Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Can someone please tell me where to find the system?

[Part 1]

It seems that sociologists don’t study “society” anymore. There’s no such thing. There’s only a “chain of interaction rituals,” or a “network of individuals.” Or to put it another way, the chain of interaction rituals among individuals is the system. So there is basically only one level: the micro-level. If there is a macro-level, it’s just the micro-level writ large. So, micro or macro, there’s really only one level. Ok.

But I still have this nagging feeling that there’s a system. Why? Because we keep talking about it. We still refer to the “economic system” (ooh, that’s a big one), the “educational system”, the “political system,” etc. So the, what do these “systems” consist of? [Silence.] Individuals. In chains of interaction rituals. Aaarrggh! I want to tear my hair out.

This is where I find myself in the discipline of sociology. I have entered a Goffmanian hall of mirrors where the same single object gets repeated over and over into infinity.

The Goffmanian argument goes like this: if all the individual (humans) in the world suddenly vanished, there would be no society. It’s the Social Theory of the Neutron Bomb. Suppose some alien dropped a hundred thousand giant neutron bombs on planet earth and thereby killed all the humans on the planet all at once (and all the plants and animals too, but we won’t get into that). Poof! Society gone. There would be no society.

Pretty convincing and tough to dispute. But, the great thing about the neutron bomb (shiver) is that it leaves all the buildings standing. Just, nobody’s in them. And all the telecommunication systems working, but nobody’s using them. And all the cars running, just nobody’s driving them. (Why can’t they come up with a “car bomb” that only kills cars?) And all the documents stuffed into all the drawers and tacked up to all the walls, mail in the inboxes. The stores would be full of goods, but no one's buying them. And the Internet still humming. All of our Facebook pages would still contain billions of our own words and images, but no one would be looking at them, or adding anything new.

Sociologists almost always ignore the built environment. Except for Foucault—who took into account buildings and spaces like the prison, the asylum, the clinic—and urban sociologists, like myself.

So, arguably, that part of the social system, the built environment, the fabricated environment, the electronic environment, would still be there, all hooked up, ready to go. That conglomeration of objects is at least a significant portion of the social system. But again, without live humans, it’s little more than a smoldering relic.

Out of our decrepit 12 Monkeys landscape, one person crawls out of the wreckage and begins to look around. She had been sheltered in a radiation-protected laboratory deep underground where she had been conducting research with a thousand chimpanzees, who also survived. Once on the surface, she roams the streets, then enters an office building. She wipes the dust and debris off a desktop computer, presses the power switch, and hey, it still works! She sits down and begins to view all the images on the screen, all the stored text , photos, and videos, all the telecommunications sent between hundreds, thousands, millions of people. For her, at least, there is a virtual social system.

She must conduct research. While things are still marginally running, she embarks on a grand scheme of social research to discover one thing: is there anybody out there? In theory, if she can find at least one other human, she has a "social system." But how can she, one human, possibly cover all the territory and search all the places that need to be searched to find other humans?

Ah, thank god, she still has the thousand monkeys! She has trained chimpanzees, and she can send them out to find other humans. It’s the Thousand Monkeys Research. Get one thousand monkeys to randomly do social research for a thousand years, and you might (randomly) come up with something that looks like a social system. So she sends them off—run, fly, go find Society!

This is the state of sociology today, at least as I have found it. Dominated by micro-theories of interaction and Thousand Monkeys research, there is nothing left of what used to be our grand theoretical tradition of social systems. There is no “society.”

I’m discouraged but I haven’t given up. I know there’s a social system out there, somewhere.

[end of Part 1]

1 comment:

  1. interesting post. can't wait the sequel. do the monkey's find anything?

    on another note, i'm not so sure i agree with the characterization of sociology as dominated by micro-theories. certainly there is more attention to micro issues than there was in classical theory, but most if it is in the context of attempts to theorize individual/society or structure/agency relations. so, while structure isn't as dominant a theme, it is still there.