Gabriel the Archenemy

To be productive, rather than just commenting on commenting, this time I’ll be looking at the work of Gabriel Tarde, best known for being effectively erased from the history books by Émile Durkheim or, rather, by those who loyally followed Durkheim. There’s that something about disciples or acolytes, those who follow some great leader. They are usually way worse, way more dogmatic than the person they follow. You end up with a some sort of school where everyone has to be like the great leader or, well, like what the disciples think the great leader was like and thought. We could say the same about structuralism (linguistics), psychoanalysis (psychology), historical materialism (philosophy), analytical philosophy, to name a few, because people who subscribe to them have ended up setting them as schools of thought that set the rules of the game according to which everyone else is supposed to play.

Now, what is Tarde known for, if anything (because, well, he isn’t that well known)? In short, his game was microsociology and he was up to something as bastardous as quantifying the social! Both probably sound batshit crazy on their own, but even more so when included in the same sentence. That’s because you’ve been told that sociology deals with the society, that is to say groups of people, not individuals, and that the natural sciences are the quantitative sciences and social sciences are the qualitative sciences, the former being often called the hard sciences and the latter often being called the soft sciences. Well, as crazy as it may sound but Tarde was certainly a pioneer in this regard and clearly at odds with those reductive characterizations.

I only got to know Tarde’s work through reading ‘A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. He does also get mentioned by Deleuze in, for example, ‘Difference and Repetition’, where it is only fitting to include him, considering the book title. Bruno Latour also has a wonderful book chapter titled ‘Tarde’s idea of quantification’. I’ll cover it in parts, as well as Tarde’s ‘The Laws of Imitation’ because nothing beats reading the originals. There will be bits from other publications as well, but these will the ones covered most in this essay.

Latour (147) opens up his book chapter, explaining the issue that we deal with, even today:

“In the twentieth century, the schism between those who dealt with numbers and those who dealt with qualities was never been bridged. This is a fair statement given that so many scholars have resigned themselves to being partitioned into those who follow the model of the ‘natural’ sciences, and those who prefer the model of the ‘interpretive’ or ‘hermeneutic’ disciplines.”

So, as I just pointed out, these images of what natural sciences and social sciences are like are something that we’ve grown up with, largely thanks to the academics involved on both sides. Latour (147) further clarifies this:

“All too often, fields have been divided between number crunching, devoid (its enemies claim) of any subtlety; and rich, thick, local descriptions, devoid (its enemies say) of any way to generalize from these observations.”

The first part is exactly what I have to deal with when it becomes apparent that I deal with numbers. The enemies or, rather, detractors (because I don’t see others as enemies, really) can’t comprehend how looking at numbers can have any nuance. It’s like they assume that what I do, namely pointing out certain patterns, has to do with me just counting how many times something occurs and then I tell you that this is the case. That’s just way too reductive. There’s far more nuance when it comes to going through sets of data. Of course it depends how the data was formed, what type of stuff was taken into account and how it is arranged because that all affects how it can be assessed. Simply put, if you do something simple like look at a large set of data, one variable at a time, it’s fair to say that it’s going lack nuance because all you get is the frequency of something. But if you can look at data and examine it with multiple variables, to see if we can find some correspondence (typically done through contingency tables, aka cross tabulation or crosstab), that’s where things start to get interesting.

Now, what’s so special about Tarde then? Well, as stated by Latour (147-148), he was never under any illusion that what is to be considered quantitative in social sciences has to be like it is natural sciences. As crazy as it may seem, Tarde (1-2) considers social sciences to be a better fit for quantification than natural sciences because there is no necessity in social sciences to explain something in terms of mechanistic causality, reducible to a matter of force, energy or the like. Latour (148) summarizes that for Tarde the upside of assessing the social is that what is assessed is always close, whereas the natural sciences deal with something that isn’t, because there’s always this distance, a yawning gap between the “overall structure and underlying components” in natural sciences, caused by a lack of information about, well, this and that, anything really, as it’s a guessing game as to whether you can ever be sure that you now have it all under control, that you are aware of all the pieces of the puzzle. Tarde (4-5) argues that:

“The astronomer states that certain nebulae, certain celestial bodies of a given mass and volume and at a given distance, exist, or have existed. The chemist makes the same statement about certain chemical substances, the physicist about certain kinds of ethereal vibrations, which he calls light, electricity, and magnetism; the naturalist states that there are certain principal organic types, to begin with, plants and animals; the physiographer states that there are certain mountain chains, which he calls the Alps, the Andes, et cetera.”

Summarizing these specific cases pertaining to specific sciences, he (4) states that:

“And, in all cases, the first data are simply affirmed; they are extraordinary and accidental facts, the premises and sources from which proceeds all that which is subsequently explain.”

So, as Deleuze and Guattari might explain this, the natural scientists always assume that they start from beginning when, in fact, we are always in the middle of things. In other words, despite the arbitrariness involved in this, certain cases, what Tarde (5) calls capital facts, are held as the starting points. Tarde (5) challenges this approach:

“In teaching us about these capital facts from which the rest are deduced, are these investigators doing the work, strictly speaking, of scientists?”

To which he (5) answers:

“They are not; they are merely affirming certain facts, and they in no way differ from the historian who chronicles the expedition of Alexander or the discovery of printing.”

He (5) actually goes as far as to say that the historian actually has an edge over the scientist. For him (5), the issue is not that everything revolves around cause and effect, that one thing leads to another, but rather the reliance on resemblance, what we might as well call identity, what something is, or, rather, what something appears to be, as subsequently classified, measured and enumerated as such. He (5) wants to challenge this:

“[L]et us imagine a world where there is neither resemblance nor repetition, a strange, but, if need be, an intelligible hypothesis; a world where everything is novel and unforeseen, where the creative imagination, unchecked by memory, has full play, where the motions of the stars are sporadic, where the agitation of the ether unrhythmical, and where successive generations are without the common traits of an hereditary type. And yet every apparition in such a phantasmagoria might be produced and determined by another, and might, in its turn, become the cause of others. In such world causes and effects might still exist; but would any kind of a science be possible?”

To which he (5) answers:

“It would not be, because, to reiterate, neither resemblances nor repetitions would be found there.”

Now, if this seems somewhat familiar to you, it might be because you’ve read ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, ‘Difference and Repetition’ or ‘The Logic of Sense’, also by Deleuze. This is likely because Deleuze (and Guattari) are influenced by Tarde. It’s also because all these guys, Deleuze, Guattari and Tarde, are influenced by the Stoics, at least to a certain degree. There is just something very similar about them, especially with regard to this passage written by Tarde (6):

“[T]he mind does not fully understand nor clearly recognise the relation of cause and effect, except in as much as the effect resembles or repeats the cause, as, for example, when a sound wave produces another sound wave, or a cell, another cell. There is nothing mysterious, one may say, than such reproductions. I admit this; but when we have once accepted this mystery, there is nothing clearer than the resulting series.”

In other words, it us, we, who come to understand the world as a series of causes and effects, causes and effects, one after another, based on how we approach the world through resemblance. Now, Deleuze (4) has this to say about the Stoics in ‘The Logic of Sense’:

“There are no causes and effects among bodies. Rather, all bodies are causes – causes in relation to each other and for each other.”

So, in other words, there are just bodies (in the broadest sense of the word, like a human body or a body of water etc.) that are the causes, in relation to one another and for one another, as summarized by Deleuze (4).

When you think of it, like a Stoic might, it certainly makes no sense to understand the world as this (cause) leading to that (effect), as a matter of cause and effect (to emphasize the and aspect, as done by Deleuze). Why? Well, because all bodies are in the present, here and now, and all they do is to (co)exist in space, in relation to one another, in some arrangement, in some assemblage. If they are co-present, at all times, one thing cannot happen before anything else because nothing can happen in isolation from everything else. So, what we have instead are causes and causes, and more causes, that come to appear as effects, once we investigate something. Sure, we can speak of it as a matter of causes and effects, but that’s just something that we come up in retrospect, once we isolate something from everything else for the sake of clarity.

