Representation Research Paper

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Philosophers and social scientists have always been concerned about the relation of their knowledge about the social world to (the rest of ) this world. This concern has sometimes been phrased as the question of the representation of the social world in and through the writing of scholars, or as the adaequatio intellectus et rei, being the objective of scientific inquiry. From Plato and Aristotle, and then Thomas of Aquinas, this problematique stretches into the positivism of the social sciences of the nineteenth century as well as its critical alternative, scientific Marxism. With important qualifications, it was revived in the neopositivism of the twentieth century and the unified science program that tried to (re-) integrate the social sciences with the natural sciences.

Despite this continuity of concern, the very concept of representation of the social world has also been heavily criticized. At several points in intellectual history it appeared as if the whole idea needed to be abandoned, because there is no way to verify the relation between the world and thoughts about the world other than again by thought. Thus, knowledge of adaequatio is in principle unattainable. In most recent debate, during the closing decades of the twentieth century, the accumulation of such doubt has often been labelled ‘crisis of representation,’ implicitly and misleadingly pretending novelty of these doubts. Through all of earlier such crises, however, the problematique keeps reviving, often with new qualifications, and those who revive it often argue that it cannot be entirely abandoned either, since otherwise the status of statements about the (social) world would become entirely unclear.

1. Representation In Philosophical Modernity

Even though this debate has been going on virtually through all of the history of philosophy, the break that came with the radical skepticism characteristic of what can be called the philosophy of modernity is often seen as shifting the terrain. Between the middle of the seventeenth century, Descartes’s time of writing, and the end of the eighteenth century, Kant’s time, the ground on which representation could be possible was systematically explored. Descartes’s cogito ergo sum radically subjectivized knowledge claims. Nevertheless, he was able to develop on that basis a rationalism according to which mathematical representation was adequate to the world. Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena has sometimes been interpreted in a similar way, that is, by considering noumena, although they cannot be experienced, as theoretical entities the relations between which are governed by laws. A science developing such laws would then be truthfully representing the world. Arguably, however, the more significant impulse from these one and a half centuries of debate was a deep crisis of representation, at least within the philosophical mode of reasoning. This crisis of representation stemmed from the increasing gap between the perceiving and knowing subject and the world.

The combined outcome of the Cartesian and the Kantian moves, namely, was that, on the one hand, philosophical reasoning appeared to have exhausted its possibilities, at least for the time being. At the endpoint of this reasoning, on the other hand, a space had been opened for a different form of inquiry. The gap between the subject and the world, or between the noumena and the phenomena, permitted, maybe even invited, attempts to fill it by positive, empirical knowledge, elaborated in systematic, conceptually guided ways. It allowed the subjectivation and historicization of knowledge claims, which in turn made the social sciences possible, as psychological inquiry into human perception and experience of the world and as sociohistorical collection and systematization of the ‘facts’ of human social life. Much of the social sciences of the nineteenth century, often devoid of any explicated philosophy of the social sciences, indeed worked on such foundations.

2. Representation In Political Modernity

While philosophical debate opened the possibility for developing a conception of representation of the social world through social science inquiry, roughly parallel political transformations made such a representation appear as an increasingly urgent necessity. These transformations made the concept of representation increasingly problematic in political thought and practice, a culmination of this process and a turningpoint being reached with the American and French Revolutions.

A concept of representation had been almost completely absent from political thinking in Europe and the Mediterranean region during antiquity and the Middle Ages. First elements of such a problematique gradually emerged with the rivalry between various sources of religious power during the era of the schism, and between religious and political power with the contest between the pope and the emperor. Representation here, most broadly, refers to the relation between a holder of authority to that over which this authority is exercised. Employing the concept of representation for this question presupposes that authority is not held in its own right, but for something or somebody else. The disputes during the late Middle Ages and early modern times were largely cast in terms of the legitimate representation of God, as the uncontested supreme authority, on earth. William of Ockham may have been the first to conclude on the impossibility of deciding in the face of competing claims for representation and, thus, to have opened up a political version of the crisis of representation.

As in the philosophical debate about the knowledge of the world, the period between the middle of the seventeenth and the end of the eighteenth century is of crucial importance for a recasting of the issue of political representation. The first systematic attempt to solve the issue in modern form, that is, by fully acknowledging both the exigency of representation and the undecidability of the question of the sources of authority, was made by Thomas Hobbes. Faced with the religious wars and thus a violent contest over the rightful representation of God, he ruled out any religious source, but insisted on the need for unity in the polity to avoid persistent warfare. The idea of state sovereignty, prepared by Bodin, and of the unitary state represented by the monarch were the key ingredients of his solution to the problem. By making the constitution of the state itself, however, dependent on a contract between individuals, he had opened the breach for individualism, as Carl Schmitt observed. The idea of popular sovereignty, as developed by Locke and Rousseau, should indeed turn Hobbes’s reasoning around and prepare the intellectual ground for the political transformations of the late eighteenth century.

