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W.G. Runciman: The Social Animal
(Harper Collins: 1998)


“Sociology is the study of people in their roles, and to study people in their roles is to study how and why power is distributed and exercised.... Whatever the group, community, institution or society to which you and I both belong, if more power attaches to your role than mine there are three forms which the exercise of that power can take. Your power over me can be economic - that is, your role enables you either to endow me with, or deprive me of, wealth or income in money, services or goods; or it can be ideological - that is, your role enables you either to bestow on me, or take away from me, social esteem, honour or prestige; or it can be coercive - that is, your role enables you either to bring to bear on me, or protect me from, the exercise of physical force. From this, it follows that all societies have what can conveniently be called their modes of production, persuasion and coercion - that is, their distinctive ways of distributing and exercising economic, ideological and coercive power.... [Furthermore, no type of power is] any more fundamental or decisive than the other two. Different sociologists, including not least Marx, Weber and Durkheim, have given different priority in their writings to each of them - Marx to the economic, Weber to the coercive, and Durkheim to the ideological. But it’s not a question to be decided a priori. In some societies it’s one, and in others another.... But, to grasp the institutional workings of the particular society, let alone to explain why it has evolved as it has, you will always need to analyse the relation between the three.”
(Runciman, pp.64-9)

To those who too easily dismiss sociology as a playpen for ideologues and those excessively narrow researchers intent on reinventing common-sense’s wheels, W.G. Runciman will come as a distinct (and bracing) shock. Because, not only is this remarkable book eminently readable - no socsci speak here - it is also, by far, the clearest and most insightful analysis extant of exactly what constitutes sociological thinking, why it is both important and useful, and how we should understand its key concepts, such as power - analysed above, and contrasted with a somewhat less useful approach below:


“One of the most reliable findings which comes out of research into what sociologists sometimes call ‘subjective stratification’ is that people are woefully ignorant about how power actually is exercised and distributed among the roles of which their societies consist. What’s more, it’s often the people at the top, who might be thought to know better, who have even less realistic views than the people at the bottom who suffer directly from the exercise of the power attaching to the roles of the people at the top: the Persian King Ardeshir, who lumped all ‘cultivators, menials etc.’ into a single omnibus systact out of the four into which he divided his society, carefully ranked ‘religious leaders and guardians of the fire temples’ in the second, and ‘physicians, scribes, and astrologers’ in the third.”
(Runciman, p.79)

And, if you think Runciman rather tough on King Ardeshir, be warned...his most cutting critiques are reserved for those he terms “Attitude-Merchants” and “Platitude-Merchants” amongst his fellow sociologists - a very useful pair of categories I have found re many disciplines with little or no useful work to show for their myriad publications. What’s more, he offers us perhaps the most succinct full argument I’ve ever seen against theoretical reification, or - at least - the best since Francis Bacon:


“Since some explanatory theories stand up very much better than others to attempted refutation, there can’t be much harm in encapsulating their distinctiveness in a word coined for the purpose. All the same, however, there are two good reasons to be very, very careful about doing so. The first reason is that the theory risks becoming not a sense of propositions held to be true, but a set of doctrines held to be sacrosanct - or, to put it in terms which go back to Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century, that its adherents become less concerned to have their errors corrected than their doubts removed.... The second reason is that the theory in question risks being thought to account for a much wider range of observations than in fact it can.... It’s as much to be expected that people who come up with good original ideas should claim too much for them, as it is that their disciples should then elevate them into an inviolable orthodoxy. But, that’s not the most promising way to advance the cause of scientific discovery.... There are [also] two further dangers, which aren’t so much mistakes as misconceptions, and which account for much of the bad press which sociology receives.... The first danger is to suppose that a favoured proposition about human social behaviour is new and true, when it is merely new; the second is to suppose that a favoured proposition about human social behaviour is new and true, when it is merely true.”
(Runciman, pp.55-7)

Still, the real substance herein goes far beyond such useful - and amusingly damning - critiques. Instead, it lies in his clear - and rigourously exact - analyses of just what good sociologists do, how & why they do it, and (most remarkably) the mindset which underlies this discipline...