To use a sports example, because why not, when one player crashes into another player, it’s strictly speaking erroneous to claim that one player is at fault, that the player was reckless and thus caused the collision. Why? Ah, you see, it’s because if we say that only one player is at fault, we treat the rest of the world as if it was static or, a least, somehow existed in separation from the player that is deemed to the one causing the infraction. The problem here is that all the players move simultaneously, in relation to one another, so it’s not as simple as saying this one player caused the collision. It is certainly real, no doubt about it, but it’s not an effect as bodies always deal with mere change in the states of affairs, how the bodies are arranged and mixed in relation to one another. We can, of course, think of it as an effect, but then we are discussing altogether something different, something that we come attribute to the bodies, as explained by Deleuze (4-5). So, yes, in a way there are effects, but not in the way we typically come think of them as having to do with bodies.

Right, where was I? Okay, so, Tarde (6) makes note of how we can speak of resemblance in terms of a quantity. The things that share resemblance are repeated. This is known as growth, like in the case of multiplying cells of a body. The other way to look at this would be in terms of groups and series. Here Tarde (6) notes that all sciences are alike in this regard, even the social sciences (like it or not):

“In all of this I fail to see anything which would differentiate the subject of social science.”

In short, to get somewhere with this, as expressed by Tarde’s (1):

“In social subjects we are exceptionally privileged in having veritable causes, positive and specific acts, at first hand; this condition is wholly lacking in every other subject of investigation.”

So, as summarized by Latour (148), what is social is always close, here and now, readily observable. Now, that may appear like a bold claim, that it’s just that easy, but we’ll get to it, eventually (in this essay or some future essay). For now, you may find yourself having a laugh at this, as if we could only focus on all things social and that’s it. Well, no. Tarde (1) doesn’t claim that we can just ignore everything that isn’t social just because we focus on the social:

“[A]re human acts … the sole factors of history? Surely this is too simple!”

He (1-2) continues:

“And so we bind ourselves to contrive other causes on the type of those useful fictions which are elsewhere imposed upon us, and we congratulate ourselves upon being able at times to give an entirely impersonal colour to human phenomena by reason of our lofty, but truly speaking, obscure, point of view.”

So, no, let’s not go down that path. It just results in idealism, one type or another. It’s not just about the social, just like it isn’t all just about what isn’t social. He (2) continues:

“Let us likewise ward off the vapid individualism which consists in explaining social changes as the caprices of certain great men.”

He makes this point to warn not to understand all things social as having been caused by a handful of notable people, heroes of their time, also known as great men (this is only accurate to retain, because of the sexist bent of the times, because at the time it would have been unthinkable to refer to great individuals, to great people, because, you know, women weren’t considered as great, let alone people worth considering).

Now that we are on ‘-isms’, he (7) further comments on nominalism and realism, noting that the former it is marked by individual characteristics or idiosyncrasies that are the only significant realities and the latter is marked by its sole focus on resemblances between individuals and how they are produced. In other words, the former focuses on the unique aspects of each individual, as differentiated from others, whereas the latter focuses on the similar aspects of each individual, as judged in relation to others. He (7) further notes that (what we might contemporarily call) individualism is a type of nominalism and socialism is a type of realism.

So, in summary, thus far, Tarde is against claiming that people do this and/or that because it is human nature to do so. That said, he isn’t saying that there aren’t certain factors that are out of our control, that pertain to the way we are or come to be. That’d be like claiming that everyone is exactly the same, from the start to the finish. There’s no need to be silly about this. Human biology, inasmuch as we understand it, does play a role. Then again, explaining something that we do as solely a matter of biology, that is in our nature, or so to speak, is just nonsense as well. Also, when it comes to the society, Tarde is against claiming that people do this and/or that because it is part of their culture to do so, in the sense that here culture acts as just another word for nature, as this omnipotent, God-like third party that explains why people what they do. Now, just because Tarde rejects such broad explanations doesn’t mean that he thinks that society is shaped a select few individuals, that people do this and/or that because a few greats made things the way they are. I’d like to add this, to point out, that this applies to everyone, as he (2) sort of goes on to imply.

Tarde’s (2) way of explaining what’s going on may appear contradictory because the social isn’t explained by the people, by the individuals, but by the relations of the individuals, by what lies in between them. So, for Tarde (2), instead of great men, or, more contemporarily, great individuals (to not be sexist), or just individuals, great or not (to not be elitist), we should be focusing on ideas, what he prefers to call “inventions or discoveries.” To be clear, he (2) doesn’t like using the individual as the starting point because it is often hard to pinpoint when and where something came to be:

“[L]et us explain these changes [in societies] through the more or less fortuitous [apparition], as to time and place, of certain great ideas, or rather, of a considerable number of both major and minor ideas, of ideas which are generally anonymous and usually obscure birth; which are simple or abstruse; which are seldom illustrious, but which are always novel.”

It’s worth noting here that I replaced the word appearance with apparition because there is a risk that people focus on the appearance, as in the looks of something (to be ocularcentrist, once more), what something is, supposedly, rather than what’s at stake, how something comes to appear to us, if it does, inasmuch as it does, at a certain time, in a certain place. The French original uses the word apparition, so emphasizing this point is worth it.

I’ve explained this distinction in the past, in painstaking detail, so I won’t go more into it. It’s actually as simple as just explained here. Appearance can certainly be understood as an instance of appearing, as in, something like: “His sudden appearance was not welcome because no one had invited him to the party.” The problem with appearance is rather that it tends to be understood as pertaining to likeness, for example the looks of something or someone, like: “I couldn’t care less about my appearance as its irrelevant to the task at hand.” The problematic part is that people often come to think of appearance as how something really is, which, well, isn’t at all that clear when we start to actually investigate the issue, as I did in the previous essay.

There’s also another issue. Even when we use appearance like I did in the former (made up) example (above), we focus on the instance of someone appearing, someone who we know as already having existence, in that case a person crashing a party, whereas with apparition we focus on the very instance of appearing, how and why does this and/or that appear to me, the way it does, inasmuch as it does. We are talking about the conditions of appearing. So, to use the same example, we are not focusing on someone uninvited showing up, but on the terms of that person actually existing to us.

We have to be like detectives when it comes to apparition. Of course, taking into account the very fact that someone appears to us, the way that person does, at any given time, in this instance at a party, uninvited, is going to be super complex. It’s going to be so complex that much of it is going to be pretty obscure to us, to the point that we can’t even say this and/or that appears to us because it fulfills this and/or that condition of its apparition. So, as Deleuze and Guattari (192-194) put it in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, it’s not as simple as addressing “what happened” because when we deal with apparition there is no necessity, only contingency, and therefore the appropriate question is “[w]hatever could have happened for things to have come to this?” Moreover, it’s worth further specifying that it’s not even that we can’t know something that happened in the past for sure, as we are addressing that past always in the present, but rather that, to really emphasize this point, to hammer this home, there is no necessity, nothing as simple as this must lead to that, but rather that it may lead to that, but it also may not, which leaves us in doubt, in indeterminacy, as they (193) point out. Of course, as Tarde (2) points out, in many cases we can’t even know because of the obscurity involved. Yeah, sure, we can say it’s because we lost record of the first instance of this and/or that, but, well, in many cases no one really kept any records of this and/or that, hence the obscurity.

To be honest, it’s not even that important to be able to point out who came up with what as it doesn’t really change things. For example, it is contested whether Valentin Vološinov wrote ‘Marxism and the Philosophy of Language’ as some say it was Mikhail Bakhtin. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it was Pavel Medvedev. Maybe it was more than just one person who wrote it. Then again, maybe it wasn’t. What matters is that it was indeed written. What’s novel and what you get out of it is what matters, for me anyway. The author, who we think wrote the book, is a figment of our imagination anyway, so what’s the fuss all about? It’s crazy how people obsess over such, about who’s idea was this and/or that, when who they are talking about is their figment of imagination. Sure, you can retain that figment of imagination, that’s fine, but I reckon the problem is that it tends to get asserted as being an actual person, not a conceptual person, not a figment of imagination. Now, of course, the obsession over who did what has to do with what Deleuze and Guattari call the passional self in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’. So, what matters to people who fuss over such is that they want to get the credit, that they should be heralded for some past accomplishments that they probably didn’t accomplish all by themselves. It’s just me, me, me, followed by more me, me, me, and don’t you dare to forget about me! Petty squabbling. I like how Deleuze and Guattari (3) address this issue at the very beginning of ‘A Thousand Plateaus’:

“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd. … Why have we kept our own names? Out of habit, purely out of habit.”

