You are on page 1of 23

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY

:

R. A. MORROW

28

CHAPTER 2. PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIETY” AND “SOCIOLOGY”: THE DEFINING SOCIAL INQUIRY Introduction As should be evident by now – perhaps painfully, courses in introductory sociology do not necessarily provide an adequate foundation for understanding social theory. The task of this chapter will be to slow down and shift the pace of discussion by attempting to reflect more carefully upon the discrepancies between the view of sociology and society typically found in introductory texts and more advanced discussions of the type alluded to in chapter 1. If we are going to discuss classical social theory in some depth, it is necessary to think more carefully about conventional notions of what “sociology” as the study of “society” entails, not only as a form of theory and research, but also with respect to our own personal existence and everyday lives. Problematizing Sociology: Conflicting Paradigms The form of questioning involved this chapter will be referred to with the somewhat technical notion of problematization in order to emphasize its significance as a sociological way of engaging in a form of reflexivity that goes beyond common sense. The point is not to say that conventional uses of terms are “right” or “wrong” in any strict or definitive sense. The goal is rather to become sensitized to using such terms more carefully by being aware of their ambiguities and avoid using them as simplistic “buzz words” with superficial meanings. In order to problematize concepts such as sociology and society, we could employ either of the basic strategies for analyzing social theories generally mentioned in chapter 1: historical or systematic. From an historical perspective it is necessary to ask questions about when and why discussions of such concepts emerge and the diverse meanings given to them in different contexts. Since this historical theme will be central to Part II, we do not need to focus on this aspect now. On the other hand, from a more systematic perspective – the focus of this chapter - it is possible to problematize these terms in more logical terms by looking at their conceptual ambiguities. In particular, the concern will be to examine more closely the nature of “sociology” as a system of concepts and “society” as the thing or object that these concepts seek to explain and interpret. As we will see, it is impossible to reduce either one of these terms of reference – sociology or society - to a single, essential definition. On the one hand, society as a unit of analysis is not as straightforward as it appears on first sight, especially viewed comparatively and in the context of globalization. On the one hand, sociological and social theories are diverse and are themselves composed of multiple kinds of theorizing. A useful way for dealing with this problem of defining “theory” is to begin by thinking in terms of how it is composed of different kinds of discourses as was suggested earlier, e.g. metatheoretical, empirical, normative. A second step is to recognize how these three types of theorizing can be combined into distinctive configurations as “perspectives” or “approaches” within particular historical contexts (e.g. the mid-20th century confrontation between conflict and functionalist theory). Useful for this purpose is a term from the history and sociology of science that refers to fundamental theoretical approaches as paradigms – a concept that will be discussed in greater detail later. The term “theory” is

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

29

problematic because it is based on the assumption that a research approach is based on an explicit system of explanatory theoretical concepts whose essential, unifying logic can be reconstructed completely independent of its context of origin and deeper philosophical and methodological assumptions.1 But the actual reality of inquiry is more than a system of formal concepts that “explain” things because research is ultimately a special kind of social activity that binds individuals together as part of research communities. A fundamental theoretical perspective is also defined by commitments to a number of metatheoretical and normative assumptions, many of which are only implicit as part of an overall view of social reality. For example, the older paradigmatic opposition between “conflict” and “consensus” theory (i.e., the functionalist focus on social order) was not merely a question whether to focus empirically on conflict or order because such differences were also embedded in different conceptions of social science and values. In practice, conflict theories do analyze cultural consensus, but tend to interpret it as pseudo-consensus. Similarly, functionalist theories also study conflict, but interpret it terms of concepts such as “strains” and “dysfunctions”. Such differences are the effect of both methodological and normative assumptions. The more sociological concept of paradigm, in short, stresses how social theories involve communities of inquiry that develop competing analyses of reality drawing upon a combination of metatheoretical, empirical and normative assumptions. Three Illustrative Themes For the purpose clarifying why competing paradigms of social knowledge are inevitable, this chapter will address three questions as part of problematizing the view of society and sociology typically presented in introductory texts. The implications and sources of paradigmatic diversity will be discussed in terms of the following themes: (a) neither the concept of “society” or “sociology” as a “science” provide stable, foundational reference points for a unified discipline; (b) given that the “reality” studied by social research has both “subjective” and “objective” dimensions, methodological and theoretical diversity is inevitable; and (c) given the discrepancies between common sense and expert knowledge, the results and normative implications of social knowledge are inevitably contested, but nevertheless essential for individual and collective understanding. The first section will thus begin by problematizing the rather simplistic definitions of society and sociology that are given in introductory texts. Particular attention will be given to the limitations of defining sociology as the study of “society” and the ambiguities of the idea of a “scientific” sociology in order to make sense of the diversity of practices in social theory and research. The second section will take up the standard introductory question of the relationship between the “individual” and “society”, though it will be re-framed in terms of the distinction between agency and structure as part of a discussion of methodological pluralism. The central theme here will be how both agency and structure can be viewed from the perspective of both more “subjective” and “objective” modes of inquiry, each
1

Conventionally, philosophers of science (e.g. Karl Popper) made a fundamental distinction between the “logic of verification” of a theory and its “context of discovery” as completely unrelated questions. From the perspective of postempiricist philosophies of science, however, what a theory “is” cannot be fully disconnected from some understanding of the research community that produced and sustains it as a theoretical perspective.

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

30

with respective strengths and weaknesses. Attention will also be given to how conceptual tricks of the mind and power relations complicate the study of agency and structure. The third section will focus on some of the issues raised by problematizing the self and self-knowledge in light of the effects of power and self-deception in social life. Particular attention will be given the existential self as the point of departure for actively engaging social inquiry. The central question here can be formulated as follows: how can freedom or autonomy be possible in a world of social determinisms? Another theme will be the potential conflict between sociological accounts of social reality and those of social actors who may be caught up in relations of power that produce forms of mis-recognition that may culminate in what has been called “false consciousness”. As an illustration of the implications of the preceding discussion, what is ritualistically discussed as “socialization” in introductory sociology will also be problematized. Beyond Introductory Sociology: Problematizing Society and Sociology Introductory Definitions As a point of departure, consider the following as a hypothetical definition of sociology of the type one finds in standard introductory sociology texts:
Sociology is a social science discipline that uses the scientific method to construct sociological theories in order to explain society in terms of the relationships between basic micro phenomena (e.g. interacting individuals, groups) and macro- social structures (e.g. institutions). 2

In order to problematize this type of definition analytically, it is necessary to reveal the latent assumptions and implications of each of its terms. Such a “close reading” requires that attention be given not only to what is explicitly or implicitly “present” in the definition, but also to detecting themes that might be conspicuous by their “absence”. Aspects of these more implicit meanings can be determined by subsequent, more detailed discussions of terms such as “theory” and “explanation”. For our purposes, however, we can frame a close reading in terms of the three forms of theorizing that were used to define social theory: metatheory, empirical theory, normative theory. In other words, introductory texts are typically written from a taken-for-granted, paradigmatic perspective whose assumptions are not made fully explicit.

