Ahistorical? Yes, right…

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Jan Blommaert

Nelson Flores, in a recent article, adds to the cottage industry of uninformed and shallow criticism of sociolinguistic superdiversity. my colleagues and I are (once more) accused of:

three limitations of the super-diversity literature: (a) its ahistorical outlook; (b) its lack of attention to neoliberalism; and (c) its inadvertent reification of normative assumptions about language

Most of the arguments developed in some earlier texts are entirely applicable here, so no new elaborate argument is required. Just speaking for myself, I invite the reader to apply Flores’ critique to the following works.

  • Discourse: A Critical Introduction (2005) revolves around a theory of inequality based on mobile, historically loaded and configured communicative resources I call voice (following Hymes);
  • Grassroots Literacy (2008) describes in great detail how and why two recent handwritten texts from Central Africa remained entirely unnoticed and unappreciated by their Western addressees. Literacy inequalities in a globalized world, thus, for reasons that have their roots in different histories of literacy in different places.
  • The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010) addresses exactly the same phenomena: globalization expanding old inequalities while creating new ones due to a reshuffling of historically emergent linguistic markets, combined with a renewed emphasis on reified normativity by nation-state and other authorities.

In each of these books, the practical question guiding the theoretical effort, and significant amounts of data, deal with the systematic discrimination of large immigrant and refugee populations in Western countries such as mine, on grounds of sociolinguistic inequalities. Ahistorical? Neoliberal? Reified normative assumptions about language?

This is n’importe quoi criticism in which the actual writings of the targets of criticism, strangely, appear to be of no material importance. And in which critics, consequently, repeat exactly what I said in my work, and then claim that I said the opposite. Or come up, finger in the air, with insights others and I developed, published and defended in the 1990s.

One word about the “ahistorical” point in Flores’ criticism (and that of others). He equates “historical” with “diachronic”, a very widespread fallacy often seen as – yes, indeed – the core of an ahistorical perspective. “Historical” has to be “old”, in short, and whoever works on old stuff does historical work, while those who work on contemporary stuff are not historical in their approach. Since I work on issues in the here-and-now, I am “ahistorical”. Please read some Bloch, Ginzburg, Foucault or Braudel, ladies and gentlemen. Or some Bourdieu and Hymes, and even Gumperz and Silverstein: “historical” means that every human action, past and present, is seen and analyzed as an outcome of historical – social, cultural and political – paths of development, and derives much of its function and effect from that historical trajectory. Which is what I emphasize systematically while working in the present. And find a lot of work on old stuff entirely ahistorical.

Further commentary in defense of viewpoints I myself categorically reject is a waste of time. Discussion of profoundly uninformed opinions is also something for which I have very little patience.

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Commentary: Mobility, contexts, and the chronotope

kpopheart

Jan Blommaert

(Commentary to a special issue of Language in Society on “Metapragmatics of Mobility”, eds. Adrienne Lo & Joseph Park)

I must emphatically thank Adrienne Lo and Joseph Park for inviting me to comment on the exceptionally insightful collection of essays presented in this volume. The essays, I believe, mark and instantiate the increasing maturity of what has become a sociolinguistics of globalization in which the various, highly complex challenges caused by mobility are being productively addressed.

Of these challenges, perhaps that to our established notions of “context” might be one of the most pressing ones. Rigorous and disciplined attention to context is what separates social and cultural approaches to language from formal linguistics; it is the thing that defines disciplines such as sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, pragmatics and discourse analysis. And an increasing awareness of mobility as a crucial ontological feature of “language” – or more broadly, meaning making – in today’s world goes hand in hand with an awareness that something is wrong with our well-weathered mainstream conceptualizations of “context”: they are too simple and fail to do justice to the complexities we observe. All papers in this volume can be read as illustrations and expressions of that unease. I propose to explore Bakhtin’s concept of “chronotope” as a possibly fertile and certainly more precise tool for addressing these challenges (cf. Blommaert 2015a).

Let me first define the scope of the issue; two preliminary remarks may be useful for what follows.

  • One: in a sociolinguistic approach to meaning making, context cannot ontologically be separated from language (or other semiotic modalities), for it is a fundamental part of the meanings constructed in language; context is what turns language in a “social fact” (to quote Durkheim).
  • Two: notions of context are built on, and invoke, imaginations of the social world and of the place of social actors and activities therein. So context is always more than just an operational-analytical category: it involves an ideological a priori (which, as we shall see, is always a moral a priori).

From that perspective, two things can be observed – and I regret that space restrictions prevent me from entering into detail here. One, context remains quite poorly integrated in several branches of the social and cultural study of language (Silverstein 1992; see for a review Blommaert 2005, chapter 3). And two, the social imagination underlying many forms of usage of context appears to be “sedentary”: context is local, stable, static and given. Obviously, a notion of context adjusted to mobility needs to transcend this and stress its continuously evolving, multiscalar and dynamic aspects, as well as the intrinsic unity of context and action.

There are several available building blocks. John Gumperz (1982) never stopped reminding us that context is always contextualization, and Aaron Cicourel (1967; 1992) insisted that context was always multifiliar, overlapping and scaled. In addition, the union between context and action,we now realize, is metapragmatics: language-ideologically ordered indexicals are at the core of the dialectics of contextualized meaning making (Silverstein 2003; Agha 2007; also Blommaert 2005). The papers in this volume have all drawn extensively on these sources. The complication offered by mobility as a given has been well phrased by Lo and Park in their introduction (this volume): in an era of physical and technological mobility, people need to navigate multiple worlds. They cannot any longer be viewed as sedentary members of a (single) closed, integrated and stable Parsonian community and are subject to the normative judgments in vigor in very different places among very different people – simultaneously.

This is where the chronotope might come in handy. Recall that Bakhtin (1981) defined the chronotope as a timespace configuration – an “objective” bit of context, one could say – which was characterized, and joined, by ideological, “subjective” features. Specific times and places placed conditions on who could act, how such actions would be normatively structured, and how they would be normatively perceived by others. A knight in a medieval legend, for example, is expected to be chivalric and inspired by the noblest of motives, and his concrete actions would be expected to emanate such characteristics; if not, he’s not a “real” knight. Bakhtin, thus, offered us a heuristic unit in which timespace configurations are simultaneously orders of indexicalities, and in which the multiplicity of such units is a given of the dialogical and heteroglossic reality of social life. Chronotope, thus, is a “mobile” context enabling not just precise ethnographic description but explanatory potential as well.

We begin to see, for instance, how physical and social mobility operate synergetically – moving across timespace configurations involves a reshuffling of the social and cultural capital required for identity construction, prestige and power, through what Hymes called “functional relativity” (1996: 44-45). It explains, thus, why forms of speech indexically anchored in one timespace configuration – that of the colonial past, for instance – can be re-entextualized into another, in ways that involve entirely different indexical valuations. We can observe this in the essays by Vigouroux and Collins, where the indexical valuations of the speech forms deemed emblematic of the colonial (racialized) past dance up and down once they are moved into different timespace configurations. A descriptive stance – observing a particular accent in students’ speech (Collins), or a grammatical pattern perceived as “substandard” (Vigouroux) – is turned into a racialized-historical stereotype in ways described by Agha (2007) whenever such an accent is produced “elsewhere”. Mobility, we can see, involves indexical re-ordering, or to be more precise, indexical restratification.

Observe that such restratifications have an outspokenly moral character. The ideological load attributed to specific forms of social action turns them into moralized behavioral scripts normatively attached to specific timespace configurations. The essays in this volume are replete with examples in which judgments of speech are formulated in terms of locally articulated claims to legitimacy, i.e. in terms of a projection of behavioral features onto “the right to do X, Y or Z here and now”. Chun’s analysis of perceived mispronunciations of Korean names by “foreign” fans illustrates this: such fans are “not from here”, and their actions are therefore subject to normative judgments “from here”. Being “(not) from here” becomes an absolute normative benchmark: a non-negotiable one that offers no bail. Ideologies of correctness and standardization, we can see, are chronotopically organized (cf. Silverstein 1996). They require a distinction between “from here” and “not from here” that can be activated as a chronotope of normalcy: here-and-now, “normal” behavior is X, Y and Z, and this is an absolute, “ideal” benchmark. And Park’s excellent essay shows how people who are by definition “not from here” – expatriate executives – negotiate and renegotiate the issues caused by mobility itself, shaping a separate chronotope of normalcy among themselves (transnational business, after all, is a distinct “world” in Lo and Park’s terms).

Obviously, such distinctions are identity distinctions – indexical order is always a template for identity, and identities are chronotopically grounded, by extension (Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Park’s managers construct themselves in their elaborate metapragmatic discourses of mobility; Chun’s Korean fans ascribe identities to the mispronouncing transnational ones; Collins’ teachers construct their pupils in similar ways, and the discursive pathways analyzed by Vigouroux lead to a projected stereotypical identity of Sub-Saharan Africans drawn across timespace from the colonial imagination. Note that in each of these cases, moral judgments constitute the moment of identity-shaping. The “corrections” offered by Chun’s Korean fans come, as said earlier, with judgments of legitimacy, and legitimacy extends from minute features of language into categorical identity diacritics. Moralized behavioral scripts are the on-the-ground realities of indexicality, and thus of identity-making. Typically, those who are “not from here”can achieve “approximations” of the normative “standard” order (Vigouroux); they can therefore also only approximate the “standard”identities. “Standard” and “correctness” are inevitably evaluative judgments, and they fit into a package of profoundly moral-evaluative notions such as “true”, “authentic”, “real” and so forth. Language-ideological literature is replete with such terms, and in public debates on such topics one continually trips over collocations between terms such as “correct” and “true”, and “(not) from here”. Collins’ delicate analysis of racialized enregisterment in South-African schools can serve as a textbook example of this.

Lo and Choi’s case study of an internet debate on the “truth” in the story of the Korean rapper Tablo brings together several of the points mentioned here, and lends profile to another one. The critics who doubt rapper Tablo’s educational credentials (using, unsurprisingly, details of his English “accent” as evidence) draw on a chronotope of normalcy: normally, one can’t finish degree work at a US institution at the rhythm claimed by Tablo; normally, his English should be immaculate of he’s taken a degree in the US, normally he shouldn’t sound like “us” after his US-based education, and so forth. They base themselves on a “normal” behavioral script, adherence and deviance of which are profoundly moralized. The data are bursting with moral-evaluative statements that are simultaneously statements of identity ascription, and driven by the “from here-not from here” diacritic that defines globalized mobility.

But there is more, and Lo & Choi’s paper shows it in full glory. The general chronotope of normalcy, we observe, can be broken down into an infinite number of micro-chronotopes specifying the indexical order of specific bits of behavior (Tablo’s performance in a talkshow, his translation of a poetry book, and so forth). So we see a fractal connection across differently scaled chronotopes, in which the order of indexicality from the highest scale (the chronotope of normalcy) is carried over into microscopic and infinitely detailed lower-scale ones. We see, if you wish, chronotopes nested within chronotopes, with specific points and general ones interacting nonstop. Goffman’s “frames within frames” (1974) are never far away here, of course, but it is good to remind ourselves that “frames” are, in themselves, chronotopically organized.

