The Dissenting Sociologist

A Miscellany of Foundations and First Principles for the Study of Sociology

The field of sociology has hitherto been dominated by the Left at least as far back as living memory extends, and so extensively that sociology and Socialism have been almost synonymous terms in vernacular English. To be on the political Right during that time meant seeing the entire world exclusively in terms of economics and foreign policy, and seeing economics strictly from the point of view of laissez-faire Liberalism. This admixture of Rightism and Liberalism was dominated by its Liberalism, and thus by a rigorously atomistic interpretation of the concept of “methodological individualism” that emblazoned the motto, “there is no such thing as society!” on its theoretical banner. Everything other than business and warfare was willingly ceded to an assortment of intellectuals, urban reformers, rural populists, aspiring technocrats, and crusading do-gooders on the dime of captains of industry who doled out patronage at the behest of the fashionably philanthropic society ladies they were married to- all of whom (with the possible exception of their industrialist benefactors) supported the political Left, were the political Left, and founded academic departments of sociology in order to build a corpus of systematic knowledge upon which the Left’s policy agenda could be developed, refined, and implemented.

By the late 1960s, the New Deal-type Democrats that first held the reins of the new discipline passed them to a new, younger, and much more radical breed, the infamous “New Left”. Under New Left auspices, the agenda grew more and more radical, exquisite, and bizarre, to the point where Karl Marx himself was no longer above being scorned as just another racist, sexist, and heteronormative White male. Quality-control began to deteriorate accordingly, and sharply- a trend aggravated and accelerated by preferential-employment policies (adopted early and aggressively by sociology departments, which had helped birth them) that saw a great deal of new hires and promotions go to mediocre scholars on the basis of their race and gender. By the late 1980s, the public reputation of the discipline was ruined, and moreover there was no longer anything the department of sociology could really do for the Left that various sloganeering political hacks, journeyman pollsters and market researchers, and media talking-heads couldn’t do better (since the latter were unencumbered by scientific pretensions, and unlike the sociologists did not even have to pretend to be rigorous and objective). The academic prestige of sociology fell through the bottom of the graph, followed by its funding, all in a way from which it would never recover.

Even as academic sociology was abandoned to starve and rot on the vine, and deservedly so, outside the orbit of the University there has been an upsurge of sociological activity- this time, on a newly-reconstructed political Right that has renounced Liberalism, become intensely interested in community, tradition, and social obligation as opposed to utility-maximizing individualism, and in any case forced to confront the prospect of the imminent collapse of Western modernity and to think of ways how less congenitally dysfunctional and self-destructive social arrangements might be built from its rubble.

In the interest of doing my small part to help this development along, I thought it would be a good idea to try to stimulate discussion of the foundations and fundamentals of sociological analysis, inasmuch as failure to do so consistently was one of the defects that killed the first iteration of sociology (viz. a strong empiricist tendency, above all on the part of the statisticians, tended to disdain reflection on foundations as the useless Scholastic pastime of so many misplaced philosophers- a point of view that proved to be as wrong as it possibly could have been). What follows is an unsystematic and very cursory and indicative presentation of my opinions on just a few of the many, many issues involved:

-Society is a sui generis phenomenon and the object of its own proper and dedicated science. Like any science, sociological analysis proceeds under the assumption that its object is explicable only in terms of itself; it can neither be immediately read off of the properties of lower-order constituent units, nor understood as the by-product of, or wholly determined by, some extraneous phenomenon or class of phenomena.

It follows that social and historical processes cannot be adequately explained in terms of unconscious biological processes and/or the physical properties of physical objects, e.g. the non-human environment (the approach of evolutionary biology), nor in terms of individual efforts to maximize utility (the approach of economics). Close inspection of these reductionist “explanations” of social phenomena infallibly reveals insurmountable logical inadequacy to their objects somewhere in the picture: they confound necessary and sufficient conditions, presume the existence of the very things they’re trying to explain, tautologically state definitions in the guise of explanations, or try to explain variables by invoking constants.

In formulating or assessing any sociological hypothesis, it’s always a good idea to stop and ask just what that hypothesis may be taking for granted, and whether or not it may be missing the forest for its trees. In the long run, it’s better to be too vigilant about this subject than not vigilant enough; many reductionist and other bad explanations in sociology intuitively seem extremely plausible on their face.

-Society is always anterior to the individual. There was no historical moment where hitherto isolate and unsocialized individuals banded together to form a society, and there could not possibly have been one. The “social contract” is nothing more than a juridical fiction (and wasn’t originally intended to be). Less blatantly obvious, but no less fallacious, examples of the same reasoning include Ludwig von Mises’ claim that the economic law of comparative advantage is the elementary principle of all human association, or various theories of the origin of Sovereignty in a primordial conquest.

-The existence of society itself has to be taken as a scientific given, in the same way that life has to be taken as a given in biology. There’s no strictly scientific accounting for either, at least within the epistemic limits of the present, and it’s waste of time and resources to try.

