Michael E. Brown, The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences

Reviewed by Louis

Michael E. Brown, The Concept of the Social in Uniting the Humanities and Social Sciences (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015), 538 pp., $29.95

This book is a masterful accomplishment that deserves a large attentive audience. Readers will find an engagement with practically every category of thought in the social sciences and humanities that is relevant to the idea of sociality. The arguments are sociologically grounded but antagonistic to the discipline of sociology, particularly with regard to the tendency to seek causal explanations of social phenomena in which people must first be reduced to cultural puppets, or products of social forces or facts. The only ‘ultimate’ social fact, Brown argues, is ‘an irreducible and irrepressible sociality’ (2) – the very thing that cannot be fully explicated.

The book argues that the social sciences and humanities can be unified on the basis of the uncertainty that develops naturally with any acknowledgement of agency-dependent objectivity (i.e. in which the meaning of objects is constituted in a course of activity). Unification thereby preserves the tension between theorizing, which is unsettled and unsettling, and the resultant theories that explain events that provide the impetus to theorize. The book could be read as an elaborate treatise about de-reification, but Brown is careful with that reference too – since reification is a coopted term that enables the analyst to posit something alive and vital outside of reification without worrying about the fact that every conceptual system of reference has already been contaminated by other systems of reference which serve to reify it.

This book must be read carefully. It provokes constantly the feeling of having missed something and needing to go back to retrace connections and nuances that shift context. Every attempt to establish a system or claim a stock or corpus of knowledge is subverted through provocative readings of its constituent features and texts. Brown begins with a critique of the idea of the ‘individual’ as the ultimate moral reference and as the agent of change through the embodiment or internalization of peculiar ideas, reasons, and judgments. The critique reveals a ‘pressing’ sociality in every instance in which the individual appears as its product, where, for instance, it might be said that individuals develop goal orientation through socialization and develop also a concern for others that makes them await, or anticipate, expectations and judgments. Brown’s is a more robust notion of inter-subjectivity, where ‘alter’ also has agency – meaning that the waiting and anticipating transform intention and thereby the individual that intends and anticipates. The same individual is part of a collectivity that resembles a multitude, an increasingly complex and contingent form of interdependency, even while immersed in situations that reproduce the conditions of identity-forming solidarity. For the development of these lines of theorizing Brown turns critically to Marx, Rousseau and Durkheim, as well as assorted works in the philosophy of mind, existentialism, linguistics, and disparate works labeled post-structuralism.

Each of these works is approached as if still in-progress. Brown reads Rousseau and Marx as if he (Brown) is part of a contemporaneous debate with them. Rousseau is approached as if he is arguing with people who do not understand that the social is an immanent fact. Thus, he argues through metaphor, asserting something prior to the social, a state of nature. The state of nature, in Brown’s account, comes to appear not merely as the logical impossibility and anthropologically inaccurate reference that interpreters of Rousseau continue to point out, but as a context for thinking about equality as a precondition for the sociality that is manifest in a collective will. Brown returns periodically to Marx’s arguments which reveal history as immanent to the social, and which largely prefigure the post-structural critique of the social sciences, since the basic exchanges that Marx saw in the capitalist mode of production exist only in motion and ‘circulation’.

The work of Marx is celebrated in this book as a totalizing event that implicates the observer in a critical reengagement with the sub-theoretical idea of the social – in that sense, very much like Rousseau: ‘Both acknowledge the irreducibility of the social and the obligation of theory to find itself in its object and its object in itself’ (165). Marx then not only provides a better understanding of the problems and contradictions of society than did the other political economists of his day; he also presents an immanent theoretical critique that embodies the ‘tension’ between the impulse to discover and make meaning, and the impulse to understand something and to change it. In Sartre’s language, this tension is what makes theory – not only Marxist theory – vital to the project of human freedom. It occasions totalizing moments, that is, the reconstitution of interconnections among movements, ideas, institutions and all ‘matter’ which is constituted by that project but then becomes indifferent to it. Somehow Sartre, who for reasons similar to Brown avoided the term reification, alienated himself from assorted Marxist contemporaries whose reproduction of Marx’s method in disparate contexts materialized as if the distinction between the world of theory and the world that is the object of theory doesn’t matter except for theory itself; they were deemed lazy Marxists. The spirit of Sartre dances in this book.