All the essays in this volume thematize such cross-scalar connections, and call them, for instance, “discursive pathways” (Vigouroux), “re-entextualizations” (Lo & Choi), or “interdiscursivity” (Park). Such terms remain useful, and understanding them as descriptors of cross-chronotope processes of uneven (scaled) quality can deepen their analytical force and make them far more precise than the “cross-contextual” label we now stick onto them. Such connections – the “polycentricity” of communicative environments, in short (Blommaert, Collins & Slembrouck 2005) – are inevitable in the sociolinguistics of mobility, and we have to be able to get a more precise grasp of them. This leads me to a final, brief, remark.

In the essays by Chun and by Lo & Choi, the internet, or (to use an epic misnomer) the “virtual world” is the context of the data offered. The analyses are outstanding; but we should not overlook the fact that the online context is the least well understood one in our fields of study, and that a careful investigation of how this context shapes and determines online social action remains to be undertaken. We know that it has exceptional scalar qualities (think of virality), and that, as a chronotope, it stands in complex polycentric relationships to “offline” ones (see Blommaert 2015b; Varis & Blommaert 2015). But the exact characteristics of these phenomena await profound focused study. Note that all the subjects discussed in the essays in this volume live in the internet age, and that, consequently, we can assume that all have been influenced by the circulation of cultural material enabled by such technologies. Precise how this influence plays out in their actual day-to-day discourses, how it modifies them and grants them yet another dimension of metapragmatic mobility, raising new issues of polycentric normativity, looks like a worthwhile topic for a follow-up volume. It is to the credit of the present volume that such fundamental questions emerge, and I repeat my sincere thanks to the editors for affording me the chance to engage with them.

References

Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2015a) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language and society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116.

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Meaning as a nolinear effect: The birth of cool. AILA Review 28: 7-27.

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the timespace organization of who we are. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 153. Tilburg: Babylon.

Blommaert, Jan, Jim Collins & Stef Slembrouck (2005) Polycentricity and interactional regimes in ‘global neighborhoods’. Ethnography 6/2: 205-235.

Cicourel, Aaron (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving (10974) Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New Tork: Harper & Row.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hylmes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis.

Silverstein, Michael (1992) The indeterminacy of contextualization: when is enough enough? in Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Donald Brenneis & Ronald Macaulay (eds.) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder Co: Westview Press.

Silverstein, Michael (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23: 193-229.

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2/1: 31-45.

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Durkheim and the internet: Notes on sociolinguistics and the sociological imagination.

durkheim

Jan Blommaert

(under construction)

 

  1. Sociolinguists as sociologists

Over two decades ago, the Welsh sociologist Glyn Williams (1992) wrote a devastating review of the sociological underpinnings of the sociolinguistics of his day.[1] His findings were (not to put too fine a point on it) that sociolinguistics was often a combination of very good and even avant-garde linguistics with conventional sociology. So, while sociolinguists appeared as leaders and innovators in the field of advanced linguistic analysis, they would be mere followers in the field of sociological reflection, happy to adopt, often implicitly and without much questioning or motivation, mainstream forms of “sociological imagination” (cf. Mills 1959). This led to images of society characterized by social integration, social consensus and cooperation, the relative stability of social relations and identities, and clearly delineated national units and group identities as circumscriptions for analysis – recipes from the kitchen of Talcott Parsons, according to Glyn Williams.

It is certainly true that sociolinguists have by and large avoided discussing major theoretical issues in sociology and social science, and have been extremely prudent in explaining the big sociological issues that may emerge from their work (but see e.g. Fairclough 1992; Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999). This is a great pity, since contemporary sociolinguistic work does often yield insights that are challenging mainstream sociological assumptions, and do so at a fundamental level – the level at which, to quote C. Wright Mills (1959: 5), “the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated”. The level, in short, at which we can consider a “sociological re-imagination”, a re-imagination of our fundamental conceptions of humans and their social lives. In this paper, I intend to undertake a modest attempt in that direction.

The main motive driving this attempt has already been given: contemporary sociolinguistics is sociologically relevant. And the reason behind this can be picked up quickly while reading sociological classics: they invariably refer to patterns of interaction as fundamental to whatever is understood by social relationships,  social structure or social process – and usually also grant great importance to this – but pay hardly any attention to the actual nature and features of such patterns of interaction.  Sociolinguists do just that, it’s our profession. And systematic attention to communicative modes and processes, we shall see, has the potential to reveal the weakness of certain commonly adopted sociological assumptions and conclusions. It is my conviction that the “socio” in “sociolinguistics” involves the responsibility to work from language towards society – that what eventually needs to be clarified and explained, through the analysis of sociolinguistic processes, is society and how humans operate in it and construct it. This becomes increasingly pressing as our field of study is changing from “offline” communication in a precisely circumscribed social space to include rapidly evolving and changing “online” communication, with its well-recorded challenges to established analytical frameworks. I want to encourage my fellow sociolinguists to take that responsibility seriously: we do have something to say that transcends the narrow confines of our own field of inquiry, and we should say it. Sociolinguists are, whether they like it or not, specialized sociologists.

In my attempt, I will use Emile Durkheim’s work as my benchmark. Why? Not just because of its pervasive influence on Parsons. From reading Durkheim’s work I found that his lasting influence across a broad swath of social and human sciences is often underestimated. It is in his work that the fundamental imagery of Man and society was constructed that became the perimeter, so to speak, within which twentieth-century social thought moved and developed. And even if later scholars dismissed his work or claimed to be free of his influence, they still adopted some of its fundamental principles. We’re all, in many and often surprising ways, still Durkheimians.[2] And in what follows, I intend to work with Durkheim in two different ways.

One, in support of Durkheim, I wish to add to, and refine, a notion he saw as absolutely foundational for sociology as a science: le fait social, the social fact. This notion, when Durkheim first formulated it, was highly contested (to the extent that Durkheim spent most of the preface to the second edition of Les Règles de la Méthode sociologique defending and clarifying it: Durkheim 1895 [2010]). It was also rejected in what came to be known as Rational Choice Theory and, more generally, in the tradition of Methodological Individualism. The notion of social fact, of course, determines the possibility of a definition of “the social” as a sphere of phenomena and processes that cannot be reduced to constituent parts without losing much of their essence. Thus, it also preconditions the very possibility of a sociology and a sociolinguistics. A highly precise and analytically powerful view of the social fact is possible if we excerpt some advanced sociolinguistic work, I shall argue.

Two, we need also to step away from Durkheim and the world he tried to make sense of and consider our own. There are things now that Durkheim couldn’t possibly have known or predicted, and contemporary sociolinguistic work on internet phenomena raises several entirely new fundamental questions about the nature of social groups, social relations and social processes and permits new hypotheses in these domains. By combining this second exercise with the first one, we arrive at a number of fundamental propositions – at theory, in other words – that may contribute to work in several other disciplines, and that has been generated inductively by detailed empirical attention to the facts of language, interaction, communication. Of which we know that they are absolutely central to any social phenomenon. Or at least: let’s try to establish that.

2. Durkheim’s social fact

Emile Durkheim devoted his life to the self-conscious construction of sociology as a science, and by the end of his life, he had achieved that goal. In his view, scientific sociology was a necessity in fin-de-siècle France. Durkheim shared the widespread sense of discomfort of his compatriots, epitomized in the military defeat against German forces in 1870 leading both to the end of the second Empire and to the revolution of the Paris Commune. Society-as-we-knew-it appeared to be falling apart. People had become weak, decadent, hedonistic and individualistic, and a generation of industrialization, with the growth of a large urban proletariat in mushrooming cities had disrupted France’s national sociocultural cohesion, and hence had prejudiced its future as a strong nation. Sociology, for Durkheim, was one of the tools needed to reconstruct a sense of membership among the French, of a community that was characterized by specific and exceptional features – to be discovered by scientific sociology and to be spread throughout France by a new system of “moral education” (the title of his celebrated course of lectures: Durkheim 1961 [2002]). This sociology was, thus, aspirational and prescriptive, a sort of “ortho-sociology”;  rather than to just describe what was there, Durkheim set out to convert factual description into normative prescription in view of constructing a society that, in his understanding, was not yet there.[3]

2.1 Norms and concepts

This normative-prescriptive aspect is a point we need to remember, for it explains the particular focus of Durkheim’s sociology, norms; or to be more precise: the secular moral order that should characterize the rational, industrial and science-based French society of the 3rd Republic. The existence of such an order – implicit and often invisible in everyday life – was what Durkheim posited as “the social fact” that made his sociology possible; and the vigorous promotion, spread and enforcement of this order was the nation-building task of the modern French state, via its education system. Eventually, this rational civic moral order should replace religion as the belief system underlying and organizing society, gradually becoming as “sacred” as previously religious beliefs. The latter were, according to Durkheim, veiled and misconceived understandings of the real moral order:

“We must discover those moral forces that men, down to the present time, have conceived of only under the form of religious allegories. We must disengage them from their symbols, present them in their rational nakedness, so to speak, and find a way to make the child feel their reality without recourse to any mythological intermediary.” (Durkheim 1961 [2002]: 11).

Durkheim’s analogy of the secular moral order with the moral order propagated in religion would, in later stages of his career, push him towards profound engagements with religion as a social fact. For in both the secular and the religious moral order, he saw the same features at work: both were experienced and perceived as beyond the grasp and intention of individuals, and as compelling norms of social life. In the case of religion, they emanated from a divine force; in the case of social facts, society provided them; in both cases, individuals acquired them through extended interaction in their communities as well as through institutionalized forms of learning and education.

These features, then, formed the definition of his “social fact”. Social facts are forms of behavior and thought (1) that are “exterior to the individual” and (2) experienced by individuals as coercive, constraining and imperative rules, deviation of which would come at a price (see e.g. Durkheim 1895 [2010]: 100; discussion in Lukes 1973: 8-15). They are, in short, collective norms of which the individual has an acute awareness, and to which individuals feel they must submit. Here is one of the many formulations provided by Durkheim:

“A rule is not then a simple matter of habitual behavior; it is a way of acting that we do not feel free to alter according to taste. It is in some measure – and to the same extent that it is a rule – beyond personal preference. There is in it something that resists us, is beyond us”. (Durkheim 1961 [2002]: 28)

Once more, the religious analogies are plain: the social order is sacred in Durkheim’s eyes. Recall that the social fact, thus defined, was the object of sociology as designed by Durkheim; the two defining characteristics of social facts should set the new discipline apart from psychology (a science devoted to individual behavior and thought).[4] Durkheim soberly observed that people act differently when they are alone from when they are in the company of others. When alone, instincts, pre-social desires would regulate behavior (and would therefore be the terrain of psychological analysis); social behavior, by contrast, was regulated by “collective conscience” – what we could now call an “ideology” – and by a moral discipline pushing individuals to bring the extremes of their instincts under control so as to be acceptable in the eyes of others[5]. In that sense, the development of social behavior marks a transition from “absolute existence” (humans in their natural state) to “relative existence” (humans as social, in relation to others and to institutions), from an a-moral state to a moral state, and from a mode of solitary autarky to one of solidarity and labor division (cf. Lukes 1973: 125; many of these notions were already elaborated in Durkheim’s dissertation, De la Division du Travail social, 1893 [1967]).