-It is a much more economical use of time and resources to carefully study societies of which we actually have empirical knowledge than to speculate about what may or may not have gone on in those of which we don’t have any such knowledge and can’t, i.e. speculation concerning pre-historic origins is generally a waste of time.

-It is legitimate and indeed, necessary, in sociological analysis to distinguish different classes of factors (political, economic, technological, religious, etc.). But it’s a bad idea to categorically and rigidly set up any one such class as determinant with respect to the rest (e.g. “politics is downstream of culture”, or the other way around)- what Spengler termed “causal analysis”. The distinction between politics, economics, religion, etc. is often no more than analytical, designating only different aspects of the same phenomenon. Even where the political, economic, religious, etc. can be said to exist as discrete phenomena, they tend to be interrelated in ways that defy description in terms of simple cause-and-effect sequences.

For this reason (among many, many others), statistical techniques based on regression analysis, i.e. which attempt to uncover relationships between variables that can be expressed as mathematical functions, have been a resounding and embarrassing failure in all the social sciences. The effort to discover such relationships should be regarded as tantamount to the practices of alchemists, and avoided accordingly.

-Ideas matter in history. A lot. So much, in fact, that carefully studying them is at least half of the battle in sociological analysis.

Unfortunately, it rarely is. A generic tendency of modern social thought, whether in the social sciences, journalism, or movement/party strategizing, is to identify the political and economic interests at work in any given situation and treat the symbolic-ideational as merely incidental to it all (“ideology”). This type of thinking rests on a dubious implicit materialism according to which political and economic factors are more real than ideology- a grievous Marxist error to be avoided. It is true that the reality of human social practice often and even typically systematically fails to correspond to its ideological representations, which serve precisely to obfuscate and conceal that reality. But it is also true, and true by definition, that ideology could not possibly serve this function if it were not an independent variable with independent effects all its own and not altogether reducible to this or that set of interests and agendas.

Likewise, since society is always anterior to the individual, economic and political actors generally aren’t free to simply invent ideologies as they go, and as suits their purposes at any given moment. Ideologies, in order to be effective, must appeal to, and be compatible with, broader social and cultural traditions (or they would end up rejected by their target audience- as the Democrats in the USA learned to their cost last November when they openly proclaimed their intention to carry through a cultural revolution, and were rebuffed by the electorate accordingly).

Methodologically, it follows that the best way to go about studying ideologies and other systems of ideas and symbols is to do just that, and for the most part leave aside questions concerning the intentions of its creators. (Think of it in terms of reverse-engineering: knowing that whoever designed what it is you’re trying to hack was probably motivated by personal profit isn’t likely to be decisively helpful in the endeavour).

-Another methodological best practice in the study of ideologies, and sociological analysis in general, is methodological holism. The object of sociological analysis is a system of interrelated component parts that either have no existence independent of a wider system in which they’re found, and/or take on an altogether different significance when replaced in another, different system. What you’re looking at is never a box of discrete and self-sufficient modules with no intrinsic connection to one another and shouldn’t be treated as such; concepts like the “mental modules” imagined by evolutionary psychologists should accordingly be avoided like the plague. (It is, however, perfectly legitimate to single out parts for specialized analysis, as long as these caveats are borne in mind).

-Modern sociology was originally modeled on nomological-deductive natural science and bears the imprint of its origins in that it always strives towards the construction of highly abstract and general theories as its goal. This can create some problems of public communication of findings. Historians, in particular, will inevitably critique the sociological analysis as superficial, uninformed, dilettantish, and Procrustean. Additionally, sociological categories tend to be much broader than corresponding categories in both the study of history and in traditional philosophy/humanities (for example, considered as a sociological phenomenon the idea of the “social contract” goes far, far beyond the texts of Hobbes, Locke and other figures of the philosophical canon). The disparity between sociological and other types of scholarship can, and typically does, lead to mutual incomprehension and sometimes, butthurt and animosity.

It is of supreme importance not to be intimidated by these sorts of critiques- something that is easier said than done, since the people who make them typically have a level of highly specialized and detailed erudition that would be superfluous and downright counter-productive for the sociologist to try to acquire (since the sociological activity is akin to making an aerial map of all the streets in a city, while traditional scholarship is more concerned with the detailed description of each street from the ground-level point of view), but nonetheless can be disorientingly impressive in a democratic culture that, as Nietzsche observed, exalts and rewards specialized detail-work, and disdains and distrusts synthetic forms of knowledge as intolerably aristocratic.

The only truly convincing refutation of the type of criticisms that any sociological analysis will get from partisans of traditional disciplines is the ability to work deductively from abstract precepts down to the real-concrete and so decisively prove beyond any doubt that you know what you’re talking about after all, and have earned the right to exercise analytical fiat in determining how much detail is enough for your purposes. Logic doesn’t make mistakes; and who needs to know every nerdy detail there is to know about this or that when you’ve got a model from which you can deduce its very existence, and its important formal properties. This is the goal to strive for, not beating the critics at their own game in their home field (a fight you cannot win, but need not).

