Interview with Stephen Turner: Part IV

Interview with Stephen Turner: Part IV

Stephen P. Turner (University of South Florida) is a Weber scholar and social theorist. He is also a member of the so-called “disobedient generation,” which left graduated programs and incorporated to US faculties in the years after the 1968 student movement. Departing from his own personal experience, in this interview Turner shares his views on the intellectual, professional, and job-market conditions under which social theory and Weber studies have evolved since the 1970s. He also explains what he sees as the reasons of the social theory’s current difficulties, but also argues for its continued importance as an academic rather than engaged vocation. Here he also sees a place for Weber’s ideas. Turner’s memoir, Mad Hazard: a Life in Social Theory, was published in September 2022.

This interview was conducted in Berlin on the 10th of July 2019 by Álvaro Morcillo (Free University Berlin). The interview was recorded and subsequently transcribed. It has been edited for clarity; occasionally, the order of a question and the answer thereto has been altered. A list of references is available here.

All parts of the interview are available in our blog section.

Section IV: Sociological Classics, Methods, Causality, and the Probabilistic Revolution

ÁML: We can continue talking about J-P Mayer. Let me quote you: “I was still under the illusion that the standard history was more or less right and that Durkheim and Weber were in some ways the progenitors of standard sociology.” When was that?

ST: When I finished my dissertation I was looking ahead and asking, “what is the next project?”

ÁML: Your dissertation is, sorry, Sociological Explanation as Translation (1980)?

ST: Yes. That’s a very Wittgensteinian book, but the article that also came out of it, “Translating Ritual Beliefs” (1979), my favorite article, is more Quinean. But they had nothing to do with Weber: they were addressed to the rationality and relativism problematic. When I finished the dissertation (1980) and the papers that came out of it (Including Turner 1981), I said “I need a life project.” So, I thought that what I would do would be to go back to these founding figures and correct the understanding of their methodological views. The standard view, inherited from the positivism dispute in the US, was clearly wrong, and almost everything written about them was wrong. Yet there wasn’t anybody around to do this kind of reinterpretation. It was a nice project for me because you needed some philosophical background to do it. One of the problems was that people who didn’t have that background they imposed presentist standards. This was usually pretty crude: Durkheim’s a positivist because he’s got numbers; Weber’s an interpretivist because he doesn’t have numbers. And these were clearly completely wrong interpretations. The earlier writers were sometimes much better.

ÁML: Who now are you thinking about?

ST: Some of the people that wrote on Durkheim, such as Charles Elmer Gehlke, whose dissertation was Émile Durkheim’s Contributions to Sociological Theory (1915), and on Weber. Lowell Bennion had a first English language dissertation done under Halbwachs (1933; see England 1988, p. 27). He understands Weber, but he’s not using the categories of the positivism dispute, because they didn’t exist at that time. And that dispute was in itself a distortion because Popper, the main target, didn’t think he was a positivist. Moreover, the real Logical Positivists rejected the things that sociologists did in the name of positivism. So, it was a complete mess, and it needed to be disentangled. But doing so was largely a waste of time. My experience with my early papers on Blau (1977) and also on Simon (1974) was that you just couldn’t get anywhere dealing with contemporary figures. I learned this with the paper on Blau. I learned that sociologists don’t generalize in the way that philosophers do. They thought that if they had some fig leaf difference with Blau the criticisms didn’t apply to them. So, I thought that if we go back to these classic figures, who were still totemic, people can’t really say “I’m different from them.” But this strategy didn’t work either. As the literatures on the totemic figures became more professionalized, they just became historical literatures, which nobody but specialists read. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was still looking for some kind of leverage in relation to the larger community of sociologists. So, I started in on both Durkheim and Weber. I did a book manuscript on Durkheim and sent it in to my local university press. It was kind of Straussian reading, but it was really about the logic and philosophy of science of Durkheim. And the review came back saying it was tedious and boring. My then-wife liked the phrase “tedious and boring.” So, it became a joke. I just turned around and published the whole thing in Philosophy of Social Science so it wasn’t a loss (1983a, 1984), and then it got reprinted in the standard Durkheim collection so it couldn’t have been that tedious and boring.

Part of the story is that simultaneously with me writing on this topic, a lot of which had to do with probability, there was a huge project organized by Lorenz Krüger that eventuated in a book called The Probabilistic Revolution (1987) and several dissertations and books. The project included many then-young people who became very important such as Ted Porter and Mary Morgan, and very distinguished people like Stephen Stigler. They were writing on aspects of the Probabilistic Revolution which was something that allegedly happened in the 19th century in different ways in different fields, so it was very field-specific. The person they recruited to do sociology was a student and collaborator of Paul Lazarsfeld, Anthony Oberschall, who didn’t believe there was a probabilistic revolution. As a result, sociology was a complete blank in this larger project. My book, The Search for a Methodology of Social Science brought together previously published material on Weber and Durkheim, and dealt with Quetelet, Comte, and Mill, which came out simultaneously with theirs (1986). As a result, we all reviewed each other’s books—[Ian] Hacking, [Theodore] Porter, [Lorraine] Daston and all these people were all reviewing each other’s books – and I became a semi-honorary member of this generation and had really good relations with them. But they had covered some things that I had missed in my account of the transition from the time of [Adolphe] Quetelet to [Émile] Durkheim, especially in the technical statistical material, and subsequently, I could go back to Durkheim and see some things I didn’t see before about the way the statistics were done in Suicide, and why it was really a retrogression from what had already been established in conventional statistics.