2

Here is a representative example from a recent introductory text oriented toward a “global perspective”: “The hallmark of the discipline is the sociological perspective. Sociologists focus on society, its constituent parts and structures (groups, institutions, political systems, social classes, language and symbolic systems), and its processes (interaction in all its forms…”(Bradshaw, Healy and Smith 2001: 55); “Sociology was founded on the belief that the scientific method can be used analyze and understand human society and social problems. Pioneered by natural scientists, the scientific method requires that its practioners be disciplined and careful investigators, that they use the highest standards of logic and self-criticism in their thinking… Scientists strive for objectivity and agree to be guided by what the facts say, not what they wish the facts would say. The ultimate goal of the scientific study of society is to construct explanations of the social world… A theory describes and explains relationships between variables. A variable is anything in the social world whose value or score can change… Theories usually explain relationships in terms of cause and effect… In the language of science, the effect variable is called the dependent variable…and the causal variable is called an independent variable.” Ibid.: 88-90.

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

31

Metatheory. The key metatheoretical terms refer to “science” and “the” scientific method in the singular, as well as “micro” and “micro” as levels of analysis of “society” as the object of inquiry. An initial problem is that the question of the nature of social science is taken for granted, as if there were a complete consensus. This kind of formulation implicitly draws upon the epistemological perspective of a positivist philosophy of science. The silence results in a contradiction because later on most texts do allude to the existence of competing theoretical perspectives (e.g. functionalist theory vs. conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, feminist theory, etc.) and methodologies (quantitative versus qualitative). To be consistent, the nature and origins of this diversity should be accounted for in the original definition. Even “alternative” texts that intend to give priority to a conflict perspective do not usually avoid this confusion. All they do is proclaim dogmatically that “conflict” is more fundamental than “consensus”. What this silence hides is that these are paradigmatic differences that are actually articulated in metatheoretical debates about the nature of social knowledge and social reality. Without an understanding of metatheory, in short, one cannot begin to understand how such choices are made or evaluate the competing justifications. To be made more explicit, debates about competing conceptions of how to construct scientific knowledge need to be understood as questions relating to epistemology, the form of metatheory that provides criteria for differentiating sciences from non-sciences. We have already seen an example in the contrast between positivist and anti-positivist epistemologies of social science. A further consequence of ignoring metatheoretical issues is that a particular conception of “theory” and “explanation” based on a something like a micro versus macro distinction – closely related to the contrast between the individual and society - can be introduced unproblematically – as dogmatic assumptions - as defining how social researchers should split up domains of reality. Again, there is a metatheoretical term that is crucial for understanding and analyzing different assumptions about the nature of reality: ontology. A social ontology, for example, is a conception of the different kinds of reality that make up social life. Conventional micro-macro distinctions, for example, suggest a dualistic ontology that views social reality is divided up neatly into entities labeled “individuals” and external “structures”. In contrast, more relational ontologies attempt to overcome such dualism by analyzing how agents and structures are mutually related and ultimately inseparable in social processes. Another example of ontological issues can be found in the very idea of “society”. Scientific disciplines define themselves with respect to a particular “object of analysis” that is a distinctive form of “reality”, e.g. physics studies inorganic matter, biology studies living organisms, and sociology studies “society”. But what is a society? As it happens, introductory texts – reflecting older tendencies in sociological theory – implicitly conflate the notion of society with the nation-state, which is itself a relatively modern and distinctive way of organizing social life. To be sure, this is currently the most predominant form of social organization, as reflected for example in membership in the United States. But what about other possible units of analysis, such as tribes (e.g. in Africa or the indigenous peoples of the New World), regions that make claims to independence (e.g. the ethnic nationalism found in Quebec), or empires? Are these all “societies”? If so, then it becomes evident that what a society “is” is not altogether clear because the concept can take so many different empirical forms that generalization becomes difficult. Such considerations also raise questions about the artificiality of

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

32

disciplinary boundaries. Does anthropology study “society”? Perhaps the most fundamental difference between sociology and anthropology stems from the fact that anthropology focused in pre-industrial, traditional modes of living in small communities such as tribes, whereas sociology has specialized in modern nation-states. Even more fundamentally, discussions of globalization have called into question whether autonomous societies – however defined – can be seen as the primary unit of analysis given increasing cross-border flows and interdependence? And as historians remind us, the inter-penetration of social units has always between a feature of human communities. Finally, as the case of anthropology suggests, in referring to micro and macro dimensions of the study of society as the “object” of the discipline of sociology, such definitions are silent with respect to the status of the other social sciences. Obviously fields such as psychology, political science, anthropology, communications studies, economics and history also contribute directly to the study of society. Such silence is the consequence of regarding “disciplines” as providing a “natural” way of dividing up the division of academic labor, as opposed to being the somewhat arbitrary outcome of historical debates that resulted in an often problematic allocation of resources and rigid construction of disciplinary boundaries.3 A more reflexive approach necessarily acknowledges that the pursuit of knowledge inevitably has an interdisciplinary dimension and that the concerns of disciplines overlap. Indeed, history and anthropology in particular propose a synthetic, overall historical view of social life that is not the exclusive territory of sociology.4 Though this text follows the convention of making primary reference to sociology and its canons of classical theory, this should not be read as a narrowly disciplinary project. Rather, this strategy of introducing classical social theory – which happens to be closely associated with the origins of sociology - reflects its primary target audience – students of sociology. Ideally, however, the approach is sufficiently general to be of interest to studies of history, anthropology and other social science and professional fields. As noted previously, 20th century social theory later became an increasingly interdisciplinary activity. Empirical Theory. In introductory definitions empirical theorizing refers to the actual “how” and “why” explanations that are given to account for the static and dynamic aspects of how “society” works, whether at the micro or macro levels. The problem is that the diversity of what researchers do in “explaining” is not explicitly accounted for. Three problematic aspects of such accounts of empirical theory – beyond the ambiguity of “society” as a unit of analysis noted above - can be briefly identified. First, theorizing and explaining is reduced to causal analysis (usually linked with the quantitative study of “variables”), but this obscures how different theoretical approaches are based on different metatheories and conceptions of empirical theorizing that also include “qualitative” interpretations of meanings and processual forms of analysis. For example, though aspects of Durkheim’s research can be analyzed in terms of variables (i.e. his theory of suicide), neither his analysis of the division of labor is his theory of religion can be understood this way. Further, neither the strategies of Marx and Weber can be fitted into
3

For an introduction to the historical arbitrariness of existing social science disciplines, see Wallerstein’s “Anthropology, Sociology and Other Dubious Disciplines” (Wallerstein 2004: 166-190). 4 For an excellent introduction to the relations among history, anthropology and social theory, see (Burke 2005).

