How to understand ‘mass intellectuality’?

At the meeting in Lincoln I referred to in the last post I found myself thinking about and in terms that I am not particularly familiar with or, if I was, found the envelope of my understanding being’ ‘pushed’, as they say. ‘Resilience’ was one. Others were ideas about ‘the social mind’ and ‘mass intelllectuality’. One temptation, perhaps unavoidable, is to subsume new ideas into existing ways of understanding. You’ve got to start somewhere rather than nowhere. ‘Social mind’ immediately calls up Durkheim’s ideas on the ‘conscience collective’ for instance. ‘Mass intellectuality’ sounds like it might be an amalgam of Gramsci’s ideas on hegemony, commonsense and organic intellectuals coupled to various processes of socialisation and ‘interpellation’, a term used by Althusser to denote the process whereby individuals internalise identities, roles, ways of understanding (being knowledgeable?) and expectations through a process of being ‘addressed’ by society and culture. Then there are Marx’s ideas on how classes develop collective class consciousness, become a class ‘for  itself’ rather than just an objectively existing class ‘in itself’. Class consciousness develops as individuals, in the company of others in the same position (so communication and discussion are important)  are hit between the eyes by the objective exploitative features of their daily lives.

So I need to investigate mass intellectuality and the social mind in a ways that do not presupose my automatic categorisations or at leaset are aware of and if necessary critical of how this prior knowledge may be constrainign what it is I’m learning. This will require reading new ideas and new thinkers. One way to begin to think out of the box is to read writers that are already out of the box you are in. Of course there is always the possibility you discover that some of these new thinkers are not really that far out of the box as they seem and in fact are repackaging the older ways of thinking and understanding and what is new is the bottle they have put the old win into.

Towards this end I will be looking at the references I have been kindly in addtion to the about the work of the Italian Marxist philosopher Paolo Virno on notions of mass intellectuality and a number of critiques.

The Resilient University

Had a great day in Lincoln yesterday, Friday 29th October, to discuss the Resilient University project with Mike Neary, Joss Winn and a great team putting together a cunning plan, more of which in due course. A lot of discussion revolved around notions of what ‘resilience’ means in the context of the existing crisis ridden university system and in the context of a re-visioning of what a ‘university’ could and should be. There is clearly a mainstream language of resilience that is all about shoring up the structures and institutions of the status quo. But if the status quo is seen as the cause of the various crises and conditions it needs to become resilient with respect to, then striving for the status quo’s resilience creates a negative trajectory double bind – strategies for resilience that are doomed to make the system ever less resilient.  If this is correct the system is unsustainable and cannot be made resilient in its own terms and will eventually fail and, by necessity, become something else, for good or ill, for progress or extinction.

My view is that the sort of education system we have now, including HE, is a significant part of the problem. It is itself in crisis and is a major component of the broader crises that it is a part of, political and cultural crises (legitimacy crisis), health and well-being crises, economic and financial crises, and military crises. If this is so, how can education be conceived of and organised differently? And what does resilience mean for this re-visioned form of education? What is needed is a new, or at least different, language and conceptualisation of resilience. Perhaps the focus of resilience should not be on the current system but what it is degrading and destroying. A good starting point would be a look at how the concept is currently used and defined in practice.

“Resilience is the property of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically and then, upon unloading to have this energy recovered.” So, absorbing, recycling and exploiting the changes that impact.

“Resilience in psychology is the positive capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity. This coping may result in the individual “bouncing back” to a previous state of normal functioning, or using the experience of exposure to adversity to produce a “steeling effect” and function better than expected” Or, what hurts us only makes us stronger.

“The Government’s aim is to reduce the risk from emergencies so that people can go about their business freely and with confidence”. With the object of being prepared for emergencies and to ensure “continuity of business”.

“Resilience is the ability to absorb disturbances, to be changed and then to re-organise and still have the same identity (retain the same basic structure and ways of functioning).”

