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MYSTIFICATIONS IN THE 'SCIENTIFIC' FOUNDATIONS OF SOCIOLOGY

by Robert M. Young

A lot of people are talking these days about the illegitimate extrapolations which are being made from biology to society: Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo, C. D. Darlington's The Evolution of Man and Society, Robert Ardrey's The Territorial Imperative and The Social Contract. It is fairly easy to be on guard against this sort of thing, and most scientists (whether or not they are familiar with the biological literature) naturally relegate such arguments to the realm of scientific pornography (which is not to say that they don't like it, of course). At the same time, scientists are becoming increasingly aware of the social context of science, and some of them are turning to the writings of sociologists in an attempt to enhance their appreciation of the issues involved in relating science to society in a socially responsible way. In doing this, there is a sense that one is turning to the writings of colleagues in another area of specialist expertise. Sociology may be suspect and may be a 'soft' science, but surely it is worth while to read the works of reputable 'social scientists'. It turns out, however, that there is no haven in the behavioural and social sciences from the role of political assumptions, and these permeate the writings of the most reputable social scientists. It would be nice and comfortable if scientists could turn, with confidence, to another scientific discipline to indulge their concerns about society, but there is no escape from real politics.

One example helps to illuminate this fundamental point. It is now fashionable to denigrate the political conservatism of establishment sociologists, especially Talcott Parsons and his sometime collaborator, Edward Shils, who has recently written that 'assertions to the effect that "science is an ideology" or that "the social sciences are as ideological as the ideologies they criticize" must be rejected'. The general orientation of their work has been sharply criticized by radicals, their 'functionalism' is seen as an apology for the status quo, and their use of biological analogies leads to a strong bias in favour of belief that equilibrium and stability and adaptation are the ’natural' state of society. The writings of George Homans are less vehemently attacked, while those of Robert K. Merton are especially relevant to science and are often recommended to scientists who want to gain a social perspective on science. His (recently reprinted) Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth-Century England is considered a classic in the social interpretation of science, while some of the essays in the sociology of science in his Social Theory and Social Structure are highly recommended.

No one wants to discourage scientists from studying the sociology of science, but it is important that they do so with their eyes open. There is no escape from the social and political determination of ideas, and the origins of the ideas of Parsons, Homans, Merton and others have recently been illuminated in a particularly revealing way. Writing in the Journal for the History of the Behavioral Sciences on The Harvard "Pareto Circle"', Barbara S. Heyl gives a particularly striking example of the influence of scientific mystification in the development of supposedly 'objective' — but actually highly political — social science (Vol. 4, No. 4, October, 1968, pp. 316-334).

The Harvard 'Pareto Circle' centred around a very eminent physiologist, Lawrence J. Henderson (1878-1942) who was for many years Professor of Biological Chemistry at Harvard and held degrees from Cambridge and Grenoble. He was best-known in scientific circles for his work in haematology, and his book on Blood is a classic in physiology, while his reflective works on The Order of Nature and The Fitness of the Environment. were very influential. He was also very interested in social topics, and his scientific reputation lent great weight to his ideas in sociology, while his use of biological analogies gave a veneer of scientific respectability to his avowedly political views.

Functionalism thereby gained credence for its general thesis that society is a system with built-in stabilizing (equilibrating or homeostatic) mechanisms. This movement — and Henderson's part in it — is discussed in Cynthia E. Russett's The Concept of Equilibrium in American Social Thought (Yale, 1966). Merton discusses the prevalence of the functional orientation and its debts to biological analogies in his best-known essay, 'Manifest and Latent Functions' (ch. 3 of Social Theory and Social Structure, reprinted in a paperback edition, On Theoretical Sociology, Free Press. See especially notes 49 and 50 and the section to which they refer. The essay also appears in a very useful compendium on the debate: N. J. Demerath III and R. A. Peterson, System Change. and Conflict: A Reader on Contemporary Sociological Theory and the Debate Over Functionalism, Free Press, 1967).

Among Sociologists, Henderson is best-known for his Pareto's General Sociology: A Physiologist's Interpretation (1935), and selections from his sociological writings have recently been reprinted in L. J. Henderson on the Social System, edited by Bernard Barber (Chicago, 1970). Henderson also convinced Homans to write An Introduction to Pareto: His Sociology (1934), while Parsons leant heavily on Pareto in his classical work on The Structure of Social Action (1937). The Circle also included Robert Merton, the economist Joseph Schumpeter, and the historian Crane Brinton, along with the anthropologists Henry Murray and Clyde Kluckhohn.

What were they up to, and why Pareto? It could be argued that they were legitimately attempting to build a scientific sociology on the basis of biological ideas and under the guidance of an eminent and disinterested physiologist. But that's not the way it was. The conservatives at Harvard found themselves under heavy fire from the radicals in America in the depths of the Great Depression. Marxism was particularly in vogue, and Henderson turned to the writings of the aristocratic and profoundly anti-democratic French-Italian sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto, whose theories provided much of the intellectual basis of Italian fascism. (See Pareto's Sociological Writings, edited by S. E. Finer, Pall Mall, 1966; also Praeger paperback). Henderson employed Pareto's theories in an attempt to rebut the Marxist analysis of capitalist society. Pareto saw society as 'a system of mutually interacting particles which move from one state of equilibrium to another', and Henderson was able to supplement this view with other anti-radical analogies drawn from science.

