Sociology’s Motivation Problem (Part I)20 min read

Sociology has an action problem. Explaining social action rests at the core of sociological inquiry. However, at best, the typical explanatory mechanisms focus almost exclusively on two of Mead’s three aspects of the self: the generalized other and the me. Six decades after Dennis Wrong’s (1962, 1963) critique of mid-twentieth-century sociology, its grasp over Mead’s I remains tenuous, at best. In this particular respect, sociology has a motivation problem, as noted by others before (Campbell, 1996; J. H. Turner, 2010). This problem can be traced to two sources.

On the one hand, there is the undue influence of a paper by C. Wright Mills (1940) on vocabulary of motives (Campbell, 1996). On the other hand, there is sociology’s deep-seated fear of over-psychologizing or over-economizing human action (J. H. Turner, 2010). Consequently, sociological solutions to its motivation problem remain on the wrong side of Wrong’s oversocialized critique. Instead of “forces mobilizing, driving, and energizing individuals to act…” (J. H. Turner, 1987, p. 15), we are left either with explanations relying on distal, external forces, like values/norms (Inglehart & Baker, 2000; Schwartz, 2012), or exogenously specified interests/goals (Coleman, 1990). As critics of both normativist and utilitarian approaches note (Martin & Lembo, 2020; Whitford, 2002), the effects, internalization, and patterning of values and interests are mysterious at best and rob individuals of agency at worst. Ultimately, appeal to values and interests as core motivational states to answer the fundamental question of why people “want what they want” falls short of explaining action.

So, what is motivation? We argue that an answer to the question of motivation cannot be obtained by drawing on any single discipline’s intellectual resources. Instead, an interdisciplinary approach is required. Ideally, such an approach would combine the strengths of sociology, psychology, cognitive science, and the emerging fields of affective and motivational neuroscience. Ideally, this would (and, we think, can) be done without sounding the reductionist alarm bells, especially regarding psychology and neuroscience. However, before getting to this, we have to put to bed the Millsian shadow that has distanced sociology’s usage of motivation from every other social and behavioral science, and then consider the potential best candidates for a sociology of motivation.

Motives, Justifications, and Motivation, Oh My!

In his critique of the subjective “springs of action,” Mills (1940) committed sociology to the search for and study of “typical vocabularies having ascertainable functions in delimited societal situations [that] actors do vocalize and impute motives to themselves and to others” (904). Notably, these motives were not in “an individual” but were instead conceived as the “[t]erms with which interpretation of conduct by social actors proceeds.” This theoretical move, celebrated as it may be (e.g., Hewitt, 2013), removed the possibility of considering intrapersonal forces of any sort in theorizing motivation, even in social situations (J. H. Turner, 2010). It has also led to various (unnecessary) mental gymnastics sociologists routinely put themselves through as they seek to recover or reinvent ideas that have well-established, shared meanings in other fields, resulting in the creation of a sociological idiolect that is hard to translate into the lingua franca of the broader social and behavioral sciences (Vaisey & Valentino, 2017). For instance, Martin (2011) proposes a neologism (“impulsion”) to refer to good old-fashioned motivation (internal forces compelling people to act), given the monolithic disciplinary understanding of motivation as a set of stereotyped vocabularies. It also made conceptual confusion surrounding the difference between a motivational process or motivating force and motive talk and justifications (or what Scott and Lyman (1968) eventually called accounts).

Thus, sociologists face a difficult decision. On the one hand, they can risk internal disciplinary criticism for “over-psychologizing” action and examine internal motivational processes or the meanings actors use across different contexts for organizing actions. This is what social psychologists call motives (Perinbanayagam, 1977) and what Mills criticized as subjective springs of social action. On the other hand, they can hew closely to current disciplinary circumscriptions and restrict their studies to post hoc rationales that may or may not be connected to the actual motivation or motive, but what Mills did call a motive (Franzese, 2013). Ultimately, in place of causes of action, the emphasis shifted to post hoc “motivation talk” or accounts (Hewitt, 2013; Scott & Lyman, 1968), restricting the sociology of motivation to the search for and recording of creative post hoc reconstructions (and thus likely to be confabulations not necessarily tied to the causes of action) that attempt to tell a normative appropriate or culturally stereotyped story about “the reasons” why people engage in this or that line of action (Campbell, 1996; Martin, 2011, p. 311ff).