Brown continuously criticizes efforts to police the borders of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. The biggest offender appears to be sociology, which still maintains the claim to be a discourse about society. It is impossible to take that claim seriously at a time when the discipline is steeped in logical positivism and methodological fetishism that yield agency-independent versions of its objects and of society itself, and thereby the illusion of cumulative knowledge. In order to maintain the illusion, it is necessary to bracket the question of who is observing and for what reason. The routine of gathering data about individuals and institutions and explaining social problems and social change with an ensemble of concepts that work variously as axioms and clichés transforms sociology into a fundamentally unreflexive and uncritical discourse that provides a rationale for particular institutionalized judgments against others, and that exempts itself from the multitude, the general will, and the courses of activity that it is supposed to illuminate. Sociological objectivity, then, turns out to be more metaphorical than the modes of discourse it deems too subjective, for instance within the pre-scientific incarnations of sociology that are nowadays labeled foundations or classics.

Durkheim’s metaphor of the social as an organism receives significant attention because it underlies practically every attempt to theorize the relation between individual and culture and structure in modern society. What is typically missed, as Brown demonstrates, is that for Durkheim there is no such thing as structure apart from culture, or culture apart from structure. The ‘division of labor’, which is his ultimate structural reference, does not exist apart from the emergence of modes of inter-subjective awareness and communication, exchange and circulation that support the emergence of a totalizing event, capitalism and modernity.

In this sense, there is no meaningful distinction to be found between the impulse to theorize in the humanities and in the social sciences, though the products of theory look different in each case. Instead, the distinction that matters is between the impulse to theorize and the increased formalization and fragmentation of the social sciences, which consistently produce a hyper-reification of every feature of sociality – that is to say, the reification of culture, of groups and classes, of notions about motivation and belief, and of modes of deviance and conformity. Durkheim left a perverse imprint on sociology via Parsons who settled ‘the problem of order’ by reference to a common culture whose rules are enforced primarily by interpersonal judgment. The problem with this scenario, Brown argues, is everything. The individual becomes an overly socialized cultural puppet. But worse, the interlocutor, the source of reflection, anticipation and judgment – ‘alter’ – is assumed to do the job of predictably and consistently enforcing the correct interpretation of rules in any context. Alter then is also without agency. Alter is also a puppet.

Mechanistic sociology is sustainable, Brown argues, by bracketing the fact that every situation requires engagement that could fall apart at any moment precisely because there are not enough imaginable rules to erase ambiguity in thought, language, feeling and everything that constitutes inter-subjectivity. Reasons, which sociology typically conflates with causes, are provided after the fact or outside of the activity for which they are immanent, and only to non-participant observers. Brown turns toward a range of work that pursues the details of ordinary interaction that make it eventful and lively, thereby producing meaning that alters context even while participants are deeply committed to achieving particular goals. For this reason, Brown argues, a sociology with careful attention to the details of everyday life provides a better answer to the conservative consensual model of human affairs (found in structuralism and systems-oriented theories) than do lazy versions of Marxism, including what is labeled ‘conflict’ theory – which merely posits a divided society of cultural puppets in place of an orderly and morally validated meritocracy comprised of cultural puppets that have learned only to internalize and validate.

Can the human sciences be united? The Concept of the Social makes that task appear not only possible but necessary. But, as demonstrated throughout, there is great resistance within established disciplines toward even the limited interdisciplinarity that is part of their own history, for instance where the sociologist was expected to be to some extent engaged with philosophy, psychology, and political economy. Brown is not evoking the need to reverse a historical trend. He is indifferent to currently popular notions of interdisciplinarity that bridge gaps between arbitrarily linked sets of specialized discourses. The Concept of the Social is interdisciplinary in a different sense. Its version of unity is one that refuses to acknowledge disciplinary boundaries that are linked unreflexively to their social referents.

By contrast, Brown’s theorizing ‘finds itself in its object and its object in itself’. Reflexivity occurs in the moment when ‘irrepressible, irreducible’ sociality makes its presence felt. It makes apparent the tension produced by ideas about the social in any particular work, statement, or theory. This book seeks answers to pressing problems in contemporary society; it puts into question every form of desire, every impulse. The desire to theorize, as Brown demonstrates, is always potentially subversive; not only through its commitment to interrogate every concept or idea, but also because it is not easily satisfied. In this book, theorizing appears to matter most when it is irrepressible.

Louis Kontos
Sociology Department, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
City University of New York