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Appendix A of Frontiers of Political Economy .pdf

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The Method of Social Research

A. Dialectics
In this Appendix I return to the concepts sketched in 1.2 and deal with
them in a more systematic m anner.1 Let us begin with an example of
how Marx applies the dialectical method and let us extract from this
application the basic features of that method.
We meet Marx’s concept of dialectics as early as in the first chapter
of Capital /, where he deals with the relative and the equivalent forms
of value. In the expression
20 yards of linen are worth 1 coat
the two commodities play different roles. “The value of the linen is repre­
sented as relative value, or appears in relative form. The coat officiates
as equivalent, or appears in equivalent form” (Marx, 1967a, p. 48). From
the analysis developed by Marx, the following five points can be extracted.
First, “The relative form and the equivalent form are two intimately
connected, mutually dependent and inseparable elements of the expression
of value” (Marx, 1967a). Second, “The opposition, or contrast existing
internally in each commodity between use-value and value, is ... made
evident externally by two commodities being placed in such relation to
each other, that the commodity whose value it is sought to express, figures
directly as a mere use-value, while the commodity in which that value
is to be expressed, figures directly as mere exchange-value” (Marx, 1967a,
P- 61); or, “The antagonism between the relative form of value and
the equivalent form, the two poles of the value form, is developed concur­
rently with that form itself’ (p. 68). Third, “The former [the relative
form, G.C.] plays an active, the latter [the equivalent form, G.C.] a passive,
part” (p. 48). Fourth, “Whether a commodity assumes the relative form, or


the opposite equivalent form, depends entirely upon its accidental position
in the expression of value” (p. 49). Fifth, these forms “ are mutually exclu­
sive, antagonistic extremes - i.e. poles of the same expression”(p. 48).
What is the relevance of these five points for a theory of dialectics?
1. Point one stresses the mutual existential relationship between the
two forms. Each form cannot exist without the other, that is, they are
each other’s conditions of existence. More generally, all parts of reality
are tied by mutual existential interdependence.
2. Point two stresses that both the relative form (which figures merely
as a use value) and the equivalent form (which figures merely as exchange
value) are potentially contained in both the linen and the coat. In fact,
both commodities are already both a use value and exchange value before
officiating as either just the former or as just the latter. It is only in
the value relation, in the expression of value, that the linen counts exclus­
ively as a use value and the coat exclusively as exchange value. In more
general terms, reality is both what has realized itself and what is potentially
3. Point three stresses that one form is “ more im portant” than the
other, that is, one is “ active” , the other is “ passive” . Since Marx, through­
out his work, repeatedly uses the terms “ determ inant” and “determined” ,
a more general way to put this is that some parts of reality are determinant
and other parts are determined. This relationship of determination can
be expressed by conceptualizing the determined form as being the con­
dition of existence of the determ inant form. In the expression of value
the linen, which counts only as a use value, determines the coat, which
counts only as exchange value. (However, in the creation of value it is
the exchange value of a commodity which determines its use value.)
4. Point four stresses the possibility for the relative (more generally,
the determinant) form to become the equivalent (or determined) form
and vice versa, according to the position they take in the value relation.
5. Finally, point five stresses that these two forms are antagonistic,
or mutually exclusive. While the former points are generally applicable,
the last point refers only to the specific nature of this particular relation­
ship. Here the determ inant and the determined instance are conditions
of each other’s existence. However, a determined instance can also be
a condition of supersession of the determinant instance.
Let us now cast these concepts in a general framework.
A . l D eterm ination in the last instance
I shall begin by defining three im portant terms. The first is instance. This
is a general term which indicates an event which is a part, or element,


