An Adult Primer on Sociology

Here is a brief overview of sociology that is not for children or undergraduates but for adults who still confuse it with statistics, which is one of the methods used in sociology, and with anthropology, which studies pre-literate cultures and addresses modern cultures only to the extent that they are like pre-literate cultures.

The basic insight of sociology is that relationships, even if invisible, are just as real as atoms or people. Friendship is as old as Achilles and Patroclus, or David and Jonathan, and, if Radcliffe-Brown is right, exists in pre-literate societies, where friends also kid around with one another. The characteristics of friendship, such as trust and respect, remain constant over time even if other characteristics, such as whether people who are social unequals can be friends, either change or simply come to be thought about differently over time. The same can be said of other relationships. A general who wears a toga, as Alcibiades did, is doing the same thing as a general wearing an Ike jacket: deploying troops to go into battle and perhaps die there. What applies to individuals also applies to larger units of social life. Whether a city state or a nation state, governments will do whatever it takes to uphold the interests of their communities whatever they see them to be and whatever measures that may require. George Marshall said that the best primer on government and war was Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War. The impact of immigration on a society has not changed since the Israelites invaded Canaan: there are fights over religion and land. Sometimes, though, overall characteristics have to be modified to deal with particular circumstances. For some reason, immigrants to the United States assimilate in the space of several generations while immigrants to Continental Europe do not.

Every relationship is objective in that it exists as an abstract entity independent of its instances and people are always in one relationship or another rather than without some species of a kind of relationship. A caste is one of the ways in which sets of people are subordinated to one another. It occurs when people are relegated to a single occupational category and this is regarded as a fact of biological inheritance. It follows that people cannot be expected to eat across caste lines much less intermarry across caste lines. An ethnic group is a set of people, again presumed to share a biological heritage, which has a distinctive culture, though its members may occupy different jobs and kinds of jobs, even though one may be surprised to find that a coal miner is Jewish or that a U. S. Senator is African American. The great triumph of the Civil Rights Movement was that it moved African Americans from being a caste to being an ethnic group. A third kind of hierarchical distribution of the population of a community or a nation occurs with social class, which is a category largely shorn of its communality even if not shorn of the belief by some that some people are born to be better off financially than others. This kind of distribution limits the commonality of the group to its relation to the economy, whether that is defined as similar consumption patterns or similar relations to the means of production, which means how people make a living rather than how they spend their income. So all three--caste, ethnicity, and class--are kinds of hierarchical systems, and some, like Karl Marx, thought that the only one that really mattered was class. Relationships, therefore, are altered versions of one another, just as is the case with that other objective science, geometry, where a trapezoid is a rectangle where one of the four sides is shortened.

That sociology is objective means that sociologists are particularly insistent on their ability to state propositions that are definitive and certain even if others may say they are just a matter of opinion. Historians no longer say that it is open to debate whether the American Civil War was caused by the issue of state’s rights or the issue of slavery, all agreeing that it was slavery. But sociologists would say a proper analysis would have always shown that to be the case and that historians are too given to using an “on the one hand, on the other hand” logic until a single position is confirmed by consensus. I was very definitive, as a young instructor, in saying that the Vietnam War, then going on, was a mistake in foreign policy because the Vietnamese were engaged more in a nationalist movement than in a Communist one and that their traditional enemies were the Chinese, against whom they had fought for thousands of years. Robert McNamara said in his endless apologies for what he did wrong that we did not have experts who could tell him what was really going on. Nonsense. There were national debates on television in which Asian experts made the same point I was making to my classes. He wasn’t paying attention.  I was freed by sociology to be as free to speak about Vietnam as if I were speaking about the American Civil War.

But because sociology is objective does not mean that it is deterministic, that people are bound to do what their roles or their ethnicities or their moment in history tell them to do. Yes, people fall in love, usually, with people of the same age who live in the same community and are of the same social class. But there is no accounting for love’s tastes, which are a combination of lust, social expectations, misreadings of character as those are combined with accurate and perhaps intuitive perceptions of inner character.  I would regularly cite to my students an adage of Marx’s as an explanation of sociology: “Man makes his own history, but not under circumstances of his own choosing.” The job of the sociologist is to spell out the more salient of those circumstances in excruciating detail, to lay out the social playing field on which the game of life is joined. Yes, you work in a bureaucracy, but it is a professionalized one, and so the power in it is held, as my mentor Amitai Etzioni pointed out many years ago, by the qualified practitioners who make up the elite of the organization: the partners in a law firm, the tenured professors in a university. And yet that insight has to be updated to recognize that present day universities have very powerful financial officers who decide what departments are to be closed or opened and also to recognize that hospital administrators have a good deal to say about how hospitals run. The job of elaboration of social categories is never quite done even if sufficiently spelled out that you know how the organization or the social process works.

So sociologists make predictions, knowing that new immigrant groups will bring with them a crime wave that will last a generation or so, and that higher education will lead people nowadays to vote for Democrats even though it led them in the Forties and Fifties to vote for Republicans. I used to pose Kreskin like in front of my students and announce to them the prediction that they would all, every one of them, leave the class at the end of the session by going out the door rather than jumping out the window and, voila, that is what happened, even though they knew of my prediction and could have, for spite, sought to upend it, but they didn’t. Sociology is like that. It points out circumstances that may seem very trivial but which are key to people making up their minds on how to behave.

In fact, one of the reasons sociology is thought of poorly by the intellectual classes is that its explanations, once they have been made, enter so quickly into common discourse that they seem to be too obvious to need repeating. A friend of mine remembers her introductory sociology class as banal because the teacher said that children who come to school without a breakfast will not learn as well as those who are well fed. But consider all the other reasons that are also bandied about to explain the poor performance of poor and minority children at school: they grow up in a culture of intellectual poverty, deprived of books and conversation with adults; they are stressed out by violence in the neighborhood and a financially insecure household; they miss a lot of school because they move so frequently and because they take more days off for illness. It is not that those things don’t matter; it is that, to apply another sociological insight, it is easier to make a dent on the nutrition problem than on those other matters. There can be school breakfast and lunch programs, the results of which in academic achievement are difficult to measure but these programs are justifiable as part of the basic necessities for school success rather than as an incremental contribution to success. So spell out the circumstances, sociology, in fulsome and banal detail, because that is what makes up life even if it doesn’t account for the things that give meaning to life. As with all sciences, sociology gives the how rather than the purpose of its subject matter. (Only the boldest of sociologists and that would include me would claim that sociology can solve philosophical dilemmas, but that is another story.)