Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Weakness of Strong Ties

The issue of how bounded our personal and professional networks can be, and how this affects our ability to empathise and communicate across networks, seems to be in the academic air a bit at the moment – perhaps because so many conferences are both reconstituting and – hopefully – stretching established networks a bit this time of year.

Sinthome from Larval Subjects wrote an extended reflection on the elements of perception and thought that structure our individual and collective receptiveness to communication with those who don’t share similar identifications, and asked about the possibility for effective political discussion, given this predisposition not to be able to hear the potential logic of competing views. The result of communities organised around shared identifications, Sinthome suggests, is a strange combination of absolutism in thought, and extreme relativism in practice, resulting from the failure of all groups to acknowledge a sufficient common universe of referrents to enable productive cross-group discussion. Sinthome argues:

It is not that someone has deviously adopted a philosophical position of postmodernism wherein there is no ultimate reality, but rather that we are living in a postmodern situation. When I argue with my friend that is a staunch supporter of the war, we literally live in different realities or “universes of reference” by virtue of how our subjectivities are structured transferentially. For this reason, we are unable to use “actual reality” to decide the truth or falsity of contested propositions. Rather, our universes of reference (hence the plural) have become self-referential by virtue of what we recognize as a credible authority….

Grounds become matters of individual preferences and the savvy consumer shops around for those grounds that most suit his taste. I get my news from NPR and dismiss FOX, while you get your news from FOX and dismiss NPR. This is one of the meanings of Lacan’s aphorism that the big Other does not exist. What seems different today is that where before this truth was largely unconscious and repressed such that we at least pretended that there was a consistent and shared Other, today we seem conscious of this. I am not at all sure what is to be done. I hardly find it to be something that should be celebrated or that is a happy thesis.

While more optimistic in its conclusions, Gavin from Real Climate points to somewhat similar issues in a piece today on the necessity – and the limitations – of trusted peer networks for scientists trying to manage the often overwhelming amount of new research in their fields. Gavin argues:

It used to be that one could go to a meeting like this and get a wide overview of the work being done much more efficiently (and speedily) than reading the journals. However, that is clearly no longer true. And of course, we can’t keep up with all the relevant journal articies in the wider field either, and so how do scientists manage?

Basically, it’s tough! Everyone in the field generally decides that there are some technical areas that aren’t worth (for them) getting too deep into, and so they tend to ignore the technical literature on that topic. For myself, I draw the line at carbon isotope studies and anything older than the last glacial period in paleoclimate (with a couple of exceptions). Review papers and high profile articles are useful and read more often, but even they can be too technical if they’re not right in your field. But, given how multi-disciplinary climate science is, there are always going to be technical issues outside your field that you are going to need to know more about.

To deal with that, most sucessful scientists develop networks of ‘trusted’ sources – people you know and get along with, but who are specialists in different areas (dynamics, radiation, land surfaces, aerosols, deep time paleo etc.) and who you can just call up and ask for the bottom line. They can point you directly to the key paper related to your question or give you the unofficial ‘buzz’ about some new high profile paper. You don’t expect to agree with them all the time – we scientists are quite naturally contrarian (in a good way!) – but this is generally an efficient short cut to understanding what the most serious/interesting issues are.

It is, of course, at meetings like AGU that these networks become established and are nutured, and which is why, despite the difficulties, people come back year after year (though personally, I only go every few years). At this year’s meeting we got a lot of feedback about RealClimate, and a surprisingly common theme was the extent to which we are becoming part of these networks. That is both gratifying and slightly worrying – such responsibility!

However, there are dangers in having everyone tuned in to the same ‘network’ – it can lead to a certain rigidity in what is being thought important. As an illustration, when going between meetings in Europe and the US, you tend to see that ‘issues’ and ‘buzz’ are often completely distinct on either side of the Atlantic – a function of mostly non-intersecting networks. Fortunately, there are frequent contacts across the divide which leads to substantial cross-fertilization of ideas.

I have always taken the need for empathy and communication across groups very seriously – whether I’ve achieved these ideals is another issue… I have been particularly committed to cross-disciplinary communication in academic life, where I feel we have perhaps fewer excuses than other institutions to wall ourselves behind disciplinary, political and methodological boundaries.

