Gabriel Tarde is a springwell of interesting – and sometimes positively weird – ideas. In his 1899 article L’opinion et la conversation (reprinted in his 1901 book L’opinion et la foule), the French judge/sociologist makes the following comment:

Il n’y [dans un Etat féodal, BR] avait pas “l’opinion”, mais des milliers d’opinions séparées, sans nul lien continuel entre elles. Ce lien, le livre d’abord, le journal ensuite et avec bien plus d’efficacité, l’ont seuls fourni. La presse périodique a permis de former un agrégat secondaire et très supérieur dont les unités s’associent étroitement sans s’être jamais vues ni connues. De là, des différences importantes, et, entre autre, celles-ci : dans les groupes primaires [des groupes locales basés sur la conversation, BR], les voix ponderantur plutôt que numerantur, tandis que, dans le groupe secondaire et beaucoup plus vaste, où l’on se tient sans se voir, à l’aveugle, les voix ne peuvent être que comptées et non pesées. La presse, à son insu, a donc travaillé à créer la puissance du nombre et à amoindrir celle du caractère, sinon de l’intelligence.

After a quick survey, I haven’t found an English translation anywhere – there might be one in here – so here’s my own (taking some liberties to make it easier to read):

[In a feudal state, BR] there was no “opinion” but thousands of separate opinions, without any steady connection between them. This connection was only delivered by first the book, then, and with greater efficiency, the newspaper. The periodical press allowed for the formation of a secondary and higher-order aggregate whose units associate closely without ever having seen or known each other. Several important differences follow from this, amongst others, this one: in primary  groups [local groups based on conversation, BR], voices ponderantur rather than numerantur, while in the secondary and much larger group, where people connect without seeing each other – blind – voices can only be counted and cannot be weighed. The press has thus unknowingly labored towards giving rise to the power of the number and reducing the power of character, if not of intelligence.

Two things are interesting here: first, Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet’s classic study from 1945, The People’s Choice, and even more so Lazarsfeld’s canonical Personal Influence (with Elihu Katz, 1955) are seen as a rehabilitation of the significance (for the formation of opinion) of interpersonal communication at a time when media were considered all-powerful brainwashing machines by theorists such as Adorno and Horkheimer (Adorno actually worked with/for Lazarsfeld in the 30ies, where Lazarsfeld tried to force poor Adorno into “measuring culture”, which may have soured the latter to any empirical inquiry, but that’s a story for another time). Tarde’s work on conversation (the first order medium) is theoretically quite sophisticated – floating against the backdrop of Tarde’s theory of imitation as basic mechanism of cultural production – and actually succeeds in thinking together everyday conversation and mass-media without creating any kind of onerous dichotomy. L’opinion et la conversation would merit an inclusion into any history of communication science and it should come as no surprise that Elihu Katz actually published a paper on Tarde in 1999.

Second, the difference between ponderantur (weighing) and numerantur (counting) is at the same time rather self-evident – an object’s weight and it’s number are logically quite different things – and somewhat puzzling: it reminds us that while measurement does indeed create a universe of number where every variable can be compared to any other, the aspects of reality we choose to measure remain connected to a conceptual backdrop that is by itself neither numerical nor mathematical. What Tarde calls “character” is a person’s capacity to influence, to entice imitation, not the size of her social network.

I’m currently working on a software tool that helps studying Twitter and while sifting through the literature I came across this citation from a 2010 paper by Cha et al.:

We describe how we collected the Twitter data and present the characteristics of the top users based on three influence measures: indegree, retweets, and mentions.

Besides the immense problem of defining influence in non trivial terms, I wonder whether many of the studies on (social) networks that pop up all over the place are hoping to weigh but end up counting again. What would it mean, then, to weigh a person’s influence? What kind of concepts would we have to develop and what could be indicators? In our project we use the API to look at clickstream referers – if several people post the same link, who succeeds in getting the most people to click it – but this may be yet another count that says little or nothing about how a link will be uses/read/received by a person. But perhaps this is as far as the “hard” data can take us. But is that really a problem? The one thing I love about Tarde is how he can jump from a quantitative worldview to beautiful theoretical speculation and back with a smile on his face…

Post filed under epistemolgy, social networks, statistics.


  1. Interesting stuff, Bernhard. Makes me think of two things:
    1) I wonder how much Tarde was influenced by Kierkegaard’s views on the press, since he pretty much arrived at the same conclusions (ie, public opinion as the lowest common denominator).
    2) The distinction Schutz would later make between consociates (the people you experience in social simultaneity) and contemporaries (the individuals whose social existence you can only infer through indirect evidence–such as their tweets).

  2. bernhard says:

    Hi Ulises !

    Hope everything is well! Concerning your comment, I believe that
    1) Tarde’s conception of “public opinion” is actually very different of Kierkegaard’s – mostly because his ontological baseline is microsociological rather that philosophical and his theory of imitation is probably closer to 20th century diffusion theory (what is now called memetics is – in a sense – a biologically framed rehashing of Les Lois de l’Imitation) than 19th century moral philosophy. The basic building block of the formation of “opinion” in Tarde is interpersonal communication and the “second order aggregate” perhaps more of an agenda transmission structure than a something that would produce a common spirit. Tarde was a strong advocate of a “public sphere democracy” and had a rather positive view of the back-and-forth of public opinion – a liberal (in the European meaning of the term, opposed to both conservatism and socialism).
    2) This is spot on and I think that Latour draws so heavily on both Tarde and ethnomethodology is an indicator for a certain compatibility…

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