Language As a Zombie Category of Sociological Theory
Many theories in sociology regard language as the most fundamental institution of social life. These theories suggest that the same language is shared intersubjectively by people, which in turn enables them to understand subjective meanings. This idea has become a marked trend since the 1960s in relation to Max Weber’s interpretative sociology, and is found, for instance, in Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s phenomenological sociology, Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, and Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action.
However, Weber himself, who lived during the formative period of the German nation-state, had consciously avoided the hypostatization of speech community linked to social organicism and collectivism. He embraced the universalism of the Western civil-society, and shaped his theory on the principle of individualism. For him, a speech community prior to individuals was only superficial. The method of understanding that he proposed was based on the rational calculability.
The idea of an intersubjectively shared language cannot be axiomatic, because intersubjectivity, as pointed out by Niklas Luhmann, is incompatible with subjectivity. Even when the same language is shared by people, the language of the majority that creates a macro-association amongst people is based on its standardization by a nation-state. A linguistic sociology that presupposes the sharing of language is possible only in the assumption of a “nation-society” by methodological nationalism. Hence, it is debatable whether a nationally constructed language can be given the status of a natural language of the life-world. Historically, the theoretical idea of sharing a language was in prevalence during the cold war period, when nation-states were relatively stable. In sociological theories, language is one of the zombie categories that carry the residue of such “nation-societies.”