Quite analogous to the situation in general philosophy, the development of political philosophy was, on the one hand, stalled with the full explication of an individualist liberal political theory, that is a political theory of modernity. On the other hand, however, insufficiencies of the liberal assumptions, particularly visible in the post-Revolutionary situation, lent themselves to the development of the social sciences as means to deal with those insufficiencies by other means, through a kind of ‘empirical political philosophy’ namely (Wagner 1998).

Liberal political philosophy was insufficient in the sense that the set of rules on which viable political institutions could be built, starting out from individuals and their potential diversity, needed propositions beyond those that could be derived from the basic assumptions of individualist liberalism. The concept of self-determination needed, for instance, procedural rules of participation in communication and in deliberation. Since such rules could not unequivocally be derived from the principles themselves, the issue of representation emerged much more forcefully than ever before. In response to the French Revolution, Burke (1993) still argued that, while there was a practical issue of representation, best handled in line with grown traditions, there was no specific legitimacy attached to representation. Paine (1993), in contrast, linked most forcefully the idea of the sovereignty of the people to the representation of the people in the governing bodies. The controversy between Burke and Paine ‘marks the turning point of two ages of representation’ (Sternberger 1971, p. 594). As soon as any position closer to Paine than to Burke was accepted, debates on modes of representation, such as those that had already occurred in both the American and the French constituent assemblies, became in- evitable.

And it was in conjunction with this inevitability of disputes over representation that the creation of social effects of the liberal rules moved to the center of attention. The identification and the analysis of these effects called for social science inquiry and conceptualization. The observation of actual, empirical structures of representation also served the interest of enhancing some stability and certainty in political procedures that could appear to be opened to all contingencies by the abolition of any legitimacy of preordained orders. Two main strategies for rediscovering certainties can be identified: systematic observation and reflective conceptualization. The one was more typical for American thinking, where the structure of the vote was of key interest, whereas European social thinkers focused on what came to be called social structures be-hind the vote. These two intellectual responses to the political problematique of representation inaugurate two modes of social theorizing, the behavioralist and the structural-functional one.

In sum, thus, during the nineteenth century an increasing overlap of concerns between cognitive representation, that is, the truthful representation of social reality, and political representation, that is, the need for a social map to draw up rules for electoral representation can be observed. One may speak here of the gradual transformation of a philosophical conception of representation, based on the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, into a sociological one, based on the sociology of industrial and mass society emerging at the end of the nineteenth century (d’Arcy and Saez 1985). This rephrasing of the problem of representation was brought again into crisis, however, by the turn of the nineteenth century and, yet again, in the late twentieth century. These crises, although they were also crises of philosophical representation, showed specific features of a crisis of the representation of the social world—and this was again related to political issues of representation.

3. A Crisis In Modern Representation And Its Temporary Solution

From the late nineteenth century on, a shift in political orientations, which entailed a declining faith in the viability of liberalism, was paralleled in epistemology by a renewed skepticism about the other central tenet of the Enlightenment tradition, the intelligibility of human action and the social world. The period around the turn of the century is now known as an intellectually extremely fruitful, even a classical era in many fields of social science, most notably sociology, psychology and economics. At that time, however, much of the work was driven by a sense of crisis, a feeling that many of the assumptions of earlier social science were inadequate.

In terms of epistemology, social science saw itself forced largely to abandon the idea of representing social reality and accepted the view that conceptual constructions were dependent both on the means and forms of observation and perception and on the interest of the observer in the social world. American pragmatism is possibly the most explicit case of such a reorientation, but similar, often much more tensionridden, discussions were led in European debates, a prominent example being Max Weber’s methodological writings. As a consequence, the turn-of-the century approaches were less convinced about a determinist course of human history than earlier social science, and also less persuaded of the direct insight into any laws of the social world from empirical observation. Such uncertainty also entailed a crisis in the usability of social knowledge for purposes of action. The earlier call had been for better, ‘positive’ knowledge that would lead to better action; it relied on the conception of an objective social world outside the mind of the observers, but adequately represented by them in social theory and research. According to such a conception, action based on uncertain knowledge should entail uncertain outcomes.

Through the early decades of the twentieth century, however, novel conceptions of the relation between knowledge and action were proposed that were based not least on a critique of what Dewey (1984, p. 195) called the ‘spectator theory of knowing.’ With this term, he summarized all views, for him characteristic of most philosophy and science, that saw the world as exposed to the human gaze and assumed that it is exactly this distance between the knowing subject and the object to be known that allows for certain knowledge. The distancing from the sensations of the world had been considered a precondition for the identification of those assumptions on which claims for valid knowledge could be erected. By the same move, the question of epistemology itself had emerged as the problem of the relation between the ‘reality’ of the world and the ‘representations’ that human beings provide of the world in their philosophy and science. The preference in the philosophy of science was for a long time, as Dewey points out, for an epistemological formalism that presupposes this distance between the knower and that which is to be known. Pragmatism precisely rejects this assumption of distance.

