May 02, 2013

To ”Commit Sociology”

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Recently, when the Canadian Government arrested men suspected of planning a terrorist attack, Prime Minister Stephen Harper warned the media not to “commit sociology” by asking for their motives. (It’s a reference to a W.H. Auden poem.) Best not to think too much, apparently, about the world around you.

In my Foundations of Social Theory class, we began the semester with the broad, big worldviews that many people often use unreflexively and to their own detriment: horoscopes, homeopathy, numerology, dousing, conspiracy theories, and the like. I hope you are equipped for the task of making sense of the world you’ll find around you: to “commit sociology.” 

Maybe you ascribe to one of those all-encompassing meta-theories: the astral alignments determining behaviors and the gods working in mysterious ways. What have you learned about sociology that will explain your everyday challenges? An engineering class may help your colleagues get jobs but it won’t help them understand the dynamics of the world they live in. The same could be said about journalism, food studies, and management classes. How could I not try to convince you that sociology, and theory, will?

I understand the resistance. It’s a hell of a lot of work. Maybe it’s too French, too dense, or too depressing. I do not expect you to all be sociological theorists. I don’t expect you all to be sociologists—and that’s a good thing. But I hope you’ve found something of use. I hope that you have with more questions than answers, and I hope you think that’s yet another good thing.

What I hope is this: At the very, very, very least, there will be a point in your life, when you’ll look down a road of inquiry at some opening of your mind. And you’ll allow yourself to walk along just a little bit further that way, just a little bit deeper, to think about the conflicts inherent between in-groups and out-groups when we debate immigration reform, or the logics that perpetuate the inequalities of culture when we valorize one set of ideals over others, or the structural conditions that led you to see that homeless man on the sidewalk. You won’t think of your assignments or specific theorists or your TA or instructor. But I sleep at night hoping you’ll think of the world through more than one set of goggles, and get a little double consciousness from the interplay of what you learn here and your everyday lives outside the classroom.

Theory can be a supplement for existence in that outside world. "Theory" is not a broad and sweeping answer for everything. But when you look for a job you would be well served in thinking about Pierre Bourdieu’s social capital to develop a wide circle of contacts that could get you on a shortlist—and hope that there are other candidates who didn’t have the connections you did. 

When interviewing for that job, the more you reflect on Erving Goffman’s presentation of self and Bourdieu’s cultural capital the better off you will be—and you’ll know that others aren’t as lucky to be as reflexive as you. When you get that job you’ll be well served in thinking about Max Weber’s understanding of bureaucracy to make sense of the administrative power that your superiors may hold over you—and the alienation and powerlessness your subordinates may feel. When you think about your fellow workers, perhaps you can think about how their differences can provide you a window into a different kind of experience—or how you, yourself, hold an awareness that can contribute to your job, neighborhood, or community. When you come home at night you might think about Harriet Martineau’s understandings of the home—and Betty Friedan’s reasons for not thinking about the home.

Cultural sociologist Ann Swidler says that there is a tool kit theory about culture, and there’s a tool kit approach to theory too. There is no one theory. The days of Big Umbrella frameworks—religion, communism, liberalism, Structural Functionalism, or whatever—are perhaps in the past. 

In David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Commencement Speech to Kenyon College, he talked about making the choice not to set our daily lives to the “default setting,: but rather to continually engage with your own preconceptions.  He was talking about the checkout line and sitting in traffic:

The insidious thing about [our] forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom.

Bourdieu used the term doxa to describe the default setting. He said that the doxic world encourages us to not think about the economic, cultural, and symbolic powers reinforced on a daily basis. He was deeply troubled that we stay at this level of unthinking, defaultedness without an awareness of the consolidation of resources in the hands of the few.

The key for Wallace is hidden in a joke about two fish that are too wrapped up in their own stories to know what they’re swimming in:

 The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water…”

"Committing sociology" is about learning how to use the tools that work for particular practical tasks, sharing those tools with others, and acknowledging that some other folks don’t have those tools at all.


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Thank you, Jon!

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