ÁML: Conventional statistics was a backwards step?

ST: Conventional statistics and especially [Francis] Edgeworth and [Karl] Pearson had really moved ahead of where Durkheim was. Durkheim used a method that fit with a certain philosophical view of laws—and not a positivist one. But he played some major games with the analysis that maybe amounted to fraud. According to his own account of sociological laws, what he had to get in Suicide was an absolutely consistent succession of data points, and in the “same order” as the one to be explained. But the way that he got that was by grouping a large number of cases into one data point. The group rates were absolutely consistent, that is to say, they increased consistently, but only if they were grouped in a particular way and averaged into the data point. The groupings may have been a consequence of the way that maps were done, or maybe not. It was impossible to reconstruct what he had actually done. But you could see very clearly what he was trying to do. Eventually, I wrote on that and so on and manage to get that rejected by the American Journal of Sociology but published in a special Durkheim issue in the Journal for the History of the Behavioral Sciences (1996a). It had been rejected on the grounds that this would not be good for Durkheim’s reputation!

But this was at the later stages of this larger life project. The beginnings actually were with Weber. I was already fascinated as a student by the problems of the origins of capitalism. The very first year I started teaching the Dean wanted me to teach during the summer. There was a medievalist there who I was friends with. We talked about these things, and then we did a course together that first summer—also the last summer I taught. It was a massive course, an 8-hour course. We co-taught it, lecturing together. It looked at Henri Pirenne, Weber, Werner Sombart, Marx of course, plus chunks of actual historical literature. Then I started writing on the topic and tried to reconstruct the causal argument in Weber’s economic history lectures. He used causal language that was very Millian, and, so I kept trying to make it work as a Mill-style canon of induction argument. It just wouldn’t work, and there was nothing I could do to make it work. So, I gave a paper on this as part of a series of Weber lectures being done by Vatro Murvar, who somehow got money for this in Milwaukee. I showed what the explanation was and why it didn’t really work out. Randall Collins happened to have another paper at that time in the same lecture series. His paper had a title like “Weber’s Economic History, his greatest work.” Shortly after that he published, in the American Sociological Review, a paper that discusses the same causes I did, but ignores the problem of what type of causal relationship is being claimed, and just puts in a bunch of arrows to signify the causal relations: that became a famous paper (1980).

ÁML: You mean Collins’s paper on Weber’s Wirtschaftsgeschichte, “Weber’s Last Theory of Capitalism. A Systematization.”

ST: Yes. But I was still concerned with the question of “what kind of causality are we talking about here?” because these remarks don’t really add up. That led me to look at this whole von Kries issue: the argument definitely worked with that kind of causality, but not with Mill’s methods, and the problem of causation pushed me into rethinking the rest of Weber’s methodological writing.

ÁML: So, you were actually going down two roads, the one methodological one on causality, and then soon thereafter the fact and value road together with Regis Factor?

ST: Right. And actually, this was influenced by a career-defining decision. One of the nice things you could do for yourself to get paid during the summer was to go to an NEH summer seminar. The first year I was eligible to do it was 1979. I applied to two seminars, and I got into both of them. One was by Stanley Engerman and the other one was by Richard Rorty. The Rorty one was about cognitive and moral relativism; the Engerman one was training people to use econometrics on historical material. I could have gone either way at that point. I agonized about it, and decided to go with Rorty, which turned out to be a very consequential decision that actually pushed me back into philosophy, even though ironically, Rorty’s big thesis at the time was “the end of philosophy.”

ÁML: And the other option would have been a more historical one?

ST: And a more technical one too, because Fogel and Engerman had just published this big book Time on the Cross (1974), about slavery, where they did this huge econometric analysis.

ÁML: Fogel was also the Nobel Prize winner in Economics who argued that the trains, the railway network in the US didn’t make any difference in economic development.

ST: Yes, because the steam-powered river boats could have done the same thing.

ÁML: And so that will have, then you will be a figure more similar to Porter, someone who has worked more on history of science and history of methods than…?

ST: No. Engerman wasn’t focused on methods as a problem but on teaching people to use them. I was fascinated with economics, and always thought of myself as wanting to go into economic history. It just never happened for me. But it was always a temptation. It reflected my adolescent immersion in Marxism, and the idea that economy has to be where the secrets are.