The Standard Model of the Social-Historical Universe, by Jonathan Ned Katz

First published on OutHistory, August 2, 2022
Last edit: January 18, 2022, 10:00 AM ET
This version of The Standard Model is addressed to general reaaders.

Yes, I agree, calling this brief essay “The Standard Model of the Social-Historical Universe” is grandiose in the extreme. The title is intended to draw attention to and stimulate critical, constructive discussion of these ideas.

Less provocatively, the ideas outlined describe a worldview. We all have worldviews, ideas about how the world works, its structure, parts, operation, and the role of humans in that world. Our worldviews are conscious or unconscious, developed or amorphous. In this condensed opinion piece, in language intended for general readers as well as scholars, I aim to make my own worldview explicit.

This abstract conceptual model pictures human society as a productive order, the product, over time, of the actions of particular humans who necessarily act as individuals and as members of specific social classes, groups with more or less control of means of effective action.

This model proposes a particular vision of the human social world, its basic parts, structure, and interrelationships. It suggests a general map of the social and historical universe, a framework for analyzing historically specific societies. It stresses that the power to realize an individual's aims resides in that person's control over effective means of action. 

I stress that, though we often perceive a corporation, government, military, police force, or group as acting, those entities are collections of particular human beings, acting on their aims, and attempting to realize their goals based on their access to and control over particular means of acting. So it is particular human actors who are always  responsible for the actions of corporations, governments, classes, or groups. It is particular human actors who are responsible for making the human world the way it is. It is always particular human actors who set the corporation, government, military, police force, or group in action.

The Standard Model’s Elementary Parts
1       Human actors
2       Their aims
3       The materials on which they act
4       Their means of acting
5       Their actions’ space
6       Their actions’ time
7       Their actions
8       Their actions’ product
9       Their actions’ organization.
10     The relationships of the above parts to each other

A Few Words About Each of This Model’s Parts
1       Actors
Human actors are listed first in this model since humans initiate the actions that shape our worlds. I stress the active role of particular human beings because, often now, newspapers report that a company, government, school board, union, or company acted. To be sure, specific human actors always act on their own aims and as members of human collectivities – armies, bureaucracies, classes, companies, governments, income groups, mobs, political parties, school boards, towns, cities, states, nations, neighborhoods, races, religions, sexes, sexualities, and genders. These collective actors are animated by the individuals composing them, and the means of effective action those individuals control.

2       Aims
The aims of human actors include (1) fact judgments (this exists, this does not exist; this is true, this false; this may or may not be the case depending on our evaluation of the evidence). Aims also include (2) value judgments (this is good, this bad; this is better, this worse; this should exist, this should cease). In addition, aims include (3) emotions (this feels joyful, this sad; this hurts, this feels good; this provokes anger, this love; this alarms, this calms). The subjective aims of particular actors are an inseparable, essential, necessary part of every human action, every product of that action, and every human productive order.

3       Materials
The materials on which actors act are picked by humans from nature or previously made by humans. These materials are objective, external things and subjectively held fact and value judgments, and feelings.

4       Means
Means of action include their actors’ bodies and means of acting external to their bodies. Subjective means of action, means of thinking, produce fact and value judgments, and feelings. Some means are more effective than others in achieving particular human ends. Classes of humans are distinguished by their ability to determine the use of effective means of action. Which humans control the use of specific, effective means of acting largely determines their ability to accomplish their ends. Means of action are therefore means of power. How humans organize and distribute among themselves the use of effective means of action largely determines how power is distributed in historically specific societies.

5       Space
Every human action is site-specific; every actor and action occurs in a particular location; actors and their acts always inhabit particular geographic positions, particular spatial contexts.

6       Time
Every human action is time-specific; every actor and action occurs at a particular time and takes a particular amount of time. Acts occur within a particular chronological sequence, in temporal relation to other acts. Time is understood and calculated in historically changing human ways.

7       Actions
Humans’ acts express some aim, use some material, employ some more or less effective means, occur at a particular time, are located in a specific space, create some result, and are organized in a specific way. Actors’ acts affect other actors’ acts and all the basic parts of the action process, the action system.

