A Dream of Reason V. Wild Flowers Again Part 1 Retrospective Field Notes on the Sociology of the Early Sixties

V. Wild flowers Again: A Dialogue of Complementary Discontinuity

Retrospective Field Notes on the Sociology of the Early Sixties (1988)



Here thought – as a caged animal – sniffs and turns in a cage. Again and again it touches the barrier and turns back. The essay ends (I cannot say concludes) with a renewed commitment to escape.

I repeatedly assert the disciplinary relevance of “awareness-in-the-act”. These notes trace a mind in motion. Yet they have been suppressed.

I find the harsh tone disconcerting. Yet it articulates tension and entrapment…. Internal critique of sociology and/or psychology is rarely entirely decorous (e.g., Koch, C. Wright Mills, Sorokin). There are basic difficulties yet the profession does not listen. One is tempted to shout.

Despite strong reservations, I include these notes on institutional sociology as it appeared to a young graduate student in the early sixties (1960 – 1965)[1].[2]

We focus on basic approaches and, in Koch’s terms on “epistemopathologies.” We cannot do justice here to the fine work done despite these limitations.

2.The Realm of “Fads and Foibles”


In the realm of “fads and foibles” (a phrase we borrow from Sorokin) the profession is severed from the discipline. Thus it is unprotected from routine rejection of the outsider, the principle of the lowest common denominator, evasion of disciplinary self-knowledge, obsessive conformity, and intolerance of ambiguity.


There is, as Koch remarks of “scientific” psychology:

A remarkable and telling disproportion between the attention given to the foundational commitments of one’s work and that given to superficial or pedantic details of implementational character (the latter is favored) and… a tendency to persist so rigidly, blindly…in the application of the rules… that the behavior would have to be characterized as schizophrenic in any other context. (1985, p.398)

Sociology and psychology in the realm of fads and foibles replicate – even exaggerate – industrial rule bound conformity.


Location in a sequence of citations is routinely confused with intellectual advance (the later the better).

There is a habit of persistence in the face of unrefuted critique: critique met only by the brute power to continue as one is (as in psychology’s reaction to Koch’s criticisms).

Theory and methodology operate primarily as legitimating rhetoric held in place by (in Goffman’s sense) “presentational” considerations.


In so far as sociology and psychology are dominated by obsessive unexamined commitments to control for the sake of control they cannot legitimately claim neutrality. They are distilled models and agents of the industrial-post industrial orders of life in which they flourish. …. They gravitate to concentrated power



Ritual quotations from Weber, Durkheim or Parsons cannot bestow theoretical, thus scientific, relevance.

It is traditional in sociology departments to offer courses in methodology and theory along side “substantive courses.” Yet the substance of a science cannot be taught in isolation from its theories and methods. In so far as a discipline is a science, it is its theories and methods.


In the realm of fads and foibles, “general theory” was not a “living option.” It was a waste of time or Parsons did the job.

Middle range theory offered a “memory bank” of isolated items to decorate and disguise a-theoretical investigation.


There was inquiry without “a theoretical fig leaf.” Some items on a questionnaire would, for example, be declared “political” and others “economic.” The answers would be coded, “englished” and published as relevant to the relationship between economic and political life.

This was assisted by a literal and simplistic version of the doctrine of “operational definition”, in which all meaning is through observation and a concept is the “instrument” (e.g., a questionnaire) that translates it into relevant observables.

Our reference to “translation” and “relevance” resists rather than explicates this doctrine. The following is more accurate:

  1. Only the observable is meaningful.
  2. Language enables formal connections yet is in itself meaningless.
  3. As language has no inherent meaning it cannot legitimately guide inclusion or exclusion of operations and observations.
  4. Units of meaning (i.e., observables) can be secured through questionnaires and other “instruments.”
  5. Resultant “meaning families” can be coded into received terminology.

Behind the wall of dogma clichéd unexamined language rules.

2.6. Comment

Lowest common denominator professional practice dragged “social and behavioral science” from its natural orbit to a position and motion closer to its own.

