System and Function

In document the oxford handbook of SOCIOLINGUISTICS (Page 80-83)

Progress toward perfection as the central idea of nineteenth-century social thought was to suffer at the hands of increasing economic crisis, unemploy-ment, and runaway competition among industrial states for the control of markets. In the years prior to the First World War, increasing state interven-tionism is more than ever fueled by the idea that social science must provide the necessary expertise to government. But the ground is shifting. The inevi-tability of war is in the air, with schoolchildren being drilled in the new mar-tial patriotisms (E. Weber 1976) and the widespread feeling that tensions are to be released through a form of giant “bloodletting” (Hobsbawm 1987). The experience of the Great War puts paid to what is left of the certainties that characterized the way society was thought of in the nineteenth century. It is no longer possible to claim to be at the pinnacle of intellectual, moral, and social evolution, or on the threshold of something new and better. Another paradigm moves into dominance in social science, according to which the present is not so much a staging point between a backward past and an increasingly brilliant future as a set of urgent problems that have to be resolved, in themselves, in the here and now.

This emerging paradigm frames itself in the accoutrements of biological thought. Society has long been thought of as being like a living organism, and Spencer, as we have seen, makes the parallel between the progressive evolution of societies and of organisms. From the 1880s onward, Durkheim is to go further in applying the ideas of nineteenth-century biology to society. The key idea is that of the body as a set of parts, each of which has its specific function in rela-tion to the whole. Particular organs can become nonfuncrela-tional and gradually disappear (over generations), or they can become diseased and threaten the sur-vival of the whole. In applying such ideas to society, individuals can be seen as

52 disciplinary perspectives being like parts of an organic whole and as having varied natural abilities that

require them to occupy the functions in society to which they are best adapted (Durkheim [1893] 1973). This revival of the Platonic ideal of the social division of labor based on natural competence, gives rise to what Durkheim describes as

“organic solidarity”: the solidarity of the living organism. Various “pathologies”

can arise by people occupying an inappropriate function in relation to their competence: they may be poorly trained, forced—by social inequality—to do work to which they are not suited, or have inappropriate values.

The organic model becomes paramount after the First World War. People have to be fed, clothed, housed, and put to work. The idea of society as a body composed of individuals, each of whom is more or less suited to the function he or she occupies, has the benefit of allowing social problems to be defined as problems of individual adaptation to function, rather than, for example, of opposed collective interests. The idea that social problems arise from individuals being ill-adapted to the new requirements of industry and society was already developed by Owen in the early 1800s, who sought to better prepare children for the discipline of factory work through education (Owen [1814] 1949). In the 1920s, the idea that social problems consist of individuals being maladapted to contemporary industrial civilization comes to be the corner stone of sociology.

While quantitative sociology increasingly provides the State with the statistical information needed to govern (Oberschall 1972), other sociologists observe the individuals who fail to “function” correctly (the “deviants”) in the streets and assembly plants of Chicago and elsewhere.

Society as a complex organism requiring attention to, and treatment of, its individual parts, can seem to exist outside time. The differences of “culture”

that were seen in the nineteenth century by Tylor ([1871] 1958) and Morgan ([1877] 1964) as exemplary of the “improvement” of societies over time (the goal of anthropology being to arrange them in their proper evolutionary sequence) are now viewed by Malinowski (1960) and others as being the ground rules that allow a given society to survive and “function” in the present. Similar approaches, based on the necessity of understanding the functioning of exist-ing systems are to be found from the First World War onward in economics (Keynes 1936), biology (Needham 1926), and geography (Febvre 1922).

The study of language is at the heart of this shift in perspective. Durkheim, for example, maintained that all social “facts” such as religion, law, and lan-guage, need to be understood in terms of their function in society (visualized as an organic whole) rather than in those of origins and historical develop-ment (Durkheim [1895] 1927, [1912] 1968). The new emphasis is well exempli-fied by Meillet (1915), who insists that just seeing Indo-European languages as part of a greater system, changing over time, is inadequate: “each language, at every moment of its history, presents an original system that needs to be described and of which the overall make-up needs to be explained as a whole.” 3 Meillet’s conception of each language as being a “system” in its own right was inspired by de Saussure’s study of the Indo-European vowel system (de Saussure

Doers and Makers 53 [1878] 1970). De Saussure’s subsequent lectures give form to the new, function-alist perspective that sets out to understand how language works in terms of transmission, reception, and signification. Whereas his theory of the sign echoes the work of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century philosophers such as Hobbes ([1640] 1969) and Hume ([1740] 1978), there is a new practicality, a new emphasis placed on the need to understand the “speech act.” A key distinction is now made between the langue as the partie sociale du langage that exists out-side the individual and the spoken word, the parole . The “basis for all linguistic studies” for de Saussure is no longer etymology, but the distinction between the value of the sign as part of the “ cha î ne syntagmatique ” and within the overall system of signs that makes up the language (de Saussure [1915] 1978).

Studying language “in itself and for itself” (in de Saussure’s words) opens the door to the appreciation of different languages for their functional adaptation to different environments. This in turn puts paid to what Sapir describes as the

“evolutionary prejudice” that had characterized the social sciences in the nine-teenth century “and which is only now beginning to abate its tyrannical hold on our mind” (Sapir 1921: 130). The goal now is to understand how the “bricks”

(or “significant elements”) that go to make up the “structure” of language are formed out of the “unformed and unburnt clay” of the sounds of speech (Sapir 1921: 24). This is the “inner sound-system” that, along with its “specific asso-ciation of speech elements with concepts” is part of the “genius” of any given language (Sapir 1921: 57, 22). Not only does language exist for the function it has in social life, but its inner workings are subject to the same scrutiny that is being applied in other sciences with respect to their objects, notably biology (Needham 1926). Trubetzkoy goes further than de Saussure in seeing the sound system as an “organic whole” whose “structure” has to be studied (Trubetzkoy 1933: 233). As in the case of nineteenth-century philology, de Saussure’s semi-ology and Trubetzkoy’s phonsemi-ology are to have profound effects on social sci-ence, notably in terms of seeing identity as produced through opposition (in Trubetzkoy’s case, among phonemes organized as a system of sounds, each of which is recognized as distinct in a given language) and in terms of “structur-alism” as a way of understanding the products, literary and otherwise, of the human mind.

If the interwar period represents the coming-of-age of the organic struc-tural functionalist model of society, the study of language is at the heart of that process. For Hjelmslev, for example, language is both an (underlying) system and a process (in which that system is put to work in communication). Given that a system can exist without a process, but a process cannot exist without a system, it is the underlying system of language that needs to be the primary object of study—language as a “structure sui generis ,” a “self-subsistent, specific structure,” an “organized totality” (Hjelmslev [1943] 1963: 8,19). The goal of lin-guistic theory is to “make possible a simple and exhaustive description of the system behind the text” (Hjelmslev [1943] 1963: 42). The text, as “process,” only

“comes into existence by virtue of a system’s being present behind it, a system

54 disciplinary perspectives which governs and determines it in its possible development” (Hjelmslev [1943]

1963: 39). Some years after the publication of Hjelsmlev’s (1963) Prolegomena (in Danish), Parsons publishes The Social System (1951), but it is Hjelmslev, through the example of language, who most clearly expresses the central idea of organic functionalism (as initially proposed by Durkheim): individual action in the world is “governed” and “determined” by the systems (or structures) that already exist.

In document the oxford handbook of SOCIOLINGUISTICS (Page 80-83)