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The Many Lives and Deaths of the Social: A Comment on CSISP’s 10th Anniversary Symposium

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At a time when a myriad of birth certificates increasingly declare novel ‘turns’ in the modes of thinking and practice of the social sciences and STS, it becomes progressively difficult to know what one is turning from, where one is turning to, and whether the very notion of ‘turning’ has not itself become a means of remaining still while one continues to think in circles. In this sense, one might be left wondering about the implications of a certain biopolitics of objects and concepts at work in the development of social scientific and STS propositions. As Achille Mbembe (2003) has taught us through his incisive reflection on late modern colonial occupations, however, attention to the politics of life must also include questions around the politics of death– biopolitics and necropolitics go hand in hand. And it does seem to be the case that the filing of death certificates too has become part of the means by which intellectual novelties are frequently proclaimed. In contrast to the many ‘turns’ that now populate the pages of social scientific journals, they announce not what is now before us, but that which we have learned to move beyond, that in relation to which we come after. 

In recent years, for instance, it has been claimed that we are after modernity, after theory, after nature, after the subject, after the human, after method, after the future, and yes, after the social. It would seem, however, that some notions are more difficult to kill than others. Indeed, the social has been proclaimed dead several times. Having come into an always rather shaky existence in the nineteenth century, the attempts at killing the social could be said to be almost coextensive with its lifetime (Wagner 2000). An early twentieth-century attempted murder that comes to mind, for example, concerns the ontological and methodological individualism of early American social psychology. This is perhaps best exemplified by psychologist Floyd Henry Allport’s (1927) famous notion of the ‘group fallacy’, according to which it is a mistake to explain social phenomena in terms of group processes, for the only real explanans are its components, namely, individuals. 


© Alex Wilkie 2014

More recent death certificates include, for instance, Jean Baudrillard’s (1983) inflammatory remark that perhaps the social has never been more than its own simulation; Nikolas Rose’s (1996) discussion of the possible mutation, maybe even dilution, of ‘the social’ under ‘advanced liberal‘ programmes of government; Bruno Latour’s (2005) critique of a certain Durkheimian notion of ‘the social’ as substance and his call for a move from a ‘sociology of society’ to a ‘sociology of associations’; the list could easily be extended. In any case, the social would seem to be long dead. ‘We are’, it is claimed over and over, ‘after the social.

But why then the need to kill the social not just one but many, indeed innumerable, times? What is it about the social that every time that an attempt is made to drive the dagger through its heart, it does nothing but proliferate, spread around, become entangled with unexpected objects and things, take new forms and come to matter in unprecedented ways? Arguably, such was the problematic wherein the symposium dedicated to CSISP’s 10th anniversary was situated. As Noortje Marres, Michael Guggenheim and Alex Wilkie stressed it in the introduction to the symposium

There has been talk of a ‘return of the social,’ now that social media, social innovation and social design present and push themselves on us as objects, instruments and contexts of research. We might be tempted to recognize in this entity (the social) a ghost from the past, as important ‘old’ questions about the nature of collectivity and the relation between social stability and change – endurance and invention – pose themselves with renewed urgency. At the same time, to seek refuge in these questions would surely provide us with an ultimately false sense of security.


© Alex Wilkie 2014

Certainly, it was not out of a sense of security or an entrenched defence of ‘old’ questions that the many speakers and participants in the symposium explored the question of the possible return(s) of the social today. And it was evident that its ‘return’, had it ever gone anywhere, was even stronger and more pervasive than what its recent associations with media, innovation and design seemed to suggest.