We can trace the pervasive disciplinary influence of Mills’s argument, in part, sociology’s unwitting adherence to the Durkheimian vision of homo duplex (Durkheim, 2005). Under this framework, in its most naïve form, psychological processes are beyond the sociological bailiwick. In its most vulgar form, psychology is unnecessary as explanans because sociological explananda are sui generis (Durkheim, 1895/1982). This unnecessarily lingering barrier keeping psychology and related behavioral sciences at bay prevents sociology from explaining how and why people are motivated to act—a theoretical puzzle resting at the discipline’s foundations. Instead of explicitly theorizing intrapersonal processes, we find implicit sociological versions of psychology working hard to locate motivational forces, like pressures to conform or belongingness, outside the individual. And, yet, like Mills’ own formulation, these efforts always run afoul of Wrong’s (1963) critique in so far as these external causal forces of action must be internalized somehow. This leads to an image of people as marionettes whose strings are pulled by some sort of oversocialized ideological force like neoliberalism or patriarchy or their motive mechanisms like pressure to conform.

In the process of picking one’s favorite ideological force or motive mechanism, those adhering to Mills or Parsons or any externalist commits the more critical error of which we call the mono-motivational fallacy. Central to Wrong’s critique of functionalism was its strict adherence to a single causal force: the need or pressure to conform to normative expectations. A pressure rooted in socialization or enculturation and through alchemy imposes a collective conscience on the individual conscience. Pressure to conform, however, is not the only mono-motivational engine of action. Any external explanation—such as situations or situational vocabularies, networks, and influence—that has a predominant effect on human behavior requires analysts to implicitly or explicitly postulate an overarching “meta-motivation” (Maslow, 1967) to all people: To conform or follow the external prescriptions, normative pressures, and so forth provided by society (Wrong, 1961, 1963).

This fallacy is amplified when distal or exogenous causes, like values or interests, are introduced into the explanation. Asking individuals, after the fact, may “tap” into shared beliefs but in no way allow us to explain why or how someone did what they did. This is a dilemma most pronounced when we consider, for instance, the panoply of a-social or “anti-social” motivations that observers of human behavior from Plato to Freud have described (Wrong, 1963). Luckily, there are sociological alternatives or candidates for a more empirically sound theory of motivation. The first set of alternatives can be found in microsociology and sociological social psychology.

Human Thermostats

A large body of social psychology relies on the notion of homeostasis or, more commonly, control models (Powers, 1973). Like a house thermostat, input comes in from the environment about our identity performance, situational alignment of expected meanings and actual meanings, justice and fairness, or whatever is the need-state du jour. Whenever there is an error or discrepancy between the internal “set” state and the current environmental feedback, we are motivated to return the thermostat to its original setting. In part, this mechanistic view draws inspiration from Dewey’s and Mead’s pragmatism, identifying a mechanism operating in place of pragmatist ideas about problems, problem-situations and sifting through different action possibilities to resolve those problems. But, the control-theoretic approach also over-relies on cognitive appraisals, which suggests, like Mills’ vocabulary of motives, an internalization process sensitive to external pressures keyed to maintaining the (societally) preset “temperature.” After all, someone must set the thermostat; in sociology, that someone is the generalized other. It also relies on, implicitly, an early twentieth-century model of motivation that emerged in physiology (Cannon, 1932), psychology (Hull, 1937), and, especially, psychoanalysis: drive reduction (where the drive is to reduce the discomfort produced by the mismatch between current feedback and internalized expectations). And yet, sociological applications of control theories work hard to obscure the underlying psychological mechanism.

Other possible candidates, however, make these mechanisms explicit. For example, in a naturalist version of utilitarianism, due to Bentham, in its most vulgar form, all action can be explained by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Some versions of “sociological rational choice theory” borrow this implicit driver but layer various external constraints, tradeoffs, and exchange interdependencies in the pursuit of interests. So, people are driven to realize their interests by pursuing goals, but collectives shape these goals through joint task inseparability, incurring costs for access to collective goods and the like (Coleman, 1990). Likewise, role theory relies upon, at least partially, internal commitment to roles for which actors anticipate being rewarded in the future (Turner 1978) and avoidance of roles punished or sanctioned by institutional authorities (Goffman 1959).

The same can be said for two other quintessential social-psychological motivations: belongingness (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and ontological security (Giddens, 1984). The former presumes that a fundamental meta-motivation of all social behavior, both expressive and suppressive, is driven by the evolved need to belong to social groups and attachment to other people and collectives. A social psychological form of functionalism, admittedly, this tradition shifts from distal causes (values and external pressures) to proximate causes (evolved needs present at birth). Similarly, a host of sociological traditions, ranging from phenomenology, ethnomethodology, structuration theory, expectation states theory, and role theory, rely on an evolved need for cognitive order, facticity, and predictability (and, relatedly, trust). From these perspectives, people are motivated to assume the world is as it seems to be and actively sustain this belief through consistent, predictable, and stable action. The horrors of anomie or the collapse of plausibility structures, as Berger (1969) defined it, is too great an internal force to not motivate us to act in the positive (by conforming) and in the negative (by avoiding upsetting the moral order).

