Wednesday, November 23, 2005

System Theory and Empirical Science

Luhmann's project is, most fundamentally, to limn the social (Luhmann 1982, ix). In undertaking such a task, he departs from a positivist view of how science works--by patiently accumulating knowledge through empirical investigation as opposed to actively constructing a theoretical framework that can tie all this knowledge together. Instead, he adopts the view often voiced by natural scientists that obtaining the right concepts is necessary before significant progress can be made, following the stipulation of Talcott Parsons that choosing the right "primary abstractions" is of fundamental importance (Ackerman and Parsons 1966, 24-25). His project is also guided by two other views of how scientific research should be carried out. One is that one should aim for general theories (Luhmann 1995, xlvii; 1984, 9). The other is his often-voiced observation that science tends to look for successively smaller "fundamental entities" (Luhmann 1990a, 329). Accordingly, the way he has carried out his project is by starting off from the most "general" theory possible, system theory, and then "respecifying" this theory to conform to the social domain as defined by what its fundamental constituent entities arc namely, communications.

Empirical science, on the other hand, does pay attention to specific qualities of the entities with which it deals, and the way it does so is by looking at different kinds of entities separately. Thus, physicists study physical systems while biologists study biological ones. Despite this compartmentalization of the sciences, science ultimately does achieve an all-encompassing unity by making connections between the various disciplines: biology links up with chemistry, chemistry with physics, and so on, but without everything being "reduced" to physics since "higher-level" disciplines can point out regularities that are not apparent at and cannot even be described on the physical level (Oppenheim and Putnam 1958). It is not too hard to determine the "separation of labor" between the empirical sciences and more abstract disciplines such as system theory. Only the former can provide valid and complete scientific explanations. This is because science ideally aims to extend explanations as far as possible down the links of a chain of causes, producing a given event or phenomenon (Railton 1981). If one goes far enough down such a chain, one will have to deal with the specific qualities of the entities involved, rather than the relations between entities with which system theory deals. In addition, the empirical sciences can import any insights or discoveries from system theory into themselves, so it cannot be the case that there are phenomena that only system theory can explain. One thus sees that the role of system theory is rather like that of mathematics: by working in a purely conjectural abstract realm, it is left free to explore conceptual models without concern for their immediate applicability and may thus come across ideas that would not otherwise have been found that may be of explanatory value in the empirical sciences.

The role of system theory is hence to look for analogies across disciplinary boundaries in case such analogies lead to models that can be of use in particular empirical sciences. Accordingly, it makes no more sense to say, as Luhmann (1995,12; 1984, 30) does, that "there are systems" without specifying what kind of systems--chemical, biological, or whatever--than it does to say that "there are Euclidean planes": both concepts are abstractions with no empirical referent. Failure to understand this point can lead to the construction of a harmful ontology and to what one might call a "metaphysical" mode of thinking. Now, there is nothing wrong with constructing ontologies. As we know, for example, from Quine (1969), science makes ontological decisions all the time when it tells us, for instance, that water exists. The way it comes to this conclusion, however, is by considering a multitude of empirical information in relation to a network of theory that is able to account for that information. To say that water exists is on one level merely shorthand for a whole range of empirical data, and once one says it, to make the "ontological jump" and take the statement at face value is merely to incorporate it into the commonsense point of view that there really is something out there. For the aforementioned reason that system theory, because of its abstractness, does not make well-defined links with empirical data, one is not entitled to make the same ontological decision with respect to "systems in general." The unfortunate consequence of supposing that one can is to start thinking that by remaining within system theory, one can really explain anything. This is what Maturana and Varela do. Unfortunately, this is also what Luhmann ends up doing: even though he "respecifies" system theory to deal with social systems, he does not do so in a way that enables him to deal with concrete social systems but remains immersed in the ontological/explanatory structure of the theory of autopoietic systems. Thus, in order for the theory of social systems to be an adequate scientific theory (and that means an empirical and explanatory theory), it must be able not only to describe the social domain by saying that it consists of communications but also to explain (or at least point to an explanation) how communications come about. All that it is able to do, however, is to refer to the definition of autopoietic systems, which is that they produce themselves by producing their elements. Thus, communications are produced because it is in the "nature" of social systems to produce them. As we have seen, the theory of autopoietic systems is not able to explain how biological cells produce their elements, and there is no reason to think that it would be able to do so in the case of social systems. It is hard to see how one would explain the production of communications, other than by considering the brain and/or mental processes of individual actors.(n10)

Start from the body, taken as a whole, of scientific theory that does not deal with the social and then see what additional theoretical categories and explanatory strategies one must add to it if one is to adequately explain the social.(n12) Thus, since it is commonly accepted that the higher one goes up the hierarchy of "levels of emergence" from the physical to the biological to the social, the less reliable one's knowledge becomes, one may take as given biology and especially evolutionary biology (but not, of course, on a naively reductionist understanding), take with a grain of salt theory from cognitive science--but be ready to incorporate portions of it if they appear to account in an efficient way for wide ranges of social phenomena--and only then see what else one needs if one is to be able to account adequately for social phenomena. And in taking the last step, as we noted at the outset, let us take Luhmann's theory as our starting point and try to change it as little as possible. This means, among other things, that we follow Luhmann in adopting the social system as a fundamental category of social theory. But we do so not by supposing that "there exist systems" that can be adequately understood by means of the self-contained theory of autopoietic systems but by being willing to exploit the analogies that exist between organized collections of individuals and other kinds of systems, such as cells.
It can be seen that this way of going about, what Parsons (1997) called "building social systems theory," has certain correspondences with Luhmann's way of thinking about it. Luhmann often remarks that in doing social theory, one should take the normal as improbable, for instance, when asking how social order is possible (Luhmann 1981,195-285). This can be taken as a distancing strategy, a way of getting one to stop taking the social for granted and to look at it from the outside. Our program of seeing what one needs to add to the natural sciences to deal with social phenomena, while trying to keep the third-person view of the natural sciences, serves the same purpose. Also, we have already noted that Luhmann remarks that he follows the practice of the natural sciences of seeking out ever-smaller constituent elements. We take that practice to be merely a consequence of the basic aim of science to aim for unification (Friedman 1981; Kitcher 1981). The further one can extend explanations, the more unified science becomes. Therefore, if one can explain the behavior of some particles by doing so in terms of the smaller particles constituting them, one should do so. Looking at it thus in terms of the goal of explanatory unification, as opposed to drawing general conclusions from what that leads to in practice in certain cases, leads one, however, to a different evaluation of the role of "elementary entity" played by communications in Luhmann's theory. Communications do indeed appear to be elementary constituents of social systems (whether they are the only ones is another matter), but this does not mean that one can stop the analysis there: the goal of explanatory unification still impels one to ask how they come about, and if to answer this one has to go down to the level of individual actors, one is forced to do so, if not to stay there forever, then at least to show how the connection can be made.

Niklas Luhmann's Adoption of The Teory of Autopoietic Systems

From the very beginning, Luhmann based his social theory on system theory since the latter gave him the level of abstraction that he needed to describe social phenomena without explicitly considering the role played by individuals. It was only in the early 1980s, however, that his theory took on what he considered to be a more or less finished form, and he published his central work, Soziale Systeme (1984). This was when Luhmann adopted a new version of system theory--the theory of autopoietic systems--whose principal originators were the Chilean neuroscientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. In contrast to the preceding system-theoretic paradigm, which first distinguishes a system from its environment and then proceeds to describe system processes by relating them to functions that the researcher attributes to them, the new theory radically dismisses all such talk on the grounds that the old theory employs an observer-relative viewpoint that need not at all correspond to the "phenomenology" of the system, taken as a unified entity "for itself." Since what distinguishes a living system from a nonliving one--specifying the "essence" of the living was a prime concern of Maturana's--is that it is able to produce itself by reproducing its elements while maintaining an organization of these elements that is characteristic of it, the way to obtain a "true" understanding of such a system is by focusing on this very process of self-production and self-organization (Maturana and Varela 1980, 82). (If an observer wants to study the system by ascribing functions to it, that is fine, but this kind of investigation can only be a complement to the stance that looks at the system in and for itself and cannot replace it.) Since what one notices from such a perspective about the elementary processes of living systems--whether they be the synthesis of organic molecules in a cell or the generation of impulses in a neuronal network--is that every elementary event and process are exquisitely attuned to the process of the system's self-production--its autopoiesis--taken as a whole, the concept of self-reference takes on great importance in the theory, even at the level of the elements of a system. Once all of this has been accepted, the only remaining task is to show how an autopoietic system, despite being "closed" in the manner just described, is still able to interact with its environment. The way this is done is by taking the position that while no events outside the system can "enter into" the system, they can "deform" its autopoiesis without disturbing its closure, and this deformation can in turn lead the system to change its behavior with respect to its environment. In analyzing such a process, it is important not to confuse an observer's description of an environmental event impinging on a system with the way that event is "processed" by the system itself. Thus, to note a famous experiment that was a major influence on Maturana, when a frog flicks its tongue at a passing fly, it does not perceive a fly at a given point in space and then respond by directing its tongue toward that point. Rather, there is a certain hardwired link between retinal neurons and motor neurons that is activated by certain stimuli to the retina. When a fly happens to be nearby, the appropriate neurons fire, and that is all (Lettvin et al. 1959). Specifically, there is no representation of the space surrounding the frog as a spatiotemporal continuum populated by physical objects with various properties, which is the way a human observer experiences it.

