Social Theory for þe 21st Century


The punchline of my lecture today is: Machiavelli, Smith, de Tocqueville, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, de Beauvoir; Keynes, Schumpeter, and Polanyi; Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Benedict—not Perry—Anderson, Gellner, and an economist named Richard Baldwin; historian Gary Gerstle; Arendt; and closing out with Debord, Foucault, and something I hope my colleague Marion Fourcade will someday write on the society of the Spectacle and the Algorithm.

(1) You and I are here assembled for the annual 2023 Nevin Narayan memorial lecture in social studies, given in memory of Navin Narayan, a summa cum laude Social Studies graduate who died in the year 2000 at the age of 23 of a cancer. Of his family are here to join us. Now it is right and proper that we do this as an act of ritual, and as an act of work.

Since 1950 there have been perhaps 200 people graduating from Harvard summa cum laude in Social Studies. To do so, you have to (a) do very well, and (b) be lucky, overwhelmingly lucky, enough so to have thesis readers who really really like your thesis. I am eternally and extravagantly grateful to Professors Peter Hall and Gerry Friedman for liking my undergraduate thesis enough to push it over the line.

Along that dimension, at least, I am thus very close to Navin Narayan: 110 billion people have lived since the year –50,000; 200 with Harvard B.A.’s summa cum laude in Social Studies. We summa graduates are thus 1/500,000,000 of the human race. With his saddening and premature death, there is a gap that is very close to where I stand in the ranks of humanity.

With every death: the appropriate reactions are threefold: (a) we mourn, (b) we contemplate that death comes for us all when it chooses and we reevaluate our priorities, and (c) we see that there is work to be done that the one of us we have lost was doing and now cannot do, and so we take on the load. It is for us the living to be dedicated to Navin Narayan’s unfinished work. And this lecture is, if it works, a step forward in accomplishing that work.

So what is Narayan’s work? What is our work?

(2) Look around: the overwhelming majority of it are associated with an organization called the Harvard College Committee on Degrees in Social Studies–are members of that group. Now it is the first truism of humanity that on our own we are pretty incompetent and unable to accomplish pretty much anything, but in groups we are powerful. Author Kurt Vonnegut had this idea of a thing called a karass–a human group that was assembled, but not by their or anyone else’s deliberate choice, to carry out some piece of work. I remember George Akerlof wooing me to come to U.C. Berkeley because, he said, he and the other professors there were in my karass. Consider the group of people around Social Studies in that light.

What then is the work that we have been assembled to do?

I do not think that it is any secret. We have been assembled to try to make progress in understanding human society, and then to ourselves and with the assistance of others we persuade to work so that our deeds in the present create a brighter and better and more human future. The founders of Social Studies 60 years ago were groping toward a plan for how to do this. They were, first of all, envious of how the History and Lit major gained and spread insights and knowledge in the humanities via “creative trespassing”, and they sought to do something similar in the social sciences, guided by five beliefs:

  • That the disciplinary structure of Social Sciences is an iron cage…

  • That the history of how we got here matters…

  • That “social theory” matters as well–everyone has one, for we cannot think about society at all without one…

  • But social theory can be your tool rather than your master only if you gain a critical distance on your own social theory…

  • And the best way to gain that critical distance is through intensive focus on the creative-trespassing “classics”…

But what are these “classics”? And which of the potential candidate “classics” are truly useful for understanding our society, the society we live in today and will live in tomorrow?

So now I have finally reached my topic: We are assembled here today in memory of Navin Narayan to advance the work of a karass that he was part of: to understand as much as we can of human society, so that we can do our deeds in the present to create a brighter and better and more human future.

But in order to do that we first have to guess which “classics” of social theory we should read and study to best equip us to understand human society.

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