8       Products
The products, effects, or results of humans’ actions occur in the objective world outside us and in our internal, subjective human consciousness. The products of human action confront us as conditions that help us realize our ends or hinder the accomplishment of our goals.

9       Organization
Actors’ acts are organized by humans in particular historical ways, as, for example, the acts of nobles and serfs, slave owners and slaves, company owners and wage workers, office workers or factory workers, as men’s work or women’s labor. All human activity is organized or structured according to historically specific systems the character of which profoundly affects our lives.

10     Relationships
The multiple relationships of this model’s parts suggest the complexity of the proposed framework which may not at first be apparent. These relationships include, for example, Actor A to actor B; actor A to their own aim; Actor A to Actor B’s aim; actor A to their own material; actor A to actor B’s material; actor A to their own means of action; actor A to actor B’s means, etc.  

I present here a general, comprehensive way of analyzing and understanding the operation of our own and other societies.

I offer a universal theory to be used in illuminating historically specific societies and to enable the comparison of their parts.

I understand that the usefulness of this Standard Model will only be realized in practice, in the analysis of historically specific societies, and in clarifying comparisons between them.

I posit a general theory of human action in which control over the effective means of action is central to our understanding of particular social-historical systems.

I formulate a theory of power as constituted by the control over the use of particular, effective means of action.

I suggest that objective, material conditions, subjective fact and value judgments, and feelings all play essential, necessary roles in any human action system, any human productive order.

I suggest that human society as such is a constructed, productive order, an economy. Consumption and distribution are forms of productive human activity. Lawyers, politicians and judges produce laws, politics and decisions. Intellectuals produce ideas. Cultural workers produce culture. Subjective human consciousness is produced in the course of objective human activity.

Though I’ve appropriated the term “standard model” from physicists, no similarity is suggested between the physical and social worlds. The physical world operates according to the rules of physics, the social world operates according to rules made by humans.

There is much more to be said, of course. The basic ideas are only briefly outlined. I hope that this condensed statement will jumpstart discussion.

The History of These Ideas
The first glimmer of these ideas occurred around 1960 after I read Karl Marx’s Capital and numbers of Marxist historians and had a sudden revelation: Marx and Marxists envisioned human society as such as a productive order, organized in essentially different, historical ways. The Marxist analysis of feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, for example, pictured each of those societies as different “modes of production,” positing a universal theory applying to the analysis of different social-historical systems. Marx and Marxists envisioned human society itself is an economy, a productive order. Capitalist society certainly distinguishes between an “economy” of acts directly productive of private profit and a separate sector of acts not directly contributing to profit-making (political, legal, cultural, intellectual acts, the activity of child-rearing and family life). But the Marxist worldview, applying as it does to different ways of ordering human creativity, sees all of human society as an economy, an organization of human activity productive of particular results. In formulating this understanding of a Marxist worldview, I reject as simplistic and mechanical any concept of a “material economic base” and an immaterial(?), non-economic (?) “superstructure.” I consider my formulation of The Standard Model to express ideas implicit in any complex Marxist analysis of human history’s radically different production systems. I consider the Standard Model an orthodox revision of Marxist ideas.

In papers at conferences of historians, I first tried to publicly express my understanding of the basic parts, structure, and relationships of society as a productive order. This was first expressed as a way of understanding the organization of human sexual activity. After each presentation, I felt I had not communicated the usefulness or value of the worldview I had presented or why it so interested and excited me.

"The Political Economy of Pleasure: Toward a Theory of the Historical Organization of Erotic Activity, with Special Reference to Heterosexuality," was first delivered at Harvard University, in 1990, at the 4th Annual Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference. A version was next presented at the LGBT history section of the annual conference of the American Historical Association, in 1990; at SUNY-Buffalo; in 1991; at the New York Institute for the Humanities, in 1991; at Penn State in 1992; at the University of New Hampshire in 1992; and at Carleton College, in 1994.

My ideas were substantially revised and published on on February 2, 2016. It is available at: Envisioning the World We Make, Social-Historical Construction, a Model, a Manifesto, 1 Introduction

Tags: Action Theory (Talcott Parsons, etc.); Activity Theory; Cultural-Historical Activity Theory