Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Study of Community in American Sociology, c.1900 - c.1975: Part VII - Conclusion: Social Formations, Systems of Classification and Social Evolution

Conclusion: Social Formations, Systems of Classification and Social Evolution
In sociology there have been at least two discursive formations in the investigation of community.  Of course, they are not mutually exclusive in time and so have always coexisted, though one predominated in the time before 1975 and the other became dominate in the years since.  During the first period, which dates roughly from 1945 until 1975, the discursive formation regarding community was  organized by the relation of four obects of study: definition, classification, evolution, and territory.  Discussions of community constantly referred to these as forming the parameters of sociological study during the period when the definition of community and the classification of definitions became a primary research activity.  Of course, definition had been important prior to this period, for writers such as Giddings and Tonnies, whose vision of social progress brought together evolutionary and taxonomic aspects of classification in the service of social reform.  This vision of social progress did not survive the realities of an era book-ended by trenches and camps.  However, it was the “normative-meliorative” vision of social progress that infused the discipline of sociology that gave rise to the myriad definitions of community. 

The sociological study of community had come to an impasse.  Researchers had no idea if they were speaking about the same object of study and there were seemingly as many definitions as there were researchers.  Hillery’s oft cited work did not offer a definition of community, only a classification that brought order to the chaos of idiosyncratic conceptualizations.  His classification was intended to bring order to the definitions that had preceded him, but he also established the boundaries of the sociological study of community for decades to follow.  At bottom, his classification of definitions constituted a representation of a scientific consensus.  Hillery’s  lesson is that neither the definitions of community nor the utopias it produces correspond to any particular community of the past or present.  Like him, we confront a moment in the history of sociology when community is expressed not as something “out there” but as an object constructed through the norms of sociology itself.

Franklin Giddings noted that
“the subject matter of classification may consist of concepts only.  The dichotomies are made in thought only.  Societal facts are actualities.  Classification of them is a sorting of them into actual, or as we usually say, factual, groups, the dichotomies of which have been actually made by processes which men have observed and may now observe” (Giddings 1924:69). 

The point is not to denounce classification, but to understand that the sociological definitions of community are also constitutive of the community it seeks to investigate.  The meaning or truth of community can not be understood apart from the ways in which we express its meanings.  Hillary assumed that the definitions he found in the library reflected real communities and therefore to classify definitions is the same as classifying real communities.  Then, as the definitions and classifications became synonymous with --- but also detached from --- real social relations, each tended to recapitulate the other and this repetition give validity to conceptions of social evolution.

Giddings argued that because “plants, animals, and human beings do not behave forever in the same way,” classifications must also change.  To understand these changes, any classification of social facts (concepts) must be articulated along with a scheme of “social genesis..... in sociology a study of societal variability, carried out into a classificatory scheme, and thereby checked up, is of correlative importance with the study of societal genesis, in a like manner carried out” (Giddings 1924:76).  Classification is necessary for a scientific study of community that centers on social evolution, and it is this evolutionary aspect that unites community with territory.  Definition and classification, evolution, and territoriality were essential for the sociological study of community.  They can not be connected in a broader or even utopian social formation without each undergoing significant transformation.  Neither does placing them in new discursive formations always deprive them of their oppressive force.  

The consolidation of any discipline carries with it changes in the production of knowledge.  In the case of sociology, its consolidation as a discipline brought with it a reliance on specific scientific ideologies (Canguilhem 1991).  Sociologists have often misread both the theory and the substance of the history of science.  There are no better examples of this than the sociological tendencies which have embraced forms of positivism, Spencerism, and orthodox Marxism.  But to misread is not necessarily to get it all wrong.  Hillery and others may have misread the ability of science to speak the truth about community, but they recognize the fundamental importance of classification in the practice of science and in the acceptance of scientific ideologies.  Systems of classification like Hillery's were necessitated by the demand that sociology be more than a mere scientific ideology.  Whenever experimentation is impossible, as is usually the case in social research, classification becomes the necessary foundation of science.  Classification became essential for legitimizing theories of social evolution by providing first a means for linking the sociological study of community to the production of the most “advanced” forms of scientific knowledge and secondly an evolutionary trajectory for  human society.  In some it compelled a historical movement: Gemeinschaft gives way to Gesellschaft, tradition to modernity.  In others, community became a utopian vision of social progress made possible by the precise application of sociological knowledge to social problems.  In still others, the problem of community was speed of social evolution and the constant danger of degeneration. 

Social evolution was believed to operate within the territorial boundaries each community established and maintained through either force or the internalization of a “consciousness in kind,” or consanguinity. The sociological problem of establishing the boundary and government of a community in time and space was one whose solution was sought in a consensus on the classification of types to express either to social evolution or degeneration. This solution was mandated by the needs of the day, proved inadequate to the challenges posed by the new conditions of authority and resistance in the post-war period.  The demise of this consensus was a signal announcing the appearance on the horizon of Gouldner’s coming crisis of Western sociology.

The middle of the 1970s,  definition, classification, evolution, and territory, formed the limits of the sociological study of community.  These objects of knowledge were decentered, but did not cease to exist.  They were transformed or replaced by new objects:  Identity as redefined by multiculturalism and postcolonialism; new social movements combined with identity to produce new struggles over everyday life as well as new forms of academic knowledge; degeneration reemerged as the threat of the underclass to a bourgeoisie no longer confident in its authority or destiny; new enclosures of community expressing an anxiety of loss and a reterritorialization of community not with the poor and working classes, but within the newly expanded middle classes.

Sociology, like all disciplines, rest upon particular regimes of truth.  A common element in these regimes is that the origin of the discipline in question is always to be found in a genius having lived, a discovery being made “out of the blue,” a theory and prediction being put to the test, or a group of texts establishing an entire field of knowledge.  The moments become the mythical history of a discipline, its “report, naming, the narration of a Beginning,  but also presentation, confirmation, explanation” (Horkheimer and Adorno: 1969:8).  Sociology is no different, its origins reveal the precariousness of its history --- a precariousness and a forgetting that is a general condition in the history of the disciplines.  Examples of unseemly origins abound in the disciplines: take geography, with its legacy of environmental determinism, or Indo-European studies and historical linguistics, which were often allied with  scientific ideologies supportive of Germanic/Anglo-Saxon supremacy (Gossett 1963).  As for sociology, it had amongst other tendencies its” eugenicist “normative-meliorative” reformism, its Spencerism and “Social Darwinism” ---- and all of these have been forgotten, minimized or treated as aberrations in the histories of the discipline.  Take for example Gouldner’s  periodization, where we find no mention of Spencer or Sumner.  A subtle reminder that the work of forgetting sociology’s  past “scientific ideologies” is not limited one’s political and ethical commitments. 

If the crisis of Western Sociology continues to haunt us --- and like all disciplines sociology is always in crisis --- then it demands genealogies of sociology and its interventions into public policy.  “Sociology has a venerable genealogy”  wrote Albion Small in 1924.  It is indeed true that sociology has come to acquire several genealogies intersecting to produce its specialized fields.  Although it only addresses the narrow question of community in sociology, this essay has presented a possible alternative to the usual history of sociology and its study of community.  The history of sociology, like the history of any science, is as much the history of errors as it is the history of truths and like the history of any science, it is also the history of forgetting. 

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