The collective conscience, note, is made up of “collective representations” – things we would now call “concepts”, relatively fixed meaning frames. And while institutions such as state-sponsored education transmit, across generations, certain collective representations “typical” of the nation-state, such representations are acquired alongside more specific ones characterizing and organizing life in particular social groups (caste, class, family, profession, etc.). The norms that organize social life are, in other words, layered and scaled. Socialization, thus, proceeded both at the level of becoming a citizen of a (homogeneous) country, and at the level of becoming a member of (more diverse) specific social sub-groups. The function of both is the same: norms always presuppose “a certain disposition in the individual for a regular existence – a preference for regularity” (Durkheim 1961: 34). Social rules are, simply put, “limits to our natural inclinations” (id: 96). Now, although Durkheim would underscore the fact that “man always lives in the midst of many groups”, his views on which specific groups we should think about differ from publication to publication, and even when he mentions groups, he does not necessarily devote much analysis to them. Moral Education specifies just three such groups: the family, the nation (or political group), and humanity (1961 [2002]: 73-74), for instance, and only the nation is elaborately discussed – not surprising in a book that aspired to reorganize national education in France. Elsewhere, he would profoundly examine professional groups and religious groups as well. In all, Durkheim had a strong preference for what we could call “thick” groups, groups in which people shared a lot of norms, values and “collective representations”, and as we shall see later, his influence has been pervasive in that respect.

2.2 Integration and anomie

Let us recall Durkheim’s motives for the development of a sociology. He was gravely concerned about the perceived loss of sociocultural cohesion in the France of his day. He believed he was witnessing the disintegration of an old social order, while a new one was not yet in place. Consequently, his sociology consistently addressed issues of sociocultural cohesion or integration: how did this rapidly changing society maintain a reasonable degree of cohesion? In De la Division du Travail Social, he pointed towards one answer: new forms of solidarity grounded in the emergence of new, smaller, professional groups, were complementing older forms of solidarity grounded in “deep” sociocultural ties. And they did so by developing alternative moral orders and collective representations – the defining features of the “social” as we have seen earlier, and in that sense also the defining features of identifiable social groups. Members were integrated into such groups by subscribing to and adopting these defining features, by “enregistering” (we would now say) the moral codes that shaped such groups and held them together. In other words, integration is a factor of successful socialization of individuals into the moral orders of social groups, and social cohesion is an aggregate of such forms of integration.

One of the most interesting and productive concepts developed by Durkheim is that of anomie. Anomie describes a situation in which individuals cannot draw on available normative orders (either by absence of such orders, or because access to them is severely restricted) or reject such orders: “normlessness”. Durkheim discussed the concept elaborately in his Suicide (1897 [1951]), and he did so from the viewpoint of social cohesion. In a rapidly changing society where an old order is on its way out while a new order is under construction, he argued, numbers of people find themselves in a moral no-man’s land where the rules of the social game are unknown, unclear or in need of development. Anomie, we could say, is the concrete face of social disintegration and individual marginalization. And Durkheim saw his own rapidly transforming society as prone to anomie, since the robustness and homogeneity of the old social order (revolving around, for instance, widely shared religious norms and close family ties) had vanished while a new one (based, as we saw, on a sophisticated division of labor generating numerous new professional, integrated groups) was not yet fully developed; individuals, consequently, would risk being poorly or incompletely socialized and at a loss finding out what it takes to do well. This moral no man’s land explained the high statistical incidence of suicide, and Durkheim provided a primarily social explanation for suicide.

With some qualifications, Durkheim saw anomie as something negative, a lack of a clear and widely shared moral social order; individuals caught in anomie are marginalized, deviants, outsiders. At the same time, he saw anomie as an inevitable feature of socio-historical change and, in that sense, as a constant feature of societies at any point in time – a fully integrated society was an aspiration rather than a reality, and at any moment in its historical development, societies would be characterized by old and new normative systems coexisting in a sometimes uncomfortable way. Yet, Durkheim failed to see the creative and productive potential of anomie, as well as the ways in which anomie operates as a relational concept, a (negative) normative judgment of one about another, obscuring the ways in which the margins of society are spaces where alternative social orders are quite rigorously observed and policed – as Howard Becker (1963) famously demonstrated.

2.3 Durkheim’s impact and challenges

I have deliberately been selective here, focusing on elements from Durkheim’s work that offer immediate possibilities for critical re-evaluation in view of sociolinguistic evidence. Let me summarize and reformulate these elements in a series of related propositions.

  1. There is a set of human forms of behavior that are collective, in the sense that they cannot be reduced to individual agency or intention. They are acquired socially, through socialization and education processes, in a variety of groups. They have a sui generis reality which cannot be explained by explaining individuals’ enactments.
  2. These forms of behavior must be seen as governed by sets of sanctioned norms, or ideologies, and the character of these norms is moral. Social behavior is moral-normative.
  3. These sets of norms characterize social groups, notably “thick” groups such as those of the nation, class, caste, family, profession, religion. We always live in a plurality of such groups.
  4. These sets of norms are the key to social cohesion and integration: people who submit to them will be perceived as “normal” members of their social groups, while people deviating from them will be confronted by anomie and risk being seen as outcasts.

In a variety of formulations, these three propositions can be found throughout twentieth-century sociology (and beyond). It was, like that of e.g. Dewey and Bourdieu but unlike that of e.g. Weber (Gerth & Mills 1970: 57) first and foremost a sociology of communities and of social cohesion, and it opened several areas of exploration that became foundational for twentieth-century social sciences. These areas ranged from the study of ethnoclassification and ethnoscience (through his work with Marcel Mauss), collective memory (through his student Maurice Halbwachs), labor organization and labor institutions (influencing, to name just a few, Everett C. Hughes, Herbert Blumer and John Kenneth Galbraith), socialization (influencing e.g. Piaget), religion, cultural symbols and ritual (influencing e.g. Victor Turner),  and several others.

Durkheim’s main follower-vulgarizer, if you wish, was Talcott Parsons. It was Parsons who turned the priorities of Durkheim’s program into the systematic theory to which Glyn Williams took exception, in the effort significantly simplifying some of the most interesting but often unstable aspects of Durkheim’s work – notably the relationship between “society” and “social groups” and the place of individual agency in society.[6] Parson’s sociology, as we know, focused on integration at the level of “society” (e.g. Parsons 2007). Societies would remain integrated because of the widespread acceptance of specific and relatively enduring sets of values, while norms characterized smaller social groups. Norms could differ from the dominant values, of course, they could even run counter to these values; but they were distinctly “lighter” than values.[7] Thus, in a text written in 1964 on US youth culture (at that time perceived as rebellious and increasingly deviant), Parsons confidently concluded that

“American society in a sense appears to be running its course. We find no cogent evidence of a major change in the essential patterns of its governing values.” (Parsons 1964: 181)

In other words, the long-haired, pot-smoking and anti-Vietnam young rebels of the early 1960s were still good and decent Americans, and their shocking behavior did not shake the foundations of the American mode of integration. Four years later, such an argument would be hard to sustain, and not just in the US (Elbaum 2002).[8]

As I said above, Durkheim was very much a sociologist of communities, of the collective dimension of social life. The most radical challenge to this came from what is now known as Rational Choice (Theory) (Green & Shapiro 1994; Adamae 2003). Rational Choice is an outgrowth of Methodological Individualism, something Max Weber introduced as a doctrine in the social sciences (and was taken further by e.g. Hayek and Popper). Simply put, Methodological Individualism is the theory complex in which every human activity is in fine reduced to individual interests, intentions, motives, concerns and decisions, because (it is argued) such observable individual levels of subjectivity in action, even if eminently social, are the only ones available to the analyst (Heath 2015). And Rational Choice can best be seen as a radicalization of the “individualism” in this: human action, in Rational Choice, is driven by one motive: the maximization of individual “profit” (material as well as symbolic) and proceeds by means of calculated, intentional and rational decisions by individuals (“choice”). Since Durkheim’s moral order crucially depended on the suppression (or “moderation”) of individual interests and preferences – egoism is typically seen as “immoral” – the theoretical dichotomy could not be sharper.

Rational choice, in that sense, is a fundamental denial of Durkheim’s “social fact”. Even more: it is a lock-stock-and-barrel denial of the entire Durkheimian sociological imagination, for “there is no such thing as society” (to quote Margaret Thatcher’s slogan). In Kenneth Arrow’s (1951) famous view, any form of collective (rational) choice is just impossible. Arrow, “proved” this in his so-called “Impossibility Theorem”, quite incredibly by means of intricate mathematical argument – and mathematics reshaped (and replaced) field observation-based sociology as the privileged source of knowledge on humans and their social practices (Adamae 2003: 102-116; cf. Blommaert 2016). To the disbelief of empirical sociologists such as Everett C. Hughes, if certain social practices were ruled mathematically “impossible”, it was assumed that their occurrence in the real world was exceptional or accidental (cf. Hughes 1971 [2009]: xix, 348-354).

For reasons explained below, Rational Choice never made a real inroad into Sociolinguistics; but it largely dominates several social-scientific and humanities disciplines, most notably Economics (cf. Thaler 2015).[9] Revisiting and revising Durkheim’s social fact from the perspective of contemporary sociolinguistics – the exercise I stall embark on in a moment – therefore implies a rejection of Rational Choice. A good reason for this is that in the more radical varieties of Rational Choice, people never seem to communicate, or to communicate only in dyadic logical dialogue when they are allowed to.

3. Sociolinguistics and the social fact: in support of Durkheim

So let us first establish this: people do communicate; they communicate all the time, in highly diverse and complex modes, often with more than one interlocutor, and not always logically, economically or rationally; it is through interaction that they are recognized as “social”, as a “subject”, and as producers of ideas. Affirming this is, of course, of an extraordinary triviality. But this trivium has been denied and neglected in tons of sociological and other social-scientific work, turning it not in a trivial truism but into a hard-fought methodological principle. Establishing that principle means affirming the very possibility of a socio-linguistics. And I think we have pretty decent empirical back-up for this principle and, thence, for the possibility of sociolinguistics. So let us show some of that evidence in what follows.

