Ori Schwarz on his book, Sociological Theory for Digital Society

https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Sociological+Theory+for+Digital+Society%3A+The+Codes+that+Bind+Us+Together-p-9781509542963

Interview by: Dan M. Kotliar

Dan Kotliar: There is something very convenient, even comforting, in thinking about our theories as timeless, as endlessly generalizable analytical frameworks that easily cross chronological boundaries. What first prompted you to think that some of the most classical sociological theories may need revising?

Ori Schwarz:Sociological theories strive to be timeless, we always want our theoretical insights about social life to be generalizable beyond their immediate context, but theories are always developed while looking at specific societies, so they take for granted things that can’t be generally taken for granted. I wrote this book since I’ve noticed that the introduction of digital technologies has transformed in significant ways what sociological theory has taken for granted. For example, that social life takes place in situations, or that interactions and objects are completely different things, or that social capital is a symbolic capital. These transformations pose theoretical challenges that I tried to identify and solve through theoretical revisions. How did I stumble across these gaps between our theories and shifting reality? Partly, while trying to use old concepts during writing, which is very much like trying on your old trousers after the summer to find out they no longer fit. But it also has much to do with the constant movement between research and teaching. To teach theory you must be very explicit about the implicit assumptions of different theories, and then the gaps between these assumptions and the realities we study become much more apparent and disturbing. This constant movement sensitized me to the wider theoretical meaning of the transformations I study.

Dan Kotliar: Rather than calling for the rise of Digital Sociology as yet another sociological subfield, your book offers something broader – a revision of sociology’s classical theories in light of digitalization. Could you say a few words about the difference between the two, and about the need for a digitally-informed sociology rather than a Digital Sociology?

Ori Schwarz: Establishing new subfields is generally a clever strategy: it makes the pie bigger by creating journals, jobs and graduate programs, and more importantly, it creates a shared intellectual space where sociologists interested in a certain social sphere like law, family, or education may develop their unique questions, methods and theories that can later inspire scholars beyond their subfield. The problem is: digitalization is not yet another sphere of social life. Digitalization is a set of processes that fundamentally transform nearly all spheres of social life. Today, when digital platforms and algorithms mediate and remold the ways we find love, work, trade, communicate with our families or fight for social change; the decision-making processes of governments and corporations, and the management of workers, citizens and risks, the digital is no longer a slice of social life to be studied separately as in the days digital life was a parallel reality in IRC-chats. More importantly, digitalization changes the answers to questions that are not specific to any particular subdiscipline, to the most fundamental questions of sociology: What are the basic units of social life and social analysis? What is power and how does it work? How space and time are organized and how does the past keep living in the present? Which mechanisms bind together different individuals, their actions and their mental states into something bigger? Which forms of capital inform social stratification and what characterizes them? These are the kind of questions that very much define us as a discipline. I read much digital sociology and I love it, it’s important to empirically study digitalization, but it’s simply not enough. What our discipline needs in order to remain relevant is to explore how digitalization changes the answers to some of our core questions. This would also demonstrate the relevance of our theoretical legacy to other disciplines that are interested in digitally-mediated social life, because our theoretical toolkit offers the best point of departure to study digital societies if only we adapt these tools to the changing realities.

Dan Kotliar: Many social scientists see the rapid digitalization and datafication of social life as a reason to move into computational methods and study what they understand to be the social through big data analyses. How do you see this move? Does the digitalization of the social call for a revision of our methods, alongside our theories?

