Functional Explanations in the Social Sciences

It is a crucial matter in thinking about the social sciences to realize that not every -- perhaps even not most -- functional explanations in the social sciences depend on any actor consciously willing that the end product of the function in question be realized.

For instance, Marx's class-based analysis of social life does not depend on the "capitalists" deliberately conspiring together to further the interests of "capital": it is enough that the capitalists meet at the same parties, vacation in the same resorts, send their kids to the same elite schools, etc.: through this persistent social interaction, they will arrive at the same views on issues affecting the balance of power between capital and labor, and so on, all the while sincerely believing that they are analyzing each individual question from a completely objective point of view.

And so it is with functional explanations of support for the current military-industrial complex: there are many, many pundits who sincerely believe that their opposition to Pat Buchanan, to Howard Dean, to Ron Paul, to Bernie Sanders, to Donald Trump, is based on an objective analysis of the flaws of each of those presidential candidates. And certainly each of those candidates, like any other possible human being who might run for president, certainly had/has flaws! But so have the mainstream candidates the pundits have recommended in their stead.

To recognize a functional explanation for the mainstream pundits' rejection of each and every outsider candidate does not require that we believe that there is a secret "mainstream pundits" society that meets in some crypt and decides which candidates are "responsible" choices and which ones are not. It only depends upon interlocking networks of government agencies, media outlets, major corporations, elite private schools, and top universities, so that any "mainstream pundit" is continually exposed to an economic and social milieu that makes any break with mainstream opinion require an extraordinary degree of courage and altruism, in that such a break will expose the apostate to vicious attacks and serious risks of loss of funding/employment. Imagine the position of someone on the Harvard board of directors who privately believes that Trump is a better candidate than Clinton: such a person risks complete ostracism!

My next post will further connect this one to the current election.


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