reflect back on Max Weber's concerns about the loss of meaning).


Anonymous said...

May be a last comment to this point of discussion. You mentioned Robert Putnam's Social Capital-approach in "Boling Alone" several times with great pathos especially facing the fact that the public interest for this subject faded away in the meantime. Here in Europe this approach got a lot of attention also taking his complaint of steadily decreasing social capital in the USA quite seriously. But now the interest moved away from this problem and concentrates more and more on the social capital approach as a theoretical tool. And may be the attention Putnam received for his general, almost communitarian, political statement over some very long years might be enough because you can't resuscitate conditions which need quite different societal circumstances which we have no longer at all.
You're a bit angry about these buzz words and the communicative mess which emerges with terms like "communities", I see that quite similar. But may be we have urgendly to realize that there might be a social mutation of traditional communities as Putnam discussed them which replaces the older ones. I'm preparing at the moment a feature concerning the great good book of Ray Oldenburg about "The Great Good Place". If you study this also political book as Putnam's ones have been, you can see that almost all of this special functions the third places fulfil as Oldenburg sees it could be fulfilled by the internet, by clever builded platforms, by this totally confused communication szenario your are angry about. The similarities and parallels are astonishing and surprising.
What I want to say is: The world is moving faster than we can follow her and may be the disappearance of the public interest in Putnam may be a slight signal of the solution of that problem which was so central for Putnam. We will never be able to return into paradise, and moreover, we will never find out how it was really to be there. May be it is better to stay uninformed about this state of living, not knowing the other side of the moon.

Stephen Smoliar said...

There is a chapter in Jürgen Habermas' monumental Theory of Communicative Action entitled "Weber's
Diagnosis of the Times
," in which Habermas examines "the two trends that Weber combines into an existential-individualistic critique of the present age. The first component is represented in the thesis of a loss of meaning, the second in the thesis of a loss of freedom. Yes, I am "a bit angry about these buzz words," probably because, for me at least, loss of meaning would be a real tragedy. By my own philosophy, it is better to ridicule than the rail; but I can't seem to get ridicule to serve me on this one!

I realized that there is another loss to add to the Weber/Habermas list: the loss of the ability to socialize (brought on, of course, by the promotion of "social software"). If you follow the hyperlink, you will see that the consequence of such a loss would be a new generation of pathological behavior that may best be described as autistic. It is not that I am trying to hold back the tide of the ways in which the world is changing. I just want to address the direction and consider the consequences, a basic
rule of thumb
for decision-making in times of crisis.

Anonymous said...

A fast thought glimpses my mind: The same problem which Tönnies had had with the opposition of community and society Habermas has too concerning lifeworld and system. And if the newer development in this field will take on than we have not only to realize a symbiosis between community and society in the shape of commerce or market as Tönnies understood it but also a surprising symbiosis between lifeworld and system something which was not discussable within the theory of Habermus - reminding the thesis of the colonialization of the lifeworlds by the (ugly) systems... May be this kind of theory becomes obsolote because reality overrides it...

Stephen Smoliar said...

Far be it from me to try to second-guess someone of Habermas' stature; but it may be helpful to remember that his conception of "system" was pretty much rooted in the work of Talcott Parsons. These days I suspect that most of us no longer embrace that conception. Anthony Giddens probably leads my list of those who have tried to bring the concept of "system" up to date; and one way to read his theory of structuration is as a relationship between lifeworld and system that is more productive than colonization!

Anonymous said...

At first I think everything is "second-guessed" or second order cybernetical grounded even the work of Habermas not disputing his amazing work he did over decades. But this special theory befalls a implosion or collapse of her central difference "lifeworld/system", the border of the two sides of this distinction are no longer fix and closed but become permeable and porous and soon this difference will disappear and the consequence will be that the relevance of this theory as a theory for describing the presence and future presence will come into problems.
And the second point is that Habermus sureley grounded his system-side on Parsons from the material aspects but the logic of the system-side opposed to the lifeworld-side has its intellectual roots in the work of Tönnies.

Stephen Smoliar said...

I suspect that no word has been used in more incompatible contexts than "system," the unfortunate consequence being that its semantic denotations and connotations have both been hopelessly mangled by the literature (not to mention translations of the literature). I notice that Ludwig von Bertalanffy does not appear in the index for the English translation of The Theory of Communicative Action; and, given Habermas' thoroughness, my guess is that Parsons was not aware of von Bertalanffy (although Parsons does appear in the index of General System Theory). The breakdown of any boundary between lifeworld and system was already published by James Grier Miller in Living Systems in 1978 (although Miller did not invoke the Germanic noun "lifeworld"). This book would have served Habermas well in his analysis of Parsons; but there is no indication that Habermas was aware of it (or if he would have been up for taking on an 1100-page book in English). Habermas is far from the only one to neglect Miller (and I am sure that the bulk of his book has a lot to do with the lack of attention he has received). I
previously cited
similar neglect in Freeman Dyson's essay about this being the "century of biology."

Anonymous said...

