DETERMINISM (Social Science)

Any doctrine positing that one kind or order of phenomena is the necessary and sufficient condition of another kind or order of phenomena is a strongly deterministic doctrine. On the other hand, if a doctrine posits that some order of phenomena is only a necessary or a sufficient condition of another, it is considered to be only weakly deterministic. Since their inception, the social sciences have been home to many such doctrines.

From Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) in the nineteenth century to J. Philippe Rushton’s work in the 1990s, racist accounts of variations in character or intelligence are among the least credible and most enduring of deterministic doctrines. Psychobiological accounts of the roots of war and violence have had nearly as long a hearing. Somewhat more credibly, contemporary evolutionary psychologists of diverse disciplinary provenance are reviving the pursuit of accounts of humanly universal behavior, as well as of racially marked or ethnically distinctive behavior, as positive adaptations to or resolutions of existential or situational problems (Buss 1999).

The environmental determinism of Johannes Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), who treated variations of climate and physical environment as the chief source of variations of human character, was popular in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Herder’s latter-day successors are more circumspect, typically treating particular conditions of climate and geography as imposing on the human populations who live with and under them a cap on the upward bounds of politico-economic complexity. A noteworthy case in point is the historian Fernand Braudel’s 1949 thesis that the preindustrial societies occupying the borders of the Mediterranean Sea were effectively ecologically precluded from sustaining political organization beyond the level of the city-state.

Technology, however, changes everything, or such at least has been the opinion of a long line of determinists since the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1930s Braudel’s elder colleague Marc Bloch traced the pivotal source of the social organization of French agriculture to the invention of the double-bladed plow. A half-century before, the cultural materialist Henry Louis Morgan had appealed more generally to technological innovation as the essential index of broader civilizational progress. The Victorian biologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) saw in technological development—first military, then economic—the lynchpin of the advance of utilitarian happiness. Though not quite a utilitarian, Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) is among Spencer’s recognizable evolutionist heirs. Less sanguine is the anthropologist Leslie White (1900-1975), who made the post-Hiroshima assessment that the increasing efficiency of the technologies of harvesting energy is the causal underpinning of collective evolution—for better and for worse. White’s ambivalence grew darker in such seminal assessments of the harmful environmental consequences of industrial and atomic technologies as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Mark Harwell’s Nuclear Winter (1984). In The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), David Harvey argues that the far-flung reach and unprecedented speed of communicative technologies is effecting a global compression of space and time that tends to unmoor human experience from its typically local bearings. Harvey articulates (with a dark ambivalence) a specifically digital determinism.

Cultural determinism of a less material and materialist sort has two prominent installments, both traceable to the early students of Franz Boas. Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and Margaret Mead (1901-1978) were the early champions of the cultural determination of personality. Encouraging now-discredited distillations of "national character," their work also gave rise to sustained research into child rearing and other practices that remain the focus of the anthropology and sociology of childhood and education (Whiting and Child 1953; Christie 1999; Jones 1995). Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941) were the eponymous champions of the speculative thesis—erroneously deemed a "hypothe-sis"—of the linguistic determination of what is presumed to be reality itself. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may have had its roots in the thought of such Romantic philosophers as Wilhelm von Humboldt. As an assertion of linguistic relativism or linguistic mediationism, it has many counterparts in semiotics and semiotically grounded theories of knowledge, past and present.

Emile Durkheim began The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) with the bold claim that social structure and organization determine the structure and organization of the basic categories of thought. His influence remains most obvious in the work of Mary Douglas. Institutionally more specific, and by far the most influential social determinist, was Karl Marx, especially when writing in collaboration with Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engels’s transference of the presumptive human primacy of a finite set of material needs to that of the institution best disposed to satisfy them—the economy—was the initial step in their theorization of the means and mode of economic production as determinative of the form and content of every other institutional order. Marx’s Capital (1867) and his and Engels’s German Ideology (1932) were the benchmarks of leftist social and political thought from the turn of the twentieth century until the 1970s. The analysis of the commodity (and its fetishization) in the former treatise stimulated Georg Lukacs’s inquiries in the 1920s into the broader capitalist habit of "reification," the process of construing the related parts of systemic wholes as independent entities in their own right. It would later inspire Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s critique of the mass-produced debasement of what they called "the culture industry." The problem of the relation between class interest and truth inherent in The German Ideology (1932) gave rise to a Marxist sociology of knowledge from Lenin through Antonio Gramsci and Karl Mannheim to Jurgen Habermas. Especially in its stronger expressions, Marxist determinism brings to an account of human action the same logical assets and liabilities as any other determinism. It is an attractively powerful device of intellectual focus and direction, but it runs two risks: (1) circularity, or taking for granted the very hypotheses that it is obliged to prove; and (2) a drift into the metaphysical, leaving behind any possibility of putting its hypotheses to the test at all.

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