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

33

the straight-jacket of variable analysis. Above all, this implicitly positivist approach to the epistemology of social science provides no explicit way of understanding either the primacy of interpretation in social analysis or the importance of the analysis of complex causal processes and structural relations that cannot be reduced to quantified statistical relations. Second, the distinction between the individual and society tends to be used in a way that results in a dualistic micro-macro distinction. In the process, the mediations between the two are neglected, with some giving priority to the “individual” as the foundation for social life and others to collective “structures”. This strategy has the effect of producing an “either-or” polarization between researchers who focus on one level or the other – the individual first versus society first. Though Durkheim can be said to have based his sociology on such a structuralist or “society first” perspective, neither Marx nor Weber can be adequately understood without taking into account their distinctive ways of trying to link agency and structure. Third, the failure to explicitly make power central to empirical analysis has the effect of obscuring how all social orders are sustained by relations of coercion and symbolic legitimation that are continuously contested and resisted. Indeed, this is the core empirical assumption shared by all conflict theories. Whereas Marx and Weber made power an explicit focus of social theory, Durkheim’s functionalist approach did not, even though indirectly he discussed many aspects of power relations in often insightful ways. In other words, at moments even Durkheim acknowledged that all forms of social integration and consensus also contain potentials for conflict, contradiction and transformation on the part of those who may perceive existing social relations as unjust. To be sure, societies vary considerably with respect to the instability and conflicts within their systems of social integration. Since power is a complex and often confusing concept, several important distinctions need to be briefly introduced. First, it is important to differentiate between power as an oppressive relation, as opposed to a more productive and creative one. Many discussions tend to assume that power is invariably “bad”, even though power can take positive forms, especially in the form of leadership or collective projects required for the building of complex civilizations. Second, power is elusive to study because it can take more visible, as opposed to more invisible forms. The more visible forms of power generally involve actions of control that are carried out by particular individuals and groups and may be perceived to be either oppressive or legitimate. In contrast to personal or group power, the more invisible forms of power are structural in origin and reflect how social institutions and processes can have controlling effects that are independent of someone giving commands or orders. A good example is the effect of market relations based on the impersonal laws of supply and demand. Market relations may have the effect of controlling and shaping the actions of individuals, though this takes place impersonally. From a sociological perspective, the analysis of such forms of structural domination and power is of central importance. Again, however, both visible and invisible forms of power can both take destructive (oppressive) and productive (creative) forms.

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

34

Normative theory. In introductory definitions the question of the relationship between the construction of theories and values is normally not even mentioned outside the narrow context of methodological discussions of the “ethics of research”. At best, some texts may refer to the practical goal of social analysis in dealing with “social problems” that do indeed raise questions about fairness and justice relating to things such as social class, gender, race, etc. But for the most part it is taken for granted what those values should be, drawing upon an implicit “consensus”. In other words, there is no systematic discussion of normative theory as a form of theorizing about values in its own right, even though it is problematic that enters into social inquiry as multiple levels. As a consequence, students are left without the concepts necessary for either justifying social criticism or analyzing and assessing conflicting value and ideological perspectives. Unlike standard definitions of sociology, however, all three of the classical macro theorists made value questions an explicit dimension of sociological analysis, even if in very different ways. Toward a More Comprehensive Understanding Though the next three chapters will provide a more detailed account of social and sociological theory, the implications of the preceding introductory discussion can be quickly summarized to illustrate the issues at stake. First, at the metatheoretical level sociology must be recognized at the outset as divided by conflicting views of the nature of science and social inquiry. Such a multi-paradigmatic view of inquiry is a necessary foundation for understanding social methodologies. To engage in the analysis and comparison of theories, in short, it is necessary to understand their epistemological and ontological assumptions. Second, with respect to empirical theorizing, beyond recognizing the interdependence among social science disciplines, a basic distinction needs to be made between forms of explanation that focus on causal analysis based on variables, as opposed to a variety of other interpretative strategies that analyze meanings, processes and causal-structural relations. Further, an effort must also be made to avoid the tendency to view the self and structure as completely distinct (micro-macro) levels, thus contributing an un-productive split between macro-sociology and social psychology. To deal with this problem, much contemporary social theory has shifted to a focus on relations of agency and structure as mutually interdependent, not separate entities. Finally, power must be made a defining feature of social analysis, not only because of its close relation to value questions, but also due to its crucial importance for understanding the mediations between agency and structure, especially in struggles relating to social change. Third, in the context of normative theory, social research cannot be understood without reference to the many different contexts in which value questions emerge as a part of inquiry: the definition of social problems, the selection of research topics, ways of labeling concepts (e.g. “inequality” versus “social stratification”), translating empirical analysis into policy analysis, and using social theory and using research as the basis of social criticism or to facilitate social change. Subjective and Objective Reality: Agency and Structure At this point it is useful to turn to a more detailed consideration of a topic that can illustrate the importance of understanding the relationship between metatheory (including

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

35

methodology), empirical theory and normative analysis. The issue in question is often referred to in introductory texts as the relationship between the “individual” and “society”. In order to re-frame this kind of discussion in more subtle terms, it is necessary to introduce a distinction between the “subjective” and “objective” that is rather different than in common sense. Normally these terms are used to differentiate an approach that is more or less “scientific” – hence objective, from one that is highly personal and biased, hence subjective. From this point of view to label a sociological approach as “subjective” would be very pejorative, suggesting that it is un-scientific and defined by the whims of a personal standpoint. In contrast, this terminology suggest only a purely objective analysis can be scientific. What needs to be recognized at the outset in understanding social theory is that this kind of simplistic contrast between subjective and objective analysis is a prejudice of traditional positivist epistemologies that overlaps with some misleading aspects of “common sense”. Moreover, such assumptions make it impossible to understand classical sociological theory. What needs to be done is to carefully differentiate between the “subjective” as a question of epistemology (and methodology) from the “subjective” as one of ontology. The common sense notion is a an epistemological one about the attitude and methodology of the knower: a subjective (i.e. subjectivistic) perspective involves a completely personal attitude that is idiosyncratic (“I think that”), hence making no claim to be based on adequate and carefully analyzed experience. In contrast, viewed in epistemological terms a methodology is scientific to the extent that it is “objective”. What the common sense argument fails to do, however, is to differentiate between the subjective and objective kinds of “objects” or “things” that make up social reality. What needs to be recognized is that social knowledge requires an ontological distinction between things that are “subjective” in the sense of expressions of consciousness and intentions mediated by language and culture, as opposed to things that are “objective” in that as “structures” they appear to have an existence independent of consciousness (e.g. markets, institutional structures). We live in a social world that is constituted by both subjective and objective “realities” as kinds of “facts”.5 For example, economic transactions have a statistical basis that make them very different than attempting to understand economic relations as a process of symbolic exchange, e.g. as barter in providing a dowry in a traditional community. Both of these dimensions of “reality” tell us something about what is going on, but involve analyzing what are - in ontological terms - very different kinds of things: numerical fluctuations as objective indicators of the movement of goods and symbolic rules as opposed to subjective indicators of social relationships. Both of these “realities” – whether subjective or objective - can be subjected to the kind of objectivizing scientific methodology that is appropriate to them. Finally, it is also necessary to introduce some other aspects of studying subjective and objective forms of social reality that were implied by the preceding discussion but not made explicit: the ever-present normative issues relating both to the reflexivity of systematic inquiry and how power affects the agency-structure relation. The minute researchers begin to analysis either subjective or objective realities they are confronted
5

For a classic ontological analysis of the interplay of subjective and objective “facticities” for the “social construction of reality”, see (Berger and Luckmann 1967).