It is easy to see how the theory of autopoietic systems precisely matched Luhmann's needs. Maturana's theory postulates a class of entities that could be instantiated at various levels--namely, the cellular, the cognitive, and (according to Maturana himself) the social, the defining characteristic of which is to produce themselves out of their elements. The theory is self-contained, in the sense that it may make use of empirical knowledge provided by various sciences but does not need any theoretical constructs or abide by any requirements for explanation from those sciences to produce explanations that are satisfactory on its own terms. Thus, to provide a satisfactory theoretical treatment of a given class of systems, it is only necessary first to define what elements constitute a system from that class and second to show how the system is able to carry out its autopoiesis by producing its elements. Once that is done, one may proceed to elaborate descriptions of various specific traits and behaviors of these systems in terms of this phenomenological analysis of them, without needing to bother, for instance, about how the elements of these systems are produced from a commonsense or physical science point of view since these points of view are outside of the system's autopoiesis and hence irrelevant. To take the analysis of social phenomena abstracting from individuals to its logical end point, therefore, it is necessary only to describe the domain of these phenomena and define the constituent elements. Since this domain is evidently not the domain usually studied by the natural sciences, that of physical entities in space-time, that will obviously require some extension of Maturana and Varela's theory.

Luhmann had already made the first step some time before adopting Maturana's theory in his 1971 work, with the introduction of his concept of meaning (Sinn). The concept is derived phenomenologically but without reference to a specific system type as the representation by a system of aspects of the current state of its environment that are of interest to it, together with a simultaneous reference to other possible states that are not currently instantiated. As it happens, two types of systems operate over the medium of meaning: psychic systems (Luhmann's term for what philosophers and others ordinarily call minds) and social systems. Since "meaning is nothing but a way to experience and to handle enforced selectivity," it is according to Luhmann an anthropomorphic error to see any intrinsic connection between meaning and minds or brains since there is no reason to think that social systems are any less complicated than psychic systems (Luhmann 1990b, 82; see also Luhmann 1995, 97-99; 1984,141-43). The second step was to posit that while psychic systems produce themselves by producing thoughts, social systems do so by producing communications; both thoughts and communications have meaning in exactly the same way. When one takes this theoretical step, one sees that an autonomous domain of the social does indeed open up before one, with human actors being situated, as Luhmann stresses, in the environment of social systems instead of composing them, as one has tended to suppose until now. Since the production of a communication cannot be reduced to the activity of a single psychic system or to a simple aggregation of the activities of several ones, it is wrong to attribute the communication to human actors, as one does in the case of action: a communication must be both sent and received, and the determining factors of what is communicated are largely contingencies of the immediate situation, such as communications that have previously been made, which are the result of the ongoing process of communication as it develops over time rather than of the specific traits of individual psychic systems (Luhmann 1995, 139-45; 1984, 193-201). Thus, while social systems certainly need psychic systems as a "substrate" to function, it is nevertheless true that since the medium in which they operate meaning--is as much the product of social systems as it is of psychic systems, it is no more improper to speak of communications without regard to the lower-level processes that "enable" them than it is to speak, as philosophers commonly do, of mental events or processes without regard to the underlying neural events and processes. (Luhmann is in fact critical of philosophers for privileging the self-reference of psychic systems over other kinds of self-reference; see Luhmann 1995, 99-102; 1984,143-47.) Furthermore, with the theory of autopoietic systems, one can now hope to account for the restless, creative nature of social systems without needing to consider the role played by individuals at all. Since social systems are autopoietic systems, they must by definition keep on producing their elements, which are communications. If a social system, whether it be an organization or a whole society, were to stop producing communications, it would simply cease to exist--and we know that this does not usually happen.

I am not able to give even a short account in this article of the many results that Luhmann has been able to achieve with this theory, which, as I have argued in the introduction, are largely attributable to Luhmann taking the idea of social autonomy as far as it will go--something that also accounts for the strangeness with which the ideas we have just presented usually strike a reader until she has immersed herself in Luhmann's writings for some time. Instead, I shall proceed to consider what can be seen as fundamental flaws in the theory deriving from the theory of autopoietic systems. The best way to do this is first by means of a direct critique of the latter theory itself.

Foundations Of Niklas Luhmann's Theory Of Social Systems

Of all contemporary social theorists, Luhmann has best understood the centrality of the concept of meaning to social theory and has most extensively worked out the notion's implications. However, despite the power of his theory, the theory suffers from difficulties impeding its reception. This article attempts to remedy this situation with some critical arguments and proposals for revision. First, the theory Luhmann adopted from biology as the basis of his own theory was a poor choice since that theory has no explanatory power, being purely descriptive; furthermore, that theory is fundamentally flawed since it implies that viruses are impossible. Second, Luhmann's theory of meaning cannot coherently make the social domain autonomous as he desires since Luhmann does not take into account the distinction between syntax and semantics. By introducing this distinction, making clear that social systems consist of rules, not just communications, and raising the rule concept to the same prominence in social theory as those of actor and system, autonomy can be maintained while avoiding the counterintuitive aspects of Luhmann's theory.

Although his work has not yet received in other countries the attention it deserves, Niklas Luhmann is widely recognized in Germany as the most noteworthy contemporary social theorist.(n1) Unsatisfied with the present state of sociology because the discipline "remains dependent on working with the data that it produces itself, and, where theory is concerned, on working with the classical authors that it has itself produced" (Luhmann 1995, 11; 1984, 28), Luhmann was taken aback by the "theory-disaster which sociology has experienced as a result of the introduction of so-called empirical methods" (Luhmann 1990a, 410). He undertook to correct the situation by developing a concerted research program that spanned three decades. In this program, he has done the conceptual work otherwise neglected by sociologists by constructing from the ground up a unified system of concepts that aims to span the social and modern society in particular.

The responses to this highly complex, self-contained, and interconnected theoretical product have been several. One can distinguish several different kinds:

1. rejection of the theory as speculative and unscientific, insufficiently concerned with empirical verification (Zolo 1986; Wagner 1994,1997);

2. rejection of it on the grounds that it gives up humanistic, enlightenment, and emancipatory values, which should be maintained (Habermas 1985; Miller 1994) or because it abstracts from individuals to an absurd degree (Izuzquiza 1990);

3. use of the theory as a "toolbox, out of which one can take individual concepts and theorems depending on one's immediate goals, without having to worry about the rest of the theory" (Schimank 1991, 579);

4. criticism of the theory from the perspective of general system theory, with the argument that what is constitutive of society is not communications but neural networks or some other biological entity (the papers collected in Schmidt 1987) or making some other modification of the theory from a natural science perspective (Leydesdorff 1996) while following Luhmann's general method of theorizing;

5. full-fledged embrace, with little or no criticism of Luhmann's fundamental theory (Baecker 1988; Willke 1992);

6. seeing the theory as currently the most advanced sociological theory and hence adopting it, while presenting it less "self-referentially" than Luhmann or his close disciples do, not working wholly within it, and making connections between it and the sociological tradition (Kiss 1986, 1989).

The approach proposed in this article adopts the last position, with a critical spirit. One can agree with Luhmann that sociology can not uncover new knowledge merely by engaging in empirically orientated "normal science" and that the classics did not say all that there is to be said of a general nature about society, particularly modern society. To make progress, all science, and not just sociology, must explore different concepts and find a set that allows it to adequately take apart the phenomena it studies (Buchdahl 1969, 495-512; Mayr 1982, 24, 75-76). None of the other positions listed above, aside from number 5, does this aspect of science sufficient justice or has led to as promising and versatile a body of theory as has Luhmann. Unlike the fifth type of response, however, I do not believe that a full-fledged, noncritical embrace of the theory is appropriate for the following reason. Luhmann has carried out his program by employing a very particular strategy, consisting of two interrelated moments: he has explored how far one can take theorizing of the social "in and for itself," in which the role of individuals is "bracketed out.' To do this as freely as possible, he has proceeded in a "speculative" fashion, without preoccupying himself with epistemological problems (until the core of the theory has been constructed) or the question of how the theory is to be verified empirically. I believe that this was the correct way to proceed at the time: the sheer richness of Luhmann's Gedankenwelt shows that. However, now that the theory has taken on a more or less mature form, one can pose the question of whether the same exploratory mode of theorizing should be continued by sociology indefinitely. For, to someone who has a more or less conventional view of science--the kind most natural scientists themselves have--and who wants to see sociology become a mature science, Luhmann's theory suffers from two related problems. First, it is not clear what the status of Luhmann's theory is: Luhmann himself takes ironic or indeed paradoxical positions on this question and declines to say that the theory is "true" (Luhmann 1987b). His theoretical strategy has forced him to adopt an antirealist position, not just on social entities but on physical ones as well. Despite Luhmann's arguments to the contrary, that can be taken as a warning sign that something is amiss with the theory.(n2) Second, since the theory operates in its own hermetic conceptual world, it is not clear how its concepts relate to clearly identifiable empirical entities, and hence it is not clear how his theory can be linked up with "neighboring" empirical sciences such as psychology, social psychology, or biology (not to mention how it can be related to actors' own self-understanding). But the linkability of related sciences is one hallmark of their maturity: if one could not connect chemistry to physics and biology to chemistry, one would feel that something is wrong.(n3) Both these problems are a direct consequence of Luhmann's strategy of "unrestrained exploration."