The papers that were presented throughout the two days made apparent the many ways in which the social comes (in)to matter in multiple, heterogeneous and often surprising manners: artifactual, in all the human and non-human actors and practices that labour into the process of its own constitution (Marres); impoverished, in the practices of behavioural economics (Muniesa); transient, in nineteenth century experiments on automatism conducted by (and on) Gertrude Stein (Blackman); opaque, in the efforts to make psychological research transparent and ‘open’ (Derksen); earthy, in the pyrotechnic machines that helped compose the built spaces of antiquity (Clark); precarious, in its embroilment in the programming and reprogramming of urban environments after disasters (Farías); slippery, in the attempts to detect it and pattern it digitally via its emergence in and through social media (Gerlitz); playful, as it is probed through the disruptions produced by twitter-bots (Wilkie); potentially dangerous, as the pervasive presence of big data privatises it and seems to offer no political alternatives (Davies);  artful, when invented through experimental incubations (Guggenheim et al.). In this sense, as Andrew Barry (mediating Gabriel Tarde) noted in his concluding comments, ‘everything is social but not everything is social in the same way’. 


© Alex Wilkie 2014

Moreover, what became present in the discussions was not only that the social is always more than one, but also that it is not a given, discrete realm of reality that could simply be held still for inspection. By contrast, the many socials are both facts and factors in the diverse processes in which they partake and by which they, in turn, come to matter and are sustained, transformed and reconfigured. In other words, ‘the social’ comes to designate an always fragile, complex and risky achievement that is never guaranteed and upon which no one can make finalist claims. Pace those who have struggled to earn the right to either kill or defend it, the social has a life (or rather, lives) of its own. As Alfred North Whitehead (1978: 91) has argued in relation to his widely expanded notion of ‘society’, whenever it succeeds in coming into existence, the social arises from a relative disorder within a larger environment, and endures for as long as its environment is itself sustained and as long as the social’s own process of inheritance continues to produce and reproduce its composing elements. When the environment itself decays, or ceases to favour the endurance of the social, the latter passes out of existence until it is born again, somewhere else, with a different form, under a different name.

This nature of the social as an unstable and fragile achievement, rather than a given,  raises the question of how to characterise the processes by which various forms of sociality might be accomplished. In this way, the title of the symposium, “Inventing the Social”, prompted attention to the generative processes that contribute to the emergence, sustenance and decay of diverse modes of sociality. In passing (for a more comprehensive exploration of this question would have certainly required another symposium, or three), some discussions also alluded to the need to take the complexities of such processes seriously. That is, beyond the ‘inflationary’ logic (as Javier Lezaun characterised it in one of his interventions) of efficacy involved in some notions of ‘performativity’ that have proliferated within STS and sociological literatures of recent years. 

© Laura Cuch

© Laura Cuch

In such literatures, performativity oftentimes (although there are some exceptions) designates a seemingly unproblematic act of ‘bringing something into being‘ by which not  only certain effects are achieved but, at the same time, the whole milieu in which those effects take hold is produced. If the social is achieved by a process that requires a wider milieu that precedes and exceeds it and which it contributes to sustaining or transforming, however, we cannot simply assume the latter to be only an effect of a process of ‘performing the social’ too. In this sense, the historical vicissitudes of the notion of ‘invention’ provide an interesting constraint for wondering about the becoming of the social.

For although the current use of the term might render it interchangeable with notions of ‘performativity’, ‘creation’, ‘enactment’, ‘construction’, etc., a quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary reveals an important difference. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, invention (which comes from the Latin verb invenire –to come into–) conveyed the ‘action of coming upon or finding; the action of finding out; discovery (whether accidental or the result of search and effort)’ as well as the sense of fabrication and artifice with which, after the eighteenth century, we have exclusively come to associate it. Thus, to invent the social cannot simply mean to fabricate it out of thin air. Rather, it requires practices capable of being both creative in their experimentation with existing possibilities for novel modes of sociality, and singularly sensitive to the actual, heterogeneous compositions of the worlds in which the social may and does come to matter in diverse ways. It is this double articulation between the actual and the possible that constitutes the ‘invention of the social’ as a process that is always risky and never guaranteed. 


© Alex Wilkie 2014

In this light, invention might designate a practice that does not put the question of the becoming of the social in the hands of social scientists, STS researchers, policy makers, algorithms, publics, financial speculators, or twitter-bots alone, but one whose risk is characterised by the articulation of reciprocal responses required by those – humans and other-than-humans– for whom, for better or ill, certain modes of sociality matter. To invent the social, then, is perhaps not so much about the masterful or methodic act of ‘bringing it into being’, but about the rather more modest and careful practice of contributing to the cultivation of some of its many emergences and endurances. And to do so while being inevitably exposed to the possibility that at any given moment and in any given part of the world the process of invention might fail, and some of its versions might enter into decay.

