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Monday, October 24, 2011


Prefatory Remarks

With this post, I begin, as promised, a mini-tutorial on one of the great works of Sociology, Max Weber's monograph, or extended essay, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The essay first appeared in two installments in a journal called Archiv fΓΌr Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, in 1904-5. Weber, who was born in 1864, was forty at the time [he would live only to into his fifty-sixth year, dying in 1920.] Talcott Parsons, who would become one of the leading sociologists in America in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, translated it into English in 1930, thus bringing Weber's thought and work to the attention of the English-speaking world. [Yes, readers of my autobiography, that is the same Talcott Parsons who was the father of my fellow student and later colleague at Columbia, Charles Parsons.]

It is worth noting that in 1892 W. E. B. Du Bois, arguably the America's social scientist, Black or White, travelled to Germany on a fellowship and met Weber.

In announcing my intention to do a mini-tutorial on Weber, I made some disparaging remarks about contemporary Sociology, suggesting that the works of the great figures of the classical period -- Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, among others -- are far more profound and valuable than the work of modern academics who self-identify as Sociologists. I have several times been asked to expand on those passing condescensions, and it occurs to me that these prefatory remarks may be the appropriate place to respond to those requests. In what follows, I shall call upon some things I said on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Social Studies program at Harvard, remarks whose primary target was the egregious Martin Peretz. I cannot now recall whether I posted those remarks on this website, but if I did, I must once again apologize for repeating myself.

Sociology is a relatively recent arrival in the Academy, dating from the second half of the Nineteenth Century. As I noted in my tutorial on how to study society, it was a response to social and economic changes in Western Europe that, for the first time in the intellectual history of the West, prompted the identification of a separate category of The Social or Society, and a decisive separation of that category from both the Physical and the Psychological. If I do in fact write a mini-tutorial on Emile Durkheim's Suicide, another of the great works of the classical period of Sociology, I shall expand upon that thought further.

The central analytical concept in the rise of Sociology is a modern version of the ancient philosophical distinction between appearance and reality. This fact is explicitly clear in the writings of Marx, especially in the early chapters of Capital, Volume One, and implicitly in the writings of Durkheim, Weber, Karl Mannheim, and the other Founders, as we may call them. This distinction is both extremely powerful and very problematic. It is, as the French used to like to say, "guilty." Let me illustrate both of these aspects of the appearance/reality distinction by means of a single extended example. This will seem to take us rather far afield, so bear with me and be patient. As lawyers say when arguing a case, I will connect it up with the matter before us.

In the November, 1955 issue of Scientific American, Solomon Asch published an extremely suggestive essay called "Opinions and Social Pressure." Asch, a member of the Swarthmore College Psychology Department, was reporting the results of an experiment he had conducted in an attempt to study the effects of social pressure on the opinions people express about seemingly objective matters of fact. The article says the experiment was "repeated" in Harvard's Social Relations Department [the department in which Talcott Parsons taught for many years], but does not say where it was originally conducted. The structure of the experiment was very simple. Between seven and nine male college students were brought into a seminar room and seated around a table. Only one of the group was a "subject." The others were secretly coached by Asch as to the answers they were to give to questions. A pair of cards were produced, on one of which a straight black line was drawn, on the second of which were drawn three parallel lines of varying lengths. One by one, going around the table, the students were asked to say which of the lines on the second card matched in length the line on the first card. The lines were drawn in such a way that the correct answer was immediately obvious and incontrovertible.

After a few go-rounds, during which all the men around the table gave exactly the same obviously correct answer, something very strange happened. Each man would give the same answer, and when the cards were handed to the actual subject, he would see that all of his predecessors had given an obviously incorrect reply. They had all identified a line on the second card as equal in length to the line on the first card, even though it was clearly shorter, and even though there was in fact a line on the second card that was clearly equal in length to the line on the first card.

To Asch's dismay, a distressing number of subjects, confronted with this situation, gave the incorrect answer that had been given by the other supposed subjects. Interviewed later, these subjects explained their answers in two ways, the second even more distressing than the first. Some said that although they could see that the answers of their fellow "subjects" were wrong, they "did not want to ruin the experiment" or "did not want to make trouble," so they decided to "go along." But some of the subjects actually said that "although at first they thought the answer given by the other subjects was wrong, after looking more carefully they could see that it was right, so they gave the same answer."

Shades of 1984!

Now, if you will reflect on the experiment for a moment, it will be obvious to you that in order for Asch to conduct the experiment at all, he was required, as part of the construction of the experiment, to take a position as the scientific investigator on the actual, true, correct lengths of the lines. Without that as the frame, the experiment has no point. It loses all its punch. But that is not a problem, you will reply. All he has to do is lay a ruler down next to the lines and measure them. Just so.

Although Asch published his report in 1955, I did not read it until the Fall of 1960, at which time I was co-teaching a Sophomore tutorial in the new Social Studies major at Harvard with Barrington Moore, Jr., the late great political sociologist, Soviet expert, and close friend of Herbert Marcuse. This was also the period during which John F. Kennedy was running against Richard Nixon for the presidency. Harvard was rabidly pro-Kennedy. Kennedy was a Harvard grad, his wife spoke French, and he had even won the Pulitzer Prize for a book [only later did we discover that Ted Sorenson had actually written the book, Profiles in Courage.] Nixon, on the other hand, was pretty obviously a thug who had not gone to an Ivy League college. One day, shortly before the election, I ran into Moore on Massachusetts Avenue, and we stopped to talk. I gushed on about Kennedy, saying that I hoped he would win what was shaping up to be a very close election. Moore looked down his aristocratic nose [his grandfather had been the Commodore of the New York Yacht Club] and observed that there was not a hairsbreadth of difference between the two men. I thought he was mad. Kennedy won, and the next April, invaded Cuba. Somewhat belatedly, I realized Moore was right.

Now, the point of all this. Even in 1960, Sociologists were busy conducting polls, carefully analyzing in every possible way by their most sophisticated statistical methods the opinions of voters about Kennedy and Nixon. Because they conceived themselves to be scientists, these Sociologists were studiously neutral as between the two candidates, not allowing their own personal opinions to color their objective, quantifiable, scientific results. It would have been, from their point of view, an unthinkable breach of professional ethics to ask the only question about the election that was really interesting, namely Why voters perceived Kennedy and Nixon as different [in length, as it were] when they were clearly the same.

By this time, most mainstream Sociologists had given up the powerful but controversial distinction between appearance and reality. They could not permit themselves to ask why voters mistakenly saw Kennedy and Nixon as very different, or why workers failed to recognize that their real enemy is capitalism, or why Americans were able to pursue an imperial foreign policy while imagining themselves to be innocent defenders of democratic ideals, because to ask those questions would require them to take a position on what is real and what is merely appearance in the realm of society. And that, besides quite possibly being a career breaker, was contrary to their congratulatory self-image as scientists.

That, in 1500 words, is what is wrong with Sociology today. Now, let us move on to Max Weber.


Amato said...

Very interesting. But I am wondering how this kind of critique applies to sociologists using a regression discontinuity to measure some treatment on student achievements, for example. Does your critique only apply to qualitative researches?

Rob said...

Thank you for the very interesting expansion! Looking forward to the tutorial. I recently reread "The Protestant Ethic" and, like you, was astounded by just how good it is -- despite having read it before.

Peter D said...

There may have been no difference between Kennedy and Nixon then, but there sure is a difference now. The upshot of the difference being, powerful people chose to blow Kennedy's brains out, but not Nixon's.

See Douglass's "JFK and The Unspeakable" for an explanation.

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