The conviction underlying the present article is that the time for such conceptual exploration is over. If sociology is to continue to progress, it must shift to a phase of consolidation of concepts. Now that the domain of the social has been limned in a way that almost certainly would not have been possible without letting lapse the constraints that a good social theory, pace Luhmann, should be compatible with actors' own self-understanding and that the way in which theory is verified must be clearly specified, it is time to reimpose those constraints. This article outlines in two steps one way of doing so, the first critical and the second one of reconstruction. Thus, in a first step, I shall attempt to show how the difficulties of Luhmann's theory can be traced to two substantive (as opposed to strategic) choices that he made: adopting the system concept of Humberto Maturana and adopting a phenomenological theory of meaning. In a second step, I shall try to show how under the guidance of normative conceptions of scientific method obtained from the contemporary philosophy of science, it is possible to use concepts from the contemporary philosophy of mind to provide an underpinning for Luhmann's theory and to reconstruct the latter in a way such that it obtains the same truth status as any valid theory in the natural sciences. If this demonstration can be carried out at all convincingly, then one will have reason to believe that by making some conceptual substitutions, it is possible to preserve the generality and richness of Luhmann's theory while freeing it from the paradoxical and hermetic qualities from which it now suffers.

One Example Towards Theoretical Integration in Social Theory

The appearance of Sociology as a discipline is tied to solving the problem of demarcating it in relation to other disciplines. So one main concern in the realm of Social Theory - from Comte, Durkheim, Simmel, Weber until the early Parsons - is at this time: what are the criteria for such a new discipline?

In this context we can also observe an appearance of regulative one-sided ideas, that organize information as specific sociological information in a mono-theoretical way. By this I mean a theory-production that focuses its research efforts on one main category like ‘communication’, ‘rationality’, ‘behaviour’, ‘action’, ‘decision’, ‘conflict’, structure’, ‘role’, ‘risk’, ‘evolution’ etc. Such a main category works like an ‘emanating semantic’ explaining ‘everything’ from its center.

It is my contention, that the function of such a mono-theoretical procedure is first an external one: demarcating Sociology from other disciplines. But with the consolidation of Sociology as a discipline, one-sided theories become internally unproductive because of their polemical means. While at the beginning of the discipline they play a cohesive role, after the consolidation of that discipline they run internally against other one-sided theories.

What makes a discipline become theoretically mature? In my opinion, this occurs at the moment that a general problem is discovered within the discipline and focused upon. As soon as there is one important general problem for the scientific community, the discipline becomes in some way autonomous. It can now produce and reproduce it self out of the internal problem and not only out of external demands put on it.

The classical tradition in Sociology in Europe responds to the general problem: how is social order possible? Ironically enough, this problem is put forcefully forward by an American sociologist, namely by Talcott Parsons.

The classical tradition in Sociology in America responds to quite another problem, that is, to the problem: how is the self socially possible? Take as classical examples for instance, Cooley, Dewey, Mead, James.

After a main consolidation in European and American social theory, one-sided theories have become quite ineffective and have almost lost their legitimation. What we need in this situation are more cohesive theories that always reflect the other side of them selves. Theory-production must now focus on two-sided theories in the sense of observing what they can see, and at the same time trying to observe what they are keeping out of their scope when observing what they are trying to observe.

But this is not enough. In a constantly globalizing world we sooner or later become aware of the dominance of our own culture and of our blindness against other so-called ‘strange’ cultures. In this context we must become aware of at least one distinction between the European and the American classical tradition in sociology. Here we have a new general problem to be solved, namely how to integrate the problem of social order - peculiar to the European tradition - with the problem of explaining the self in a social manner - peculiar to the American tradition.

In other words, we need at first distinctional theories that tell us on the one side what we can observe with their help, and on the other side and at the same time what we are covering while observing with their help. Second, we need at least a theory that tries to integrate the European with the American general problem, which means integrating ‘how is social order possible’ with ‘how is the self socially possible’. In other words, in our theoretical efforts we have to be constantly aware of the macro-micro-problem.

Now to finish my presentation I want to offer you one example in a schematically form towards theoretical integration in Sociological Theory as put forward in my recent publications, ‘Logic of Distinctions. A Proto-Logic for a Theory of Society’ and ‘Societal Observations - from the Point of View of the Theory of Distinctions’:

The Form of Society

> communication > decision action >
> -------------------------------------------------------
intended/unintended consequences of com, dec, act...
< function < structure <

< < evolution < <

communication = information/communication, understanding/interpretation
decision = secure/unsecure, advantage/disadvantage
action = means/ends, cause/effect

structure = experience/expectation
function = latent/manifest

evolution = variation/selection, stability/crisis, probable/improbable

The methodology ‘Theory of Distinctions’

It was a sort of risky attitude that let me propose some hypothetical solutions to the above uplisted problems from the point of view of the theory of distinctions.

First of all we had the problem of simplifying generalism with its aspect of integrating the general approach of the theory with its specific research capabilities. My proposal says: use the notion of distinctions. If you want to work with Luhmann’s proposal you know that you must use the system/environment-distinction, if you want to work with Parsons’ proposal you know that you must work with the system/action-distinction, if you want to work with Habermas’ proposal you know that you must use the Life-world/system-distinction. At the end one can abstract this procedure in the following way:

‘Tell me what distinction you are using, and I will tell you what you will see!’

And now you may ask: what is the main distinction of the theory of distinctions? Well, the distinct/distinctless-distinction. One main theorem of this theory says: without distinction there is no information. So, with the distinction of distinct/distinctless you arrive at the last distinction where you can observe that this distinction gives you the last information saying: if you take the distinctless side of the above distinction, you will not get any information at all. The only information you will get is, that you will not get any information.

Second we had the problem of the emptiness of central concepts of the theory-proposal of Luhmann, namely his concept of communication. Luhmann is making the same mistake as Parsons’ and Habermas have done with their main concepts: semantically overloading ‘communication’ (this holds for Luhmann), ‘action’ (this holds for Parsons) and ‘communicative action’ (this holds for Habermas). But what to do in this situation? My contention: there are no main concepts at all. My proposal: try to semantically restrict the concepts you use in a reciprocal way: one concept restricts the other an vice versa. For example we use – at the level of a culturalistic theory of society – the concepts ‘communication’, ‘action’, decision’, ‘structure’, ‘funcion’ and ‘evolution’ in an interrelated manner without giving to one of this concepts a priority (see beneath the figure).

Third we had the problem of the lack of empirical connection in Luhmann’s proposal. And I said that this has to do with his incorporation of the Autopoiesis-Concept in a ‘hard’ manner. The problem to which the Autopoiesis-Concept is offering a solution, can be stated in the following way: how can something constitute itself as itself? The plain answer that the Autopoiesis-Concept proposes is: the self is constituted by itself. In some way this problem is already tackled in Classical German Philosophy (for example in the works of Fichte). Before adapting the Autopoiesis-Concept Luhmann was already working with one of the main categories of this philosophy: with the category of self-reference. My proposal: insert some sort of time in the Autopoiesis-Concept so that it can be stretched in the sense that you can observe how something is transforming into a self. Take the Autopoiesis-Concept in a ‘soft’ manner and try to work more with the concept of ‘the evolution of autonomy’ so that you can detect degrees of autonomy, degrees of closeness.

Fourth we had the problem of the lack of internal theoretical changes by means of criticism of Luhmann’s proposal. This comes from the fact that Luhmann is using the paradoxical figure. I think that Luhmann (and others!) is right in pointing out that every identity when observed has a paradoxical form: the system is itself because it uses the distinction of being itself and not being itself in order to distinct itself . We can also say: the system is using the contrary of itself in order to become itself. Here there are some points to be remarked. First: you can dissolve every paradox with the help of time. More and better: a paradox is a timeless identity. If you observe with the help of time how the ‘you’ is constituting the ‘I’, and the ‘I’ is constituting the ‘you’, at the end you will understand that the process of the constitution of an identity is loaded with time. And so you will also understand why every observation of identity becomes paradoxical when extracting it from the dimension of time. Second: in daily life it is rarely possible to observe identities with the help of time. Or: in daily life there is no time to insert time in our observations of identities. So the paradoxical phenomena of identities will persist. Third: Something is paradoxical when our understanding of it comes to a cognitive limit. Or to put it in a paradoxical way: if you do not understand what I am saying when explaining a paradoxical relation you have already understood what this relation means: it means an abolishment of any means. Fourth: there is at least one more strategy that can help us dealing with the limits of cognitive understanding: the figure of complementarity as put forward by Niels Bohr, Viktor von Weizsäcker and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. Complementarity means, that the identity of something has two sides that never can appear at the same time: the ‘I’ is only possible, if we disregard the ‘you’ and vice versa (12).