The ‘new’ sociology of Zygmunt Bauman

I am writing ans article on Zygmunt Bauman’s view of what sociology could and should be, its value and function, in conditions of liquid modernity.  Zygmunt sees sociology’s role today, in conditions of liquid modernity,  as supporting civic society and servicing a continuous dialogue, a dialogue with no predetermined outcome, that clarifies issues and accommodates multiple voices. Our job is to “defamiliarise the familiar and make the familiar unfamilar”, to make visible the invisible links and connections that lie behind the life world and to keep the conversation going. However  “we cannot stay neutral or indifferent when the future of humanity is at stake”. See post at

Where does this leave socialism as a valid project? Is it just one set of ideas and a vision that some voices can bring to the discussion but without any claim to legislative privilege? Socialisms project to legislate and administer a particular sort of society (no doubt a good and egalitarian society)? I think the answer is to see socialism as a establishing a set of conditions for the conversation rather than an end point itself in a particular society. Socialism is a process rather than a fixed goal or outcome – the project of socialism should be development and the nurturing of the conversation, perhaps the creation of the sociality of the  social state (not necessarily in conflict with elements of the bureaucratic and market state).

Great description of what the conversation should be like in the last paragraph of page xxi in the introduction to Intimations of Postmodernity.

Who is running GM food policy?

This has been a busy week for reporting on GM food issues. It started on the 2nd June with the announcement of the resignation of Professor Brian Wynne from his position as Vice Chair of the Food Standards Agency Steering Group on GM food. Brian Wynne is an acknowledged expert on the sociology of science and on the public understanding of science. This announcement was closely followed on the 4th June with a report that the new Secretary for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, supports the introduction and development of GM crops in the UK (Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman backs GM crops).

The FSA Steering Group Brian Wynne sat on has the brief to “shape and manage a public dialogue on food and the use of genetic modification..” (Food: The Use of Genetic Modification – A Public Dialogue). The gist of his complaint and the main reason he resigned was that the “shape” of the public dialogue was being heavily influenced towards a pro GM stance despite the Group’s Terms of Reference stating that no interest should be allowed to dominate and, according to the Group’s Agreed Aims and Objectives, no particular conclusions and outcome should be presumed. In practice the orchestrated and manipulated public dialogue will amount to vast sums of public money being spent to bring the public round to accepting GM foods and the biotechnology industry’s version of their safety for humans and the environment and their benefits for food production.

One of Professor Wynne’s closely related criticisms of the process is that the narrow scientific framing of GM issues ignores the important social, political and ethical aspects of the GM debate. “Genetically modifying food is having devastating impacts in parts of the developing world like South America, where rain-forests and communities are being wiped out to make way for vast GM soy plantations that provide animal feed for UK factory farms.” The scientific framing of the issues tends to focus on field and laboratory trials, local ecological impacts and possible consequences for human health (not that these are in anyway settled yet) rather than, for instance, the consequences of a small number of large corporations having private control of the global food chain (for instance through the patenting and ownership of the technology) or the geographically dispersed political and cultural impacts.

An even more recent report (Sunday 6th May GM lobby helped draw up crucial report on Britain’s food supplies) may well add substance to Brian Wynne’s concerns. It is claimed that there has been close collaboration with powerful biotechnology interests in the production of the FSA’s 2009 GM Crops and Foods document that led to and shaped the terms of reference of the Public Dialogue initiative. The Guardian report also claims the GM interests may have been involved in choosing the membership of the Steering Group.

In his letter of resignation Brian Wynne is incensed that the Chair of the FSA, Lord Rooker, (apparently a GM enthusiast) condemned both the critics of the FSA’s position on GM and the general public (who are to be engaged in unbiased, open and transparent dialogue) as “unscientific”. Apart from betraying the bias of Lord Rooker, this belittles concerns over the social and ethical consequences of the development of GM crops and allows the ‘science’ to dictate – explicitly and implicitly – the political and social policy debates. It seems the Public Dialogue project may well become an example of this process and be worth keeping an eye on, given the Chair of the FSA’s and the Secretary for the Environment’s expressed views in advance of the public dialogue and any public consultation.


