How our Modern Lives Reflect “Old-fashioned” Theories
Sociology Major, Murray State University
Being a sociology student has radically affected the way I think. I knew this was going to happen. My teachers all warned me that enhancing my critical thinking abilities was a major goal for them. I took my first class in sociology in my freshman year. At the time I simply believed I was taking one of those “easy A” classes. The first class I went to immediately changed my plans for school. It was one of the few times I had ever been excited to be in a class. I kept thinking yes, yes, I hear what you’re saying and I’m pretty sure I think the way you do. I couldn’t believe that hundreds of years ago, there were people thinking about the things we are still dealing with today. The very idea shocked and excited me. I left that first class and immediately declared my sociology minor. I believe that class caused a door to shut behind me, making sure that I would forever think above my personal situations.
Every sociology class I’ve taken since has filled me with as much excitement as the first one did. Discussing or debating a new idea I’ve learned with like-minded people gives me what I can only describe as an academic thrill. My teachers have all upheld their promise in regards to changing my thinking, and I credit them completely for any progress I’ve made in the area. I’ve also discovered that one of the ways my classes have held my interest is by making connections between past ideas and their various incarnations in the present. I am continually amazed when I read the work of past sociologists and I can easily provide modern examples that support their theories. I believe Audre Lorde said it best:“There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”
If I could choose only one thing to take from my sociology education, it would be that “old fashioned” ideas are generally reflected in our modern lives. To illustrate my point I’ll turn to a few of my favorite theories; Marx’s theory of alienation and species-being, Simmel’s “blasé attitude”, and Weber’s concept of authority.
Marx believed that capitalism led to the alienation of people from their human nature. He believed that people saw their human nature in the things they created and in their work, an idea he called species-being. Marx believed capitalism alienated people from their nature, because in a capitalistic work system, people lose a connection between themselves and the work. People don’t own the means of production to create products and they don’t own the finished product. They cannot take the same pride in their work as before.
Marx felt there were four elements to alienation; people are alienated from the work process, they are alienated from the product, they are alienated from the other workers, and they are alienated from fulfilling their human potential. I believe that most workers living in our society today can relate to this sense of detachment. After all we still live in a capitalist society and we look at jobs where people can be their own boss, as the ideal type of work.
Simmel’s idea of the “blasé attitude” stems from his views of the city living of his time. In his work “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” he describes the effects of the urban lifestyle on individuals. He suggests that there are so many stimuli for urban individuals to react to that their nerves become agitated to the point where they can no longer react. To cope people try to live their lives as systematically as possible, and remove the need for too much decision-making. The effect is that people in cities seemingly have a cold, indifferent personality, what Simmel calls the “blasé attitude”. I believe this is true of city living today. I’ve often heard people talk about how they live for their vacations. I’m just as likely to hear them say there is too much for them to do on vacation as well.
In Weber’s studies on power, he suggested that authority is a legitimate power. People accept that those with authority have power over them. Weber believed that there were three types of authority; traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal. Traditional authority is dependent on strong personal loyalty, and a belief that there is virtue in following the old rules. Charismatic authority revolves around an individual. The individual is given their authority by devoted followers, and the authority disappears with the individual. It is a very unstable authority. Rational-legal authority is authority that is attached to an office. It is the most long-lasting authority as the office can remain, even when the individuals holding it change. These concepts of authority have most assuredly stood the test of time to survive in our present. Presidents, activist leaders, and parents are all examples of these three authority types.
These few theories are only a small sample of the “old-fashioned” ideas that can be revised for our present. Actually I’ve often found that some of these theories require no update and plainly state the realities we still deal with today. I’m grateful to my sociology teachers for helping me to see these connections, and I hope to carry my new thoughtfulness with me in all aspects of my life.