Despite the temptation of more explicitly delineated psychological mechanisms, these three possible candidates, along with control theories, rely too heavily on implicit (and sometimes explicit) drive and need-state reduction conceptions of motivation, which in turn fancies mono-motivations (to belong, facticity, cognitive order, and the like). They also depend solely on external factors to specify motivational dynamics. For example, belongingness is impossible without a social object to which one belongs. That is, motivation remains external because the things we want or the things that compel us to act have to be beyond our body and brain.

Multi-Motivational Models

Jonathan Turner’s (1987, 2010) work on the motivational dynamics of encounters seems well-poised to deal with the two limitations of need-state and drive reduction models in sociology, namely, their penchant for devolving into mono-motivational accounts and their sole focus on external drives. Turner’s work is synthetic and directed towards explaining how the basic unit of social analysis—the encounter, situation, or interaction depending on one’s persuasion—is built up. The argument is that social psychologists, usually of the “control-model variety” described above, have isolated slivers of a larger microsociological dynamic. However, these pieces need to be combined to get a more robust vision of what sorts of motivational or transactional forces driving micro-level action and interaction. Turner’s criterion for defining motivation is simple: “persistent needs that [people] seek to meet in virtually all encounters, especially focused encounters” (193). Unmet needs generate negative emotions that lead actors to leave the encounter or sanction those who have thwarted their efforts. In contrast, met needs produce positive affect, help maintain the encounter, and leave the actor with a desire to interact again in the future. Turner’s list includes the following five need-states: (1) identity verification, (2) a sense of fairness and justice in exchanges, (3) group inclusion, (4) trust, and (5) facticity. He conceptualizes them as additive, with encounters being possible when one or two of them are met but unlikely to be as satisfying or encouraging of recurrence when they are not met.

Turner’s model achieves two important analytic goals. First, it comes as close to a biopsychological model as any sociologist we are aware of. Second, it locates an explanation for social processes within the individual. In his larger theoretical framework of micro-level dynamics, Turner sees role, status, emotion, and culture “making” as emerging from the combination of these needs. Roles, for instance, emerge from persistent efforts to verify identity–consistency in performance–and ensure facticity and trust–predictability (see R. Turner 1978). But, of course, once roles are created, they become emergent, distinct properties that simplify meeting needs as people take pre-set roles (in addition to statuses, emotions, and culture). Motivation, then, is shaped by the social environment; creative efforts to alter a single encounter or a larger structural-cultural unit like the group, and patterned by the crystallization of certain “vehicles” of structure and culture. Consequently, neither the intra nor interpersonal is reduced in Turner’s model to a meta-motivational need, nor does it succumb to a drive reduction model.

Turner’s model, however, is not without limitations despite its important advances. First, even when the author qualifies them by arguing theirs is not exhaustive, need-state lists are delimiting. They naturally ignore the open-ended nature of desire and, more broadly, the idea of desire itself (Schroeder, 2004). It is not that social life is free of pressure to conform to roles, but even Ralph Turner (1976) labored to show action was often “impulsive.” This was a poorly chosen term, meaning that many situations afforded people the freedom to do many things that can only be explained by thinking about desire. A second problem derives from the first: because lists are incomplete, one could add goals ad infinitum, eventually running into problems like contradictory goals or ideological commitments of the list-maker. Finally, D’Andrade (1992) reminds us that motivations are generally situationally bound: though humans are social creatures reasonably constrained by the scaffolding erected by social institutions and our habits, the truth of the matter is (a) we all tend to respond to the immediate situation, (b) our choice to pursue certain situations, even those that are unhealthy, are rooted as much in neurophysiology as some abstract construct like a role, and (c) many objects that are anticipated, consumed, and reinforced after satiation is inside our bodies (food/sex; belongingness; domination) and, yet, sociologically relevant (Kringelbach & Berridge, 2016). Like all delimiting devices (e.g., the Classical Theory canon), lists are arbitrary, and arbitrary lists are flawed road maps for explaining action.

In a follow-up post, we will tackle the fixes to these three critical mistakes—the mono-motivational, social-psychological, and list-making fallacies.


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