The new Secretary for the Environment, Caroline Spelman, recently resigned as a director of the food and biotechnology lobbying company Spelman, Cormack andAssociates which she started with her husband in 1989. It doesn’t appear to have a web site.

Brian Wynne was a key speaker at the BSA President’s event last February, Putting Society into Climate Change. His presentation, although not about GM crops specifically, does give GM science based policy as an example why environmental issues cannot be seen as purely technical and scientific issues. With hindsight you can hear the concern that led to his resignation today. The podcast of his BSA presentation is available from the BSA PG Forum: The BSA Presidential Event was the subject of a post on this blog – How to put society into climate change. The post contains a short description of Brian Wynnes’s talk and the point he made about science based GM policy.

The full text of Brian Wynne’s resignation from the FSA GM Steering Group

Caroline Spelman’s former directorship of the food and biotechnology lobbying company Spelman, Cormack and Associates.
Spelman, 52, set up the firm with her husband, Mark Spelman, in 1989.

Education, social control, and subversion

Thinking about the role of the University today and our current project to develop a public sociology web site, I was reminded of a blog post I did about 3 years ago in March 2006 ( which I have reproduced below.

Recently there has been some very interesting  discussion about the  purposes of education on Harold Jarche’s blog  Education’s Three Conflicting Pillars and a related post by Christopher Sessum, Competing Paradigms and Educational Reform. This has got me thinking once more about the complex relationship between the State and the education system and the ambivalent position of the teacher.

Personally I tend to favour the term ‘discourse’ rather than paradigm. Discourses are processes. Discourses are not monolithic and coherent. They are made up of overlaying and intersecting ideas that are often in competition, and connect many different forms of knowledge and truth claims. There are usually different agendas in play promoted by competing power brokers and power seekers. They form the intersections of political, economic, ideological and ‘scientific’ interests and activities. Particular  ‘discursive formations’ have recognisable boundaries within which, for a while a least, they cohere.  Discourses only gain purchase on the real world and become effective through ‘practices’. Discourses feed into government policy. This leads, in the case of educational policy, to a number of practices that implement  the policy through laws and regulations and funding procedures.  And at the end of the day it is schools, colleges, universities and their staff and students that one way or another implement the discourse informed education policies.

An example of this is the development of the educational discourse that culminated in the Butler Education Act of 1944 in the UK.  A variety of interlocking and overlapping ideologies and ‘sciences’ informed this discourse based on a variety of different related interests and institutions including educational ideas of the time, the dominant political ideology of the time, Keynesian economic theories and policies, the interests of key sectors of the economy, the psychologist Cyril Burt’s theories on IQ, and a number of other moral and philanthropic ideas. The practical implementation of this educational discourse, via the enactment of the Butler Education Act, was the so-called tripartite secondary education system, selection by the 11+ exam with its IQ testing component, and the creation of three different types of schools that corresponded with three innately different sorts of pupils and the perceived needs of three different sectors of the post WWII labour market. How neat!!.  Each type of school had a different curriculum suited to the supposed different abilities of the students and for their destined location in the labour market. In some respects the different curricula produced, ‘constructed’, three different types of students as specified by the practical implementation of the educational discourse thus showing the discourse to be ‘correct’ – an example of that well known social phenomenon, the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

The above story follows from a more general feature of the link between state education, economic structure and labour market requirements.  In the UK the development of the state education system was intimately linked to the gradual extension of the vote to all working men and the needs of the developing labour market in a rapidly expanding capitalist industrial economy. State education served the needs of the economy not just in terms of the skills required but also the political system – to produce ‘docile bodies’ that accept the distribution of power, the status quo, as legitimate. Political socialisation and social control were key components of state education right from the start. The extension of education to the masses was viewed with deep suspicion by the ‘natural’  and traditional ruling class.  The controlling aspect was seem as crucial to those that begrudgingly conceded that they were having to ‘educate our masters’ – the Duke of Wellington I think. Education has always had the dual role of both enabling and controlling and has always been a double-edged sword. Teaching individuals how to read so they can read the Bible and employers’ instructions always risked the possibility that they would also read subversive pamphlets if available. Whatever the other contradictions and tensions in education today I think this fundamental one between the enabling agenda and the controlling agenda is still very much in evidence. And it makes its presence felt in every bit of curriculum development and in every lecture theatre, tutorial room and classroom.

