Finn Sivert Nielsen Anthropologist
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A theory of social texture

For many years I have been interested in building a general theory of human action. In 1987 I published a temporary conclusion of this work, in the shape of a monograph (based on fieldwork in Soviet Leningrad), with a theoretical introductory chapter which presents my thoughts about society as a texture woven by human action in physical space. In formal terms, the basis for this theory was a definition of four overlapping ideal types of social action and organization, which by their interaction weave this texture, which is the only substance society has. In a report for a somewhat braoder audience at about the same time, a simplified version of this model was presented. The model was also discussed from another perspective as a chapter in a book project conceived somewhat later.

In worlds of mirrors

During the years after my monograph's completion, I worked on a book project that has still not been completed. The book was planned to have a number of chapters, each presenting a distinct theoretical approach to the world, based on abstract basic principles that were, in formal terms, mutually incompatible. The presented theories thus represented separate but equally valid views of reality. On this homepage, five of the book's chapters may be read, in various degrees of completion, along with the draft of an introduction. The point of this project was, among other things, to move the theory I had developed in my monograph from the center to the periphery of my attention, where I let it be lined up on equal terms with several other theoretical paradigms: equally valid modes of understanding that could not be unified by any overarching vision, which could also, with equal valitity, have informed my study of Russia as well as the model I chose. More than ten years later, while I was living and working in Copenhagen, I looked back on the merits of this project in a conference paper.

A theory of action as play

Early in the 1990's, while working on my American data and trying to relate them to my Soviet data – which were now changing so rapidly that it was impossible to keep track of them – I again, as in the monograph, made a synthesizing leap. I considered that the various "incompatible" forms of understanding that I had identified in my book project, could perhaps be unified, as long as we didn't demand either consistency, rationality or common sense of their intercourse. With this insight came the somewhat banale realization that human action does not follow any unitary principle at all, but shifts to and fro between incompatible principles, often unpredictably, counterproductively, absent-mindedly or downright crazily. In chapter 2 of my still-incompleted comparative monograph on The posteuropean condition, I argued that there is need for a theory to replace the common utilitarian metaphors of action (action as work, production, transaction, goal-directed, communicative etc.) with a more open and "exploratory" notion of action as play.

The tool at the core of action

During the next 20 years, I continued work on these thoughts, while at the same time exploring a range of theoretical themes – in part through my cooperation with my old friend and colleage Olaf Smedal on an ambitious volume covering central themes in anthropological research – in part through my teaching, particularly the 7-week free courses I held at Copenhagen University (e.g. on gender, technology, power and exchange theory, metaphor theory, economics, comparison, contextualization and the history of anthropology), and in my supervision of student work at all levels. In time, inspired in part by early conversations with Henrik Sinding-Larsen (Oslo), partly by supervising graduate students such as Lars Risan (Oslo; working with Artificial Reality) and Bror Olsen (Troms°; working with music and music technology), I developed the rudiments of a theory of the tool as a material mediator between the human mind and the material world. It is this mediating tool-function that is the definitory core of human action – not, as is often claimed, language, which is one of several indispensible tools. A short working-paper for this project was published online in the early 2000's. An advanced course focusing on technology and tools, taking my working-paper as its point of departure, was then held at Copenhagen University (in 2007), where the interdisciplinarity of the idea of the tool was emphasized and many new perspectives were added to the brew being mixed, most prominently the work of RenÚ Girard on mimesis. Some years later other aspects of the concept found expression in a scholarship application and in a short essay on the wordprocessing program Word Perfect.