Does Sociology Have Laws? (Spoiler Alert, Yes it Does!)

Yesterday, I was sitting in a faculty retreat and we were discussing whether we needed to restructure the department given the continuous growth of faculty and the increasing number and complexity of exigencies the Head must deal with; exigencies which delimit his ability to do other things necessary for the department to not just grow in quantity, but also quality. The conversation was great, collegiate, and…completely predictable. It is rare that I would argue sociology can make predictions, but here I could have predicted this would happen. Why?

First Laws
It is definitely risque and unpopular to say sociology has laws. The idea that human behavior and social organization has any regularities at the level of a law runs against the grain of several corners of sociology and humanism. But, and I say this cautiously, there are several laws that work across levels of social reality (that is, we have laws that work as well at the dyadic level as the inter-societal level). To be sure, most of our theoretical knowledge is not law-like, and probably never will be. Furthermore, axiomatic theory does not preclude other types of theorizing, such as interpretivism or descriptive/classificatory. But, the existence of these do not preclude sociology from being able to clearly explain and, in some cases, predict with the same certitude as a biologist predicting when a leaf will fall off of a tree or better than a seismologist predicting an earthquake. Below, I will talk through one of the laws – what I would call the first law of sociology, and leave other laws for future discussions. But, first, a brief aside on formal sociological theory.

Scientific Law (What it is, and is not)
Scientific laws are built on repeated observation of two or more phenomena and their apparent relationship. They rest on higher levels of abstraction than other lower order components of formal theory. Facts and hypotheses, for instance, refer to specific relationships between objects (the sky is blue because of molecular refraction), while laws, presumably, capture a wider range of phenomena subsumed within each concept. To be sure, every law is delimited by explicit sets of conditions: Newton’s law of gravitation, for example, only applies to relatively weak gravitational fields. Finally, laws predict outcomes or new observations. As such, laws are not iron-clad as the connotation of the term itself indicates; they are falsifiable—or, more often, failed predictions provide new scope conditions—and, therefore, mutable.

It follows, then, that laws do not explain social behavior. Hence, the positing of a law is not the end of theory or social science, but rather the statement of a social fact that reflects the accumulation of knowledge, the maturity of the social science, a collective effort by disparate scholars devoted to understanding and explaining the social world, and a foundational block for how we teach, present, and apply our ideas to sociologists and non-sociologists alike. Positing laws does not strip theorists or empirically-minded sociologists of the creativity that C. Wright Mills termed the “sociological imagination.” It heightens it; it demands it; it guides it. The most creative aspect of theory-building is the why and how questions surrounding a law, not the law itself; and, thus, it is correct to say that finding laws, as sociology’s eponymous founder Auguste Comte proposed, is not the primary reason for research, but an outcome of the collective project and, once discovered, the impetus for creative, novel, and replicating forms of research. It is also not incorrect to say, then, that laws are a necessary fixture for creating common ground for all sociologists, regardless of their research interests; it provides a place in which debates and arguments and empirical testing can productively advance social science rather than spin its wheels in debating whether there is anything foundational; and, it celebrates just how far we’ve come as a discipline.

Differentiation as Law
Herbert Spencer famously wrote extensively about society as an organism, or supra-organism as he was fond of referring to it (see this post for a bit more on this). He posited that growth in size generated pressure for the differentiation of structure and function to deal with exigencies arising from this growth. So, put in more common language: as the size of a group increases, so does the level of differentiation. Unlike some laws, this first law works at every level of social reality. When two parents have or adopt a child, the new roles and status positions differentiate (parent-child); when an informal group of friends grows beyond 20-25 members, pressure to differentiate leadership roles and authority give way to formal rules, practices, standards, etc. As groups grow in size, divisions of labor differentiate as new tasks and responsibilities arise to both handle the complexity and because of the complexity. As villages grow in size, and personal relationships become increasingly difficult, occupational, socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural differentiation inevitably occur (particularly because of the incest prohibition and rules of endogamy leading to the circulation of “new” people w/ new traditions, practices, and so forth). Indeed, at every turn, collectives that grow in size face a fork in the road: either fission into smaller groups or differentiate new structural and cultural formations that can address the myriad problems that stem from bigger populations and denser arrangements.

There are three fundamental problems facing a group that grows in size arithmetically or geometrically. (1) Resource scarcity becomes increasingly salient, even when adding a third person to a dyad. Scarcity =/= total collapse! It just means there are fewer resources necessary for biological and social reproduction and either new resource bases must be created or existing ones expanded, otherwise the group must devise new strategies of distribution (which, as we shall see in a future post on the Second Law of Sociology, may create new exigencies based on real or perceived inequities). The simplest example: two parents add a child. Not only are there practical questions revolving around food, clothing, childcare, and so forth, but the love – which is obviously not quantifiable and not really zero-sum like, say, a pizza – also becomes more “scarce,” so to speak.

