Problems of Scale

My previous blog post laid out some of my thoughts behind my in-progress book manuscript. A Marxist feminist perspective, which recognizes work in the home as labor that is unfairly unpaid even though it does the very important job of reproducing society, directs my gaze upon my data. However, because I am not anything close to an orthodox Marxist, I want to be careful to distinguish my argument from a false consciousness argument.

For Marxists, false consciousness is the idea that individuals are “falsely” conscious of their place in society because they are unaware of their class position – understood as both a social and economic situation – and the constraints it places upon their freedom. There is friction between this disembodied assumption about what other people know and what they ought to know, and the ethnographic approach I use of listening to and learning from the people, places, and things I study.

As an anthropologist, I talk to the people I write about. I read what they read, I go to their events, I celebrate and mourn their community milestones, I make enduring friendships and professional connections. When you get to know people, it turns out that they are perfectly aware of their position in society. They might not express it in a language of class consciousness or gender oppression, as I or other analysts might do. But they know and have languages for it. You can learn to understand people you don’t know and wouldn’t have happened to know in your normal everyday life if you listen for a while.

Social theory provides another way for apprehending the gap between an individual’s experience in society and the observable results of collective social activity: scale. In my tour of social theory this fall – revisiting Bruno Latour, getting to know Emile Durkheim, and digging deeper into Marilyn Strathern – I’ve also taken a tour of some different ways to think about how social activity scales from the individual, to the group, to society, and even across societies. This is deeply influencing my current writing.

Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist writing from the 1890s through the early 1910s, grappled with how to understand why people could coexist with each other in societies. He was concerned with how two scales interacted: how individuals saw themselves as part of a society and why they then acted in society’s interest. For Durkheim, society was more than the sum of its parts; by coming together en masse, people created a collective thing that had different functions and morality than individuals. “Society” was a privileged thing, an immaterial thing that was nonetheless durable over time and through generations. It seemed to exert strong “forces” on par with the greatest physical force to discipline individuals into adopting behaviors that were compatible with the maintenance of itself, of society.

Both Strathern and Latour cut through Durkheim’s theory of society, though in different ways and for different reasons. For Strathern (at least in the Gender of the Gift and Partial Connections era that I’m now most familiar with) many questions about how societies work are questions of how meaning scales between smaller and larger groups. Like Durkheim, she asserts that new meanings can emerge as groups get larger, but she also notes that other information gets lost, becomes noise and falls away. Understanding scalar motion provides Strathern with a way to think about comparing cultures – understanding what meanings and arrangements reappear in place after place, and which ones are unique to individual societies. Latour’s provocation to “reassemble the social,” by contrast, unsettles the whole idea that there is such a thing as society. The idea that “societies” exist with special supra-individual properties and that they are some kind of invisible matter that can exert forces on individuals is out of date, he argues. Instead, Latour is interested in understanding how arrangements that are understood to be societies are assembled in the first place. Through fine-grained analysis of controversies, we can see how the meaning and members of a society are reconfigured again and again. Today’s society, the social configurations in prescribes and the morality it enforces, will never be next week’s society. The key, then, is not understanding what “society” is as an object or scale of analysis, but how the very scale that we think of as society is made.

These perspectives on scale are more compelling for me to think about food allergy activism than false consciousness. My research contacts are quite aware of the fact that they’ve chosen a very small issue to tackle. The mothers I interviewed in particular spoke eloquently about having to give up careers after years of education and professional achievement to care for allergic children. There was no false consciousness about the trade off being made to care for their kids. But there was, for most, a shift in scale, from thinking about oneself and one’s place in society to thinking about what happens at middle scales: the scale of the nuclear family, the extended family, the school, the sports team, the town. For some, this focus on the impact of direct social relationships upon the safety of their food allergic children scaled back up to state- or national-level concerns about access to epinephrine and funding for global networks of food allergy researchers. But not for all.

At what scale to intervene is an active choice that each person in the food allergy community makes. Events like the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference or the FARE Conference, not to mention the always-on blog and social media networks devoted to food allergy, allow folks to connect as individuals but also to see how their efforts fit together with others. It allows for a view of how scales and labor interlock into a multifaceted movement and community oriented around shared moral commitments to protect people with food allergies from harm.

I think this is a better argument than a false consciousness argument. It recognizes that people understand their place in society. It leaves more space for recognizing and appreciating the agency of individuals. And it makes their actions seem sensible, saving analysts from the trap (which anthropologists often accuse economists of falling into) of thinking that people need more experts to tell them what to do in order to live their lives better. Thinking about scale rather than false consciousness is politically more palatable and ethically more responsible. Yet it still provides analytic purchase for investigating how individual labors directed at one end morph into societal momentum that moves off in an entirely different direction.

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