Conversations with Anthony Giddens

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* Book: Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity.



From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2006:

In the sixties, Giddens re-appraised sociological theory, looking at Durkheim, Weber, Marx and Simmel, who were then mostly interpreted by the American tradition of Talcott Parsons. The two dominant approaches were positivism (f.e. linking suicide to measurable external methods, a la Durkheim) and phenomenology (what is suicide subjectively to a culture, as inspired by Husserl).

In the seventies, he continued his theoretical work encountering Jurgen Habermas and Harold Garfunkel, ethnomethodology. His 1976 book, "New Rules of Sociological Method", is an argument against Durkheim's "Rules of Sociological Method" (1895), which argued that the subjective world of intentions and meanings has to be brought back in sociology. It is the first formulation of his "structuration theory', that he would finalize in 1984, and which analyzes how social structure is embedded in the daily interactions and embedded knowledge (as grammar in language), especially as related to space and time instantiations, which he compares with tradition (tied to place) and modernity. The latter becomes his central concern after the mid-80's.

Giddens distinguishes simple modernization, characterized by the processes of the breakdown of tradition, from reflexive modernization, in which we are no longer constrained by external factors, such as nature, but confronted with a natural and human environment suffused with the consequences of our actions, i.e. 'manufactured risks'. Giddens then went on to develop a political philosophy, which would culminate in the 'Third Way'. He also studied the changes in intimacy, fodusing on the 'personals column' as a stage for negotiation and the 'democratization' of emotions. H sees an undertow of democratizationin the private sphere, influencing the public sphere.

This democratization of the emotions, i.e. interpersonal capability, is one of the conditions to create a public sphere of dialogue, that can avoid the risk of violence inherent in generalized cosmpolitanism. This has led to the emergence of a 'generative politics' that actively confronts the environmental problem, the quality of life, and the role of global institutions, through the means of 'life-political' movements, such as the Greens and feminism.

The sociological classics

Before Giddens, Capitalism and Social Theory, it was Parson's interpretation that was dominant, that Marx was a precursor of sociology, established by Durkheim and Weber, and thus he could be ignored. Giddens was the first to bring them on the same level.

Weber's most enduring contribution is the comparative study of civlizations, he was the first major thinker to break away from Eurocentrism, unlike Marx. He also recognized the different between natural and social sciences (this is less clear with Durkheim, who wanted a scientific model). He also recognized the importance of power and violence.

Marx' writings can in part be explained by his travels, which made him encounter different sources:

   - 1) Hegel in Germany
   - 2) the early socialists in France
   - 3) political economy in the UK

Giddens defines sociology solely as the study of modernity, thereby distinguishing it from the broader social sciences. His own theory is based on agency and structure, the latter only existing through the repeated actions, much as grammar exists through language when it is performed. His structuration theory places more stress on knowledgeable agency and subjectivity than previous sociologists, and his definition of structure contrasts with those of the physical world, allowing a proper social-scientific approach.

Giddens sees individuals as actors, and institutions and organizations, but not groups. He stresses time-space distanciation of social systems (unlike functionalism which abstracted from time).

Modernity for Giddens has four major ingredients:

   - 1) capitalism as economic order
   - 2) a new type of state
   - 3) the military and new types of warfare
   - 4) science, technology, as innovation partly separate from the market

Modern society is based on risk and trust. Unlike danger or hazards, risks are actively engaged and managed; and there are two kinds of risk:

   - 1) market-based
   - 2) health and environment (insurance)

Analyzing Late Modernity

Risk is now generalized throughout our social and personal lives, as more areas are opened up to choice, such as reproduction.

Risk is now generalized throughout our social and personal lives, as more areas are opened up to choice, such as reproduction.

"Social reflexivity refers to a world increasingly constituted by information rather than by pre-given modes of conduct. Reflexive modernisation (Beck) is an intensification of that process in late modernity. The way of knowing of early modernity aimed at controlling and transforming the world through knowledge. In late modernity we discover the limit of knowledge and certainty; we know things about how we know. Giddens posits an intensive mode of modernity which is now changing the remaining traditions of the personal lifeworld, such as the patriarchal family. The importance of intimacy is a direct result of the equalisation of family life.

Networking is another effect of de-traditionalization: you are now dependent on your peers for support: you have to know them and make sure they know you. Fundamentalism is the opting out of the 'cosmopolitan dialogue of mankind'. It is tradition that self-consciously sets itself apart against modernity, but uses the tools of modernity to promote itself. It can be applied to ethnicity and politics as well.

After discussing issues such as emotional democracy, romantic love (Giddens says a new emerging ideal is 'confluent love', based on mutual learning). Giddens says that the current emphasis on genetic and Darwinian explanations, has a lot to do with the dominance of free-market philosophies, and as the mood changes again, Giddens says that though genetics is 'concrete science', it is still in its infancy, while evolutionary psychology consists mostly of speculative thinking. This is not to discount the genetic basis of behaviour, but he stresses that such drives can be culturally overridden.

Giddens on Foucault and Sexuality

Giddens sees two overriding themes:

   - 1) That the Enlightenment, despite its stress on freedom, actually created the disciplinary self
   - 2) That sexually repressive Victorian society actually promoted higher interests and discourse

Giddens on Equality

Egalitarianism has faded, and equally of outcome (whose price was deemed to high) has been replaced by equality of opportunity. But a pure meritocratic society, where those at the bottom would know they have 'deserved' it, remains unacceptable. Financial inequality has risen, and new forms, like in the family, have emerged on top of it.

Socialism is dead because its method of economic management could only work in simple modernity. But the left-right distinction is still relevant as a basic stance towards inequality. Giddens own ideal is a cosmopolitan global society operating on ecological sound principles, where wealth generation and control of inequality are reconciled. He predicts a 'post-scarcity society' where affluence produces problems that cannot be solved by greater government programs.

Change is related to a 'four-fold division of modernity

- 1) political economy

       - a) the growing division between rich and poor 
       - b) the commodification of life

- 2) democracy

       - the suppression of human rights

- 3) science and technology

       - ecological issues

- 4) military

       - the minimizing of war

More information

Books by Giddens

- Capitalism and Modern Social Theory, 1971 ('one of the most valuable sources on Marx, Weber, and Durkheim)

- The Class Structure of Advanced Societies, 1973 (a study of the political writings of Max Weber)

- A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, 1981

   - Vol 1: Power, Property, and the State, 1985: 
   - Vol 2: The National State and Violence): a critique of Marxist theories of social change, rejecting the linear view of historical progress; 
   - Vol 3: Beyond Left and Right

- The Constitution of Society, 1984: formal and final presentation of his structuration theory