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

36

with social events and processes that have consequences for real people that cannot be ultimately avoided. Responding to such consequences takes the form of normative assumptions and value judgments that need to become reflected upon as a part of the research process itself. Dualistic vs. Relational Thinking A central emphasis of the preceding discussion was to recognize how “subjective” realities can be studied in relatively objective (hence scientific), qualitative ways that are in part distinct from those of quantitative analysis. Not surprisingly, this prejudice against “subjective” or interpretive forms of knowing has been very much a part of the sociological tradition, especially on the part of positivists trying to emulate the natural sciences. The result has been a polarization between those who give priority to the analysis of individuals as making voluntary choices (the “subjectivists”) and those focusing on how external social structures have causal effects that shape human behavior (the “objectivists”).6 This polarization – which results in forms of dualistic thinking based on either-or choices - also tends to overlap with the distinction between qualitative methods (more useful for subjectivists) and quantitative ones (more useful for many objectivists), as well as the micro (often subjectivists) and macro (primarily objectivists). Given these polarizations in research, there has been a misleading tendency to read similar distinctions back into the history of classical theory: Durkheim is viewed as a “sociological” objectivist along with Marx as an “economic” objectivist, whereas Weber’s interpretive sociology is understood as subjectivist. Though the characterization of Durkheim as an objectivist is not altogether inappropriate, to contrast Marx and Weber as an objectivist versus subjectivist involves major misunderstandings (as we will see in Part II). As contemporary social theory has argued, in somewhat different ways both Marx and Weber attempted to replace dualistic concepts with more relational thinking based on a different view of reality and causality, especially in the human sciences. Such relational analysis can also be called dialectical thinking in the sense that the elements of a whole are part of a contradictory processes in which the components are mutually determining as part of a never-ending temporal sequence. In other words, the ultimate outcome is indeterminate – hence cannot be fully predicted – because it is contingent in part upon individual and collective choices that can only take shape in response to future contexts of action. Both Marx (at least in some contexts) and Weber presuppose relations of agency and structure that go beyond any simplistic opposition between individuals and structures. A peculiarity of the human mind is the tendency to fall back on simplistic dualisms, and either-or answers. This dilemma is familiar in the so-called “chicken” or “egg” question: which comes first? First, this should be recognized as an ontological distinction relating to the causal effects of two different kinds of realities – eggs and chickens. Notice also that this a logical conundrum based on the taken-for-granted epistemological assumption that everything has to follow a billiard ball pattern of linear, causal succession: first this, then that. What is not recognized is that this assumption is part of the mechanistic,
6

This polarization is also related to the distinction – most commonly used in the Marxian tradition between idealism (subjectivism) and materialism (a form of objectivism based on the primacy of the economic). Both subjectivism and objectivism can take diverse forms.

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

37

scientific worldview of modernity and a conception of causality derived from classical physics. At this point we need only concern ourselves with some of the practical consequences of the alternative of relational thinking for understanding agency and structure, especially how both selves and structures can be analyzed “scientifically” from a plurality of methodological perspectives – both “objective” and “subjective”. Selves: Subjective and Objective Perspectives As the preceding discussion suggested, the subjective realities of “selves” and culture can be studied in both relatively “objective” (structural, causal) and more “subjective” ways as effects of agency, just as external structures can be analyzed with respect to their subjective and objective dimensions. The more subjective analysis of the self takes the form primarily of describing the interpretations of social actors from the intimate perspective of the “lived-experience” of social actors. Such accounts can be described as part of broadly phenomenological methods that are interpretive (hermeneutic) because they attempt to re-represent the perspective of the actor descriptively to capture what it is like “from the inside”, as it is actually experienced. As well, phenomenological approaches avoid “judging” the forms of consciousness they describe and reject the goal of an analytical reconstruction of thinking as merely the causal “effect” of some largescale structure. The goal of such methods is rather to grasp the intentions and meanings of actors in relation to their situated actions. In the older German hermeneutic tradition this kind of interpretive problem was identified with the technique of Verstehen – an ordinary German word referring to “understanding”. For example, Weber’s sociological approach is identified with the use of the methodology of Verstehen when it is referred to as “interpretive sociology”. Perhaps the most widely used contemporary variant of interpretive analysis can be found in the symbolic interactionism that originated in the Chicago School tradition in the 1920s.7 The most well-known variant of symbolic interactionism is the “dramaturgical” approach of Erving Goffman (1922-1982) in his studies of phenomena such as stigma, deviance and self-presentation. Such interpretations, however, are not “subjectivistic” in the pejorative sense. Phenomenological analysis and hermeneutics as a foundation of qualitative methodology requires disciplined observation and interpretation and is subjected to the kind of peer review characteristic of scientific and academic disciplines generally. In this respect, such interpretive analysis involves a non-deterministic, yet moderately objectivizing (analytical) account of subjective experience because it tries to identify and classify the categories used by social actors. At the same time, however, social action also needs to be studied in more highly objectivizing ways that may directly call into question the adequacy of actors’ selfunderstandings by referring to the causal effects of the social contexts of thinking. In this case experience and meaning is interpreted more analytically “from the outside” rather than from “the inside”. Not only may people mis-recognize reality, their apparent (“manifest”) intentions may have unintended consequences whose multiple (latent) effects can only be revealed by diverse forms of objectivizing empirical research. To take
7

Though symbolic interactionism originated in the metatheory of American pragmatism rather than European phenomenology, it in practice drew upon the use of phenomenological methods of the type already found in the interpretive sociologies of Weber and Simmel.

