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Why a Science of Society fails

December 10, 2016

I studied Sociology and Philosophy at university, so this debate about the scientific status of Sociology, and its tendency to fall within the humanities whenever it tries to say something far reaching, has always been at the forefront of my mind.

We learn so much more from novels, and from everyday communication with our peers and our parents, guardians and teachers, about how to relate and get on in society, than we ever do from a scientific sociological treatise. The same does not apply to some of the hard sciences such as physics, maths, etc. For the most part here we learn most and benefit greatly from the formal element of education in these disciplines. But take a person who studied Sociology for four years, and a person who spent those four years working his way into and up some business organisation, and you can guarantee, other things being equal, the latter will have learned much more about not just the practicality, but the theoretical principles, of human and social relationships.

So this is the first clear indication of the failing of a science of society. It fails as a guide to practical action and as a guide to theoretical principles of conduct and human behavior. Of course it doesn’t fail completely. It does inform us of some interesting historical trends. But even here it tends to fail in that it over simplifies complex social phenomena into caricatured ideologies that few people actually go along with completely, but that make it easier for us to find general trends among the mass of historical data. Karl Marx, for all his thousands of pages, and lifetime of effort and devoted study, has still left us with a largely two-dimensional cardboard cutout of a portrayal of Capitalism. The problem is not that Karl Marx didn’t try hard enough, its not that he didn’t study enough, or wasn’t intelligent enough. The problem is that a science of society suffers from fatal flaws.

We have considered the main practical flaw above, that we can all point to from personal experience, but it is flawed in many other ways besides.

You have to take a moment to think why science works so well in physics, for example, what it’s strength there has been. The strengths are repeatable experiments, variables that can be isolated and controlled in laboratory conditions, to produce consistent data in line with consistent concepts and models. There is no laboratory for doing tests on human society. The only way we can get to this state of affairs is if we have a majority of people herded around and a small elite doing experiments on them. We could gain laboratory like conditions then, and control of variables, but what we would lose is the concept of “society”. So we wouldn’t have a science of society still. We will have just undermined society, replaced it with slavery, and have a science of how to manipulate slaves. It wouldn’t surprise me if the current economic global elite in our society separating itself from us all, already has some manuals of this kind. And this is a worrying thought, and it is as always the danger of left-wing Utopian projects. For all their good will and good intentions, their motivation is driven by fear, and by a need to control natural events and processes. They are not happy to let things take their course, not even society, culture and community. These things must be replaced with clear rules and laws that can be enforced in a top down, bureaucratic manner.

Another main factor is that we, as members of society ourselves, come into it with our own perspective drawn from our social upbringing and values. If we try to deny this in the name of some feigned neutrality, we do not get a good understanding of social relations, we get a bad understanding of an alienated individual. We cannot be a good judge of our society if we don’t even acknowledge the influence of our own social values on us. But if we acknowledge their influence we are no longer neutral and “scientific” in the natural science, methodological sense. In this area so much exploitation comes in of the pretense of neutrality to brainwash people with social “facts” and social data and research. The mainstream media have become experts at this pretense. They act as if they are neutral, as they need to pretend this in order to have “authority”, and then they state biased things, that are all the more dangerous and all the more insidious and biased precisely because of their pretense to neutrality.

This dishonest form of reasoning with people, where you all the time deny your own prejudices while pointing out others prejudices, this kind of bigotry is rife in the media, and in all forms of propaganda. It would not pass Critical Reasoning 101 in a humanities philosophical course. But as a social science tool of manipulation, and as a form of social unreality, illusion, myth, hysteria, call it what you will, it can work wonders on a herd of fearful slaves. But of course, we are still not getting a science of society. And why? Because it is an impossible, paradoxical, and flawed idea. Social reality, social relationships, these things thrive on specifics, on details, not on generalities and ideologies. You cannot formulate a rule of how to socially relate, its always a work in progress. Any clear formulation will simply be defied by someone who see’s your predictable formula and finds a way to exploit or sidestep it.

To be in society is to not be in complete control of those you are relating with. The ambiguities and complexities and subtleties that result from this lack of control, are embraced and explored in novels, and in the working, practical knowledge of a business man and in the working knowledge of people employed in many trades. It is an art form. But the feigned science of society cannot handle all this. And failing an ability to give a science of society as it is, they try to destroy society and give a science of the remaining corpse. This is the unfortunate reality of Utopian thinking. We may be doomed to go down this route, or at least flirt with it, but let us at least be aware of what we are getting ourselves into. Let’s not pretend we are doing good when we discard the reality of our social relationships in favor of generic ideologies and caricatures, and in favor of bigoted polarized, propagandist thinking, of everywhere accusing others for their prejudices and ignoring our own.

“Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while there is still a beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

Let’s instead keep in mind practical moral wisdom to be gleaned from many sources in our lives to help empower us in our personal journey. Let’s empower our communities, our teachers, our parents, our friends to be autonomous and live freely and by their own self chosen values. To do this is to have a culture, to deny it, is to deny your culture and is to alienate yourself, becoming ever more fearful, and ever more manipulated. The walls will keep closing in, till even your virtual reality headset and your tv set get crushed out of existence. Let’s not let this happen when quite simple thinking and reasoning and debating with others can begin the process of turning things around.

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