Problems with Theory-Construction of Grand Theories

Since the appearance of Sociology - first as a research program offered by Auguste Comte, lateron developed by Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Pareto, Cooley, Mead, Dewey, Parsons and others - the problem of constructing a grand theory has in my opinion always been present. (1)

Unquestionably it is the American Talcott Parsons (2), who offers the sociological community - for the first time - a very complex grand theory, perhaps the greatest grand theory ever proposed in the field of sociology.

Since then we are confronted with a second grand theory which is comparable to Parsons’ proposal: Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory (3) . And it is - by the way - not a coincidence that without Parsons’ work, Luhmann’s work would not have been possible, as Luhmann himself states. (4)
As such, grand theories have to deal with some inherent, central problems. In my opinion there are at least four main problems that every grand theory has to solve in order to satisfy the multiple demands of its users. These are: 1) the problem of a simplifying generalism, which may have some times totalitarian aspects. From this generalism derives the difficulty to connect it with some sort of specific concrete situation; 2) the problem of the ‘emptiness’ of its central concepts; 3) the problem of the lack of empirical connection, and 4) the problem of the lack of internal changes. Let us now observe these problems in the light of Luhmann’s Grand Theory.

First of all the problem of the supposed simplifying generalism, which in the long run has to do with the capability of integrating the general aspects of the theory with the capability of the theory on resolving very concrete problems. As some of you will know, Luhmann’s Grand Theory is constructed around one main distinction: the system/environment-distinction. The problem lies in the distinction itself: most sociologists do not work with this distinction. But for Luhmann it reflects the very core of his theory. In this sense, his theory has some kind of inherent ‘all or nothing’-rule: if you want to work with it or with some aspects of it, you must also use the system / environment - distinction. Otherwise you have to disregard his proposal. In this context it is worth mentioning that one weakness of the above distinction lies in the fact that it discriminates everything too sharply (5). Most social aspects of society, however, can not be separated as sharply as the distinction presupposes (6). In this context, please, take Luhmann’s exclusion of the human being (‘der Mensch’) from Society as an example (7).

As I already said above, every Grand Theory has - up to a certain degree - to solve the problem of having on the one side a general approach, but on the other side trying to give answers to very specific questions. To put it in another way: how can a Grand Theory hold its generality and be at the same time able to organize specific research programms? If we observe with the help of a systems theory like that proposed by Luhmann, we have the problem that we must observe every thing through the glasses of the system/environment-distinction. But as I said likewise above - not every Sociologist wants to work with this distinction because he may be of the opinion that not everything is a system or, worse, he sees no system at all. Now, of course this is not a specific problem of the theoretical proposal of Luhmann. The same problem occurs also with such general Theory-Proposals like Parsons’ with the main distinction of system and action, or with Habermas’ main distinction of life-world and system<, or - to take some classics - with Tönnis’ main distinction of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft, or with Durkheim’s main distinction of organical and mechanical Societies, or with Marx’s main distinction of production power and production relationsships (Produktivkräfte/Produktionsverhältnisse), or, in a more philosophical sense, take his being and consciousness distinction (Sein und Bewußtsein), or Max Weber’s main distinction of end-rationality and value-rationality (Zweckrationalität/Wertrationalität). Second we have the problem of a possible emptiness of central concepts of a Grand Theory . Also as some of you know, Luhmann constructs his theory with the help of one main concept, namely that of communication. Now, I am of the opinion, that Luhmann is understanding communication primarily as 'written communication'. There is no doubt, that the transition from the oral to the written culture of communication was a most important step for the development of world society, because from that time on it became possible to communicate without taking into account the real presence of the 'communicator'. Now social communication flows not only as written, but also and maybe in the first instance as nonverbal communication. Luhmann interprets most of his conceptions - so his conception of action for example - as a sort of communication. In the end, in Luhmann’s concept of communication we have an all embracing concept that is semantically overloaded and therefore up to a certain point ‘empty’. In this context we have developed two concepts that can explain that there is a ‘consensus’ prior to any discourse and to any explicit taken social action: the pre-discourse and the pre-action (8).

The third problem consists in the supposed lack of empirical connection . There is indeed a problem of lack of empirical connection in Luhmann’s proposal. This has in my opinion to do with the fact that he incorporates the theory of Autopoiesis - as put forward by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. For Luhmann, to observe society, means to observe autopoietical closed social systems. From this point of view there is no possibility to observe semi-closed or even open social systems. When Luhmann observes a social system, it can only be a closed one, or else it is no system at all. This ‘hard’ point of view of his makes it impossible for him to observe how a social system is generating and evolving step by step until it gets ‘closed’. And this is an essential empirical question (9).

A fourth problem of every Grand Theory can be seen in its supposed lack of internal change. Which aspect of Luhmann’s theory produces this internal disability, so that he can not react in a critical way? To my opinion it is his use of paradoxical argumentation that produces the above problem. As you may know Luhmann bases any observation of a system upon a paradoxical observation: the system is a system because it is not a system (but an environment). At this level of argumentation it is not possible to criticize Luhmann’s position in an efficient way. This has to do with the paradoxical figure which is immune against any logical argumentation which includes the principle of contradiction (Aristoteles): it is not possible that something can be and can not be at the same time. In order to come along with this problem we have introduced the concept of complementarity as worked out by the Danish physician Niels Bohr (10).

Friday, November 18, 2005

Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" on The Priority of Paradigms

How can it be that "rules derive from paradigms, but paradigms can guide research even in the absence of rules" (42).

A. The paradigms of a mature scientific community can be determined with relative ease (43).

B.The "rules" used by scientists who share a paradigm are not easily determined. Some reasons for this are that :
1. scientists can disagree on the interpretation of a paradigm.
2. the existence of a paradigm need not imply that any full set of rules exist.
3. scientists are often guided by tacit knowledge—knowledge acquired through practice and that cannot be articulated explicitly (Polanyi, 1958).
4. the attributes shared by a paradigm are not always readily apparent.
5. "paradigms may be prior to, more binding, and more complete than any set of rules for research that could be unequivocally abstracted from them" (46).

C.Paradigms can determine normal science without the intervention of discoverable rules or shared assumptions (46). In part, this is because :
1. it is very difficult to discover the rules that guide particular normal-science traditions.
2. scientists never learn concepts, laws, and theories in the abstract and by themselves.
a. They generally learn these with and through their applications.
b. New theory is taught in tandem with its application to a concrete range of phenomena.
c. "The process of learning a theory depends on the study of applications" (47).
d. The problems that students encounter from freshman year through doctoral program, as well as those they will tackle during their careers, are always closely modeled on previous achievements.
3. Scientists who share a paradigm generally accept without question the particular problem-solutions already achieved (47).
4. Although a single paradigm may serve many scientific groups, it is not the same paradigm for them all.
a. Subspecialties are differently educated and focus on different applications for their research findings.
b. A paradigm can determine several traditions of normal science that overlap without being coextensive.
c. Consequently, changes in a paradigm affect different subspecialties differently—"A revolution produced within one of these traditions will not necessarily extend to the others as well" (50).
d. When scientists disagree about whether the fundamental problems of their field have been solved, the search for rules gains a function that it does not ordinarily possess (48).

A Biography of Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Samuel Kuhn was born on July 18, 1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio, United States. He received a Ph. D. in physics from Harvard University in 1949 and remained there as an assistant professor of general education and history of science. In 1956, Kuhn accepted a post at the University of California--Berkeley, where in 1961 he became a full professor of history of science. In 1964, he was named M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Philosophy and History of Science at Princeton University. In 1979 he returned to Boston, this time to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as professor of philosophy and history of science. In 1983 he was named Laurence S. Rockefeller Professor of Philosophy at MIT.

Of the five books and countless articles he published, Kuhn's most renown work is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which he wrote while a graduate student in theoretical physics at Harvard. Initially published as a monograph in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, it was published in book form by the University of Chicago Press in 1962. It has sold some one million copies in 16 languages and is required reading in courses dealing with education, history, psychology, research, and, of course, history and philosophy of science. Structure has also generated a good deal of controversy, and many of Kuhn's ideas have been powerfully challenged (see Weinberg link below).

Throughout thirteen succinct but thought-provoking chapters, Kuhn argued that science is not a steady, cumulative acquisition of knowledge. Instead, science is "a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions" [Nicholas Wade, writing for Science], which he described as "the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science." After such revolutions, "one conceptual world view is replaced by another" [Wade].

Although critics chided him for his imprecise use of the term, Kuhn was responsible for popularizing the term paradigm, which he described as essentially a collection of beliefs shared by scientists, a set of agreements about how problems are to be understood. According to Kuhn, paradigms are essential to scientific inquiry, for "no natural history can be interpreted in the absence of at least some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation, and criticism." Indeed, a paradigm guides the research efforts of scientific communities, and it is this criterion that most clearly identifies a field as a science. A fundamental theme of Kuhn's argument is that the typical developmental pattern of a mature science is the successive transition from one paradigm to another through a process of revolution. When a paradigm shift takes place, "a scientist's world is qualitatively transformed [and] quantitatively enriched by fundamental novelties of either fact or theory."

