There it is before you—smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, come and find out.
-From Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness"
It is pertinent to recognize that social reality is not an aura of perceived characteristics, in which there lays no unifying substance that could account for coherence. There is an evident danger in oversimplifying things. The attempt of this post is to promote an approach to social science that engages issues concerning social ontology, that is, epistemic positions in regards the means by which to uncover underlying interconnecting structures that constitute the manifestation of certain types of social reality.
In this sense, the very notion society, itself, amounts to an immensely complex entity, the broad functioning of which cannot be captured by obscure models of positivistic simplification.
Pragmatism does not tell us about the existence of anything. By not grasping the essence of human behavior that exhibit interconnections, we as human beings are left mystified about the world in which we live in. In essence, “the attempt to define some underlying reality beneath the ever changing surface of human phenomena, to delineate the common psychobiological structure of man, to specify the common blueprint of the human animal” (Wolf, 1974 : 33). Hence, we must abandon our Hegelian selves; social scientists have a responsibility to illuminate the intersections of the latent and visible content of human endeavor such that intelligible conclusions of human social life can be holistically developed.
The intention is to build the foundations for an ethical political humanist social science that allows for normative discussion concerning the inherent relationship between the quest for knowledge creation and matters with respect to collectively shared notions of morality (Heyman, 2005). As such, it is not enough to simply explain or predict, but also describe what possibilities exist for human social action. In this sense, humans, regardless of social location, are envisaged as a unified field of study giving rise to generalizations about humanity—“a manner of looking at man and a vision of man” (Wolf, 1974 : 88). This calls for sedulous scrutiny of ‘what is’ and demands a sociological imagination of ‘what could be’ (Heyman, 2005), which creates the analytical space to study and evaluate particular collective arrangements, according to how they cultivate and sustain the people within them along with an assessment as to the extent to which treatment is consistent with broadly notions of, for example, what constitutes social justice.
This approach is not without criticism, especially from those of postmodern bent. It is argued that such an orientation towards social scientific enquiry is inherently essentialist; social formations, rather, and thus social phenomena, exist through the ideas that envision them—generalization is impossible for ideas (‘knowledges’) are held, bound, and delimited to historically-specific locally contextual social contingencies. Intuitively, moral claims to ‘Enlightenment ideas as social justice are culturally hegemonic, and encompassing conceptions of humanity construct an invasive ‘panopticon’, which reduces human subjects of study to mere ‘objects’ of ‘invariant scientific gaze’ (Shcheper-Hughes, 1995), that is, a designation of a singular human subjectivity and the erasure of alternative subjectivities.
Particular moralities are, nevertheless, the sediment of power projects (Heyman, 2005). It is not unjustified to abandon articulations of humanity. The solution, rather, is a philosophical anthropology that draws on the essence of social conflict, that is, contextual predicaments over human potentialities. From a Marxist historical-materialist point of view, human senses are shaped and refined through working and transforming nature into useful things. It is through one’s relations with what one produced that an individual achieves pleasure and satisfaction. Through visible direct interdependent social production, recognitions of one’s ability, dexterity, and talent are palpable.
What is stressed is that issues of morality are squarely placed within the parameters and social practices of various modes of production. Under capitalism, for instance, authentic human development is limited given that the actually existing physical world forces mankind to be subservient to constrained subjectivities; that is, for those who are forced to sell their labor power for sustenance are severed from their creativity—a condition of alienation that ensues neurotic anxiety. The social organization of production is not oriented to human needs and aspirations, but rather by profit calculations estimated by legally protected extortionists [capitalists]. The social effects are total degradation and total dehumanization of working people, in which they are reduced to nothing but disconnected brutes performing simple animalistic functions, while not developing freely their physical and mental energy for self-actualization.
In this sense, an ethical political humanism assesses social life from a preview that sees society as composed of differentiating relationships, involving conflict and contradiction (Heyman, 2005). Once it is possible to visualize a mode of production, for instance, it is then possible to visualize the mode of political power—the characteristics of social decision-making and the ordering of rights, privileges and responsibilities. In other words, the determination of how the products of labor are distributed determines power differentials concerning how society is to be structured and coordinated. As such, it can be argued that postmodern critiques as mentioned above are tantamount to a justifying the credence of cultural relativism, which turns social scientists into a mere spectators of social situations of human deprivation. The end result is the intellectual paralysis of ‘waiting’—the process by which the social world slips away from the researcher, and, in turn, becomes, muted, numb and dead, a passive acquiescence to manifestations of human suffering.
An outstanding example of a commitment to ethical political humanism is anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom’s Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering In the Twenty-First Century. Through the use of comparative ethnography of war zones, quite similar, in practice, to sociologist Michael Buraway’s (1998) advocation of ‘The Extended Case Method’, Nordstrom delves into the brutish, harrowing, loathsome world of complex production, transport, distribution, and consumption systems of well-developed global networks of extra-state trade that merge war and capitalist profiteering.
Using the war in Sri Lanka of 1983, and its aftermath as backdrop, Nordstrom demonstrates how such a criminal mundane system of profit unfolds on the front-lines where the eventuation of social instability metamorphoses into persistency. Poor internally displaced are forced to fend for any means of sustenance to feed their families—this includes scrapping anything together to sell for a meager standard of living. Due to the destruction of infrastructure and economic sustainability, the military and police then force people to give up such goods as means of payment for their services. Just as these troops demand payment from the poor, so must they pay up the ladder—compensating commanding officers that demand far greater goods due to their control over valuable resources. The commanders then use such power and manipulation of the social turmoil of their society to forge partnerships and alliances with international corporate wildcatters to trade valuable resources to secure items like weapons, artillery, and consumer products—in the final instance, wealth and ascendancy in the continuousness of warfare, at the expense of those at lower echelons of influence, association, and access to means of production, are fortified. The entire process is an unequivocal example of how the merging of war and profiteering on the global political, economic, and social landscape is forged.
The wealth generated through such system of payola cannot, and does not, stand outside what constitutes the formal global economy. Wealth, by definition, is the accumulation goods and resources having value in terms of production, exchange, and use. For wealth to in fact become wealth it must be involved in a mechanism of fructification. How does the accumulation of goods and resources in the shadow network of extra-state trade evolve into wealth, i.e. how can it acquire the all important use and exchange values? Nordstrom answers this question by stating that it is the combination of the internationalized deregulated financial powerhouses and markets of the cosmopolitan world and the relative freedom of controls found in war zones that permit such abhorrent accumulation to be laundered into legitimacy. The functionality of bamboozlement is efficient due to the fluidity of legality in the apparatus of extra state trade, which bears truth to sociologist Manuel Castells' observation that there exists is a thin line between criminal traffic manifested in war zones from distant parts of the social world and established international trade networks.
Essentially, an ethical political humanist social science provides the necessary sociological lens so as to produce critical arguments about actually existing circumstances concerning human nature. It can provide the means by which to construct effective solutions to collectively recognized interconnected social problems that span the globe, and is an invaluable paradigm for a researcher traveling that tortuous royal road to science.
Burawoy, Michael. 1998. “The Extended Case Method.” Sociological Theory 16(1):4–33.
Conrad, Joseph. 1990. Heart of Darkness. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
Heyman, Josiah. 2005. “Eric Wolf’s Ethical-Political Humanism, and Beyond.” Critique of Anthropology 25(1):13–25.
Nordstrom, Carolyn. 2004. Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-first Century. University of California Press.
Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1995. “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 36(3):409–40.
Wolf, Eric R. 1974 . Anthropology. New York: W.W. Norton.