Sociology of Knowledge

Throughout his writings Veblen emphasized the ways in which habits ofthought are an outcome of habits of life and stressed the dependence ofthought styles on the organization of the community. "The scheme of thoughtor of knowledge," he wrote, "is in good part a reverberation of the schemes oflife."

In his anthropological writings, Veblen makes a sharp distinction betweenpeaceable agricultural communities in the age of savagery and the predatorylife of pastoral people. He relates their different life-styles to characteristicallydifferent religious orientations. In agricultural societies one is likely to find apolytheistic theology as a replica of the various powers of nature. "The relationof the deities to mankind is likely to be that of consanguinity, and as if toemphasize the peaceable noncoercive character of the divine order of things,the deities are in the main very apt to be females. The matter of interests dealtwith in the cosmological theories are chiefly matters of the livelihood of thepeople." By contrast, predatory cultures, with their more centralized authority-structures and their warrior chiefs, will tend to have monotheistic religioussystems, and there will be an emphasis on the arbitrary schemes of divinegovernment. "Such a people will adopt male deities, in the main, and willimpute to them a coercive, imperious, arbitrary animus and a degree ofprincely dignity."

Veblen distinguishes between earlier stages of human evolution, whenwhole communities exhibited characteristic habits of thoughts, and later stages,when human societies have differentiated into distinct strata, with distinctoccupational roles emerging. Here different habits of thought exist side by sideand are associated with location in the class and occupational structure. "Thepecuniary employments call into action chiefly [the invidious] aptitudes andpropensities, and act selectively to conserve them in the population. The in-dustrial employments, on the other hand, chiefly exercise the [noninvidious oreconomical attitudes], and act to conserve them.'' Pecuniary employmentsfoster magical beliefs in luck; the industrial arts foster rationality.

Veblen argues that habits of thought, which arise in tune with a man'sposition in the social and occupational order, find their reflection in types ofknowledge as well as in behavior. "The scheme of life which men perforceadopt under the exigencies of an industrial situation shapes their habit ofthought on the side of their behavior.... Each individual is but a singlecomplex of habits of thought, and the same psychical mechanism that expressesitself in one direction as conduct expresses itself in another direction as knowl-edge."

These are, of course, fairly general statements, and Veblen never attemptedto verify them in a systematic manner. Yet throughout his work he providestelling illustrations. For example, Veblen had a very keen eye for instances ofmaladaptation--of dysfunctions as the modern sociologist would call them--that arise from a lack of congruity between habits of thought and occupationalor technological settings. His notion of "trained incapacity" indicates one suchinstance of maladaptation. This applies to a person who has been so thoroughlytrained for one occupational setting that he finds it impossible to operate effec-tively in a different situation; the very effectiveness of his training in the pastleads to inappropriate behavior in the present.

Veblen not only stressed how habits of thought arise from social and oc-cupational placement, but he also advanced a theory of the social determinantsof cognitive interests. He accounted for the tendency of the leisure class to bedrawn to classical studies, law, and politics, rather than to the natural sciencesbecause of the pragmatic interests of its members. "The interest with which[a] discipline is approached is therefore not commonly the intellectual orcognitive interest simply. It is largely the practical interest of the exigencies ofthat relation of mastery in which the members of the class are placed." ForVeblen, science and scientific attitudes are rooted in material exigencies; onlythose members of the community who are engaged in the industrial arts arein tune with such exigencies and hence are drawn to the study of the sciences.

These examples suggest that Veblen was already engaged in an analysisof what are in effect the latent functions of a wide range of types of conductand habits of thought. Robert K. Merton drew upon Veblen as well as on along line of previous theorists when he formulated the notions of latent andmanifest functions. Merton also pointed out that Veblen's gift for seeing para-doxical, ironic, and satiric aspects of social life predisposed him to pay attentionto latent functions.

From Coser, 1977:270-271.


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