27 ESA Social Theory Conference, Innsbruck, September 11-13, 2008
Psychoanalysis and a Theory of Social Action
Relatively recent contributions to a theory of social action have made significant advances over some of the problems faced by older approaches: (a) Structure and action can be considered as instances of a single process rather than as distinct and antithetical entities. (b) Social practice is the level at which the reproduction of society primarily occurs (through social action). (c) The actor is also socially constructed, though never fully, retaining some degree of autonomy. What is still lacking, however, is a satisfactory account of the mechanism through which a subject can be seen as socially constructed in the context of the points above. It is in this respect that the psychoanalytic account of the psyche can be offer valuable insights. It can be argued that psychoanalysis offers a theory of structuring of the initially undifferentiated unconscious flux of psychical energy. The outcome of this structuring is the emergence of psychical agencies. In Freud's own account these agencies are the ego and the super-ego.
More generally, the structuring can be seen as referring to the social subject. The crucial element, however, is the mechanism through which this structuring takes place, namely that of identification. - Identification offers a way of theorising the construction of a social individual that transcends the conscious/unconscious divide. It refers both to the unconscious internalisation of elements and -at a later stage- to conscious images/representations, i.e. identities proper. Thus other theories referring generally to internalisation (as G.H. Mead's which has, nevertheless, remarkable similarities to Freud's) or only to norms (as in Parsons) can be superseded. Also, the process of identification continues to function
construction of the social subject has to be seen not as producing a given entity, but as creating proclivities and
determine action. Finally, even in the earlier and
recognition of oneself is always present. Hence the possibility of self-knowledge and eventually of self-
of autonomy can
The above remain relatively unexplored both within psychoanalytic theory and in the context of a wider social theory. Recognising the significance the concept of identification can have for a theory of the social subject and of social action, can lead to further analysis and elaboration in both domains.
The implicit theoretical convergence of action and
described as conflicting or incompatible approaches. I will unfold an argument, which goes in a different direction. Referring to classic action theory (Weber) and a modern version of systems theory (Luhmann) I will argue that these approaches share a common understanding of how to conceptualize social phenomena. This becomes obvious, if the concepts of Weber and Luhmann are described in an abstract way on a meta-theoretical level. I will elaborate the argument with reference to Weber’s concept of “social relationships” and his understanding of emergent phenomena: “social forms (soziale Gebilde)” like “legitimate power”. These concepts are compared to Luhmann’s concept of “double contingency” and his understanding of the emergent phenomenon “social
system”. Weber as well as Luhmann work with a two- level-concept of social phenomena. They start with a highly complex relationship between at least two entities – human beings/(conscious) systems – structured by mutual expectations and attitudes. Secondly both of them describe emergent phenomena, which evolve from the relationship: social forms (Weber) or systems (Luhmann). By elaborating this abstract theoretical structure common to both approaches, it becomes possible to grasp their differences as variations of an implicit consensus: a shared understanding of social phenomena. If it is possible to elaborate an implicit consensus between systems theory and action theory, it is probable that other approaches such as symbolic interactionism can be understood in a similar way. Maybe social theory is much less diverse than we have thought.