Kuhn also maintained that, contrary to popular conception, typical scientists are not objective and independent thinkers. Rather, they are conservative individuals who accept what they have been taught and apply their knowledge to solving the problems that their theories dictate. Most are, in essence, puzzle-solvers who aim to discover what they already know in advance - "The man who is striving to solve a problem defined by existing knowledge and technique is not just looking around. He knows what he wants to achieve, and he designs his instruments and directs his thoughts accordingly."

During periods of normal science, the primary task of scientists is to bring the accepted theory and fact into closer agreement. As a consequence, scientists tend to ignore research findings that might threaten the existing paradigm and trigger the development of a new and competing paradigm. For example, Ptolemy popularized the notion that the sun revolves around the earth, and this view was defended for centuries even in the face of conflicting evidence. In the pursuit of science, Kuhn observed, "novelty emerges only with difficulty, manifested by resistance, against a background provided by expectation."

And yet, young scientists who are not so deeply indoctrinated into accepted theories - a Newton, Lavoisier, or Einstein - can manage to sweep an old paradigm away. Such scientific revolutions come only after long periods of tradition-bound normal science, for "frameworks must be lived with and explored before they can be broken." However, crisis is always implicit in research because every problem that normal science sees as a puzzle can be seen, from another perspective, as a counterinstance and thus as a source of crisis. This is the "essential tension" in scientific research.

Crises are triggered when scientists acknowledge the discovered counterinstance as an anomaly in fit between the existing theory and nature. All crises are resolved in one of three ways. Normal science can prove capable of handing the crisis-provoking problem, in which case all returns to "normal." Alternatively, the problem resists and is labeled, but it is perceived as resulting from the field's failure to possess the necessary tools with which to solve it, and so scientists set it aside for a future generation with more developed tools. In a few cases, a new candidate for paradigm emerges, and a battle over its acceptance ensues - these are the paradigm wars.

Kuhn argued that a scientific revolution is a noncumulative developmental episode in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one. But the new paradigm cannot build on the preceding one. Rather, it can only supplant it, for "the normal-scientific tradition that emerges from a scientific revolution is not only incompatible but actually incommensurable with that which has gone before." Revolutions close with total victory for one of the two opposing camps.

Kuhn also took issue with Karl Popper's view of theory-testing through falsification. According to Kuhn, it is the incompleteness and imperfection of the existing data-theory fit that define the puzzles that characterize normal science. If, as Popper suggested, failure to fit were grounds for theory rejection, all theories would be rejected at all times.

In the face of these arguments, how and why does science progress, and what is the nature of its progress? Kuhn argued that normal science progresses because members of a mature scientific community work from a single paradigm or from a closely related set and because different scientific communities seldom investigate the same problems. The result of successful creative work addressing the problems posed by the paradigm is progress. In fact, it is only during periods of normal science that progress seems both obvious and assured. Moreover, "the man who argues that philosophy has made no progress emphasizes that there are still Aristotelians, not that Aristotelianism has failed to progress."

As to whether progress consists in science discovering ultimate truths, Kuhn observed that "we may have to relinquish the notion, explicit or implicit, that changes of paradigm carry scientists and those who learn from them closer and closer to the truth." Instead, the developmental process of science is one of evolution from primitive beginnings through successive stages that are characterized by an increasingly detailed and refined understanding of nature. Kuhn argued that this is not a process of evolution toward anything, and he questioned whether it really helps to imagine that there is one, full, objective, true account of nature. He likened his conception of the evolution of scientific ideas to Darwin's conception of the evolution of organisms.

The Kuhnian argument that a scientific community is defined by its allegiance to a single paradigm has especially resonated throughout the multiparadigmatic (or preparadigmatic) social sciences, whose community members are often accused of paradigmatic physics envy. Kuhn suggested that questions about whether a discipline is or is not a science can be answered only when members of a scholarly community who doubt their status achieve consensus about their past and present accomplishments.

Thomas Kuhn was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 1954 and was awarded the George Sarton Medal in the History of Science in 1982. He held honorary degrees from institutions that included Columbia University and the universities of Notre Dame, Chicago, Padua, and Athens. He suffered from cancer during the last years of his life. Thomas Kuhn died on Monday, June 17, 1996, at the age of 73 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was survived by his wife and three children.

Discourse Out of Place

Mary Douglas' famous essay, "Symbolic Pollution," provides a framework through which the debates over mass culture could be interpreted. Douglas considers "dirt" to be "matter out of place." Consequently, dirt reveals what being "in place" means; that is, it reveals an underlying structure for guiding conduct, belief, and ritual. Says Douglas, "...[O]ur pollution behaviour is the reaction which condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications" (Douglas, in Alexander & Seidman 1990, p. 155). Douglas goes on to also argue that pollution is "a particular class of danger ... which is not likely to occur except where the lines of structure, cosmic or social, are clearly defined."

The analogy being offered here, then, is that "mass culture" is symbolic pollution in Culture (as conceived, affirmed, legitimated, structured and ritualized by Critics of Culture). "Mass culture" is discourse out of place, since it is regarded as "dirt" (even "trash"). The discourse out of place becomes, indeed, a particular class of danger among conservatives, liberals, and Marxists, because it is a discourse that did not originate within the sacred circle of critique; rather, it is an outsider's discourse -- a discourse "of the people," which is to say, not of the academy -- not of, perhaps more precisely, that class of literate experts which has for centuries been the arbiters of what counts as acceptable discourse.

Therefore, the debates about mass culture could be analogous to pollution behavior that "condemns any object or idea likely to confuse or contradict cherished classifications." In essence, pollution behavior reifies the classifications, purifies them, and saves them. If popular fare become moral offenses that demand address -- and purification -- via rituals of reconciliation, expungement, fumigation, and so on, not only do these offenses reveal the ritual order of commentary on mass society, they also enable the commentary to continue.

Cultural and Symbolic Approaches

Among these traditions the human faculty to manipulate symbols is, in part, definitive of being human; further, the ability to manipulate symbols is contingent not only upon superior mental development (as compared to apes, for example) -- it is also contingent upon a cultural context.
Kenneth Burke's famous definition of man -- symbol-using, inventor of the negative, separated from natural conditions by instruments of [his] own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection -- offers an interesting commentary upon social science, itself, and upon the debates regarding mass culture, in particular. It is human nature, according to Burke, to be discontent (rotten with perfection), to be provoked into differencing as a symbolic activity ("this is good, but that is better," or "Bach but not Bird," for example). When applied to questions about the condition of modernity with regard to culture, one certainly can discern a tendency to be discontent with the present (as compared with a utopian past or future), to be fixated upon designating the superiority and inferiority of cultural forms, to separate (and be separated by) discourses.

Because culture is the arena in which symbols are created and invested with meaning, for Geertz (1973), culture necessarily precedes the development of language. Thus, prior to linguistic expressions culture (and, consequently, "terministic screens," "formulae," "pictures in our head") had already flavored the soup. There's no getting around culture except ... perhaps, by exposing its existence; as Sontag suggests in her essay, "On Style," the silences of a work of art (or of a culture, or a man) are as revealing as its utterances.

What are the silences of the debates of mass culture? What are its terministic screens?
Carey suggests (as have others), that our current, most dominant metaphor for understanding the nature of mass communication, is the transmission metaphor. Carey argues that in the transmission metaphor, "Communication was viewed as a process and a technology that would, sometimes for religious purposes, spread, transmit, and disseminate knowledge, ideas, and information farther and faster with the goal of controlling space and people" (1989, 17). On the one hand, liberalist visions of a superior mass culture suggest that the highest quality cultural forms could be made available to the masses for (ideological/moral/religious) purposes of obtaining an Enlightened society; allegedly, from this position, "democracy" would be improved once the citizenry had acquired certain intellectual standards. Yet, interestingly enough, once "the people" entered into that "democratic" domain of culture, they became "the masses." On the other hand, in radical Marxist visions of a superior culture, intrusions of "the people" (prior to the achievement of Communist utopia) upon the domain of culture were a priori dismissed as symptoms merely of "false consciousness." From both the democratic and socialist approaches, then, once the popular became popular it was suspect; thus one wonders -- for whom, exactly, were such perspectives attempting to argue? For "the people?" Or... for the theorists? In this context the second half of Carey's assertion (the goal of controlling space and people) becomes even more salient.

Of course, Carey offers an important contribution as partial corrective to the silences and screens of the considerations of communication and of culture. Rather than continue with the transmission metaphor, Carey suggests adopting a "ritual" metaphor. He explains,
A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs. If the archetypal case of communication under a transmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality (1989, 18).

There are two directions to pursue with regard to Carey's ritual view. First, in the context of "mass" culture, the ritual view demands a reorientation toward what is valued as legitimate, meaningful, quality, sacred, and aesthetic. Such a reorientation requires taking seriously that which has been relegated to the trash heaps of "mass" culture; it requires asking -- rather than telling -- people what is "good," "valuable," "quality," "aesthetic," and, even, "sacred."

The second direction in which I would apply Carey's ritual view is in the direction of the debate itself. I suggest that the mass culture debate --- typified as it is by incompatible but similarly silent positions -- constitutes in itself a set of ritual utterances, a set of ritual practices deployed, in varying degrees, for the purposes of the maintenance of an intellectual community.
Perhaps an elaboration upon this latter suggestion would be helpful; I will conclude, then, with a brief examination of the mass culture discourse from the perspective of "symbolic pollution" (Douglas 1966).

