Reflections on a PhD Course at the Resilience Research School, Thursday 30th January
A guest post form Simon West, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, at Stockholm University.
As course coordinator Wijnand Boonstra has pointed out in a previous blog, the classics often look weird in a contemporary scientific centre devoted to trans-disciplinary sustainability research. In fact, the motivation for this course came from the comments Wijnand received when he was scanning pages from a battered book, published 1949. I had a similar experience when preparing the course reading material this week. A fellow PhD student pointed at the small, well-worn 1924 edition of Thorstein Veblen’s Absentee Ownership I held in my hands and exclaimed, “are you reading the Bible?!” For many researchers it might as well have been, given the ostensible relevance of the work for their research. In our PhD reading group here at the SRC, articles written as recently as 2005 can be dismissed as ‘old news.’
Our aim through this course, however, is to change the perception of the classics as curiosities of a bygone age, and demonstrate their relevance to the study of social-ecological systems. Indeed, the increasing willingness and need for social and natural sciences and the humanities to work together, for example to examine processes of global environmental change in the Future Earth research programme, suggests that interdisciplinary sustainability researchers will need to become much more familiar with the classics in the years to come. As Michel Foucault (1980) has indicated, there is no better tribute to a classic than to “use it, deform it, make it groan and protest.” We look forward to the various deformations applied by course participants in the coming weeks, coming from such varied backgrounds as ecology, literature, industrial engineering, political science, computer science and modeling, and development studies.
What are the social science ‘classics’?
Understanding ‘the classics’ is essential for grasping not only some of the core debates in the social sciences, but also the conceptual tools used by social science research to produce knowledge. But what are the classics? Alexander (1987: 22) defines classics as “earlier works of human exploration which are given a privileged status vis-à-vis contemporary explorations in the same field.” For Alexander privileged status means that, “contemporary practitioners of the discipline in question believe that they can learn as much about their field through understanding this earlier work as they can from the work of their own contemporaries.” The classics of sociology (the disciplinary focus for the coming lectures) are generally thought of as the works of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. But these ‘big three’ are often complemented by a host of other thinkers that are cited as ‘minor’ classics in the social science canon, e.g. August Comte, Georg Simmel, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.
What makes a classic classic? The factors that determine which books and thinkers becomes classic and which are simply forgotten are multiplex. In fact there is a whole sub-field of research on this topic – Reception Theory. As Baehr (2002: 111) notes, to find answers we must not look at classicality as a quality inherent to particular works but rather “as a dialectic in which the text, its evaluation and re-evaluation define what is exemplary.” There are several crucial factors that help to explain the development of classics’ privileged status.
Firstly, death. Dead authors are less likely to compete with others for prestige and academic standing, and therefore living academics can valorize them without fear of being superseded. Death also signifies the passing of time, which provides context to works and separates classic work from the chaff. Death also prevents authors from ‘fighting back’ against the dispersion, re-interpretation and appropriation of their work – all necessary components for the spread and use of ideas. Stinchcombe (1982: 3) joked that aspiring social scientists therefore better first find “a dead German who said it first” before they publish anything.
Secondly, cultural resonance. Texts do not become classic simply because they are ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than others, but because they are provocative and strike a chord about enduring aspects of human existence. Merely providing solutions to a discrete problem may prevent a text becoming a classic because it provides “no challenges for contemporaries to embrace and successors to ponder” (Baehr 2002: 118). So classics become classics because of the questions they pose and the mistakes they make, as much as the answers they provide. For instance Durkheim’s 1894 book The Rules of Sociological Method is widely regarded as a classic – yet it is just as widely panned. Indeed, it has been criticized and demolished repeatedly for over one hundred years because of the usefulness of its mistakes.
Thirdly, academic and social circumstances. While Durkheim became known fairly rapidly after his death as a founder of sociology, for Marx it took more than seventy years to be recognized as a classic sociologist. This difference in reception is a product of academic discovery and re-interpretation, but also linked to Marx’s posthumous entanglement with events in ‘the real world.’ As John Gray has written in a recent review of Jonathan Sperber’s book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, “if World War I had not occurred and caused the collapse of tsarism, if the Whites had prevailed in the Russian Civil War as Lenin at times feared they would and the Bolshevik leader had not been able to seize and retain his hold on power … Marx would now be a name most educated people struggled to remember.”
