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Now I become Social Science, Destroyer of worlds

November 7, 2009

UNC sociologist Charles Kurzman has an interesting article over at the Chronicle Review. He begins by describing a recent show trial in Iran:

“Theories of the human sciences contain ideological weapons that can be converted into strategies and tactics and mustered against the country’s official ideology,” Saeed Hajjarian, a leading strategist in the Iranian reform movement, explained in his forced confession.

A political scientist by training, Hajjarian “admitted” that Weber’s notion of patrimonial government wasn’t applicable to Iran. The theory, Hajjarian declared, is relevant only in countries where “people are treated as subjects and deprived of all citizenship rights,” which is “completely incompatible with and unrelated to current conditions in Iran.”

Also fingered by the Iranian regime – the irascible Talcott Parsons. It turns out rumors of Parsons’ irrelevancy were greatly exaggerated, as he is still on the syllabi of Iran’s half-million-plus social science students. Worried by the trend of swelling social science enrollment, the regime has started arresting sociologists and political scientists, and threatens to purge the university of those who would promote the works of certain scholars:

What links this group of scholars, it appears, is their belief that an independent civil society, beyond the reach of the state, is necessary for the development of democracy and human rights. This view is particularly pronounced in Habermas’s concept of the public sphere: free spaces for the exchange of ideas among autonomous institutions and individuals. Where the public sphere is weak, society is vulnerable to domination by the state—a concern that Habermas borrowed from Weber.

Read the article for a description of Habermas’ rock-star status in Iran. So there’s one lesson: repressive regimes make the sociological enterprise that much sexier. (Maybe we should encourage Senator Tom Coburn to step up his attacks on the social sciences?)

But I think more importantly, this piece allows us jaded Westerners to appreciate the force that social science theories must have had when they were still fresh. Materialism is now old hat for us post-post-modernist types, and sociologists often use it as a punching bag (e.g. “Culture matters” or “Forgive me if I talk for a moment as a vulgar materialist…”). But when materialism first entered the scene in the 19th century, it was as the destroyer of all received wisdom.

Russian peasants love for feudalism was once based on the legend of the “Good Tsar.” The Tsar was father of the Russian people, God’s representative on earth, and protector of the meek from the powerful. Whenever it seemed the Russian state was acting against the interests of the peasants, they reasoned that the Tsar must have been hoodwinked by some aristocrats at the court. After all, if the Tsar knew someone was harming his beloved peasants, he’d put an end to it. So rather than directing their rage at the system, or even the system’s leader, angry peasants would usually just demand the Tsar dismiss a minister or two.

Consider the mistake the Czarist censors made, then, when they decided not to ban Marx’s Kapital because they deemed It too abstract and difficult a piece. Well, the workers (who were peasants that had emigrated to the cities) formed study groups, and soon Russian workers were committed materialists. It was now irrelevant whether the Tsar was “good” or “bad”: he was the central figure in an exploitative economic system that was riddled with self-contradictions, and was fated by historical necessity to collapse and leave the workers in charge.

We now know Marx to be a utopian who embraced some highly dubious economic theories. But Marx’s materialism is much more grounded and reality-based than the feudal ideology it replaced. Strangely, I think Ayatollah Khamanei might agree with me:

In a speech to university administrators in late August, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leader of the Islamic Republic, described the popularity of the social sciences as a “worrisome” trend. “Many of the human sciences are based on philosophies of materialism and disbelief toward the divine Islamic teachings,” Khamenei said. “Instruction in these human sciences in the universities will lead to reservations and doubts in religious principles and beliefs.”

All governments inevitably support a status quo, and thus all governments reproduce structures of economic and social inequality. Khamenei knows that if Iranians equate “government” with “God’s plan,” then these inequalities are just a part of the natural order of things. But materialism, of course, equates “government” with “Khamenei’s plan.” And once enough Iranians think that way – and it really seems we’ve already reached that point – then inequality, exploitation, and repression are revealed as manmade. Suddenly, Iranians can imagine a different system of government with a different kind of leader.

In sum – nice work, Max and Talcott.


Citation PS – My oversimplified claims regarding the Russian Revolution come from Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924. All oversimplifications are my own, not Orlando’s!

One Comment
  1. Jeremy permalink

    “Forgive me if I talk for a moment as a vulgar materialist…”

    I think this may be funnier for me than for other readers of this blog.

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