Members of the Pareto Circle have recently recalled the influence of Henderson's advocacy of Pareto's theories. Homans wrote, 'As a Republican Bostonian who had not rejected his comparatively wealthy family, I felt during the thirties that I was under personal attack, above all from the Marxists. I was ready to believe Pareto because he provided me with a defense.' Brinton said, 'At Harvard in the thirties there was certainly, led by Henderson, what the then Communists of fellow-travelling or even just mild American style liberals in the University used to call "the Pareto cult". The favorite smear phrase for Pareto... was '"Karl Marx of the bourgeoisie".' Brinton said that Henderson used Pareto to cast doubt on belief in any real goodness in men or any validity for the traditions of American democracy.

Henderson was a powerful figure in the University and in Boston, and his protégés rose steadily in the academic hierarchy (at a time when jobs were scarce and tenure scarcer). He also managed to gain membership for some of them in the socially exclusive and prestigious Saturday Club of Boston and the academically elitist Harvard Society of Fellows. Homans, in particular, described himself as 'Henderson's man'. The combination of Henderson's academic position, his political conservatism (dubbed, with greater accuracy than some current uses of the term, 'fascism' by the liberals), and his status as an expert on scientific method has played an important part in the writings of his followers, all of whom became eminent in their respective fields: anthropology, economics, history, and especially sociology. In particular, he lent great weight to the biological and physico-chemical ideas of 'system' and 'equilibrium' as applied to society. These enhanced the Paretian usage, along with the wider stream of influences flowing from the penetration of biological analogies into the social sciences from nineteenth-century evolutionary theory. The transference of the concepts from the natural sciences to the social ones added an immense conservative bias to their theories. For example, in their introduction to Pareto's sociology, Homans and his co-author Curtis wrote, 'When a society suffers: a disturbance, a reaction is set up which tends to bring it back to its original state.' Henderson drew on the thermodynamic theories of Josia Willard Gibbs to move neatly from physico-chemical systems to social systems. He then moved on from the physico-chemical to the biological and medical, so that social equilibrium was made analogous to the adaptive and self-healing powers of organisms. Crane Brinton, writing about revolutions, was able to make good use of this analogy: 'We shall regard revolutions... as a kind of fever' from which the patient inevitably recovers. Homans and Curtis carry the disease metaphor further. A baby regaining weight after the measles improves until 'its weight returns to what it would have been if it never had suffered the attack.... This effect of this sort of equilibrium used to be called vis medicatrix naturae. We rely on it when we prescribe, as Hippocrates did: "Let it alone and it will get well".' Elsewhere Homans wrote that 'society is an organism and... like all organisms, if a threat be made to its mode of existence, a society will produce antibodies which tend to restore it to its original form.' He later modified his views, but the same cannot be said for Parsons, whose fulsome acknowledgements to Henderson and Pareto stand at the head of his major work on The Structure of Social Action. In the Introduction to the 1968 Free Press paperback edition he wrote (without apology or qualification), 'A more direct influence was the work of L. J. Henderson (himself a physiologist with impeccable credentials as a hard scientist) on the importance of theory in general and the concept of system in particular - the latter he held to be Pareto's most important single contribution.'

It is an abstract exercise to show that all functionalist social theory has a conservative tendency and that organic analogies are characteristically employed in the service of lining up the laws of biology in the service of anti-democratic and hierarchical views of society. Natural scientists and even some social scientists can be forgiven if they are sceptical about the charges of political and ideological bias laid against the very social theories which represent themselves as attempting to conform most closely to the canons of scientific methodology which are accepted in the natural scientists. They find the use of analogies and metaphors from the natural sciences particularly appealing and reassuring, and they find it hard to believe that such an innocent set of terms as 'system', 'equilibrium', 'functional', 'adaptive', and so on can really be deeply ideologically loaded.

The case of Henderson's Pareto Circle and its lineal descendants is therefore particularly welcome, since their political motivations were so explicitly acknowledged. They used thermodynamics, physics, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, general biology, pathology and medicine to provide analogies and metaphors which made it seem that the way things are is the only natural and healthy way for them to be. Any talk of radical social change could easily be represented (dropping the metaphoric and analogical mode of discourse) as literally against the laws of nature. This way of seeing society is still fundamental in much of the writing in sociology, anthropology, economics and political 'science'.

The only important change that Pareto did acknowledge was the 'circulation of elites', and Henderson's disciples certainly managed to become the new elite, with powerful positions at major universities in their respective fields. By the 1960's, H. Stuart Hughes could point out in his Consciousness and Society that Pareto has been 'justly celebrated as the greatest rationalizer of authoritarian conservatism in our time'. As we turn from a narrow conception of science to its social context, it may be worth bearing in mind the origins of what most social scientists are offering, however many layers of 'scientism' they have placed on top of the nakedly reactionary doctrines which gained prominence in the 1930's. Merton may one of the least blatant of the functionalists, but he is still one of be one of them: the 'scientific' sociology of science is, at bottom, a political mystification.

The social responsibility of scientists is to think critically about politics and society and to act on their conclusions. No trustworthy 'experts' about society can do that for them. This is not a fact about bias but about the actual conflict of human values.

2161 words

Reprinted from Science or Society?: Bulletin of the Cambridge Society for Social Responsibility in Science, No. 2, June l971, pp. 9-11.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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