Tag Archives: Socioloty

The One and the Many or What can Sociology Learn from Physics

Ever since its beginnings in the 19th Century sociology has been concerned with the problem of the one and the many. In other words, how can individuals be integrated into society. How can one community arise from many individuals? This was not a new problem. Long before, political philosophers such as Grotius, Hobbes. Locke, and Rousseau attempted to solve this problem. For Western democracies, the answer was the social contract. Hobbes argued that the many isolated individuals, who in a state of nature were inescapably involved in a war of all against all, decide, on the basis their naturally endowed rationality, to lay down their weapons and submit to a central authority. So arose the Leviathan, or society. The individuals remained fundamentally isolated and free, since if the central authority was not strong enough to guarantee peace, it could be deposed. For Rousseau on the contrary, the individual must be completely integrated into society which becomes then not a sum of individuals, but a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts,  the “general will.” This problem was then taken up by the new science of sociology which defined itself as the study of those social structures, organizations, and institutions into which individuals were taken up, transformed into citizens, or professions such as carpenter, baker, engineer, businessperson, politician, etc. The individual became a “person” (mask) that was socially constructed. As Shakespeare said, and as modern sociological role theory assumes, social existence is role-playing. The world is a stage and all individuals are but mere actors playing the roles society puts at their disposal. This solution seems to leave out the individuals who were there first, that is, before they learned to put on masks and play roles. Who are the individuals if personal identity is through and through a social construction and it is impossible to find an individual who is not somehow already “socialized,” completely alone and so to speak “in the wild?”

What does this have to do with quantum mechanics? Does not contemporary physics face a similar problem of the one and the many: On the one side there are particles, isolated points, hard and material. And on the other side there are fields, waves, or some kind of plastic common substance that seems to be able to account for all phenomena without reference to particles.  The particle seems to have suffered a similar fate as the individual. Originally considered the basic building blocks of reality, both social and material, that from which all activities arise, both the particle and the individual have become a product of the forces that bind them together with others into a “community.” Luhmann even goes so far as to ban individuals from society, which is a system made up of communications and not of individual human beings. The debate in physics is still raging, just as in sociology. Are there particles, or fields, or both, or neither? If matter is fundamentally a field and not a perhaps infinite number of individual particles, which are somehow bound together, we have a very different vision of reality and of what we are made of than has traditionally been supposed. If neither society nor nature are made up of individuals, but of fields or relations, then we may still need to talk about individuals who are related, but they are nothing outside of these relations. The individual is no longer the beginning of social or natural order, but a way in which nature and society configure themselves and create order. Perhaps the question of the one and the many is not the right question. We do not need to start from individual things, whether individual human beings or particles and then try to figure out how and why they enter into relations with one another in such a way that order arises from chaos. We could just as well ask how and why order uses such things and whether it really needs them. Many new theoretical projects in physics are moving in this direction. In sociology there are also endeavors to simply drop the typically modern Western individualism that lies at the heart of the problem of the one and the many. Of course, people are not “vibrating strings” – or maybe they are…