Ori Schwarz: The digital objectification of social life, their automatic self-documentation, opens great opportunities. Social interactions now are constantly translated into data objects that are available to the social actors themselves, such as Whatsapp chats, and into hidden data available to algorithmic analysis. In the book I focus on the fascinating theoretical implications of this transformation, but it also has methodological significance. First of all, the fact the interactions turn into objects may revolutionize ethnography. Personally I find it much more exciting, even if it doesn’t have the same high-techish aura as computational methods. Objectified social life can also be analyzed quantitatively, although data is too often proprietary or ethically dubious (because, unlike digital corporations, academics are still trained to feel uncomfortable about making experiments or collecting data without informed consent). I have more reservations about the paradigm shift heralded by AI and big data scientists and its promise for the so-called end of theory, for purely empiricist knowledge that can predict the future without having to engage in tiresome hypothesizing. This view gradually creeps from applied sciences into academe across disciplines, so I’ll make it clear: I don’t believe in the end of theory, not only because it will put me out of work, but mainly since I believe the aim of academic knowledge is explaining, not predicting. I’m also bothered by the dangerous political implications of the promise of perfect prediction and its detereminist ideology; for example, Israel has pre-emptively arrested hundreds of Palestinian teenagers based on algorithmic risk calculation. There are attempts to domesticate these new methods into a forensic social science, and use them without giving up the scientific project altogether, which is a risky endeavor which is too early to evaluate. But overall, objectification introduces increased knowability of the social, which not only transforms social power but can also transform the production of sociological knowledge.

Dan Kotliar: In the book you argue that the sociological theory of power should move away from the problem of free will, and that contemporary power operates independently of people’s consciousness. What does it mean for our ability to resist such powers?

Ori Schwarz: First, to avoid misunderstanding, human consciousness doesn’t go anywhere. Yet, I think it can no longer be the single focus of the sociology of power. Throughout the 20th century, the main question that haunted the sociology of power was, “Why are we still bounded when we are freer than ever”? And very different schools agreed that to answer this question we must look at the consciousness, how we are dominated through our consciousness, how it becomes an instrument of power and domination – think of Weber, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, Bourdieu, Lukes, Scott and many others. But today, power and governance in multiple contexts operate through algorithms, that are generative rules, as Lash and Beer call them. Unlike regulative rules like laws, generative rules are realized or enforced automatically in multiple concrete cases without having to convince the dominated to obey them or the agents of power, bureaucrats, to enforce them. Indeed, they are usually hidden, they do not need actors to be aware of them to be effective; they may change often without us knowing; and they govern our life. The more algorithmic power and governance become common and consequential, the more the question you asked about how to resist it becomes crucial. Generally, people resist it by trying to produce lay knowledge of these rules and manipulate them, just as we do with the hidden rules of nature governing our life, even though unfortunately, unlike our notion of rules of nature, algorithmic rules tend to change rather quickly, evading our knowledge. To theorize resistance to algorithmic power I offer the notion of resistance through detours. Unlike laws, these rules just cannot be violated, so the trick is to find detours or loopholes, technical ways to violate their spirit but not their letter: to make the algorithm classify you in a certain way to avoid sanctions or to allow you to act in ways that would have been otherwise blocked. For example, it’s very easy to prevent people from sending one another banned words or photos over instant messaging, but they may still modify their message without changing its meaning. Even when rules are inviolable, their power is not unlimited and governance projects can be effectively thwarted.

Dan Kotliar: If you happened to share a driverless Uber ride with one of the classical sociological theorists you mention in your book, what would be the first thing you’d point out to them about today’s digitally-infused society?

Ori Schwarz: Thank you so much for not making me choose whom! I would point out at the objectification of social life (the constant translation of actions, interactions and social relationships into digital data objects) and I’d stress the performativity of these representations of social life. For example, the fact that social network maps like those studied by social network analysts are no longer models or representations of social life but turn into data that shapes social life by helping algorithms decide how to treat us: which options will be opened up or foreclosed to us, what information will be presented to us, whether we qualify for a security risk, with huge influences on our life chances. Actually it doesn’t really matter who’ll join the Uber ride, since this transformation is relevant to any sociologist, alive or dead, as it remolds power, temporality, collectivity… almost any dimension of sociological theory.

Dan Kotliar: In your book you deal with symbolic interactionism, Marxist theory, Bourdieusian theory, and more. Are there any theories that, in your view, still need revising but were left out of the current book? In other words, what should we expect to find in the second edition of The Codes that Bind Us Together?

