Saturday, August 19, 2006

OSE Chapter 14

The Autonomy Of Sociology

This chapter contains an early statement of Popper’s ideas on explanation in the social sciences by “situational analysis”. He considered that this is the standard form of explanation used in neoclassical microeconomics and it is applicable to any kind of situation involving human action. Popper claimed that Marx was a pioneer in this approach because he rejected the idea that motives or psychological factors provide an adequate explanation of socioeconomic structures and historical events. In other words, the social sciences are not reducible to psychology. Popper called this latter approach “psychologism” and J S Mill was prime target on this topic.

The chapter opens with an example to demonstrate Marx’s view on the primacy of social existence over consciousness. This is the apparently universal fear of snakes.
This aversion has a greater semblance of being instinctive or ‘natural’ in that it is exhibited not only by men but also by all anthropoid apes and by most monkeys as well. But experiments seem to indicate that this fear is conventional. It appears to be a product of education, not only in the human race but also for instance in chimpanzees, since both young children and young chimpanzees who have not been taught to fear snakes do not exhibit the alleged instinct.
So it seems that social intervention and learning are required to produce what might be regarded as a universal psychological trait.
A concise formulation of Marx’s opposition to psychologism, i.e. to the plausible doctrine that all laws of social life must be ultimately reducible to the psychological laws of human nature’, is his famous epigram: ‘It is not the consciousness of man that determines his existence—rather, it is his social existence that determines his consciousness.’ The function of the present chapter as well as of the two following ones is mainly to elucidate this epigram. And I may state at once that in developing what I believe to be Marx’s anti-psychologism, I am developing a view to which I subscribe myself.

Against this doctrine of psychologism, the defenders of an autonomous sociology can advance institutionalist views. They can point out, first of all, that no action can ever be explained by motive alone; if motives (or any other psychological or behaviourist concepts) are to be used in the explanation, then they must be supplemented by a reference to the general situation, and especially to the environment. In the case of human actions, this environment is very largely of a social nature; thus our actions cannot be explained without reference to our social environment, to social institutions and to their manner of functioning. It is therefore impossible, the institutionalist may contend, to reduce sociology to a psychological or behaviouristic analysis of our actions; rather, every such analysis presupposes sociology, which therefore cannot wholly depend on psychological analysis. Sociology, or at least a very important part of it, must be autonomous.

Continuing this argument against psychologism we may say that our actions are to a very large extent explicable in terms of the situation in which they occur. Of course, they are never fully explicable in terms of the situation alone; an explanation of the way in which a man, when crossing a street, dodges the cars which move on it may go beyond the situation, and may refer his motives, to an ‘instinct’ of self-preservation, or to his wish to avoid pain, etc. But this ‘psychological’ part of the explanation is very often trivial, as compared with the detailed determination of his action by what we may call the logic of the situation; and besides, it is impossible to include all psychological factors in the description of the situation. The analysis of situations, the situational logic, plays a very important part in social life as well as in the social sciences. It is, in fact, the method of economic analysis. As to an example outside economics, I refer to the ‘logic of power’, which we may use in order to explain the moves of power politics as well as the working of certain political institutions. The method of applying a situational logic to the social sciences is not based on any psychological assumption concerning the rationality (or otherwise) of ‘human nature’. On the contrary: when we speak of ‘rational behaviour’ or of ‘irrational behaviour’ then we mean behaviour which is, or which is not, in accordance with the logic of that situation. In fact, the psychological analysis of an action in terms of its (rational or irrational) motives presupposes—as has been pointed out by Max Weber—that we have previously developed some standard of what is to be considered as rational in the situation in question.
One of the problems with psychologism is the need to explain the beginning of society, an approach that raises the same problems as the notion of the original social contract which is sometimes employed in political philosophy as the basis for theories of government and law.
Mill’s remark concerning the ‘first few terms of the series’ of social development is not an accidental slip, as one might perhaps believe, but the appropriate expression of the desperate position forced upon him. It is a desperate position because this theory of a pre-social human nature which explains the foundation of society—a psychologistic version of the ‘social contract’—is not only an historical myth but also, as it were, a methodological myth. It can hardly be seriously discussed, for we have every reason to believe that man or rather his ancestor was social prior to being human (considering, for example, that language presupposes society). But this implies that social institutions, and with them, typical social regularities or sociological laws, must have existed prior to what some people arc pleased to call ‘human nature’, and to human psychology.
Institutions of various kinds and also traditions are important aspects of the situation that need to be considered in explanations by way of situational analysis. In his approach to traditions and institutions Popper follows the ‘Austrian’ tradition founded by Carl Menger. After noting that these things are man-made “in a certain sense” he quickly went on to explain some important qualifications.
This does not mean that they are all consciously designed, and explicable in terms of needs, hopes, or motives. On the contrary, even those which arise as the result of conscious and intentional human actions are, as a rule, the indirect, the unintended and often the unwanted byproducts of such actions. ‘Only a minority of social institutions are consciously designed, while the vast majority have just “grown”, as the undesigned results of human actions’, as I have said before; and we can add that even most of the few institutions which were consciously and successfully designed (say, a newly founded University, or a Trade Union) do not turn out according to plan—again because of the unintended social repercussions resulting from their intentional creation. For their creation affects not only many other social institutions but also ‘human nature’—hopes, fears, and ambitions, first of those more immediately involved, and later often of all members of the society. One of the consequences of this is that the moral values of a society—the demands and proposals recognized by all, or by very nearly all, of its members—are closely bound up with its institutions and traditions, and that they cannot survive the destruction of the institutions and traditions of a society (as indicated in chapter 9 when we discussed the ‘canvas-cleaning’ of the radical revolutionary).

My arguments against psychologism should not be misunderstood. They are not, of course, intended to show that psychological studies and discoveries are of little importance for the social scientist. They mean, rather, that psychology—the psychology of the individual—is one of the social sciences, even though it is not the basis of all social science. Nobody would deny the importance for political science of psychological facts such as the craving for power, and the various neurotic phenomena connected with it. But ‘craving for power’ is undoubtedly a social notion as well as a psychological one: we must not forget that, if we study, for example, the first appearance in childhood of this craving, then we study it in the setting of a certain social institution, for example, that of our modern family.


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