And yet – although I haven’t particularly blogged about this issue, people who know me personally will be aware that I am continuously dismayed to run across long traditions of research into particular questions, walled off into different disciplines that effectively do not speak to one another: the effort required, now, after decades of detailed work in traditions operating in relative isolation, often with questions and techniques – as well as ontological and epistemological assumptions – that are so fundamentally disjoint that I find it almost impossible to get to the bottom of whether these traditions can meaningfully speak to one another. In a way, it’s not surprising that, even within an academic research context, people can in practice appear to revert to the Weberian position – treating whatever initial choice has driven them to their research field as something fundamentally beyond reason – positioning reason, however unintentionally, as always and only a system you apply to assess whether you are behaving consistently with whatever irrational first principles you have adopted…

At its most fundamental, my project – not the dissertation, not this or that article I might write, but the project that I have pursued since I was quite young, and that has led me in and out of academic life at various points – involves trying to understand whether and how we might understand the possibility to engage in a meaningful way across such boundaries. In its earliest incarnation, it started as a series of reflections on how much potential we appear to have – and how barbarously we can nevertheless behave in spite of this potential. It is easy to naturalise this situation – to point back to invariant psychology or concepts of “human nature” – or to apparently insurmountable “technical” causes, such as overload caused by increasing complexity. My core question has been to what degree our experience of these perceived invariants might itself be intersubjective and historical – to what degree we might have the potential to achieve something closer to our own ideals. This project requires moving beyond criticising Enlightenment ideals for their lack of realism – for their self-evident non-correspondence with how we actually behave – and repositioning the question as: what are the conditions of possibility for achieving a global human community that can govern itself in a more ideal way?

In recent times, articulating this kind of ideal tends to function as a kind of lightening rod, drawing down criticisms that the creation of this kind of community would require that people become similar to one another – that the precondition for collective self-organisation with reference to some concept of non-coercive “reason” would require that we first achieve a stultifying sameness and soporific stasis. Given this assumption, it is hardly a surprise that critics become fearful that the pursuit of Enlightenment ideals points in the direction of some kind of intensely coercive apparatus capable of stamping global citizens into a homogeneous mold…

I worry that this fear – as well-intentioned as I accept it to be – might be incorrectly forcing us into a false dichotomy. Among other things, this fear seems to place us on a terrain that asserts that something like Durkheim’s “mechanical solidarity” might be required in order to organise a human community: that self-organisation requires a high degree of sameness of identifications among members of a group. Without contesting how easily groups can organise themselves around similar identifications, I still feel this falls behind some of the things we have shown ourselves to be possible in modern history – whose distinctiveness, in part, lies in the (often destructive and coerced) creativity with which we have driven ourselves to improvise a range of institutions through which individuals can coordinate their activities without sharing substantial identifications, other than to the process of coordination itself… These historical achievements were a non-conscious, unintended byproduct of actions oriented to other purposes – and they remain alienated, governing us as an external environment to whose pressures we are subject, rather than transformed through conscious political action into mechanisms for self-governance. One result of this continued alienation – this misrecognition of part of our social world as nonsocial – is that we persist in understanding “community” solely in terms of shared ascriptive characteristics and local identifications, so that our world appears to us in the form of mutually isolated and agonistic groups, contingently sharing a common physical world, but appearing to share no common social one.

At the same time, I think we have – again in alienated form – created the conditions of possibility for certain kinds of identifications that are global in scope. These identifications are, however, very weak. In the experience of any given individual, I am sure they are generally overwhelmed by all of the other identifications to more local communities and contexts. The strength of the weak ties, however, lies in their potential to bridge more concrete contexts – in their ability to give all of us access to something like a second social language – one just as native to us all as the languages of the complex local contexts in which we are also embedded, one that gives us all some native experience translating between contexts on different scales, one whose qualitative characteristics, I suspect, might be particularly useful for thinking through how we might mediate conflicts without requiring homogeneity or stifling difference…

All of this is terribly underdeveloped, and almost certainly substantially wrong in its particulars (if I can use this term for a framework stated so vaguely). I would, though, again ask that the question not die due to the weakness of my attempted answer. I think there is something very important in what I take to be the foundational question of classical sociology: how can we govern ourselves, when we cannot rely on strong, traditional identifications, preserved and reproduced via a fundamentally static social context? What would it mean to govern ourselves in a dynamic environment that is continually creative and productive of ever-new forms of difference?

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