And (3):

“To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied.”

The point here is that not only were there two writers, Deleuze and Guattari, or so we’ve come to assume to be the case, because they decided to put their names on the book, but also that even on their own each of them is always many. To be clear, they say this because it is very hard to separate what is your own, or so to speak, and differentiate it from what isn’t your own. We may like to say that it was ‘I’ who came up with this and/or that, yet, oddly enough, even if that is the case, you only came up with whatever it is that is supposedly novel or actually novel because you were influenced and inspired by others, if not actually aided by them.

It’s also worth adding that the person who wrote something is not the same person in each instance. That said, we are in this habit of thinking that, say, someone like Deleuze is this specific person who held certain views and we can discover them by reading his works. The problem with this line of thinking is that it would appear that the person who wrote the books wrote them at the same time, as if frozen in time, unaffected by anything, any influence, any life experience. This is, of course, impossible and that’s why I like to point out that it is actually just a figment of one’s imagination. Then there’s also the problem with the reader, who isn’t always the same person, as the actual reader is not stuck in time nor place either.

Right, back to Tarde (2) who elaborates what he means by inventions or discoveries:

“[A]ny kind of an innovation or improvement, however slight, which is made in any previous innovation throughout the range of social phenomena – language, religion, politics, law, industry, or art.”

The point here is that invention or discovery should not be understood in a limited sense as having to do with an invention or an innovation, as technology. It can certainly be about technology and often it is about it, but that’s too limited for Tarde. So, yeah, any idea or social phenomena will count equally well.

Returning to the earlier point on how obscure the origins tend to be, for Tarde (2) part of their obscurity has to do with the way it takes a while for something to catch on:

“At the moment when this novel thing, big or little as it may be, is conceived of, or determined by, an individual, nothing appears to change in the social body, – just as nothing changes in the physical appearance of an organism which a harmful or beneficent microbe has just invaded, – and the gradual changes caused by the introduction of the new element seem to follow, without visible break, upon the anterior social changes into whose current they have glided.”

He (2) further comments on this, noting that the way inventions come to be is thus, in part, illusory because it gives us this sense of “fundamental continuity in historic metamorphoses.” In other words, because changes tend to be ever so subtle, we come to think of them as a continuum or “a chain of ideas”, one leading to another, as he (2) points out. Now, this does not mean that ideas, that is to say inventions or discoveries, are not connected. They are. However, as he (2) points out, they are all distinct and discontinuous, yet connected. It’s just that the connection isn’t a given. Instead, as he (2) clarifies:

“[T]hey are connected by the much more numerous acts of imitation which are modelled upon them.”

Here we get to the title of his book which has to do with imitation. So, in summary thus far, we inventions and imitations. People come up with this or that novel thing and then that gets imitated. That’s the gist of this. Therefore, for Tarde (3):

“Socially, everything is either invention or imitation.”

Now, as pointed out already, it makes no difference in terms of what we are dealing with, whether its social, vital (biological/genetic) or physical, as he (7) goes on to state. You simply have an invention of some kind, something novel, that appears at some point in time, somewhere, which will then be repeated by others, imitated by them. That’s the gist of this, as he (7-8) points out. All the sciences, including the social sciences are very alike in this regard. That said, he (8) notes that people tend to be struck by the orderliness of the natural sciences whereas the social sciences seem more like a hot mess:

“[W]e should not be surprise if the [social sciences] seem chaotic when we view them through the medium of the historian, or even through that of the sociologist, whereas the [natural sciences] impress us, as they are presented by physicist, chemist, or physiologist, as very well ordered worlds.”

But, as they say, appearances may be deceptive. In his (8) words:

“These latter scientists show us the subject of their science only on the side of its characteristic resemblances and repetition[.]”

Which, I would add, is not a problem in itself. What is left out is the problem, as elaborated by him (8):

“[T]hey prudently conceal its corresponding heterogeneities and transformations[.]”

In contrary, in the social sciences, the social scientists, in this case the historians and the sociologists do the exact opposite, as already mentioned in this essay in reference to Latour (147). In Tarde’s (8) words:

“The historian and sociologist, on the contrary, veil the regular and monotonous face of social facts, – that part in which they are alike and repeat themselves, – and show us only their accidental and interesting, their infinitely novel and diversified, aspect.”

He (9) provides an example pertaining to history. For him (9), historians are always too busy to explain to their audience how it is that, for example, Gallo-Romans, became the way the did, by going through “every word, rite, edict, profession, custom, craft, law, or military manœuvre” introduced by the Romans in conquered Gaul and how those ideas spread in the area, swaying the people, making these newly introduced ideas eventually more popular than the old ways, customs and ideas.

Okay, he (9) is well aware of how painstakingly dull a process that would be, to go through it all, to discuss intricacies of Latin, Roman poetry, law, religion, art, craftmanship, varieties of Roman architecture, including but not limited to varieties pertaining to temples, basilicas, theaters, hippodromes, aqueducts and atriumed villas, and teaching of military manœuvres to local soldiers. This would then followed by an assessment of Roman Christianity, its rites and how it spread to Gaul, as he (9) goes on to add. That said, as I like to think, being lazy is a very poor excuse (not that people say that they are lazy, why would they, even if they are?). In his (9) words:

“And yet it is only at this price that we can get at an exact estimate of the great amount of regularity which obtains in even the most fluctuating societies.”

The point here really is that in social sciences there is this habit or practice of focusing on the “accidental and interesting” (8), “novel and diversified” (9), which I reckon is just fine, inasmuch as it is clearly indicated that all the regularities have been glossed over in the process (i.e. that you just didn’t bother with the other stuff). I would say that this picture is pretty accurate even contemporarily.

Of course, it is worth adding that the way academics works, not only are social scientists generally expected to focus on “rich, thick, local descriptions” and natural scientists on “number crunching”, as Latour (147) summarizes the issue, but they are incentivized to work in these ways. Conversely, straying from the path, doing anything beside what you are expected is effectively disincentivized. In short, we could say that you are disciplined to act in a certain way because you will be punished for acting in any other way.

For example, my work is arguably quantitative, albeit you could say that in certain ways it is also qualitative. Anyway, what it is or isn’t is beside the point. What matters is how it comes across to others, to one’s supposed peers who are to judge the work. In my experience, it is very hard to be appreciated for what you do if you don’t follow in the footsteps of established names in your field, whose work more or less define what you should be doing and, conversely, what you shouldn’t be doing. Now, appreciation is not what you should be worried about, really. I mean surely you are not trying to sell something! Or are you?

This is exactly where it gets interesting. When we take a closer look at the academic practices themselves, we can see a pattern, a regularity. It’s highly ironic, really, considering how in social sciences you are expected to go for the “accidental and interesting” (8), “novel and diversified” (9), yet this practice, doing just that, and not something else, is, in itself, marked by conformity to similarity and regularity. In terms of incentives, there are none for those who wish to try something different. Why? Well, because, if you don’t do what you are expected to do, you will find yourself in the margin, that is to say not funded and your work not accepted, which, in turn, reinforce one another as it is harder to get funded if you haven’t published and it’s harder to get published if you lack funding as then you likely spend your days doing something else.

There’s of course also the productivity angle. Oddly enough, being lazy, that is to say not going through a ton of data, and focusing on something small, typically in the name of the “novel and diversified” (9), is incentivized whereas thinking big is not incentivized. When the only measures of success are how many manuscripts you’ve managed to get published and in which publications, it only makes sense to get things done with the least effort involved. Again, it’s highly ironic that it’s about quantity over quality, considering how we then get quantity out of qualitative studies. Conversely, it only makes sense not to spend hours and hours on something, to get to the bottom of things, if you will (albeit not in search of the final or original cause sense of it), if it is treated equal to something where none of that effort was involved. Now, of course, this has to do with the way the system works, how it revolves around this type of measurebation.

