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Theoretical Ideas in Sociology: Depth Metaphors

Last week we looked a metaphor in sociology and saw just how pervasive it was.  We even wondered whether any self-respecting sociological theorist with ambition has been able to avoid the attempt to give his or her work coherence by appealing to a basic or ‘root’ metaphor, a way of organising the otherwise chaotic data that the social world presents to us.  We also wondered what the relationship is between metaphors and conceptualisation.  Do we say that, in the course of attempting to conceptualise society, sociological theorists embellish what they have to say with metaphors here and there, or that their very conceptualisation of the social is dependent upon the metaphors they rely upon?  What comes first? 

When I tell you that certain theorists have made us of certain metaphors – system, drama, game, text, organism (Durkheim, Hobbes) – I am telling you something quite familiar, I think.  A slightly less intuitive idea was that the point about metaphors is that they open up or suggest what I will call a ‘horizon of implication’, so that the mere word ‘system’ or ‘drama’ may give rise to a series of further commonplaces associated with it.  We may speak then of extended metaphor.  Goffman is a good example of this – he extends the drama metaphor from an initial hunch to a pretty elaborate terminology.  In Parsons too, the word ‘system’ implies an entire vocabulary – inputs and outputs, equilibrium, exchange – though we can ask whether, in describing certain certain phenomena as though they were linguistic phenomena, he wasn’t mixing his metaphors.    

Today I want to do something a bit more specific and consider one type of metaphor. It isn’t one which gets written about very much in the literature on sociological theory so it might strike you as rather obscure.  On the other hand it is pervasive in the work of some at least some of the most influential thinkers of the modern age.  It also provides us with a link back to some of the work we have been looking at in previous weeks.  Again, the course is all about making connections, all about the idea that you can read the work of any important theorist again and again, each time in terms of a different question. 

So today I want to talk about the idea that in the study of society – or for that matter of anything else - we can distinguish between the surface of things and something that lies beneath that surface.  In other words, I want to talk about depth metaphors.  In so doing, we will be able to identify some threads which connect Marx, Parsons, the study of ideology, and sociology’s claim to be a science. 


2.      Cognate oppositions – list

3.      Question: what is going on when a theorist invokes such a distinction?  Immanent and sociological interpretations of cultural phenomena (Mannheim) – quotation?  Cultural phenomena in particular – Bourdieu.  Culture and class.   A cultural work is to be understood in relationship to ‘something else’.  We could say that that something else is simply another ‘part’ of society – e.g. Parsons’ diagrams imply equal status to parts.  Depth/surface is a much stronger type of claim.

4.      Substantive v. formal sense of depth/surface.

a.       Substantive sense: depth and surface of social life – an empirical claim about the social world.  As a result of this distinction we can say (with Braudel or Goffman) that there are ‘different levels’ of social life with different logics or different rhythms (Braudel on time); or we say that some things are ‘more real’ than others or that they have a causal impact on what happens at the surface. 

b.      Formal sense: depth and surface of a theory.  An implicit  conceptual hierarchy which the theorist him or herself would not acknowledge.

5.      depth/surface sometimes combined with two other ideas:

a.       centre/periphery

b.      centre has causal powers – idea of a central generating mechanism

6.      Types of relationship between surface and depth:

a.       Functional (Merton, some versions of Marx – e.g. what is the function of politics/law/religion – what job does it do?  Similarity of Parsons and Marx in Alexander)

b.      Hermeneutic (Freud of interpretation of dreams; manifest dream content v. latent dream thoughts; F’s use of supplementary  metaphors to make sense of the unconscious/conscious relationship – QUOTATIONS)

c.       Substantial (e.g. politics/law are not ‘less important’ than economic base but rather a ‘form’ in which deeper and more real relationships get expressed; e.g. conscious actions are the form in which unconscious thoughts are ‘expressed’) 

7.      Ethical/political implications of talking in terms of depth:

a.       Freud – theoretical interest in depth is to allow us to live on the surface of life (RIEFF QUOTATION).  Aim of restoring balance between parts of the psyche (ego psychology)

b.      Marx – a knowledge of what is beneath/hidden should a source of motivation (communism will result from the first conscious revolution in history – then history will finally begin)

c.       Critique of Marx and Freud: 

8.      What does this distinction do for the theorist?

a.       Theorists’ need for a ‘god term’ (Rieff); some sort of ultimate court of appeal.  And just as in theology we distinguish between theists and deists, i.e. those who believe that God is active, intervening in the world in various ways, and those who believe that God created the world but then left it to its own devices, so we can distinguish between sociological theorists who believe that their god term is a conceptual ultimate and those who believe that it is a mechanism which is ‘at work’ in society.

b.      Simplification – in the case of classics, Marx and Freud, simplification as a conclusion based on masses of empirical data.   In the case of some of their followers, we have the conclusion but not the steps which led up to it.  There are dangers in this, e.g. Unger’s comments on Marxism.  Why? Regardless of the degree of economic determinism to be found in Marx, regardless of the extent to which Freud made much of human social life depend upon drives and instincts at the expense of other sources of human motivation, these were conclusions arrived at after vast amounts of empirical inquiry.  Marx came to a conclusion about the centrality of class struggle after immersing himself in world history.  Freud came to a conclusion about the structure of the psyche on the basis of years of clinical work.  Many of their followers, however, took on board the depth metaphors without going through the process which produced them, so that in the twentieth century 'base and superstructure', 'commodity fetishism', ‘surplus value’, 'the unconscious', 'repression', 'sublimation', while providing those who employed them with a sense of descriptive power, became more like little pieces of paper which lesser thinkers could stick on to the world at every opportunity, a modern version of primitive classification.  (Undergraduate textbooks too!)

