Epistemic machines and the history of sociology, part 1.


Det är dags för mig att ta Tarde-grejen till nya nivåer. Efter en hel del bloggande och artikeln i Glänta med Kalle (som just nu skriver intressant om the L-word), är det dags att bygga för peer-reviewad tidsskrift. Detta är både ett krav (mer eller mindre) för att kunna inkluderas i en doktorsavhandling, men det är också ett sätt att nå den mycket smala, men ofta mycket engagerade ”publiken” som vi brukar kalla akademiker.

Vad är då bättre än att jobba en bloggserie! Ni som har följt mitt skrivande om Tarde kommer kanske att uppleva viss repetition (men vi vet ju alla att repetitioner är nödvändiga för att smittor ska germinera). 

Detta är planen:

  1. 1903 – The triumph of science over metaphysics – Durkheim vs. Tarde 
  2. The question concerning quantification
  3. Epistemic vector I – Durkheim/Merton-axis
  4. Epistemic vector II – Tarde/Fleck
  5. 2003 – The revenge of contaigontology and its social consequences

Denna text har jag kanske lagt ut vid ett tidigare skede, men nu ska det bli lite sammanhang. 

Part I – Introduction 

The role of the social sciences in political theory can be conceived of in many ways. Either the social sciences may inform political decision-making and governance to pursue a democratic agenda. Or they are perceived as a critical interrogation, which through scientific methods may form a stance beyond political struggles, and thus produce objective statements. This paper will discuss a few historical dates and problems in the history of the social sciences in order to outline a general argument about the relationship between theories of science, quantification, and the governance of territories. I will argue that three interlocking processes; epistemic constructions, quantification and State-interventions, have configured how and what we are able to know about society. 

In the nineteenth century there were series of events, which made modern sociology become a science of societies. They all have in common that they interlock the ontological domain of the social with the epistemic machinery of quantification, and in this article I will analyse a few of them. 

1903 – The triumph of science over metaphysics – Durkheim vs. Tarde 

The twentieth century may be called Durkheimian, at least when talking about quantitative sociology. Not so much because sociologists have read his works extensively or that his ideas have been laid down to us as the most rational ones yet to be conceived of. I will argue instead that it was the invention of the social fact that triggered an epistemic machine that could quantify society in a fashion that could co-exist with contemporary needs for a science of the state. At the turn of the century, sociology was widely discussed among Parisian intellectuals. Emile Durkheim had published The Rules of Sociological Method as series of articles during 1894, and founded L´Annee Sociologique in 1898, the first sociological journal yet to have materialised (Giddens 1978: 18ff ). Durkheims contemporary, Gabriel Tarde, had been around for a longer period of time, but had a very different conception on the rules and status of sociology as a scientific discipline. Tarde was at the time of the public encounter with Durkheim a professor at College de France, and his ma jor work, Laws of Imitation, which he published in 1890, and Social Laws – an Outline of Sociology (1898), were widely read. The discussion that took place in 1903 at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sociales was never transcribed, but recently several scholars have tried to reconstruct the dialogue using key quotations from the ma jor works of the two sociologists*. The key question however, is if society is composed of collective representations which may explain social order, or if collective representations themselves need explanation: 

/…/ his [Tardes] long forgotten work has assumed new relevance with the influence of American** sociology, in particular microsociology. It had been quashed by Durkheim and his school /…/ Durkheims preferred objects of study were the great collective representations, which are genereally binary, resonant and overcoded. Tarde countered that collective representations presuppose excactly what needs explaining, namely, the similarity of millions of people (Deleuze and Guattari 2004: 240). 

Now, I will tentatively argue that this controversy was not settled because of better arguments from Durkheims side, but rather because his sociology could be measured. It was compatible with the technologies of quantification that were ready at hand in the early nineteen hundreds. However, quantification is not merely an epistemic ideal that carry the epistemic respect borrowed from the hard sciences, such as physics. This has not been a real issue for sociologists. Not even Otto Neurath´s vision of a ”Unified science” would argue that such treatment is suitable. In Sociology in the Framework of Physicalism (1931/1983) Neurath writes: 

When the sciences are joined together into unified science, the work in them is the same as it previously was in their separation. Their uniform logical character has not always been sufficiently stressed. Unified science is the result of comprehensive collective work in the same way as the structures of chemistry, geology, biology or even mathematics and logic (Neurath 1983: 58). 

Neuraths vision is more Durkheimian, than it is positivistic. The logical character of sociology, which is the same for all sciences, comes from an aspiration to make ob jective facts rather than trying to bridge the gap between the hard sciences and the social sciences, as Tarde intended. Alain Desrosieres argues that there are two ways of understanding the status of Durkheim´s claim that ”The first and most fundamental rule is: Consider social facts as things”, but that any two of them have had a great influence on the development of modern statistics and sociology. The first way of interpreting it would be ontological, in the sense that social facts are things. Whereas the other way around would be epistemological; social facts should be treated as if they were things (Desrosieres 1998: 2). Desrosieres argues that for the social sciences to become sciences, it was necessary to demarcate both a chunk of reality and make it social, as well as proposing a methodological dictum on how it can be knowledgeable. At least from the seventeenth century and onwards, the scientific ideal was one of experimental methods, scientific academies and reproducibility. What the social sciences have always needed are ”things that hold” according to Desrosieres: 

The bond linking the two worlds of science and practice is thus the task of objectifying, of making things that hold, either because they are predictable or because, if unpredictable, their unpredictability can be mastered to some extent, thanks to the calculation of probability (Desrosieres 1998: 9, italics in original). 

Thus, what settled the controversy and consequently led to Tardes sudden disappearance from the sociological scene, was due to the failure of quantifying his microsociology. Durkheim´s ”social things” could be operationalised and measured in quantitative terms, and here a foundation was laid that influenced even the Swedish case of sociology. 

Del 2 kommer… snart. 



[1] G. Deleuze and F. Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus – Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 

Continuum, 2004. 

[2] A. Desrosieres. The Politics of Large Numbers – A History of Statistical Reasoning. 

Harvard University Press, 1998. 

[3] A. Giddens. Durkheim. Harvester, Hassocks, 1978. 

[4] O. Neurath, R. S. Cohen, M. Neurath, and C. R. Fawcett. Sociology in the frame- 

work of physicalism. In Philosophical papers, 1913-1946, volume v. 16. D. Riedel 

Pub. Co., Dordrecht, Holland, 1983.

* Eduardo Viana Vargas, Bruno Latour, Bruno Karsenti, Frdrique Ait-Touati.

** This refers a branch of American sociology sometimes referred to as symbolic interactionism. In the case of the Uppsala school of sociology, ”American sociology” instead refers to structural functionalism.