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

38

a classic example from functionalist anthropology, a rain dance can be understood subjectively and phenomenologically as an expression of the collective intention to produce rain. While not irrelevant to understanding such actions, this analysis does not exhaust the possibilities, especially how these cultural meanings can also be analyzed as an effect of the structural and functional relations that lie “behind” them, i.e., the social context. From this later, functional perspective, such collective rituals can be also understood an external or objective perspective as contributing to collective solidarity and community during periods of adversity, which contributes adaptively to survival. Another example of an objective (structural) analysis of subjective experience has already been mentioned in an earlier discussion of ideology as false consciousness. Theories of ideology attempt to show how people that share certain key social interests (e.g. based on social class position) have a tendency to view social reality in ways that typically involves processes of mis-recognition and falsification. When either bankers or labor leaders declare this or that policy to be in the “national interest”, an ideological interpretation would be skeptical because it would re-interpret this claim as a kind of “false” or as least narrowly perspectival consciousness that “really” reflects the “material” interests evident in the speakers’ class positions. A more sophisticated, influential way of understanding the interplay of the objective and subjective dimensions of the self is the concept of habitus as developed by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-1972) as part of a theory based on “the logic of practice”. The key theme is that at the subjective level social actors unconsciously internalize enduring dispositions to act in particular situations that correspond to their objective location as part of their social positions (e.g. relating to class, ethnicity, gender). Unlike the concept of norms, for Bourdieu actors do not mechanically follow social expectations through obedience to rules, because individuals must creatively develop their unique personal (i.e. subjective) strategies that take on a quasi-instinctual ways of responding to situations that is reflected in modes of speaking, body language and dress. For example, the habitus of the aristocracy is typically expressed in spontaneous but unconsciously regulated ways that reproduce the culture – hence the mystique - of this class position from generation to generation. In short, the concept of habitus provides a qualitative way of simultaneously grasping the objective and subjective dimensions of individual identity. The objective study of subjective aspects of the self can also be studied in quantitative ways. For example, “subjective” self-reports are quantified through the use of structured questions in mass surveys and the resulting “opinions” in terms of statistical analysis. Obviously, this methodology provides a very different conception of how the objective and subject interrelate. Though the data has a subjective origin (i.e. self-reports), it is transformed into statistical social facts through the construction of random samples, the “scaling” of responses, and the correlation of attitude with variables relating to socioeconomic characteristics actors. The most radical objectivizing (and reductionist) methodology can be found in behaviorism, a strategy that rejects self-reports as an adequate form of empirical evidence, focusing instead exclusively on external, environmental determinants. Though useful for some purposes, behavioral analysis has largely been rejected in sociology given the need to analyze the emergent properties of social life that can only be

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

39

understood through reference to meanings, intention, language, culture, etc. For this reason, most contemporary social theories are forms of action theory in the sense of taking into account symbolic meanings, even where structural effects are also considered. Both Weber and Simmel’s interpretive sociology and symbolic interactionism are regarded as pioneering forms of action theory that attempt to mediate between the subjective and objective. Structures: Objective and Subjective Perspectives Though social structures are more often analyzed in terms of their “objective” properties as things that exhibit mechanical regularities, they can also be analyzed in terms of their “subjective” properties arising from the presence of human agency in the origins and ongoing operation of structures. The objective side of analyzing structures is easiest to understand, at least for those socialized into the modern scientific worldview. Yet even here there is considerable confusion stemming from the use of two different strategies for constructing a causal analysis. The most well understood methodology – based on positivist metatheory - involves quantitative analysis in the form of so-called multivariate analysis. In this case, correlations among variables are used as empirical evidence for providing a causal theory that explains them theoretically. Less well understood are more qualitative strategies of structuralist analysis that understand causality in a different, more relational way. The term “structuralist” here is used in a technical way to refer to the tradition of French structuralism in the human sciences.8 The most well-known representative of this tradition is the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908-) who employed structuralist methods to study myths, kinship relations and the symbolism of food. The easiest way to understand the basic idea is to consider a linguistic analogy, that is, to reflect upon how our use of grammar in speaking involves a form of causality that is less deterministic, hence providing the “rules” and conditions of possibility for how to speak if one is to be understood, but leaving room for individual choices and variations. In this respect, structures can be said to be both “constraining” (setting limits on possible actions) and “enabling” in providing a resource for realizing goals. One of the most important contemporary versions of macro-structuralist analysis can be found in the form of political economy developed in the world-system theory of Immanuel Wallerstein (1930-). As a pioneering form of globalization theory, world-system theory is based on the analysis of center-periphery relations of economic and political domination and dependence. Though structuralist type methodologies can be used in a more deterministic ways (e.g. functionalism, political economy), they can also be combined with an agencystructure relational approaches characteristic of much contemporary social theory. For example, markets as objective structures can be analyzed quantitatively using both economic methods and the type of labor market analysis undertaken by sociologists. But such markets may also be analyzed in more qualitative, structuralist, terms as structural relations of power that generate exploitation, a strategy associated with political economy. Finally, a more mediational approach might focus on the dimensions of agency and culture that remain a neglected aspect of conventional political economy.

8

For a general introduction to structuralist metatheory, see (Caws 1988).

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

40

In other words, these same “objective” market structures have a “subjective” side that is largely neglected in quantitative analysis that focuses on the aggregate and probabilistic effects of structures, and only indirectly considered in political economy. Every statistical individual involved in a market relation is also a unique, voluntary, self-conscious actor who engages in interpretations and makes choices with respect to how to deal with labor markets. In other words, the statistical category of the “unemployed” or “exploited” is more concretely composed of diverse individuals who react to the “pressures” of their situation in diverse, if patterned ways that can be classified. Such social action may be an expression of both agency and potentially distorted consciousness that merits further interpretive investigation. In other words, this more “subjective” and qualitative kind of analysis is paradoxically very much a part of how social life “objectively” works and is in important respects of more “realistic” with respect to how it understands the ways in which social life is reproduced and transformed. Structures cannot work without agents who interpret them in particular ways, just as those agents exist only in relation to these same structures. A Note on Complicating Factors in Studying Agency and Structure Mind Tricks: Essentialism and Reification Perhaps the most pervasive conceptual problem in studying subjects and their identities – whether from a more phenomenological or objectivistic perspective – is often discussed under the heading of the fallacy of essentialism. The problematic of essentialism can be traced back to debates in ancient philosophy about the relation between concepts and reality and later discussions about the nature of classifications. Most generally, essentialism as a logical fallacy occurs whenever words and categories (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity) are assumed to have a deep, unifying, essential meaning or “nature”. In other words, essentialism and constructivism are two completely opposed perspectives with respect to social reality. Essentialist uses of concepts suggest that they correspond to natural categories and classifications (e.g. species, races, genders), whereas constructivists argue that such distinctions are ultimately arbitrary, as effects of cultural contexts. Whereas there may be some basis for essentializing concepts with respect to nature (e.g. philosophical discussions of biological “natural kinds”), the arbitrary aspects of classisifications of social phenomena are clear, a problem that does not necessarily undermine their usefulness in particular contexts. The logical problem is that the human mind has a tendency to conceptually impose a kind of unity upon social reality that does not take into account its heterogeneity, complexity and historicity. Perhaps the most familiar example of essentialism is stereotyping, though essentialism attempts to provide a more in-depth, methodological analysis of the problems involved. In contemporary discussions, the problematic of essentialism has focused on questions relating to how to analyze individual and group identities. For example, from a subjectivistic perspective such as existentialism – a form of phenomenological philosophy concerned with lived-experience - researchers have proposed that individuals have a true or “authentic self” that lies behind the situated selfpresentations in their public life. Such an analysis assumes that personal identity is fully “centered” in having such as an essential identity. Similarly, more objectivistic researchers in social psychology have attempted to construct models of individual and