Anyway, Tarde (9-10) comments on how this works in practice. So, instead of putting in the hours, studying various social phenomena, in all of their tedious everydayness, it’s just way easier to attempt to make sense of it all, either by resorting to the great men theory, that, say, Julius Caesar played a key role in the Romanization of the Gauls, or that certain preachers Christianized the Gauls, or rationalizing how well Christianity and Romanism meshed together, when it isn’t all that clear what Christianity or Romanism even are, considering how they were formed on the basis of various ideas originating in different parts of the Roman Empire. Here it’s worth going back a bit, to his (7) point about nominalism and realism, how we like to attribute something to dissimilarity (the individual) or, alternatively, to similarity (the group). We could also call this the subjective and the objective explanations.

Tarde (12) is well aware of how the social world appears just incoherent, having all these currents that just flow somewhere, at times intersecting. However, he (12) won’t fall back on attempting to explain how we make sense of it, on a daily basis, as a matter of subjective experience or as guided by objective laws. It’s at this stage that he (12) indicates why he thinks that, in spite of one’s flaws (what just discussed), the historian is more advanced than the natural scientist:

“It is but recently that the naturalist has had any glimpses that were at all clear of biological evolution, whereas the historian was long ago ware of the continuity of history. As for chemists and physicists, we may pass them by. They dare not even yet forecast the time when they will be able to trace out, in their turn, the genealogy of simple substances, or when a work on their origin of atoms … will be published.”

Now, of course, you have to make note of how this example is from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, right at the when experiments were conducted on atoms. To be clear, this book originally came out in 1890, which is some seven years before J. J. Thomson discovered the electron, a subatomic particle, and nearly two decades before Hans Geiger and Ernest Marsden discovered the atomic nucleus. Anyway, this is still relevant as the point here is to push things. What is considered the elementary particle is at the heart of the issue. We can always ask if there is something more elementary than what is posed as the elementary particle. In short, the issue here is the continuity and the indeterminacy.

So, if it isn’t subjective, as natural scientists like to label the work of social scientists, or objective, as the social scientists like to ridicule the natural scientists for believing in such a thing, then what is the deal? What is Tarde after? He is after something completely different and I think Latour (148) explains this well:

“Paradoxically, those in sociology who try to ape the natural sciences have mistaken the latter’s constitutive lack of information for their principal virtue. Yet what is really scientific is to have enough information so as to not have to fall back upon the makeshift approximation of a structural law, distinct from what its individual components do.”

Now, you might object to this and point out that natural sciences involve plenty of data. Sure. Granted. Then again, as Latour (149) points out, the data they work on is nowhere near the data you get out of human acts. The problem is that all of this pitting one against the other, natural vs. social sciences, hard vs. soft sciences, objective vs. subjective, individual vs. structural (feel free to come up with more of these), is completely missing the point. Tarde isn’t advocating for either because, well, to be frank, the whole debate is just idiotic to him. Latour (149) aptly summarizes what we have:

“[I]f we stick to the individual, the local, the situated, you will detect only qualities, while if we move towards the structural and towards the distant, we will begin to gather quantities.”

So, again, for the umpteenth time, social sciences are supposed be about qualities whereas natural sciences are supposed to be about quantities. Now, Tarde is having none of this. As explained by Latour (149), he is actually flipping everything on its head:

“For Tarde the situation is almost exactly the opposite: the more we get into the intimacy of the individual, the more discrete quantities we’ll find[.]”

Now, this doesn’t explain why that is, so Latour (149) elaborates why that is:

“[I]f we move away from the individual towards the aggregate we might begin to lose quantities, more and more, along the way because we lack the instruments to collect enough of their quantitative evaluations.”

So, because social sciences deal with human acts, that is to say social phenomena, they always occur to close to the individual. You don’t need sophisticated tools for the analysis. Observation works just fine. Okay, sure, you may benefit from tools and they probably will make your life easier doing just that, but the point is that you get a lot out of social phenomena even without special instruments. This is not the case when we move from the social phenomena to the natural phenomena. In natural sciences you can only do so much without a laboratory, whereas in social sciences some paper and a pen might not even be necessary, even though they are certainly handy. I mean you could do what I do without a computer, even on paper, perhaps even without it, but it sure would be cumbersome. Anyway, this is the earlier point about distance.

Latour (150) emphasizes that it is of utmost importance not to confuse Tarde’s understanding of quantification of the social with how quantification works in natural sciences. Quantifying the social involves crunching numbers, yes, but it is not done in order to uncover some structural law, how things really are, how the society really is, or the like. By looking a large number of instances we are dealing with aggregates. That said, again, the point is not to assume that we are dealing with a some superorganic or transcendent (otherworldly) entity once those instances are aggregated.

Latour (150) exemplifies this issue in reference to Tarde’s (25) earlier book, ‘Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology’, noting that when we speak of ‘they’ we are in the habit of forgetting that ‘they’ always consists of a number of actual individuals. As explained by Tarde (25):

“I … maintain that this … relation [is] not … a connection binding one individual to a confused mass of men, but merely a relation between two individuals, one of whom, the child, is in process of being introduced into the social life, while the other, an adult, long since socialized, serves as the child’s personal model. As we advance in life, it is true, we are often governed by collective and impersonal models, which are usually not consciously chosen.”

In short, the relation, how we become who we’ve become is always in relation to actual people, who’ve become who’ve they’ve become always in relation to actual people, not some transcendent (otherworldly) or superorganic entity. He (25) continues:

“But before we speak, think, or act as ‘they’ speak, think, or act in our world, we begin by speaking, thinking, and acting as ‘he’ or ‘she’ does. And this he or she is always one of our own near acquaintances. Beneath the indefinite they, how-ever carefully we search, we never find anything but a certain number of he’s and she’s which, as they have increased in number, have become mingled together and confused.”

In other words, it’s not that it’s wrong to attribute who we are, who we’ve become, to others. That’s exactly the point he is making here. It’s rather that these others, ‘they’, are always actual people. This reiterates the earlier point about realism, how we should not think of groups as these given entities. Instead we should think of groups as our own products, as subsequent abstractions of what we gather as bearing similarity to one another.

Now, by reading Tarde (25), we may be fooled to think that he is advocating for the individual. I mean it appears that he does not believe in the group and if he doesn’t believe in that, then that ought to mean that he must give primacy to the individual. However, that’s not the case. When he argues against the group, ‘they’, he is arguing against society as this transcendent (otherworldly) or superorganic entity that explains why people behave the way they do. For Tarde (25-26) what’s important is not the group of individuals, nor the individual, but the relation between individuals. As Tarde can be a bit verbose at about this at times, Latour (151) offers a good summary to this:

“[W]e should find ways to gather the individual ‘he’ and ‘she’ without losing out on the specific ways in which they are able to mingle, in a standard, in a code, in a bundle of customs, in a scientific discipline, in a technology – but never in some overarching society. The challenge is to try to obtain their aggregation without either shifting our attention at any point to a whole, or changing modes of inquiry.”

If this, how this is explained as not being about the subjective, nor about the objective, seems familiar to you, it’s probably because you can find some others who think this way, even if the nomenclature differs somewhat. For example, Vološinov’s understanding of collective experience is arguably very similar to this because he is against giving primacy to the individual as an autonomous actor but also against treating the individuals as mere drones to some otherworldly entity that makes people act the way they do. It’s always actual people that we deal with, from who we learn things. It’s always actual people who’ve come to influence us in certain ways. I reckon that it’s not a mere fortuitous accident that Deleuze and Guattari discuss both Tarde and Vološinov in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’.

