In the fourth week of our seminar, Iddo Tavory joined us. He did so in three different ways. In his writing: two of his articles (one co-authored with Nina Eliasoph) were the primary reading assignments – his, on morality, and theirs, on coordinating futures. In conversation: he also contributed to the seminar during the two hours before the class began, when he and I compared notes about our latest thoughts about our research and writing project on the social condition. And as a seminar participant: he joined the class, in which he and I discussed with the class his writings and their preliminary thoughts and writings. It was an illuminating day.

Tavory and Eliasoph maintain that we approach the future in three different ways. As we interact, we anticipate the actions of proximate others and ourselves: protentions they call it. Beyond immediate adjustments to others, our actions are embedded in trajectories, meaningful wholes that are summarized by narratives and projects. And then, further, both the trajectories and protentions are fit into temporal landscapes, overall temporal schemes, e.g. clocks and calendars, with their rhythms and projections, and with social bodies, such as religions and nations, linking past, present and future. It is in the relationship among these different ways of anticipating that Tavory and Eliasoph make their contribution and can inform our inquiry. They argue that no one sort of future frame is determinative, as the ethnomethodologists would have it, and that the three are not all a part of a structural whole, as both Durkheim and Bourdieu (in his case, with tensions determined by class position) maintain. They emphasize that people must work out the tensions among the different future anticipations, and that this is something that needs to be empirically examined: from the point of view of our inquiry, an examination of the temporal dimension of the social condition, something that is crucial to our investigation, as we will see in our discussion of Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future (assigned for this week).

In Tavory’s reflections on moral action, he seeks to provide a formalist alternative to both what he calls a realist moral sociology and a descriptive relativism. His formalism includes an understanding of actions that reveal a moral actor to be a certain kind of socially recognized person, that these actions should inform an inter-situational identity, and that the actions and the inter-situational identity invoke a positive emotional evaluation. From my point of view, the substantive details of his formal approach are less important than the social form of the moral itself. The field of action opens up the formal possibility of moral evaluation, reveals moral dilemmas in social interaction, moral challenge as a matter of ordinary social practices. Last week we read Robert Merton and considered how his analysis of ambivalence, as it is tied to the roles people play in social life, can inform our inquiry into the social condition. Tavory’s analysis of the moral significantly enriches our analysis. It suggests future research for the seminar participants.

Iddo and I talked at the Breads Bakery about our project and about the class. We agreed that Arendt’s conception of being “between past and future” will be central to our inquiry, this following a draft I wrote on Arendt which he revised. I will be reporting this discussion to the class in our next session. I summarized for him the student paragraphs on manifestations of the social condition and then he quickly read them. We discussed our overall approach.

We made a significant advance, realizing that the examination of the social condition, the study of the dilemmas and tensions knitted into the social fabric, involves the illumination of the questions that social life poses as a primary research task. Pragmatism is focused on practical solutions to life’s problems. We will concern ourselves with the questions the social poses as an ongoing dimension of the human condition, and our inquiry will be on documenting, analyzing and explaining how people face these questions and muddle through answering them.

Iddo suggested that the student examples of manifestations of the social condition didn’t get to the core of our project. They were providing answers when they should be illuminating questions. They, we both noted, focused on ironies of social life, unanticipated consequences. He thought this to be mistaken, that they didn’t get at what we want to explore. He convinced me in our discussions and the class in our meeting. I still see his point, but I have reservations. I think he is right that noting irony is not enough, but I think that the ironies of consequence are objective indications of the questions we wish to illuminate.

In my last post, I wrote that perhaps our first seminar finding is that the “social condition appears in the ambiguities and ambivalences of social life, and in the ironies of consequence of social action.” Iddo questioned this in our discussion and during the class. The focus on consequences of actions emphasizes objective determination, rather than the openness of action, which is central to our project. We discussed student projects and he showed them that when they looked at social life from the actor’s point of view, not from the view of the objective observer, when they looked at it from the point of view of the actor on the social stage and not that of the view of audience in the balcony (This is key to Arendt’s critique of Marx and social science more generally in chapter 3 of The Human Condition), the questions the social condition poses can be examined directly.

Iddo emphasized a problem: the dilemmas and tensions of action, the questions that are posed in social life, can be overshadowed by the focus on consequences whether they are ironic, anticipated or unanticipated. Yet, I think the students were right in their choice of examples, even if this only opens analysis. The observed ironies of consequence suggest social practices in which the analysis of the social condition may be especially instructive.

Here some of their examples:

Social media both facilitate and undermine friendship and autonomous social and political action (as Taebum Yoo noted). A strong commitment to achieving the conditions for living a good life undermines the possibility of living a good life (Josphene Ott). Prisons meant to rehabilitate to and isolate criminals from “normal society,” become schools for crime (Iris Urdal). Individualism makes it possible to distinguish oneself from a social group, but in that the distinctions often conflict, one person’s realization of an individual project, limits the realization of another’s (Zachary Sunderman). All these examples, and others the students suggested, indicate situations where illuminating the questions posed in social life is especially significant. Their task now is to get inside these apparent objective determinations of unintended consequences, and show how people struggle with dilemmas.

Participants in social movements work to act through social media and hope that they sustain and do not in the end contribute to the demise of the movements. Activists must consider the questions posed by surveillance through and the limited access to the social media. How do these questions arise? How are they addressed, and by whom? All this should be studied.

