The Future of Social Theory

–Ari Berenbaum

To predict the future of social theory, one must retrace the past.

In the late 1800’s, social theory began through the work of such thinkers as Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Gabriel Tarde, and Karl Marx.  These theorists created the basis for the social sciences as we know it by positing society as an objective truth whose qualia could be empirically derived and measured.  For example, Emilie Durkheim postulated on the cause of suicide in society; he began his study by counting suicides in different parts of France, and then subdivided this sample by Protestant and Catholic communities (he found that Catholic communities have stronger ties and a lower suicide rate).  Today, this would mean a 2×2 table in Excel, which would have been a revolutionary tool for social analysis in 1897, when Suicide was published.  In these first studies, science, which had been previously thought as solely relating to the hard sciences, began analyzing society.

Social theory developed in this objectivist, rational, empirical, and positivist manner through the 1930’s and 1940’s (especially in North America).  It reached its apex with Talcott Parsons, whose “structural-functionalist” theory became a dominating force.  Structural-functionalism is a tautological fallacy stating that every existing social structure (such as marriage) has a regulative function that serves to provide stability in society.  For example, Parsons argued in 1943 that sex roles in marriages, the division of labor between men and women (i.e. men work outside the home and women run the household), were functional, and therefore inherently good for the stability of society.  One can see that from its tenuous beginnings, social theory had come to a place of affirming the status quo rather than serving as an informed descriptor of the either the causes of or the possibilities for its development.  This was not true in continental Europe, especially Germany, where the revolutionary tradition of Marx had been retained in the “critical theory” of Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Walter Benjamin.  Critical theory, rather than affirming the status quo, served to poke a hole through the yolk of bourgeois conceptions of culture.  This theory was marginalized in the U.S. relative to positivist theories like those of Parsons’.  We will see in the next section how the positivist traditions of Parsons were distilled to their most pure state prior to exploding into a thousand pieces.

After the mechanized, rationalized, death and destruction of WWII, social theory took a dressing-down in terms of its scope and grandiosity (yes, the eugenics movement can be considered social theory).  No longer would one read grand arguments about the usefulness of marriage, the suicide rate, or the alienating nature of bureaucracy.  To do theory differently for anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss meant incarnating what would come to be known as Structuralism.  In his new perspective, Levi-Strauss saw societies as having elemental structures that were consistent over time.   Instead of macro-structures like marriage, Levi-Strauss meant to only find the building blocks of society, the DNA as it were, such that one could build steadily upwards to more complex arguments about society.  Levi-Strauss used folk myths, customs, totems, and rituals as his units of analysis.  Levi-Strauss, by taking a hammer to prior assumptions about researching social theory, produced theory through disaggregation.  The problem with Levi-Strauss (and you can also see this problem in his theoretical predecessor linguist Ferdinand Saussure), is that deriving the elements of societal structure’s periodic table suffers from the same essentialist curse present in the positivist science of Parsons: They imply, marriage is something (despite its manifold representations across time and cultures); the incest taboo is something.  What if at the bottom of a social structure like marriage there is actually nothing, no essentialist referent, no center holding the “marriage atom” together.  Can we even conceive of that?  Is this a game of semantics?

This “rupture” in theory, as Jacques Derrida would call it, occurred in 1966 with his “The Decentering Event in Social Thought”.  He states that any structure one speaks of (like marriage) implicitly has a unique center which “governs” the total structure.  It is assumed that because you and I can speak of marriage without having to define it, there is some consistent center which pins it down and defines it globally.  Yet if one was to take a microscope to that structural representation, one would find that the center, by its very nature, is located outside of the structure itself.  The center is in fact defined by all the elements surrounding it, much as the white pixels in a black and white yin-yang symbol are defined by the black.  For marriage, the center is defined by the plastic bride and groom atop a wedding cake and also a honeymoon and kids and picket fence and moms and dads and divorce and rings and on and on.  There is no one “center” or essential element located within the structure.  Hence, the center is not the center — this is the decentering event in modern thought.  Rather than argue for an essentialist universe a la Structuralism, Derrida sees a fragmented world, occupied by difference, where a referent is defined by the multitudes surrounding it.  One could say that at his level of analysis, Derrida examined the “structurality of structure”, and social theory would never be the same.

From this point on, social theory has focused on what to do with this seemingly impossible divide between structuralists arguing for something essential in societal structures and postmodernists, post-structuralists, or deconstructionists arguing for the differences inherent to both discourse and society.  I could literally draw a two-column table where theorists would take one side or the other.  This impasse has not been bridged as yet.  Instead, we find exegeses of old authors, reconstructions of modern/postmodern, structuralist/post-structuralist debates, and sideline issues which are interesting and informative, but never attempt to resolve or overcome the core dilemma.

Running sidelong throughout this entire time, and mirroring much of the analysis, has been the advent and development of  psychoanalysis.  Since the time of Sigmund Freud, the meta-debates that have existed in social theory have existed in psychoanalysis.  Freud’s Oedipus complex serves as psychoanalysis’ essential structure that centered virtually everything during his time of writing.  Later, Jacques Lacan, like Claude Levi-Strauss, would reduce this further, to a structural linguistic model.  Lastly, Gilles Deleuze (and Felix Guattari) deconstructed both the myth of Oedipus and any structurally-based psychoanalysis, instead positing a “schizoanalysis”, a loose, a-centered, self-differentiating meshwork of psyche and identity.  The usefulness of invoking psychoanalysis is that it serves as a refracting or reflecting mirror by which we can use the analogy of the mind to reduce the complexity of developing social theory.  One can use psychoanalysis as a case to analyze the “structurality of structure”.

I believe that it is in Gilles Deleuze’s work that we see the beginnings of a new social theory.  His theory is commonly associated with postmodernism, but it allows for totality, as well as for stratification and self-organization.  In other words, despite its multi-dimensionality, it allows for the complex development of what might be termed “structure”, even the stable structures once posited by the likes of Talcott Parsons or Claude Levi-Strauss.  This new theory is interdisciplinary: Deleuze invokes biology, mathematics, literature, physics, art, psychology, and philosophy.  There are hints of authors taking up this kind of mantle today: Alenka Zupancic, a Slovenian theorist, has attempted this type of bridging analysis, most evident in a novel work on Nietzsche, The Shortest Shadow.

I would propose that the next generation of social theorists use tools already sharpened by by prior generations.  This means using the techniques of distillation and disaggregation found in Levi-Strauss.  It also means making the tangential connections and systematizing categories found in Parsons.  It means developing analogies like Lacan or Deleuze.  And it means debunking assumptions of old theories as Derrida did.  Most importantly, it means mining the theories on both sides of the structure/post-structure debate, then finding the meta-level “structurality” of this debate, so as to unify the opposing sides into a parsimonious model.  This future theory will likely not only have consequences for social theory, but may have both roots and applications across the hard and soft sciences, as well as the humanities.

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