The Analytical Language of the American Sociological Association

In a comment to a post re: Borges being the best over on Union Street, Andrew suggested the creation of what would truly be the most excellent* section of asa: “Borgesian Sociology”. This truly inspired suggestion led me back to a discussion at ASA about sections and section identities.

First, to Borges. In the oft-cited, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins”, Borges discusses the elimination from the Encyclopedia Britannica of the entry concerning John Wilkins**, a sad oversight given his pioneering attempt to create an analytical language whose structure held within it the definitions of its words:

He divided the universe in forty categories or classes, these being further subdivided into differences, which was then subdivided into species. He assigned to each class a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example: de, which means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of the element fire, a flame.

Borges notes the difficulties in such an endeavor and goes on to tell us of other attempts at classification:

These ambiguities, redundancies and deficiencies remind us of those which doctor Franz Kuhn attributes to a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’. In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

A few things to note about this: first, I love how we do not have the encyclopedia itself, only a second hand account. Second, note the inclusion of “(h) included in the present classification”, a hat-tip to paradoxes in the style of Bertrand Russell (e.g. “If the town barber shaves every man who does not shave himself, who shaves the barber?”). Lastly, some of the categories are just neat.

Now, to return to the ASA and the idea of a Borgesian Section. Looking over the current list of ASA sections, and thus perhaps divisions of Sociological labor, we find (this is just a small subset):

Animals and Society
Asia and Asian America
Collective Behavior and Social Movements
Economic Sociology
Environment and Technology
Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis
Evolution, Biology and Society
Labor and Labor Movements
Marxist Sociology
Mathematical Sociology
Medical Sociology
Mental Health
Organizations, Occupations, and Work
Political Economy of the World-System
Race, Gender, and Class
Racial and Ethnic Minorities
Science, Knowledge, and Technology
Sex and Gender

A few things I love about this list:
“Methodology” is a section, as are a number of methodologies (“conversation analysis”, “mathematical sociology”, etc.).
Labor and Labor Movements are separate from “Collective Behavior and Social Movements”.
“Emotions” and “Animals and Society” are in the same list of things (irrespective of what sort of thing that might be, it makes me happy).

But my favorite has to got to be the tripartite division of labor between “Race, Gender and Class”, “Sex and Gender”, and “Sexualities”. From what I heard at the reception, the soc of Sexualities folks see themselves as a bit of an insurgent group within the larger community of gender scholars, although feelings of marginality are perhaps ubiquitous in sociology, as Kieran at Orgtheory notes. I’m sure the econ soc folks would make claims of marginality as well. Maybe marginality is just something sociologists (and academics in general?) do? In any case, I am not advocating for any particular kind of change in the current system or some sort of “rationalization” of the division of labor. As a fan of Borges (and co-founding member of the section on Borgesian Sociology?), I am very much amused by such attempts, fraught as they are with the impossibility of properly framing what it is people actually do/how we think*** I just like seeing how the political history of a discipline can become inscribed in its categories, and how such categories are the outcomes of political processes.

Ok, that’s it for now. Time to go settle Catan or something****.

* Or second best, as the sexualities folks are hard to top (at least in terms of section parties, I mean what we do at a Borgesian Section party? Read aloud from Ulysses? Draw arcane symbols in the sand only to wash the waves erase them?). And, as much as I love Borges, he really had almost nothing to say on the subject of sexuality. Nor really gender. I suppose it comes up occasionally (“Emma Zunz”, “Ulrica”), but it’s really tertiary (“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius…”)…
** Wilkins is also a prominent figure in Neal Stephenson’s excellent but lengthy “Baroque Cycle”, along with Leibniz, Newton, and Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe (of course).
*** Cf. Goffman, “Frame Analysis” (which, in a footnote, applies his insights to Borges’ work) and Callon, “An Essay on Framing and Overflowing: Economic Externalities Revisited by Sociology”.
**** And by “something” I mean learn enough OrgTheory to pass my prelim.



  1. Natalie K.

     /  August 10, 2008

    The barber keeps a beard.

    I win!!!!!! =)

  2. This is, of course, quite brilliant, and we’ll take it as a manifesto for a new program in sociology. I suppose that in the classificatory scheme of the Celestial Empire of Borgesian Sociological Knowledge, Borgesian sociology itself would be (h).

    On another note, I find these debates about marginality both interesting and amusing as well: they strike me as the gusts and winds of an Abbottian fractionation process, in which disciplines divide and subdivide, so that for example sociologists distinguish themselves from economists, then cultural sociologists from economic sociologists, and the symbolic from material culturalists, and so on – the air gets purer, but the footing more perilous, as one moves up along a higher, but thinner, branch of the tree.

  3. Thanks!
    Nice tie in to Abbott.
    The purity thing gets me thinking about Bourdieu now, although at this early hour I’m not sure what exactly I’m thinking except that purity is overrated.