Societies: Some are human, some are living, but most of them are neither

Nanosocieties: One point of this project is to not only discuss how nanoscience and nanotechnologies influence society, but also to pursue some kind of “speculative sociological” thought. Here, we may set off from a simple proposition – that nanoscientists and social theorists/philosophers might share a joint sense of wonder when experiencing/experimenting the world. Indeed: “Philosophy begins in wonder. And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.”

Nanosocieties. This post will discuss this concept of “societies”, but not from the point of view of traditional sociology. Rather, it will lean upon conceptions about “society” and “the social” that were rendered obsolete in the early years of the 20th century. Here, we could discuss Gabriel Tarde, and how his speculative metaphysical sociology was forgotten by mainstream sociology, usurped by the Durkheimian view of “the social”. Bruno Latour has famously written much about this:

Remember that for Tarde “everything is a society” … Durkheim deals only with human societies and borrows his ideal of science from natural scientists with whom he has little occasion to collaborate since, for him, human societies should remain radically different from biological and physical ones. Tarde’s position is the reverse; for him there exist only societies. Human societies are but a particular subset of these societies because they exist in so few copies. (Latour, 2010)

However, this time, we’ll discuss Alfred North Whitehead; the author of the quote above (see Modes of Thought.) As in the case of Tarde, this is also a theorist whose speculative thought remained “dormant” during most of the 20th century. Gilles Deleuze – one of the philosophers who played a role in the rediscovery of this thought, notably through chapter six in The Fold – had a particular, “off the record” view on this fact, suggesting that he was “assassinated” by analytic philosophy. (Williams, 2009)

These ideas have however returned, not least via the work of Isabelle Stengers: Earlier this year, the English translation of Thinking with Whitehead was published. Another, more recent addition to the contemporary Whiteheadian literature is Michael Halewood’s A.N. Whitehead and Social Theory. In what follows, we’ll explore sections in these publications (chapters 19 and 5, respectively) that specifically deal with the notions of societies, the social, and sociology.

First, some definitions. Like the Tarde we touched upon above, Whitehead’s conception of “societies” was wide. Halewood explains that

for Whitehead, societies refer to the achievement of groups of entities, of any kind, in managing to cohere and endure and thus to constitute some kind of unity. The term social refers to the manner and milieu in which such endurance is gained. Rocks, stones, amoeba, books can, thus, be considered to be societies. ‘I draw attention to this lowly form of society to dispel the notion that social life is a peculiarity of the higher organisms’ (PR, 76) Whitehead thus immediately and absolutely refuses to partake in the nineteenth-century settlement whereby the social and sociality are envisaged as primarily a human affair. (Halewood, 2011: 85)


the term “sociology”, although rarely used by Whitehead, refers only to the manner and mode of the endurance (or otherwise) of groups of entities which involve the inter-relations of humans, as opposed to nonhuman societies which are simply “social” rather than “sociological”. (Halewood, 2011: 85)

Already at this point, one can discern what Halewood regards to be Whitehead’s key point when it comes to doing sociology.

So, the important point to stress, and to repeat, is that any discussions on sociology and of the sociological (at the human level) can only be embarked upon after accounting for the wider notions of society and the social which characterise all existance. (Halewood, 2011: 86)

Sociology should thus not discriminate between societies; human societies are invariably interconnected to other societies, which comprise of non-human entities.

Slight digression: Here, it might be tempting to say that this leads us towards a “materialism” – the study of human societies should depart from a study of the physical composition of rocks and stones. Whatever you choose to call this -ism, it is crucial to not lapse into the kind of “idealist materialism” that Latour (2007) has criticised – the one which sets off to reduce matter/societies into “primary qualities”. Instead, the speculative aspect of this thought requires us to reject such notions of a “universe” (united by univocal primary qualities), and instead imagine a “multiverse”. Latour writes that

the multiverse designates the universe freed from its premature unification. It is exactly as real as the universe, except the latter can only register the primary qualities while the former registers all of the articulations. The universe is made of essences, the multiverse, to use a Deleuzian or a Tardian expression, is made of habits. (Latour, 2004: 213)

Back to the Whiteheadian societies. As we have seen, Halewood distinguishes societies/social from the more specific, “humans only” concepts of sociology/sociological. Stengers discusses another specification – from “societies” to “living societies”. “Life”, Whitehead writes in Process and Reality, “is a bid for freedom”, and “lurks in the interstices of each living cell”. Stengers continues:

If life lurks in the intersticies of each living cell, one may say just as well that that the singularity of living societies, what justifies them as such, should be called ‘a culture of interstices’. (Stengers, 2011: 328)

However, not everything is alive. (As Steven Shaviro points out; “Whitehead is not a vitalist – he doesn’t believe everything is alive. But he does argue that everything has mentality”. We’ll leave that panpsychist aspect of his work aside for now.) Further, “living societies” are not necessarily human ones; “living” merely suggests that a particular ‘group of entities’ requires other societies as ‘food’ in order to persist. Therefore, “life is robbery”. This distinction, Stengers writes,

corresponds to the contemporary distinction, associated with the work of Prigogine, between “equilibrium structures” capable of maintaining themselves indefinitely, requiring only that the environment maintains itself more or less as it is, and “dissipative structures”, the price of whose existance is “dissipation”: “something” in the environment must be consumed to nourish the permanent processes whose structure expresses its articulation. (Stengers, 2011: 313)

So, living societies are thriving on – robbing from – other societies. This can be justified by the fact that living societies exhibit novelty, which is sourced from the intersticies. It is from within these in-betweens that the germs of the new emanate, making living societies indeterminate. Here, then, is also the root of the indeterminacy of human societies:

One of the main effects of speculative thought is, in fact, to infect all the questions raised by living societies with the hesitations and uncertainties that are the lot of what we call “sociology”. For Whitehead, it is always societies that we study. Everything is sociology, and human sociology, with all its difficulties, merely exhibits the questions, taken to their full exacerbation, that other sciences can neglect …

This is why Whitehead can no more tell us what a society is than Spinoza could say what a body is capable of. In both cases, “we don’t know”. We only know that the two opposite extremes, “my body belongs to me” and “I belong to my society”, are somewhat misleading simplifications. (Stengers, 2011: 325)

What does this approach then tell us about what it means to do “(natural) science” or “sociology”, in the classic senses of the word? First, Stengers writes, we must acknowledge that

every scientist, but also every novelist, is, in Whitehead’s terms, a “sociologist”, for only societies can be characterised, only social adventures can be recounted. This also means that scientists, if they accept the Whiteheadian proposition, should know that their description, and as the case may be, their explanations, require the social endurance of what they describe; in general, novelists are well aware of this. (Stengers, 2011: 331)

Here we are in classical STS territory: Science is about enrolling various entities, stabilising them – indeed, “socialising” them – through experiments. Yes, experiments are “social” arrangements, but not in the sense that non-humans are passive pawns in a game actively played by humans.

What about the people who study human societies? Well, as they deal with living societies, they have to take the creativity inherent in intersticies into account. Moreover,

when it comes to those that call themselves sociologists, that is, who address human societies, they must know that explaining their stability will merely ratify the categories and justifications produced by this society itself when dealing with what threatens its stability (Stengers, 2011: 332)

Thus, those who call themselves sociologists must steer clear of slapping “pre-fab” social theories onto the world. Going back to Halewood’s points about socities/social vs sociology/sociological: Sociology is fundamental to the “mode of the endurance” displayed by societies of humans. For the sciences, this is less of a problem: Nanoparticles stick together no matter how trendy nanoscience has become.


Halewood, M. (2011) A.N. Whitehead and Social Theory: Tracing a culture of thought. London: Anthem Press.
Latour, B. (2004) ”How to talk about the body? The normative dimension of science studies”, Body & Society, Vol 10, No 2-3.
_____ (2007) ”Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?”, Isis, No 98.
_____ (2010) “Tarde’s idea of quantification” in M. Candea (ed) The Social After Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments. London: Routledge.
Stengers, I. (2011) Thinking with Whitehead: A free and wild creation of concepts. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.
Williams, J. (2009) “A.N. Whitehead”, in G. Jones and J. Roffe (eds.) Deleuze’s Philosophical Lineage. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


4 thoughts on “Societies: Some are human, some are living, but most of them are neither

  1. […] nya projektet Nanosocieties har jag skrivit ihop en liten post om hur de båda texterna tar upp Whiteheads syn på “samhällen”. […]

  2. […] haunt the brains of our speculative contemporaries”. (34) (Whitehead var nästan samtida; på Nanosocieties har jag skrivit om hans “universella […]

  3. […] This includes societies of bio-molecules, cellular societies, and animal and human societies. (see previous post on Whitehead’s conception of […]

  4. […] skall att bygga på varandra, med avstamp i den Whiteheadska/Tardeanska och allmänt spekulativa tanken om att “allting är […]

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