Should Sociology be Concerned with the Non-Human?

Should Sociology be Concerned with the Non-Human?
By James Addicott (2012, jamesaddi@hotmail.com)

DISCLAIMER: THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN IN A RUSH AND DESPERATELY NEEDS EDITING – TAKE IT AS IT IS! (UNLESS ANYONE WANTS TO VOLUNTEER TO EDIT IT)

Postmodern and systematised theoretical frameworks such as Actor Network Theory (ANT), Posthumanism, Complex Theory, Organisation Theory and Cybernetics increasingly blur the boundaries that were drawn during the modern sociological era. Firstly, an overlaps between everything “social” and everything “natural”, such as cells, organisms, fungus, coral, trees, animals etc. Secondly, contemporary discourses pay as much attention to the material products of a society than the social body (or bodies) that construct these cultural phenomena. Therefore, the question has arisen: should sociology be concerned with the non-human? Or, should the nonhuman aspects of society be left to more expert academic disciplines such as culture studies, biology, ecology, etc.? For this question to be addressed, this essay will cumbersomely lump everything nonhuman into one single category and everything ‘human’ in the other. So, on one hand there stands a Durkheimian clear-cut vision of ‘society’ and on the other is a vision of society mingled with everything distinctly ‘non-human’. This essay will argue that the sociology should be concerned with everything non-human in order to define what is ‘human’, and furthermore, sociology requires such a division to critically assess the socio-cultural impact of cybernetics. To achieve this, firstly this essay will take a look at the role of the nonhuman in classical sociology. Then, it will consider how the ‘cybernetic turn’ that took place during World War II and developed further during the Cold War has impacted upon classical sociology. Finally, the impact of cybernetics on sociology will be assessed in a consideration of Actor-Network theory, sociological ecology and Steve Fuller’s ‘Humanity 2.0’.

The Non-Human’s Role in Classical Sociology:

During the industrial revolution, Marx (1867) became concerned about the relationship between human-labourers and their mechanical counterparts. What would differentiate the two, in the eyes of the capitalist, would be the cost of labour-power (either human or mechanical) in relation to the cheapening of commodity production and the subsequent increase of surplus value (239). In those days, the battle between the human and non-human was about the substitution of body power or ‘muscular strength’ (240), rather than the mind. Mechanical power, as a means of production, had two effects of the social working organism; on the one hand it sped up and lengthened the working day ‘excessively’, and on the other hand it opened up new employment markets to the capitalist. Skilled workmen were no longer required; instead, the capitalist required a new working-class, the ‘minders of the machines’ (244-246). These factory workers (including in those days men, women and children) were to fall victims to the exploitative nature of the machinery that employed them: ‘it is not the workman that employs the instruments of labour, but the instruments of labour that employ the workman’ (248). Therefore, modern and industrial society was founded on the exploitative nature of capitalism and that philosophy of exploitation was embodied into the machinery. It was part of Marx’s calling for revolution that the proletarian class to become aware of the ‘real’ relationship between the human and the nonhuman. The nonhuman played a significant role at the economic base-structure of Marx’s sociological perspective.
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Weber (1947) recognised the rise of the modern Western state as a economic and legal organisation underpinned by a ‘bureaucratic machinery’, which structured all types of institutions such as the, ‘church and state, of armies, political parties, economic enterprises, organisation to promote all kinds of causes, private association, clubs and many others’ (309). Weber goes on to mention that what would develop along with these ‘fiscal conditions of efficient bureaucratic administration’, are, ‘extremely important conditions in the fields of communication and transportation’, furthermore, the ‘precision of the functioning’ of bureaucracy ‘required the services of the railway, the telegraph and the telephone’, and, ‘becomes increasingly dependent on them’ (311). As a result the, ‘whole pattern of everyday life is cut to fit this framework’ (309-310). Nonhuman elements play an implicit role in his sociology as the speeding up of bureaucratic administration towards increased economic efficiency.
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Nonhuman elements take an invisible role in Durkheim’s sociology. It can be quite confusing at first that Durkheim would refer to pre-modern societies as ‘mechanical’ societies and modern industrial societies as ‘organic’ but this really outlines his priority in concerns about the network of social bonds rather than the technologies they employ. ‘Mechanical’ therefore describes the functionalistic or mechanical way the pre-industrial communities behave; for example, there is an emotional reaction in a collective towards a crime, which therefore leads to punishment. Punishment is a natural reflex, or a defence mechanism, within the social unit (46). His theory was then focused on the strengthening of social bonds as these pre-modern or primitive societies developed into organic societies. For example, the relationships between ‘carrier and consignor’, ‘bearer of the bill of exchange and the drawer’, the ‘shipowner and the creditors, or the shipowner and the captain and crew’ are the objects of his analysis, not the package, the money, or the ship. It is the relationships exposed in the rights to property that sociology should be concerned with and not the material property itself. Macnaghten and Urry (1998), refer to the, “Durkheimian desire to carve out a separate realm or sphere of the social which could be investigated and explained autonomously” (quoted in Murdoch, 2001: 115). As we shall see later, this pure sociological vision was to become increasingly unclear, as modern technology was to become cybertised.
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Simmel (1898) defines sociology in this way:

‘The subject matter of sociology is… the forms or ways in which human beings exist beside, for, and with each other…By this method we discover, for example, as such forms, superiority and inferiority, the erection of hierarchies, competition, division of labour, imitation, representation, and countless other types of human socialization’.
(663. Italics added)

By ‘forms’ Simmel is referring to ‘abstracted’ phenomena; ideas or ways of thinking that have been taken from the real world, such as geometry, linguistics, logic, epistemology, rather than ‘content’: economics, law, fashion, religion, and art (see Varga, 2009: 148). Therefore, culture is not the primary concern for sociology, Simmel (1908) states that: ‘neither hunger nor love, work nor religiosity, technology nor the functions and results of intelligence, are social’, rather, ‘(t)They are factors in sociation only when they transform the mere aggregation of isolated individuals into specific forms of being with and for one another, forms that are subsumed under the general concept of interaction’ (1908: 24). Sociology’s primary concern is social interaction while paying attention to the forms, which channel, force, mediate these interactions and the way that these forms are influenced by their content. For example, cybernetics (algebraic in its form) can control satellites and aircraft (content), which therefore affects air traffic controllers, holidaymakers, and fighter pilots; by increasing precision and spatial detachment (interaction). However, aircraft collisions may lead to refinements of the form, recalculations of trajectories or timetabled schedules. In Simmel’s sociology nonhuman objects play a part in shaping the way humans interact, however, the main focus of the sociological perspective is fixed on a ever-changing image of the forms of social interaction.
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We can conclude so far that since the birth of sociology the nonhuman has already played a role in three of the four establishing sociological theories. The sociologist most ‘concerned’ with the nonhuman was Marx while Durkheim presents himself as the puritan of sociology.

The Cybernetic Turn:

During World War II the relationship between the human and the nonhuman was to take a radical turn in direction. While conducting research into anti-aircraft weaponry at MIT Wiener was led to develop a mathematic formula (an algorithm), which could be programmed into a machine giving it the ability to predict human responses as positive and negative feedback. As a result his AA predictor helped anti-aircraft weaponry to bring down German aircraft with a startling degree of accuracy – (Galison’s essay gives a wonderfully comprehensive account of this process, see 1994: 229). The outcome of this research led to the development ‘cybernetics’ (taken from the Greek ‘steersman’). Galison goes on to argue that, at the heart of cybernetics, ‘was a vision in which the enemy pilot was so merged with machinery that (his) human-nonhuman status was blurred’. Galison continues: ‘In fighting this cybernetic enemy, Wiener and his team began to conceive of the Allied antiaircraft operators as resembling the foe, and it was a short step from this elision of the human and the nonhuman in the ally to a blurring of the human-machine boundary in general’ (223). Therefore the radar techniques of the AA predictor created a cybernetic feedback-loop; an automated system, which created a communication based relationship between guns, shells, allies, airplanes, and enemies. From a sociological perspective the boundary between the human and non-human is thoroughly breached.
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For Wiener, societies were not simply distinguishable by race, but rather, ‘the community extends only so far as there extends an effectual transmission of information’ (1962: 157-158), furthermore, ‘any organism is held together… by the possession of means for the acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information’ (161). Therefore, ancient Greece, the Holy Roman Empire, and even colonies of ants or beavers, or herds of baboons, are bound together by processes of intercommunication. Such an understanding of society echoes Simmel’s study of ‘forms’ that cause and effect social interactions. His cybernetic technologies were to model themselves on Wiener’s own sociological and philosophical understandings.
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Wiener’s blurring of boundaries is addressed in Haraway’s Cyborg-Manifesto:

‘Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we find ourselves freightingly inert.’
(1991: 152)

At the heart of Haraway’s manifesto is the self-empowering image of cyborg, which she defines as a ‘cybernetic organism’, ‘a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction’ (149). In Haraway’s vision, Durkheim’s view of society as a social organism was transformed into a hybrid cyber-organism, as Wieners maths and philosophy began to underpin communicative technologies. While Haraway exposes the ambiguous, freighting and ‘trapped’ emotional response to such phenomena, she calls for the socialist-feminist movement to seize this blurring of linguistic divides that have been brought about since the introduction of cybernetics. For her, this ‘liminal transformation’ offered women a political opportunity to overcome categorical labels imposed on societies by the men of modernity (177). In a similar spirit, Hayles argues that in a posthuman and cybernetic era, ‘when you try to determine which is the man, the woman, or the machine’, then, ‘you have already become posthuman’ (1999: xiv).
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The ambiguity cause by fading divides is well expressed in Bauman’s (2000) book Liquid Modernity. Bauman recognises the shift into cybernetic ‘intertwined trends’ as the beginning of the era of liquid modernity, he states that, ‘men and women would be reshaped after the pattern of the electronic mole, that proud invention of the pioneering years of cybernetics immediately acclaimed as the harbinger of the times to come’ (14). The ambiguous nature of cybernetic technologies that is identified in Haraway and Hayles’ work is problematic for Bauman, especially as moral boundaries such as good/evil or right/wrong have also been fragmented (1995: 1-10). He sees t call for action, and states that, ‘sociology is needed today more than ever before’, and that the job of contemporary sociology is, ‘restoring to view the lost link between objective affliction and subjective experience’ (2000: 211). Therefore, as postmodern communication technology melts down modern stability into liquid modernity, sociology should be concerned with reconceptualising a new moral code with the well being of the individual at the top of its agenda. What should also be understood from Bauman’s work it that modern divides reveal their strength as they begin to fade away.
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The divides that separated nations and states have also been blurred by information-communication technologies. Ulrich Beck’s (2000) refers to postmodernity, or Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’, as the ‘second age of modernity’. For Beck, the world has undergone a massive a paradigm shift; time-and-space-compression, interconnectivity and no-liberalism, have led to transnationalism. Consequently, a new form of global consciousness has shattered former ideas of nation states; the process has been termed ‘globalisation’. The phenomenon that Beck identifies in the second age of modernity is ‘risk societies’ (21). These are reactionary groups that are formed across cultural boundaries and nation states to combat ‘invisible’ issues of global concern, such as economic crises, terrorism, global warming, organised crime etc.: He argues that, ‘(t)The accepted definition of a risk thus creates and binds – across national boundaries – cultural value frameworks of more or less compensatory, responsible counter activities’ (95). Beck states that his risk society is, ‘also the science, media and information society’ (46). However, unlike Bauman, Haraway, or Galison, the expanse of cyber-space does not play an exclusive role in his theory. Rather, the self-reflexive nature of modernity (‘reflexive modernisation’ (21)), mediated by time-and-space compressing technologies, are the exacerbate risks making them invisible in the local world of the individual.
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In the transition from a modern industrialized society to an advanced stage of human evolution four trends have developed. Firstly, there is a blurring of linguistic boundaries caused by communication-information-technologies. Secondly, there is the development of invisible risks, threats or enemies. Thirdly, there appears a sense of abnormality, ambiguity or ambivalence. Unlike Durkheim, all of these theories have played close attention to nonhuman objects since there is a developing sense of the embodiment of human intentions into manmade objects.

Mapping Humans or Non-Humans?