I repeat what I mentioned earlier: while almost every major sociologist would emphasize (or at least mention) interaction as a given, detailed attention to interaction has never been part of the sociological mainstream; symbolic interactionists and ethnomethodologists such as Goffman, Cicourel and Garfinkel operated very much in the peripheries of their discipline. Interaction was paid lip service to, and communication is often seen as a set of transmission practices not worthy of study in its own right – something so elementary that it belongs to the décor in which real social action is played out and does not demand further examination.[10] Durkheim was no exception. And this, remarkably, led to generations of sociologists overlooking what is potentially the most self-evident “social fact”. Let me sketch some aspects of it, and start with the most general one.

3.1 Language as a normative collective system: ordered indexicality

People can only communicate with others when they share and deploy different forms of “grammar” – conventionalized normative patterns ordering the potential mess of symbols we call language, ensuring that we “make sense” to each other. This simple observation should be enough to establish it as a Durkheimian social fact pur sang.[11] But let me elaborate this – begging the reader for tolerance for the highly sketchy summary of complex histories of linguistic thought in what follows.

The different forms of grammar can – roughly – be divided into grammars of form and grammars of usage, and usually the term “grammar” is reserved for the former: the fact that the formal, morphosyntactic organization of linguistic expressions is governed by language-specific (i.e. non-individual) rules, compliance with which displays some degree of flexibility but is overall quite strict and relatively stable and enduring. Description of these formal rules became “linguistics”, and their relatively stable and enduring character became the key element in identifying separate “languages” (cf. Silverstein 1977; Irvine 2001; Bauman & Briggs 2003; Blommaert 2013; see Agha 2007a:222 for a concise discussion). As for grammars of usage, they gradually became a separate domain of study (called “Pragmatics”) through the work of language philosophers such as Austin (1962) and Searle (1969) (cf. Verschueren  1999). Here, too, relatively stable and enduring rules were detected, although the overlap between such rules and separate “languages” was less outspoken; rules of politeness, for instance, appeared to be connected, rather, to social and cultural groups than to the actual “languages” they use, and were even seen as potentially universal  (Brown & Levinson 1987; for a critical appraisal see Eelen 2001). A generation of anthropologists had, in the meantime, provided mountains of literature on the sociocultural embedding of language in specific (often “ethnic” or “tribal”) communities (see Hymes 1964 for a survey), while symbolic-interactionist sociologists in the US had started exploring the social-scientific significance of everyday patterns of social interaction (e.g. Goffman 1959; Blumer 1969).

The eminently social fact of grammar, remarkably, became individualized as soon as universals became the ambition of linguistic theory in the wake of Noam Chomsky’s epochal reformulation of linguistic as a science of “competence”  – the mentally structured capacity to generate grammatically well-formed sentences (e.g. Chomsky 1965). Chomsky had announced that the focus on competence meant that linguists should be concerned with an “ideal” speaker/hearer operating outside of any form of real communicative situation; and this ideal speaker became an individual speaker whose “language” existed, in universal ways and (contrary to Saussure’s view) perfectly, in his/her individual brain (see Katz 1972 for an excellent example). Methodological individualism, thus, entered the science of language through the detour of psychologism, and social and cultural norms were replaced by mental operations unaffected by (socially and culturally contextualized) “performance”. Language had become an a-social fact.

Modern sociolinguistics was a reaction to that; and from its very beginnings, work in sociolinguistics would struggle to re-emphasize language as a social fact. Reaching back to the work of Sapir and Whorf, the abstract language designated as the object of linguistics was countered by situated, contextualized “speech” and such speech had to be understood in terms of a dialectics of language and social life, lodged in a “speech community” (Hymes 1966; 1972; 1980; Gumperz 1968; 1982). And apart from a (possibly) mentally hardwired and universal grammatical “competence” – the linguistic system – one should also consider the group-specific and culturally-relative communicative competence – the sociolinguistic system (Hymes 1992). Communicative competence, note, referred to knowledge of the sociocultural norms of language and the capacity to deploy them adequately in a variety of social circumstances. The norms of language, thus, were defined as sociocultural constructs; and Michael Silverstein (again drawing on Whorf) put a gloss on them: “language ideologies” (Silverstein 1979).

I shall be forgiven for this breathless galloping through half a century of intellectually development, for I have arrived now where I wanted to arrive. The concept of language ideologies, which rose to prominence and became a unifying focus in the 1990s (Kroskrity, Schieffelin & Woolard 1992; see Blommaert 2006 for a review), offered a comprehensive framework for re-establishing language as a social fact, in nearly all its aspects. The central idea proved extraordinarily productive: language is used on the basis of socioculturally grounded conventions dialogically organizing its production and understanding; the empirical basis for such ideologies were concrete “indexicals”, i.e. aspects of communicative form that pointed in nonrandom ways to salient, context-specific sociocultural meaning reservoirs, and ultimately to social structure (see Agha 2007). Indexicals, thus, pointed to conventionalized and therefore presupposed histories of meaningful usage and precipitated them into new moments of deployment. In Silverstein’s words (1992: 315):

“Now any indexical process, wherein signs point to a presupposed context in which they occur (i.e. have occurred) or to an entailed potential context in which they occur (i.e. will have occurred), depends on some metapragmatic function to achieve a measure of determinacy. It turns out that the crucial position of ideologies of semiosis is in constituting such a mediating metapragmatics, giving parties an idea of determinate contextualization for indexicals, presupposable as shared according to interested positions or perspectives to follow upon some social fact like group membership, condition in society, achieved commonality of interests, etc. Ideology construes indexicality. In so doing ideology inevitably biases its metapragmatic “take” so as to create another potential order of effective indexicality that bears what we can appreciate sometimes as a truly ironic relation to the first.”

This principle could be applied to the formal “grammar” of language, which appeared subject to strong language-ideological effects (e.g. Silverstein 1979; Errington 1988; Irvine & Gal 2000); to the learning of language norms in socialization processes (e.g. Schieffelin & Ochs 1986); to the use of specific “registers” governing concrete sociocultural domains of speech and subject to processes of “enregisterment” (e.g. Agha 2005; 2007b); to lay and institutionalized concepts of language, including sociolinguistic hierarchies and attributed speaker identities (e.g. Silverstein 1996, 1998; Agha 2003) and the politics of language at nation-state level and in more specific institutional contexts (e.g. Jaffe 1999; Blommaert 1999; Philips 2000; Haviland 2003); on complex intertextual processes of meaning-making (e.g. Silverstein & Urban 1996); on complex contemporary forms of meaning-and-identity making involving “codeswitching” (e.g. Rampton 1995; 2006). En route, a large number of crucial concepts in the study of language were redefined: language itself, speech community, genre, style. And so forth: the range of themes, concepts and domains that were profoundly reshaped by the conceptual development of language ideologies is extensive.

The truly fundamental theoretical and methodological impact of language ideologies, in view of the exercise I undertake here, is that it has given us an extraordinarily precise view of “norms” (and one can extend this to ideologies). Norms, we now see, are language-ideological phenomena, and more precisely ordered indexicalities: sets of indexicals organized in relation to each other, with some of them being “emblematic” of the meaning effects they generate – a sort of register “shibboleth” effect, as when someone starts a sentence with “oh dear” versus “fuck” (cf. Silverstein 2003; Agha 2005, 2007; Blommaert 2005), or shifts into a mock accent so as to project an evaluated identity on someone else (e.g. Hill 2001; Rampton 2006). The fundamentally normative character of social relations, thus, becomes clear: whenever we interact with others, we produce not just the kinds of denotational meanings one finds in a dictionary, but we produce evaluative meanings, in which the words, actions and identities of all the participants are fixed and given (sociocultural) value. And in so doing we produce, moment by moment, “culture” and “society”, as well as “identity” and “meaning”. None of these concepts are detached from interaction – “language and culture”, for instance, have merged into the interactional production of indexical order (Silverstein 2004).

Echoes of Bakhtin and Goffman are evident here: language-ideologies can in many ways be seen as an extreme methodological refinement of the general ideas articulated by Bakhtin (1981, 1986) and Goffman (1971, 1974). Bakhtin’s sociohistorical theory of literary form has now been extended into the entire field of language in society, and given far more analytical purchase and precision; while the micro-orders of social conduct described by Goffman can now also be reformulated in a more systematic and generalizable way. I shall come back to the continued relevance of both authors further on; in the case of Goffman, we shall see that, in a wider sense, the program of symbolic interactionism is coming back with a vengeance (cf. Blumer 1969).

Two final remarks are in order. One: orders of indexicality are obviously collective, social phenomena. I qualified them as “nonrandom” on a couple of occasions already, and this is vital because any form of understanding requires recognizability in terms of a specific set of ordered indexicals. An interaction opened by “Excuse me, sir” versus one opened with “hey, you!” is likely to be a different interaction (probably a difference captured by “polite” versus “impolite”), and recognition of this difference can only occur when the participants share the language-ideological valuations of these indexicals. And they do. A recent study by Silverstein (2015) on public (online) discussions of “New York accent” showed remarkable similarities in several categories of valuations articulated by participants, something that corroborates Penny Eckert’s (2008; 2012) notion of “indexical fields”.  Linguistic variation, it now appears, is subject to powerful collective language-ideological forces (“we have come to see variation as a more robust and dynamic indexical system”, Eckert 2015: 43). The next subsection (3.2) will return to this.

Two: people display an outspoken tendency to create norms whenever they are absent or unclearly scripted, and new communication technologies provide us with plenty of examples of that. The extremely rapid development of new social media platforms and apps, one can say, presents their users with a situation of “anomie” each time they engage with such novelties. And whereas common wisdom would often qualify mobile phone texting codes and Facebook interactions as “anything goes” because the carefully indoctrinated school standards of language and script appear to be violated continuously, a more careful analysis shows that even such apparently open, highly diverse, free and unscripted communicative spaces are very rapidly filled with ad-hoc (and rapidly solidified) norms, defining modes of interaction, genres and styles, and subject to sometimes rigorous policing; these new norms can and do function as tools for evading or subverting imposed, top-down rules (e.g. Varis & Wang 2011; Wang, Juffermans & Du 2012; Blommaert 2012; Leppänen & Elo 2016; Du 2016; Staehr 2017). As said before, anomie may be defined as a space without norms; at the same time, it is also a space where new norms are invited and created – a creative space in which “the social”, as grounded in the sharedness of sets of norms, is instantly created. To rephrase this with reference to Rational Choice: we see in this phenomenon of instant, grassroots norm-creation how people continuously surrender their individual choice and freedom to joint patterns of regulation and policing. Because they do not want to get stuck talking to just themselves, one can imagine.

I have spent a lot of space discussing this first element – language as a normative collective system, now understood through the conceptual instruments of language ideologies – for it underlies several of the points that follow. I can treat these points somewhat more concisely now since they corroborate what has been said here.

3.2 Language variation: dialects, accents and languaging

I already mentioned (pace Eckert) above that language variation is now seen as an indexical system of “distinction”.