It is this double edged and contradictory nature of education that gives teachers and educators some opportunities to subvert  the dominant educational discourse. We teach the content of our disciplines and we police students’ conformity to the structures, procedures and expectations of  the institution. But we also help develop the critical and metacognitive skills that can let the genie out of the bottle. Once learning skills have been mastered and students develop a critical awareness of the constructed and provisional nature of much knowledge, then the focus, objectives, content of the learning beyond the institution can be chosen by individuals and communities they are part of.

Radically inclined teachers have a difficult task. We want to help our students achieve in the context of the dominant paradigm as described by Chris, learn the content, pass the exams, reproduce what is required in their assessment essays. This is driven by our desire to help students perform well in assessment and achieve their goals. However, the critical and autonomous learning skills we help students obtain can begin to develop their capacity for personal effectiveness and becoming critical citizens. This is how teachers can both live in and with the dominant paradigm at the same time as subverting it. The paradox is there is no conspiracy here; teaching and learning within the dominant educational discourse, preparing students for the fast changing knowledge and networked society, nurtures in its bosom the seeds of its own critique and subversion.

Or is this a rationalisation of collaboration? 

Levels of explanation

One of the interesting aspects of Elias’s work is the way he characterises the various sciences collectively as a ‘model of models’ that map on to the  ‘great evolution’ and what this means for sociology as an autonomous discipline, in fact one of the sciences within the model of models, and what it says about the nature of sociological knowledge and implies for sociological research methods. By the ‘great evolution’ we are referring to the way that different material  levels of integration emerge over planetary time such that each new level is dependent on the preconditions of the earlier level but, due to characteristics of the emergent level, each new level cannot be understood or explained purely in the terms of the level from which it emerged. So for example, the level of integration we call ‘life’ was necessarily preceded by the the physical and chemical levels but, once life emerged on earth, it cannot be explained (modelled scientifically) purely in terms of the features of physics and chemistry. What is more, once a new level has emerged it reacts back upon and alters the nature of its ‘host’ levels. Examples of this are the oxygenation of the atmosphere and the development of the pedosphere (basically the soil that the later forms of life depend upon), both of which are the results of the emergence of life. Another example is that of climatic change due to the emergence of life (the biosphere) long before the emergence of humankind and the resulting anthroposphere (that part, in fact most, of the biosphere that has been affected by the emergence and development of human groups and societies). What this implies is that, to some extent at least, a full understanding and explanation of an earlier level of integration requires some reference to the effects produced by the subsequent levels of emergence that have both changed the dynamics of and processes within that level. An example of this is the way that practically every aspect of the biosphere is now affected by and has been changed by its incorporation  within the anthroposphere. This has had the effect of changing the context of the processes of evolution that the emergence of humankind was predated by and was dependent upon. Another example would be the changes in human biology and psychological functioning that have come about as the result of what Elias called ‘symbol emancipation’ and the development of culture. What is of crucial importance here is the fact that culture as a symbolic system becomes to a certain extent decoupled from material reality and takes on autonomous characteristics and possibilities and that it is external with respect to individuals. Cultural maps of the external environment and the ‘recipes’ for behaviour are very different to the internal ‘maps’ of the external environment that inform the somatic and instinctual behaviours that are internally constituted through blind evolutionary processes of adaptation. It is argued that at the very least an understanding of phenomenon at any one level of integration would need to take into the account of  the two bracketing levels, those above and below the level of the phenomenon. Of course the number of levels of emergence and integration, what our scientific demarcation rules for establishing boundaries and how we label these is a significant problem. I understand that a living cell has within it about 20 levels. A human individual is biological, chemical and physical as well as social and cultural. As a sociologist the levels that need accounting for will depend upon the specific level in question. Much sociology does this already, at least implicitly, for instance C Wright Mills distinction between personal troubles and public issues and his claim that individual experience has to be related to both social institutions and their location in historical processes. This is also sometimes quite explicit in the methodological claims that society and social processes cannot be explained purely in terms of individuals’ conscious motivations and experience or their own understanding of their actions as the historical process and structural level of society are as much the product of unknown and unanticipated consequences of behaviour with a scope in time and place far beyond the subjective experience of actors. On the other hand the emergence, reproduction and development of society, social institutions and structures, cannot be explained without reference to the grounds of individuals’ behaviours and understandings.