Haraway (1991), citing Latour, argues that for the socialist feminist movement to advance, ‘we need fresh sources of analysis and political action’ (165). Actor-Network Theory offers the sociology a semiotic method, and a new set of vocabulary, designed for mapping human and nonhuman interaction or interconnectedness. A system of analysis perfectly suited for cyber-theory, hence Haraway’s appraisal. Latour asks the question, ‘(i)Is sociology the study of social questions, or the study of associations?’, and argues that, ‘what defines our social relations is, for the most part, prescribed back to us by nonhumans’ (1988: 310). In his amusing analysis of the broken groom on the back of a door Latour argues that such a nonhuman device has been delegated human characteristics, which in turn delegates a prescribed set of characteristics or behaviours back to the actors who come into contact with it. Within the ANT framework the interaction between machines, animals, and humans are all analysed in relation to each other. The absence or presence of an actor (human or nonhuman) within such a network would give the sociologist an idea of the role that element plays within the overall network. Latour also acknowledges how ANT blurs the boundaries of former linguistic divisions: ‘(i)In one way or another all of these divides have been rubbished in work undertaken in the name of actor-network theory’ (1999: 3). This is a vision of society that is not much different to Wiener’s radar image merging man and machine within a cyber-space. The mapping of a network of human and nonhuman interaction offers new ways of thinking about museums (Hetherington, 1999), electronic disability chairs (Moser and Latour, 1999), and economic markets (Callon, 1999).
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ANT’s  “levelling of the playing field” has been criticised for promoting ‘human exemptionalism’ in sociology (Murdoch, 2001). From an environmental sociological perspective, Murdoch is interested in debates that stem from the boundary that divides anything “social” from “natural” and how that affects his subject matter. Murdoch asks the question, ‘if a perspective that divides society from nature is deemed to lie at the heart of the ecological crisis, should sociology be attempting to resubstantiate this supposedly damaging division?’ (112). To address this question he turns his attention to ANT as theoretical framework that can re-establish the complex relations that exist between humanity and nature. The semiotic relationships that ANT maps out is criticised for neglecting to account for the way in which human’s have the ability to use language: ‘humans must still be seen as having distinctive characteristics (linked primarily to their use of language) that mark them out from the nonhuman world’ (121). This was not Wiener’s vision since all communication is levelled down to networks of information-communication. Murdoch continues to argue that ‘ANT scholars have highlighted the heterogeneous make-up of the world and have shown that… social and natural entities are indeed mixed up rather promiscuously’ (128) However, Murdock concludes that, ‘the act of distinguishing natural and social entities should not be allowed to hinder our identification of those circumstances where the social causes of a given phenomenon are decisive’ (129). While ANT gives sociology the ability to think beyond the divide between nature/society, sociology still has a “Green” obligation in re-establishing some of the former linguistic divisions, especially the social/nature divide. Opposed to human exemptionalism is the ‘human distinctiveness’ approach that would argue that for sociology to address ecological concerns by recognising humans as being beyond nature and therefore capable of making decisions that affect their ecological environments. However, in achieving this, the framework of ANT is criticised since it, ‘is unable to reach any conclusive understanding of the social forces that often determine how heterogeneous sets of socio-natural relations are composed’. Furthermore, ‘distinctive differences inevitably emerge between humans and non-humans’ (128).
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The human exemption or distinctiveness debate reappears when sociologists turn their mind from the nonhuman animal to nonhuman technology. Fuller (2011) argues that ‘converging technologies’, ‘promise to transform the very constitution of the human species’ (4), thus a ‘transhumanist’ agenda appears with the will, ‘to re-engineer the human body to enable us to live longer as to work and play harder’ (242). Fuller throws the gauntlet down and asks social scientists to decide which side of the political fence they fall upon: ‘naturalist’ or ‘cyber-spiritual’. On one side of this ‘bipolar’ sociological disorder is the human exemptionalism stance (‘our reabsorption into nature’) or human distinctiveness (‘our transcendence of nature’) (69).
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The former ‘naturalist’ position promotes a social-Darwinianist attitude towards biosocial enhancement since it would view the unfair balance as survival of the species as it, ‘treats the human as an animal gifted in the adaptations to the environment’ (95). Such a stance therefore would view the hybridisation of human and nonhuman as part of an ongoing evolutionary process. Alternatively, the creationist, religious perspective, would presume human’s dominant position over nature. In this light the human exist as a, ‘virtual deity aspiring to a universal status that transcends earthly moorings’ (95). Spirituality, like cyber-space, is about transcendence beyond the nature and the worldly.
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For Fuller, the intelligent design of Humanity 2.0 can advance in two ways. Either sociologists can take a utilitarian approach (following Kant’s ‘Golden Rule’) or allow this hybridisation of humanity to be governed by economic forces (or Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’). He argues that social sciences – which represent the academic ‘party of humanity’ (69) – have always been concerned with human wellbeing and therefore enhancement. Fuller states, ‘it is crucial that social scientists do not capitulate to Darwinian bluster… that would downplay, deny, if not outright reverse, the advances that the social sciences have already made in the name of humanity’ (68). The blueprint for Humanity 2.0 therefore demands sociology’s proactive theoretical guidance: ‘our sense of social justice is tied to redistributions being conducted in a timely, targeted, and proportional fashion’, therefore, ‘the 21st century will demand from social theorists unprecedented levels of realism, imagination, and will’ (246). In such a theory, sociology’s concern for the nonhuman is unavoidable and will increasingly become a source of political negotiation.
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The issue of fading boundaries appears in Fuller’s work. Fuller, citing Foucault’s ‘death of man’ and states that,