Ori Schwarz: I didn’t have enough pages for solidarity. I know, it sounds awful, but it’s true. In the book I discuss at length new forms of social life that I call “connective” and that share with collectivity some features but not others, and throughout the book I repeatedly warn the readers that the emergence of these new forms, these new mechanisms that bind actions, emotions and consciousnesseses of different individuals into something bigger, doesn’t mean we can simply forget about collectivity. In fact, collectivity and group solidarity (including their utterly unpleasant manifestations, like group hatred and violence) interact with connectivity in fascinating ways. I had some thoughts about Durkheim, and what happens to totemism and collective emotions in digital society, but before I had time to fully develop my argument, it became clear that I ran out of space; so in the second edition you may well expect more solidarity.

Bradd Shore on his new book, Shakespeare and Social Theory

https://www.routledge.com/Shakespeare-and-Social-Theory-The-Play-of-Great-Ideas/Shore/p/book/9781032017167

Interview by Rob Shore

Rob Shore: Using the lens of social science on Shakespeare seems at once radical and—after having read the book—obvious. Tell me about how you conceived of the project and summarize the main argument you are making. 

Bradd Shore: The book was written to bring together convincingly the two most important sides of my intellectual life: (1) Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and (2) anthropologically grounded social theory.  My interest in Shakespeare began when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley back in the early 1960s.  I was an English major and had the good fortune to study with some brilliant Shakespeare scholars in Berkeley’s distinguished English Department, at the time the best place in the world for studying Renaissance English literature. 

As I studied Shakespeare, I took several excellent courses in political theory.  As I read thinkers like Locke and Hume and Plato and Rousseau, I was struck by surprising overlaps between the concerns of political philosophers and Shakespeare.  Of course, Shakespeare expressed himself through drama rather than philosophical discourse. Nonetheless, I saw in Shakespeare’s work a theoretical genius paralleling his poetic and dramatic skills. 

Shakespeare’s approach to theory was not always immediately apparent in the plays.  He had found a way to embed a theoretical perspective in his plays without dislocating or disrupting the theatrical and poetic power of the drama.  I became interested in his plays as fascinating and often underappreciated reflections on many of the same issues that I would study in my later career as an anthropologist, issues like the theatrical nature of political power, the creative and procreative power of art and nature, dilemmas of sex and gender, reconciling love and marriage, life as performance, the power of ritual, the relation between language and reality, and the human effort to make meaning.  

I also wanted to understand how Shakespeare did all this by telling stories. So I began to study the literary techniques he used to manage this marriage of story-telling and theory.  Imagining Shakespeare as an anthropologist, it was as if he had figured out how to write vivid ethnography so that it reflected theoretically back on itself.  His remarkable techniques relied on new ways of imagining perspectives emerging in both early Renaissance painting and optics. 

Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to shine a light on Shakespeare as a theoretical mind through new readings of six of his plays. However, it is equally an attempt to account for his craftsmanship through studying historical changes in representing perspective that allowed Shakespeare to stage self-analyzing dramas.

Rob Shore: Your analysis reveals texts full of multiple, playful, and often deceptive meanings. Some of them are compelling and quite clear.  But others are hidden under layers of abstraction and misdirection. What methods do you use from anthropology to unpack meaning, and how did you find the process of translating those tools to literary analysis?   

Bradd Shore: Clifford Geertz famously compared the data of cultural anthropology to a text, a comparison that has been both admired and criticized over the years.  For both literature and human behavior, the text analogy points to the need for interpretation, a requirement as troublesome as it is necessary for making sense of things human. 

One of the problems an interpreter faces is that the meaning of something—the meaning affordances of its internal structure and coherence, is not the same thing as the meaning for someone, which is a process of imaginative engagement of a mind with the world.  For an anthropologist, the meaning for someone requires emic analysis, how the locals understand their world and actions: what matters to them.  The meaning of something requires etic analysis, an attempt at an objective account of the meaning-making properties inherent in an act or an object.  We struggle to do both kinds of analysis and reconcile them, but the reconciliation often proves challenging. Often anthropologists end up choosing one or the other perspective.

In approaching Shakespeare’s plays, we have no privileged window into Shakespeare’s mind and intentions.  We only have his texts and the complex patterns that he weaves with his language and play structure.  The closest we come to an emic perspective in the absence of a Shakespearean literary memoir are the social historians’ reconstructions of the culture of Shakespeare’s day and the kinds of ideas and things of interest to Elizabethan writers and artists.   