Radical or Critical Theory Traditions

The radical or critical approaches to mass culture derive from substantially differing sources than do the traditional approaches, yet they share similar concerns. Contributors and influences upon this tradition include Marx, Weber, the Frankfurt School scholars, (especially Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and Benjamin), Gramsci, Mills, and Althusser. While each of their influences have been inflected in mass theory debates in somewhat differing ways, the common denominator among them is an interest in ideology.

Karl Marx viewed modern, industrialized, capitalist society as inherently oppressive and inhumane; it separated people from nature, alienating them and isolating them not only from their society but also from themselves. According to Marx, ownership of the means of economic production necessarily facilitates a division of labor wherein owners exploit workers. As capitalism and private ownership progresses, society is stratified according to labor (into the bourgeoise, the proletariate, and the lumpenproletariate). This division among society, while stemming from economic realities, also corresponds to a division of ideology. Marx's theory of historical materialism argues that economics determines the social relations of productions, and that the social relations of production determines class consciousness. Thus, the consciousness of the bourgeoisie tends to be oriented toward maintenance of their material conditions. The bourgeoisie also own the means of mental production (such as newspapers), and are adept at the creation of ideologies that perpetuate the acceptance of the social order.

Therefore, according to Marxian perspectives, mass culture produced within the capitalist system tends (at least) to reproduce the patterns of domination and oppression at the level of ideology (within the superstructure). The actual nature of this tendency -- whether ideology (and, more largely, culture) is, "in the last analysis," a matter of economic determinism, is a topic open to debate and revision. Raymond Williams writes, "The basic question, as it has normally been put, is whether the economic element is in fact determining. I have followed the controversies on this, but it seems to me that it is, ultimately an unanswerable question ... [T]he difficulty lies in estimating the final importance of a factor which never, in practice, appears in isolation" (Williams 1958, 280). While Williams is willing to grant economics determining force, if they are determining, they necessarily impact a "whole way of life;" since economics can never be isolated from the whole way of life, Williams prefers to try to understand culture from a more holistic perspective (that is, from the Weberian position of verstehen). He is therefore skeptical of the tendencies of some Marxists to dismiss any cultural form produced within "decadent" society as decadent by definition. "To describe English life, thought and imagination in the last three hundred years simply as 'bourgeois', to describe English culture now as 'dying', is to surrender reality to a formula" (Williams 1958, 281-282). Because Williams attempts a more integrative approach in his own work, and because he requires from Marxism a better definition of culture, he more resembles Weber than Marx.

Max Weber's social order resembles Marx's in that he does give acknowledgment to the economic base resulting in classes. However, Weber disagreed that history could be so neatly packaged according to ownership and the divisions and struggles resulting from ownership. History, and society, for Weber (as for Williams) were far more complex; the mechanisms of change and evolution were subtle, interwoven and resistant to precise causalities. Also, Weber embraces both aspects of idealism and materialism, but resists being confined to either. For example, Weber would agree that members of the upper economic classes tend to have higher "status" than do members of lower classes; however, unlike Marx, Weber acknowledges that status cannot be based upon class, alone. A starving artist would be accorded higher status than the starving thief, even though both occupy similar economic positions; the difference is therefore cultural rather than material. Central to unraveling (or at least describing) such complexities is Weber's concept of verstehen.

Derived from hermeneutics -- the interpretation of both structural features of and authorial intentions for texts (published writings, in particular) - - Weber's method of verstehen sought to apply the tools of hermeneutics to social actors (thus, extending the definition of a "text" to include events or actions of human agency, typically on the macro (rather than micro or individual) scale -- an extension that will reappear in the symbolic traditions of mass culture theory). For example, Weber's analysis of rational bureacracy in the West led him to explore the possibilities that particular religious practices encouraged or discouraged such structures of social organization. Weber's studies of Hinduism and Confucianism point out that the ideology of those religions impeded the growth of rational-legal bureacracies to the extent that they entrenched rigid and impermeable class distinctions, beyond which no one had the possibility of moving. The caste system, in particular, is tolerated, according to Weber, because of the Hindu promise of reincarnation and the belief that one's caste placement is the result of karma -- an irrefutable judgment based on behavior in a previous life. Contrasted with the Protestant work ethic, in which monetary or material gain was evidence of exemplary conduct and glory to God, the West was peculiarly suited to the development of the rational-legal bureacracy. Further, commandments and strict rules of conduct advocated by the harshest of the Protestants, the Calvinists, were amenable to rationalization and eventual codification within a legal system. In this case, Weber attempted to understand a particular feature of society within a holistic context that considered the social relations, the histories, and the belief systems of the people involved.
Returning then, to Williams, the cultural forms of a given society in a given moment in history must be understood within their particular contexts; one should not superimpose a particular definition of the situation upon the context. With that said, however, Williams also acknowledges that it is quite difficult to get away from "formulas" that impose definitions on existing situations. When he says, "There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses," he is arguing that "real business" of culture theory is to critically examine itself (p. 300). In particular, Williams objects, extensively, to the whole notion of a "mass" anything:
The idea of the masses, and the technique of observing certain aspects of mass behavior -- selected aspects of a 'public' rather than the balance of an actual community -- formed the natural ideology of those who sought to control the new system and to profit by it (Williams 1958, 312).

Inherent in the concept of the "masses" are assumptions about social control, about the nature of communication (for example, as "transmission"), and about the nature of social relations. The concept of the "masses," Williams argues, is an interested concept -- not neutral, nor even accurately descriptive of social reality. Yet the concept has so blinded theorists of communication that it becomes difficult to imagine mass communication in terms outside of the definition; it is tautological.
As Todd Gitlin (1982, 426) says, "So much is tautology."
Or is it?
Is there no such thing as mass behavior, as mass messages, as mass culture? Doesn't the very point of social science disappear if, in fact, social science is only tautology, only ... phenomenology?
From the point of view of symbolic or cultural theorists, the answers to those questions might be: "Yes. And no." or "Well, what was the point?"

Traditional Theories of Mass Culture

Traditionally, "mass," when used to refer to a group of people (as in "the masses"), is used as an aggregate concept that typically combines the following conditions: the masses are large, widely dispersed, anonymous, demographically heterogenous but behaviorally homogenous groups of people; they lack self-awareness as masses; they lack binding social ties with one another; they are an aggregate group of isolated individuals, and are incapable of organizing themselves as masses; and they are acted upon by external forces (McQuail 1988, DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach 1989).

This focus upon the nature of the ties or bonds between people in industrialized society derives from 19th century social philosophy, including the works of Comte, Tonnies and Durkheim.
Auguste Comte advocated the application of the "positive method" of science to society. Borrowing from the biological sciences, Comte envisioned society as an organism. Society, according to Comte, had structure, specialized parts which functioned together, and could be observed to undergo evolutionary change. Comte's social organism was threatened by the forces of over- specialization, which he attributed to the increasing division of labor; he argued that the links between individuals could be weakened by the division of labor because greater differentiation of society led to greater differentiation of experience; therefore, understanding between people would continue to erode. Comte viewed this erosion of common frameworks (or consensus) (and, thus, common linkages) between people as threatening to the equilibrium and harmony of the social organism (DeFleur & Ball-Rokeach 1989); further, he attributed the existence of social disorder to intellectual disorder. His main prescription was the application of science (in particular, positivism) for the purposes of, essentially, fine-tuning the social organism (Ritzer 1988).

Tonnies' characterizations (or ideal types) of the social bonds corresponding to pre- industrial and industrialized societies have also been influential within traditional theories of mass society. Tonnies argued that the mutual integration of individual lives with one another created conditions of mutual commitment, or "a reciprocal, binding sentiment ... which keeps human beings together as members of a totality." This state of "reciprocal, binding sentiment" he called Gemeinschaft. In contrast, industrialized societies increasingly rely upon contractual relations between individuals; thus, relations become impersonal and are based on agreed-upon fulfillment of contractual obligations rather than an appreciation of the personal qualities of an individual. Tonnies termed this latter condition Gesellschaft, and he was concerned that gesellschaft ultimately harmed the well-being of society and the individual.

Durkheim incorporated the organicism and empiricism of Comte with Tonnies's emphasis on social solidarity in his major theoretical statements; however, unlike Tonnies, Durkheim did not accept the argument that conditions of Gesellschaft eliminated moral unity or binding connection between individuals. On the contrary, while he recognized that the division of labor in society could produce conditions of anomie, he tended to believe that the division of labor increased, rather than decreased the mutual integration of the social organism (a condition which he termed organic solidarity). Thus, the division of labor contributes to the heterogeneity of the social organism, which (by definition of progress and evolution) meant the social organism was becoming more complex and was, consequently, improving. However, with Comte, Durkheim believed that the countervening force against organic solidarity was the increase (by virtue of increasing divisions of labor) with which individuality was experienced and expressed.
T.S. Eliot's view of culture has a certain Durkheimian conservatism. Eliot argues that "culture" is a manifestation of patterns of society as a whole.

