Veblen: The Main Drift

Veblen: Dead Sociologists’ Society by Larry R. Ridener

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

In his anthropological writings, Veblen makes a sharp distinction between peaceable agricultural communities in the age of savagery and the predatory life of pastoral people. He relates their different life-styles to characteristically different religious orientations. In agricultural societies one is likely to find a polytheistic theology as a replica of the various powers of nature. “The relation of the deities to mankind is likely to be that of consanguinity, and as if to emphasize 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 dealt with in the cosmological theories are chiefly matters of the livelihood of the people.” By contrast, predatory cultures, with their more centralized authority- structures and their warrior chiefs, will tend to have monotheistic religious systems, and there will be an emphasis on the arbitrary schemes of divine government. “Such a people will adopt male deities, in the main, and will impute to them a coercive, imperious, arbitrary animus and a degree of princely dignity.”

Veblen distinguishes between earlier stages of human evolution, when whole communities exhibited characteristic habits of thoughts, and later stages, when human societies have differentiated into distinct strata, with distinct occupational roles emerging. Here different habits of thought exist side by side and are associated with location in the class and occupational structure. “The pecuniary employments call into action chiefly [the invidious] aptitudes and propensities, and act selectively to conserve them in the population. The industrial employments, on the other hand, chiefly exercise the [noninvidious or economical attitudes], and act to conserve them.” Pecuniary employments foster magical beliefs in luck; the industrial arts foster rationality.

Veblen argues that habits of thought, which arise in tune with a man’s position in the social and occupational order, find their reflection in types of knowledge as well as in behavior. “The scheme of life which men perforce adopt under the exigencies of an industrial situation shapes their habit of thought on the side of their behavior…. Each individual is but a single complex of habits of thought, and the same psychical mechanism that expresses itself in one direction as conduct expresses itself in another direction as knowledge.”

These are, of course, fairly general statements, and Veblen never attempted to verify them in a systematic manner. Yet throughout his work he provides telling illustrations. For example, Veblen had a very keen eye for instances of maladaptation—of dysfunctions as the modern sociologist would call them— that arise from a lack of congruity between habits of thought and occupational or technological settings. His notion of “trained incapacity” indicates one such instance of maladaptation. This applies to a person who has been so thoroughly trained for one occupational setting that he finds it impossible to operate effectively in a different situation; the very effectiveness of his training in the past leads to inappropriate behavior in the present.

Veblen not only stressed how habits of thought arise from social and occupational placement, but he also advanced a theory of the social determinants of cognitive interests. He accounted for the tendency of the leisure class to be drawn to classical studies, law, and politics, rather than to the natural sciences because of the pragmatic interests of its members. “The interest with which [a] discipline is approached is therefore not commonly the intellectual or cognitive interest simply. It is largely the practical interest of the exigencies of that relation of mastery in which the members of the class are placed.” For Veblen, science and scientific attitudes are rooted in material exigencies; only those members of the community who are engaged in the industrial arts are in tune with such exigencies and hence are drawn to the study of the sciences.

These examples suggest that Veblen was already engaged in an analysis of what are in effect the latent functions of a wide range of types of conduct and habits of thought. Robert K. Merton drew upon Veblen as well as on a long line of previous theorists when he formulated the notions of latent and manifest functions. Merton also pointed out that Veblen’s gift for seeing paradoxical, ironic, and satiric aspects of social life predisposed him to pay attention to latent functions.

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