After the impressive range of sociologies and socialities that were made present during the symposium, it is also clear that while our contributions be modest, the challenges are not. But, as the opening text of the symposium quoted above suggests, we probably should refrain from seeking a foothold in the ‘old‘ question of  ‘what is the social?’. For such a question conceals an attempt to reduce the challenge of inventing the social by demanding of it that it be contained within the bounds of a single definition. If sociality can be thought as ‘the capacity of being several things at once’, as George Herbert Mead (1930/2002: 75) put it in his The Philosophy of the Present (a very Whiteheadian book at that, I hasten to add), then the task is not that of producing a definition that can hold the social still, but of learning to cultivate as many practices and sensibilities as might be required for its multiple inventions to be achieved and sustained. It is likely that our current practices, theories, and sensibilities are neither adequate nor sufficient to live up to the challenge. Nevertheless, the symposium celebrating CSISP’s 10th Anniversary exhibited a promising sign that some of those novel practices and sensibilities are already on their way, and that they are attempting to take the challenge seriously. Thus, the lesson that, to my mind, emerges from the event might be that we are indeed after the social, but not because it could be said to belong to our past. We are after the social: chasing after it, asking after it, looking after it. 


@ Alex Wilkie 2014


Allport, F. H. (1927), ‘The Group Fallacy in Relation to Social Science’. Hanover, NH: The Sociological Press.

Baudrillard, J. (1983), In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, or ‘The Death of the Social’. New York: Semiotext(e).

Latour, B. (2005), Reassembling the Social. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mbembe (2003), ‘Necropolitics’. Public Culture, 15, 1, 11-40

Mead, G. H. (1930/2002), The Philosophy of the Present. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. 

Rose, N. (1996), ‘The death of the social? Re-figuring the territory of government.’ Economy & Society, 25, 3, 327-356 

Wagner, P. (2000), ‘“An Entirely New Object of Consciousness, of Volition, of Thought”: The coming into being and (almost) passing away of “society” as a scientific object’. In L. Daston (Ed.), Biographies of Scientific Objects. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. pp., 132-157

Whitehead, A. N. (1978), Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. New York: Free Press.

Inventing the Social – Audio Recordings
Can either be streamed below, or downloaded here

01.Marres, Guggenheim & Wilkie: Conference Introduction

02. Noortje Marres: Five Principles

03. Fabian Muniesa: Against the Behavioral Shibboleth

04. Daniel Neyland: Session 1 Commentary

05. Session 1 Q&A

06. Lisa Blackman: Automaticity Within The 19th Century Psychological Laboratory: Towards An Analytics Of Experimentation

07. Maarten Derksen: Open Psychology: Transparency And Reproducibility

08. Javier Lezaun: Session 2 Commentary

09. Session 2 Q&A

10. David Oswell: Day 1 Concluding Comments

11. Day 1 Concluding Discussion

12. Nigel Clark: Heat Engines: Pyrotechnics And The Geology Of The Social

13. Ignacio Farias: Reprogramming the Urban Social: Experiments In Post-Neoliberal Governmentality

14. Manuel Tironi: Session 3 Commentary

15. Session 3 Q&A (n.b. brief audio interruption)

16. Carolin Gerlitz: Detecting the Socials: Mapping Privacy with Twitter

17. Alex Wilkie: Speculative Method and Twitter: Bots, Energy And Three Conceptual Characters

18. Anders Koed Madsen: Session 4 Commentary

19. Session 4 Q&A

20. Will Davies: Reserving Judgement: Measurement, Secrecy And The New ‘Social’

21. Guggenheim, Kraeftner & Kröll: Inventing the Social

22. Daniel López: Session 5 Commentary

23. Session 5 Q&A

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