You're a sharp observer! I guess the reason why Habermas didn't refer on Bertalanffy was that B. made general systems theory without visible efforts connecting this kind of theory building with social science. Additionally, the main "enemy" for "lifeworlds"-theorists were seen in Parsons' approach which was an ideal position to contrast to an alternative view of point. And there hasn't been somebody elso who dominates this field of discussion than P. And still one word to Miller: I do not know his book but it sounds as he builded in multiple levels from the bottom of ontology to the top of sociality. This kind of virtual continuum based all the time on systems would not be compatible with Habermas' approach because the term "system" evocates something totally different to existing lifeworlds. The figure of colonialization of lifeworlds by systems would not be thinkable by Miller's theory because he do not need and use the term "lifeworlds" I guess. So the theoretical strategy Habermas followed excludes such approaches like Miller's even if this one would lead to more valued insights than Habermas'.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Actually, Chapter 8 of General Systems Theory is entitled "The System Concept in the Sciences of Man;" and it is one of the chapters that is not based on papers that Bertalanffy had published prior to working on the book. This, of course, is where he discusses Parsons, primarily in regard to Parsons' critique of functionalism. Taking another page from Giddens, though, I would say that the real enemy of the "lifeworld" was positivism, which forms that thread that runs from Comte through Durkheim into Parsons (and the Bertalanffy conception of a system is solidly positivist).

Miller is also definitely a positivist. The thesis of his book is that all "living systems" share some core set of properties, regardless of scale. Thus, "colonization" is not an issue for him. However, I still have to put more time into his book before deciding whether his approach provides a good basis for "asking the right questions about communities" and then seeking the answers.

I suspect that another voice that needs to be heard is that of Isaiah Berlin. In a way he, too, was concerned with "colonization," but on a broader scale. He was more worried about the extent to which positivism threatened to colonize (without ever using that word) the entire Weltanschauung. His approach was to focus on "critics of the Enlightenment;" but what do we actually take away from those critics? What they seem to share is a mind-set that avoids the prescriptive strategies of positivism in favor of developing better strategies for description. Such an approach, however, avoids addressing the question of what role better description can play when we have to make decisions and take actions in the lifeworld. I have some thoughts of my own as to how this problem may be resolved, and I suppose I should try to set aside the time to prepare a separate post about them.

Anonymous said...

At the moment I do not have the opportunity to take a second look into Bertalanffy's General Systems Theory again because I studied only his programmatic statements like Chapter 2 and some other more years ago.
Apparently sociologists did not read Bertalanffy anytime beside of those who were specialized in systems theory I believe. But probably you won't find any references to Bertalanffy more than simple historical reminiscences concerning the genealogy of systems theory.
A second point is that I have the impression that there is a mingling of levels. On the "object" side you have the distinction/opposition of (real) lifeworlds and systems and on the scientific or reflecting side you have phenomenology and positivism or systems theory which is not quite the same. But the contesting aspect is similar: On the one side systems threatens lifeworlds and on the other side positivism or systems theory threaten phenomenology or the theory of action.
On Miller it seems to me it would be very interesting to discuss whether it is possible to think with him a uniting of lifeworlds and systems without the problems of colonization. But if he was a positivist it might difficult to do that.
At the end I do not know Berlin at all. But what you write it reminds me on the critical theory and the frankfurt school especially "The onedimensional man" by Marcuse - and this is altogether long ago.
But whatever, one question is still unanswered: what to do with the inflation of using the term "communities" if there is so less discipline in reflecting the meaning of it? I believe it is more than a plain semantic fashion because the term "community" does have a faszination and deeper sense since Tocqueville for the Americans and Tönnies for the Germans that its semantic roots, this special promise or salvation which is part of the connotation of this term still make this term so attractive in times of "transzendentaler Obdachlosigkeit" or "Heimatlosigkeit". May be it is like a magic: you say the name of something and the thing itself appears immediatly...

Stephen Smoliar said...

One benchmark of Bertalanffy's "legitimacy" in the social science community might be Randall Collins' textbook, Theoretical Sociology; and, if we invoke that criterion, there is no mention of Bertalanffy in either the index or the list of references!

Whether or not we are confusing the issue by mingling "object" and "reflective" levels, the fact remains that we are just as diverse (and perhaps also reckless) in the ways in which we try to invoke the concept of "system" as we are with the concept of "community." One way to allow the diversity without descending into recklessness is to recognize that the "system" concept can be examined through different lenses. Put another way, one can take either a positivist or a phenomenological stance in how one chooses to talk about "systematic" features. This is why I felt it was important to raise the question of whether or not one could be systematic without being positivist, and the other day I wrote a new
to try to address that question.

My guess is that Berlin would not have been particularly comfortable in the company of social theorists. Ironically, the only member of the Critical Theory school he ever met was Marcuse. Their initial contact was amicable and little more, but the sort of things that surfaced in One Dimensional Man were enough to send Berlin into a rant (which he almost never did), at least in his correspondence. (For what it is worth, Arendt had the same effect on him!) Berlin's texts frequently lapse into long convoluted sentences that make him even more challenging than Habermas. In Berlin's case, though, it may help to have some intuitive feel for Russian literature, since that may be the source of his sentence structure!

As to the ongoing question of the nature of communities, we can, of course, apply a phenomenological lens there, too, as Alfred Schutz has demonstrated. My experience is that those who a least considerate in the invocations of the "community" concept are fundamentally positivists; but they are not very good positivists. They leap at simplistic reductions, ride them for all they are worth, and then wonder why things do not turn out the way they looked on the drawing board! Unfortunately, they also resist mightily taking any other stance, if only to "try it on for size." So trying to persuade them that any other point of view is viable is a bit like teaching a pig to sing. (As Mark Twain put it, "It is a waste of time, and it annoys the pig!")

Feel free to pick up on the text type hypothesis at the new