Similar turns were made in European philosophy during the same period. Ludwig Wittgenstein had hoped to clarify the problem of representation in the Tractatus logicus-philosophicus, in which he employs a picture theory of knowing, whereas in the Philosophical Investigations he sees our languages as being part of our forms of life, and thus not looking at life from a distance. In Holzwege, Martin Heidegger analyzed the modern theory of knowledge as representation comprehensively as the attempt ‘to provide oneself a picture’ of the world by making a world that is placed in front of oneself. Rather than making ‘a picture of the world,’ this move ‘grasps the world as picture.’ In two intertwined processes, the world becomes a picture and the human being a subject. Rorty tried to summarize this reinterpretation of the history of philosophy and the sciences provided by Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein as the abdication of the attempt of seeing knowledge as ‘the mirror of nature’ (Rorty 1979, Friese and Wagner 1997, pp. 208–11).

The critique of representation, in this sense, was linked to the fundamental and critical epistemological presupposition that the social world is in important respects not found and discovered but made and invented. This novel combination, however, provided merely for one strand of debate in the social sciences of the first half of the twentieth century, and it did not become dominant. Partly disregarding epistemological issues, partly referring to the ‘neopositivism’ of the Vienna Circle, the other major strand tried to deal with the problem of representation by methodological means. At this point, the history of the problem of representation links up closely with the history of statistics and of empirical social research.

In statistics, the period between the end of the nineteenth century and the 1930s witnessed intense debates about a seemingly very specific methodological question. The problem was how to generalize observations collected from the study of a part to statements about the whole. Its solution was a number of statistical techniques summarized under the label of representativity. These techniques were developed simultaneously in debates within the statistical profession and about the design of social insurance arrangements. An institutional, a cognitive, and a political transformation were closely interlinked, ‘the nationalization of social statistics, … the diffusion of the ‘representative method’ and of random selection, and … the beginnings of the development of the Welfare State’ (Desrosieres 1991, p. 228).

During the interwar period, mathematical techniques spread to other areas of empirical research, not least to the emergent fields of opinion research, of business cycle research and of research into the social structure of society. Special research institutes were created, during those years and particularly after the Second World War, that were to provide the data to which those techniques were to be applied. From the late 1920s onwards, thus, the contours of a new social science, which then should dominate the image of those sciences in the second post war era, are recognizable. This social science liberated itself from the doubts of the ‘classical period’ by methodologically circumventing the problem of representing society. The doubts about epistemological and conceptual issues could not be entirely removed, but they could be dealt with, it was assumed, by starting from the most secure elements one could find, that is the empirical observation and collection of data on the preferences and behaviors of individual human beings. Conclusions referring to the larger scale of society and politics were arrived at by aggregation of those data; and the questions towards the answering of which data were generated or analyzed were derived from policy needs for ‘social control.’ Thus, a new connection between cognitive and political representation was created. Or, in other words, a ‘soft’ behaviorism aligned with a similarly ‘soft’ pragmatism.

4. The Re-Emergence Of A Crisis Of Representation

However, such solution to the problem of representation remained temporary. During the closing decades of the twentieth century, the ‘interpretative turn’ or, more broadly, the ‘linguistic turn’ in the human sciences has had strong, though uneven, effects in the sciences devoted to the study of contemporary society. Emphasis on the linguistic constitution of the social world and on the interpretative openness of social representations brings the social sciences back to a period of epistemological, ontological, and methodological reconsideration that shows many parallels to the ‘classical era’ at the beginning of the twentieth century.

It has been argued that this recent period of intellectual transformation occurs in parallel to an overall process of sociopolitical transformation. Crises of cognitive and of political representation then again occur in tandem (Wagner 1994). During such periods, it becomes evident that a social science that tightly couples the concern with social order to the solidity of its own representations of the social world applies at best in periods of relative social stability, that is, only contingently. Conceptually, however, the ideas of unanimity or similarity of behavior being established by common material constraints or well mastered by shared ideas (beliefs, representations) or a diversity of actions being integrated through systematic articulation (division of functions, of roles) works with too restrictive definitions of social life (Thevenot 1993 p. 276). Attention needs instead to be directed towards ‘the immense historical labor that is necessary to unite disparate beings around the same system of representation, to constitute the reality of such a heterogeneous ensemble, to inscribe it into devices (dispositifs) through an intensive effort of objectification and to endow it with a common interest’ (Boltanski 1990 p. 70).

It is important to note that many of the authors who recently have renewed the interest in the problematique of representation, such as Michel Foucault and Reinhart Koselleck, have done so by emphasising the linkage between cognitive and political representation. In their own research, they have also underlined that the critical relation between these two forms of representation becomes accentuated during the political and intellectual transformations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. This is at the same time the period of the emergence of the social sciences. They were created to deal with this problematique, but they remain nevertheless, or for that very reason, marked by it.


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