Eliot writes:
It is commonly assumed that there is culture, but that it is the property of a small section of society; and from this assumption it is usual to proceed to one of two conclusions: either that culture can be the concern of a small minority, and that therefore there is no place for it in the society of the future; or that in the society of the future the culture which has been the possession of the few must be at the disposal of everybody (Eliot 1949, 31).
Eliot takes issue with both of these assumptions, arguing that the culture of the individual cannot be isolated from the culture of the group. Culture, rather, is an accumulation; it can only give meaning to the complexities of life after the lived experiences of its inhabitants have already created meaning (it is, in Durkheimian terms, an expression of the "collective conscience"). In addition, Eliot argues that since culture is not the domain of any one group but is (ideally) the expression of the whole, "it is only by an overlapping and sharing of interests, by participation and mutual appreciation, that the cohesion necessary for culture can obtain." Thus, Eliot embraces a form of organic solidarity as essential to the formation of culture. This solidarity is likewise in tension with the forces of individualism. While Eliot initially appears to be offering a pluralistic and equalitarian argument, in his chapter, "The Class and the Elite," his position becomes more clear.

According to Eliot, social philosophers tend to envision the social differentiation and the division of labor in the society "of the future" as completely isomorphic with individual talents. In such a perfectly functioning society, so the argument goes, since each will be fulfilled there would be no distinctions of superiority. Eliot sees this as an "atomic view" of society; the emergence of elites is not only inevitable, but necessary, according to Eliot, for the superior intellects (scientists, leaders, philosophers) can help guide a culture's understanding of itself. The real problem, rather, is that the modern condition has increasingly isolated elites from one another; their cohesion, thus, is essential to the optimum integration of all sectors of society within culture. And for Eliot, the real fear from mass culture is its tendency to level or equalize all cultural forms (Brantlinger 1983, 202). He regarded his contemporary culture as being clearly "in decline:" "We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity" ( 1968, 91).

Thus, Eliot is unwilling to surrender too much self-determination to ordinary people; rather, ordinary folk require the guidance of enlightened elites (similar, in a sense, to Durkheim's "social physicians" who might cure particular pathologies of the social organism). Finally, like Durkheim, Eliot is cautious regarding the separation of the individual from the "ties that bind."
The traditional approaches to the study of mass culture tend to assert, as Brantlinger argues, a "negative classicism," in which the Culture of yesteryear was superior to the "mass culture" of today; based upon this premise, modern civilization is seen to be in a state of decay, a slouching toward Rome, so to speak. Given this set of assumptions, it should therefore be no surprise that traditional approaches seek to salvage some golden moment of the past which was better -- or which has the potential for rescuing the future -- in order to prevent or obstruct the recurring Fall of Rome.

"Mass culture" from this perspective is typically a pejorative concept in that it implies a condition of inferiority in the quality of the cultural form(s) mediated or commodified, as compared (implicitly) to "high culture," Culture, or Art -- each of which has been canonized and legitimized by the application of intellectual and/or aesthetic criteria of value, within a tradition of critique. Mass culture also implies a condition of both spectacle and spectatorship, in which the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and/or cultural qualities of "true" Culture/Art are eliminated in exchange for sensational, titillating, vulgar or demeaning content (i.e., spectacle), and which requires the "passive" consumption from its audiences rather than their active participation in its creation (i.e., spectatorship). Additionally, mass culture, from this perspective, is believed (as alluded to above) to level taste, intellect, and the general social enlightenment by virtue of having to consider too many (rather than only the superior) preferences; in short, too many attempts to appeal to too many people waters down the culture into into mere tasteless (and nutritionless) broth.

Ironically, one could make the argument that the very means and practices that enabled the Enlightenment also provided the means and practices of spectatorship. For example, John Dewey, in his spectator theory of education, argues that the modern educational system forces students to be spectators to the knowledge-gathering and -generating process. Since they are required to read the observations or analyses of people who have already observed something, they are actually spectators to spectators. Dewey argues that knowledge can really only be acquired through interaction, through discourse, through the exchange of common symbols; it is a conversational and processual activity, rather than a passive, spectatorial activity. Dewey's observations, combined with Walter Ong's arguments that it was printing (not writing) that fixed the word into visual space, suggest that the conditions of spectatorship were created with the emergence of print culture and of institutionalized centers for learning (from which emerge cultural elites). This particular tension -- that the Enlightenment contains the seeds of its own destruction -- will be of special interest to the Frankfurt School scholars, discussed below.

Finally, "popular culture" traditionally shares some of the features of mass culture, in that popular culture also lacks a canonized set of aesthetic criteria exterior to itself by which to judge its forms; however, popular culture has, historically, referred to a localized set of cultural forms or customs that are related in some substantial way (even functionally) to the lived experiences of its consumers. For example, embroidery as a form of popular culture not only expressed the aesthetic sentiments of its producers, it could also be worn. Popular cultures have tended to be viewed as much more local, more authentic (in a folk-sense), and, typically, vulnerable to omission in official "historical" accounts of the times (with some exceptions, of course). Handlin (1961) argues that once a popular culture is mediated the local ties to lived experiences are eliminated; thus, with mass culture, the relevance, intimacy and spontaneity of emotion characteristic of a popular culture is diffused. Consequently whatever was organic, was authentic, or was expressive of a particular group's lived experience is disconnected from the cultural form; the result is that the massification of the popular renders whatever was valuable in the popular ineffective for the maintenance of the culture.

The Revolution Historical Journey

While a detailed history of the emergence of the mass media would be a valuable component of a lengthier discussion of the history of mass culture theories, time does not permit more than a general overview, to which I now turn.

Prior to the print era in medieval Europe, generally only small groups of people -- assembled as church congregations or as townsfolk -- would be exposed, via the oral tradition, to the same message at the same time. Using techniques of memorization and recitation, news from afar (which could be only as distant as a mere 20 miles) might spread, via messengers, jongleurs and troubadors, from town to town, proceeding only as fast as the horse and the tongue could carry it. It wasn't until the early 1600s, some 150 years after Johannes Gutenberg invented his alphabetic, moveable type printing press that the precursors to modern newspapers began.

During that century and a half, Europe was recovering from the Black Plague; post-plague populations began rising, cities grew, markets grew, mechanization increased -- and so, as James Burke (1989) notes, did the paperwork. With the increased availability of paper -- and Gutenberg's technology -- bills, books, political tracts (such as Martin Luther's 95 Theses) could be printed, laws could be codified, and Church doctrines and texts could be standardized. In short, two opposing tensions of social control could emerge: on the one hand, authority could be increasingly centralized because it could quickly use the printing technology to its own advantage. The various governments could consolidate their power through law, and (with improved cartography, navigation and nautical technologies) could extend that power over larger terrain. By the mid-16th century Columbus, Cortez and Magellan had extended the grasp of empires, and, consequently, enlarged markets for trade. On the other hand, however, once laws, doctrines, observations of the natural world, and philosophies about that world could also be printed (in standardized forms), educated elite classes could discover discrepancies, contradictions between "the way it is" and their own lived experiences (and they might be exposed to reports from abroad of "exotic" or alien cultures). With the increasing distribution of printing presses -- and with the increasing education of the populace, an increasing number of people began publishing and reading.

By the mid-1600s the Enlightenment was in full swing; and the various natural sciences were emerging; the methods of rational logic, observation, and verification began to reveal gross distortions in Church doctrines explaining the natural world. Such distortions were becoming seen as doctrine rather than divine truth, and the power of the Church to define reality was forever undermined. Here's a brief list of some of the more extraordinary achievements of the 17th and early 18th centuries (compiled from Garraty and Gay 1972, Boorstin 1988, Crowley & Heyer 1989):

Time Line 1 :
· 1609 Publication of Astronomia Nova by Kepler, containing his statement on the first two laws of planetary motion
· 1610 Galileo publishes Sidereal Messenger, describing his telescopic observations of the heavens
· 1619 Kepler publishes Harmonia Mundi, announcing his discovery of the third law of planetary motion
· 1637 Descartes publishes Discourse on Method
· 1644 Milton publishes Areopagitica
· 1650 Hobbes publishes Leviathan
· 1660s Boyle publishes New Experiments in Physico-Mechanical Touching the Spring of the Air; legal definition of Negro (African and Carribean) slavery begun in Virginia and Maryland
· 1662 Royal Society of London is founded
· 1666 French Academy of Science is founded
· 1676 Roemer determines the finite velocity of light
· 1677 The existence of microscopic male spermatozoa is discovered by van Leeuwenhoek
· 1678 The wave theory of light is proposed by Huygens
· 1687 Newton publishes Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis
· 1690 Locke publishes Two Treatises of Civil Government; first American newspaper, Publick Occurrences begins and ends in its first issue
· 1704 Newton's Opticks is published, some of whose basic ideas had been communicated to the Royal Society in 1672; Boston News-Letter begun

As the feudal era drew to a close monarchies were increasingly replaced with governments that depended, in part, upon the support of the people (at least, those with suffrage); consequently, those governments tended to be more lenient toward the nascent press (DeFleur and Ball-Rokeach 1989). By the late 1600s and early 1700s a new social class had emerged: professional writers and intellectuals -- who saw themselves, for the first time in history, as the opposition to the Church -- who saw themselves, perhaps as importantly, as the self-appointed guardians and educators of the minds of ordinary people (Brantlinger 1983, 93). Also during the late 1600s and early 1700s the English government and its citizens grappled (sometimes viciously) with questions of press freedom, and much of the early press doctrine was exported to England's colonies in the New World. By 1721, James Franklin (with the help of his brother, Benjamin) had begun the first (successful) daily newspaper in the colonies, the New England Courant.