3.Middle Range Theory


Middle range theory, proposed by Robert Merton, abandons Znanieki’s, Sorokin’s and Parsons’ project of direct foundational discipline reconstruction. It would develop a coherent discipline by investigating relatively delimited substantive theoretical problems.[3]

Relevant assumptions (whether articulated or not) include:

  1.  Middle range theory is an autonomous activity.
  2. General theory, the attempt to develop explanatory principles applicable to “the generic dynamic structure” of the relevant “empirical domain” (e.g., “the socio-cultural qua socio-cultural”), is logically and temporally dependent upon middle range theory.
  3. Except for stating the primacy of middle range theory, foundational discipline reconstruction is not an internal disciplinary problem.

Newton and Einstein are identified as general theorists. Middle range theory is identified with Kepler and Galileo.


Kepler and Galileo inherited from Greece a relevant minimally adequate discipline foundation[4] that they directly addressed and reconstructed (Burtt).

In the absence of such a foundation (not final or entirely unified but relevant, basically coherent and phenomenally open) “middle range” sociology is fragments in search of a discipline that one is forbidden to imagine (and thus cannot conceive).

Middle range theory is not an autonomous activity. It is logically dependant on (past and/or present) foundational reconstructive inquiry.


Middle range theory cannot open a coherent cumulative sociology. Yet it resists lowest common denominator homogenization and preserves received diversity (including the foundational explorations of Durkheim, Pareto, Simmel, Weber, etc.).

Middle range theory provides prestigious employment and professional honors to sociologists of authentic scholarship and disciplinary sensitivity…. It is a spore form of sociology in “the twilight winter world” of “scientism.”


Can a profession that found it difficult to retreat from Newton to Galileo accept that its basic problems are “pre-Socratic”?

4.A Brief Note on “Neopositivist General Theory”


I was attracted to neopositivist sociology, with its focus on model building, coherent disciplinary languages, universal patterns of explanation and explicit methodological analysis.

I was disappointed that it did not question the nature of science or its own scientific identity…. For example, the representatives of neopositivist sociology did not autonomously develop the consequences for the nature of science of its inclusion in our life together and apart. Proposals along these lines were confronted as external discoveries through the work of Thomas Kuhn. Some sociologists then registered as “normal” Kuhnians. Foundational questioning of science went on “above their heads.”[5]


In sociology neoposivitist claims include:

  1. Science directly provides and/or underlies all knowledge of human existence.
  2. Our sole theoretically generative concern with one another is prediction and control.[6]

These restrictions are reinforced by assumptions conventionally (not logically) associated with sociological neopositivism:

  1. “Sociological inquiry and “content” is distinct from and independent of literary form. Nonetheless, sociological discourse must be limited to direct analytic exposition. It must be impersonal and linear. Image and metaphor must be avoided. “Literary innovation” – crucial to modernity (as in Joyce, Nietzsche, Proust and Kierkegard) – is ruled out. Sociological terminology is not responsible to the rich existential-historical resonance of “natural language.”
  2. Socio-cultural patterns cannot be grasped, interpreted and understood “from within”[7]: awareness-in-the-act is impossible. An external position is always required. Thus practice cannot, even with the help of a midwife, generate its own theory.
  3. Sociology is external to and can in principle interpret the underlying dynamics of society. It cannot, however, grasp its own nature. For that task philosophy is required. Philosophy is the third level position. (Why stop at three levels? If all foundational interpretation is external there should be a distinct profession to grasp and understand the nature of philosophy…and on and on to infinity.)

I find these inter-related claims distorting and unnecessarily restrictive.


If only science can reveal and interpret underlying patterns of human existence, what of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Kafka, Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle and Nietzsche?

Art is a complex historical constellation that Parsons in The Social System associates with a primary pattern. He conceives it as fundamentally cathectic: it is only cognitive in so far as it is technical.

