In Darwin's long shadow

The Social Animal
June 19, 1998

What should we look to sociologists for? What can we dependably learn from them? What can we trust them to tell us? Few groups of human beings disagree more sharply about these questions than sociologists themselves; and none, certainly, cares more about them. Even within such a quarrelsome profession as the academic, sociologists stand out. Odium sociologicum is every bit as pronounced a cultural trait as odium theologicum used to be in the days when theology really mattered. (On W. G. Runciman's own views, one brand of sociology that he conspicuously does not favour just is theology's historical successor: not, alas, society worshipping itself with style and conviction, but society brooding neurasthenically over its own spiritual ailments.) Why should all this be so? Why indeed should there be a single profession of sociology, constituted largely by the intensity of its disagreements over its own role? The Social Animal does not really try to answer these questions. It is unclear whether Runciman himself is very interested in them, and it is far from obvious that he would be especially adept at answering them convincingly. What his book does do, and most effectively, is to make its reader think about them.

I first encountered Runciman as a tall and rather lofty young man holding forth in a Cambridge lecture room three and a half decades ago. The lectures appeared shortly afterwards as a small and extremely successful book, Social Science and Political Theory. As lectures, they were clever, abrupt, and sometimes quite hard to follow: fun to listen to, and very stimulating to think about. Three and half decades later both man and style are remarkably little altered. (I wish, academically speaking, I was as confident of anything as Runciman still seems to be of practically everything.) In the meantime he has done a great deal: run two large firms with enviable success, chaired an extremely important Royal Commission on the inflammatory topic of criminal justice, and written an impressive number of books, culminating in his astonishingly ambitious three-volume Treatise on Social Theory, as wide in scope as Talcott Parsons (or even Max Weber) and, as Runciman himself is at pains to point out, distinctly denser in content than the former.

The Social Animal sets out for a lay audience his conception of what sociology as an intellectual project can at its best hope to achieve and what it is uniquely equipped to offer. In some ways this is very much as it seemed to be 35 years ago, eminently latitudiniarian in disciplinary interest, driven by vivid and wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, strikingly robust in its metaphysical (and perhaps even its social) presumptions. In other ways, notably theoretical taste, it has changed considerably. Above all the shadow of Darwin (and perhaps more immediately of Richard Dawkins) hangs over many pages. What goes on in the evolution of that idiosyncratic and very social animal Homo sapiens is at its heart just the same as what goes on in the evolution of all other animals: descent with modification. That is what the theory of evolution promises us or threatens us with. The trick, though, is to pick out in the human case the units which do descend and the processes that modify them. Once you extend your interest beyond the purely genetic (in all its amplitude), this becomes remarkably elusive and often all but unmanageable. The vagaries of culture and the staggering intricacy of economic, political, and social structures are no easier to survey, and no more tractable once they have been surveyed, for Runciman than they are for anyone else. It is unclear to me at least, by the end of The Social Animal, quite what he has contrived to draw from the apparatus of evolutionary theory beyond a distinctive vocabulary. This is no complaint against the purpose, the socio-political bearing, or the upshot of his analyses: simply a puzzlement as to how much cognitive value in this respect the evolutionary idiom really adds.

What it signals, however, and what by the end it perhaps has contrived to add, is a degree of metaphysical depth which was resolutely absent from the younger Runciman's offerings: a more integrated will to reject, and a clearer rationale for that rejection, which together yield a recognisable vision of the human social world, and of what it means for human beings that man is a social animal. One of the many dimensions on which sociologists can be distributed is in terms of their relative moisture content: from the resolutely arid to the comprehensively saturated. On that dimension Runciman is very dry indeed. It is not, of course, the same dimension as the Thatcherite criterion for political soundness, where he would be a good deal trickier to place: as hard to mistake for old as for new Labour, but a devoted and highly effective servant for many years of the Child Poverty Action Group. It is a measure, rather, of the degree of affect which sociologists as authors labour to elicit from their readers: the intended pathos (or less intended bathos) of their texts.

Most works of sociology which are read at all are read predominantly under some measure of institutional duress: if not by other sociologists for purposes of professional security or self-advancement, then mainly by students receiving the benefits of a sociological education. Plenty of the latter will read parts or all of The Social Animal before its day is done. But because it is addressed to a lay rather than a captive audience, it is rather obviously not written for them, but for some much wider and more nebulous array of fellow social animals. The brisk and unbuttoned style and the jauntiness of tone reflect the pleasure and interest of addressing this wider audience, and the absence of any accompanying need to adjust to, or massage, the sensibility of fellow sociologists. (It is important that for Runciman the experience of the university has remained throughout, as it was in the early 1960s, one of a place of learning and research, not of a site for the expanded reproduction of graduates, or of ineffectual resistance to downward collective mobility.) What The Social Animal tells its wider and deliberately indeterminate audience, both about sociology and about the very social animals who form the latter's subject matter, is very diverse in content and likely to prove uneven in interest for any particular one of them: why the Roman republic became the Roman empire, how many sorts of power there are, why and how human beings move up and down in their societies over time and across the generations, and how sociologists have tried to pin down the bewildering patterns which result from their efforts to do so. It has, however, a definite core: a purposeful praise of one very simple approach to the study of this particular social animal, and a spirited dispraise of a number of other more portentous or complicatedly conceived approaches. The simplicity and absence of pretension do not follow either from the ways in which the study itself is to be carried out or from the human significance of what is being studied. They come, rather, from the conception of the sort of creature whose fate, doings and experience lie at the centre of the study, and from the type of understanding of its own character to which that sort of creature can reasonably aspire without embarrassment or self-deception. Put like that, there is far less distance between Runciman and, for example, Jurgen Habermas than Runciman himself cares to emphasise.