Now that I got that covered, it’s time to return to Tarde’s central concepts: invention and imitation. He (xiii) notes that he is using the word imitation differently from its everyday usage, that is to say in a broader sense than it is typically used, so it may cause some confusion, at least initially. For him (xiii), imitation is not restricted to the conscious act of imitation. It can be conscious or voluntary but it can also be unconscious or involuntary, as he (xiii) points out. For him (xiii) this is not an issue because he doesn’t consider people to be fully autonomous individuals nor mere slaves to some superorganic or transcendent (otherworldly) power that makes the do things. It’s rather that people “pass by insensible degrees from deliberate volition to almost mechanical habit”, as noted by him (xiii). As already explained, and reiterated here, on one hand, Tarde wants to avoid lapsing into giving primacy to the subject and, on the other hand, he wants to avoid asserting that there is some superorganic or transcendent (otherworldly) structure that defines human behavior. As summarized by Latour (151), imitation is about “tracing the ways in which individual monads conspire with one another without ever producing a structure.”

Okay, now we just have to explain monad, a concept that goes back to the ancient Greeks, namely the Pythagoreans, but later on adopted and adapted by others, namely Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. I know, oh dear, it seems like this will involve going on a tangent, but I’ll try to keep this short. Tarde (5) discusses monads in his essay titled ‘Monadology and Sociology’, explicitly attributing the concept to Leibniz. I’ll get to this very soon. Latour (156) clarifies Tarde’s position on quantification, noting that it will indeed seem crazy if start from where others tend to start, what we are used to:

“The quantitative nature of all associations will seem bizarre if we mistakenly impute an idea of the individual element seen as an atom to Tarde.”

Now, we could replace atom here with whatever is considered the elementary particle. Atom just happens to be the elementary particle of his time, an outcome that was possible to achieve with the instruments of his time, as pointed out by Latour (156). Tarde’s view is opposed to this. Anyway, to make more sense of what he is against, it’s fruitful to summarize it, as done by Latour (156):

“In this traditional view, quantification starts when we have assembled enough individual atoms so that the outline of a structure begins to appear, first as a shadowy aggregate, then as a whole, and finally as a law dictating how to behave to the elements.”

In other words, you start with the elementary particle, followed by finding enough of them and testing them so that you can figure out they work. The point here is to come up with a structure, a law that explains why this and/or that works the way it does. Now, of course, Tarde is having none of this. Latour (156) further exemplifies this traditional view:

“The division between a qualitative and a quantitative social science is in essence the same as the division between individuals and society, tokens and type, actors and system.”

To paraphrase this, it’s not that you can’t have such pairs. It’s rather that there’s always this gap between them and somehow the society, the type or the system is supposed to explain the individuals, the tokens or the actors. We could explain this the other way around as well, because even individuals, tokens or actors are equally poor starting points for Tarde. Latour (156) explains Tarde’s view:

“[T]he whole scene is entirely different. The reason why there is no need for an overarching society is because there is no individual to begin with, or at least no individual atoms.”

At this point you might be wondering, the … now? The point here is that we can’t start from an individual, nor from a structure, because either way, we posit something that we then fail to explain (actually just won’t explain). Latour (156) further elaborates Tarde’s view:

“The individual element is a monad, that is, a representation, a reflection, or an interiorization of a whole set of other elements borrowed from the world around it.”

In other words, we appear to be one and many, at the same time, just like, well, everything else does, “because of a vast crowd of elements already present in every single entity”, as summarized by Latour (156). To exemplify this, Latour (156) states that unlike in the traditional view, an individual, that is to say what we think to be an individual, is not acting or reacting to other individuals, like isolated atoms (in the sense of the smallest particles, the starting point), but pushed by a vast number of other elements which are gathered in the monad, offering an indefinite number of potential outcomes, depending on how the state of affairs is assembled. Latour (157) rephrases this:

“Behind every ‘he’ and ‘she,’ one could say, there are a vast numbers of other ‘he’s’ and ‘she’s’ to which they have been interrelated.”

So, in less abstract terms, whatever we do, inasmuch as we do, we do because of who we’ve become and who we’ve become depends on the influence of others. We are typically influenced by our parents, as well as other family members, as well as our teachers, friends, coworkers, lovers, etc., who, in turn, are influenced by their families, their friends, their lovers, their coworkers, their teachers or former teachers, who in turn are influenced by … Anyway, you should be able to get gist of this, what is meant by monad and how it changes how we come to understand the quantification of the social.

Now, what I want to add here is that our influences are not limited to the other people. For example, if I down a beer or five, that influences who I am, at that very moment. When you think of it, it’s only fitting that it is said that a person is under the influence of alcohol when they’ve been drinking. The influence is, of course, fleeting, but that could also be said of other people, not of all people, but some people nonetheless.

For Leibniz, having lived in the 17th and 18th centuries, monads are still effectively relegated into a secondary position under God who regulates them and their connections, as summarized by Latour (157). This is not the case with Tarde because the problem with that is that by not giving them priority, as posed by Leibniz, transcendence is introduced into the picture, you know, like a structure that explains the parts, which is exactly why he doesn’t go down that path, as noted by Latour (157). In his (157) words:

“If there are monads but no God, the only solution is to let monads penetrate one another freely. Tarde’s monads are a cross between Leibniz and Darwin: each monad has to get by in order to interpret or ‘reflect’ (Leibniz’s term) all of the others, to spread as far and as quickly as possible.”

In other words, monads is all there is. If one is to save God here, it has to understood as pantheistic because without transcendence (that otherworldly) everything is smooshed in one plane, one level. That would work like how Baruch Spinoza (45) explains this in his ‘Ethics’:

“By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite – that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.”

Of course, people might reject this as not God because it is defined differently, having no transcendence, no otherworldly independent existence from us, which was more or less the problem that Spinoza ran into in his time in the 17th century. Anyway, the point here is that Tarde’s definition of monad is not the same as Leibniz’s definition. In short, instead of transcendence, we get immanence.

Latour (157) states that in order for the monads to make sense, Tarde needs something else, something immanent to replace the transcendent (otherworldly) explanation as to how they work. Tarde (144-145) explains in ‘The Laws of Imitation’ that these are desire and belief:

“Invention and imitation are, as we know, the elementary social acts. But what is the social substance or force through which this act is accomplished and of which it is merely the form? In other words, what is invented or imitated? The thing which is invented, the thing which is imitated, is always an idea or a volition, a judgment or a purpose, which embodies a certain amount of belief and desire.”

Now that does not explain what desire and belief are. Broadly speaking, he (145-146) calls them the substance and the force and states that they are quantities, whereas sensations are qualities with which the desires and beliefs combine. He (145) indicates that sensation is related to the senses, such as visual or auditory senses. He (145) exemplifies sensation by noting that when one is in a crowd, in a theater or in a concert, one may feel a sensation of what one is witnessing. He (145) adds that this sensation may be intensified by the presence of others, which one can only attest to, if you’ve ever been in a crowd. Conversely, one ought to point out here that the sensation may not feel as particularly intense if the crowd is very small, or, rather small for venue where the event takes place. In other words, sensation is a quality because you can’t quantify it. You can only decrease or increase it’s intensity. The sensation remains the same, but it is only more or less intense. Therefore change always results in a change of quality, not quantity.

This is similar to how Deleuze (222-223) differentiates extension or extensities from intension or intensities in ‘Difference and Repetition’, the former being something that you can quantify, such as size, volume or distance, and the latter being something you can’t quantify, such as temperature, pressure or tension. So, for example, if you have glass of water and you pour half of it to another glass, you now have two glasses that contain water but the temperature hasn’t changed, except, well, unless the other glass doesn’t affect the temperature (like you took the glass out of a freezer, just for the sake of altering the water temperature). Now, of course, these two are combined, inseparable from one another, as pointed out by both Deleuze (223) and Tarde (145-146). For example, if you increase the temperature (intensify the movement of particles) of a certain volume of water, you may end up causing a change in the volume of water, that is to say changes in quantity, as the liquid transitions to gas, that is to say changes in quality.

