In an interdisciplinary work, Bernard Lahire shows that human societies are structured by a number of major properties of the species and governed by invariants and general laws.
* Lire en français. The English translation is provided by the editorial staff, who are solely responsible for any inaccuracies.
Nothing sums up the author's introductory remarks better than this quotation from Claude Lévi-Strauss: "Are we condemned, like new Danaïds, to endlessly fill the barrel of the human sciences, vainly piling up monograph after monograph, without ever achieving a richer and more lasting result?"
The picture is harsh and uncompromising: why have the social sciences, and contemporary sociology in particular, become so locked into specialised and compartmentalised fields (industrialisation, bureaucratisation, schooling, urbanisation, etc.), cutting themselves off from the great existential questions about the origins, the great properties and the future of humanity? Bernard Lahire has no hesitation in denouncing the relativism, nominalism and excessive constructivism of researchers in the social sciences and humanities, who deny the existence of any independent social reality and any possibility of establishing general laws on the structuring of societies and human behaviour.
At the same time, it is a severe critique of the way in which the division of scientific labour is organised: hyper-specialisation, compartmentalisation, refusal of any disciplinary rapprochement, particularly between the social sciences and the natural sciences. "Social scientists are like walkers who discover and describe the characteristics of landscapes through their wanderings in the field, but who have neither a map (or an overview) nor a compass with which to find their bearings". To abandon the project of establishing social laws is to restrict ourselves to a task of observation, description and proximal interpretation of different social situations. It means "renouncing scientificity".
Against such a neglect of reality and such a renunciation of the ambitions of science, the purpose of this book is to provide an integrating framework that brings together the social sciences, a paradigm that accounts for the "human social system" or its "deep social structure" (Alain Testard). The aim is to highlight the major biological and social facts as well as the lines of force and the universal or invariant laws at work since the beginning of humanity, without limiting itself to historical laws that are valid only for a given society and its particularism. Identifying the underlying processes and general laws that keep appearing liminally in research in the human sciences leads to a general revision of the relativist, constructivist and nominalist epistemologies that dominate contemporary sociology.
Evolutionary Biology, Anthropology and Social Sciences
Ecological awareness is prompting us to do just that. In the face of conspiracy theorising, doomsdayism and prometheism, we need to take a real scientific look at the way human societies function and how they fit into the long evolutionary history of species. This means making a clear distinction between the social (parent/child, young/old, male/female, us/them, etc.) and the cultural (knowledge, know-how, artefacts, institutions, etc.), terms that are wrongly regarded as synonymous by social scientists. Non-human animals are just as social as humans, but they have little or no culture - humans being both social and cultural by nature. Culture is merely an evolutionary solution that has enabled faster adaptations than those permitted by natural selection.
By ignoring this distinction and neglecting the human social, including its commonalities with the non-human social, we sacralise the cultural dimension specific to human societies (freedom of creation, individualism, particularities, relativism...), at the risk of ignoring the invariants and constants that run through our history. "General mechanisms and transhistorical and transcultural imperatives do exist, and it is important to be aware of them, even when we are interested in cultural, geographical or historical specificities".
Bernard Lahire emphasises the terms 'laws', 'invariants', 'principles', 'constants' and 'fundamentals', pointing out that many of them are commonly used in the physical and biological sciences. In fact, humans are just one animal among many, and when biology studies the social life forms of non-human animals, it is actually doing sociology without realising it. Ethologists who study these social behaviours and structures are "sociologists of non-human societies". Only a "sociologisation of the biological" can show that the behaviour of non-human animals is not a matter for strictly biological analysis. The biological structures the social in both human and non-human societies.
"To learn to look at human societies in the same way as we usually study ant or bee societies is to give ourselves the opportunity to grasp something of what we are socially, beyond the contrasts we observe from one society to another, as a species". We have to take into account these behaviours that are similar to our own, these behavioural convergences and analogies, these phenomena of homology due to filiations or these resemblances in differences: nothing living should be foreign to us.
By giving birth to ethology, Darwin uncovered in very different species the beginnings of what we call cooperation, mutual aid or mutualism, exogamy, avoidance of incest, justice, morality, politics, alliances, a sense of beauty, seduction, artefacts, language, intelligence, memory, learning, imitation, cultural transmission, teaching, domination, slavery, breeding, agriculture and so on. Whatever the views of many anthropologists who defend a kind of "theology of the complete recreation of man by himself", man did not become cultural all at once, without antecedent in animal societies.
Convergences and Differences: The Long History of Living Things
The evolutionary continuity between societies of non-human primates and human societies cannot be disputed, even though some of the many biological properties that the human species shares with others will produce different effects in the course of the evolution of societies. It is the general configuration of all these properties and their combination that makes the human species unique.
Among these, Bernard Lahire highlights the importance of the mode of reproduction (cultural and biological) and ontogenic development. For our species, after birth, the child remains in a long period of dependence known as altraciality (primary, secondary then tertiary). This dependence forces the growing human being to mobilise all his resources and enables him to acquire learning capacities that will continue to develop throughout his life. This same dependence will bring him into contact with other members of the social group, its culture and its attitudes. It will encourage the emergence of cultural-historical properties and forms - some of which are shared with other mammals - behind which lie "the universal or invariant structures of human societies" or, to put it another way, "a profound human social structure" (Bernard Chapais).
The list of these features is long: bipedalism, mobility, freeing of the hands, opposable thumbs, cerebral plasticity, division of the sexes, sexual reproduction but without the rutting period, prohibition of incest, viviparity, long pregnancy, longevity and historicity of the species, language-symbolic capacities, cultural transmission, production of artefacts, rites and institutions, groups and individuals, and so on. It is under the effect, among them, of secondary altraciality that social relationships, enriched over time by cultural cumulativity, will give rise to relations of dependence and domination or to all the forms of opposition we know: parents/children, young/old, minor/adult, older/younger, elder/younger, etc.
Like the sciences of matter and life, it will thus be possible to identify empirical (or historical) and theoretical (or general) laws. Bernard Lahire proposes sixteen such laws, all of which are assumed to be universal and to have been at work since the beginning of humanity. Among them, he distinguishes between processual laws of development - for example, the law of trend demographic growth or the law of hierarchical succession (prevalence of the anterior over the exterior) - and laws of functioning - for example, the law of conservation/reproduction or of cultural transmission.
In the last part of the book, the author examines and traces the many consequences of all the major anthropological events described above, which have had a major impact on the social organisation of human beings. The meticulousness of the descriptions and the abundance of details preclude an exhaustive presentation. Most of the previous themes, such as the role of the social (from bacteria to Homo Sapiens), language and symbolism, the power of artefacts, forms of domination and the functions of the State, as well as magic and religion, the opposition between us and them (racism, ethnocentrism, etc.) and the division of labour, are developed in detail and supported by numerous references.
In the end, we might ask ourselves: Is Bernard Lahire a biologist, ethologist, palaeoanthropologist or sociologist? On reading this little encyclopaedia of the "living social", full of cutting-edge scientific references, one might hesitate, such is the ease with which he moves from one science to another to build bridges between disciplines. The stated aim, which has been reiterated many times, seems to have been achieved: to offer the so-called social sciences a "unifying paradigm" that brings together fields of knowledge as diverse as anthropology, evolutionary biology and history, revealing the laws and properties that structure human societies. It is also an opportunity for the man who directs a collection entitled "Sciences sociales du vivant" (Social sciences of the living) to call sociology to question itself and to take into account the achievements of the exact sciences in order to answer the major questions facing human societies. This erudite, in-depth work, carried out over several years, is clearly awaiting recognition in the academic world of the social sciences.