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

41

collective personality. Or, more generally, much of sociology is based on classifications such as “men”, “women,” etc. that group people together more or less artificially as if they shared universal qualities, a problem worsened with the use of statistical categories such as the “average” man, woman, etc. As critics of essentialism argue, such conceptual procedures do not take into account either the singularity of identities or their decentered, contradictory character. Such issues have been of particular importance in areas such as research on gender and race where abstract generalizations based on attributing essential properties to groups is a chronic problem. However, the most radical critics of essentialism (as sometimes found in postructuralism) run the risk of undercutting the very possibility of social science, which is grounded in constructing classifications, categories and generalizations. In response to this problem, the concept of strategic essentialism was introduced as a way of recognizing how in specific, local contexts it becomes necessary to refer to shared features of identity that help mobilize people in collective action (e.g. social movements). It should be also noted that the term essentialism is closely related to that of reification and that the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Reification means literally to treat something abstractly as if it were an objective, natural “thing” (“sex”) when actually such attributions are an historical, human construction (“gender”). Reification is also sometimes used to refer to anthropomorphism, hence falsely characterizing something as a person or agent (“society wants us follow norms”), Consequently, in many discussions people speak about how essentialism results in the reified use of concepts and categories, e.g. the reification of race, gender, homosexuality, difference, class consciousness, etc. Similarly, it could be argued that strategic essentialism always carries with it the potential for reification, i.e. the possibility that affirming group identity may result in the marginalization and mis-recognition of internal differences. Though this use of conceptual reification as an effect of essentialism is legitimate and widely used, it should be noted that reification has another important historical context of use in relation to Marx’s analysis of how market (commodity) relations distort perceptions of reality – a topic that will be discussed later. Problems of essentialism may also arise in the use of study structures, especially using objectivistic procedures. Again, if a structure is assumed to have some kind of deeper essence that defines its causal effects, there is the danger of ignoring the subjective side of how structures are reproduced, as well as the contradictory multiplicity of causes at work in any social process. For example, there is a strong reductionist tendency in sociological positivism because it tends to reify the concept of “variables” as ultimate causes of outcomes, as if they were things – objective ontological realities – rather than constructions of methodological procedures. Power and Mis-Recogition To conclude this general presentation of issues relating to the study of agency and structure, it should also be noted that power plays a crucial role in reality construction – a point that is implicit in the discussion of freedom in the next section. This issue poses particular difficulties, however, because the most important exercises of power are largely invisible, hence difficult to study empirically. As well, power relations have important effects on the social perceptions of both social actors and researchers, in part

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

42

because essentialist uses of concepts may perform important functions in reproducing power relations. As a point of departure, four basic meanings of the concept of power need to be differentiated. As positively valued concept power can refer to transformative capacities, whether that of individuals or collectivities. In this context it is possible to speak of power as empowerment, whether as an expression of individual autonomy or the capacity of a group to realize collective projects that benefit all. This point was implicit in the previous discussion of how structures can be both enabling and constraining. More commonly, however, sociological discussion of power focus on its oppressive forms associated with illegitimate forms of domination. In this context discussions have focused on three other ways of conceptualizing power. Classical studies in sociology (e.g. Weber) have focused the on more familiar case of power-over, e.g. how monarchs or governments rule or how organizations are controlled by bureaucratic hierarchies. The central theme of discussion is how power is sustained through combinations of two key resources: coercion and symbolic legitimation. In other words, people can be convinced to obey either through fear or their active consent in accepting the legitimacy of following orders from above. The other two forms of potentially oppressive power are more difficult to grasp and empirically analyze because they are more invisible. In the case of structural power, for example, people come to obey because the process of socialization may not given them access to the kinds of concepts necessary for having a different perception of their needs and interests – a theme first raised in Marx’s theory of ideology.9 Slaves raised within a slave culture internalize beliefs in the legitimacy of their condition. Such issues have been widely discussed under the heading of theories of cultural hegemony, hence cultural domination. The third form of oppressive power is closely related to structural power, but points to how knowledge itself may contribute to the sustaining of power relations. This approach is most closely identified with the pioneering studies of the French social theorist Michel Foucault on studies of decentered micro-power as disciplinary power, e.g. as found in penal institutions, schools, and religions. Weber earlier raised related issues in his analysis of instrumental rationality. In all these contexts of potentially oppressive power, essentialist categories play an important role in facilitating the symbolic legitimation of power relations. In other words, essentialism and the reification of concepts is not a haphazard process that simply reflects a weakness of human cognition. Rather, essentialism facilitates forms of mis-recognition that are consciously and unconsciously used by dominate groups to justify their positions. The reification of racial categories in racism and gender categories in patriarchy are two of the most well-studied exemplifications of such processes. As well, it should be recognized that unequal relations of power are closely linked with processes of distorted communication that become primary obstacles to change. Paradoxically, those victimized by power have a tendency to collude in their own oppression because of this distorted communication in the form of self-deception, as in the notorious case of physical abuse in intimate relationships.
9

The problematic of structural power and theories of power generally has been insightfully developed by Steven Lukes in an updated version of his earlier discussion (Lukes 2005).

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

43

Problematizing The Self: Self-Consciousness and Freedom Finally, we now need to turn to a closer examination of some of the implications of taking seriously a phenomenological perspective on the self by looking more closely at our actual experience of having self-consciousness. One of the most fundamental weaknesses of positivist and other objectivist (e.g. structuralist) approaches to social inquiry is that they run the risk of the logical fallacy of explanatory reductionism, or what can be called the “nothing but” fallacy. To say that a person’s viewpoint is “nothing but” a determined outcome of either socio-economic variables or class position is reductionist in this sense. Forms of analysis informed by phenomenological and existential approaches to agency attempt to take more seriously the question of how individuals may actively and creatively participate – despite the potential for selfdeception - in the construction of social life, as well as their own lives. The following discussion will attempt to illustrate the significance of taking agency seriously by introducing a series of examples: how the question of the “experience” of freedom emergences emerges as a distinctive question for the self in modernity; how the social sciences attempt to reveal deeper “realities” about the self that call into question aspects of common sense and self-understanding as potentially “false consciousness”; and how in modernity the process of socialization is a kind of battleground in which individuals are formed through struggles relating to different conceptions of the self. As will become apparent, such issues again illustrate the centrality of value questions to social inquiry. Freedom, Determinism and Power: Existential Perspectives and Modernity Though not altogether without precedent, the new forms of the “self” that first emerged from the Renaissance onward are historically distinctive in many ways. The term “individualism” is used to describe how people increasingly came to identify themselves as “free”, hence “liberated” from oppressive customs, traditions and political authorities. This modern self thus has both an empirical dimension based on how the subject is formed (e.g. theories of socialization), and a normative dimension as part of the justification of a particular “modern” way of life. The most common criteria for defining such freedom has been often codified in terms of lists of universal “human rights” – a theme that has become especially important for global sociology. From the outset, however, there has been a tension in modernity between this new conception of the autonomous self and the eventual emergence of the social sciences. For the social sciences, of course, individuals were the product or causal effect of their social circumstances, resulting in the following dilemma: how can individuals be both “free” and yet “determined” by their social origins? This theme of the opposition between voluntarism and determinism is one of the foundational questions of social inquiry, but one that has often between obscured by the opposition between the dominance of positivism (strong determinism) and the marginalized perspectives of antipositivism (strong voluntarism) found in the traditions of hermeneutics and phenomenology. Nevertheless, phenomenological accounts of the self go far beyond common sense understandings of experience and “free will”. Of particular historical importance for the understanding of subjectivity in the human sciences has been a philosophical offshoot of phenomenology that became called existentialism in Germany and later France where it