of a process. The elements of a process are processes themselves. For
example, the process of production and distribution is the combination
of the process of production and the process of distribution. Thus
we can also say that instances are processes which are part of a wider
process. The second is u n ity . This term indicates that in reality instances
are tied to each other by a relation of existential interdependence, that
they exist only as part of the same process. The third term is to s u p e rs e d e .
This verb means both to preserve and to cause to cease to exist. This
statement is only apparently paradoxical. If an instance is superseded,
it ceases to exist in the sense that it is its nature, or essence, which ceases
to exist. At the same time, that instance is preserved because, having
entered into unity with its opposite, it is preserved as something essentially
different from what it was before (this is the sense in which capitalism
is superseded by socialism2). Therefore, to be superseded does not mean
to be annihilated; it means to be preserved as something essentially differ­
We can now turn to the notion of determination in the last instance.
This is based on three postulates.3
The f i r s t p o s tu l a te is that of the u n i ty o f a ll in sta n c e s. Unity means,
as has been said above, a tie of existential interdependence. This is the
basic difference between a dialectical and a metaphysical view. The latter
considers the objects of analysis taken out of their context and viewed
in isolation. The former considers the objects of analysis in their mutual
and existential interrelation. An example taken from this work is that
of the mutual interrelation of all prices.
The s e c o n d p o s tu l a te is the u n i ty o f p o t e n t i a l a n d r e a liz e d in sta n c e s.
This means that reality encompasses in a unity both instances which have
already realized themselves and instances which are only potentially pres­
ent. The relation between the individual and the social value of a commo­
dity in the process of price formation is a case in point.4
The t h ir d p o s tu l a te is the u n i ty o f d e te r m in a n t a n d d e te r m in e d in sta n c e s.
This means that some realized instances are determinant and some others
are determined in the sense that the latter are called into existence as
conditions of the former’s reproduction or supersession. It is in this sense
that the determinant instance is “ primary” , in the sense that it calls into
existence, rather than being called into existence. For example, the deter­
minant instance is the structure of production and the determined instance
is the structure of individual values. These, however, are only potentially
conditions of reproduction of the economic structure. To become actual
conditions of reproduction, they must realize themselves as social values
If the determinant instance is indicated as A, the determined instance
as B and the determination of B by A as = > , the determination of B


by A is depicted as
A => B
The question now arises as to where the determined instances come from.
The answer is that they are already potentially present in the determinant
one. This is why the latter can express the former. The determined
instances are contained in nuce in the determinant one. As such they
are formless potentials, possibilities, which realize themselves in their con­
crete characteristics only in the process of interrelation both with already
realized instances and with other newly emerging instances (see A.2
below). These possibilities are not (in a structuralist fashion) different
combinations of the same, already realized, elements. They can be truly
new and yet be contained in the determinant instance only in a potential
state in the sense that they are inscribed in the actual composition, struc­
ture or nature of the determinant instance. It is in this sense that they
are real possibilities.
These three postulates allow us to define determination in the last
instance. This is a relation between the elements of a process (determinant
and determined instances) which are tied by a relation of mutual and
existential interdependence in the specific sense that some realized
instances (the determined ones) are the actual conditions of reproduction
or of supersession of some other instances (the determinant ones) because
they were already contained in a potential state in these latter, the determi­
nant ones. As a short-cut, to be determined in the last instance means
to be called into existence as a condition for the reproduction or superses­
sion o f the determining instance, irrespective of the concrete form taken
by both types of instances.5
Notice that a determ inant instance can, and usually does, determine
more than one determined instance, that is, more than one condition
of its own reproduction or supersession. However, it would be mistaken
to think that each determinant instance has its own “exclusive” determined
instances. A determined instance can, and usually is, determined by more
than one determinant instance so that it can be at the same time a condition
of reproduction of one or more determinant instances and a condition
of supersession of one or more other determinant instances. To give just
one example, labour mobility determines wage equalization; but wage
levels are also determined by other factors, say capital mobility. Capitals
move from high wage areas or branches to where lower wages are paid.
In short, wage equalization is determined by many determinant factors
(in this example, labour and capital mobility), all acting conjointly.


A. 2 Concrete realization
In order to be an actual condition either of reproduction or of superses­
sion, an instance must leave the realm of the potential and realize itself,
take concrete, specific features. But determination in the last instance
does not explain the concrete aspects in which the different instances
are realized, their concrete realization. In the example above, the structure
of production determines the structure of individual values; but this does
not explain the values actually realized which alone can be a condition
of reproduction of the economic structure.
In general, if all instances are related to each other, they must realize
themselves in a process of mutual interrelation, through their reciprocal
interaction. This holds both for the determinant and for the determined
instances. Thus, to realize what they potentially are, the determined
instances (e.g. individual values) must interact with each other and, in
this process, modify each other: they realize themselves (as social values,
as prices) in their process of mutual interrelation. At the same time, the
social values react upon and modify their determinant instance (the struc­
ture of production) in its specific, concrete form. Realization is at the
same time modification. This is the general principle o f realization. Each
category of instances, in its turn, also has its own principles of realization.
If, at any given time, all instances realize themselves in the process
of mutual interaction and thus mutual modification, they realize them­
selves simultaneously. Thus, in terms of concrete realization, to determine
means “ to contribute to shaping the form o f” . In terms of concrete realiza­
tion, no instance is primary. In these terms, A determines B because
it acts upon B’s form of realization, but B determines A because it reacts
upon A, thus determining A ’s form of realization.

