The transformation of the group category: Epistemology, ontology and politics in Torgny T. Segerstedt’s study of groups 1939–1955
Why was the group seen as a new and promising political and scientific category in the Swedish interwar period, and why was the category redefined in the postwar era? This article sets out to answer these questions through a study of Torgny T. Segerstedt and his analysis of the group category. Lorraine Dastons notion that in scientific practice the epistemology effects the ontology of the studied object is used as a theoretical framework to show how the study of the group should be situated in two different contexts.
In the interwar period, Segerstedt, like other philosophers, turned to social psychology and borrowed the group category from American and English discussions. The category was seen as pivotal in the understanding and upholding of democracy in an era of totalitarianism. People without a strong sense of group belongingness easily turned into masses, emotional, irrational, and mobilized to obey a dictator. Segerstedt instead believed the ideal society to be made up of primary groups, such as the family. Putting forward the group category as a new way of seeing society Segerstedt also criticized other concepts like the individual, race, and class. These interwar texts about the group were meant to contribute to both science and a general democratic discussion. The epistemology was that of an ”armchair observer”, in Haaro Maas words, i.e. someone who compiles knowledge from others to create new syntheses.
In the newly formed social sciences of the postwar period, a new ideal arose. Disciplines like sociology were supposed to solve welfare problems, and their research was aimed at specialized publics. Torgny T. Segerstedt became the first professor of sociology in Sweden and made the group category the center of the discipline. However, the group was now supposed to help with wellbeing at work and general adjustment in society. Influenced by American neopositivist sociology he stated that sociology’s goal was to measure and statistically account for different groups and to discover where the norms in the groups came from. This new epistemology changed how the group category was conceptualized, as it became more hierarchical. The study shows how scientific research in the social sciences changes when turning from one way of observing to another.