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

44

became a dominant influence right after World War II. The founding father of phenomenology, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), defined it as a “descriptive science of experience”, by which he meant that it was concerned with the rigorous analysis of consciousness from the “inside”. A limitation of Husserl’s approach, however, was that is was excessively cognitive (not sufficiently concerned with feelings and emotions) and did not adequately discuss the implications of how our experience was situated in the “being” of the social world. His student Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) is considered the founder of existential philosophy because of how he tried to extend phenomenology to these other, more concrete, dimensions of our “lived-experience”. But it would be the appropriation and radical transformation of Husserl and Heidegger undertaken in French philosophy after World War II that become that most influential expression of existentialism. The most well-known, French existentialist philosopher was Jean-Paul Sartre (19051980), a prolific writer that was also a playwright, novelist, literary critic and social theorist.10 Sartre and his generation had become highly sensitized to issues relating to the nature of freedom and choice as a consequence of their participation in the resistance movement against the German occupation of France during World War II. A central theme of early existentialism as developed by Sartre and others was the thesis that “existence precedes essence” which was directed again the Christian conception of the “soul” (a God-given essence or ultimate meaning) and forms of philosophical idealism that attribute to the self inherent, pre-given essential meanings. For existentialism, there is initially no meaning to our existence because we are “thrown into the world”, hence it has to be constructed through the exercise of freedom. Though Sartre recognized the constraints of social structures on individual lives (he was also influenced by Marx, especially in his later writings), he nevertheless argued that there is always the existential possibility of taking responsibility for one’s own life and seizing one’s potential freedom. Indeed, the failure to do so was a sign of what he called “bad faith”, hence a kind of “cop out” characteristic of individuals who blame their essential self and social constraints for a failure to exercise their freedom. As a new form of phenomenology, existentialism thus provided provocative insights into many of the issues that would be later discussed in social theory under the headings of the relations between power, agency and structure (e.g. Foucault, Habermas, Bourdieu). Common Sense, Expert Knowledge and False Consciousness If existentialism was voluntaristic in focusing on the potential autonomy of the subject, the social sciences have been more preoccupied by the actual effects of social determinism on consciousness. Even though individuals may think that their perceptions of reality are true and valid, social inquiry points to how social contexts may shape and perhaps distort consciousness. There is thus an inevitable tension between common sense – whether in its more “popular” or well-educated form – and expert knowledge. The
10

Other key existentialists include Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir, a novelist and philosopher who pioneered modern feminist theory in her famous book The Second Sex; Albert Camus, who viewed the thinking subject as formed through a kind of “revolt” against the world; and the wide-ranging Maurice Merleau-Ponty who attempted to analyzed the embodied nature of cognition and social action. For an introduction to existentialism that links it with themes in contemporary poststructuralism and postmodernism, see (Cooper 1990).

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

45

notion of “popular” common sense is used here to refer to the kinds of traditional understandings more characteristic of people who have been less exposed to higher education, thus living primarily within the local, oral and religious traditions of a given society. From this latter perspective the social sciences are largely viewed with suspicion as both unnecessary and at best a jargonized reformulation of common sense. Indeed, social science may actively be resented and ridiculed to the extent it is perceived as attacking “common sense” – i.e. traditional views of reality. This resentment is not ungrounded because the history of the social sciences has in fact been associated with studies criticizing traditional practices – e.g. regarding children, sexuality, education, religions, etc. – as obstacles to social change and self-realization. At the same time, however, popular common sense also changes over time, partly in response to how changes originally advocated by social scientific reformers typically – if not always –do have cumulatively beneficial effects. On the other hand, those exposed to higher – especially post-secondary education – are more aware of the social contributions of the social sciences. Such groups are also more sensitized to the dilemmas created by social scientific attributions of “false consciousness” to specific groups, partly because as professionals and researchers are often involved in making judgments about such issues. In any case, one of the most fundamental challenges of social research, especially in its contributions to social criticism, is evaluating the implications for action with respect to the different contexts where attributions of falsifying consciousness may be made. Historically, this problematic was first identified by Marx’s “materialist” theory that linked consciousness with the potential falsifying effects of social class positions. He was of course especially concerned with the false consciousness evident in “bourgeois ideology”. Later sociological critics of Marxism also pointed out how the working class itself may have a distorted self-understanding given the causal effects of that social location. As later became more widely recognized, this issue of the potential discrepancy between the common sense self-understandings of individuals and groups and social scientific analysis of “reality” is one of the most fundamental issues of social inquiry. The dilemma is that such social scientific analysis is necessary to reveal and de-mystify potential forms of mis-recognition, even though such accusations may be based on faulty research and resented – even if valid - by those whose consciousness is criticized. Indeed, revealing the potential misinterpretations of social actors is the foundation of social criticism. At the same time, however, social science is also fallible and can make mistakes. For example, one of the main functions of problem-solving social research is to provide rationales for social control by showing how particular types of individuals suffer from “impaired” consciousness, e.g. in mental health, social work, policing. Such professions inevitably make potentially “fallible” decisions that allow state intervention to monitor those who are declared to have “false” and self-deceptive understandings of social reality: the mentally ill, “out of control” delinquent youths, drug addicts, terrorists, or even those promoting “hate” on racist or other grounds. In other contexts, social science is used to identify whole groups as suffering from distorted understandings of social reality. For example, research on development in the Third World may use economic research to identify the “false consciousness” of peasants who have traditional understandings of agriculture, thus failing to act “rationally” in response to economic change.