-A society exists only as a pattern of human action that is stable over time, and therefore only to the extent that it succeeds in requiring individuals to act in certain ways and forbidding them from acting in others. This means that authority is the master organizing principle of good sociological analysis. In insisting on framing sociological questions first and foremost in terms of power as opposed to economics, Moldbug and NRx have at long last liberated the epistemological terrain of sociology from both the Marxian reign of terror and error on the Left that fatally retarded the development of sociological thought in the Academy, and the strictly cognate fallacies of Smithianism that held it back everywhere else. (It is no coincidence that both the Conservatives and their ostensible bitterest enemies, the Socialists, act as one united front against the new Reaction, and this is one of the reasons for it).

From the point of view of the now-obsolete economism (whether Marxian or Smithian), all social dynamics were reduced to the economic conflict between labour and capital. But in the wake of the Copernican scientific revolution of NRx, which looks at social problems and processes from the point of view of power, it has now become possible to go beyond this oversimplification (which, as even the Marxists had to admit in spite of themselves, was inadequate to the facts of social conflict in the industrialized West by the mid-20th c.) and pose the question of conflict between social strata in terms of caste. Inter alia, this has had the effect of bringing the phenomenon of the Cathedral to light (something that, according to Marx, was a mere appendix of the capitalist class at most)- a development of epochal scientific importance.

-Power, in any society, is ultimately resolvable into the right to direct the legitimate use of physical violence. The key to unlocking any society to analysis is to identify which actor or actors have this right. (N.B. the latter may not be personally involved in the actual execution of physical violence).

-A society, I have said already, exists only as a pattern of human action that is stable over time, and therefore only to the extent that it succeeds in requiring individuals to act in certain ways and forbidding them from acting in others. Individuals must learn what the rules are, and they must through intentional effort will their conduct into conformity with the rules, or alternately, actively subvert them within limits, in any case suppressing some of their spontaneous wants and drives in the process. Either way, good sociology recognizes some degree of free will against totalizing determinism, and affirms the centrality of voluntary and intentional action, of human agency, against social and moral automatism. Automatism sees individual conduct as automatically pre-harmonized with the functional needs of society by means of an unconscious teleology operating wholly beneath the threshold of intentionality, either in the form of:

All of these phenomena are real enough, no doubt; but they do not suffice to explain social order in general or come close. Additionally, it is no coincidence that, in the foregoing automatist conceptions, Sovereignty implicitly or explicitly appears either as superfluous, pernicious, or benevolently totalitarian. Moral-social automatism is thus clearly a modernist conceit and dangerous Left-wing ideology that is also an obstacle to arriving at sound scientific knowledge of how society actually works. Against anarchism, good social science affirms the indispensability of the Sovereign power in lending moral precept the force and gravity it needs to attain to the status of obligatory public right, as opposed to a matter of mere private taste and opinion; against totalitarianism, good social science affirms the indispensability of religion and the family in instilling moral precept and cultivating discipline in the individual, and of ordering social relations at the local level by means of the authority of Church and (patriarchal) household, so that unfeasible and unworkable regimes of omnipotent and omnipresent State control and coercion become unnecessary.

-The last axiom I will set out here is that, since:

it follows that every human society is “patriarchal”. A society founded on internally consistent feminist principles is about as plausible as a physical object that can’t be located in space, or a physical process that doesn’t take place in time. It is a Utopian chimera that has never existed anywhere and cannot. The modern Liberal democracies in which feminism is the official ideology, for example, would not even be conceivable without the modern State- and no matter how anonymous, internally fragmented, and depersonalized the latter may be, its Sovereign powers- above all, the administrative-police power upon which the very idea of public policy, a fortiori the whole agenda of the political Left, depends- was historically defined in very explicitly patriarchal terms. There is no such thing as feminism; what actually happens is that women end up “married to the State”, which correspondingly emasculates legally servile men (which, in the Liberal democracy, means every nominally “free and equal” male “citizen”) the way any patriarchal and Sovereign authority does.

Methodologically, it follows that Aristotle had the right idea, and that the Aristotelian household (man+wife+children+servants+property), not the abstract individual, should be regarded as the atomic unit of political and social structure. The elemental variable dimensions that differentiate one type of society from another are fruitfully understood in terms of how the full complement of powers and privileges of the household are recognized or abrogated, generalized and so asymmetrically distributed between and among castes and estates, and so on. It has been shown that the State as we know it can be profitably analyzed as a special case of such a generalization and asymmetric social distribution of patriarchal power, a “macro-household” that lords over lesser, private “micro-households” of severely diminished autonomy. This is the sort of direction a reconstructed, Reactionary sociology ought to take.