The artist must accept severe disciplines, must spend much time in study and practicing his skills. But his goal is to produce appropriate patterns for the expression of affect, to “stir-up” his audience or public. (Parsons 1951 410)

The difference between James Joyce and the authors of soap opera scripts is disregarded. Aesthetic sensitivities built up over centuries in diverse cultures are brushed aside.

Socrates, Plato, Voltaire, Locke, Hegel are at best precursors…. Those born before the annunciation of the human sciences who most closely pre-figure Parsons and Merton may continue in “half-life” (as though on “The Island of the Good Pagans”).


The passion for neutral “objectivity” in social “science” wills a technical generation of ideas unsullied by personal desire vision and sensibility[8]

The decision to emulate machines is not neutral. It sides with “the machine principle”[9] It also summons a repressed, mutated, reason hating “subjectivity” that is the shadow double” of “scientism”.


Neopositivist “social and behavioral science” excludes the author. It is for “the other.”

There is powerful pressure – so far only partially successful – for people whose primary “system identity” is “those to be managed” to be exiled to “the permanent winter” of our social and behavioral scientifistic models.

5.A Conclusion in Process

I became convinced that sociology as “social science” is too rigidly scientistic and narrowly based to transform itself entirely from its own resources.

One should work towards foundational reconstruction. One should reach out to reason, art and “immediate lived existence.” One should “listen to” awareness-in-the-act and open to the full resources of language

End of Retrospective Exert from A Dream of Reason by Avron Soyer, Continue Reading A Dream of Reason V. Part 2 On Violence as a Species of Unreasonable Objectivity


Footnotes for Retrospective Notes

[1] We focus on early sixties sociology primarily as a “climate of opinion.” Thus this essay is not limited to work produced in that half decade. It includes older contemporaries and their earlier works (e.g., Talcott Parsons’ The Social System, published in 1951).

[2] Koch’s example influenced the decision to include this essay. He remarks:

I am not a historian. But I have lived through a forty-year swath of psychological history from the vantage of a participant observer whose arrogant construal of his calling has been to explore the prospects and conditions for a significant psychology. (Koch 1985, 76)

He was, strictly speaking, not a participant observer but an observant participant. Awareness-in-the-act is asserted as a legitimate source of disciplinary self-knowledge.

[3] (2006) The recently proposed “dialogical turn” resembles middle range sociology in abandoning the struggle for a unifying disciplinary foundation.

Middle range inquiry focused on theoretical propositions. “The dialogic turn” is “post Kuhnian”. It focuses on paradigmatic orientations.

Middle range theory assumes that sociology is a science. “The dialogic turn” declares itself “post disciplinary.

[4] Constitutional concepts in this disciplinary foundation include “reason”, ”necessity”, “matter”, “motion”, “dynamics,” “theory”, “physical universe,” “causality”

[5] Now in the 1990’s natural science as always goes its own way in dialogue with disciplinary experience, exploring the first seconds of the universe (a unique event), artificial intelligence, etc.; while ”social and behavioral scientists” – self-condemned to endless disciplinary immaturity and tutelage (to infinite condescension) – wait to receive their “marching orders.”

[6] Even where there is authentic curiosity about human existence “in its own terms”, sociological imagination often remains constricted by obsession with the technology of control, as in the wonderful work of Erving Goffman.

[7] This “logic of inquiry” influences its products. There is a powerful tendency in Sorokin, Parsons, and derivative theorists, to interpret action as dominated by the contexts that contain it (which are in turn conceived as programmed by more inclusive patterns).

[8] The Structure of Social Action, the work that established Parsons’ reputation as the leading sociological theorist of his generation, was disguised as a commentary on received tradition.

[9] In Parsons’ second major work The Social System this tendency taken to an extreme became a style. Parsons’ writing -despite its insensitivity to language – is “experimental.” Unfortunately Parson’s disinterest in sociology as a literary form holds his writing qua writing outside explicit dialogue with inwardness, received traditions, and reason.


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Writings and Interviews by Avron Soyer

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