The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the Social Sciences

The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the Social Sciences

The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the Social Sciences

The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the Social Sciences


With postmodernism has come the questioning of the very idea of 'the social'. Thinkers form across the social sciences and humanities now agree that this one foundational concept can no longer be taken for granted as an objective or real characteristic of the world. However, their uncertainty has taken on many guises and the social in Question represents an attempt to pull these diverse forms of questioning together.Drawn form sociology, cultural studies, history and theology, an international and eminent cast of contributors look at how the idea of 'the social' developed from its mediaeval foundations to its consolidation in the early twentieth century. The book then charts how the concept has been brought into the question by critiques from science studies, cultural studies and postcolonial studies before going on to look at how new framework are being proposed for the exploration of issues formerly seen as 'the social'. This book makes a fascinating contribution to the rethinking of contemporary academic activity.


Mary Poovey

Contemporary scholars have harnessed 'the social' to so many theoretical paradigms that the phrase no longer conjures a common set of assumptions about society, culture, representation, or the methods by which we write history. Nevertheless, whether one uses 'the social' to invoke an objective infrastructure that underwrites culture, as members of the Annales school did, to suggest a gradual, continuously changing process that establishes threshold conditions for cultural and political events, as Marx and Toqueville did, or to identify one in the series of relatively autonomous domains that compose modern life, as Luhmann tended to do, then to deploy 'the social' as a noun automatically mobilizes certain theoretical claims implicit in the term's grammatical status. It is possible to use 'the social' as a noun phrase that designates an abstraction because of a historical process that has made abstractions seem as real as material entities. As a consequence of the rise of modern abstraction, in other words, it has become possible to think about social structures, relationships, and processes as entities, as relatively autonomous, and as sufficiently systematic to warrant scientific descriptions, which are systematic as well. Whatever individual theorists mean by the term, 'the social' has become thinkable as part of the long history of reification that we call modernity.

In this essay, I discuss one phase of this historical process: the forging of a link between philosophical theories about a specific abstraction - 'human nature' - and the legitimation of a form of governmentality that was new in early eighteenth-century Britain. This episode is relevant to the history of 'the social' for three reasons. First, eighteenth-century British philosophical attempts to theorize human nature constituted one of the earliest attempts to position a law-governed abstraction at the intersection between a providential order that was presumed to exist and the institutions of society. In so doing, philosophical theories about human nature advanced a method for studying what-can-be-seen through an abstract intermediary, which also functions as a basis for understanding (or acknowledging) what-cannot-be-observed. This method lies at the heart of all modern uses of 'the social' to explain observable practices and relationships by reference to an infrastructure that can only be theorized through the mediating abstraction itself.

Second, experimental moral philosophers advanced a theory about the

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