The American colonial press was by no means a "mass" press; rather, it would take a Revolutionary War (the results of which included the First Amendment privileges of the free press), increasing industrialization, urbanization and intensifying commercialization (leading to an intensified division of labor) -- combined with widespread education -- before the real mass press of the penny era could emerge. The early years of American newspapers are characterized by partisan loyalty and patronage. Their readership (in both the Revolutionary and party press eras) tended to be the wealthy, educated upper classes of elites; their news tended to focus upon political events and trade; they were sold by subscription, delivered by mail, and tended to be fairly expensive. During both the colonial and party press eras newspapers often challenged government authority (and/or critics of the government); thus, these newspapers helped to establish, circulate, legitimate and reify the emerging authority of particular social sectors -- namely, the intelligentsia (in addition to local governmental authorities and capitalists).

By the 1830s the penny press era had arrived in the U.S. Sold on the streets for a penny, these newspapers broke with convention and catered their news to the working person of the emerging middle class. Sensational, flamboyant, profit-driven, the penny newspapers depended upon advertising revenues for their profits; in fact, they helped pioneer the field of advertising. However, it was not until after the invention of the telegraph and the construction of railroads that the mass press had truly arrived.

The telegraph was rapidly adopted during the mid-1800s. The first telegraphic demonstration using Morse code was conducted by Samuel Morse in 1844; during the 1850s the first newswire agency, the Associated Press, and Western Union Telegraph Company, were established; by 1866, one of the often unappreciated wonders of the modern world -- the TransAtlantic cable -- was laid between Newfoundland and Ireland. Because the telegraph enabled the swift exchange of information between distant cities, its impacts were felt in the shifting trade practices from arbitrage to speculation, of levelling prices between regions, and, with the addition of swift transportation via the railroads, of facilitating the emergence of national markets (Carey 1989).

Meanwhile improvements upon printing technologies -- including the development of rotary and web presses -- enabled a faster, more frequent publishing schedule at the printing houses -- which the Sears & Roebuck catalog put to good use, securing one of the first national markets. Earlier, in the 1840s, cheap paper and steam presses had helped make possible a growing market for popular literature; by the end of the century the book trade had grown so rapidly that magazines began offering digests of some of the "better quality" fare.

After the Civil War, the U.S. press experienced one of its strongest growth periods. Industrialization and urbanization were proceeding rapidly, absorbing the growing immigrant population; shops and department stores increased in number, drawing (with the help of streetcars) thousands into the cities to shop and marvel at the new luxuries being imported or factory-made. The growth of consumption -- tied as it is to industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization -- is also key to the growth of the mass press. The penny newspapers were more than happy to help the stores and the manufacturers advertise their wares, prices, and amenities; advertising prices were set according to circulation, and the newspapers began offering discount rates for frequent advertisers.

By the late 1800s, advertisers, keen for an edge against the growing competition, began promoting brand loyalty. In the context of an immigrant society wherein shifting economic and social practices intervened in traditional modes of living, brand loyalty became, according to Boorstin, a way of acculturation into the American fabric: "Old-fashioned political and religious communities now became only two among many new, once unimagined fellowships. Americans were increasingly held to others not by a few iron bonds, but by countless gossamer webs knitted together by the trivia of their lives" (Boorstin 1973, 148). The gossamer webs to which Boorstin refers are "consumptive communities" -- that is, affiliations between people based upon the products ("trivia") they used, rather than based upon their cultural traditions. Advertisers played upon this development as it emerged, appealing to a diverse population's anxieties about "fitting in" in the new society.

The newspapers of the day were strategic in assisting advertisers reach the thousands of potential customers. As Boorstin says, "City newspapers had become the streetcars of the mind. They were putting the thoughts of tens of thousands of people in new cities on tracks, drawing them to the centers where they joined the hasty fellowship of new consumption communities" (Boorstin 1973, 106). This link between newspapers and advertisers was a formula for success; manufacturers and shopkeepers benefitted in sales from increased advertising (and some were able to convert such profits into additional stores, even chains of stores), and the newspapers grew richer, as well.

Time Line 2 :
· 1785 Edmund Cartwright patents power loom
· 1789 Washington inaugurated first President
· 1793 Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin;
· 1798 Whitney builds a firearms factory new New Haven; Alien and Sedition Act passes in Congress
· 1801 Jefferson takes over as President; Sedition Act is permitted to expire (Alien Act is still on the books)
· 1804 Hegel publishes Phenomenology of Mind
· 1808 Slave trade in the US ends
· 1811 Pittsburgh's first rolling mill opens
· 1820 Pony express riders race between Boston, New York and Washington carrying Congressional news
· 1821 Adoption of gold standard in England
· 1822 First textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts
· 1829 George Stephenson perfects the steam locomotive (first built in 1814)
· 1830 Railroads put to use in US (transcontinental railway complete in 1869)
· 1830-42 Auguste Comte develops his positivist philosophy
· 1833-39 Invention of photography
· 1833 Benjamin Day begins the New York Sun
· 1835 Tocqueville publishes Democracy in America; James Gordon Bennett launches the New York Herald
· 1841 Horace Greeley starts the New York Tribune
· 1840 What is Property? published by Proudhon
· 1843 Marx is expelled from Germany, meets Engels in 1844
· 1844 Telegraph links Washington & Baltimore
· 1845 Engels publishes The Conditions of the Working Class in England in 1844
· 1848 Marx and Engels publish The Communist Manifesto
· 1859 Value added by manufacturing exceeds value of agricultural products sold
· 1860 Lincoln elected
· 1861 Civil War begins
· 1863 Emancipation Proclamation is issued
· 1865 End of Civil War, 13th Amendment
· 1866 First transatlantic cable is laid
· 1867 Marx publishes his first volume of Das Capital
· 1879 Edison patents the electric light
· 1884 Eastman perfects the roll film
· 1895 Marconi & Popoff transmit first wireless signals
· 1903 "The Great Train Robbery"
· 1912 News of Titanic sinking conveyed internationally by wireless

The mass press may have been the most obvious -- and first -- medium to cater to a (presumed) homogenized, aggregate audience; certainly, the scandalous, breakfast-linen-soiling, penny newspapers were regarded with jaundiced eye by members of the educated classes. Yet the more sensational penny newspapers were only part of a larger picture of the emerging "popular" culture. By the turn of the century the book trade had produced an enormous quantity of "pulp" literature of "dubious" moral, educational and artistic value. And, within the next three decades the U.S. would witness the rise of vaudeville and nickelodeons, the development and proliferation of movies and movie theaters, the emergence of broadcast radio, the growth of popular magazines, the increasing sophistication in the reproduction of images, and the rise of comic books. By the end of the second world war nearly everyone in the country had radios (and the post-colonial world was being wired for sound as part of the war effort), weekly movie attendance in the States had hit 90 million more than once, and the first experiments with television were underway (having been postponed during WWII).

With each of these developments social practices changed; new alliances between formerly unconnected groups were forged on the basis of taste and consumptive status; religious and moral codes were threatened not only by the "questionable" content of the various media, but also by the increasing contact among previously isolated groups and by the increasing access of these groups to differing lifestyles and worldviews. The rapid transformations in the social and economic structures -- combined with profound shifts in the cultural fabric away from theological or autocratic authority toward a secularized intelligentsia -- set the stage for the expansion of social and cultural critics and philosophers who observed these trends with varying degrees of disdain, alarm, or approval.

The emergence of "mass society" and "mass culture" thus occur at several crucial contextual intersections:
a) the context of the traditions of the Enlightenment, which valued social and intellectual progress and improvement,
b) the context of the emergence of Art and Culture as domains of privileged access to the literate, upper classes,
c) the context of the emergence of localized popular cultures,
d) the context of increasing commercialization of culture (and Culture) via the new mass media, and
e) the peculiar predicament of American society, in which national identity would collide with pluralist values. This assortment of contingencies has been interpreted by theorists of mass culture in a variety of ways, and it is to the theorists and their traditions that I now turn.

Limitations of Marxist analysis

Critics argue that Marxism is just another ideology (despite claims by some that historical materialism is an objective science). Some Marxists are accused of being 'too doctrinaire' (see Berger 1982). Fundamentalist Marxism is crudely deterministic, and also reductionist in its 'materialism', allowing little scope for human agency and subjectivity. Marxism is often seen as 'grand theory', eschewing empirical research. However, research in the Marxist 'political economy' tradition in particular does employ empirical methods. And the analysis of media representations does include close studies of particular texts.

The orthodox Marxist notion of 'false consciousness' misleadingly suggests the existence of a reality 'undistorted' by mediation. The associated notion that such consciousness is irresistibly induced in mass audiences does not allow for oppositional readings. Marxist perpectives should not lead us to ignore the various ways in which audiences use the mass media.
Neo-Marxist stances have in fact sought to avoid these pitfalls. The primary Marxist emphasis on class needs to be (and had increasingly been) related to other divisions, such as gender and ethnicity