Blumer’s Ontological Claims and the Curious Absence of Any Argument

I am currently re-reading some foundational texts on Symbolic Interactionism (the school of sociology) for my thesis. One of the most influential is Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionism and I am struck by Blumer’s ontological claims and the curious absence of any argument for them. Consider the following passage:

For purposes of convenience one can classify objects in three categories: (a) physical objects, such as chairs, trees, or bicycles; (b) social objects, such as students, priests, a president, a mother, or a friend; and (c) abstract objects, such as moral principles, philosophical doctrines, or ideas such as justice, exploitation, or compassion. (Blumer 1969: 10)

Blumer proposes three categories for objects and we can discuss this proposal, but Blumer does not provide any argument for it. He just moves on. From my own research into social ontology I know that such categories are far from uncontroversial. I would also object to the examples Blumer offers. Consider the bicycle (or the chair), which he proposes as an example for a physical object: A bicycle has a teleological function. All bicycles necessarily have the purpose of serving as means of transportation. Electrons do not have a necessary teleological function. One might make the argument that only social objects can have such functions. But Blumer does not even attempt to defend his categorisation. Continue reading “Blumer’s Ontological Claims and the Curious Absence of Any Argument”

Reading: Arlie Hochschild “Strangers in Their Own Land”

It took me a while, but I finally found the time to read Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.  The book addresses burning questions: How came the USA to be so politically divided? How does the other side relative to Hochschild, that is the right-wing tea-party, see the divide? How do emotions influence the political allegiances?

But being a philosopher I want to discuss the methodology and underlying theory of the book instead of those juicy topics. I hope that this discussion is at least as interesting. In fact, the philosophical aspect might be of more lasting interest. The political landscape of the US will shift sooner or later, while the insights for sociological theory might stay with us for a long time. And at the end of this post, politics creeps in after all. Continue reading “Reading: Arlie Hochschild “Strangers in Their Own Land””

Published: Gruppen als Akteure

An essay of mine on group agency has been published on Soziopolis. Soziopolis is a platform for sociologists and other social scientists maintained by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. My essay tries to convey the relevant implications of theories of groups agency, especially the proposal by List and Pettit, for the social sciences.

The essay is in German, which limits its readership on the one hand, but on the other hand the analytic debate on group agency has received less attention there so far. I hope I can contribute to changing this.

The first paragraph:

Die Beschäftigung mit Fragen des Gruppenhandelns – etwa danach, ob Organisationen zielorientiert handeln, Klassen genuine gesellschaftliche Akteure sind oder Staaten Handlungsfähigkeit besitzen – hat in der Soziologie eine lange Tradition. Dabei ist jedoch umstritten, ob Gruppen als irreduzible Akteure tatsächlich dasselbe Gewicht für soziologische Erklärungen haben wie Individuen, insbesondere, ob Gruppen dieselbe irreduzible kausale Rolle einnehmen. Können die Handlungen von Gruppen also Tatsachen kausal erklären, ohne dass eine individualistische Reduktion auch nur im Prinzip möglich wäre?

More here.

Dennett’s FBtBaB: Chapter Ten

I continue my series of short comments on Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. These comments are mainly written for an online forum, in which undergraduate students of Professor Dennett post. Each time I raise a point about one chapter. This time I comment on chapter ten.

On page 212 Professor Dennett suggests that a memetic theory of cultural evolution might provide the mechanism that Durkheimian functionalism lacked. I find the claim intriguing, yet dubious for the following reason: At least as far as I am familiar with sociological functionalism the function of social practices, traditions and so forth is relative to the whole society. Memes might also be functional e.g. a word functions very well to express a certain issue and therefore may be operated upon by natural selection. But how could a meme be functional relative to the whole society? How would this functionality lead to the meme being selected for?

Until this question is answered, I do not see Professor Dennett’s account of cultural evolution helping Durkheimian functionalism.

UPDATE (9. 3. 2017)

I have received confirmation from Professor Dennett that he in fact asserts that memes can functional relative to the whole society. Furthermore, I have been pointed to chapters 5-8 of Breaking the Spell.

Visit to Hamburg

I am currently in Hamburg for an internship – or more exactly a Research Employability Project – at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research (HIS). My main role here is to support the editorial team at the HIS which publishes the Mittelweg 36 journal and maintains the Soziopolis platform. Continue reading “Visit to Hamburg”