You can see this most clearly by focusing on the three types of sociologists with whom he chooses to contrast himself: the Platitude Merchants (effectively Talcott Parsons), the Attitude Merchants (consistently eager to strike a pose or, less narcissistically, to evoke a tear or growl of rage, and thus inclined to flout the evidence), and the purveyors of substitute religion. (Note the vocabulary: intellectually speaking, Runciman is not in trade.) The Platitude Merchants here are effectively redundant. They are neither an intentional category (who would choose to be banal as a whole way of life?) nor a significant contribution to the lives of anyone else. What they tell us, in Runciman's sociological bestiary, is what we already know, and in terms almost too dreary to endure reading. (Because they are so evidently redundant, it does not especially matter for the purposes of The Social Animal how far the sneers at Parsons do justice to his powers as a thinker as opposed to a writer of American prose.) The Attitude Merchants are less readily brushed aside (and no easier to drive from the temple). We all have attitudes, and are quite eager to affect one another as we intend. None of us likes discovering what we do not want. If societies are indeed made up of roles and practices, it is hard to see how any of us can avoid over time striking a fair number of attitudes: duly masterful captain of industry, academic grandee, even indeed painstaking, clear-headed and tough-minded sociologist. It is hard to see how Attitude Merchant can be an intentional category either, let alone a load-bearing contribution to sociological explanation. The telling contrast is with the purveyors of surrogate religion.

For these Runciman has not merely in some instances a degree of personal aversion, but something which intermittently borders on spiritual contempt. His scorn, too, appears to extend beyond the domain of the ersatz to the genuine article, religion itself. On the evidence here what he holds against religion is not, with Voltaire, its propensity for infamy (which presumably varies), so much as what he sees as its cognitive absurdity (the impossibility of taking it seriously as a candidate for true belief). Living human beings can be religious without losing his respect or earning discourtesy. But a view of the human social animal which itself incorporates the least whiff of religion is not merely rendered epistemically ridiculous by doing so; it is also made deeply unfitting as an element in the self-understanding of the species itself. Understanding of this particular very social animal is not animal all the way down. (There is chemistry, physics and so on beneath it.) But it is important to Runciman (and seems to be the core of what Darwinism means for him) that it should be animal all the way up - in some ways ever more intricately animal, but still never anything more than animal.

What sociology can offer in his view is the best humanly accessible understanding of what human societies are really like for their denizens, of why they are like this, and of why they work and change as they do. In its most powerful form that understanding will always be retrospective, because the intricacy and interactive dynamism of human responses over time preclude prediction of their overall outcome. Despite the breadth of his own reading and experience, Runciman is both more interested and more effective at explaining social change and persistence than he is at capturing or explaining the stunning variety of human experience. Here I suspect he faces somewhat away from sociology's largest potential non-captive audience. It is not that he lacks curiosity about the experiences of others or fails to recognise the intellectual and existential demands of effective fieldwork: simply that exploring the variety of human experience is not what excites or preoccupies him in sociology's development as a subject.

While he affects a certain insouciance about the vagaries of other sociologists, this disciplinary liberalism is too breezy to be entirely authentic: do anything you like so long as you do not prompt others to confuse yourselves with me. Its dominant flavour is less one of blank indifference to the doings of others, or zest at their sheer diversity, than of distaste at the prospect of inadvertent contamination: one of personal fastidiousness.

There is nothing he would less like sociology to be than the heart of a heartless world, except perhaps the soul of a soulless condition. What he offers you may be nought for your comfort, and none too much for your edification. But it emphatically is a point of view. (You might even say, an attitude.) In the end his is a message less of existential modesty than of ontological humility. This is not the moral I would have guessed he would choose to draw when I listened to him back in the early 1960s. It is scarcely something of which you could rely on a random sociologist to assure you. But it is a sound lesson to imbibe from anyone. Who better placed than a sociologist who is also very much a man of the world to see that it is so?

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

The Social Animal

Author - W. G. Runciman
ISBN - 0 00 255862 9
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £14.99
Pages - 230

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