O.O.P.S.Theory & Practice

Ambiguity, Ambivalence, and the Social Condition and Politics: Thoughts Following our Third Session

The assignment for the students last week was to read Donald Levine on modernity and ambiguity and Robert Merton on the sociology of ambivalence. These works anticipate the study of the social condition. Levine, by the way, was my dissertation supervisor, and I believe the sensibility that led him to write about ambiguity has informed much of my work, now most explicitly in the present project.

Much of modern culture, Levine observes includes a flight from ambiguity: the influence of mathematics, the move to symbolic precision, and the move “to strip language of … its poetic character… securing a univocal language to represent the facts of human experience” are very much modern developments, which Levine in his reflections analyses in the stark contrast between the traditional culture of Ethiopia and modern American culture. This contrast fits the general theory of modernization that Levine doesn’t criticize. But he does, on the other hand, recognize that the drive for clarity presents dangers for social inquiry. It creates a trained incapacity to observe ambiguity as empirical phenomena. It leads to a failure to recognize the multiple meanings of commonly used terms in the social sciences and even when such recognition exists, as in the case of “race,” “affirmative action” and “equal opportunity” (concepts we have discussed in class), it fails to recognize the constructive possibilities of such ambiguity. That is, it leads to a failure to recognize the challenges of the social condition, in terms of our inquiry.

Ambivalence, Robert Merton notes, is built into social structure. He gives a number of different explanations centering on social roles. There are conflicting role expectations concerning a single social status built into the status itself. Professors are called upon to both teach and do research. There are contradictory social values in societies at large. We are expected to both care for our immediate loved ones and for the general public good. And some roles require both norms and counter norms. The physician is expected to both be dispassionate in her diagnosis and caring for her patients. Merton highlights how ambivalence emerges from the nuanced tensions of normal social practices. Ambivalence is not just a psychological disposition, he maintains; it is part of the social condition.

There also was a writing assignment for our last session: each student was asked to send me an email note briefly describing in a few sentences a manifestation of the social condition that interested them. We discussed these manifestations, using Levine and Merton, and our earlier readings to further our class understanding of the social condition. As I was struck by the fact that Levine and Merton’s ideas illuminate the examples the students presented, I was also struck that all of the manifestations described seemed to involve examples where the consequence of action combine both the intended ends of action and unintended ends. Conventionally this is referred to as unintended consequences, but I think it might be best described as ironies of consequence.

Dominique Suberville’s wrote about domestic workers in Mexico experiencing a tension between attachment and intimate relation with the families for whom they work, combined with subordination and loyalty to their own families. Josephine Ott wrote about the tension between working to achieve in (post)modern society and living a fulfilling life. Taebum Yoo considered the unintended consequences of the new media, as they both include and exclude. Francisco Gonzalez thought about the social condition that Weber highlights in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Iris Urdal highlighted the ironies of incarceration, as it socializes inmates into the criminal order. Zack Sunderman wondered about the tragedy of individualism, as people break from communal traditions, allowing for individual development, but then how individual developments clash, so that the individualism of one person is predicated on the frustrated individualism of the other. Tom Taylor puzzled over the tension between humanitarian ethic and in- group identity and self defense in times of conflict. Lukasz Andrzejewski considered the tensions in discourse and the problem of political subjectivity. Insul Nusrat puzzled over the problem of affirmative action and especially how the interaction of class and gender complicated the importation of American models to South Korea, and Nathalie Almonte critically reflected upon the limitations of Western critiques of non-Western societies as being repressive.

Ambiguity, ambivalence and the likelihood of at least some ironic consequence of action are common to all these manifestations of the social condition. This is something to be explored more systematically as we proceed. Perhaps it is even our first seminar finding. The social condition appears in the ambiguities and ambivalences of social life, and in the ironies of consequence of social action.

It strikes me that this opens up the question of politics and the social condition. I close here with some preliminary thoughts.

The two primary tasks of sociologist: the study of social effects and the study of social construction can be politically misleading. There is a danger that the project of social construction can be taken a bit to literally, suggesting a degree of malleability in social affairs that exaggerates the freedom of social actors in “constructing” their social world, for better and for worse. This indeed is a complaint that Berger and Luckmann express about the reception of their famous book The Social Construction of Reality. On the other hand, when it comes to the study of social effects, things can seem too solid, too determined, not open to creative individual or collective action. An exaggerated social constructionism can make it seem that politics isn’t really necessary. Whereas the standard study of social effects, can make it appear that politics doesn’t really matter.

The ambiguities and ambivalences, the ironies of consequence, which characterize the social condition cannot be eliminated with a theoretical slight of hand. It is where politics comes in. And I think today in our next class, we will explore with Iddo Tavory, who is joining us, it is also the terrain of existential choice.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

Previous post

#Theory21c (part 1)

Next post

Cognitive Capitalism