‘…the general prognosis of the re-absorption, if not outright ‘withering away’, of the social sciences into a broader conception of nature has also advanced by a consensus of postmodern social theorists who have queried the ontological significance of the human/nonhuman distinction and the need for disciplinary boundaries altogether’ (71).

Adam Smith, Darwin, Latour, Nietzsche, Foucault, Haraway, would fall towards this side of his anti-humanitarian (naturalist) and pro-humanitarian (cyber-spiritual) divide in attitudes towards human/nonhuman categorisation. ANT is commended for the way in which it offers sociology a ‘heterogeneous’ vision of society that has been used, ‘to model phenomena in the life sciences’, thus, ‘social sciences are extending their influence across disciplinary boundaries’ (69-70). Wiener, Galison, Latour, Haraway, Beck, and even Bauman indicate, in theory clear-cut divisions are to be liquidated, fragmented, or extended beyond by communication-technologies. It is paradoxical then that Fuller would recognise this merging while drawing his own ‘bipolarised’ divide through the subject of sociology and beyond. While Murdoch’s motivation is provided by an ecological risk, Fuller’s is a socio-bio-technological risk. Like Murdoch, Fuller recognises recognised that clear-cut division can advance his own academic and political agenda. It would seem then that in the process of rationalisation the ability to blur or draw divides is still necessary and as political as ever.

Conclusion:

Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic sociology and philosophy is embodied in information-communication networks leading to new forms of human transcendence: either Fuller’s transhumanism and or Beck’s transnationalism. Cybernetic feedback loops continue to blur former linguistic divides and boundaries, subsequently, academic disciplines that were originally divided into rigid areas of specialism are now beginning to overlaps; the sociology of ecology; sociology of culture studies; sociology of technology etc. While theorists can take advantage of this blurring of boundaries (Foucault, Haraway, Hayles) some (Bauman, Fuller, Murdoch) realise the strength of linguistic divisions as they attempt determine the human and define human responsibility – this symbolises a recourse to a rational and pre-postmodern mentality. Therefore, sociology has been and should continue to be concerned with the nonhuman in its attempts to define the human and human responsibility. While actor-network theory helps to map out the networks of social interaction, it is guilty of human exemptionalism. In a cyber-society, for the human determinist goal to be achieved sociologists would need to establish disconnected space away from cyber-networks and develop a critical stance towards their subject matter, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ‘disconnect’ from these technological networks. The benefits of ANT is that it can be used as a tool for understanding the complex networks within which sociologists could extract Marx, Durkheim or Simmel’s vision of social beings – if they, as individuals, should choose to do so.

Bibliography:

  • Bauman, Z. (1995) Life in Fragments: Essays in Postmodernity Morality. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. 
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  • Simmel, G. (1903) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’, in On Individuality and Social Forms, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 324-339.
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