Monday, April 4, 2011

Studying the socially constituted agent

We think we know quite a bit about being an "agent". It is to be an intervener in the world: a being capable of changing things around him or her through physical action; a subjectivity (consciousness, feelings, thoughts, desires); a user of language for thought and for communication. We also think we are well prepared when it comes to recognizing the diversity of the subjectivities on which agents act and live. We are familiar with important cultural differences; we know that people have different sets of values and commitments; we know that people from different backgrounds see and experience the world differently. Perhaps even, like Benjamin Whorf, we may think that different language systems and grammars give their users fundamentally different categories in term of which to analyze the world (link).

So we seem to know a lot. But in fact, this is the part of the social sciences and humanities that is the least developed and the least adequate to the complexity of the facts. What we lack most basically is a useable meta-framework in the context of which to characterize and analyze -- and to study -- the workings of these features of agency. We're not even clear about what to call these personally realized features of subjectivity and vision -- Mentalities? Conceptual frameworks? Value systems? Worldviews? Depth grammars of social cognition?

One reason for this under-development is the intangibility of these sorts of characteristics. They are features of the subjectivity of the individual; they are unobservable; they are difficult or impossible for the agent herself to articulate. So it is easier for the social sciences to proceed on the basis of highly schematic "models" of the agent -- e.g. the rational-choice model of preferences and beliefs, or the traditionalist's model of roles and norms. But these models aren't adequate. Worse, they lead us to paraphrase features of novel agency into the stylized forms of the model. They erase the differences.

The topic is important, because ultimately, all social phenomena are the result of agents acting for their own reasons, and we need to understand the varieties of their thought processes. So the social sciences need detailed understandings of the varieties of human subjectivity -- agency. We need to understand in concrete detail what it means to say that the subject is socially constructed, and through what concrete social mechanisms this construction takes place. We need to know how differences in culture produce systemically different world views or mental frameworks. And we need to be able to investigate these differences in detail and rigorously.

A few concrete examples are helpful:

  • How did French and Chinese legal systems think differently about "property"? How did these differences influence differences in judgment between French and Chinese officials?
  • How does the idea of an after-life influence worldview, action, and behavior for believing Christians and Muslims?
  • In what ways do Balinese people have a non-individualistic conception of the individual person?
  • Is it true that Japanese workers have a deeper affinity with team and group than American workers?
  • Was the "Greatest Generation" really different in significant ways having to do with values and social perceptions than the next generation?
There are research vehicles through which to conduct this kind of research -- ethnography, careful study of texts, literary analysis, interviews in depth about political perceptions, the methods of phenomenological sociology, and perhaps the tools of cognitive and personality psychologists. Particularly interesting is Robert Darnton's reconstruction of the specific and surprising mentality of the 18th-century printer's apprentices in the The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History. And his interpretation is based on rigorous analysis of varied documents and practices (link). It is good social science and good discovery of subjectivity.

But before we are likely to make a lot of progress on framing a research agenda around "mentality", we need a better and more commonly understood vision of the goal of the study. And I would say this means trying to formulate a meta-theory of subjectivity and agency, into which our findings about value systems, cognitive frameworks, moral ideas, and the like can be fitted.

There are some meta-frameworks that might be considered at the outset. The idea of a scientific paradigm or research programme is one; here philosophers of science have tried to get concrete about the specific presuppositions and concepts in terms of which the community of physicists understand theory and the laboratory bench. The idea of a cultural tradition is likewise a fairly concrete idea, where anthropologists try to use the statements, speeches, and artifacts of a community to help decode the subjectivity that underlies.

This topic is important in many areas of the social sciences, but none more so than in comparative research across civilizations. When we consider economic and political institutions in Europe and Asia, as Bin Wong does in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience, the fact of massive differences in starting points, presuppositions, fixed values, and moral perceptions of the populations involved loom enormous. But without more refined tools for analyzing these differences, it is difficult to treat them in a satisfying way.

This seems like an ideal place for an interdisciplinary research group of social scientists, psychologists, philosophers, and humanists to begin charting new ground.

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