Max Weber, Bernie Sanders, and a difficult revolution

Why not have more sociological theory applied to the 2016 election? Here is one application of Weber’s ideas to Bernie Sander’s chances for starting a revolution:

Max Weber, the great sociologist best remembered for coining the phrase “Protestant work ethic,” would have loved Sunday’s Democratic debate. Leaving aside the sad and quixotic figure of Martin O’Malley, the two main contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders perfectly illustrated a distinction Weber made in his classic 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation.” In that essay, Weber distinguished between two different ethical approaches to politics, an “ethics of moral conviction” and an “ethics of responsibility.”

Sanders is promoting an “ethics of moral conviction” by calling for a “political revolution” seeking to overthrow the deeply corrupting influence of big money on politics by bringing into the system a counterforce of those previously alienated, including the poor and the young. Clinton embodies the “ethics of responsibility” by arguing that her presidency won’t be about remaking the world but trying to preserve and build on the achievements of previous Democrats, including Obama.

The great difficulty Sanders faces is that given the reality of the American political system (with its divided government that has many veto points) and also the particular realities of the current era (with an intensification of political polarization making it difficult to pass ambitious legislation through a hostile Congress and Senate), it is very hard to see how a “political revolution” could work.

Read Weber’s piece here and a summary here. As I skim through the original piece, it is a reminder of Weber’s broad insights as well as his occasional interest in addressing current conditions (political unrest in Germany). Wouldn’t Weber suggest that either Sanders needs (1) a ridiculous amount of charisma (which he has to some degree to come this far in politics) and/or (2) unusually large-scale support from the public in order to counter the power of  existing government? Reaching either objective this time around may prove too difficult…

The decline of sociological interest in rural areas

While addressing rural poverty, this article discusses why sociologists pay more attention to cities:

American disinterest in the poverty of its own pastoral lands can be traced across the Atlantic Ocean and back several hundred years to the origins of social sciences in academia. The rise of these disciplines coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the mass migration of peasants from the country into cities. As an effect of these circumstances, the leading theorists of the era—Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber—were primarily concerned with living conditions in cities and industrializing societies, setting the foundation for the metro-centrism that continues to characterize the social sciences.

“In academia, there’s an urban bias throughout all research, not just poverty research. It starts with where these disciplines origins—they came out of the 1800’s—[when] theorists were preoccupied with the movement from a rural sort of feudal society to a modern, industrial society,” Linda Lobao, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University, tells Rural America In These Times. “The old was rural and the feudal and the agricultural and the new was the industry and the city.”

Similarly, the advent of the study of poverty in sociology departments across the United States during the Progressive Era centered nearly exclusively on the metropolis. In the 1920s and 1930s, the University of Chicago’s influential School of Sociology utilized the city of Chicago as a laboratory for the development of the discipline. According to an article published in Annual Review of Sociology by sociologists Ann Tickamyer and Silvia Duncan, poverty in the city was “one of the many social pathologies associated with urbanization, mass immigration, and industrialization”—issues that were at the heart of the Progressive movement.

Lobao explains that around the same time there arose a “small,” but “vibrant” contingent of rural sociologists at Penn State, University of Wisconsin Madison, Cornell, Ohio State and University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. But the role of rural sociology, she says, has remained perpetually marginalized, a “residual category” outside of the mainstream discourse. Today, it is not uncommon to see rural sociologists placed into colleges of agriculture, where corporations like Monsanto rule, rather than sociology departments—pushing them further into the recesses of the social sciences.

American sociologists have a number of blind spots and this one is when I’m aware of as an urban sociologist. While the founders of sociology were not primarily focused on cities, many of the changes they observed were based on urbanization. Marx, Durkheim, and Weber wrestled with the changes from agrarian societies to city-based industrialized systems. The first major sociology programs in the United States – places like Chicago, Columbia, and Harvard – tended to be in or near large cities and this still holds true today. This all happened as the United States rapidly transitioned in 100 years from a rural country in the early 1900s to a society where more than 80% of the population lives in metropolitan areas. What’s left behind? Those places further away from the major research schools – which I would argue also includes suburbs – that sociologists find less exciting and tend to generalize about.

There are occasional counterexamples to the urban focus of American sociology. For example, see Robert Wuthnow’s 2013 book on rural America.

Applying Weber’s concept of disenchantment to Jurassic World

A journalist suggests Weber’s “disenchantment” could explain a world where scientists create new dinosaurs:

Yet the Indominus Rex’s business necessity is itself born of a spiritual void arguably endemic to capitalism itself. If “Jurassic Park” owes its ancestry to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there’s a straight line between “Jurassic World” and Max Weber, the early 20th century German thinker whose celebrated 1917 lecture “Science As A Vocation” is one of the source texts for an important sociological concept known as “disenchantment.”