Right, to distinguish desire and belief from invention and imitation, Tarde (145-146) calls the former two psychological quantities and the latter two social quantities. To make more sense of this, he (146) states that:

“Societies are organized according to the agreement or opposition of beliefs which reinforce or limit one another. Social institutions depend entirely upon these conditions. Societies function according to the competition or co-operation of their desires or wants. Beliefs, principally religious and moral beliefs, juristic and political beliefs as well, and even linguistic beliefs (for how many acts of faith are implied in the lightest talk and what an irresistible although unconscious power of persuasion our mother tongue, a true indeed, exerts over us), are the plastic forces of societies. Economic or æsthetic wants are their functional forces.”

So, to break this down, what we have is desires or wants, as he calls them here. What we also have is beliefs, which are, well, all kinds of beliefs. Unfortunately Tarde isn’t particularly explicit about these terms and you have to go back forth the different parts of the book. The second edition preface is worth reading in order to get more out of this. Anyway, Latour (150) offers a good summary of how to make sense of these two sets of two core concepts:

“[T]he very heart of social phenomena is quantifiable because individual monads are constantly evaluating one another in simultaneous attempts to expand and to stabilize their worlds. The notion of expansion is coded for him in the word ‘desire,’ and stabilization in the word ‘belief’ … Each monad strives to possess one another.”

In other words, desire is what pushes people innovate, to change things, and belief is what seeks to prevent innovation, to prevent change. Tarde (xvi) elaborates that social relations may belong to two groups, one that tends to transmits a desire, thus pushing people to invent, and another that tends to transmit a belief, thus pushing people to imitate an invention, “persuasively or authoritatively, willing or unwillingly”. The former he (xvi) considers instructive and the latter commanding. Moreover, he (xvi) indicates that imitation/belief have a dogmatic character, in the sense that it becomes taken as a given, the truth. That’s why Latour (150) states that it functions to stabilize desire, which, in turn, prevents invention. That’s pretty much how dogmatism works, having beliefs that are so firm, so entrenched that any conflicting desire/invention must be prevented. It’s worth reiterating here that imitation is considered, in part, unconscious or involuntary. That’s why beliefs work the way the do. I don’t think people choose to be dogmatic, even in the face of it being made obvious to them that they are being dogmatic. It’s rather that they desire it, they want it.

Tarde (xvii) further specifies imitation, noting that change can occur not only through invention, followed by imitation, but also by counter-imitation, that is to say, objecting or resisting imitation, refusing to imitate an invention. That said, Tarde (xviii-xix) does not consider that invention, hence the moniker counter-imitation, doing the exact opposite of what one is supposed to imitate. For him (xix) it’s also not non-imitation, which is when no social relation exists to permit imitation, such as no physical contact with others who one could otherwise imitate. In other words, counter-imitation is about disassociation whereas imitation is about association, as he (xix) points out. This is also what he (xix) calls the logical duel that occurs when different people of different beliefs come into contact.

Tarde (93) also further specifies the relationship between desire and invention, noting that one needs to look to them as series and in series, one invention always building on many prior prior inventions. I guess it’s sort of obvious, at this point already, but it’s worth emphasizing because the inventions that already exist and how they are imitated, as well as counter-imitated, affects desires and beliefs, which in turn may result in more inventions or preventing inventions. As he (92) points out, people don’t invent for the sake of inventing. There has to be something that pushes people to come up with something new. It’s the same thing with imitation; people don’t imitative for the sake of imitating, but always out of utility to them, as he (92-94) goes on to add. The point here is that one mustn’t simply think that inventions spring out of desire and that imitations out of beliefs. It can be the other way around as well, because we always build on what already exists, or so to speak. We are always in the middle.

So, for example, as he (93) points out, “the desire to smoke, to drink tea or coffee, etc., did not appear until after the discovery of tea, or coffee, or tobacco.” Indeed, people don’t have some primordial desire, some urge for a cup of coffee. You do need to be aware of coffee, that’s it’s this thing in the first place, for you to start to desire it, likely through imitation, as based on a firm belief that it’s just something people do. It’s the same with clothing, as he (93) also points out; modesty, covering your body, and indecency, showing some skin, require there to be the notion of clothing. If there was no invention of clothing, being naked would be just fine or, well, it wouldn’t necessarily be fine but it would then not be fine for some other reason, some other invention that people then have started to imitate and believe in. That said, I reckon clothing was invented for a good reason, for example to stay warm in colder climates. So, yeah, in a way clothing is invented in response to a desire. Then again, as already pointed out, the invention of clothing comes to fuel other desires and beliefs, one that people didn’t have prior too their invention. In short, invention/imitation and desire/belief work both ways.

Sometimes there’s also the possibility of stumbling into something, which then becomes something that was never envisioned prior to that moment, as he (94) points out. Then there’s also the regulations, what we might call firm beliefs, typically coded into laws which influence invention and limitation, often restricting them. This external influence he (94) calls the “outward master” whereas when its about our actions, what do we do and what can we do, really, the limitations are based on who we’ve become, the “inward tyrant.”

In summary, it’s worth pointing out that while Tarde may seem dismissive of certain fields or disciplines, such as chemistry and physics, I think he is more critical of social sciences than natural sciences because it seems that his ire is actually directed at social sciences that give primacy either to the individual (subjectivism) or the society (objectivism). He is certainly particularly fond of biology (of his time), which works in its own way, a way that he likes. I reckon he would actually argue in favor of defining the natural sciences, namely chemistry and physics, qualitative rather than quantitative because what’s interesting in something like liquid turning into gas is the qualitative transformation. Deleuze explains this well in In ‘L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze’, a compilation of interviews conducted by Claire Parnet, when addressing the letter U, ‘U comme Un’ (minor changes made to the translation):

“But even if you take a formula like all bodies fall. What is important is not that all bodies fall. What’s important is the fall and the singularities of the fall. Even if scientific singularities – for example, mathematical singularities in functions, or physical singularities, or chemical singularities, points of congealing, etc. – were all reproducible, well fine, and then what? These are secondary phenomena, processes of universalization, but what science addresses is not universals, but singularities, points of congealing: when does a body change its state, from the liquid state to the solid state, etc.”

So, in other words, repeating the procedure to see that it happens is simply beside the point. It doesn’t add any value to repeat it a hundred times. Someone can always point out that maybe you should try it once more, just to be sure. This is the earlier point about the futility of attempting to start with an elementary particle, an instance, followed by gathering more and more of those instances in order to come up with a structure or a law that is based on that procedure. As explained by Deleuze and Guattari (17) in ‘A Thousand Plateaus’, the one, as well as the multiple, are always subtracted from multiplicities that are aggregates of singularities (such as the fall or the point of congealing that Deleuze lists in the above quote). In short, the point here is that a multiplicity is not a sum of parts. Multiplicity is not the same as multiple (which would be one plus one plus one, etc). We can’t get to the multiplicity by adding the ones because that results in multiple, not multiplicity.

If we understand quantification as a matter of adding up enough ones (as multiple), in order to discover some structure of society, then yeah, quantification of the social doesn’t work. However, as discussed already, this is not how Tarde understands quantification. The way he explains all this makes quantitative approaches apt for social sciences, whereas qualitative approaches are apt for natural sciences, at least chemistry and physics. That might be my Deleuze and Guattari inspired reading of Tarde though.

Okay, so, what about the numbers then? Is there anything concrete that we can learn from Tarde? Is there any use for this beyond the conceptual brilliance? Well, beside being a game changer, flipping the way we approach the world in sciences on its head, he does offer us a discussion of statistics, why he considers them so useful in social sciences. He has an entire chapter on this in ‘The Laws of Imitation’ (see chapter IV). In short, yes, this is of actual practical use, not just something that you can include in the mandatory yet impractically concise theory section of a research article.

So, Tarde discusses two distinct ways of doing research. Firstly, he discusses how research is conducted in archaeology. Secondly, he discusses how research is done in statistics. In summary, before I attempt to elaborate what he thinks of these, it’s worth noting that for him each of these has its pros and cons.