Fortunately, there is no need to read meaning into Shakespeare’s work.  We only need to read his work, carefully and repeatedly, alternating our study of the plays with a study of the evolving cultural, political, scientific, and artistic of Shakespeare’s world.  When Shakespeare wanted to make a theoretical point, he left plenty of clues in his work: clues in his choice of language, his virtuosic wordplay, his characters’ names, his way with tropes (especially metaphors), and the messages he built into his manipulation of literary and artistic conventions. Careful reading and attention to his use of irony can help uncover those patterns. 

Interpretation is built up from evidence found in these repeated patterns throughout the play.  Thus, my analyses of the plays are extensive and based on very close readings of Shakespeare’s words, accompanied by historical explications of Elizabethan culture.  A satisfying interpretation makes sense of otherwise anomalous and puzzling aspects of the text.  That sense-making looks inward to the language and structure of the play and outward to the institutions and culture of Shakespeare’s day. 

To be convincing, an interpretation does not have to be the only possible account of a play. In their miraculous richness, Shakespeare’s plays are irreducible to a single meaning. Still, some readings make more sense than others. A satisfying interpretation leaves the reader with a sense of having a light illuminate something that was always there but had eluded both sight and insight. Good interpretations produce aha moments for the reader.
 

Rob Shore: You advocate for a “close reading” approach to texts that were intended to be staged. What does that tell us about Shakespeare’s intent?

Bradd Shore: Shakespeare was both a thinker and a theatrical producer.  He understood what his primary audience wanted to see, and he gave them plays that were exciting, engaging, terrifying, funny, all the things that great theater can produce. 

I think I present enough textual evidence that my readings of the play will stand as credible interpretations of what is actually in the plays. However, these are not interpretations that Shakespeare intended for the immediate consumption of the Globe’s audience. Instead, I think they were written as look-again-readings of the texts for a more sophisticated audience. Shakespeare’s theoretical voice was intended for readers rather than viewers, by those interested in the play of great ideas rather than drama’s more immediate experience. As a result, Shakespeare wrote plays that were both compelling dramas and effective theoretical treatises.  The only other writer I know who regularly pulled off the same kind of double-dealing magic was Plato in his Socratic dialogues.

Rob Shore:In a book so concerned with double meaning and wordplay, you must have felt some pressure in coming up with a title. How did you approach the task? 

Bradd Shore: I like playful titles that encourage multiple meanings. So my initial title was Shakespeare and the Play of Great Ideas. However, my editor at Routledge found that title somewhat vague and wanted a title that would attract both social scientists and literary types.  So I agreed to the more straightforward title and was happy that the press allowed me to keep “The Play of Great Ideas” as a subtitle.

Rob Shore: If Shakespeare’s play of ideas was a reflection of a technological and cultural paradigm shift in perspective, how do you think Shakespeare would adapt his work to reflect our current moment: 24/7 digital transmedia omniscience, hyper-irony, double-talk, fake news, a deep bench of Shakespearean political figures, and all the rest? Does that reality make his texts more, less, or just differently relevant today? 

Bradd Shore: I have no idea what modern technology Shakespeare would exploit were he to write today.  But he would likely be attracted to the possibilities of modern theater and film for playing up the problems of representation and perspective. 

Shakespeare can be thought of as modern in three senses. First, he is modern in being concerned with universal themes, as relevant for today’s audiences as those of his time.  Second, he is modern in being ahead of his time.  In my book, I show how his plays anticipate psychoanalytic theory, exchange theory, modern metaphor theory, performance theory, political theory, cognitive anthropology,  Queer Theory, and structuralism in more sophisticated ways than we ever imagined. 

Finally, Shakespeare is modern in his radical interrogation of the world and his awareness of the influence of perspective on how one views reality.  While traditional critics like E.M.W. Tillyard tried to convince us that Shakespeare’s work was essentially an extension of medieval political and social thought, they overlook Shakespeare’s characteristic irony, attraction to paradox, and relentless questioning of orthodoxy.  Shakespeare and Social Theory was written to highlight the radical character of the plays.