Sense per Simpli­city: Ant Soci­e­ties as Self-descrip­tion Formula of Soci­ety (2015)

Peer reviewed / Buchveröffentlichung


Making sense of society is not confined to sociological theories, nor is the notion of society limited to human collectives. Since Greek antiquity, political philosophy has taken ant nests and beehives as examples of societies, and in recent times, insect societies have been studied with sociological methods as well as from experimental biological perspectives. Ant societies have been considered natural and social at the same time. Yet, morphological differences of ants and men have been disregarded, while similarities like labor division or caste differentiation have been emphasized during the course of turning ant societies into an analogy for human societies. On the one hand, the image of an ant society as an analog of human society portrays social complexity. Because it is a nest of ants after all, images of ant society, on the other hand, describe a natural, rule-based organization that eliminates contingency and reduces complexity to basic laws of biology. Thus, the picture of ant societies evokes complexity and simplicity at the same time. My paper elaborates on this tension. First, I explore the function of pictures of society and the relationship of complexity and simplicity in this aspect in general; subsequently, I focus on the specifics of ant societies as a self-descriptive formula of society, following especially the entomological and sociological fabrications of that formula. Everyone who refers to society with a representation, phrase, metaphor, or picture with the aim of designating the whole of it is generating sense: “society’s unity,” “Western civilization,” the “welfare state,” or “entrepreneurial society” are formulas, each emphasizing a historical achievement or structure of society, while simultaneously neglecting everything else or reducing it to a sheer accidental aspect of that very achievement or structure. All these formulas are trying to capture the central quality or core essence of society, thus establishing a scenario that explains “what is happening exactly in society” and setting a “frame for society’s next operations” (Guy 232). If they are evident and compelling and succeed (in a competition with other phrases), these formulas of self-description play an important role in the evolution of society (cf. Stäheli). But none of these formulas are exclusively true or solely appropriate at the same time as all the others are wrong. Rather, they mutually exclude and compete against each other. Thus, society has to deal with a “multiple of self-descriptions” and a plurality of possible “unities,” according to Jean-Sébastien Guy who recapitulates Niklas Luhmann’s approach. We can easily observe this “paradoxical” coexistence of more or less contradictory formulas in everyday culture (Guy 232). Sometimes we seem to live in a networked and global knowledge society, at other times in a besieged fortress struggling to endure the ‘clash of civilizations’ (S. Huntington). Indicating that much, ant societies can represent all these different descriptions of our social world—from swarm-collectives to totalitarianism—and can still provide evidence and sense per simplicity in each case. If sociological descriptions and distinctions aim at the ‘whole’ or the very ‘core’ of society, they are displaying a kind of “panorama view,” which offers simplified, but nonetheless convincing pictures of the social (Latour, Neue Soziologie 327). Highlighting the essential structures or primordial differences of society and downplaying everything else, these pictures are beautifully arranged and well ordered. These intriguing “panoramas” or “big pictures”, as Bruno Latour calls these formulas of societal self-description, are “fictions”, and he rates the very coherence of these formulas as an indication of their “illusionary” quality (325). Even within academia, many of those images of “the whole” float around: world society, network society, risk society, media society, multicultural society, class society, capitalism, governmentalism, Empire, post-colonial society, modern society, information society, control society, postmodern society and so on. Every formula of self-description emphasizes an aspect of the social environment: the spatial dimension, the mode of connecting and routing information, the means of stratifying society or steering inclusion and exclusion, the dominant media used for communication or commerce, the economy, the manner of dealing with the uncertain or the non-normal, the historical differences of contemporary society compared to the pre-modern world, the differences...


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"Werber, Niels (2015): „Sense per Simplicity: Ant Societies as Self-description Formula of Society“,
in: Modern Language Notes 130 (3), S. 430–446."