This article offers a history of the wave metaphor in social theory, examining how waves became rhetorical forms through which to think about the shape of social change. The wave analytic—“waves of democratization,” “waves of immigration,” “waves of resistance”—wavers between high theory and popular model, between objectivist sociological explanation and hand-waving sociobabble, between vanguardist predictions of social revolution and conservative prognoses of political inevitability, between accountings of formal change and claims about material transubstantiation. The article examines usages in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, arguing that techniques of inscription—graphical, numerical, diagrammatic—have produced formal claims about rising and falling tendencies in the social body. It argues, too, that in such deployments, waves are either (1) overpowering forces of social structuration or (2) signs of the animating effects of world-transforming collective social agencies. The “wave” thus generates questions—and uncertainties—about the relation of structure to agency.
Wave Theory ~ Social Theory
Stefan Helmreich is professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is author of Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009) and Sounding the Limits of Life: Essays in the Anthropology of Biology and Beyond (2016). His essays have appeared in Critical Inquiry, Representations, American Anthropologist, The Wire, Cabinet, and BOMB.
Stefan Helmreich; Wave Theory ~ Social Theory. Public Culture 1 May 2020; 32 (2 (91)): 287–326. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-8090094
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