Sociology and Anthropology Monday: Vilfredo Pareto


Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) was a Franco-Italian civil engineer turned economist and sociologist. Prior to 1898 he was a traditional economic liberal and politically a man of the left. He failed at his bid for a career in politics and became disillusioned and somewhat embittered. He began to withdraw from society, and, after having inherited a small fortune he retired to a house in Celigny where he acquired an enormous wine cellar with his companion, Jane Regis, and a legion of Angora cats. In his later years he became increasingly extreme in his vituperative attacks on socialism, humanitarianism, pacifism and liberal democracy. Pareto was a positivist and considered sociology a kind of natural science of society. Using his engineering training he understood society as a system in equilibrium or tending to equilibrium in the same way that this applied to a physic-chemical system. At any given time the state of a social system could be understood as a result of (i) extra-social, extra-human environmental factors (ii) external social factors ie. other societies or earlier states of the same societies and (iii) inner elements of the social system (values, knowledge and what he called residues and derivations. In his sociology as opposed to his economics he considered what he called nonlogical actions to be pervasive. Non-logical actions are those which are not based on the scientific application of discrete means to specific, concrete ends. He developed a classification of nonlogical actions: those whose ends are unrealizable, illusory or otherwise unreal; those actions whose ends are unrealizable by the chosen means but realizable through the application of scientific means; there are other nonlogical actions whose ends are not scientifically meaningful; and finally there are those actions in which both ends and means are logical but the action is chosen for reasons that are nonlogical. Echoing Freud Pareto argued that human beings very often do things for reasons of which they themselves are unaware. The rationalizations for these actions, which we give to others as well to ourselves, Pareto called “derivations.” The real grounds of these actions of which there were six categories he called “residues.” These include: (i) the instinct for combinations (ii) group persistence or the persistence of aggregates (iii) the need for expressing sentiments by external acts (iv) those connected with sociality (v) those which express the “integrity of the individual and his appurtenances and (vi) the sex residues. Pareto famously wrote: “A Chinese, a Moslem, a Calvinist, a Catholic, a Kantian, a Hegelian, a Materialist, all refrain from stealing but each gives a different explanation for his conduct. In other words, it is a case of numerous derivations connecting one residue that is operative in all of them with one conclusion which they all accept. And if someone chances to invent a new derivation or refute one of the existing ones, his achievement has no practical consequence and the conclusion remains the same.” (Mind and Society, paragraph 1416, p. 897).

Pareto was considered an “elite” theorist, arguing that in every human activity there are those that will rise to the top in a kind of natural hierarchy. This is true for all occupations and activities of every kind. Some chess players are better than others. The same can be said of teachers, preachers, doctors, psychoanalysts but also of pick-pockets, con artists and prostitutes. (This was not a moral evaluation for Pareto). In political theory Pareto believed in the circulation of elites whereby elites of “foxes” (Class I residues) who live by their wits and creativity are replaced by “lions” (Class II residues) who represent the power of tradition and conservation. They will, in turn, be replaced by an elite of foxes and so on throughout history. The terms foxes and lions Pareto borrowed from Machiavelli. Talcott Parsons used some of Pareto’s ideas in developing his own views of structural-functionalism.

On Pareto see:

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