One thing is made quite clear however, by the ‘three levels ‘approach to sociological understanding. A sociologist does not have to study physics in order to do sociology. Equally, a scientific understanding of society cannot be based upon or extrapolated from a knowledge of the physical and chemical levels of integration. In addition, different levels of integration will have different scientific theories and models. Mechanistic and mathematized models are inadequate for studying and representing society and social processes  because of the nature of the reality being dealt with.  The limits of quantitative and statistical models of society are not due to inadequate mathematical and statistical knowledge but because there is a mismatch between the representational and modeling capacity of mathematics and the ontology of the exponentially more  complex levels of integration that are the the psychological and social. It seems that what we might call the representational or theoretical language in which a level of integration is described and modelled  must be adequate to that level of integration. Even if it makes sense to say that mathematics is the appropriate language of the physical levels it doesn’t follow that it is for other levels. No doubt mathematization and quantification have a methodological part to play in sociology, but this is within limits and is only approprate for phenomneon that are amenable to mathmatical description. For instance some structural and patterned aspects of social processes can be represented to some extent mathematically, albeit only descriptively. But in the end we are reliant on words (as indeed are, in the final analysis, physicists).

Value free science

Over the last few days while I have been snatching odd moments to reacquaint myself with my earlier PhD work and that of Norbert Elias (in the midst of marking MA essays), I have been reminded about what it was about sociology that gripped my back then, what I found important and exciting, and what it is I thought sociology is and can do. What sort of enterprise is it? What sort of knowledge does it provide us with? What does it mean for sociology to be empirical, for instance? Elias’s work must be one of the best places to start.

These questions are imply many others. For instance, is sociology a science? (My answer then and now is yes but we need to have a pretty sophisticated understanding of what science is to argue the case). Does it make sense to make the old distinction between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ with the role of science (and therefore of a scientific sociology) ‘simply’ to tell us how things are (however uncomfortable or disappointing this turns out to be) and the separate role of ‘politics’ and civil society to make value judgments about what sort of society we should ideally strive for? If so then presumably it would be a contradiction to speak of the possibility of an emancipatory or critical science. If science’s role is to describe the natural and social world as it is and explain the processes and mechanisms that account for the way it ‘is’ and then hand this knowledge over to government and industry to make of it what they will and use it in any way that it, potentially, can be, then science is available for emancipatory or repressive programmes alike. If this is what they believe then this is something that scientists must consciously accept or repress in some way. There would be an interesting sociological project to investigate the personal and institutional ways that this conclusion is justified and/or repressed – science washing its hand of responsibility. This conclusion is the one of course that underpins the old use/abuse model of science.

The above argument about the separation of the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ and the possibility of science institutions, processes and knowledge being confined and limited to the realm of the ‘is’ falls apart as soon as it is conceded that the sort of value freedom this depends upon is not possible and that the ‘ought’ is not applied to scientific knowledge externally and after the event, but internally and constitutive of scientific knowledge itself. The distinction breaksdown when it is shown that values have an internal constitutive function in the development of scientific knowledge. These values are in turn partially constitutive of the reality that the knowledge constitutes practically on the basis of theory. Scientific knowledge constitutes reality materially through the application of theoretically informed material interventions. This entails the radical conclusion that heteronomous valuations to some extent construct the material reality partly constituted through scientised technological interventions in non-human nature. This is why I think it does make sense to talk about the possibility of an emancipatory or critical science. Different values internal to science would produce different sorts of science. This goes for the natural and social sciences both.