A.3 Dialectical relation
The previous two sections allow us to conceptualize the notion of dialecti­
cal relation. There are two aspects to it: determination in the last instance
(section A l) and concrete realization (section A2). Or, dialectical relation
is a process in which the determined instances, potentially existing withm
the determinant one, become its actual conditions of reproduction or
of supersession, and thus take on concrete features, through a process
of mutual interrelation, and thus modification.
It follows that a dialectical relation is not a relation between dependent
and independent variables. From the point of view of determination in
the last instance, all variables are dependent upon each other: the determi­
nant depend upon the determined because they need the determined in
order to reproduce, or supersede, themselves; the determined depend upon


the determ inant because they exist only as conditions of the latter’s repro­
duction or supersession. From the point of view of concrete realization
all instances are equally dependent upon each other since they realize
themselves in the process of mutual interrelation and thus modification.
The same applies to the difference between a dialectical relation and a
relation o f mechanical causation in which some instances are cause and
some others effect.6
Also, a dialectical relation is not one of simple mutual interrelation:
some instances are determ inant and some are determined. It is not a
relation between the essence, the necessary, and the contingent, that which
has to be abstracted from in order to reach the essence: both the determi­
nant and the determined instances are essential. It is not a chronological
relation since some determined instances are born together with the deter­
m inant one. Even when other determined instances realize themselves
after the determ inant one has come to life (the determinant instance must
constantly create new conditions of reproduction or of supersession),
they modify the form taken by the determinant one so that there is contem­
poraneity in their concrete realization. It is not a relation between some­
thing pre-given (the determinant instance) and something-to-bedetermined: the determ inant instance creates the determined ones in the
process o f realizing itself in its concrete, conjunctural form. It is not
a process o f allocation of elements (e.g. social agents) in an already pre­
existing structure: the process of “ allocation” (e.g. of agents in a social
structure) is at the same time a process o f reproduction of the structure

A.4 Dialectical movement
We have seen that instances are tied to each other by a dialectical relation,
that is, that (a) they are tied to each other by determination in the last
instance and (b) they take on their specific and concrete features in the
process of their mutual interrelation and simultaneous modification. But
there is a logical link still missing between these two concepts. This is
the notion of dialectical movement, that is, the movement between one
system of simultaneously realized instances tied by a dialectical relation
to another system of simultaneously realized instances also tied by a dialec­
tical relation.
Consider again the notion of determination in the last instance, or
A => B, and suppose B is a condition of reproduction of A. In this case
we say that there is correspondence between A and B. If B is a condition
of supersession of A, there is contradiction between the two instances.
In other words, correspondence means that the reproduction of B is a
condition of the reproduction of A; contradiction means that the repro­


duction of B is a condition of the supersession of A (a change in the
nature of A). Now, a relation of correspondence is not one of harmony.
Actually, correspondence implies antagonism. More precisely, a relation
of correspondence is antagonistic in the sense that in it each instance
attempts to reproduce itself by reproducing the other instance but must
do so by attempting to change the other instance’s form of realization,
that is, the concrete features that instance takes when it is realized, and/or
by attempting to change it from a realized state to a potential one, or
vice versa. However, and this is the difference with a contradictory relation,
the two instances do not attempt to change each other’s nature, to super­
sede each other.
It is this antagonistic and contradictory nature of reality which explains
the internal tension which manifests itself as movement. In the dialectical
view, reality is seen not in static but in dynamic terms, as constantly
changing. But movement and change do not come from outside; they
are inherent in reality because they come from the antagonisms and con­
tradictions inherent in it.
More specifically, dialectical movement has three dimensions. To begin
with, since reality is the unity of potential and realized instances, move­
ment means change (transformation) of potentially present instances into
realized ones and change of realized instances back into a potential state.
It is this aspect which allows us, for example, to understand the real
nature of the so-called “ transformation problem” , that is, the constant
transformation of individual values into social ones and of these latter
back into individual ones (see chapter 3). Second, since all instances realize
themselves in the process of their mutual interrelation and thus modifica­
tion, movement means change in the form of realization of all instances
(e.g. variations in prices). Third, since reality is the unity of determinant
and determined instances and since these latter can be conditions either
of reproduction or of supersession, movement means change of the con­
ditions of reproduction into conditions of supersession and vice versa.
Movement, therefore, is inherent in the antagonistic and contradictory
nature of the process of determination in the last instance. It is through
this movement that what is potential realizes itself in its concrete form
either as a condition of reproduction or as a condition of supersession.

