PHILIP SELZNICK: IDEALS IN THE WORLD
by Martin Krygier. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012. 332pp. Cloth $65.00. ISBN: 978-0-8047-4475-1.
Reviewed by Benjamin Gregg, Department of Government, University of Texas at Austin. Email: bgregg [at] austin.utexas.edu.
Martin Krygier captures the entire oeuvre of sociologist Philip Selznick (1919-2010), who broke ground in several fields while erasing boundaries among them. Krygier’s contribution – beyond a highly competent, exhaustive, and readable, if largely uncritical, intellectual biography of a major scholar – is a clear thesis persuasively defended. He argues that Selznick developed the sociological imagination as a pointedly moral imagination, a vision of social science guided by moral philosophy, what Selznick himself called humanist science. This is a philosophy informed by the perpetual entwinement of human potential with human frailty. It makes the analyst sensitive to how ends are always interlinked with means, and how cherished ideals are inflected with an often discouraging social reality. Only a morally subtle sociology can capture the moral ambivalence of human experience, the “recalcitrance of people, practices, and institutions, the precariousness of the finest ideals, the complexity and delicacy of attempts at institutional transformation, the ease with which fine motives are refracted in unexpected directions” (p.137). Our means are sometimes tyrannical, our institutional goals, often displaced. And “not only are our tools recalcitrant; so too are we ourselves” (p.95). Yet Selznick’s scholarship consistently betrays a humble optimism: humble on the basis of hard, empirical realism about social institutions and their human environments, yet quietly optimistic because aware of the abiding potential, in humans and their institutional creations, for social progress.
Krygier conveys Selznick’s key substantive contributions in clearly organized categories: (a) organizations, (b) legal culture, and (c) social philosophy.
(a) The moral upshot of Selznick’s work on organizations is well captured by Leadership in Administration (1957): goals require means, and means frequently exceed their merely technical qualities. Thus large and enduring social goals, such as “education, science, creativity, or freedom,” depend vitally on “mundane administrative arrangements” often enough problematic (Selznick 1957:141). Administrative leadership, for example, is influenced by “general tendencies of organizational life” that neither “supersede formal structure” nor “render it irrelevant.” But these tendencies certainly qualify leadership in ethically consequential ways where it “intervene[s] in its operations” (p.75) by rendering both leaders and led effective receptacles of an organization’s vested interests. Selznick views the grubby organizational realities that threaten to undermine ideals as an invitation, or an imperative, to imagine and develop [*265] morally robust notions of leadership (p.67).
In TVA and the Grass Roots: A Study in the Sociology of Formal Organizations (1949), Selznick modifies Robert Michels’s famous thesis of an “iron law of oligarchy.” Michels discerns oligarchic tendencies “immanent in the very act, and necessity, of organization” (p.21). Selznick responds, at the level of analysis, by rejecting such determinism; and at the level of political action, with methods of taming power with power, by dividing it into factions, say, or decentralizing it. The moral point: the virtue of an organization’s membership by itself is never enough for realizing normatively good outcomes; the hands even of good people need to be bound by rules (p.53).
Where TVA studied “well-intentioned failure,” The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics (1952) examined “ill-intentioned success” (p.64). Today one thinks of contemporary China, more than two decades after integrating itself into the world capitalist market, when one reads Selznick’s analysis, written more than sixty years ago, of the “remarkable persistence of the communist core membership despite great fluctuations and turnover, and the persistence of strategies and tactics of power aggrandizement despite significant shifts in political ‘line’” (Selznick 1952:xii). He reveals the remarkable “capacity of communist leaders to fashion an organization that ensures their own power and pursuit of their own objectives, even as they speak in the name of ‘the workers of the world’” (p.55). He reveals a “system marked by a distinctive competence to turn members of a voluntary association into disciplined and deployable political agents” (ibid.).
(b) Selznick’s “combination of normative and scientific commitments” (p.126) is even more pronounced within his legal sociology. On the one hand, for Selznick the “center of gravity of legal development lies not in legislation, nor in juristic science, nor in judicial decision, but in society itself” (to cite one of his key influences, Eugen Ehrlich) (Ehrlich 1936:xv). On the other hand, these words – “in society itself” – refer to the many, specifically normative systems of social life. Selznick thus rejects “social scientists’ consignment of fact and values to different and unbridgeable ontological and epistemological realms and their demand that one choose to investigate the former at the expense of the latter” (p.115).
