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Jonathan Ned Katz: Envisioning the World We Make, Social-Historical Construction, a Model, a Manifesto, 3 Conclusion

3  Conclusion
This little essay on a Big Idea – actually, a number of enormous ideas – seeks to communicate a general vision of the world that I’ve found useful. This world-concept has informed my empirical historical research and my interpreting of evidence. This vision starts with hypotheses about the social-historical world, those propositions constitute a theory, and the theory constitutes a model of the social construction process. In this social-historical construction manifesto I’ve tried to say just enough about each basic element of the model to suggest that element’s analytical usefulness. The basic elements of the model are: 1) Constructors, 2) Aims, 3) Materials, 4) Means, 5) Time, 6) Space, 7) Acts, 8) Constructs, 9) Relationships, and 10) Modes of Construction.

In taking on so many large issues I’ve dared to generalize in a way that the great sociologist C. Wright Mills mocked as “Grand Theory,” theorizing so abstract, so general, it was useless for understanding specific, historical societies and their pressing issues.[1] But the particular grand theory offered here, I claim, expresses a simple idea whose creative application, can help to illuminate historically particular worlds.

*In summary, then, this theory posits a model of different, changing, historical ways of ordering the human making of the human world. It offers a universal theory of human society as a tool to clarify the historically specific character of particular societies.

*As an instrument for understanding different, historically specific human worlds, it’s also a tool for comparative, transnational and cross-cultural analyses of particular social formations. Comparative social-historical analysis requires a macro model to illuminate differences and similarities between the particular social worlds compared.

*It’s a theory about society as a whole; it posits a world-view, so it’s holistic -- totalizing in aspiration, but not totalitarian. It’s not meant to be recited as dogma, but used creatively as analytical instrument, subject to revision. While we do need deep, detailed, close-up, microscopic studies of particular constructors, their means, acts, and constructs, we also need a clear, macroscopic overview to contextualize their historically specific acts. If two World Wars did not demonstrate our need for a clear world-view, global warming, and the global convulsions of today’s global economy necessitates a clear global vision.[2]

*It’s a structural theory about the changing, historical, institutional arrangements of humans, aims, materials, means, actions, relationships, and action systems. But structures in this theory don’t function, act, or determine apart from the humans placed strategically and acting within them, controlling the use of particular means.[3]

*This model proposes a theory of human action as constructive of historically specific social worlds: those societies are ways of ordering human action.[4]

*This theory of action points to control over means of acting as crucial to the realizing of human aims. It suggests that control over a particular society’s most influential means of construction provides different classes of humans different degrees of power to realize their ends.

*As a theory of means, it’s also a theory of power, a hypothesis that the power of particular individuals and groups derives from their control of particular, historically specific, influential means of action and construction.[5]

*As a theory of power it’s also a theory of the human determining of the social-historical world. It posits that each historical mode of construction, each ordering of humans and means of action, constitutes a different, human-made determinism. Today’ struggle to extend democracy beyond a limited “political” realm to the “economy” is also a struggle to create a society governed by a transparent, democratic, determinism.  

*It’s a theory of human agency that contests our current mystified perception that we are subject to blind, non-human “mechanisms,” “forces” or “powers,” a perception in which the acts of powerful individuals and classes have disappeared.

*As a model of human agency it’s also a humanistic theory. But it’s not a humanism that denies different individuals’ and groups’ specific characters and powers.

*It’s a theory about the simultaneously objective and subjective character of the human-made world. It refers to action in the world external to human actors; it refers to action occurring internally, in the minds and psyches of human actors.

*This theory posits a basic, qualitative difference between the nature-made world and the human-created universe. To the extent that we humans impact the natural world it ceases to be natural, it becomes social. In contrast to human-independent nature, the constructs of the social world are human-dependent -- they cease to exist if we fail to reproduce them.

*It’s a theory that makes claims about the basic character of the social-historical world. And it provides a general conceptual framework, a standard model, for understanding that world.

*Finally, it’s a theory of social and historical continuity and discontinuity, stasis and movement. It suggests that both stability and radical social changes are created by the actions of people making imaginative use of means. So it’s also a theory of politics, and the possibility of creating a freer, more just, equal, democratic socialist  world.

As a conceptual, investigative tool, an “ideal type,” this abstract, schematic model, explicated in a few pages, is not meant to do justice to the messy, changing, infinite complexity of actual, empirical societies. Only the creative application of this model in empirical research will tell if this tool provides revelatory analyses of the social-historical worlds we make.[6]

Next: Bibliography
 
Notes
[1] C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press, December 31, 1959), Chapter 2, “Grand Theory,” 25-49.

[2] On social world-views see: Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (NY Russell Sage Foundation, 1984); and Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. (New York: Academic Press, 1974); and Wallerstein’s other works on world systems.

[3] Structural and functional theories are discussed by Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (University of California Press, 1984), xxvi-xxvii, xxxum 1, 228-29, 303, 361.

[4] Though it seems obvious to me that Marxism qualifies as a major theory of human action, I don’t know of any work explicitly developing Marxism as a theory of action. A Marxist theory of action certainly differs from action theories formulated by others. See, for example Max Weber, “The Nature of Social Action,” pages 7-32 in Max Weber: Selections in Translation. Edited by W. G. Runciman, translated by E. Matthews (Cambridge University Press, 1978; online edition: January 2011). Marxism as a theory of action certainly differs from the theories of action offered by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons and free market economist Ludwig von von Mises in stressing the unequal distribution among humans of access to means of action. See: Talcott Parsons in The Structure of Social Action, Volume 1: Marshal, Pareto, Durkheim, and Volume II: Weber (McGraw-Hill 1937); Talcott Parsons, The Social System (The Free Press, 1951); Talcott Parsons & Edward Shils, eds., Toward a General Theory of Action (Harvard University Press, 1951); Talcott Parsons, Robert F. Bales & Edward A. Shils, eds., Working Papers in The Theory of Action  (The Free Press, 1953); Talcott Parsons & Neil J. Smelser, Economy and Society (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956); and Talcott Parsons, Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory (The Free Press, 1977).  Ludwig von Mises published Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, The Scholars Edition (September 14, 1949; latest edition Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998). Recent theories of action have been offered by John Levi Martin, The Explanation of Social Action (Oxford University Press, August 11, 2011), and Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam, A Theory of Fields (Oxford University Press, 2012), described as “a general theory of social organization and strategic action.”

[5] Michel Foucault formulates a very different idea of power see The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, An Introduction, translated by Robert Hurley (Random House, 1978), 90-91, 92-93.

[6] This model is an “ideal type”: see Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences, translated and edited by Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch (The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois, 1949), 90; accessed on November 4, 2015 from https://archive.org/stream/maxweberonmethod00webe/maxweberonmethod00webe_djvu.txt