Phenomenal Sociology

Ian Hacking is very smart. This point is not particularly contentious, I think. Few other scholars manage to bring together traditional philosophy of science, Foucault, and current social studies of science in both theoretically rich and empirically novel ways. I read some of Hacking’s later work over the past few years – e.g. The Social Construction of What?, Historical Ontology, and some of his work on the history of probability and statistics. Recently, I had the opportunity to read an early book (1983) that introduces the philosophy of natural science – Representing and Intervening. Hacking argues in that book that philosophers spend far too much time dithering on about the accuracy of representation, and not nearly enough time understanding how scientists intervene in the world. Experiments are interesting, perhaps more interesting than theories, not because experiments resolve theoretical debates but rather because experiments create new phenomena. Superconductivity might be a good example – before scientists fooled around with cooling materials down to very low temperatures and trying to pass currents through them, there were no superconductors. Once they did, there were. A new kind of thing existed – a new way for people to intervene in the world.

Hacking’s later work moves away from the natural sciences towards psychology, with a focus on classification and the creation of new types of people. Hacking looks at multiple-personality disorder and child abuser to demonstrate what he calls “the looping effect of human kinds”. These are sorts of people that did not exist before the various human sciences had diagnosed him. Which is not to say that people did not beat their children, or hear voices and behave in strange ways. Rather, these behaviors did not latch onto a way of knowing that grouped them into a certain pathology and made a kind of person out of it. And this making of a kind of person matters, because the people who end up in these kinds change who they are because of it. Hacking refers to this as “dynamic nominalism”, the idea that the names we have for the world affect the world itself (notably, Hacking confines this story to human kinds – quarks, he argues, do not so much care what we call them, although we might care. People, on the other hand, take on the labels applied to them). A more recent example might be fibromyalgia and the fibromyalgia suffered – a human kind invented fairly recently, and which is now contested (does it exist? what does that mean?). The existence of the disease – and hence the kind of person – is contested by the medical community (see, e.g. Drug Approved. Is Disease Real?). But now, organizations exist to support sufferers, drugs are approved to treat the symptoms, etc. The human kind, a new way of being, exists, and it would take another kind of fight to make it go away or replace it with new kinds.

I’m writing this post in part because I wonder if there is a connection between Hacking’s early work emphasizing experiment and intervention in the natural sciences, and his later work on human kinds in the human sciences. Are human kinds the equivalent of experimentally created phenomena?

More broadly, what are the phenomena for a discipline like sociology? I spent this morning reading a few articles from the newest issue of the American Journal of Sociology, one of the discipline’s flagship journals. Articles in AJS contain a mix of theory and observation, causal accounts and historical narrative, and so on. For example, an article on the Detroit newspaper strikes of the 1990s (Rhomberg 2010) examines the “deviant case” of the multi-union strike at the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. The article was well-written, and interesting from both an academic and personal standpoint, as my mother worked at the Free Press during the strike. (I tried to match the account of the case with my own memory of living through the strike, and found it difficult – I was still in elementary school when the strike began, and my memories are all very local while the narrative in the article is fairly macro. If I have one major complaint about the piece, it’s that it fails to capture anything about the tensions felt by workers, or the struggles within unions about the appropriate response to management actions, etc.) The article argues for the concept of a “signal juncture”, a moment that displays how underlying trends or shifts in historical periods are progressing (in this case, the shift from the capital-labor accord to a new era of relatively weak unions that use different organizing strategies) rather than a “critical juncture”, which is actually a crucial moment for such a transformation. I wonder though, is this the kind of thing that serves as a phenomenon for sociology? If so, it seems a bit.. weak. If not, what is?

What would it mean to focus our sociological inquiries on finding new phenomena? To some extent, anthropology’s (old?) emphasis on mapping the extremes of the variation of culture has such a flavor – literally trying to determine what is humanly possible.

Anyway, I’m lacking in a strong thread to tie this ramble together, but I’ll just finish by saying that I think it would be worth our while as social scientists to read Hacking’s take on natural science, rather than relying on older notions from philosophy of science to structure our goals for a scientific sociology. Perhaps it’s not predictive theories, quantitative methods, or cultural legitimacy (or at least not just those things) that distinguish hard and soft science, but rather it’s the ability to produce new phenomena through novel methods of observation and intervention.


1 Comment

  1. Very clear and interesting post, thank you. I think you come exactly to the point that John Law and Annemarie Mol are working since few years (and also Latour in a way in his last book, and of course Callon) : if we assume, as sociologists or anthropologists, that science is somehow performative, then so are sociology and anthropology. Therefore we have to re-build our own ways of producing theories and ‘descriptions’. But in which direction? Law and Mol are OK to identify new phenomenas and performing new realities, as other sciences. I’m not sure, but I think Latour does not exactly have this position. At least, he’s not so clear about it.

    (and sorry for my broken english)