People, especially young people, but not only them, work to balance the relationship between the means and the ends, seeking social goods. Do questions come up concerning this balance? How? Who notices them? Are these issues addressed only by individuals, or do groups raise them and try to answer them?

How do prisoners and their guards get through the day isolated from the rest of society? Does a focus on the organizational needs of a total institution present alternative paths of adaptation? Is rehabilitation a part of daily practices? How does the socialization into the life of the prison present possibilities for honing crime skills? Are there other possibilities? If so, how do prisoners choose them? There might be an irony in observing that prisons become schools for crime, but how this becomes so, how the imprisoned create the irony or not, is a matter of social action. The dilemmas and not the specific consequences are the key issues.

And concerning individualism, one would be well advised to read Georg Simmel carefully, which we will do in a subsequent class, to address individualism and its promise and perils. Suffice it to say for now, that the way individuation and social differentiation go hand and hand, leading to mutual support and social tension, is a primary site for the study of questions posed in social life, and especially of life in the (post) modern metropolis. I think Simmel is the classical theorist of the social condition and Zack’s problem is at the core of his work.

Thus, I agree with Tavory that the social condition is studied as a matter of action, but I find that the students’ selections of the social condition were well chosen. Not all social life is characterized by dilemma and tension. Much of what we do is done routinely. Ironic consequences of actions suggest instances where the examination of the social condition might be most illuminating.

Next we turn to Hannah Arendt, whose approach to the active life (the original title of The Human Condition was Vita Activa) centers my examination of the social condition, and I think will help us understand the examples the students choice. As we continue our conversation Iddo’s interest in Arendt is increasing. I hope to convince the students of our seminar this Thursday.

Lastly for now note: her approach to past and future, provides a broader context for understanding the significance of Tavory’s approach to morals and futures.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Iddo Tavory’s Visit with the Social Condition Seminar

  1. Many thanks for a beautiful post. I enjoyed the class. I went home buzzing with thoughts. Here, I would like to pick two threads from our discussion. First, regarding irony. You are right that I get uncomfortable with irony. And I also think the students choices were good, even when I thought that the way the approached these problems was more traditional than they thought it was. They chose poignant problems and moments. And these moments, almost by definition, are ones that actors don’t take for granted, so that questions and dilemmas are bound to emerge.

    But then. how do we analyze them? “The social condition” is a way into the guts of social action. I was struck, in our discussion, that once we focused on these questions, we quickly realized–in most cases–that we don’t know what they are. For me, this is the mark of a good question. Since we don’t usually think about social life in these terms, our answer to many questions has to be that it would require empirical work we haven’t yet done.

    The other thought came up in regards to Insil’s example about affirmative action in Korea (designed to better incorporate women in the workplace). Insil noted that one of the key sociological puzzles is that small firms abide by the law much less than do large firms. In our discussion, and especially later as I sat at home thinking about it, it occurred to me that when we approach such a question (and a lot of sociological questions have a similar structure), we assume that the different actors are “answering” the same question. Since the “answer” is hiring/non-hiring we assume the “question” is also the same. But why? Is it possible that large and small employers are actually answering different questions? Once we ask ourselves this question, and set out to answer it, we sensitize ourselves to a host of unexpected answers we might otherwise gloss over.

    This latter point may be important. So far, we thought about the social condition in what we can think of as “definitional” terms. It is a way to approach and define subject positions, institutions, relationships, that is very different than the way most sociologists think about their objects/subjects of analysis. But, as skeptical outsiders should ask: why would we want to do it? Of course, one answer is theoretical: sociology is (also) a way to illuminate patterned forms in the social world. And we are describing a new way to do so. In this sense, the justification for the project lies completely outside the purview of either the sociology of construction or of effects.

    But are we doing ourselves justice? It seems to me, following the discussion of Insil’s example, that we are selling ourselves short (not that there are many buyers, but still). I can now see ways in which this form of definition can help other “kinds” of sociologists (or ourselves, when we put on different hats).

    Looking forward to join you again,

  2. I think we made a significant advance in this session by pinpointing the location of the social condition not in ironies per se, but in the problems of undetermined action that they pose. However, the more I think about it, I wonder if the distinction is always so clear. Couldn’t we find the social condition, say, in the dilemma of an actor who knows his or her choice will produce an irony, as much as in the dilemma of an actor who faces one? For example, to find oneself in the position of having to decide whether to implement a policy that one knows will produce undesirable “unintended consequences”: the actor here faces the choice between two ostensible “goods,” neither of which can be definitively elevated above the other, and which cannot be reconciled with each other–specifically, the good intended by the policy, and the good preserved by not implementing it.
    I also agree with Jeff that identifying ironies can be fruitful for discovering instances of the social condition. When I brought up the example of individualism, my inspiration was actually in thinking about the problems it poses for political action, especially for those who go about it under an idealist or universalist understanding. And I also had an existential dimension in mind–the fact that the free self becomes not only a normative, but practically a sacral thing under the very same conditions that make it impossible to realize that very freedom. Aside from the implications this has for political choice and action, it also amounts to what we could call a dilemma of experience. I think this is inherent in Iddo’s examples, such as the musician who sees the spark disappear in proportion to how far (s)he develops his/her craft. Insofar as that is an instance of the human condition, I think that when it has a social dimension (as in the experiential contradiction between individualism and plurality), it makes great sense to call it the “social condition.”

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