Sun Mar 9, 2008

Figs from Thistles

Identity and Control In May, Princeton University Press will publish a new edition of Identity and Control, by Harrison White. It will be interesting to see how it is received and, indeed, what’s changed inside. The original edition is an extremely difficult read. To borrow a phrase from Ste Croix, the text repeatedly lapses into the kind of writing that does not always repay the repeated re-readings it invites. White’s prose eschews connectives, prepositions and other grammatical signposts in favor of an impatient, declarative style that is suggestive but difficult to follow. If reading Talcott Parsons gives you the feeling that his work was transliterated from bad German—all subordinate clauses, separated verbs, and interminable sentences—then White is more like Nietzsche: pungent, metaphorical, aphoristic. Despite being a sociologist whose original graduate training was in physics, his work seems to encourage literary comparisons to a surprising degree. These range from the indulgent (Charles Tilly likened Identity and Control to Finnegans Wake) to the critical (Craig Calhoun remarked in passing that Parsons “reads like Hemingway” in comparison). In his review of Identity and Control, Andrew Abbott’s choice was Blake:

Like Blake, White’s vision is utterly his own. It is filled with personal terminology. Its allusions range to the four corners of the scholarly world, but they use sources in ways that their own authors couldn’t have imagined. It’s elliptical arguments presume you know the whole before you read the parts. Its prose ties paradox to paradox … Like Blake, too, White’s most important interlocutor is himself, not the reader.

Blake, of course, was a quasi-religious figure, and his wife once said that his visions set you ascreaming. Not so encouraging. But the key here, I think, is what has come out of all of this work. By their fruits shall ye know them. Do we gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles? Quite apart from his own work applying his ideas to artistic careers, career mobility or production markets, many of White’s students—Granovetter, Padgett, Breiger, Bearman, Gould, others—have done astonishingly good things beginning from his general approach and with the tools he developed. Much of social theory is essentially sterile, contributing nothing but secondary readings, or a vocabulary that no-one wants to use. Or—less often—it is essentially technical, offering tools for analysis but no compelling vision of social life. The fusion of vision and method is uncommon, but is what’s on offer here.

A thorough study of White’s contribution to sociology is still some way off. Such an assessment might see White as a distinctive sort of American Pragmatist: in philosophical outlook, aggressively nominalist; in imagery, drawing on the hard science of physical processes; in technique, overlapping to a surprising extent with parts of industrial economics that are now a bit out of fashion. But that’s for another day (or dissertation). In the meantime, I’m looking forward to having another crack at the damn book.