c.       Theoretical power, science and method.  Institutionalisation of science means transmissible method.  Depth/Surface allows you to say: I have got to the foundation of things, the basis of everything else; I have available to me a method through which to make sense of the social world and I don’t need to go through all the steps which the masters went through all over again.


e.       Question – can you do sociological theory without operating with some sort of distinction of this sort?  One solution – be very constructivist about your concepts – e.g. Weber, Goffman.  Importance of detail – Foucault, Elias (heirs to the tradition of rich detail in Marx and Freud, but much more hesitant about the grand theoretical status of their conclusions)


Theoretical Ideas in Sociology – Depth Metaphors

‘This hospitableness in the face of cases is at once the major strength of the ritual theory version of the drama analogy and its most prominent weakness. It can expose some of the profoundest features of social process, but at the expense of making vividly disparate matters look drably homogeneous.’ (Geertz, ‘Blurred Genres’)

‘This book is about the organisation of experience…and not the organisation of society. I make no claim to whatsoever to be talking about the core matters of sociology – social organisation and social structure…I personally hold society to be first in every way and any individual’s current involvements to be second; this report deals only with matters that are second.’ (Goffman, Erving, 1974, Frame Analysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin, p.13)


‘But, so long as sociologists confine themselves to the study of manifest functions, their inquiry is set for them by practical men of affairs (whether a captain of industry, a trade union leader, or, conceivably, a Navaho chieftain, is for the moment immaterial), rather than by the theoretic problems which are at the core of the discipline’ (Robert Merton, ‘Manifest and Latent Functions’ in C. Calhoun et al (eds) Classical Sociological Theory, p.400.)

‘…the unconscious conception is one of which we are not aware but the existence of which we are nevertheless ready to admit on account of other proofs or signs.’ (Freud, ‘A Note on the Unconscious’, Penguin Freud Library Vol. 11, p.51)

‘A rough but not inadequate analogy to this supposed relation of conscious to unconscious activity might be drawn from the field of ordinary photography.  The first stage of the photograph is the ‘negative’; every photographic picture has to pass through the ‘negative process’ and some of these negatives which have held good in examination are admitted to the positive process ending in the picture’ (55)

‘The dream-thoughts are immediately comprehensible, as soon as we have learnt them.  The dream-content, on the other hand, is expressed as it were in a pictographic script, the characters of which have to be transposed individually into the language of the dream-thoughts.’ (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams.  Penguin Freud Library Volume 4, Penguin, p.381)

‘Dreams are brief, meagre and laconic in comparison with the range and wealth of the dream-thoughts.  If a dream is written out it may perhaps fill half a page.  The analysis setting out the dream thoughts underlying it may occupy six, eight or a dozen times as much space…As a rule one underestimates the amount of compression that has taken place, since one is inclined to regard the dream-thoughts as the complete material, whereas if the work of interpretation is carried further it may reveal still more thoughts concealed behind the dream…Strictly speaking, then, it is impossible to determine the amount of condensation.’ (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams.  Penguin Freud Library Volume 4, Penguin, p.383)

‘…a dream is…a form of expression of impulses which are under the pressure of resistance during he day but which have been able to find reinforcement during the night from deep-lying sources of excitation

‘…any mental process the existence of which we are obliged to assume – because, for instance, we infer it in some way from its effects – but of which we are not directly aware…the unconscious functions for Freud as a ‘god-term’ , to use Kenneth Burke’s suggestive epithet: it is Freud’s conceptual ultimate, a first cause, to be believed in precisely because it is both fundamental to and inaccessible to experience’  (Philip Rieff, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, p. 34)

‘For a depth psychology the most trivial event, the blankest nonsense has a discoverable, often a profound meaning.  Everywhere motives lie embedded, true meanings are necessarily hidden…By dissolving the distinction [between normal and pathological] Freud broke through barriers of intelligibility into rich and largely unworked veins.  At the same time, however, his achievement encourages an excess of digging, in which what is significant becomes simply what is underneath.  Yet meaning may not be always coiled and ready to unwind, under analytic probing or at the stronger touch of time.  Motives easily and directly expressed, lying on the conscious surface of the mind, may be still more revealing’ (77)

‘Psychoanalysis encourages its subjects to live with a reduced burden of memory, closer to the surface of life, where tensions cannot take root and feed off the accumulated energies of the past…the length and minute investigations of the patient’s past, in the analysis, is not meant to enhance its importance, but rather – by an introspective lingering – to divest it of psychological resonance’ (Rieff, 44)


‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of the material forces of production.  The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness…It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’ (Karl Marx, ‘Preface to a Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, in Early Writings, Penguin p.425)


‘Deep structure social theory disorients political strategy and impoverishes programmatic thought by making both of them subsidiary to a ready-made list of social orders.  Nowhere are these perils clearer than in the reliance of leftist movements, the major bearers of the radical project, on Marxism, the most developed version of deep-structure social theory’. (Roberto Unger, 1997, Social Theory: its situation and task. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, P.93)


‘We are under the illusion that what is peculiar, profound, essential, in our investigation, resides in its trying to grasp the incomparable essence of language.  That is, the order existing between the concepts of proposition, word, proof, truth, experience, and so on.  This order is a super-order between – so to speak – super-concepts.’ (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §97)

 Archaeology tries to define not the thoughts, representations, images, themes, preoccupations that are concealed or revealed in discourses; but those discourses themselves, those discourses as practices obeying certain rules.  It does not treat discourse as document, as a sign of something else, as an element that ought to be transparent, but whose unfortunate opacity must often be pierced if one is to reach at last the depth of the essential in the place in which it is held in reserve; it is concerned with discourse in its own volume, as a monument.  It is not an interpretative discipline; it does not seek another, better-hidden discourse.  It refuses to be ‘allegorical’. (Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, pp.138-9).