“Explanation, in sociology or elsewhere, can mean several different things. Why [for example]...do I shake hands with you when I’m introduced to you? Because I don’t wish to seem impolite, because that’s how I was brought up, because it strengthens ties in our community, because a mutual friend decided that we should meet, because in our culture that’s what we do instead of rubbing noses, or because in ruder and more violent times the symbolic meaning of a handshake was that neither of us held weapons in our hands? That isn’t even an exhaustive list. But for the practising sociologist, the important distinction is the threefold one between genetic, motivational, and functional explanations. This difference does not, let me emphasize, correspond to the difference between evoked, acquired and imposed behaviour: explanations of each kind can be sought for all three. But sociologists are, typically, more likely both to be studying imposed behaviour and to be looking for functional explanations.”
(Runciman, p.37)

“There are a few crude maxims which sociologists will on the whole be well advised to follow.  First: don't listen to the rhetoric, look at the roles. Second: don't stay with the people, follow  the practices. And third: don't get hung up on who did what when to whom, but spot what it is  in the environment in which they did it that explains why they did it as they did.”
(Runciman, p.153)

Here, in a nutshell, is the mindset of sociology - the cluster of insights which make up what C. Wright Mills called the sociological imagination. It is pre-theoretical in a way, although such a perspective could only come out of a history of theory building along such lines. For, as you can see, this is not our normal way of thinking about human groupings.

What such a perspective focuses on are the strong regularities in human behaviour in groups, conceptualised in an abstract fashion. To a sociologist, the roles we both perform and occupy in our social lives, made up of practices, are the key to explaining such regularities. For while we are much freer in our specific choices, our nature as highly social animals requires regularities in our interactions - and these are provided by roles and practices which tend to be taken for granted. We could have done things differently. The social insects - the only other highly social species - solved the regularity problem through the biological specialization of  subgroups. However, ours is a much more flexible system. Still, as Runciman notes below, it is not infinitely so. Roles have to work together, and the groupings concerned have to add up to an economically viable, ideologically compelling society which effectively domesticates and channels coercive power. These things are all matters of degree - some societies are better than others at some things - and it is possible for isolated societies to continue even where all of these things are poorly done. Yet the basic point stands.


“It’s because individually different people are, on the whole, consistent performers of their roles in their different cultures and societies that their social behaviour is as explicable as it is by the sociologists and anthropologists who study them. Warlords behave like warlords, soldiers behave like soldiers, big-men behave like big-men, paramounts behave like paramounts, presidents behave like presidents. But to point this out is to restate a paradox in the same breath as the platitude - the paradox being that our social behaviour is as reliably patterned as our individual behaviour is unmanageably diverse. Not only is the future course of social evolution unpredictable, but the particular decisions and consequent actions of different people in their roles are only possible to forecast either in very broad terms or under very restricted conditions....[But] the differences between people don’t undermine the consistencies between roles. However weird and wacky we may be in the conduct of our private lives, once we are out there acting socially as members of groups, communities, institutions and societies we are much more likely than not to adhere to the good old maxim of doing, when in Rome, what the Romans do.... What’s more...it has also been shown that people don’t....want to face up to just how conformist we are: we systematically underestimate the strength of the external pressures to which we yield in our apparently spontaneous decisions about how to behave in company. The choice may be in the individual mind, but the power is in the social group.”
(Runciman, pp.88-90)

“At any given level of population, technology and resources, there are not that many different  ways in which economic, ideological and coercive power can be distributed and exercised…. However different from one another the individual people who make up a group, community,  institution or society of one kind or another, their relationships to one another in their roles will conform to practices whose replication their environment will explain.”
(Runciman, p.152)

