Why Things Matter to People

sayerUnderlying this book is a simple proposition: things matter to people. As well as the thought and interaction which have been traditional objects of the human sciences, we also evaluate – our relation to the world is one of concern. Andrew Sayer’s book is concerned with drawing out the theoretical and methodological implications for social science of recognising this irreducible dimension of lay normativity:

The most important questions people tend to face in their everyday lives are normative ones of what is good or bad about what is happening, including how others are treating them, and of how to act, and what to do for the best. The presence of this concern may be evident in fleeting encounters and mundane conversations, in feelings about how things are going, as well as in momentous decisions such as whether to have children, change job, or what to do about a relationship which has gone bad. These are things people care deeply about. They are matters of ‘practical reason’, about how to act, and quite different from the empirical and theoretical questions asked by social science. If we ignore them or reduce them to an effect of norms, discourse or socialisation, or to ‘affect’, we produce an anodyne account of living that renders our evident concern about what we do and what happens to us incomprehensible. (Sayer 2011: 2)

Sayer contends that the pervasive misdescription of lay normativity has contributed to the production of a social science which is both alienated and alienating. The tendency to treat concern “as if it were merely an incidental, subjective accompaniment to what happens” manifests itself in the hegemony of external description and the marginalisation of internal description. In doing so we “miss people’s first person evaluative relation to the world and the force of their evaluation”. However this is not a plea for the reintroduction of subjectivity and, in understanding why Sayer opposes this, we begin to apprehend the sophistication of the arguments which run through the book. His positive account has its roots in a meta-theoretical critique of the “whole series of flawed conceptual distinctions that obstruct our understanding of the evaluative character of everyday life”:

  • Fact and value
  • Is and ought
  • Reason and emotion
  • Science and ethics
  • Positive and normative
  • Objective and subjective
  • Body and mind
  • Animal and human

For instance the conceptual distinction between is and ought obscures their interpenetration in the evaluative aspect of everyday life. We are, as he puts it, “needy, vulnerable beings, suspended between things as they are and as they might become, for better or worse, and as we need or want them to become” (Sayer 2011: 4). We might say that our subjective evaluative responses are objectively part of any state of affairs that can be studied and they are subjectively meaningful responses to objective circumstances. But in doing so the limitations of these concepts becomes clear, with clarity of expression rapidly lost as we strain against the tendency of these distinctions to foreclose certain ways of thinking and speaking. Another related example is the distinction between facts and values. Some try to avoid value judgements because they are understood to preclude objective assessment of facts. Others critique the ambition of an ‘objective assessment of facts’ because such an endeavour is seen to be impossible because unavoidably value-laden. Both these positions start from the assumption that objectivity and values are incompatible. Thus Sayer seeks to shed the conceptual structure which generates the problems rather than engaging in what he has elsewhere terms a ‘PoMo flip’ where a reaction to a problematic position involves a simple inversion and retains the conceptual structure which generated the problem in the first place.

One aspect of the book I found particularly thought provoking was Sayer’s account of value. On his view values should be understood as past evaluations sedimented as present dispositions which we believe to be justified. This view sees value as “based on repeated particular experiences and valuations of actions” while also tending “recursively, to shape subsequent particular valuations of people and their actions, and guide that person’s own actions”. They are “habits of thinking to which we become committed or emotionally attached” (Sayer 2011: 26-27). This goes hand-in-hand with a broader argument that “we should think of normativity more in terms of the ongoing flow of continual concrete evaluation, and less in terms of norms, rules, procedures, or indeed decisions and injunctions about what one ought to do” (Sayer 2011: 97). This puts Sayer in conflict with someone like Elder-Vass who, despite a somewhat similar theoretical starting point, offers an account of normativity in terms of the causal power of social groups. As a number of people have pointed out, his concept of norm circles lacks a diachronic account. It might offer useful insight into whose action contributes to which social injunction at a particular point in time but it struggles to explain how this propensity to enforce norms comes about over time. To adequately explain the endorsing of norms requires an account of value. Without this it becomes difficult to comprehend what motivates normative behaviour unless we wish to argue that the norm circle effectively brings itself into being.

That said I’m still not sure precisely where I stand in relation to Sayer’s account but I find it interesting that three competing theories of normativity (Archer, Elder-Vass, Sayer) have emerged from within critical realism in the last decade. I find Sayer’s contribution extremely thought-provoking, partly because of the nuanced hostility to disciplinarity which pervades it. Early in the book he contrasts the often over-socialised view of individual action within social science to the under-socialised view of the individual which tends to dominate within philosophy. His intention in the book is to move beyond the conceptual frameworks which produce such methodological tendencies and to avoid the temptation to deal with the explanatory symptom rather than address the underlying theoretical malaise. But he does so through a careful unweaving of the meta-theoretical thread, rather than seeking to ‘philosophize with a hammer’. This becomes possible because of his sensitivity to the lay normativity of social scientists as persons i.e. he seeks to understand how and why, for instance, actual social scientists are moved to invest themselves in problematic notions of ‘objectivity’. In doing so the ‘carving up’ of the social world in terms of different disciplines comes to seem deeply problematic:

We need a ‘postdisciplinary’ perspective (Sayer, 200a). The conceptual problems that make it difficult to understand evaluative being are partly a product of the emergence of a division of academic labour in which each discipline imperialistically seeks to extend its parochial concerns to the exclusion of others, and each imagines that it is the most fundamental and insightful social science. The mutual hostilities between sociology (and anthropology), psychology, politics and economics serve to support various kinds of disciplinary reductionism that prevent us understanding the social world. The polarisation between oversocialized and undersocialized conceptions of individuals is the most obvious example. The divorce of normative from positive thought about society, through the separation of philosophy from the rest of social science, is another. A plague on all disciplinary imperialism and parochialism! If ‘postdisciplinary’ sounds a bit pretentious, it’s actually little different from the familiar pre-disciplinary social science of the eighteenth – and nineteenth century founders (Sayer, 200b). Although a social scientist myself, this research is based on a lengthy search within philosophy, particularly moral philosophy, for ways of overcoming social science’s difficulty with lay normativity in general, and ethical being in particular. I ask readers to be open to ideas and orientations from outside their own disciplines. (Sayer 2011: 14)

Why Things Matter to People is a rich and complex book. It is unavoidably filled with abstract terminology and at times Sayer’s frustration with the constraints of theoretical discourse is almost palpable – he deserves eternal credit for acknowledging early in the book that ‘lay normativity’ is a rather alienated way of describing its object. Nonetheless the entire project is animated by his concern to understand this everyday yet so frequently overlooked dimension of human life. For something so intrinsically abstract it’s also weirdly readable. I find the sensitivity with which Sayer does theory deeply admirable, as well as the clarity with which he writes about what it is he has done. The book is a pleasure to read and that’s something I have rarely found to be true of social theory, regardless of how accomplished the works in question might be. In short I can’t praise this book enough. Now I need to resist the urge to reread the whole thing when I only picked it up again to check a reference and ended up writing this post.

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