Along these lines, Krygier also offers a compelling reading of Law, Society, and Industrial Justice (1969). Selznick studies industrial organization from the standpoint of moral and legal evolution. He clarifies moral ideals analytically so that he might improve an institution’s competence to serve them: “The larger context of our inquiry is the embodiment of ideals in institutions, the infusion of group life with the aspirations and constraints of a moral order” (Selznick 1969:1). In particular, Selznick argues that the rule of law – a high moral ideal if there ever was one – can be extended to the conditions of employment in modern industry. And he argues that it should be.
Here we have a core conviction of the Law and Society Movement, to which Selznick contributed so much: if law is [*266] understood as a particular way of subjecting human conduct to rules on an on-going basis, then law should not be reduced – in the manner of lawyers, legislators, politicians, and many political scientists – to a phenomenon of the nation state. For law is much more; indeed, it is “endemic in all institutions that rely for social control on formal authority and rule-making.” For example, the “‘private’ associations of religious, educational, or industrial life” are replete with legal experience (Selznick 1965:947).
For Selznick, then, social progress along a legal dimension would also mean moral progress. In just this sense Law and Society in Transition: Toward Responsive Law (1978), written with Philippe Nonet, envisions historical progress from repressive law to autonomous law to responsive law. Responsive law emphasizes the larger moral ends of law over the immediate instrumental ends served by law. It views legal rules not only or even exclusively as “reasons for decision” but also and increasingly as “guides to purposes” (p.180). In other words, as autonomous law becomes more sophisticated, legal reasoning becomes more rational. More rational means displacing the morally empty authority of fiat with explicitly moral judgment. It means rejecting a morally simplistic “literalistic fidelity to prior rules” (p.179). It means relaxing the rules of legal standing, opening the legal process to voices beyond those of lawyers, for example to voices of social advocacy, so that “groups and organizations may participate in the determination of public policy” as law becomes “less exclusively perceived as a way of vindicating individual claims based on recognized rules” (Nonet and Selznick 1978:96).
(c) Sociology as a moral discipline emerges most forcefully in The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community (1992). Here Selznick traces the sources of moral well-being in persons, institutions, and communities. In our modern world, institutions and communities can be moral actors no less than can individuals (p.214). And for Selznick, this capacity of these three kinds of moral agents is the very promise of modernity. As it increasingly separates the various spheres of life from each other, and increasingly secularizes societies (through science, technology, and commerce); as it weakens social ties ever more, and coordinates people in increasingly rational ways, above all through contract and bureaucracy (p.215), modernity leads to a “steady weakening of traditional social bonds and the concomitant creation of new unities based on more rational, more impersonal, more fragmented forms of thought and action” (Selznick 1992:4). By this process, moral thought becomes ever more imperative, even inescapable, as a “pervasive source of challenge and risk, but also of possibility, for moral well-being. We inhabit modernity and are shaped by it. Indeed, modernity inhabits us” (p.215).
Well organized and clearly written, Krygier’s book will serve some audiences but not others. Readers looking for an introduction to, and overview of, Selznick’s oeuvre are best served; readers looking for a critical evaluation of that oeuvre, and for arguments about what within it remains current and what has fallen by the wayside of contemporary scholarship, [*267] are less well served. And Krygier acknowledges as much: “my concern is less to summarize and locate Selznick’s particular contributions on particular questions in particular disciplines” but more to convey “his moral-intellectual sensibility” (p.9). In this, Krygier is wholly persuasive.
Ehrlich, Eugen. 1936. Fundamental Principles of the Sociology of Law. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Nonet, Philipp and Philip Selznick. 1978. Law and Society in Transition: Toward Responsive Law. New York: Harper.
Selznick, Philip. 1952. The Organizational Weapon: A Study of Bolshevik Strategy and Tactics. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation.
Selznick, Philip. 1965. “Review of The Morality of Law,” American Sociological Review 30: 947.
Selznick, Philip. 1969. Law, Society, and Industrial Justice. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Selznick, Philip. 1992. The Moral Commonwealth: Social Theory and the Promise of Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Copyright 2013 by the Author, Benjamin Gregg