Power of Articulation

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Linna building, auditorium K 103, address: Kalevantie 5.

Doctoral defence of M.Soc.Sc. Matti Kortesoja

Power of Articulation. Imagery of Society and Social Action in Structural Marxism and Its Critique

The field of science of the dissertation is Sociology.

The opponent is Dr Sara R. Farris (Goldsmiths, University of London). Professor Harri Melin acts as the custos.

The language of the dissertation defence is English.

Power of Articulation

Articulation is a joint, connection, or link and an act of fixing and coupling in order to place things in relation by giving expression to them. In structural linguistics, the concept of articulation was used as a conceptual metaphor in conceptualisation of language as a system of differences. It was employed in Marxism, to refer to the organisation of society as an ‘articulated whole’ composed of ‘the limbs of the social system’. After philosopher Louis Althusser, articulation became a core concept for the ‘articulation school’ of economic anthropology, then for the Birmingham school of cultural studies, and after that in the Essex School in discourse theory and political analysis. From there, the concept has diffused and spread in its contemporary uses.

The concept of articulation has travelled from French structuralism, Marxist political philosophy, and new economic anthropology to Anglophone discourse theory and cultural studies. Focusing on the concept of articulation and its travels by studying the process whereby this concept has become actively adopted, appropriated, and adapted in academic practices, my dissertation contributes to the discussion of conceptual metaphors, their deployment, and the ways in which we build imageries of society and social action. To analyse the movement of concepts that ‘is both a fact of life and a usefully enabling condition of intellectual activity’, as Edward Said (1983, 157) has put it, this dissertation examines the conceptual metaphor of articulation in the structural-Marxist line of thought, wherein ‘society is an articulated whole’, and in the post-Marxist critiques of it, where often ‘social action is language’.

Conceptual metaphors transfer abstract ideas and models from one system or discourse to another through an attempt to make them more concrete. According to Richard Harvey Brown’s “A Poetic for Sociology”, the imageries of society and social action have their foundation in the ‘root metaphors’ of sociological thought. In classical modern sociology, the root metaphors are ‘society seen as an organism or as a machine’ and ‘social conduct viewed as language, the drama, or a game’ (Brown 1989a, 78). In relation to the root metaphors, I consider firstly the ways in which society is conceptualised through a conceptual metaphor of articulation, with an ‘articulated whole’ (i.e., Gliederung). I am also interested in finding out the ways in which social action is viewed as language and a play of differences.

Althusserianism put emphasis on Marx’s theory not only in respect of the ‘capital-logic’ in philosophy or at the level of the factory floor in terms of the class struggle but as addressing a complex process of many determinations alongside the economic, with reference to an articulated whole, the society. The conceptual metaphor of articulation in which society is an articulated whole takes account of the stratified nature of ‘the social’, taking society as a hierarchical structure but, unlike nature, not a self-subsistent whole. At the same time, it takes into consideration social action of individuals too, which is structured as a language is ‘at the domain of articulations’ (see Saussure 1916/1959, 112). The dissertation addresses the ‘epistemic shift’ from an organic and mechanical order of things to the discursive rules and norms of social action as seen in the concept of language as a system of differences. The work examines the ways in which the metaphorical notion of society as an articulated whole (Ger. Gliederung) has given way to a concept that refers to social action as language, wherein social and political linkages are taken as discursive practices in ‘the domain of articulations’. Accordingly, society seems to operate in the manner of a language, which can be – but is not necessarily – reduced to the notion ‘society is language’.

The idea of articulation marked a sign of a break with a ‘downward reductionism’ wherein society is a totality expressing hidden structural causes and economic mechanisms. If an analogous image of ‘society operating like language’ boils down to the iconic conception ‘society is language’ (viz., when it is seen as nothing but discursive), the very concept of society is lost. At the same time, it expands a discursive space for the actions of individuals, which outcome cannot arise outside the context of a specific discursive battlefield concerning class, gender and race, for example (cf. ‘intersectionality’). Presented to address these questions ‘bottom-up’ is a new approach in relation to the structural-Marxist paradigm (i.e., one proceeding from Althusserianism). It also takes account of the action of individuals and the possibilities for social change in the era of social movements. At the same time, however, the overall picture of society can fragment to the actions of individual actors. I suggest that we pay more attention to conceptual metaphors because they are building blocks for the images of society and social action that shape our understanding of what is going on in the situations around us.


The dissertation is published in self-publishing, Tampere 2016. ISBN  978-952-93-7697-1.

The dissertation can be ordered at: matti.kortesoja@uta.fi, Tel. 050 3187 216

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