January 30, 2018

No Profit from Good Sociology

Historically, Engineering flourished during the Industrial Revolution, when many companies and inventors set out to make a buck by engineering things better than everyone else. If they had better models and methods, they did better, and as better results were achieved, the embodied insights and theoretical challenges of the technologies drove the theory forward.

For example, James Watt did better than the competition by using Pressure-Volume diagrams, which later became a central tool in thermodynamics.

Going the other way, the Live Steam Injector was at first thought to be some kind of black magic, and was rejected for patent on the basis of being a perpetual motion machine, until its existence and success spurred thermodynamics to catch up and explain it.

In sociology, there is no whole industry using better sociology to build better social technology which in turn drives progress in sociology. It’s hard to imagine what that would even look like. What would they sell? What would they do?

But we can think of a few ways to profit from better sociology, at least in theory:

  • Better corporate social technology. If your team works together more effectively, has better coordination mechanisms, clearer goals, more productive theoretical processes, evaluates investments, partners, and teams and departments with a better eye to the important detail, then it should do better. And surely these things are in the domain of sociology? This one is the closest to reaching “critical mass” for the creation of good theory: there are multiple separate existing companies and innovative social technologies in the field in this area. Additionally, standard corporate structure practice contains many distilled insights into how to get people to work well on shared purposes. A bit more overlap, a bit bigger and more explicit of a body of best practices, and a bit more theoretical attention paid to these things as a single body of technologies working on a unified body of theory, and we could have a subfield of engineering-grade sociology. But as an additional hurdle, we can think of a few “politically incorrect” ways to improve corporate practice, which are not being pursued and therefore are not being theoretically developed, because of existing barriers to that kind of exploration.

  • Corporatized Community Social Technology. If communities were owned by companies somehow, or even just had stronger leadership, then the incentive to organize them differently for better results could drive a lot of innovation. Lacking actual examples and details, we won’t say much more about this now, except to note that in the original colonization of America, this is roughly how communities were structured. A bunch of settlers would strike out with a corporate entity and a loan from the banks of some nearby towns, and build a new town. The reason we don’t do this kind of thing now seems to be more a matter of accidents and constraints of our statecraft than anything else.

  • Explicit Social Technology in Social Life. If we expand our view to non-financial profits, persuasive or high-agency people could apply better sociological theory to their immediate social circles for large benefits. Marriage, friendship, extended families, community, social norms, and so on are all deeply important, and recently showing signs of wear. These things were perhaps done better in the past, when people spent more time in more permanent social fabrics with local authorities like priests and patriarchs. Such an environment would have more affordances to share social information and coordinate on norms. On the other hand, it is hard for the local tacit knowledge of the social fabric to make it back into centralized formal theory without something like a hierarchy of sociologist-priests. Unfortunately, these days most academics in the relevant field aren’t also social tech practitioners.

So we have a small outpost of good conditions, not quite large enough to hit a possible “critical mass” of theoretical development feedback loops, with some nearby identifiable areas of social technology which are not being pursued for political-structural reasons, and areas of traditional knowledge which possibly used to work well but are closed off for structural and cultural reasons. The result is that we fail to hit the critical mass that a larger ecosystem of explicit social technology might, and thus fail to develop the theory-driving feedback loop which would develop engineering-grade sociology.

These barriers are not fundamental, but contingent on our social history and the nature of our society. The problem identified here is that our society is badly arranged to produce automatic sociological progress.

Blaming it on society is fun, but doesn’t tell us how to proceed. Is there some way to work around this barrier and do good sociology anyways? Here’s some ideas that could be pursued:

  1. A rigorous survey of existing actively maintained social technologies and the explanations of their workings by their maintainers (eg, management consultants and their wares). Focusing on commonalities of underlying logic and common subcomponents might reveal some heretofore unknown laws or replicable building-block phenomena. Also, reverse engineering the logic to its most sensible interpretation, based on our best theories.

  2. A survey of identifiable common social technologies across time and between societies, and the associated explanations by contemporary social theorists. Again, the focus would be on commonalities of logic.

  3. Interviewing or reading the works of people who have achieved great results to extract their models and unify them with our models.

  4. Thought experiments and practical excusions to design social technologies that hold up and actually work, as a way to exercise our theoretical models.

The idea is to create directly and artificially the patterns of investigation that would happen naturally in a society with healthy sociology-creating structure.


Edited and curated by Wolf Tivy

Comments? Email comments@newstatecraft.org