“How many ways can you think of in which a large, prosperous, literate, but still pre-industrial  society's dependent labor force might be organized? There are slavery, serfdom, peonage,  wage-labour, forced labour, tenancy, sharecropping, free peasant production, domestic out-work, and ritual exchange between higher-and lower-ranked castes - but what else? Likewise,  in the mode of persuasion, you can have ranking by age-sets, a ritual hierarchy of purity and pollution, hereditary status groups, graded according to ethnicity, gender, locality, religion, or ancestry itself, functional attribution of prestige according to the value conventionally assigned  to occupational roles, or a charismatic ranking according to individual personality and  achievement - but what else? And in the mode of coercion, you can have mercenaries,  professionals, conscripts, a volunteer militia, a servile political and military apparatus, or a decentralization of sovereignty among local magnates and their retainers - but what else?  Numerous variations and combinations are possible, and there is always scope for quibbling about definitions of particular roles. But they are variations and combinations derived from a menu of alternative practices which is far from unmanageably long and far from bafflingly strange.”
(Runciman, p.119)

The sociological outlook, however, is profoundly anti-intuitive. We tend to look first to intentions in explaining actions, rather than emphasizing context. We take for granted our facility in fitting into social roles, and while we might want to change them, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that there's no conceivable replacement. After all, even genuinely antinomian groupings - such as some of the more extreme romantics, or elements of sixties countercultures - quickly develop strong alternative behavioural constraints - even though their explicit ideology calls for their abolition. But, to my mind, the point is best made by one of Runciman’s numerous historical examples...for the genuine depth of his historical knowledge is yet another thing that sets him apart from most in his discipline.


“Two large, literate, prosperous agrarian societies which are quite remarkably alike, despite being many hundreds of years and miles apart in time and place, are England in the tenth century AD and Babylonia in the eighteenth century BC. An Anglo-Saxon king, bishop, landowner, merchant, peasant, craftsman, soldier, priest, clerk, tax-collector, schoolteacher, servant or slave would be immediately at home in Hammurapi’s Babylonia, and vice versa. In both societies, there were royal and ecclesiastical estates side by side with private landholdings, taxes paid to the king as well as dues to the church or temple, private capitalists engaged in long-distance trade for profit, an active land market, tenancy and serfdom as well as slavery and the possibility of manumission for debt slaves, written law codes, local agents of royal power liable for military or auxiliary service, administration of justice at village level, and for women, subordinate though they generally were, a right to retain a dowry and bequeath it in due course to a child or children. None of this adds up to some impressively lawlike generalization about how all ‘agrarian’ societies function. But it does add up to a clear demonstration of the extent to which similar role-maps reflect similar environments and similar selective pressures acting on the practices by which the roles are defined.”
(Runciman, p.120)

While much of the history of sociology has been dominated by theories specifically tailored to modern societies - and then overgeneralized, or elaborated into a crude evolutionary framework - this is in no way inevitable. The importance of roles, practices and contexts, as I stated earlier, is in important ways pre-theoretical - and is of sufficient abstraction to allow its use in all groupings from a hunter-gatherer band to a modern nation. Moreover, in recent years there has been a shift away from the anti-historical bias which characterized the discipline, and a reassessment of the role evolutionary ideas can play in the discipline. And, to my mind, Runciman is the key figure here. As reviewers have noted, his command of the historical record for comparative purposes is  outstanding - taking in anthropology, ancient history, and all the diversity of current social forms. Perhaps equally important is his rehabilitation of evolutionary ideas - shorn of their progressivist accretions - and applied to changes in practices. This is worth expanding upon.

Runciman's insight is that the basic evolutionary process - descent with modification - can well apply to social practices. Unlike some other attempts to apply this approach in the cultural realm - Richard Dawkins' ill-conceived "memes" in particular - practices offer both the basic stability required for evolutionary processes to function, and relatively straightforward definition. By focusing - as in Darwinian theory - upon the conditions surrounding the reproduction of practices, this approach offers an important addition to sociology, which has always had difficulty with change, and frequently tended towards a structure-dominated static mode of thought.