“Disenchantment” is the process through which empiricism replaces mysticism as an organising and motivating principle for both individuals and society at large. For Weber, the rise of capitalism meant that the rigors of daily existence started to find meaning through earthly and numerable concerns, rather than through one’s relation to an ineffable metaphysical power. In a sense, disenchantment is shorthand for the victory of the market over religion…

This is the movie about the moral, spiritual, and economic crisis of boredom at a dinosaur park. The crisis is not as far-fetched as it seems. We’re in the era where the Lourve, repository of the some of the world’s most sublime artistic accomplishments, isn’t immune from the selfie stick plague. There are now classes dedicated to taking Instagram photos of food. Look at all these people with their smart-phones out as Nationals pitching demigod Max Scherzer closed in on a (tragically blown) perfect game on June 20th. Layers of distraction and disenchantment separate people from even the rarest and most spectacular of events, even when they’re unfolding directly in front of them…

The movie is a kind of sly meta-joke about the traditional entertainment industry’s finely-honed ability to shovel as much brand identification and fan service down audiences’ throats as is humanly possible. The Indominus Rex — really just a larger, more violent version of “Jurassic Park’s” T-Rex — embodies the soul-deadening, almost self-destructive character of an industry whose primary commercial readout seems to be monstrous retreads. It’s a movie about the movies’ failure to impress audiences, and those audience’s enduring inability to be impressed by anything that’s genuinely new.

And that is why we continue to read and teach Max Weber in sociology courses from the introductory level to graduate school. If this was the subject of an end-of-the-semester research paper in a theory course, it could end up being pretty good. As noted here, Weber saw some of the benefits of capitalism and modernity but was pretty prescient regarding its consequences. Even critiques of the system – such as this film which highlights the downsides of science and progress – still have to play by the same rules, meaning that it has to sell to the mass public to be considered a “success.”

Myers-Briggs not scientifically valid but offers space for self-reflection, ideal types

Critics argue the Myers-Briggs Personality Test doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny:

The obvious criticism of this test is that it’s based on dichotomies. Are you perceiving or judging? Introverted or extroverted? You must choose. This reeks of pseudo-science. Of course, most of us don’t fall clearly on one side or the other. When the specific introvert vs. extrovert duality was a hot topic a few years ago, many writers persuasively argued against reducing socialization patterns to a simplistic either/or. Indeed, reams of psychological literature debunks MBTI as wildly inconsistent—many people will test differently within weeks—and over reliant on polarities. For instance, someone can certainly be both deeply thinking and feeling, and we all know folks who appear to be neither. “In social science, we use four standards: are the categories reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive? For the MBTI, the evidence says not very, no, no, and not really,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote in Psychology Today after reviewing all the science on MBTI. It’s pretty damning.

But the same journalist admits she still finds the test useful:

Any means for busy adults to take time to comprehend ourselves and see how our styles converge and diverge from others has a use—and more honestly, it’s fascinating. So while I remain skeptical of MBTI’s accuracy and I don’t think the test should be given to children and then treated like a blueprint for their future life, I’m optimistic about its potential to make us feel less alone and less hamstrung by our imperfections. A smart aleck might observe drily that this idealistic conclusion was foreordained: “how typically ENFP of you.” Guilty as charged.

So perhaps the Myers-Briggs is only helpful in that it gives people an excuse to engage in self-reflection. Is self-reflection only possible today (and not viewed as indulgent or unnecessary) when given a pseudo-scientific veneer?

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant gives two reasons Myers-Briggs has been so popular:

Murphy Paul argues that people cling to the test for two major reasons. One is that thousands of people have invested time and money in becoming MBTI-certified trainers and coaches. As I wrote over the summer, it’s awfully hard to let go of our big commitments. The other is the “aha” moment that people experience when the test gives them insight about others—and especially themselves. “Those who love type,” Murphy Paul writes, “have been seduced by an image of their own ideal self.” Once that occurs, personality psychologist Brian Little says, raising doubts about “reliability and validity is like commenting on the tastiness of communion wine. Or how good a yarmulke is at protecting your head.”

Perhaps this “ideal self” concept could be analogous to Max Weber’s ideal types. Social scientists do a lot of categorizing as they empirically observe the social world but it can be difficult (Weber suggests pretty much impossible) to exhaustively describe and explain social phenomena. Ideal types can provide analytical anchors that may not be often found in reality but provide a starting point. Plus, using ideal types of personality might help give individuals something to aspire to.

The benefits of institutions over charismatic authority for evangelicals

American evangelicals may often prize celebrity pastors and figures but sociologist and college president Michael Lindsay argues institutions provide more lasting impact:

Weber distinguished between different kinds of authority. Traditional authority is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority is what President Obama has. You’re on top of a major bureaucracy, and that’s how you get things done. And then there’s charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had. It’s the authority that Jesus had. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.

But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized; in other words, it has to be channeled into an institutional form. The authority of a charismatic individual has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, for instance, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, his ministry will continue. Charles Colson died two years ago. But much of his work is continuing in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.

