Sociology as the Post-Truth Science

By Steve Fuller, University of Warwick

It is tempting to understand ‘post-truth’ from the standpoint of those who promoted it to become Oxford English Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year.  The word pejoratively refers to those who refuse to listen to reason and evidence but instead resort to emotion and prejudice. However, to a sociologist of knowledge this formulation itself sounds too self-serving to be true. After all, the people who tend to be demonized as ‘post-truth’ – from Brexiteers to Trumpists – have managed to outflank the experts at their own game. Empirically speaking at least, this suggests that the experts are not as rational and evidence-based as they thought and/or the post-truthers are not as emotional and prejudiced as the experts have thought them to be.

My own way of dividing the ‘truthers’ and the ‘post-truthers’ is in terms of whether one plays by the rules of the current knowledge game or one tries to change the rules of the game to one’s advantage. Unlike the truthers, who play by the current rules, the post-truthers want to change the rules. They believe that what passes for truth is relative to the knowledge game one is playing, which means that depending on the game being played, certain parties are advantaged over others. Post-truth in this sense is a recognisably social constructivist position, and many of the arguments deployed to advance ‘alternative facts’ and ‘alternative science’ nowadays betray those origins.

The recent death of the original sociological promoter of ‘social construction’ by name, Peter Berger (co-author of The Social Construction of Reality), provided an opportunity for his detractors to link him to the post-truth mentality, as he had received financial support from the US tobacco lobby in the 1970s and ‘80s. In this capacity, he portrayed the anti-smoking campaign as primarily a moral crusade. And it is certainly true that public smoking bans have involved – by cause or consequence – a significant shift in how people think about public and private space, not to mention how they value the activity of smoking itself. In effect, the bans have been a game-changer in terms of the norms of ordinary social interaction. (Randall Collins is especially good on this in Interactional Ritual Chains.) This in turn has made the evidence for smoking’s negative health effects appear more salient than whatever virtues of sociability and relaxation had been previously associated with the activity.

One might go so far as to say that the discipline of sociology was born under the sign of ‘post-truth’. After all, according to Emile Durkheim, one of the promised virtues of sociology was that it could provide ‘moral education’ in the rapidly changing world of the French Third Republic, in which the  rules of the game switched from being based on religious and family ties to a common secular national identity. Indeed, the rules changed so fast that one of sociology’s original topics was what Durkheim called anomie, namely, the rootlessness – sometimes eventuating in suicide – that results when people are caught between the two very different normative regimes: They have clearly left the old regime without quite having accommodated to the new one.

Indeed, sociology in the post-truth key is about the management of anomie. There are various styles for doing this. It can take the relatively personal character of, say, Georg Simmel on the stranger or W.E.B. DuBois on double consciousness. Or, it may be seen in more abstract and general terms as ingrained in the political or professional life. Thus, Vilfredo Pareto stressed the need for any successful politician to decide whether to be a maintainer (‘lion’) or a changer (‘fox’) of the current game, while Robert Merton focused on the ambivalence that professionals face in managing ‘expert’ and ‘lay’ expectations of their behaviour, where the two groups are understood to operate under partly conflicting normative regimes. Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical approach to social life and ethnomethodology are probably the most self-consciously post-truth sociologies yet conceived.

However, society today isn’t what it was in Durkheim’s – or even Goffman’s – day. For the past quarter-century or more, we have witnessed the decline of the welfare state’s universalist conception of society, which stabilised – at least at the official ‘macro’ level – the normative expectations of ‘developed’ societies, the rules by which they were to be achieved and the milestones and goalposts of their achievement. It meant that political disagreements were conducted in relatively narrow terms by an increasingly professionalised political class. Even the Cold War’s defining incommensurable value systems of ‘Capitalism’ and ‘Communism’ were transacted in terms of mutually recognised league tables, ranging from size of arsenal to size of GDP.  Indeed, ‘game theory’ as we know it today in decision science was developed in this context. Truth and post-truth sensibilities seemed to merge perfectly, as the avoidance of global nuclear war was seen by all sides as the only game worth playing.

The current post-truth situation could not be more different, but sociology is no less implicated. It is marked by the increasing devolution of social identity from the nation-state to largely self-organizing and self-recognizing groups, each increasingly permitted its own terms of engagement with the rest of society, as manifested in control over language, space and resources. In terms of what is nowadays called ‘public sociology’, this amounts to a widening of social horizons, a pluralising of the games played, so to speak, each with its own objectives and its own skill-sets.

At one level, it looks like a post-truth paradise that doesn’t have the classically destabilising effects of anomie, as people are affirmed simply for who they are in their chosen field of play. Yet, we are beginning to see a sting in the tail: the ‘trans’ phenomenon – as in ‘transgender’, ‘transracial’ and even ‘transhuman’. It takes the post-truth sensibility to its logical conclusion by assuming that in principle anyone can become adept at playing any identity game, even the most ontologically fundamental ones. In this context, transhumanists speak of ‘morphological freedom’. Some might say that this is to take the idea of normative regimes as games much too literally, but this is undoubtedly the cutting edge of our post-truth world.

Steve Fuller is the Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. This essay is extracted from his forthcoming book Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (Anthem).

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Please note that the views expressed in this piece are not necessarily those of the British Sociological Association (BSA).