As an aside, nowhere does it say we need to intensify or improve production; nor are there any ironclad guarantees that (a) differentiation will resolve scarcity or that (b) scarcity will be perceived as problematic and, therefore, motivating. It is just a fact that there are always X number of resources for Y number of people, and even in resource rich spaces, there are subjective quantities people feel they deserve or earn. The point here is that for a significant proportion of human history, fission or the segmentation into smaller units was the norm in the face of scarcity, because the usual solution involved some sort of vertical differentiation – that is, the emergence of more clearly defined governance roles that can resolve the second exigency

(2) The second problem is related to control and coordination. More members of a group means more conscious beings whose opinions, goals, decisions, and attitudes may not be aligned at all times. A child transforms the parent’s simple horizontal partner roles by adding a superordinate-subrodinate role. Parents, regardless of how much they want to or how good they are at it, must coordinate their new behaviors, their child’s behaviors, and, often times, their partner’s. Consider the problems that arise when you add a second, or a third, or fourth, or even more kids to the mix. Resources become increasingly scarce (ask any second or third-born whether they feel love was unfairly distributed in their family, and I am sure you will get as many, if not more, “yeses” than nos). But, just as importantly, control and coordination become even more problematic as more people have to be mobilized to do things that were much more easily to achieve when it was two or three people’s consensus necessary to make events or affairs or outings run smoothly. 

So, consider a group of five best friends. Choosing their Friday night activities is likely a deomcratic process with one or two of the informal leaders or outspoken people mobilizing preference. But, what happens when they add five spouses to the mix? Coordinating the lives of five relatively independent family units is extraordinarily complex. Indeed, there are reasons sororities/fraternities and other organizations that are relatively large and impossible to coordinate through informal means differentiate formal systems of authority: coordination, and of course, control. Someone must be authorized to sanction violations of the group’s standards and practices.

The final exigency is competition/conflict; a problem Durkheim was keen on. As groups get larger, it becomes untenable for all members to do the same thing. Hunter-gatherer societies are composed of several nuclear families that comprise a band that has upward limits of about 50 members. Beyond that, a supra-band level (tribe/moiety/clan) system of organization must be differentiated. Bigger groups need bigger pieces of land which means bigger and more fixed settlements, property that ties them to those settlements (and must also be protected against threats), and demands for other types of productivity besides hunting-gatherering. It also increases the likelihood that some members will either not be suited to hunting/gatherering or not be oriented towards that line of work. Competition over who does what can result in a natural or forced division of labor that differentiates a population into classes of people distinct in occupation, lifestyle, status, and so forth. Not surprisingly, and which will be a central element to a follow up post of the Secoond Law, differentiation in the form of heterogeneity has serious consequences driving more evolution. These are, in essence, the exigencies that arise because of initial solutions to the initial exigencies.

So What?
To circle back, when the idea of an assistant Head was raised, any sociologist could have predicted this was the case. We’ve been growing as a department and intend to for the foreseeable future. Of course, the conversation soon veered into issues better predicted by the Second Law (again, coming soon). But, we do not teach or talk about the laws of sociology for two reasons, in my estimation.

First, sociology’s resistance to and understanding of science (like most people’s) is rather limited or distorted. Laws are not immutable, but rather highly generalized relationships/patterns between two things. I would argue that finding exceptions are harder than finding events that fit with this law. Any time you add more people or more groups to a larger social unit, differentiation is inevitable; even against the best efforts to resist this process. Communes, for instance, typically come and go because they try hard to mobilize an ethos that simply runs counter to what is possible. In the short run, differentiation can be stymied, but in the long run? Not so much.

Second, there are significantly larger issues surrounding the question of what is sociological “theory,” how should we teach it, and how does it inform research. I am by no means orthodox in my theoretical orientation, but I believe there is a place for positing the laws we have, for positing the clear theoretical explanations we have, and for continuing to allow for creativity, interpretivist sociology, critical social philosophy, philosophy of science, and so forth. But, in the end, the question is which amplifies the contributions the discipline may lend to the wider world? To this question, I will leave an answer to another day. But, for now I will say one thing: having students trained in what we actually do know seems a powerful way to have them go off in the private and public sector, applying ideas without running up against social facts that are costly and, perhaps even, impossible to alter.








About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
This entry was posted in Musings on Sociological Theory and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Does Sociology Have Laws? (Spoiler Alert, Yes it Does!)

  1. Pingback: What Is the Point of Sociological Theory? | Seth Abrutyn, PhD

  2. Pingback: Naučni status sociologije: šta kaže odbrana? » Sociološka perspektiva

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