A Theory of Science

Since writing a post here 4 days ago, Detachment in the work of Elias, I have reviewed my own writings on the subject that I haven’t looked at for over 15 years. There are only two, a major section in my unpublished PhD thesis, The Development of Scientific Knowledge in Relation to the Development of Societies: a Problem in the Contemporary Sociology of Science (1990) and a paper I gave at the XIII ISA World Congress in Bielefeld in 1994, The Role of Levels of Integration in Elias’s Sociology of Knowledge, also unpublished. As is evident, I have not been particular good at getting my work into print! I was very fortunate to have had Richard Kilminster as my supervisor and indeed we attended the ISA World Congress together.  The section of my thesis that is relevant is chapter 7, The Importance of Ontology: Elias’s Realist Position and particularly the chapter subsection, The Ontological Model of Integrative Levels. The re-reading prompted me to have a quick scan through more recent work that addresses similar aspects of Norbert Elias’s work and I immediately found that of Stephen Quilley and Steven Loyal as well as sections in Richard’s latest book. I have started to add these to the bibliography.

This has reawakened my interest in this area, the sociology of knowledge, the nature of scientific knowledge as process and product, and how the sciences map onto Elias’s notion of the ‘Great Evolution’ and the emergence of and relations between integrative levels of existence. I have for a number of years now been teaching a module on Society and the Environment part of which covers the role of science and technology in the ‘mastery’ of nature and the development of industrial economies and hyper-consumerism. This has tended to focus on both a critical realist account of science and its underlying ontology as compared with overly reductive and mechanistic scientific models of natural and ecological processes. This in turn has been counterbalance with a discussion of co-constructivist and co-evolutionary perspectives. It is quite clear to me that my teaching and presentation of these issues have undoubtedly been influenced by my earlier work on Elias’s ideas but I have drawn on them in a fairly pragmatic and simplified fashion and not referred to these or my earlier work explicitly.  The time is right I feel, or will be as soon as I become an independent scholar after retirement, to follow these ideas up and perhaps a useful way to do this will be as an explicit dialogue between my earlier work, more recent work in the same Elisian mode, critical realism, and co-constuctivist and co-evolutionary ideas. I think it would be also interesting to relate this to the rather vague ideas to be found in the work of Ulrich Beck on ‘the democratisation of science’.

Frankly, I find the prospect of working on this much more interesting than the paper I was proposing to write on critical theory I mentioned in another post here, Critical sociology, so I’ll probably drop that for the moment.

Anthropology: On Becoming Modern

In today’ edition of Science there is a section on human social evolution with 2 articles both suggesting a link between human social evolution and cultural development which is relatively autonomous with respect to biological evolution. One of them, Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior, claims that growing population density can account for the first appearance of ‘modern’ behaviour without appealing to genetic changes or changes in cognitive capacities. In particular this can account for the emergence of specialist cultural areas. Frankly I thought this was an idea Adam Smith came up with in the 18th century and Durkheim in the late 19thcentury. I will need to read these articles to see if they add anything to our existing sociological understanding of these matters. The earlier historical context may well be interesting but I suspect it would be a fairly unproblematic and minor extension of existing sociological knowledge.

Anthropology: On Becoming Modern (Ruth Mace)

Unlike other animals, humans cooperate with nonrelatives in coordinated actions, decorate their bodies, build complex artefacts(useful or otherwise), talk, and divide themselves into linguistic groups. To understand the evolutionary basis of such behaviors, anthropologists must consider not only issues connected to social evolution in animals, but also the implications of the possible coevolutionof genes and culture. Two articles in this issue examine aspects of human social evolution: On page 1293, Bowles(1) investigates the origins of altruism toward one’s own social group, while on page 1298, Powell et al. (2) study the emergence of cultural complexity. Based on empirical evidence and modeling, both studies suggest that the demographic structure of our ancestral populations determined how social evolution proceeded.