Finally, textual suppleness. Texts must contain enough ambiguity to mean different things to different people in different situations. As this is a course at the SRC, we can say that they must have the ability to adapt to change through transformation – they must be resilient.
Why are there no natural science classics?
The idea of providing privileged status to works published over one hundred years ago would seem bizarre to many natural and interdisciplinary sustainability scientists. You do not hear SRC researchers continually debating and publishing on what Norbert Wiener ‘really meant’ in his 1948 complex systems classic, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Most will have never heard of Wiener. Why not?
The classics highlight the predominantly discursive character of the social sciences. Alexander (1987: 22-23) argues that social sciences proceed primarily through argument and reasoning rather than through prediction or attempts at verification or falsification. This reasoning is conducted at a greater level of generality and speculation than normally takes place in the natural sciences (see Baehr 2002: 82). This is not because the social sciences are inherently more discursive than the natural sciences. It is widely accepted in the philosophy of science that knowledge produced by natural science relies on similarly metaphysical assumptions, but the natural sciences are simply better at hiding their discursive elements. These assumptions can be black-boxed and ‘normal science’ can progress through debate purely about the operational elements of research (see Kuhn 1970), without the need for classics.
Some would argue that the social sciences should therefore just ditch the classics and follow the model of the natural sciences. Indeed, this narrative was what motivated many early founders, and classics, of sociology – especially Durkheim. But to do this, argues Alexander (1987), would be to run away from the crucial problems that face the social sciences in the first place: the non-linear, complex and essentially discursive dynamics that drive human social behavior and shape human knowledge. Instead of modeling the study of social dynamics on the natural sciences, sustainability researchers should perhaps embrace the classics – in search of novel ways of knowing and becoming truly transdisciplinary.
What is the use of the social science classics for the study of social-ecological systems?
Firstly, the classics deal with key questions concerning the dynamics of social change, the origins of social action, the (in)stability of social systems – all essential for analyzing social dynamics today. Knowing the classics helps interdisciplinary sustainability researchers to avoid past mistakes and stimulates new hypotheses.
Secondly, the treatment of human-nature relationships in the classics has fundamentally shaped the academic landscape of today – take for example the influence of Marx in political ecology and the lineage of Durkheim’s functionalist approach in systems theory. Study of the classics can therefore help to contextualize social-ecological systems approaches in the wider academic terrain and help researchers to grasp the context of criticisms relating to, for example, the supposed neglect of power relations and conflict in social-ecological systems research.
Thirdly, while social-ecological systems research has long recognized the desirability of becoming trans-disciplinary, it is fair to say that SES research to date has been driven by researchers versed primarily in the natural sciences. However, the concept of the Anthropocene and the role of humans in generating global environmental change is mobilizing closer collaboration between social scientists, humanities researchers and natural scientists. Classics literacy among sustainability researchers will enhance ability to collaborate productively. Such intermingling of epistemological traditions offers real potential to create new ways of thinking and knowing the Anthropocene.
Fourth, study of the classics prompts sociological interpretation of social-ecological systems research. While in many ways transcending the origins of their birth, the classics came from somewhere at some time. Durkheim posed his central question, ‘what social bonds hold men together?’ in a cultural climate where fear of societal collapse was widespread. Indeed, sociology as a discipline emerged through attempts to understand mass transformation in human organization and relationships with nature (including the rise of capitalism and industrialism). Durkheim’s personal fears about the imminent collapse of society arguably led to a conservative approach focused on maintaining social order. Reflection on the social factors influencing SES research as a product of its time (e.g. economic collapse, teleconnected vulnerabilities) may help researchers to reflexively assess the assumptions underlying their own work.
Next week, Karl Marx …
- Alexander, J. 1987. ‘The Centrality of the Classics.’ In A. Giddens and J.H. Turner (eds.) Social Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Baehr, P. 2002. Founders, Classics, Canons: Modern Disputes over the Origins and Appraisal of Sociology’s Heritage. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
- Foucault, M. 1980. Gordon C (ed.). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon.
- Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Stinchcombe, A.L. 1982. Should Sociologists Forget Their Mothers and Fathers. The American Sociologist 17(1): 2 – 11.