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Notes

[1]
In this paper, I shall use the term “sociolinguistics” as a broadly descriptive umbrella term including any approach in which the connections between language and society are systematically explored. Work to be discussed in what follows might, consequently, more conventionally labeled as linguistic anthropology, pragmatics, applied linguistics, discourse analysis and so forth – and disciplinary sociolinguistics.

[2]
I do not mean to suggest here that we are only Durkheimians: we’re also, equally unwittingly, Weberians, Marxians and Freudians for instance. I choose Durkheim as a point of reference because some of the fundamental concepts he designed are highly useful in the particular exercise I shall undertake here.

[3]
Observe that Durkheim, although generally seen as a conservative thinker, was not a reactionary. The society he wished to help construct was a new one, not a (mythical) older society which needed to be preserved or recovered. Durkheim saw the present as unstable and unreliable, an old world that had vanished while a new one had not yet taken solid form and was moving in negative and destructive directions. His rejection – a moral rejection – of the present is quite radical, and contrasts remarkably with that of his contemporary Simmel (1950), who viewed similar tendencies with a neutral, nonjudgmental gaze, as a challenge rather than as a problem.

[4]
While Durkheim spends considerable efforts distinguishing sociology from psychology, much of his work articulates an outspoken interest in processes of individual internalization of social facts.

[5]
This insistence on temperance and moderation, often presented as evidence of his politically conservative and bourgeois views, can also be seen as another feature of his analogy between secular and (Christian and Jewish) religious moral systems.

[6]
Parsons (1937) is the most influential reformulation of Durkheim’s sociology. But Parsons was not alone in seeking completion of the Durkheimian project. While Foucault rarely mentions Durkheim, it is hard not to see Foucault’s sustained effort to describe and delineate the emergence of the modern “normal” individual through forms of discipline as an idiosyncratic engagement with some of Durkheim’s unfinished business. See e.g. Foucault (2015: 240).

[7]
Much of the pioneering literature on “late” or “Post”-Modernity implicitly takes this Durkheimian-Parsonian integrated society as its benchmark. Thus, for example, Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity” evidently takes a “solid modernity” as its point of departure (Bauman 2007).

[8]
Needless to say, Parsons’ view of US society as integrated was fundamentally challenged, and some will say shattered, by Gunnar Myrdal’s monumental American Dilemma (1944).

[9] The few attempts to use Rational Choice in sociolinguistic work were rather epic failures in social analysis. Carol-Myers-Scotton’s Social Motivations for Codeswitching (1993) used an awkward conception of Rights-and-Obligations sets attached to “codes”, from which speakers would rationally choose the most advantageous one; the actual social settings in which code-switching occurs was dismissed as accidental, not fundamental (see Meeuwis & Blommaert 1994 for an elaborate critique); in David Laitin’s Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa (1992), an equally awkward variety of Game Theory is used to arrive at an ideal, rational “3+1 language outcome” for language policy in Africa. The argument is entirely detached from anything that ties languages to real social environments.

[10] Hence Hymes’ critical views of the communication-focused work of Bourdieu and Habermas – two exceptions to the rule just sketched here (Hymes 1996: xxxx). My own verdict on Bourdieu is significantly more lenient (Blommaert 2015a). As for Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action, (Habermas xxxx), I share Hymes’ critique. Hymes points to the abstract and normative-idealized treatment of communication patterns in the work of both, detecting a lack of sensitivity to the actual ways in which language functions in real social environments. Habermas can be said, at most, to specify a set of ideal normative preconditions for communication.

[11] Saussure, who attended lectures by Durkheim, already pointed to “a grammatical system that exists virtually in every brain, or more precisely in the brains of a community of individuals; because language is never complete in any individual, it exists in its perfect state only in the masses” (1960:30; French original, my translation). Observe here how Saussure adopts Durkheim’s concept of “social fact” and, as we shall see, deviates strongly from the Methodological Individualism that characterized many subsequent developments in linguistics.

by-nc

 

A Planet Afflicted by a High Fever

The Pluto Press Blog - Independent, radical publishing

The world is ‘overheated’. Too full and too fast; uneven and unequal. It is the age of the Anthropocene, of humanity’s indelible mark upon the planet. In short, it is globalisation – but not as we know it. Leading anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen is the author of a new book Overheating:An Anthropology of Accelerated Change, which is linked with an international anthropological project, centered at the University of Oslo. In this post, he introduces the themes of the book, and the importance of the project.

‘What do the fateful Brexit referendum, the epidemic spread of Nintendo’s ‘Pokémon Go’ game, theOverheating escalating death of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the fivefold growth in tourism since 1980 have in common? The short answer is that they all express symptoms or outcomes of global accelerated change, or ‘overheating’, as I call it in my new book.

It is as if modernity has…

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Mathematics and its ideologies (an anthropologist’s observations)

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Jan Blommaert 

What is science? The question has been debated in tons of papers written over about two centuries and resulting in widely different views. Most people practicing science, consequently, prefer a rather prudent answer to the question, leaving some space for views of science that do not necessarily coincide with their own, but at least appear to share some of its basic features – the assumption, for instance, that knowledge is scientific when it has been constructed by means of methodologies that are shared intersubjectively by a community of scientific peers. The peer-group sharedness of such methodologies enables scientific knowledge to be circulated for critical inspection by these peers; and the use of such ratified methodologies and the principle of peer-group critique together form the “discipline” – the idea of science as disciplined knowledge construction.

There are, however, scientists who have no patience for such delicate musings and take a much narrower and more doctrinaire view of science and its limits. I already knew that – everyone, I suppose, has colleagues who believe that science is what they do, and that’s it. But a small recent reading offensive on the broad social science tradition called Rational Choice (henceforth RC) made me understand that such colleagues are only a minor nuisance compared to hardcore RC believers. For the likes of Arrow, Riker, Buchanan and their disciples, now spanning three generations,”scientific” equals “mathematical”, period. Whatever is not expressed mathematically cannot be scientific; even worse, it is just “intuition”, “metaphysics” or “normativity”. And in that sense it is even dangerous: since “bad” science operates from such intuitive, metaphysical or normative assumptions, it sells ideology under the veil of objectivity and will open the door to totalitarian oppression. What follows is a critique of mathematics as used in RC.

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Sonja Amadae (2003), in a book I enjoyed reading, tells the story of how RC emerged out of Cold War concerns in the US. It was the RAND Corporation that sought, at the end of World War II and the beginning of the nuclear era, to create a new scientific paradigm that would satisfy two major ambitions. First, it should provide an objective, scientific grounding for decision-making in the nuclear era, when an ill-considered action by a soldier or a politician could provoke the end of the world as we knew it. Second, it should also provide a scientific basis for refuting the ideological (“scientific”) foundations of communism, and so become the scientific bedrock for liberal capitalist democracy and the “proof” of its superiority. This meant nothing less than a new political science, one that had its basis in pure “rational” objectivity rather than in partisan, “irrational” a priori’s. Mathematics rose to the challenge and would provide the answer.

Central to the problem facing those intent on constructing such a new political science was what Durkheim called “the social fact” – the fact that social phenomena cannot be reduced to individual actions, developments or concerns – or, converted into a political science jargon, the idea of the “public” or “masses” performing collective action driven by collective interests. This idea was of course central to Marxism, but also pervaded mainstream social and political science, including the (then largely US-based) Frankfurt School and the work of influential American thinkers such as Dewey. Doing away with it involved a shift in the fundamental imagery of human beings and social life, henceforth revolving around absolute (methodological) individualism and competitiveness modeled on economic transactions in a “free market” by people driven exclusively by self-interest. Amadae describes how this shift was partly driven by a desire for technocratic government performed by “a supposedly ‘objective’ technocratic elite” free from the whims and idiosyncracies of elected officials (2003: 31). These technocrats should use abstract models – read mathematical models – of “systems analysis”, and RAND did more than its share developing them. “Rational management” quickly became the key term in the newly reorganized US administration, and the term stood for the widespread use of abstract policy and decision-making models.

These models, as I said, involved a radically different image of humans and their social actions. The models, thus, did not just bring a new level of efficiency to policy making, they reformulated its ideological foundations. And Kenneth Arrow provided the key for that with his so-called “impossibility theorem”, published in his Social Choice and Individual Values (1951; I use the 1963 edition in what follows). Arrow’s theorem quickly became the basis for thousands of studies in various disciplines, and a weapon of mass political destruction used against the Cold War enemies of the West.

Arrow opens his book with a question about the two (in his view) fundamental modes of social choice: voting (for political decisions) and market transactions (for economic decisions). Both modes are seemingly collective, and thus opposed to dictatorship and cultural convention, where a single individual determines the choices. Single individuals, Arrow asserts, can be rational in their choices; but “[c]an such consistency be attributed to collective modes of choice, where the wills of many people are involved?” (1963:2). He announces that only the formal aspects of this issue will be discussed. But look what happens.

Using set-theoretical tools and starting from a hypothetical instance where two, then three perfectly rational individuals need to reach agreement, observing a number of criteria, he demonstrates that logically, such a rational collective agreement is impossible.  Even more: in a smart and surely premeditated lexical move, in which one of Arrow’s criteria was “non-dictatorship” (i.e. no collective choice should be based on the preferences of one individual), Arrow demonstrated that the only possible “collective” choices would in fact be dictatorial ones. A political system, in other words, based on the notion of the common will or common good, would of necessity be a dictatorship. In the age of Joseph Stalin, this message was hard to misunderstand.

And he elaborates this, then, in about hundred pages of prose, of which the following two fragments can be an illustration. (I shall provide them as visual images, because I am about ready to embark on my own little analysis, drawn from contemporary semiotic anthropology.)

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Fig 1: from p90, Arrow 1963

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Fig. 2: From p79, Arrow 1963.

The prose on these pages became epochal: in it, one read the undeniable proof that collective rational social action was impossible, unless as a thinly veiled dictatorship – a death blow to Marxism of course, but also the definitive end of Durkheim’s “social fact” – and that basing policy on such a collective rationality (as in welfare policy) was bound to be futile. This was now objectively, scientifically proven fact, established by the unimpeachable rigor of mathematical logic, of which Arrow and his disciples believed that it could be applied to any aspect of reality.

Arrow, we saw, mentioned the limitations of his inquiry; evidently, he also used several assumptions. Amadae (2003: 84) lists four of them:

“that science is objective; that it yields universal laws; that reason is not culturally relative; and that the individuals’ preferences are both inviolable and incomparable”.

