Friday, January 26, 2007

Poor, Dear Max Weber

Keywords: Max Weber; love; Robert Bellah; Paul F. Lazarsfeld; Anthony R. Oberschall; American Sociological Review; friendship; Barry Wellman; empirical indicators.

For about ten days I’ve been working on a paper that I presented in Montreal a few months ago at a conference on love. Indirectly, it got to , who said he liked it but has a couple of criticisms, which I’ve been trying to respond to by revising the paper.

The paper was originally called “What is This Thing Called Love?” and it dealt with a paper that Bellah himself had written about an important paper of ’s. I have something worth saying about love (I think I even posted the paper on the blog a while back) but after working on the thing over a week, I decided last night that what I was saying was going right past Weber. I began re-reading Weber’s original paper, and I think what I wrote didn’t have much connection to Weber’s, though it ought to. If the paper is going to work, I have to connect it up better.

So I went to the Internet and began searching for other papers people have written about Weber. Immediately (the first item on Google Scholar’s list) I found something by and Oberschall in the of 1965. Perfect.

What they show is that Weber was exceedingly ambivalent on several points having to do with empirical research – as well he should be, but not for the reasons that Lazarsfeld and Oberschall think. They complain because he seemed hesitant about using to measure subjective experiences. For their part, they see no reason for hesitation whatever.

Well, I do – when the subjective experience is something that is not scarce because it does not occupy time and space and hence can be infinite. Some things are like that – they are not (subject to the first law of thermodynamics, for example) and so you cannot quantify them. I am sure that Weber never could have explained it as well as , a scientist whom I know and cherish because she’s mainly a peace researcher. She says love is like that. You can have as much of it as you want. She explains why in scientific language.

That’s the point I’ve been trying to make, but it’s a damned hard one to explain clearly.

But here I find Weber troubled by it and also not able to say why. One of the examples Lazarsfeld and Oberschall cite has to do with friendship. An empirical survey researcher will want to measure friendship by making a list of things that people do which demonstrate the extent of their friendship, then creating an index by giving a score based on the sum of the “yes” answers that people give when asked to tick off which of these listed properties they have going for them.

The problem, as I see it, is that some of the people with whom I feel the deepest friendship live thousands of miles away and we don’t have any contact more than once a year, usually less. Also, as once pointed out (based on empirical network research) friendship is not symmetrical. If you ask someone to list his ten best friends, and you go to each of them and ask them the same question, most of the time the ten don’t even name the first person on their top ten list. However, this does not bother people – or at least it would not bother me. I wouldn’t necessarily expect reciprocity because there’s no content in my relationship with most of my own top ten friends. They don’t have to do anything to be on my list. They could be dead, for that matter, and our friendship will still be alive in my mind. Many of the people I love most actually have been dead for dozens of years, but they are still dear to me. According to Lazarsfeid and Oberschall’s methods, my notion of would simply be nuts, but I don’t think it is. I’ll bet most people are like me in this regard. I don’t need to have any empirical events in my relationships for them to be real.

Now if you were asking me to name car mechanics, it would be a different matter. I have been going to a particular repair shop for several years. I should change because I have ample evidence that they are overcharging me. I just haven’t made the move yet, but one day soon I’m going to. Customership (customerhood? customerness?) is not like friendship. I can tell you some qualifications that I expect of a mechanic and it’s pretty empirical. But friendship doesn’t have any empirical indicators and never can.

This is the kind of thing I have to write in that paper but I can see now that it is going to take another week or two to get it down in publishable form. I think I do want to publish it. I think the insight is important.

Poor Max Weber. He was deeply depressed most of his life. Lazarsfeld and Oberschall know why – they even say so, more or less. Weber blew up at his father and broke off relations with him, and then the father died. At first Max acted as if he didn’t have any guilt, but within weeks his first nervous breakdown occurred. It is obvious. If you think that there’s any way of measuring love, it certainly wouldn’t include what he did. By every culturally accepted indicator, he was a bad son. So he takes that judgment to heart and feels wrong. He doesn’t have a philosophical framework that allows him to escape that verdict.

I could give him one. He should realize that love is the kind of thing that cannot be quantified. It can go on while its opposite is also going on – anger, hatred, whatever – without being cancelled out, as conserved entities are. But to explain that takes work. I can’t put off some of my other work long enough to finish writing that paper now. I have a magazine to put out. Magazines are conserved. They appear in space and time. They have deadlines. Love and friendship do not.

Poor Max.


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