Privilege, Honor, and Meetings


Cheese Squares, Olives, and Power without Responsibility. Gentry, Blue Blood, and Privilege. Max Weber’s ideas about Honoratioren, Voting Cows, and Power.

Meetings are rituals, and rituals need symbols, and decorations. I’ve been to a lot of meetings in my time as an academic where I sat bored and confused, but still fulfilled my function as a decoration, and clap on cue. And to a large extent, that is what such ritual is about: clapping on cue about that to which you are brain dead. The most obvious place I am such a decoration is in May graduation ceremonies. I march into a stadium to a lively tune, and then sit in a hot black robe with the other faculty who all react in unison. March, clap, stand, and sit all in unison. We then sit—decorations for the larger ceremony, just like potted plants. In fact, when I sat on a stage last May at Chico State’s graduation ceremony, there were literal potted plants on either side of the stage, bookending the potted plants in the robes. The redeeming value of the whole thing was the excitement and joy that many of our students felt.


But potted plants are found at many ceremonies besides graduations, and usually take less obvious forms. The most common place for such potted plants—Honoratioren, in Max Weber’s German—are at meetings. In academia, Academic Senate meetings come to mind as places where esteemed faculty arrive, stand, clap, vote “aye,” and are confused (at least that was my experience when I was on Faculty Senate some years ago). Moving further afield, there are the boisterous political conventions Weber himself writes about where Honoratioren arrive to enthusiastically legitimate decisions already made behind closed doors. Student councils, annual meetings at churches, and corporate boards of directors also have such rituals. For that matter, as again Weber himself points out, there is Congress and other Parliamentary bodies, all places where honored and confused Honoratioren come to listen, vote aye, clap, provide legitimacy for pre-prepared, and finally return gloriously to their homes flattered but confused.


Honoratioren invited for their notability and prestige, ratify decisions about which they may have little understanding. Indeed, to make such rituals work, the professional “party whips” in places like Congress make sure that everyone lines up when they are supposed to, and then mutter “aye” on cue. Weber calls Honoratioren manipulated in such ways “voting cows,” content and sated notables who are herded by “leaders” toward a new pasture (or restaurant).[1] Weber wrote in “Politics as Vocation,” that we potted plants are needed by the politicians (peacocks if we keep to our decorative metaphor), to legitimate foregone decisions that preserve the pre-existing social order and its privileges. The person chairing the meeting with such gravity (and plumage) needs us Honoratiorien to make “tough” decisions, even if we don’t really make decisions better than do the other potted plants at either end of the stage. We potted plants show up at a meeting, look busy, and ratify what we are supposed to. If you are at a university, you are then rewarded with cheese squares and olives, and then maybe even get a free dinner. Indeed, if you are really honored, you get a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, which might even cost $25.00.


Oh yes, and then at the end of the meeting, the peacocks tell us how we all made difficult decisions, and are profusely thanked for our critical participation. The funny thing is that often not even the political peacocks really run the meetings. The ones who often really run the show are the functionaries, clerks, secretaries, and others who organize the meetings, pour the coffe, serve the cookies, and present us with information to “consider.” They pre-package such information in a fashion that means that there is one logical “evidence-based” decision to take; thus there is only one single conclusion for us to mumble “Moo” about. To do otherwise would be, we are told, be quite foolish, and beneath our accumulated dignity as Honoratioren. Oddly, at such meeting, the lower-level staff, those who Weber described the “technocratic functionaries” who served the coffee and shove files under our noses, are sometimes the real “deciders” to whom peacocks chairing the meeting effectively defer when asking them to explain, “the numbers.” The numbers inevitably spill out in their calculable and predictable beauty, and the authority of the only evidence-based decision—as determined by the person who compiled the numbers—suddenly tumbles out. The peacock chairing the meeting nods sagely, and we potted plants nod even more sagely as if our opinion mattered.


We vote “aye” and then clap. The coffee-pouring technocrats who organize “the files,” and so readily serve up more legitimacy for the, ahem, evidence-based decision-making (we Honoratioren only make decisions with evidence!), smile wanly. But really, this essay is mostly a way of introducing the German word Honoratioren, which I plucked out of Max Weber’s essays “Politics as Vocation” and “Bureaucracy,” which my wife and I are currently re-translating from German to English. Honoratioren are the esteemed people of a community to whom others habitually defer, despite the fact that really, as Weber points they out, don’t know that much what they are doing; and are really “dilletantes” when it comes to knowing the nuts and bolts of the organization they legitimate with their sage advice. Where do you find Honoratioren? Traditionally they are from the right families and include wealthy business people, gentry, and performers of past glories. Today they include movie stars, sports figures, rock stars, and high tech Silicon Valley tycoons—i.e. the “better strata” of a community. I guess it is even me with all my seniority at the university now; a minor Honoratioren who gets trips to exotic conferences in southern California, where I dine on those cheese squares and olives, and then top it off with that $25.00 meal at a fine restaurant (without alcohol!).


But the real habitat for Honoratioren are the boards, commissions, and so forth which ostensibly run corporations and government. Such Honoratioren may indeed, as Weber points out be dilletantes, but that is really beside the point. As long as their egos are stroked, and vanity appealed to, they (we?) lend the air of legitimacy to what really is pre-prepared. Weber’s “voting cow” metaphor is good—and of course raises the question of why do we unanimously vote “aye,” why not instead say “moo?” So what is the best translation for Honoratioren? The traditional one for Weber translators is “notables.” But, I’m thinking “potted plant” conveys Weber’s meaning better! So if you see the German word Honoratioren in our translation some day, just think, “potted plant.” And, “Moo!”   Reference: Weber’s Rationalism and Modern Society, edited and translated by Tony Waters, and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015 (forthcoming).   [1] Or just maybe, as Rousseau once wrote, they may even be led to the slaughterhouse! But that is going too far for now.

Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond and Anthropology

     Ok, Anthropology, one day after my post on Nicholas Wade, and that post gets more hits than the last five or six posts here put together.  I get it, you like Nicholas Wade, and especially complaining about him.  You don’t like biological reductionism, and think that such studies are used to reinforce racist ideologies.  For what it is worth, I more or less agree.

But for some reason you don’t want to read stuff that critiques biological reductionism on its own terms, and opt for those presented by the anthropology’s favorite bogeymen, which from recent activity in the blogosphere seem to include Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond, and Razib Khan. I know because I follow the hits on this blog, and my account, and the hit masters are those posts which mention those three names.  In contrast, my April 30 post about six inches below this post is doing realtively poorly, as is the article it mentions “Of Looking Glasses and Mirror Neurons….” Which was published last month in Perspectives on Science.  It is about The Looking Glass Self, a fantastic concept from sociology, and the advantages of using it rather than that favorite of the biological world, The Mirror Neuron Hypothesis.  Please read this rather than the latest diatribe about Nicholas Wade, or the others.

And if you want a further dose of social scientific critique of biological data, go read Jonathan Marks What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.  It is better to read these classics, then to spend time complaining about the latest from Nicholas Wade or Jared Diamond.  There are plenty more great citations to social scientists like Susan Engel, Omar Lizardo, Timothy Ingold, Richard Wilkinson, Pierre Bourdiue in the bibliography of my article—believe me sociology and anthropology are in an excellent position to create an alternative to biological reductionism—just do it!

Anthropology is a wonderful subject—show the world how wonderful it is by practicing it, and have the confidence that the rest of the world will notice.  I certainly have.


Nicholas Wade Writes Again—And Again Anthropology Pays Attention

Nicholas Wade has a new book out, and the Anthropologists are sharpening their indignation—complaining because he treads on their private territory.  Sorry, anthro, you are not medicine or law, and do not have a monopoly over who practices what you preach.  Let it go.  Sometimes I think that the entire discipline is beset by a big-time inferiority complex

The solution?  Simply do good anthropology, and more importantly, promote good anthropology.  That might mean assigning Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist, Jonathan Marks book What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, W. E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk, and so forth.  Durkheim, Marx, Wollstonecraft, and Malinowski are also more worthy of your precious classroom time.  Talk about such books in your classes, have students read them, and stop wasting time setting up the strawmen of Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond, and others you may not like.

Strawmen. Are. Not. Worth. Class. Time. Of. Which. There. Is. Too Little.

BTW, I assigned The Innocent Anthropologist this semester to a senior seminar in Social Science and again had a great response—so good that I’m going to try it out with a lower division International Engagement class next semester.  Barley is great because not only can you critique the limitations to functionalism, you can also talk about the nature of empathy, humility, cultural relativism, and ethnography.

And in a final BTW, if you want to see some posts here at from the last time Wade published a book, they are here, and here.  From way back in 2007.

Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self: The Neural Sciences meet Sociology

  Why do neural scientists need expensive MRI machines to “see” what classical sociologists Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead saw by simply looking into the eyes of children?  This is the subject of my recent article “Of Mirror Neurons and the Looking Glass Self” published in Perspectives on Science.

The Mirror Neuron is a hot thing today in the neural sciences.  The Mirror Neuron hypothesis postulates that a person watching another person do something, imagines that the other person is doing.  How do the neural scientists know this?  Because they can watch it on expensive MRI machines which show that blood flows to the same part of the brain in the person who acts, and the person who observes the person acting.  Pretty cool observation isn’t it?  In fact it is so cool that some people who know about such things are predicting a Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine for the scientists who first developed this line of research in the 1980s and 1990s.

I’m all for Nobel Prizes all around; but it is just too bad that they guys who first observed The Looking Glass Self, Charles Horton Cooley, and George Herbert Mead can’t share in it.  Using the same metaphor of the mirror, they described the Looking Glass Self beginning in 1902.  Cooley’s research subject was his two year old daughter who he simply watched, without a machine, sensors, or anything else.  He just watched her eyes, and saw how she evaluated the response of others, and then acted an reacted based on her interpretations of social action.  Funny thing of course is that he was able to reach very similar conclusions as the neural scientists did—they even used the same metaphor of the mirror/looking glass.

What Cooley saw in 1902 was that the two year old “perfect little actress,” mirroring the thoughts and actions she observed.  He went on to note that it was through this became a social being who developed a sense of “self” which comprehended the nature of the “I” and the “you.”  Over 100 years of social psychology has productively taken advantage of this basic observation to come up with idea popularized by Erving Goffman that “all the world’s a stage,” and that all social humans exist in a reflective world of Looking Glasses and Mirrors (Now that I think of it, isn’t this also the metaphor used by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland?).

Anyway, my critique of the Mirror Neuron hypothesis after years of rejections, harsh reviews, and the other wonders of the peer review process is now available in Perspectives on Science for those of you able to get behind the paywall. The rest of you can access a pre-publication version on my account here.  I of course hope that every sociologist and anthropologist will read it.  I like to believe that it is an effective challenge to the philosophical positivism that dominates the biological scientists with their reductions of society to genes, neurons, hormones, and other biological phenomenon.


Hey, I’m even hopeful that our more positivistic friends over in the biological sciences like Razib Khan will take a look, and offer further critique.

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