The first three assumptions touch on his conception of science; in other words, they describe his belief in what mathematical methods do. I will return to them below. The fourth assumption is probably one of the most radical formulations of Methodological Individualism (henceforth MI). MI is the label attached to the theory complex in which every human activity is in fine reduced to individual interests, motives, concerns and decisions. In the case of Arrow and his followers, MI leads to the assumption that “society” is merely an aggregate of individuals. It is clear that this MI assumption – an ideological one, in fact a highly specific ideology of the nature of human beings and their social actions – underlies the “proof”, makes it circular, and from an anthropological viewpoint frankly ridiculous, certainly when each of such individuals is a perfectly rational actor who

“will always pursue his advantage, however he defines it, no matter what the circumstances; concepts of duty and responsibility are alien to the instrumental agent pursuing his goals” (Amadae 2003: 272)

Note that Arrow does not allow comparison between individuals (he will do so, grudgingly and conditionally, in 1977 in response to Rawls’ discussion of justice: Amadae 2003: 270). This is important in three ways. One: it is a key motif in his “objective” approach, in which any normative judgment (e.g. a value judgment about preferences of individuals) needs to be excluded from the analysis, because any such judgment would bring in “irrational” elements and open the door to totalitarian policy options. Two: it thus underscores and constructs the case for mathematics as a method, about which more below. And three: it also provides a second-order ideological argument in favor of Man-the-individualist, for if individuals cannot be scientifically compared, they surely cannot be scientifically grouped into collectives.

And so, on the basis of a mathematical “proof” grounded in a set of highly questionable assumptions and operating on an entirely imaginary case, Arrow decided that society – the real one – is made up of a large number of individuals bearing remarkable similarities to Mr Spock. And this, then, was seen as the definitive scientific argument against Marxism, against the Durkheimian social fact, against the welfare state, socialism and communism, and in favor of liberal democracy and free market economics. It is, carefully considered, a simple ideological propaganda treatise covered up by the visual emblems of mathematics-as-objective-science. The assumptions it takes on board as axiomatic givens constitute its ideological core, the mathematical “proof” its discourse, and both are dialectically interacting. His assumptions contain everything he claims to reject: they are profoundly normative, idealistic, and metaphysical. Every form of subjectivity becomes objective as long as it can be formulated mathematically.

The fact that his “impossibility theorem” is, till today, highly influential among people claiming to do social science, is mysterious, certainly given the limitations specified by Arrow himself and the questionable nature of the assumptions he used – the most questionable of which is that of universality, that mathematics could be used to say something sensible on the nature of humans and their societies. The fact that these people often also appear to firmly believe that Arrow’s formal modeling of social reality, with its multitude of Mr Spocks, is a pretty accurate description of social reality, is perplexing, certainly knowing that this mathematical exercise was (and is) taken, along with its overtly ideological assumptions,  to be simple social and political fact (observable or not). Notably the MI postulate of individuals behaving (or being) like entirely sovereign and unaffected consumers in a free market of political choices, “proven” by Arrow and turned into a factual (and normative) definition, leads Adamae (2003: 107) to conclude “that Arrow’s set-theoretical definition of citizens’ sovereignty is one of the least philosophically examined concepts in the history of political theory”. (To Arrow’s credit, he was ready to revise this assumption in later years; Richard Thaler (2015: 162) quotes him saying “We have the curious situation that scientific analysis imputes scientific behavior to its subjects”). Nonetheless, this definition promptly and effectively eliminated a number of items from the purview of new political science: the public sphere, the common good, and even society as such – Arrovians would use the simple argument that since society was not human (read: not individual and rational), it could not be seen as an actor in its own right. Margaret Thatcher, decades later, agreed.

Arrow and his followers set new standards of political debate, arguing that political issues (think of social welfare) were not “real” if they didn’t stand the test of logical analysis. Unless facts agreed with mathematical coherence (as shown in Fig. 2 above), they were not  proven facts; mathematics became the standard for defining reality, and the phrase “theoretically impossible” became synonymous for impossible in reality, separating fact from fiction. I find this unbelievable. But the point becomes slightly more understandable when we broaden the discussion a bit and examine more closely the particular role of mathematics in all of this. And here, I turn to semiotic anthropology.

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My modest reading offensive also brought Izhtak Gilboa’s Rational Choice (2010) to my table. Gilboa – a third-generation RC scholar with basic training in mathematics – offers us a view of what I prefer to see as the ideology of mathematics in all its splendor and naiveté. Before I review his opinions, I hasten to add that Gilboa is quite critical of radical interpretations of Arrovian choice, including Game Theory, admitting that the complexity of real cases often defies the elegance of established theory, and that we should “keep in mind that even theoretically, we don’t have magic solutions” (2010: 85). Yet he declares himself a full blown adept of RC as a “paradigm, a system of thought, a way of organizing the world in our minds” (2010: 9). And this paradigm is encoded in mathematical language.

Gilboa expresses an unquestioned faith in mathematics, and he gives several reasons for this.

  1. Accuracy: Mathematics is believed to afford the most accurate way of formulating arguments. “The more inaccurate our theories are, and the more we rely on intuition and qualitative arguments, the more important is mathematical analysis, which allows us to view theories in more than one way” (20). Theories not stated in mathematical terms, thus, are suggested not to allow more than one way of viewing. Too bad for Darwin.
  2. Rigor: Mathematics brings order in the chaos. Such chaos is an effect of “intuitive reasoning” (29). Thus, mathematical formulations are rigorous, ordering modes of expressing elaborate conglomerates of facts, not prone to misunderstanding. They form the theoretical tools of research, bringing clear and unambiguous structure in fields of knowledge in ways not offered by “intuitive reasoning”. The latter is a curious category term, frequently used by Gilboa to describe, essentially, any form of knowledge construction that cannot yet be expressed in mathematical language.
  3. Superiority. This follows from (1) and (2). There is mathematics and there is the rest. The rest is muddled and merely serves to test the mathematical theory. Thus (and note the evolutionary discourse here, marked in italics), when a mathematical theoretical model is thrown into “more elaborate research”, such research may prove to be “too complicated to carry out, and we will only make do with intuitive reasoning. In this case we try to focus on the insights that we feel we understand well enough to be able to explain verbally, and independently of the specific mathematical model we started out with” (29). Non-mathematically expressed knowledge is obviously inferior to mathematically expressed knowledge: it is “intuitive”. Yet, it has its importance in theory testing: “mathematical analysis has to be followed by intuitive reasoning, which may sort out the robust insights from those that only hold under very specific assumptions” (ibid).
  4. Simplification: throughout the entire book, but actually throughout most of what we see in RC at large, there is a marked preference for mathematically expressed simplicity. Complex real-world problems are reduced to extremely simple hypothetical cases involving pairs or triplets, as when complex market transactions are reduced to two people bargaining in a game-theoretical example, or the three Spocks in Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem who are supposed to instantiate millions of voters or consumers in large-scale political and economic processes. Such mathematical simplifications often bear names – the Prisoners’ Paradox, Condorcet’s Paradox, the Pareto Optimality or the Von Neumann-Morgenstern Axioms – and are presented (be it with qualifications) as “laws” with universal validity. The simple cases of mathematical theory are proposed as accurate, rigorous and superior modes of describing (and predicting) complex realities.
  5. Psychological realism. Not only are the mathematical formulations accurate descriptive and predictive models of actual social realities, they are also an accurate reflection of human cognitive folk methods, even if people are not aware of it: “Statistics is used to estimate probabilities explicitly in scientific and nonscientific studies as well as implicitly by most of us in everyday life” (56-57). Gilboa as well as many other authors doing this kind of work have the amusing habit of describing people who apply the Von Neumann-Morgenstern Axioms in deciding where to take their holidays and experience very severe logical problems when their behavior violates the Prisoners’ Paradox or exhausts the limits of objective reasoning.
  6. Convincing-conclusive. Finally, Gilboa makes a somewhat curious point about “positive” versus “negative rhetoric”. Negative rhetoric consists of “tricks that make one lose the debate but for which one has good replies the morning after the debate”, while “positive rhetoric consists of devices that you can take from the debate and later use to convince others of what you were convinced of yourself. Mathematics is such a device” (19).

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The six features of Gilboa’s approach to mathematics are, I would argue, an ideology of mathematics. They articulate a socioculturally entrenched set of beliefs about mathematics as a scientific project. And while I am the first to express admiration for mathematics as a scientific tool which, indeed, allows a tremendous and unique parsimony, transparency and stability in notation, I think the broader ideology of mathematics needs to be put up for critical examination. For mathematics, here, is not presented as a scientific tool – call it “method” or even “methodology” – but as an ontology, a statement on how reality “really” is. We already encountered this earlier when I discussed the mystery of Arrow’s Theorem: no facts are “real” unless they can be expressed in mathematical, formal language. And to this, I intend to attach some critical reflections.

Let me first describe the ontology I detect in views such as the ones expressed by Gilboa, occasionally returning to Arrow’s first three assumptions mentioned earlier. I see two dimensions to it.

  1. Mathematics expressions are the Truth since mathematics represents the perfect overlap of facts and knowledge of facts. And this Truth is rationality: mathematical expressions are expressions of fundamental rationality, devoid of all forms of subjectivity and context-dependence. This enables mathematical expressions to be called “laws”, and to qualify such laws as eternal, universal, and expressions of extreme certainty and accuracy. Recall now Arrow’s second and third assumption: that science (i.e. mathematics) yields universal laws, and that reason is not culturally relative – since it can be described in a universal mathematical code.
  2. Mathematics as an ontology has both esoteric and practical dimensions, and these dimensions make it science. Concretely, mathematics is not something everyone can simply access because it is esoteric – see Fig 2 above for a graphic illustration – and it is practical because it can be applied, as a set of “laws” flawlessly describing and predicting states of reality, to a very broad range of concrete issues, always and everywhere.

Combined with the first point, mathematics as the (rational) Truth, we understand not just Arrow’s first assumption – that science is objective – but his wider (political) project as well. The scientific underpinning of a new social and political science had to be mathematic, because that was the way to avoid ideological, cultural or other forms of “subjectivity” which would make such a science “irrational”, and may lead it towards totalitarian realities. Mathematically stated laws (on any topic) are – so it is suggested – independent of the person formulating them or the place in the world from where they are formulated; their truth value is unconditional and unchallengeable; accepting them is not a matter of personal conviction or political preference, it is a matter of universal reason. This is why Gilboa found mathematics convincing and conclusive: confronted with mathematical proof, no reasonable person could deny the truth, for, as expressed by Gilboa, mathematical formulations reflected – esoterically – the folk reason present in every normal human being. And so we see the comprehensive nature of the ontology: mathematics describes human beings and by extension social life in a truthful, unchallengeable way.

It is at this last point – the “postulate of rationality” as it is known in RC – that this modern ideology of mathematics appears to have its foundations in Enlightenment beliefs about reason as fundamentally and universally human, and so deviates from older ideologies of mathematics. These are well documented, and there is no need here to review an extensive literature, for a key point running through this history is that mathematics was frequently presented as the search for the true and fundamental structure of nature, the universe and (if one was a believer) God’s creation. This fundamental structure could be expressed in rigorous symbolic operations: specific shapes, proportions, figures and relations between figures – they were expressed by means of abstract symbols that created the esoteric dimension of mathematics. Doing mathematics was (and continues to be) often qualified as the equivalent of being “a scientist” or “a wise man”, and if we remember Newton, the distinction between scientific mathematics and other esoteric occupations such as alchemy was often rather blurred.

