The rut: a metaphor for the social sciences

As social science so often deals with phenomena that have no physical form, its vocabulary is in many cases a vocabulary of metaphors. This is, of course, not the exclusive habit of the social sciences; explanations of all kinds about the universe, from string theory to the transubstantiation of the host, rely heavily on metaphors—indeed, as Lakoff and Johnson argue,1 metaphor is at the very root level of human cognition; even expressions which appear to be natural linguistic forms have their deep referents in metaphorical structures. But metaphorical understanding is particularly pronounced in the social sciences, where the storehouse of empirical data is often too limited or too inconsistent to reward purely technical modes of understanding. Instead, the most famous and most influential conceptions of social theory—from Hobbes’s Leviathan to Weber’s iron cage—have been told through metaphorical language.

One such metaphor which has bedeviled social theory throughout its history, but particularly in the past thirty years, is the ‘structure/agency’ model. Simply put, this metaphor suggests that there are social ‘structures’ on one hand—clans, political parties, economic classes, cultural groups—and on the other hand, the individual identities and actions of people. The general contours of this metaphor has governed a massive set of questions over which the great theoretical camps continue to spar. Which has the stronger determining power on social outcomes? Which precedes the other—do structures form individuals, or do individuals form structures? Is power controlled within structures, or does power flow through them? To what extent is our knowledge of the world contingent upon our location within certain structures? These questions are so prevalent that the major division-line in contemporary academic fashion—structuralism versus post-structuralism—is a derivation from the structure metaphor.

Rather than taking up these particular debates, I’d like to suggest we have been working with an incomplete metaphor. The structure/agency metaphor is too Manichean, too Procrustean (to use more of social theory’s cherished and obscure metaphorical adjectives). It is useful up to a point, but it is, as with all metaphors, an approximation of reality. The structure/anti-structure model has become such a commonplace in social theory that its metaphorical nature has been forgotten. It is a back-reading of an understandable, conceivable, and literally graspable physical state onto an invisible, evasive, and intangible social condition. So when we argue about structure, we are not arguing about the nature of society itself, but rather about a particular metaphor which has come to be one of our chief ways of gaining epistemological access to it.

In place of ‘structure’, I would like to suggest another metaphor which I believe offers considerably more explanatory potential: the rut. Like a cart traveling down a muddy path, societies and the people within them tend to fall into a narrow range of behaviors and typologies, and, in traversing these ‘ruts’, they confirm them and make them deeper. Yet the rut does not preclude the possibility of individual agency subverting its designs; just as an exertion of effort can convince the cart to move out of, and even travel orthogonally to, a rutted roadway, so too do individuals have the free ability to negotiate society as they will. The rut, then, is an organizer and a governor, but one that permits infinite possibilities of courses out of its chosen pathway, given a sufficient exertion of effort and a willingness to cut against convention.

The power of this metaphor is its reconciliation and recognizance of several observations about social life. The first is that, despite postmodernism’s most desperate ‘de-centerings’, large-scale, teleological, organizing patterns still observably govern most aspects of the social world. The second is that these governing patterns are not extrahuman, but rather created by the historical accumulation (or, in this metaphor, wearing-down) of recognized schemas for interpersonal behaviors. The third is that, though these patterns exhibit a considerable organizing effect, this power is not absolute, neither within the rut’s own range of variances (in the center of the rut or at its edges), nor beyond the path of the rut itself. And the fourth is that it is ultimately the free responsibility of the agent, the individual, the cart-driver, to create action in the world.

  1. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Conceptual metaphor in everyday language”, The Journal of Philosophy 77 (no. 8) (August 1980), pp. 453–486.