So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.

Charismatic leaders are rare and it can often be difficult to take the better things they do and imbue that into institutions. Yet, institutions can have incredible staying power and operate at a broader level of society.

While evangelicals may be showing more interest in institutions, such a viewpoint rubs against the typical evangelical tendency toward individualism. The charismatic leader can fit the American story of working hard and making something of oneself. The attractive leader can pull in individuals through new technologies as evangelicals effectively used the ascending radio and television scenes. (Interestingly, I’ve seen much less about evangelicals effectively harnessing the Internet for their ends. Perhaps such an analysis can come with time.) Appealing to institutions requires both leaders and adherents to turn their focus more to the communal than their own interests. This is a difficult switch, particularly in certain areas like Smith and Emerson demonstrate in Divided By Faithwith the inability for white evangelicals to beyond the individual to the social dimensions of race in America.

“Normal accidents” and black swans in the complex systems of today

A sociological idea about the problems that can arise in complex systems is related to Taleb’s ideas of black swans:

This near brush with nuclear catastrophe, brought on by a single foraging bear, is an example of what sociologist Charles Perrow calls a “normal accident.” These frightening incidents are “normal” not because they happen often, but because they are almost certain to occur in any tightly connected complex system.

Today, our highly wired global financial markets are just such as system. And in recent years, aggressive traders have repeatedly played the role of the hungry bear, setting off potential disaster after potential disaster through a combination of human blunders and network failures…

In his book Normal Accidents, Perrow stresses the role that human error and mismanagement play in these scenarios. The important lesson: failures in complex systems are caused not only by the hardware and software problems but by people and their motivations.

See an earlier post dealing with the same sociological ideas. Nassim Taleb discusses this quite a bit and suggests knowing about this complexity should lead us to different kinds of actions where we try to minimize the disastrous risks and find opportunities for extraordinary success (if there are inevitable yet unknown opportunities for crisis, there could also be moments where low risk investments can pay off spectacularly).

If these are inherent traits of complex systems, does this mean more people will argue against such systems in the future? I could imagine some claiming this means we should have smaller systems and more local control. However, we may be at the point where even much smaller groups can’t escape a highly interdependent world. And, as sociologist Max Weber noted, bureaucratic structures (a classic example of complex organizations or systems) may have lots of downsides but they are relatively efficient at dealing with complex concerns. Take the recent arguments about health care: people might not like the government handling more of it but even without government control, there are still plenty of bureaucracies involved, it is a complex system, and there is plenty of potential for things to go wrong.

Paperwork makes bureaucracy go, for better or for worse

Max Weber would be interested: here is a review of a new book that explains how paperwork both enables and hinders bureaucracy.

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (the abbé Sieyès), one of the principal theorists of the revolution, had thought that the resolution of this riddle would be achieved by combining a division of governmental labor into numerous areas of narrowly demarcated responsibility, together with scrupulous attention to recordkeeping—which is to say, paperwork. As Kafka notes, however, its praxis in the revolutionary period involved an intrinsic contradiction: The greater the revolutionary regime’s attempts to wield its power, the more impeded it was in the exercise of that power by the need to precisely document its every deed with the requisite paperwork…

Paperwork presented a means of resistance to the power of the state, while remaining the means of the state’s assertion of that very power.

The refractory power of paperwork drew the serious attention of Tocqueville, Marx, and Freud, each of whom receives Kafka’s extended attention. Tocqueville struggled with the contradictions of bureaucracy to the point of eschewing the very use of the word, though not its substantive import. He asks: “How to reconcile the extreme centralization that [the bureaucratic regime] consecrates with the reality and morality of representative government?” Tocqueville’s comments on the relative absence of paperwork in America—and on the greater appeal to ambitious Americans of trade and industry over service in “official appointments”—are timely, and Kafka’s discussion of the evolution of Tocqueville’s thoughts on bureaucracy makes for fascinating reading.

From a lesser-known early work of Marx concerning a dispute between the Prussian tax authorities and winemakers of the Mosel region—a dispute that was to generate innumerable notes, dossiers, and reports, but no just resolution of the winemakers’ claims—Kafka educes a theory of the praxis of paperwork. Here, we have Karl Marx as media theorist, propounding a conception of paperwork as “a refractive medium [in which] power and knowledge inevitably change their speed and shape when they enter it.” In its unpredictability, paperwork “accelerates and decelerates power [and] syncopates its rhythms, disrupts its cycles, which is why paperwork always seems to be either overdue or underdone.”

This is enough to give one pause when waiting in line to fill out forms of any kind. It is very difficult to imagine just how much paperwork is generated within bureaucracies today, even in the age of computers: think of the local hospital, the city clerk’s office, the local university. From my own limited experience in a few universities, paperwork makes the whole college system work. Actually, if you think about it, much of the modern world is made possible because of paperwork we all (from individuals to groups to corporations to governments) fill out and file….