It is in the age of Enlightenment that all human beings are defined as endowed with reason, and that mathematics can assume the posture of the science describing the fundamental features and structures of this uniquely human feature, as well as of the science that will push this unique human faculty forward. It is also from this period that the modern individual, as a concept, emerges, and the American Declaration of Independence is often seen as the birth certificate of this rational, sovereign individual. Emphasis on rationality very often walks hand in hand with methodological individualism, and this is not a coincidence.

Observe that this ideology of mathematics is pervasive, and even appears to be on the rise globally. Mathematics is, everywhere, an element of formal education, and universally seen as “difficult”. Training in mathematics is presented in policy papers as well as in folk discourse as the necessary step-up towards demanding professions involving rigorous scientific reasoning, and success or failure in mathematics at school is often understood as an effect of the success/failure to enter, through mathematics, a “different mode of thinking” than that characterizing other subjects of learning. Mathematics, in short, often serves as a yardstick for appraising “intelligence”.

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From the viewpoint of contemporary semiotic anthropology, this ideology of mathematics is just another, specific, language ideology: a set of socioculturally embedded and entrenched beliefs attached to specific forms of language use. The specific form of language use, in the case of mathematics, is a form of literacy, of writing and reading. So let us first look at that, keeping an eye on Figures 1 and 2 above.

Mathematics as we know it gradually developed over centuries as a separate notation system in which random symbols became systematic encoders of abstract concepts – quantities, volumes, relations. Hardcore believers will no doubt object to this, claiming that the notational aspect is just an “instrumental”, ancillary aspect and that the core of mathematics is a special form of reasoning, a special kind of cognitive process. They are wrong, since the notational system is the very essence of the cognitive process claimed to be involved, which is why mathematicians must use the notational systems, and why school children can “understand” quite precisely what they are being told in mathematics classes but fail their tests when they are unable to convert this understanding into the correct notation. Seeing knowledge as in se detached from its infrastructures and methods of production and transmission is tantamount to declaring the latter irrelevant – which begs the question as to why mathematics uses (and insists on the use of) a separate notation system. More on this below.

The system, furthermore, is a socioculturally marked one, and the evidence for that should be entirely obvious. Recall Figure 2. The mathematical notation system follows the left-to-right writing vector of alphabetical scripts (not that, for instance, of Arabic or Chinese); unless I am very much mistaken “written” mathematical symbols (as opposed to e.g. geometrical figures) are alphabetical and not, e.g. hieroglyphic, cuneiform or ideographic (like Chinese characters); and they are drawn from a limited number of alphabets, notably Greek and Latin alphabets. Just click the “special symbols – mathematical symbols” icon in your wordprocessor now for double-checking. In spite of historical influences from Ancient Egypt and Babylonia, the Arab world, India and China, 19th century codification and institutionalization of mathematics (like other sciences) involved the Europeanization of its conventions.

The system is separate in the sense that, in spite of its obvious origins, it cannot be reduced to the “ordinary” writing system of existing languages: the fact that the symbol “0” for “zero” is of Indian origins doesn’t make that symbol Sanskrit, just as the Greek origins of the symbol for “pi” do not load this symbol with vernacular Greek meanings; they are mathematical symbols. But it can be incorporated (in principle) in any such writing system – Figures 1 and 2 show incorporation in English, for instance – and translated, if you wish, in the spoken varieties of any language (something it shares with Morse code). The symbol “<” for instance, can be translated in English as “less/smaller than”. Figure 1 above shows how Arrow translates ordinary English terms into mathematical terms, and the language-ideological assumption involved here is that this translation involves perfect denotational equivalence (the symbols mean exactly what the words express), as well as a superior level of accuracy and generalizability (the concrete of ordinary language becomes the abstract-theoretical of mathematical notation – the words become concepts). Here, we see what language ideologies are all about: they are a synergy of concrete language forms with beliefs about what they perform in the way of meaning. Thus, the difference between ordinary writing and mathematical writing is the belief we have that the latter signals abstraction, theory, and superior accuracy (something for which logical positivism provided ample motivational rhetoric).

This notation system is, in contemporary anthropological vocabulary, best seen as a specialized graphic register. That means that it can be used for a limited set of specific written expressions, as opposed to an “ordinary” writing system in which, in principle, anything can be expressed. We see it in action in the way I just described – reformulating ordinary expressions into “concepts” – in Figure 1, while Figure 2 shows that the register can be used for entire “textual” constructions in the genre of “proof”. The register is parsimonious and, in that sense, efficient. Writing “125364” requires just six symbols; writing “one hundred and twenty-five thousand three hundred and sixty-four” demands almost ten times that number of symbols.

It is, as a graphic register, extremely normative; it is an “ortho-graphy”. Mathematics deploys a closed and finite set of standardized symbols that have to be used in rigorously uniform ways – the symbol “<” can never mean “more than”; both their individual meaning and the ways in which they can be syntactically combined are subject to uniform and rigid rules. Consequently, while in “ordinary” writing some errors do not necessarily distort the meaning of an expression (most people would understand that “I cam home” means “I came home”), a writing error in mathematical notation renders the expression meaningless. So many of us painfully experienced this in the mathematics classes we took: our understanding of the fundamentals of mathematics did not include any degree of freedom in choosing the ways to write it up, since mathematics is normative, orthographic notation. This, too, is part of its specialized nature as well as of its esoteric nature: mathematics must be acquired through disciplined – nonrandom and highly regimented – learning procedures, and knowledge of specific bits of the register are identity-attributive. Some mathematicians are specialists of calculus, others of logic, for instance, while the identity label of “genius” would be stuck on outstanding mathematicians of any branch.

That is the specific form of language we see in mathematics; the language-ideological values attributed to it are, like any other language ideology, sociocultural constructs that emerged, are consolidated and develop by observing socioculturally ratified rules and procedures; and these are (like any other sociocultural convention) highly sensitive to developments over time and place. Very few contemporary mathematicians would be ready to defend the claim that mathematics reveals the fundamental structure of God’s creation, for instance, but it is good to remember that this language-ideological value was once attached to it, and that the people who attached it to mathematics were profoundly convinced that this was what mathematics was all about. Similarly, not too many contemporary mathematicians would perceive alchemy as an occupation compatible with the scientific discipline of mathematics, while Isaac Newton appeared not to have too many doubts about that.

There is nothing eternal, absolute or undisputable to the language-ideological assumptions accompanying mathematics. The suggestion, as I noted a widespread one, that mathematics would involve a “different way of thinking” is a quite questionable one. It is a different way of writing, to which a specific set of language-ideological values are attached. Children who are “not good at mathematics” at school, probably have more of a literacy problem than of a cognitive one – let alone one of inferior intelligence.

And if we return to Gilboa’s six features above, we might perhaps agree that his first two features – accuracy and rigor – are intrinsic affordances of the specific register of mathematics (things mathematics indeed can do quite well). The third feature (superiority) is a belief probably shared by members of the community of mathematicians, but not per se demonstrable, quite the contrary. Because the fourth feature – simplification – points to a limitation of the register, i.e. the fact that not everything can be appropriately written in the code. Ordinary language writing offers an infinitely vaster set of affordances. It is, at this point, good to remind ourselves of the fact that abstraction involves “stripping down”, i.e. the deletion of features from a chunk of reality; that this deletion may touch essential features; and that this deletion is often done on the basis of unproven assumptions.

The fifth feature – psychological realism – cries out for evidence, and those familiar with (to name just one) Alexander Luria‘s 1920s research on modes of thought will be inclined to take a more sobering and prudent view on this topic. There is no reason why the fundamental structures of rationality would not be expressed, for example, in narrative-poetic patterns rather than in mathematical-logical ones. And as for the sixth feature – the conclusive nature of mathematical proof: this, I suppose, depends on whom one submits it to. If the addressee of a mathematical argument shares the ideological assumption that such an argument is conclusive, s/he will accept it; if not, submitting mathematical proof might be not more conclusive than singing a Dean Martin song.

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Language-ideological attributions are always sociocultural constructs, and therefore they are never unchallengeable and they can always be deconstructed. What we believe certain forms of language do, does not necessarily correspond to what they effectively do. There is, for example, a quite widely shared language-ideological assumption that grammatical, orthographic or other forms of “correctness” are strict conditions for understandability (“you can only make yourself understood if you speak standard language!”), while realities of human interaction show that tremendous largesse often prevails, without impeding relatively smooth mutual understanding. There is also a widespread language-ideological belief that societies are monolingual (think of the official languages specified in national legislations and, e.g., adopted by the EU), while in actual fact dozens of languages are being used. It is the job of my kind of anthropologists and sociolinguists to identify the gaps between facts and beliefs in this field.

Seen from that perspective, there is nothing in se that makes a mathematical proof more “objective” than, say, a poem (it is good to remember that in the Indian Vedic tradition, mathematical statements were written as sutra poetry, and that even today “elegance”, an aesthetic quality, appears to be a criterium for assessing mathematical proof). The status of “objectivity”, indeed the very meaning of that term, emerges by sociocultural agreement within specific communities, and none of the features of the register are in themselves and directly elements of “objectivity”. The notion of objectivity as well as the symbols that are proposed as “indexes” of objectivity, are all sociocultural constructs.

Paradoxically, thus, if we recall Kenneth Arrow’s extraordinarily far-reaching claims, the status of objectivity attributed to mathematics is a vintage Durkheimian “social fact”: something produced by societies and accepted by individuals for reasons they themselves often ignore – it’s a sociocultural convention wrapped, over time, in institutional infrastructures perpetuating and enforcing the convention (in the case of mathematics, the education system plays first violin here). Its power – hegemony we would say – does not turn it into an absolute fact. It remains perpetually challengeable, dynamic, an object of controversy and contention as well as a proposition that can be verified and falsified. Saying this is nothing more than stating the critical principles of science as an Enlightenment product, of re-search as literally meaning “search again” even if you believe you have discovered the laws of nature. These critical principles, we will recall, were the weapons used against religious and dictatorial (“irrational”) postures towards the Truth. They are the very spirit of science and the engine behind the development of sciences.

The intimate union between RC, mathematics, MI and the specific views of human nature and social action that were articulated in this movement, cannot escape this critique. Practitioners of this kind of science would do well to keep in mind that a very great number of their assumptions, claims and findings are, from the viewpoint of other disciplines involved in the study of humans and their societies, simply absurd or ridiculous. The axiomatic nature of rationality, the impossibility of collective choice and action, the preference for extraordinarily pessimistic views of human beings as potential traitors, thieves and opportunists – to name just these – are contradicted by mountains of evidence, and no amount of deductive theorizing can escape the falsifications entailed by this (inductive and not at all, pace Gilboa, “intuitive”) evidence.

