Mind currently on the following subjects:
The new sociology: the study of power
Contemporary social theory: implications for data analysis
Data: The intellectual Properties of Advanced Capitalism
Contemporary social theory advances upon classical social theory in the promotion of ‘multidimensional’ or interactive units of analysis: levels of context and person, object and subject, structure and action, system and actor, reality and belief. One sees hints of this multidimensionality in Weber and Parsons but it takes special precedence in leading contemporary theorists Alexander, Habermas, Bourdieu, Giddens, and arguably even Foucault.*
To date, no one has written an account of the implications for private data analysis as a result of this advancement in the sociology of knowledge. Unfortunately, (a) “qualitative sociology” and (b) “business” — two entities with overlapping knowledge interests in terms of ‘field’ research — generally have an uneasy, often politicized relationship. As a result, private data analysis has not yet integrated the insights of the sociology of knowledge led by Bourdieu, Giddens, Habermas, Alexander, and Foucault. Whether we assume a piece of data has an essential nature or not, we can define the value of the data only by our knowledge of the data’s value, and by our knowledge only. We have no authority to define any economic object, much less a piece of data — which is at most a representation of an object — according to any essential nature that we claim to deduce. Science, and the human mind, is not privy to perfect accounting.
According to the sociology of knowledge presented by these four theorists (here I drop Foucault), the way to salvage a notion of objectivity, and the possibility of objective analytical purpose, under circumstances in which knowing the essence of an object is beyond our actual means, is to find data in the knowledge of the object: communication, text, symbols, images, representations. The empirical reality is in the representation and the interpretation of the object. Socialized knowledge is both produced and productive.
My thesis, then, is intended as a statement on empirical social science: data collection that fails to include a unit of analysis at the level of ‘action,’ ‘knowledge,’ ‘lifeworld,’ ‘habitus,’ or ‘practical consciousness’ contradicts the primary shared insight of Bourdieu, Habermas, Alexander, Giddens, and Foucault’s frameworks. This need to know knowledge is true for entrepreneurs as well as politicians and other social mobilizers.
In developing theory from these five sources (Foucault is now back) — and conducting my own empirical inquiries into the sociological foundations of advanced capitalism, I have come to see symbolic power as virtually ‘essential,’ ‘determinative’ — a socio-physical ‘law.’ A socio-anything is not a law at all, except power kind of is. I find myself believing an understanding of symbolic power is the basis of being empirical in the context of the current social structure, in which, of course, any attempt to be empirical takes place. To move toward being empirical, I employ the following three domain assumptions:
(a) sociological data are about the productions of interactions; analysis of what is produced, how and why. E.g. did the US have an economic crisis? What kind? Which interactions produced it? Why? E.g.g. Did a given company succeed in producing capital? What kind? How? Why?
(b) the type of data that are valuable and insightful thus correspond to the form of power — the form of influence within an interaction — that prevails within a given social range or situation. The question of which data to collect is, as such, based on an a priori sociological assesment — what is power, what is influence, and what comes, in our best accounting, to ultimately structure human interactions. To ask how a human happening or future potentiality is or was sociological is to ask which interactions produced and organized the structure of the happening in the context it occured. Power is in this account THE fundamental category of objective social analysis. And thus so incredibly vague, because it is everything: further language is needed that specifies the context of power and the uniqueness of the actual happening you seek to explain.
(c) the form of power that today proliferates in advanced societies is symbolic power – a form I define very vaguely as ‘understanding understandings’ — knowing of knowledge. In Foucault’s terms “knowledge is power.” My interpretation of Bourdieu’s practical application of a similar idea is that, in practice, ‘knowledge of knowledge’ is power: knowing the general beliefs of people, in the context in which they develop the beliefs. Knowledge of knowledge is the ability to influence without influence.
Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, Mills, Habermas, Giddens, Bourdieu, Alexander — each of these social theorists can be seen to employ a theory of power upon which their larger models (Parsons and Habermas), frameworks (Durkheim, Weber, Alexander), or codified analytical language (Mills and Bourdieu) come together with coherence. Today, extrapolating from contemporary social theory’s emphasis upon symbolic power, the most important data are the symbols and images in peoples’ heads relating to the symbols performers seek to express in the behavioral fields of culture, politics, economics, and entrepreneurship, (which is the combination of the other three). The study of this interaction — between performer and audience — is the best empirical social science of the moment. The documentation of this relationship is how power can be empirically studied, and where the most valuable privatized social science data can be collected.
*A debate on ‘multidimensional’ units of analysis took place a few decades ago in the pages of Sociological Theory, but since then the question appears to have reached a state of ridicule in sociology circles. In personal conversations, several academic sociologists have expressed to me clear dismissals of the so-called ‘agent-structure’ debate as either settled, boring, or at a dead-end. I do not disagree, but I think the multidimensionality debate as it has taken place has not adequately absorbed the emphasis upon the sociology of knowledge that is the most important shared insight of Bourdieu, Alexander, Giddens, Habermas, and Foucault.