Reading & Composition: What is a Social Relation?

What is a Social Relation?
Course Number: 
2224 Piedmont 15
Soh, J
Tu Th 2 - 3:30 pm

Course Description

The contemporary revival of the forgotten grandfather of sociology, Gabriel Tarde, is bringing about a wholesale transformation of social theory today.  No longer bound to the idea of society as a plural macro-context opposed to the singular individuals it links together, social theory today is increasingly moving towards a more micro-sociological conception of different modes of action, formation and association pertaining to subjects that, moreover, are not confined only to humans, but involve also astronomical bodies, physiochemical interactions, cellular life, and vegetal and animal relations.  In a remarkable reversal, the idea of the social today is less and less taken for granted as that which explains relational dynamics in social life, and more and more something which must itself be explained as an emergent order of these dynamics. 

Designed as an introduction to contemporary social theory, this course traces the philosophical and historical development of the concept of “society” from the perspective of its origin in a still unresolved theoretical conflict between Gabriel Tarde and Emile Durkheim in the emergent field of sociology at the turn of the twentieth century.  The course begins with a reading of Auguste Comte on the idea of a “positive philosophy” from which sociology was founded in the late eighteenth-century, and then proceeds immediately to introduce the core problems of a scientific sociology from the standpoints of Norbert Elias and Georg Simmel, two key sociologists of the twentieth-century.  Subsequently, in the second part of the course, we will examine closely the conceptual formulation of the “social fact” in the seminal works of Durkheim and Mauss, on the one hand, and that of “social laws” in the works of Tarde, on the other, engaging in a comparative analysis of these two traditions of thinking the social in terms of how their different conceptions of what “society” is affect the way in which we interpret social agency, the role of “individuals,” and the political repercussions thereof.  In this light, we will also consider how some contemporary social anthropologists can advance the apparently ridiculous claim that ‘society does not exist’.  In the third and final part of the course, we will turn to look at one contemporary elaboration of the sociology of Tarde in a key work by Bruno Latour who, in his anthropology of science, has sought to reinvent social anthropology as an empirical metaphysics of modernity.  Specifically, we will explore his earlier concept of the “actor-network” as a means of reestablishing the meaning of the social according to its original formulation as dynamic association and collectivization.  We will conclude with a discussion as to how far the Tardian and Latourian idea of all relations as social relations might take us in contemplating our social existence in the contemporary world. 


Likely Texts for R5B

The Society of Individuals, Norbert Elias

(Optional) The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills

(Selections from) Sociology and Philosophy, Emile Durkheim

(Selections from) Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim

(Selections from) On Communication and Social Influence, Gabriel Tarde

Social Laws, Gabriel Tarde

Monadology and Sociology, Gabriel Tarde

Reassembling the Social, Bruno Latour

(Selections from) The Social after Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments, Matei Candea