Starting from archaeology, and skipping the points of contrasts of his time (because they seem a bit off from a contemporary perspective), Tarde (90) states that the archaeologist dig deep, so, so deep that everything becomes impersonal. That more or less comes with the territory as the deeper you dig, the more in the past you reach, the less personal things tend to get because it’s unlikely that any records have survived from those times, as he (90) points out. What you have left to examine are bunch of ruins, skeletons and a handful of artifacts. Sometimes you get the odd manuscript, some fragment of some official records but they also tend to be impersonal because it’s unlikely that official records contain any names. Now, he isn’t being snarky about this. He is well aware of these limitations and doesn’t think doing archaeology is futile. On the contrary, he is clearly a big fan of doing such work:

“And what a wonderful treasure of facts and inferences, of invaluable information, has been extracted in this humble shape from the earth’s entrails where it picks of modern excavators have penetrated, in Italy, in Greece, in Egypt, in Asian Minor, in Mesopotamia, in America!”

I mean he seems to be pretty pumped by that. I reckon that’s quite the compliment from a guy who seems to be big on numbers. This is because, for him (91), the archaeologist focuses its efforts on inventions:

“Through the archæologists we know what particular group of ideas, of professional or hieratic secrets, of peculiar desires, constituted the individual whom the annalists call a Roman or an Egyptian or a Persian.”

Pay attention to the words ‘ideas’ and ‘desires’. Simply put, for Tarde the archaeologist is the exemplar of the researcher who focuses on inventions and the desires that lead people to invent. Anyway, he (91) continues:

“Below the surface, in some way, of the violent and so-called culminating events that are spoken of as conquests, invasions, or revolutions, the archæologists show us the daily and indefinite drift and piling up of the sediments of true history, the stratifications of successive and contagion-spread discoveries.”

Indeed, I reckon this is exactly what the archaeologist does, or is supposed to do anyway, to penetrate the surface, to look past what’s most obvious, to uncover where some invention originated because it not only tells us just that, where some invention originated (which is, of course, interesting in its own right), but also how the invention might have been imitated, how it might have spread geographically. It also tells us about the desires that of a certain time and place, of certain actual people, who sought to come up with something because they came to desire its invention. The evidence may also tell us, in contrast to evidence unearthed elsewhere, that certain beliefs were so important to certain actual people that they counter-imitated a certain invention, that they refused to adopt something, be it technology, customs, dressing, language (feel free to think of other examples, the point is that it could by anything that one copies or refuses to copy). Taking into account the actual location, the excavation site, we may also realize that certain invention was never imitated at that location due to non-imitation, a lack of contact among peoples.

Tarde (96) can’t help but to be amazed by the findings of archaeologists. For example, he (96) reminds us that, when you think of it, it’s crazy how something like amber, used for decoration, spread in Europe at a time when it was actually arduous and dangerous to travel anywhere. He (96) is also fascinated by something as mundane as axes and arrowheads, how that technology has spread around the world so long ago that it’s even hard to image what life was like then. He (97) summarizes his fascination in archaeology:

“Archæology can … show us that men have always been much less original than they themselves are please to believe.”

Ah, yes, I agree, but if you tell people that they are far less original than they think they are, that they are copycats, perhaps very good copycats but copycats nonetheless, they’ll probably flat out refuse that because no one likes to think they are unoriginal as that hints that they lack autonomy (which I reckon they do, but not completely). Relevant to conducting research, he (97) adds that:

“We come to overlook what we no longer look for, and we no longer look for what we always under our eyes.”

Again, I agree. This is why I like doing something in large numbers. It involves having to pay attention also to what we are likely in the habit of overlooking in favor of all things dissimilar. He (97) exemplifies this:

“For this reason, the faces of our fellow countrymen always impress us by the dissimilarity of their distinctive traits. … [W]e ignore their common … traits. On the other hand, the people we see in our travels … all look alike.”

To be more poetic about this, he (97) rephrases this:

“For the cause of the illusion which partly blinds the man [or the woman] settled down among his [or her] fellow citizens, the film of habit, does not dull the eye of the traveller among strangers.”

Anyway, the point here is that we are in the habit of overlooking everything that appears similar to us. It’s like it becomes background and everything dissimilar seems to pop out from the background. Now, does this mean that we don’t perceive all that similarity? Well, no, I’d say no. We do, but we don’t do that consciously. We take it for granted. He (97) also comments on which one is better, to be an insider or an outsider:

“One might say that the truth lay between these opposite impressions. But in this instance, as in most, the method of averaging is erroneous. … [T]he impressions of the [traveler] are likely to be much more exact than those of the [citizen], and they testify to the fact that … traits of similarity always outnumber traits of dissimilarity.”

So, an outsider, someone with no stake in the everyday life of others, is in a privileged position to notice how appearances can be deceptive and be able to look at what the insiders consciously overlook at a regular basis (because all that is similar ends up becoming more like background). Now, of course, I don’t think it’s this simple. I think you do need to know a lot about what you are dealing with in order to to know what you are looking for. Parachuting someone into some far off land won’t work, well, unless, unless that person can stay there for like decades, which I doubt (it just doesn’t happen these days).

Anyway, in summary, thus far, with regard to archaeology, Tarde (98) is keen on it because it helps us to realize “that we ourselves are infinitely more imitative than inventive.” I agree. It is very hard to be inventive, to be creative. I mean I probably haven’t had a single original idea in my life, at least not yet. These essays, for example, are just me riffing on other people’s work, on their inventions and, to large extent, on their imitations. It’s just imitation on imitation, on imitation, on imitation. And I reckon that it’s just fine. It’s more of an issue when people think they are somehow original or authentic, the real deal, and boast about it. Now, of course, whether we are inventive or not depends on what counts as new. So, yeah, I may have come up with something new, but only very minute. That minute novelty might then be imitated by someone else, who, in turn, invents something else, perhaps equally minute, and so on, and so on. Have I done it on my own though, be it inventive or not? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that it’s me, as I recognize myself. No, in the sense that we are always many. I’ve certainly been influenced by many others and most likely imitate them, even when I think I don’t. I’ve also been helped by others, so I wouldn’t be who I am without them.

What I like about Tarde’s (99) elaboration of invention and imitation is how, based on archaeology, we come to realize what imposters people tend to be when they claim that they are original or that their group, their people, their civilization, are original and inventive. For example, he (99) points out that:

“Arabian art, in spite of its distinctive features, is merely the fusion of Persian with Greek art, that Greek art borrowed certain processes from Egyptian and perhaps from other sources, and that Egyptian art was formed from or amplified by many successive Asiatic and even African contribution.”

Followed by explaining it in fancier terms (99):

“There is no assignable limit to this archæological decomposition of civilizations; there is no social molecule which their chemistry has not a fair hope of resolving into its constituent atoms.”

In short, as I pointed out already, as we are always in the middle, born into this world with everything already in place, we basically borrow everything from others and you are fooling yourself if you think otherwise. Of course that doesn’t mean that you can’t invent anything. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t imitate all there is, here and now, because someone had to invent whatever it is that you habitually imitate. So, yeah, I like Tarde’s discussion of archaeology because it is quite humbling.

Before Tarde moves to discuss the statisticians, he (101) reiterates an earlier point how archaeology is impersonal. You might think that it’s a bad thing, but contrary to what you might think, and, perhaps, to popular opinion, it’s great that it is impersonal. This is not to say that you don’t appreciate people. No, no. It’s rather that, as Tarde (101) explains it, that when you look at humans and human events, emphasis on the plural, you want to get rid of the individual as a starting point because one is always many.

Tarde (102) likens the archaeologist to the statistician because both operate “from an entirely abstract and impersonal standpoint.” Similarly to the archaeologists, the statisticians (of his time, of course) do all kinds of things, but what is distinct about them is their focus only the works or acts of fellow humans that reveal their desires and inventions, which he (102) goes on to list:

“[B]uying or selling, of manufacturing, of voting, of committing or repressing crime, of suing for judicial separation, and even … of being born, of marrying, of procreating, and of dying.”