MI, leading, as in Arrow’s work, to the refusal to compare individuals’ preferences and to isolate human beings from the complex patterns of interaction that make up their lives, is simply ludicrous when we consider, for instance, language – a system of shared normatively organized sociocultural codes (a “social fact”, once more) which is rather hard to delete from any consideration of what it is to be human or dismiss as a detail in human existence. Here we see how the “stripping down” involved in mathematical abstraction touches essential features of the object of inquiry, making it entirely unrealistic. We have also seen that the language in which such “truths” are expressed is, in itself, a pretty obvious falsification of MI and other RC asssumptions. And more generally, facts gathered through modes of science that Gilboa tartly qualifies as “intuitive reasoning” are also always evidence of something, and usually not of what is claimed to be true in RC.

Such critiques have, of course, been brought to RC scholars (an important example is Green & Shapiro 1994). They were often answered with definitional acrobatics in which, for instance, the concept of “rationality” was stretched to the point where it included almost everything, so as to save the theory (but of course, when a term is supposed to mean everything it effectively means nothing). Other responses included unbearably complex operations, attempting to keep the core theory intact while, like someone extending his/her house on a small budget, adding makeshift annexes, windows, rooms and floors to it, so as to cope with the flurry of exceptions and unsolvable complexities raised against it. I found, for instance, Lindenberg’s “method of decreasing abstraction” (1992) particularly entertaining. Recognizing the complexity of real-world issues, and aiming (as anyone should) at realism in his science, Lindenberg constructs a terrifically Byzantine theoretical compound in which the scientist gradually moves away from simple and rigid mathematical formulations towards less formal and more variable formulations  – hence “decreasing abstraction” or “increasing closeness to reality” (Lindenberg 1992: 3). He thus achieves, through admirably laborious theoretical devotion, what any competent anthropologist achieves in his/her fieldnotes at the end of a good day of ethnographic fieldwork.

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This brings me to a final point. Mathematics is a formal system, and a peripheral language-ideological attribution it carries is that of “theory”. Theory, many people believe, must be abstract, and whatever is abstract must be theoretical. People working in the RC paradigm like to believe that (theoretical) “generalization” in science can only be done through, and is synonymous with, abstraction – mathematical expression in formulas, theorems, or statistical recipes.

In dialogues with such people, it took me a while before I detected the cause of the perpetual misunderstandings whenever we tried to talk about issues of generalization and theorization across disciplines, for we were using the same words but attached them to entirely different cultures of interpretation. Their culture was usually a deductive one, in which theory came first and facts followed, while mine operated precisely the other way around. I had to remind them of the existence of such different cultures, and that their view of theoretical generalization – necessarily through abstraction – was an idiosyncrasy not shared by the majority of scientific disciplines.

Theoretical statements are, in their essence, general statements, i.e. statements that take insights from concrete data (cases, in our culture of interpretation) to a level of plausible extrapolation. Since every case one studies is only a case because it is a case of something – an actual and unique instantiation of more generally occurring phenomena – even a single case can be “representative” of millions of other cases. This generalization is always conjectural (something even hardliners from the other camp admit) and demands further testing, in ever more cases. I usually add to this that this method – a scientific one, to be sure – is actually used by your doctor whenever s/he examines you. Your symptoms are always an actual (and unique) instantiation of, say, flu or bronchitis, and your doctor usually concludes the diagnosis on the basis of plausible extrapolation: although s/he can never be 100% sure, the combination of symptoms a, b and c strongly suggests flu. If the prescribed medicine works, this hypothesis is proven correct; if not, the conjectural nature of this exercise is demonstrated. Unless you want to see your doctor as a quack or an alchemist who can’t possibly speak the truth (which would make it highly irrational to go and see him/her when you’re ill), it may be safe to see him/her as an inductive scientist working from facts to theory and usually doing a pretty accurate job at that.

People who believe that mathematics, and only mathematics, equals science, are in actual fact a small but vocal and assertive minority in the scientific community. If they wish to dismiss, say, 70% of what is produced as science as “unscientific”, they do so at their peril (and sound pretty unscientific, even stupid, when they do so). That includes Mr Popper too. The question “what is science?” is answered in very many forms, as a sovereign rational choice of most of its practitioners. Enforcing the preferences of one member of that community, we heard from Kenneth Arrow, is dictatorial. And since we believe that science is an elementary ingredient of a free and democratic society, and that pluralism in reasoned dialogue, including in science, is such an elementary element as well – we really don’t want that, do we?

References

AMADAE, Sonja, N. (2003) Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

ARROW, Kenneth (1951) Social Choice and Individual Values. New York: Wiley (2nd ed. 1963).

GILBOA, Itzhak (2010) Rational Choice. Cambridge MA: MIT Press

GREEN, Donald & Ian SHAPIRO (1994) Pathologies of Rational Choice: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. New Haven: Yale University Press

LINDENBERG, Siegwart (1992) The Method of Decreasing Abstraction. In James S. Coleman & Thomas J. Fararo (eds.) Rational Choice Theory: Advocacy and Critique: 3-20. Newbury Park: Sage.

THALER, Richard A. (2015) Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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Clashing scales of Brexit

Eriksen's blog

Mainstream newspapers, politicians and commentators across Europe instantly expressed dejection and bitterness in the face of the Brexit outcome, and avid Brexiteers have typically been portrayed as xenophobes and bigots, Little Englanders or foolish opportunists incapable of understanding the dangerous ramifications and likely Domino effects of their choice. This view is overbearing and inaccurate: complaints about Brussels may be perfectly legitimate, and it is thought-provoking that only right-wing populists have been able to listen to them. As a matter of fact, Brexiteers come in different shades, including leftists and radical humanists who are disappointed with the total marketisation of Europe, alienating standardisation resulting from centralism and the failure to deal with the refugee crisis in a coordinated, dignified and humane way. (Jan Blommaert has written well about this.) Besides, a different perspective may be more enlightening and constructive, not only in shedding light on Brexit, but also in identifying…

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The post-Brexit blues

ScreenHunter_107 Jun. 24 13.01

Jan Blommaert

So Britain voted on June 23, 2016 to leave the European Union. It did so by a narrow margin, which means that the polity has been broken up, probably for a while, into highly antagonized factions. Most observers focus on the Scottish demand to hold an independence referendum, and on Sinn Fein’s call to reunite Ireland. But with an almost 50-50 vote, one can assume that divisions now run through any town, factory, pub and street in Britain – including in the heartland of the “Leave” campaign, England, where London (to name just one) voted overwhelmingly in favor or remaining in the EU. The United Kingdom appears quite disunited today, and the stiff upper lip appears to have been repalaced by a trembling lower lip.

Here are some reflections.

  1. The British referendum is just the last in a very long sequence of referenda, held in different member states since the Maastricht Treaty, in which whatever “pro-EU” camp was defeated. The EU seems to always lose as soon as the opinion of the masses is sought. The EU has a systematic, chronic and increasingly painful problem of legitimacy with its inhabitants.
  2. This problem is not caused by the resistance of national chauvinisms and xenophobic totemism alone, even if the media invariably reach consensus over that factor, sometimes even before people have voted. There are now several branches of anti-EU politics. One is the Farage-Wilders in principle opposition to any form of control which is not dominated by national chauvinism. Another, increasingly widespread now, is Euro-criticism on social and ideological grounds. The latter remains badly underexposed in media commentary and prima facie analysis. But it is resistance against the concrete neoliberal-and-austerity orthodoxy imposed by the EU on member states (with varying degrees of brutality) that animates the demonstrations and strikes in France, Spain, Greece, Belgium and other member states, and that has pushed anti-austerity parties such as Podemos and Syriza into electoral prominence. Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership must also be seen in that light.
  3. While the framing in media reports and analyses of such modes of protests is overwhelmingly national – Podemos is a Spanish problem, the general strikes a French one – the nature of these protests is transnational. It is protest against the EU, by many millions of its citizens. People in Madrid, Paris, Athens, London and Brussels protest against precisely the same measures, taken, each time in similar ways, by their national governments (who often defend themselves by pointing upwards to the EU as the bully).
  4. So when Farage wins an election, this is presented as a European issue, while a Podemos victory is presented as a Spanish one. This framing is called “erasure”.
  5. Undoubtedly, the rejection of the EU by more than half of the British electorate will partly be motivated by national chauvinism and xenophobia; but in all likelihood more and more complex reasons must have prompted people to reject the EU. Voters who rejected the EU also include those who resented the EU-enforced neoliberal austerity – an issue that already dominated the last general election in the UK.
  6. Typical in this respect was Farage’s pledge that leaving the EU would release many millions of Pounds to be invested in the NHS. Farage played into an apprently widely shared feeling in the electorate (and not just in Britain) that the current economic crisis demands a strengthening of welfare-state systems, rather than its continued restriction. The fact that the first thing Farage did after his “victory” was to qualify this pledge as somewhat of a joke will be a hangover for many Leave-voters.
  7. I put scare quotes around “victory”, because the question as to who actually won is hard to answer. David Cameron obviously lost, and will probably go down in British history as a PM of exceptional incompetence, arrogance and poor judgment (in a highly competitive field, I add). Nigel Farage’s political future is precarious for the simple reason that he has achieved the one political goal he had set for himself and his party. That achievement, alas, involves now relinquishing the exceedingly generously remunerated European mandates he currently holds. And Boris Johnson? After months of exuberant expressions of his most extreme disgust of the EU and what it stood for, he had to tone down as soon as the results became known, and now mumbles that Britain is not in a hurry to implement his glorious Brexit.
  8. Johnson probably has come to understand now that the Brexit victory has placed him – the next PM, no doubt – in a very weak and vulnerable position negotiating the modalities of the UK’s exit with the EU. One important chip – EU membership itself – is off the table now. It would have been much easier for him if his camp had been narrowly defeated. Cameron could then make journey upon journey to Brussels demanding even more privileges and opt-outs for the UK while the country remained a member state. And while Boris could quietly prepare his campaign to succeed Cameron in Downing Street number 10.
  9. In addition, his party has been split, his country is deeply divided by an issue which has proven to be acutely emotional, and Scotland might demand (or declare) independence when the coming referendum demands it (followed by EU membership for Scotland). And the entire political and media field has found a big new issue that may make or break careers and win or lose elections: the way the UK manages its relationship with the EU. Johnson likes Churchill (in fact, he probably believes he is Churchill). The Brexit referendum might be Johnson’s own little Second World War, concluded with a resounding victory and later converted into several eloquent chapters in his autobiography. And followed by the end of his political career, and of the Britain he stood for. If politics is waged at such elevated levels of destructive populism, politicians can’t possibly be winners.

Yet there are winners, for in the meantime, it’s business as usual. The Pound has dropped quite badly against the Dollar, and the financial markets are in turmoil worldwide. That means that smart speculators somewhere are making mega-bucks. Apart from wars or 9/11-type attacks, nothing is better for financial high-risk players than a major political upset in an important country. In that sense, at least some people may be very happy and grateful to Johnson and Farage.

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