Not Durk/Tarde, but Saint-Simon/Comte!

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It is practically lore now that Latour is right that if only sociology had listened to Gabe Tarde instead of old Émile Durkheim, we could have obviated a seriously bad detour in the history of sociological analysis. Admittedly, that’s a super-glossy gloss, but that is basically what Latour argued in Reassembling the Social.

Now that I’m teaching social theory again, I am not so sure Latour was right, or, put another way, I think we made another even bigger mistake in sociology, but it was before the likes of Durkheim and Tarde ever went at it — before either were born. The break to be worried about, given our recent discussions about the austerity-infrastructure relationship, is one the divided Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte. Without going into the full details, Saint-Simon was a social thinker that kept infrastructure closely in mind; in fact, to him, a “socialist” (note: not socialist, as in the modern political moniker, but socialist in the form of a socially organized rather than religiously organized society) was somebody that supported pro-social endeavors, for example, projects that result in something meaningfully useful to “all” of us (hence, the social part of socialist). For example, his early plans were to develop canals indicating that nothing was more social than infrastructural developments (he even anticipated and offered a design for what would eventually be called the Seuz Canal). His best student, however, Auguste Comte, did not have such a practical mind. Instead, Comte gave us terms like “sociology” and “society” and devoted himself to arm-chair theorizing. This break, between “the social” connoting shared infrastructure and “the social” being more of the world of ideas if only they could be properly rendered from the comfort of an office chair, is the break we should be worried about.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Not Durk/Tarde, but Saint-Simon/Comte!

      • well more of a teaser than summary, some sense of works/existence always already in process/acting/under-construction and maybe even having “auras” not un-like Benjamin and angels…

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