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

46

Socialization and Autobiography: Collusion or Resistance? Having introduced both the existentialist perspective on possibilities for the exercise of free choice and the social scientific tendency to see choices and consciousness as determined by social circumstances, we can now turn to how we actually encounter such issues through our own personal socialization into “social reality”. The story of socialization can be told from at least two points of view: the perspective of society or of the individual that endures being “socialized”. Traditional introductory sociology texts tend to take the view of “society” in noting that the practices of socialization necessarily reflect the “needs” for passing on a particular type of society from generation to generation. To be sure, there is an element of truth in this kind of functionalist assumption, since social continuity obviously requires educating new members in ways that are capable of sustaining and reproducing a particular way of life. What is missing in such accounts, however, is that the “future” of society is highly contested, because from different locations within society the “present” may be viewed differently by individuals and groups, based on their access to power and the consequences of the given order for their “life chances”. For a group that has continuously suffered the effects of racism in silence, “reproducing” racism as a part of socialization would potentially be highly contested, if not otherwise forcibly repressed. As it happens, there are various terms for addressing the dark side of socialization that are not ordinarily mentioned in introductory sociology. Though the term “dominant ideology” is perhaps too simplistic, the notion of cultural hegemony (i.e. relations of cultural dominance) potentially provides a more flexible framework for analyzing how power influences the selective ways in which “agents” of socialization – e.g., religious, educational, mass media institutions - form social subjects. Consequently, modern democratic societies are confronted with the more complex question of which aspects of existing cultural traditions should be maintained, as opposed to transformed (“reformed”) in the light of new empirical evidence and a more inclusive understanding of value priorities. Even reflective adults are aware of this imperative in reflecting upon the education of their own children: “I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did”. Such statements implicitly recognize both the possibility of bad “free choices” and a process of socialization that did not adequately prepare them for the responsibilities confronted in the life that they ended up living. A more personal way looking at these issues is to take the perspective of the selves who are socialized, especially in the context of one’s own biography. If one thinks about writing an autobiography, for example, re-telling one’s life must necessarily confront those key turning points where autonomous choices are made, despite opposition of the dominant forces of socialization. Growing up in modern cultures, in other words, is characterized by the tension between “collusion” with the official socialization process (what society or one’s family, etc. “wants”) and forms of resistance – potentially both liberating and self-destructive - that are essential to construction of an autonomous identity. Sometimes this may take collective forms as in the cases where groups may become aware of injustice and resist in a coordinated way as part of a transformative social movement. In its most dramatic and extreme forms, such resistance culminates in revolutionary violence as famously described and justified in terms influenced by existentialism in the anti-colonial writings of Franz Fanon in books such as Black Skins,

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

47

White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth in the 1950s.11 In contrast, the critical pedagogy of the Brazilian adult educator Paulo Freire, developed in the late 1960s in response to questions about the effects of power on subjectivity developed by Fanon and others, takes a rather different approach. For Freire, as expressed most famously in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire 1970), resistance and counter-hegemony should be concerned with facilitating what he called conscientization – resulting in critical literacy and sociological imagination - in order to channel resistance toward non-violent modes of expressing consciousness transformation. As such authors suggest based on their experience of brutal forms of power and domination, self-formation and socialization must be recognized as a contentious and conflictual process through which relations of power, agency and structure both reproduce and transform social life. Conclusion: Putting the Pieces Back Together Again The goal of this chapter has been to take apart and problematize conventional understandings of “sociology” and “society” found in introductory texts. The basic strategy has been to use logical and metatheoretical analysis to reveal how “introductory” simplifications provide fundamental obstacles to understanding social theory and the social sciences generally, and classical social theory in particular. The first step was to problematize introductory definitions of society and society. It was concluded that it was necessary to be wary of the hidden metatheoretical assumptions (e.g. epistemological and ontological) involved in referring to sociology as based on the “scientific method” oriented toward the study of macro and micro phenomena. What such “positivist” language obscures is the diversity of social scientific methodologies (e.g. quantitative versus qualitative) and theoretical paradigms, as well as the problematic conflation of society with the particular social form of the nation-state. As well, such definitions fail to make power a foundational – rather than merely incidental - aspect of social analysis. The second step was to consider the subjective and objective aspects of social relations, questions that are best understood as involving relations between power, agency and structure. The key point was to recognize that – in contrast to common sense – the terms subjective and objective can operate as both methodological (epistemological) and ontological terms. A subjectivistic method based on haphazard personal impressions can be contrasted to the variety objectivizing methodologies that are broadly scientific in that they are based on systematic observation and evaluated through peer review. But the most difficult point to grasp here is that such objectivizing (scientific) methodologies can be directed toward two different dimensions of social reality, i.e. subjective things such as meanings (using phenomenological and hermeneutic methods) and objective things such as external structures (using both quantitative and structuralist methods). Paradoxically, therefore, subjective phenomena can be studied both subjectively and objectively, just as can objective (structural) ones. Not surprisingly, such analysis also invariably involves reference to value questions given the key role of power in agency-structure relations. Finally, the difficulty of grasping these issues was discussed in terms of the opposition between dualistic and relational (dialectical) thinking.

11

See (Fanon 1968a; Fanon 1968b),

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

48

Finally, by focusing on the self in the context of modernity, it was possible to understand the fundamental tension between the postulate of the freedom of social subjects (as vividly expressed in existentialism) and the social scientific presupposition of social determinism. The resulting paradox is that social subjects can never know for absolutely sure whether their perception of their reality (including their freedom) is fully adequate and “true”, hence not unconsciously distorted or falsified by the effects of processes through which they were socialized. Similarly, there is also no absolute guarantee that the de-mystifying explanatory accounts of social and psychological research that claim to reveal such falsifying distortions are themselves fully scientifically adequate. Even in areas where considerable agreement may be possible (e.g. determinations of “insanity”), mistakes are easily made and doubts may linger. What such considerations suggest is that given the pervasive effects of mis-recognition within both everyday life (common sense) and research (expert knowledge), there are no absolute reference points for “truth”. At best, we can begin with the recognition that we live in a social order based on a kind of dialogue between the partial (or potential) illusion of the autonomous self and efforts of the human sciences to both reveal those illusions and create forms of life that are more communicatively open and transparent. With an awareness of some of the limitations of introductory discussions of sociology in mind, it is now appropriate to turn to a more systematic discussion of some of the leading issues in metatheory, empirical theory and normative theory. Terms action theory agency (vs. structure) action theory agency-structure dialectic bad faith behaviorism common sense (vs. expert knowledge) dualistic thinking epistemology essentialism (of identities, as reification) existentialism (philosophy) habitus (Bourdieu) hegemony (cultural) false consciousness freedom linguistic analogy macro (vs. micro) micro (vs. macro) multivariate analysis (vs. structuralist) objective reality (vs. subject) ontology paradigms (of theory, science) phenomenology (Husserl) phenomenological method power (4 concepts of) reification (of concepts as essentialism) relational thinking reductionism resistance (to hegemony) scientific method (as problematic) society (as problematic) sociology (as problematic) strategic essenialism structure (vs. agency)

CHAPTER 2: PROBLEMATIZING “SOCIOLOGY” AND “SOCIETY:

R. A. MORROW

49

structuralist methods (vs. multivariate) subject (social) subjective reality (vs. objective) symbolic interactionism Verstehen (interpretation) world-system theory (Wallerstein) Names Bourdieu Fanon

Foucault Freire Goffman Heidegger Husserl Parsons Sartre Wallerstein

CHAPTER 3: THREE FORMS OF THEORZING

R. A. MORROW