November 07, 2014

A Socioanalysis of President Barack Obama

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

I am writing this post on the eve of the 2014 midterm elections, so I don’t know who the winners and losers will be. However, I do know one thing for sure: President Obama is not held in high regard these days. Obama’s approval rating is hovering around 42%, lower than the average approval ratings of the ten presidents that preceded him. For what it’s worth, Obama’s rating is actually significantly higher than the approval rating of Congress—the group of politicians whose partisan obstructionism and dogmatism are arguably responsible for much of Obama’s legislative troubles.  Embarrassingly, the approval rating of Congress is barely above 10%.


While it is clear that there is much unhappiness with our elected officials, the bulk of the scorn seems to be directed at our leader-in-chief, and President Obama has no shortage of critics these days. From the left and the right, from home and abroad, and from the young and the old, there is a growing chorus of dissent with the job Obama is doing.

To some extent, this reaction should not be too surprising; after all, the world is a mess. Whether it’s the never-ending tinderbox of the Middle East, the outbreak of the Ebola virus, the persistent unemployment and economic woes around the world, and a host of other global and domestic problems, it’s fair to say that the President of the United States certainly has his hands full.

If you listen to the constant clatter of criticism directed toward President Obama you will notice that much of it is personal in that it is couched in terms of Obama’s personality and his psychological make-up. It seems as if playing an armchair psychologist has become a favorite role for many media commentators as they take pleasure in psychoanalyzing the President’s troubles.

To date, Obama has been “diagnosed” with a whole slew issues that can be readily found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5): He is a narcissist, he is suffering from abandonment issues, he is too normal, he does not know “who he is or what he believes in,” he disassociates—which is an outgrowth of his fear of abandonment, he is seeking redemption for the guilt he feels for losing track of his mother, and much worse if you limit your reading to right-wing social media.

I have nothing against psychological analysis; really,  some of my good friends are even psychologists. I can also appreciate in-depth psychological character studies such as those written by Erik Erikson, the famous psychoanalyst who wrote comprehensive psycho-historical-biographies of Martin Luther and Gandhi.

Unfortunately, much of the current psychological commentary on Obama not only negates history but also ignores a whole array of social structural variables that influence who he is, what he thinks, and how he acts. These pop psychology critiques of Obama reduce a complex person who is in a challenging position during extremely chaotic times to a simple and singular variable. They also reduce complicated and multifaceted social actions to one particular individual. The truth of the matter is that none of us act based on a sole personality trait, and no social action is the responsibility of just one person (the president does not make decisions, much less enact them, by himself).

Reducing social actions to the characteristic of a single individual has long been of concern to sociologists. In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills refers to this erroneous type of analysis as a psychologism: “the attempt to explain social phenomena in terms of facts and theories about the make-up of individuals.” Later in the book, Mills goes on to say: “The life of an individual cannot be adequately understood without references to the institutions within which [one’s] biography is enacted.” Others have referred to this analytical misconception as an “ontogenetic fallacy” because it “tends to treat the individual as a self-contained entity and fails to recognize the profoundly interactive nature of self-society relations and the complexity of and variability of social environments.”

Instead of psychoanalyzing Obama, I would propose that we start engaging in more socioanalyzing.

What would a socioanalysis of Obama look like? A socioanalysis would move away from the standard one-dimensional account of the President’s actions that we often see in the news media. In its place, we would have a multi-dimensional exploration of external factors and variables that influence his decisions.

To put this in sociological terms, a socioanalysis of President Obama would consider how his agency (his capability to act) is enabled or constrained by the larger social structure (resources and rules). Like all social actors (including you and me), Obama’s actions are determined largely by the resources he has at his disposal and the rules—both formal and informal—that imping upon his life. Although this may sound like a succinct way to talk about social structure, once we unpack this analysis it is anything but simple.

For Obama, there are many resources that undoubtedly factor into his actions just as there are many rules that he must consider before acting. By socioanalyzing President Obama instead of psychoanalyzing him, we would want to take into account many of these external factors and attempt to understand how they affect and possibly dictate the President’s attitudes and decisions. We would also need to factor in the historical time period in which we live, as well as the historical trajectory that got us to where we are today, because the past greatly influences the resources Obama may have and the rules to which he must adhere. 

You can see that if we really did a socioanalysis of Obama, the picture we would paint would be more complicated, and more insightful, than just saying he suffers from some personality disorder. But detailing the agency and structure relationship as a way to understand someone’s actions is no easy task (maybe that’s why we rarely see examples of it in the mainstream media).

If you are up to the challenge, a great sociological exercise is to try to list, or better yet diagram, some of these resources and rules that may enable or constrain President Obama. I’m pretty sure your end product will be an elaborate and intricate account of the President’s actions.  


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