Motivations as causes?

Six months into Corona, I “decided” to get tested for the virus I label ‘C19.’ I had no symptoms but, off the top of my head, I’d say that I was “motivated” by:
1) curiosity about the various steps in the process.
2) my employer’s mandate that I be tested if I wanted to enter the building housing the physical Teachers College (of course the College resides virtually in computers all around the world).

One might say that the first motivation was under my control while the other was not (though I could have “decided” that I did not want/need to get into the physical building). And many others might say that deep in my head other, darker, motivations may have been at play.

Whatever my motivation, three days after the test, I was told on the phone that I was “negative.” The formal detailed report stated that “COVID-19 PCR” was “Not Detected.” A whole of set authorities were listed.

This test, and Teachers College’s mandate that I be tested, came at about the same time as there appeared, in the official media, reports of an expert debate about the wisdom of testing when one has no symptoms. I assume that this was not a new debate. I assume that this debate has been going on for months among epidemiologists, the governors, the alt-media, and the familial “pods” where most of us have been living since we were told to “stay home.” But, on August 17 2020, and then again on August 30 2020, the New York Times reported what I imagine are the official conversations.

In the first report readers were told that, in many parts of the world (the Bronx, parts of Brooklyn, the slums of Mumbai, but not the tonier zip codes in Manhattan) “herd immunity” might have been achieved. Not surprisingly, not all experts agreed.

The second report told of a new (for those of us depending on the NYT for our education) debate about the sensitivity trigger for a diagnostic of “positive.” I had never thought about that! It seems, and it really should not have surprised me, that this trigger is a matter of placing a boundary on a continuum. I had been taught that the amount of the virus in a body is a continuum. I have now been taught that the process of testing for the presence of this virus is also a continuum of cycles of amplification with experts differing as to where to put the boundary: should it be 40 cycles? 37 cycles? 30 cycles? Should finding “a genetic fragment of the virus” count as “virus detected,” or not? Cultural anthropologists should always postulate that the placing of a boundary is a matter of an “arbitrary” act by some collectivity of actors.  Making marks in the sand is what human beings do.  But they do not do this after building consensus or writing a contract, as some ancestors assumed.  The mark will always be the temporary remnant of some act of authority, an act that will immediately be challenged (though most often this challenge will not be successful).

All this became all the more salient as one of acquaintances told me she had tested “positive” and quarantined herself from spouse and young child. A week later she tested “negative” and de-quarantined herself. Setting the sensitivity of a test is not purely a public health issue for our governors, it is also an intimate issue within the various “pods” we inhabit. (Not) testing (not) negative will always lead to possibly contentious precisely political debates with our most significant others. Of the two tests, which should my acquaintance have trusted? Should she test a third time?  Another of my acquaintances has been tested four times in two months (“motivated” by various others).  He was told each time he was “negative.”

As I will say, C19 will not tell us whether to get tested, what level of sensitivity makes it visible for human action, or how often one should be tested.

I am not going to repeat myself but will use the occasion to ponder something only my students will think worth pondering (if they are registered in the class I teach this semester they won’t have much of a choice as it is part of the assignments…). I hinted at where I am going when I placed “ ” around the verb ‘decide’ and word ‘motivation’ in the first sentence of this post. The current puzzle has to with something one of the ancestors of sociology once wrote:

[We understand any] particular act [when is] has been placed in an understandable sequence of motivation, the understanding of which can be treated as an explanation of the actual course of behaviour. (my italics. Weber, 1897)

If I understand Weber’s argument, C19 was “meaningless” until it entered human consciousness and triggered action by some subject who made it “meaningful” as Corona (in my language). And, most importantly, these subjects will “place their act” in different “sequences of motivations” that are more less distant from what an act might have been if the actor “had fully adequate knowledge … of his own situation.” This last comment has something to do with ideal-types as methodological tools, but I will not discuss this here.

My problem is with the sequencing of the word “motivation” in the social sciences. To me “motivation” has always been and remain a word about something psychological as I think it is for Weber. I am willing to grant various kinds of psychologists the authority to tell me that what I list as motivations for doing something may not be the “real” ones that might be buried deep in my unconscious. From Freud onward many have tried to dig for hidden motivations and I am not going to fight them on their territory except to the extent that their own vocabularies for motivations, their own sequencing of this vocabulary, in their own discourses and debates, in their own methods for establishing their authority and recruiting new members, etc., have to be deemed “sociological”—in the Durkheimian sense…

That is, I can imagine investigating what Kenneth Burkes call a “rhetoric of motives” ([1950] 1969). I even wrote a paper titled “Culture as rhetoric” (1978)’

But … reporting on the rhetoric of motives that are available to a particular population is not all the same thing as proposing that these motives actually move anybody into action. I remain convinced that Max Weber is the more dangerous of the ancestors as it is easiest to sequence him into the invidualistic ideologies so common sense in America, and so lose the sociological perspective, including the sociological perspective on individual action with all our others.


Burke, Kenneth   [1950] 1969     A rhetoric of motives.. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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