“Since all new forms of human social behaviour have evolved in one way or another out of old ones, the process which has brought about any particular form of it is by definition a selective process: to a sociologist, history is not just one damn thing after another, but one damn thing instead of another.... And, at the social level...the objects of selection are...units of reciprocal action, since the rules which define the roles we occupy and perform are prescriptive for both parties to the relationship to which they attach a common meaning. The objects of social selection, therefore, are and can only be the practices which define their respective roles.”
(Runciman, pp.11-12)

“[There are] all sorts of different ways in which practices whose environment might seem to have turned against them can re-emerge, recombine, mutate or be diffused across both social and geographical space with what may be unexpectedly long-lasting effects on the society’s role-map. There are no convenient generalizations.”
(Runciman, p.153)

And so, as Runciman argues, sociology is inescapably non-predictive. The subject matter is just too intractable. We need to understand what works - not by a priori reasoning, but by going to the evidence in each case...that is, by abandoning unrealistic attempts to model practice on the laboratory sciences, and accepting sociology’s proper kinship (and complementary status) with history itself. Nonetheless, this does not mean abandoning those exact tools which have proven worthwhile...nor does it mean falling into the trap of relativistic postmodernism, which Runciman is characteristically scathing about...


“Yes, I know. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. But a statistic, like a gun, is as good or bad as the person who uses it. Properly applied, statistical theory is an extraordinarily powerful instrument in the hands of natural and social sciences alike. I say ‘extraordinarily’ because much of what it teaches us is at odds (no pun intended) with what passes for common sense, [and]...it’s still remarkable how much information can confidently be extrapolated from how little data. Most people have little or no grasp of probability theory, [and] little capacity for the rational estimation of risk.”
(Runciman, p.99)

“Relativism is a problem in philosophy - or, more strictly, in epistemology - rather than anthropology and sociology. The reason is simple. Any practising anthropologist or sociologist who takes epistemological relativism seriously has no option but to quit work. It’s one thing to recognize that ‘our’ beliefs and values are not inherently privileged over ‘theirs’, but quite another to conclude that ‘we’ can therefore never make meaningful judgements of any kind about ‘them’. What’s the point of going out to do fieldwork among either the Balinese or the North Americans if all you’re going to be able to come back with is an arbitrary description in untranslatable terms of their unreachable ideas about their illusory culture?”
(Runciman, pp.32-3)

“As a species, we are not only a compulsively social but a compulsively self-justifying animal, and the autobiographies of politicians need to be checked for their veracity and lack of misleading insinuations and omissions no less carefully than those of philosophers do (Bertrand Russell’s is a classic in this regard. But the disjunction between what it felt like to be an autobiographer at the time, and how it is going to be explained by revisionist professors fifty years after the autobiographer’s death, is not a reason to question that that was what it felt like.... [And] the discrepancy doesn’t of itself make it any more difficult to arrive at an authentic description or a valid explanation - or both. On the contrary, understanding the delusions of grandeur that led to the downfall of Croesus or Louis Napoleon or Margaret Thatcher may make the causes of it all the easier to see.”
(Runciman, p.36)

W.G. Runciman’s The Social Animal is arguably both the best introduction to/critique of sociology as it stands today, and a startlingly clear blueprint for how it could best reform itself to build upon its strengths and minimize its (undoubted) weaknesses. By concentrating upon the underlying mindset involved - and clarifying the questions/concepts which flow from this - Runciman has done all of us a great service...particularly, perhaps, those (like myself) who had been far too willing to dismiss sociology for its truly rotten prose style, and lack of clarity about exactly what its task was. Because, make no mistake...neither of these faults are at all in evidence here. In fact, I’d argue that this book sets a benchmark that no other general/methodological work in the human sciences has yet equalled. But, we could badly do with some serious attempts to match its tough-minded clarity of thought, and expression...


“At the risk of sounding as tedious as any Platitude-Merchant, as opinionated as any Attitude-Merchant, and as priggish as any Eminent Victorian, I venture to suggest that the study of sociology, by showing us just what kind of social animal we are, can help to disabuse us of the more complacent illusions we might otherwise be tempted to indulge about ourselves. As Pope said about wisdom in general, ‘Tis but to know how little can be known, To see all others’ faults and feel one’s own’. This may seem an odd thing for me to say in view of the unblushing arrogance with which any number of sociologists have foisted their convictions and prescriptions on their readers.... But, the more we learn about ourselves as social animals, the less we find to be vain about.”
(Runciman, p.209)



John Henry Calvinist