Link to articles via Leeds Uni login

Friday 5th June ‘Science in Action’ on BBC World service [summary and ‘listen again’]
“We humans pride ourselves on our culture. Our tools, our ideas and innovations, and our art. They’re all passed on within our societies, and help shape who we are. These so called ‘modern human behaviours’ appeared suddenly around 90 thousand years ago, but at different times in different geographical areas. Something must have been happening to prompt the change – but exactly what has been a mystery. Jon Stewart meets researchers who think they have solved the problem”. [podcast]

Detachment in the work of Elias

Since being introduced to Norbert Elias and his idea that a form of detachment (at both institutional and individual level) is a necessary condition for the development of scientific knowledge, I accepted the idea as a useful working proposition. I still do but have always felt, for me at least, that there is unfinished business in this area. The unfinished business can be dated back to when I was working on my PhD thesis in the 1980s. I was studying the then current sociology of science informed as it was by Thomas Kuhn’s ideas (paradigms, scientific revolutions and the incommensurability of paradigms), the post empiricist philosophies of science and the ‘cultural’ turn in sociological analysis. I was also much taken with the ideas of Gaston Bachelard and his notions of epistemological rupture, the emergence of a ‘new scientific mind’, the ‘city of science’, scientific apparatuses as ‘reified theory’ and ‘super-realism’.   It was in this context that I turned to Elias’s sociology of knowledge and science, his ontology of levels of integration and emergence, and the concept of detachment. There seemed to be some interesting overlaps in the ideas of incommensurable scientific paradigms (TK) and epistemological rupture (GB), and between the ‘new’ scientific mind (GB) and the development of scientific detachment (NE). I quickly came to the conclusion that  a suitably sociologised Bachelard using Elias’s process sociology would be a significant advance in our understanding of science as a process, an institution and a distinctive form of knowledge. And I still think this is the case. However, the approach I took to the natural sciences and my understanding of them seemed rather more radical than what I was reading in Elias. In brief, I felt that the operation of autonomous values made possible through their institutionalisation in science and the ensuing detachment this underpinned from scientists’ potentially heteronomous values were not as autonomous as we supposed. The automatic (and therefore apparently autonomous) orientation of the scientists was based on deeply embedded and embodied values that were not necessarily autonomous in the sense Elias proposed. The autonomous values acting as the unconscious framework molding the scientific process and scientists’ cognitions and behaviours tended to be reductive, atomistic, mechanistic and analytic. This, we are beginning to realise, leads to natural science knowledge in many cases being quite a bit less ‘object adequate’ than was previously thought. Far from being autonomous in a wider context (and adequate to natural processes) these ‘autonomous’ values are quite specific to a particular historical and cultural context. The ‘involved’ valuations of a previous ‘stage of development’ become the ‘autonomous’ unconscious of a later stage. If this is the case, then all we can say about the natural sciences that is different from sociology is that they operate within an institutionalised orthodoxy sociology has yet to achieve. However, there is no denying that this orthodoxy has produced some powerful ‘productive’ knowledge about nature.

It is possible that, perhaps counter intuitively, the degree of detachment needed is more likely to be achieved by sociology and sociologists precisely because of the nature of sociology. This is a bold, even arrogant claim that I hope to be able to justify to some extent in future posts. It will also be useful, for me at least, to look in much more detail at Elias’s ideas on detachment and try to unpick in far more concrete terms what is detached, what it is detached from, the distinction between autonomous and heteronomous values, and the constitutive relationship between the scientific institution and scientists as knowledge producers. There are several excellent resources for this, for example chapter 5 in Richard Kilminster’s latest book Norbert Elias: Post-philosophical sociology (please see the bibliography). I have developed my ideas about the natural sciences over the last few years in my work on society and the environment. It will be an interesting exercise for me to revisit my PhD and the Elias’s ideas on involvement and detachment to see how it now fits with my current take on science.