Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sociology: Who Reads What?

Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change lays out a fascinatingly provocative challenge. He basically situates the study of philosophy within a vast (and, as his title implies, global) social network of practitioners, in which the "nodes" of the practitioners themselves are connected by three primary link types:

  1. The "vertical" "master-pupil tie"
  2. The "horizontal" "acquaintance tie"
  3. The "conflictual tie," which can be either horizontal or vertical

It takes only a superficial understanding of Collins' approach to recognize the folly of trying to read any philosophical text in a context-free isolation from not only the texts of the author's own time but also the texts of others influenced (positively or negatively) by that text. This book could easily provide a better introduction to the study of philosophy than many of the introductory texts written by philosophers, were it not for its daunting length that exceeds one thousand pages.

Reading Andrew Keen's latest post to his Great Seduction blog, I realized that Collins could do the world a great service by writing a Sociology of Social Theorists, applying his methodology to his own profession. Back on October 7 Keen decided that he was going to try to frame an understanding of Twitter in terms of Vilfredo Pareto's Law of the Vital Few. This post brought one of the larger numbers of negative responses, and that seems to have fired up his interest in Pareto. Thus, this morning's offering was an analysis of "Wall Street's financial elite" based on Pareto's 1901 essay "The Rise and Fall of Elites."

I have yet to read any Pareto, and I know his name primarily from Collins' Theoretical Sociology textbook. However, I really wanted to consult one of Collins' social networks to see where he was situated with respect to those link types. Since I could not do that, I have to resort to some of my own favorite sources.

Since Keen was basically trying to address the question of a "power elite" (which I have visited from time to time in my own posts), I felt the best place to begin was with the man who wrote the book on this subject, so to speak, C. Wright Mills. The Power Elite was published in 1956; and, when I consulted my copy of the Mills essays collected in Power, Politics and People, I discovered that Mills had written about Pareto in the May 1, 1954 issue of The Saturday Review, in a piece entitled "IBM Plus Reality Plus Humanism = Sociology." The timing seemed to be consistent with when he would have been working on his Power Elite book. His comment on Pareto may be a reflection of what he thought about the man's ideas about elites:

Do you remember the big literary rush to Vilfredo Pareto during the thirties? Well, as the general inattention to him nowadays reveals, he wasn't worth it.

Ironically, Mills is up against the same attention problem these days, although, thanks to John Summers, who has compiled a new collection of Mills essays, and Alan Wolfe, who prepared an excellent review of that collection for The New Republic, that tide may be turning.

From Mills I proceeded to dig into Theoretical Sociology. There I discovered that, in his work in economic sociology, Talcott Parsons took Pareto and Alfred Marshall as his most influential sources. This resonated ironically with a throwaway parenthetical remark that Wolfe had injected into his review of the Summers collection:

"Who now reads [Herbert] Spencer?" Talcott Parsons once asked. The same could now be said of Talcott Parsons.

By way of disclaimer, I should confess that I have read extremely little of Parsons; and most of what I understand about his attempt to develop a functionalist action model of social systems comes from Theoretical Sociology. Life is short, and there was nothing in Collins' exposition that encouraged me to dig deeper.

My point, however, is that the sort of social network that Collins' built up around practicing philosophers is just as informative when we try to read social theory. (Even Collins has is influences, and he is up front about them in his Sociology of Philosophies book.) When we ignore the social network of social theorists, we run the risk of cherry-picking when we try to invoke any of them as sources. Thus, when Keen tries to write about "Wall Street's elite" on the basis of three sentences extracted from a 1901 Pareto essay, all I see is a picked cherry, perhaps more informative than the sorts of cherries that get picked for political advertising, but not necessarily by any great degree. The result is that I find myself reflecting on my own recent writing (vanity of vanities!), specifically when I was trying to flesh out what I called a "caveat lector philosophy" about half a year ago. Nevertheless, I have to confess that being true to this philosophy demands considerable time, which is why I continue to sympathize with Keen when it comes to technologies like Twitter, which seem to do little other than distract from our setting aside longer spans of time for well-needed reflective reading.

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