Openings

There is a recent debate regarding methodologies in the social sciences, which provides an opening to dialogue and consideration.

Debate on methodologies

The series of forums on methodology in the American Historical Review in special issues (Volume 113, No. 2, April 2008, 391-437 and Volume 117, No. 3,June 2012, 698—813) reflect the debate among professional historians with regard to method.The first forum discussed the “turn” from social history to “cultural” history, including the “linguistic turn.” The second proceeded to discuss the phenomena of “turns” themselves, and potential new ones such as “material,” “affective,” and “environmental” turns. This process of reflection encourages debate on the profession of history itself, and its practices, and whether always for academic audiences or also influencing public discourse.

To me, this degree of reflexivity is instructive. The profession of history provides insights into the present and the possibility of critique from alternative perspectives. That is, rather than perpetual concepts, which are defended from change by reification, historical methods can serve to document changing meanings and institutions, as well as comparative analysis or periodization and “genealogy.” Whether there is a direction to history, such as a teleology' of “progress,” and whether the present emerges from the past, as in “path dependence,” the emergence and evolution of institutional forms are important considerations.

First-person plural

Academic discourse tends to be in third person, with an “objective” voice. A recent exception to this pattern is work by Judith Butler (2015).

We can make this into a broad existential claim, namely, that everyone is precarious, and this follows from our social existence as bodily beings who depend upon one another for shelter and sustenance and who, therefore, are at risk of statelessness, homelessness, and destitution under unjust and unequal political conditions.

(Butler 2015, 118)

In discussing public assembly, she notes that bodies are present in public space, in their concrete material form, communicating a message, whether spoken or silent. She stresses the materiality of the body and the infrastructures necessary for its persistence, its life. Environmental resources, such as air, water, and food, are often assumed rather than examined for their contingency. The social recognition of each body, as a distinctive human person, is also necessary for that persons capacity to speak, during one’s early lifetime as well as at the moment of appearance in public. The contingency of recognition of each person is also social, with certain categories receiving more value than others, governed by certain norms of appearance. A single body would not convey the message as forcefully as a gathering of many such persons, which has the power to challenge existing political and economic structures.

Butler focuses on “precarity,” not just of employment but also of the environmental and social infrastructures which empower a person to appear and be recognized in a public forum. By including citizens and noncitizens, as well as marginal and dominant populations, she is raising the question of who has a right to live. The allocation of social and environmental resources is a political process which determines who has the right to merely survive and who has the potential to flourish with a life worth living. By articulating the social and political natures of these decisions, as well as interdependency, she raises the issue of responsibility. To allow any population to die, whether intentionally or by neglect, is to permit genocide, with its moral implications. The combination of vulnerability and dependency can lead to solidarity of humankind in the face of shared mortal threats. Alternatively, Davies sees “exterminism” as the super-rich separating themselves from unfolding ecological disasters (Davies 2018,27-28).

There is a long history of “assembly,” revolts and revolutions, who may declare new nations and constitutions, claiming legitimacy of the sovereignty of the people. Butler tends to idealize the “public sphere,” even while noting some of the issues with Arendts formulation (Butler 2015, 44-46, 204-209; Eley 2011, 562—565), in contrast with the more unruly formulations of Hardt and Negri (2000, 2004, 2009, 2017). The definition of “the people” is now in question, with the rising influence of populist movements around the globe, threatening traditional “conservatism” (Economist cover story July 6—12, 2019,

16—18). The threat and the potential of public assembly includes changing the meaning of key terms, such as “property” (Blaufarb 2016), as well as establishing new institutions, such as the “Third Estate” in the French Revolution. The origin of modern social science may well have been to avoid such potential disruptions to the status quo to discipline the mob (Ross 1991;Baretz 1960).

Performativity

The concept of performativity can serve as a bridge between long-standing dichotomies such as social history, which draws upon a Marxist legacy, and cultural history and the “linguistic turn.”The presumed divide was a social history which used “class” as a key category, with a definition based on the economic structure, compared with a cultural history which used discourse and symbols (Jameson 1998; Williams 1977; Hall 2016).

Drawing upon Searle, Austin, and Butler, the meaning of a linguistic term is based on norms, enforcement, and behavior, which reinforces that meaning in practice. According to Butler,

There is an invariably performative dimension to the kinds of demand that are made [in recent assemblies ... whether those of the Occupy movements or los Indignados in Spain], where performativity functions as a chiastic relation between body and language.

(Butler 2015, 137)

The methodology' recommended in this book involves key terms and the related institutional practices, as interpreted and reinforced by experts. Behavior involves the material body as well as means of production, along with subjective intentions and psychic rewards. A social science or a history can incorporate both aspects, the material and the symbolic, in an analysis of social behavior and historical change (Jameson 2019, 210—214). To open the question of change may also challenge the professional and the academic, nonetheless, as to whether to engage with current issues, political, economic, and moral, or to maintain the “objective” stance of the professional. Politicization of the university in the 1960s in France and the US was contentious and continues to be debated.

 
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