Sociological Sundays: Something Old, Something New, It All Blew
Sociology is such a cool subject that you immediately have to define what the hell you mean by it, and what could be cooler than that?
Obviously, human beings have looked at their own, and other, societies forever, and talked and thought about them. Sociology, like science, has been around in one form or another forever, but it is only since the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution that it has accrued any hint of methodology or scientific backing.
With that said, sociology is not a hard science. It is a social science, and in the end depends on things that are subjective, things that are very hard to measure, and cause and effect that is rarely perfectly demonstrable. Just as hard science suffers from screaming headlines claiming that cancer has been cured, sociology suffers from popular reporting saying “Roots of poverty have been discovered!” or some such. Part of my goal in these posts will be to provide a framework for properly evaluating such wild-assed claims.
Sociology got firmly established as an academic discipline by Emile Durkheim, who came up with some relatively arbitrary rules for how to go about it. Their arbitrariness really doesn’t matter, because it was at least an attempt. His main idea, that the strength of society is in the interconnectedness of people, and that negative outcomes—like suicide—come about through people lacking connections—is still a valid idea today. He ignored many negative effects from that interconnectedness, but that’s the cool thing about sociology—we can look at what he got right, and why he did, and look at what he didn’t, and even apply his own methods to what he ignored and get a better result.
Durkheim and many others of his ilk are called functionalists because their view of society is that basically all the structures and actions inside the society have a function, which is generally to maintain equilibrium, to keep things going.
Marx was among the first of the so-called ‘critical’ theorists. Marx should be separated into two distinct areas: One being his sociology, his critique, and the other being his political solutions and polemics. The two things are related, but his sociology, as a critique, is far more important and relevant. Marx’s sociology is based on an economic view of history where society passes through several stages on its way to the Glorious Worker’s Paradise. One of the biggest misconceptions about Marx is that he hated capitalism, and another huge misconception is that he hated capitalists. Marx thought that capitalism was an enormous improvement on anything that had come before, and, moreover, it was a natural state for a society to progress through. Likewise, capitalists inside a capitalist system were, in his eyes, also alienated from the system, also unhappy: capitalism for Marx is not a system where one group gets to be all content and another suffers, instead, he saw everyone as suffering, as not able to pursue what he called ‘species-being’. For Marx, this species-being was bound up in work, he saw us as a natural productive species who are happiest when working in conditions of our own choosing on projects of our own choosing.
Marx’s critique of capital is extremely well-thought-out and not at all the wild-eyed polemic it’s portrayed to be. His main concern is the factory-floor style jobs, but his idea of ‘alienation’, of the worker being alienated from their labor and their product—is applicable to most jobs. I think that his concept of alienation is incomplete, but anyone who’s ever had a job of drudgery knows what he’s talking about, the particular joylessness, the way that one feels entirely constrained and yet disconnected at the same time. Marx argued that the inevitable outcome of capitalism was increasing income disparity, since capital is hugely advantaged in capitalism, ending up with a gigantic, disaffected, alienated proletariat who would achieve class consciousness and, just as the middle class/capitalists had overthrown feudalism, overthrow capitalism. This view of civilization advancing through several stages of economic relationships is called, succinctly enough, ‘stage theory’.
On a quite opposite end from the old functionalists, William H. Sewell Jr. is a multidisciplinary bundle of awesome who wrote the book Logics of History. A keen and interesting examination of social theory and social change, it offers a paradigm for sociology that allows us to examine and think about change, rather than attempting to merely analyze current function. He also avoids making any ‘stage theory’ type argument, instead arguing that while structures change over time, there are no stages or rules for this change. Instead, Sewell sees change as highly contingent. He gives many great examples from history, focusing especially on cases where groups from the same class background, who under a rule-based, conflict theory idea of history would wind up following the same path, instead diverged for contingent reasons. He gives a wonderful example from one of the many French uprisings of a militia and a worker’s group, whose members came from the same class, in fact the same neighborhood, and yet wound up fighting and killing each other on the streets.
What I especially like about Sewell is that he allows for individuals, structures, technologies, ideas, all to play their part. In stage theory, the idea of the individual having a place in history is mostly swept away; in functionalism, ‘change’ is almost always a negative, something which simply stresses society out and makes weird shit happen. Sewell’s contingent view of history talks both about how individuals are changed by interactions with structure, and how structures are changed by the individuals acting within them.
They All Blew
No, they were all awesome, but then again, they did blow. When reading early sociologists, you’ll come across blankly racist assumptions, baffling beliefs in various crackpot theories that were in vogue at the time, assumptions about social rank which seem fatuous and dated, etc. It’s easy for people to dismiss Marx because his predictions failed—the Bolshevik revolution in Russia was actually a huge failure of Marxist theory: according to Marxism, the most-industrialized countries should be the ones revolting. Durkheim’s arguments about the salacious social benefits of poverty seem naive in the face of the inner city and long-term imprisonment in the US today.
But it would be silly to throw out these awesome thinkers because of these imperfections. They’re still great, a lot of the things they thought up or discovered are just as relevant today as they were when they first came shooting hot off the presses.
Unlike my statistics pieces, these sociology ones can’t really advance in any sort of logical order. Instead, I’ll be diving and swooping from one area to another, trying to show off the richness of sociology.