Note how he (102) is actually referring to certain practices, that is to say certain established systematic acts, not the works created by the acts. The thing with acts is that it is very hard to keep tabs of acts. On the contrary, it is very easy to keep tab with the works because they stay (inasmuch as they do, of course, as decay and destruction does happen). Therefore focusing on the works makes sense. It is also hard record people doing something because the mere awareness of being observed may alter people’s behavior, as I’ve noted in previous essay. Anyway, I’ll let Tarde (102) further contrast the archaeologist and the statistician:

“If archæology is the collection and classification of similar products where the highest possible degree of similarity is the most important thing, Statistics is an enumeration of acts which as much alike as possible. Here the art is in the choice of units; the more alike and equal they are, the better they are.”

In other words, what’s different about them is number of items we are dealing with. I mean it’s kind of obvious, really, but it’s worth emphasizing. Moreover, as he (103) goes on to add, archaeology deals with the past, “for the most part dead, worn out” whereas statistics tends to deal with the present, here and now, inasmuch as it is possible anyway. So, statistics is interested in how current inventions, currently imitated propagate, grow and expand, until they no longer do and start to decline as some other invention, parallel or subsequent, becomes imitated and effectively replaces the other or older invention(s). Simply put, archaeology deals with dead people and dead societies, whereas statistics deals with living people and living societies. That also means that archaeology focuses more on invention than imitation and is better suited at assessing that, whereas with statistics the opposite is the case, as he (103) points out. You need the numbers on your side to examine how some practice expands, how something is popular in a society, until, well it no longer is. Otherwise it’s just a guessing game.

If Tarde (103) comes across as thinking that statistics is superior to archaeology, it’s because it sort of is, yet only because it piggybacks on archaeology. In his (103) words:

“Archæology laboriously travels back from imitations to their source. … [S]tatistics, on the other hand, almost always knows the source of the expansions which it is measuring; it goes from causes to effects, from discoveries to their more or less successful development[.]”

In other words, the statistician has the luxury of knowing what’s relevant, what it is that we are looking at and how it became manifested or practiced in a certain society, whereas the archaeologist does not have that luxury. So, in a way, I reckon Tarde is highly appreciative of the archaeologists because they have to go through all that, for the benefit of others. In addition, if one simply ignores the inventions, which is exactly what the statistician wants to examine, one is easily led astray, being uncritical to one’s own work. For example, if one examines criminality, what Tarde actually himself did during his life, one has to be aware of how the judicial system works in a specific society, what is what, what is considered a criminal act and, conversely, what isn’t considered a criminal act, otherwise one risks ignoring that the categorization of criminal acts, as this or that criminal act, is, in itself, an invention. Remember, one should not fall back on transcendent (otherworldly) ideas to explain things and statistics should not be in the service of such approach, at least not according to Tarde. This becomes particularly important when one compares statistics from different points in time. One needs to be aware of how, for instance, a statistical category may have expanded in a certain year to include something that was not included previously because otherwise one may be fooled to think that a certain phenomenon suddenly became important when, in fact, it has to do with the categorization and the input of data.

In addition, Tarde (106) reminds us not to confuse what we can count (extensities), innovations and imitations, with desires and beliefs, which we cannot count (intensities) . For example, he (106) points out that while we can measure, that is to say count, church attendance, quite accurately, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that all people who enter a church on a Sunday are religious. Sure, in most likelihood that is the case. However, even if that is the case, we can’t know how religious they are. In other words, going back to the issue of intensities, we can’t say how intensively religious people are just by looking at church attendance statistics. Okay, if the trend is declining, then yeah, it would seem to be the case. That said, religious faith may be in decline even if the attendance is not going down but rather staying the same. This doesn’t mean that it’s futile assess such things but rather that we must be aware of this limitation, that the assessment is indirect as what we are really interested are the driving and stopping forces behind inventions and imitation, which are the desires and the beliefs of people.

Of course, to make statistics work, you need a lot of data. Again, this is not what we tend to have of past societies. Tarde (105) is crystal clear about this point, when he notes that:

“How many trivial medals and mosaics, how many cinerary urns and funeral inscriptions, we should be willing to exchange for the industrial, the commercial, or even the criminal statistics of the Roman Empire!”

Indeed, that’s what we have left of those societies, so that’s what we have to make sense of them. I mean, all those items that he lists make up a pretty shitty collection of evidence of anything, because they are, at times, literally mere fragments of what once was something. That said, when that’s all you have, that’s all you have. On the positive side, Tarde (107) notes that archaeology provides more rich data than statistics:

“A Pompeiian fresco reveals the psychological condition of a provincial town under the Roman Empire much more clearly than all the statistical volumes of one of the principal place of a French department can tell us about the actual wishes of its inhabitants.”

This is something that one needs to be aware of. There’s pros and cons to statistics, just as there are pros and cons to archaeology. The problem with statistics is that it tends to be so broad, so generic that it’s hard to say anything specific, anything local. Or, perhaps, that’s how it was, back in his day. I mean paper and pen was still very much a thing of his time. Typewriters were barely available back then and not really that suitable for statistics anyway. What we have now is way ahead of what he could even dream of. Something like a spreadsheet is already somewhat archaic, albeit very much in use. Now you can have all kinds of databases, which connect to other databases, and the effort that goes into managing it all is effortless when compared to having to do everything manually.

If you want to read more on the contemporary uses for quantification in social studies, the final section of Latour’s book chapter deals with how Tarde was way ahead of everyone and, arguably, still is ahead of many, despite all the advances in technology that make his ideas on how to make use of statistics possible. If you are interested in this, you’ll want to look at other texts written by Latour as well as this is not the only one that deals with Tarde.

I realize that many don’t like quantification, for many reasons, ranging from how arduous the data gathering and processing can be, at least initially, to how eery the findings can be, but the thing is that you can use this approach in any way you see fit. I reckon that often people don’t like it because once they see the numbers being visualized, presented to them in a way that is easier to comprehend, they realize that people, including themselves, are not at all as autonomous as they think they are and what’s presented to them feels painfully, if not distastefully accurate. Quantifying the social also has a bad reputation because it can certainly be used to assess people’s behavior and sell them all kinds of stuff they didn’t think they needed (because they didn’t need such; the inventions, the stuff that is marketed, resulted in new desires, which they subsequently wish to fulfill by buying that stuff). More eerily, the same data can, of course, be snooped on or seized by third parties, private and public entities alike, for whatever purposes, which may subsequently used against you, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly. That said, the very same tools can be used to assess desires and beliefs in societies, to render them visible to people, which then makes change possible. Of course it is up to the people to make the changes, assuming that they even want to make changes. I don’t know about others but at least I’m quite hesitant about telling what implications the findings of my studies have, beyond pointing out how they reflect dominant discourses, inasmuch as they do, of course.


  • Deleuze, G. ([1969] 1990). The Logic of Sense (C. V. Boundas, Ed., M. Lester and C. J. Stivale, Trans.). London, United Kingdom: Athlone Press.
  • Deleuze, G. ([1968] 1994). Difference and Repetition (P. Patton, Trans.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
  • Deleuze, G. ([1994–1995] 2011). Gilles Deleuze from A to Z (P-A. Boutang, Dir., C. J. Stivale, Trans.). Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
  • Deleuze, G., and F. Guattari ([1980] 1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (B. Massumi, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Latour, B. (2010). Tarde’s idea of quantification. In M. Candea (Ed.), The Social After Gabriel Tarde: Debates and Assessments (pp. 145–162). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
  • Spinoza ([1667] 1884). The Ethics. In B. Spinoza, The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza, Vol. II (R. H. M. Elwes, Trans.) (pp. 43–271). London, United Kingdom: George Bell and Sons.
  • Tarde, G. ([1898] 1899). Social Laws: An Outline of Sociology (H. C. Warren, Trans.). New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.
  • Tarde, G. ([1890] 1903). The Laws of Imitation (E. W. Clews Parsons, Trans.). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Tarde, G. ([1893/1895] 2012). Monadology and Sociology (T. Lorenc, Trans.). Melbourne, Australia:
  • Vološinov, V. N. ([1930] 1973). Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik, Trans.). New York, NY: Seminar Press.