A.5 Dialectics
D ia le c tic s is t h e n t h e v ie w o f r e a l it y w h ic h e x p la in s b o t h th e s im u lta n e o u s
r e a liz a tio n o f a ll in s t a n c e s a t o n e p o i n t in tim e a n d t h e i r c h a n g e i n to
a n e w s y s te m o f s im u lt a n e o u s ly r e a liz e d in s ta n c e s a t a n o t h e r p o i n t in
tim e in t e r m s o f t h e d ia le c tic a l n a t u r e o f th e r e l a ti o n b i n d in g all in s ta n c e s
a n d o f t h e d ia le c tic a l m o v e m e n t a r i s in g f r o m it.


As applied to the analysis of social life, a dialectical view o f social
reality stresses the relation of existential interdependence and thus mutual
interrelation between all social phenomena (both in their realized and
in their potential state, that is, as individual phenomena) in which (a)
some realized social phenomena (the determined ones) emerge from their
potential state to become actual conditions of reproduction or of superses­
sion of other realized social phenomena (the determinant ones); (b) all
phenomena are subjected to a constant movement, which can imply a
change from a potential to a realized state and vice versa, from a realized
form to another realized form, and from being a condition of reproduction
to being a condition of supersession and vice versa, and (c) there can
be a change from a system ultimately characterized by a certain type
o f determ inant instance to another system characterized by a radically
different type of determ inant instance.7

A.6 Real versus analytical changes
As a final point before closing this section let us distinguish between
real and analytical change. Let us first consider the relation between deter­
m inant and determined instances. In Marxist analysis, in a social system
the production relations are ultimately determinant of all other instances.
A change to a different system implies that a determined instance which
previously might have been only potentially present (the socialist produc­
tion relations) and which is contradictory to the present determinant
instance (the capitalist production relations) realizes itself as the determi­
nant one and that the previously determinant instance (the capitalist pro­
duction relations) is first reduced to a determined and then to a potential
state before it is completely superseded. In this case, the change of a
determined instance into the determinant one indicates a real, historical,
and thus chronological movement from one social system to another.
If, on the other hand, we consider the same reality at different levels
of abstraction we change the focus of our analysis. This is purely an
analytical change. In this case, what is considered to be determined at
one level of abstraction can be considered to be determinant at a different
level. For example, at a certain level of analysis, the capitalist production
relations determine the capitalist production process. If we now engage
in the analysis of the capitalist production process, it is justified to assume
that it determines a certain technical division of labour, a certain process
of deskilling, etc.
The distinction between real and analytical change can also be made
concerning the relationship between potential and realized instances. The
transform ation of individual values into social values is a real change,


a redistribution of value. Individual values can realize themselves only
as social values but exist before the moment of realization (sale). Here
too we have a chronological sequence between two different states of
reality. On the other hand, the determination of the individuals’ views
of reality by production relations is an analytical change. I have submitted
above (chapter 2) that classes produce their view of reality through the
conception of individual producers of knowledge. In spite of their
individual differences, these individual views share a common feature,
that of being conditions either of reproduction or of supersession of
classes (and this is why they are class-determined). Or, potentially, all
individuals carrying the same aspects of production relations share
the same view of reality. This is a formless, potential view which can
become concrete only through the mental production of each concrete
This does not mean that an undifferentiated class knowledge already
exists before it is fragmented into, and appears as, individual knowledge.8
Rather, it means that all those who objectively belong to the same class
(who are carriers of the same aspects of production relations) share a
common experience of reality which, by being the determinant one,
informs their individual, and different, concrete views. Here too there
is no change from one state of reality to another, only a shift in the
focus of the analysis of the same reality. Under specific conditions, this
common potential view manifests itself as common concrete elements
of knowledge shared by the members of the same class.

B. Laws and Tendencies
Particularly important for a method of research stressing the dynamic
nature of reality is its laws of movement. These are those social phenomena
which regulate the functioning and reproduction of the social system.
Social laws can best be understood as natural laws, that is, laws indepen­
dent of historical determination, which, however, can manifest themselves
only in a historically determined, and thus specific, form. For example,
“that the product of the serf must here suffice to reproduce his conditions
of labour, in addition to his subsistence, is a circumstance which remains
the same under all modes of production” (Marx, 1967c, p. 790). More
generally, “Natural laws cannot be abolished at all. What can change
in historically different circumstances is only the form in which these
laws assert themselves” (Marx, 1969, p. 419).
It is because they are the specific expression of natural laws that social
laws can regulate the functioning of the system, that they can become
laws of motion of society.

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