Response to Hendrik about (ir)reductionism

Recently, Hendrik responded to one of Jan’s posts about Neil Fligstein, regarding irreductionism. He wrote:

I guess I am a little less skeptical than the two of you. Maybe it comes down to not minding reductionism that much. Some reductionism has to be accepted, obviously, if we would like to explain anything. And I remember phrases from Latour’s “Irreductions” claiming that certain things  – for example, knowledge – do not exist. Is that not reductionist? It appears to be more a matter of which reductionism (materialist, idealist, institutionalist etc.) to pick.
What would a general irreductionist epistemology look like? And if it claimed that fields did not exist by their own devices, would that not be a reductionist claim?
Anyway, thanks for bringing the Fligstein book and the orgtheory-post to my attention. I am eager to read it.

His point is a good one, no? We are left to simply accept one reductionism or another, and he rightly points out that even Latour’s move to irreductionism was a form of reductionism (in a certain light). To this, I made the following comment, which I think is a new direction for irreductionist thinking. Let me know what you think…

I wrote:

Hendrik, Sure, that is one position to take; accept one reductionism or another, its more a matter of choice than real alternatives. That sounds fine, and as you say, many people simply do not mind reducing or essentializing some facets of society and so on.
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However, there is something of an alternative available, however, and I’ve been writing about it on the blog for the last two weeks. The basic point falls like this: how do we reject (but not fully do away with) essentializing or reductive ideas?
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For me, of course, the state comes to mind immediately. How can we sit around like smart little scholars saying “the state does not exist” (with a Foucauldian grin), meanwhile the rest of the Western world thinks about states as actors with quasi-interests and so on (as Hobbes might have had us believe in Leviathan)? How can so many people mistake this reductive idea for what’s actually happening on the ground? How can so many people think of the state as somehow set apart from what must be, in principle, its constitutive elements?
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From this vantage point, reductionism is not so much something to assume (as you suggest, we must assume one way or the other) and becomes a new source of questions: how did this reduction happen and how is it supported?
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That strikes me as quite interesting, and not really such a trap; provided we think of irreductionism as a source of questions rather than just another assumption, some new territory might be pioneered (that was a nice, American metaphor, eh!?)….

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About Nicholas

Associate Professor of Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Science and Technology Studies at Penn State, Nicholas mainly writes about understanding the scientific study of states and, thus, it is namely about state theory. Given his training in sociology and STS, he takes a decidedly STS-oriented approach to state theory and issues of governance.

2 thoughts on “Response to Hendrik about (ir)reductionism

  1. Yes, I can see where you???re coming from with that. Incidentally, I re-read Alex Wendt???s ???The state as person in IR theory??? yesterday and the notion of irreduction would definitely help sunder the slightly mad binary opposition he sets up between the state being either a gigantic, looming superorganism with its own personality, teleology and consciousness or, on the other hand, it being nothing more than the sum of the ideas ???in each persons??? heads.???.p.s. I think I???m on the same panel as you, Nicholas, at the Theory Talks STS/IR workshop at the Millennium conference in October! I???m presenting a paper on ANT and offshore tax havens, of all things.

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  2. Pingback: daily links dump – a bit more slightly categories.. | imagine art -||+ there about?daily links dump – a bit more slightly categories..

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