The Criticism of Society

Sociologists during its Golden Age in the United States, during the Forties through the Sixties, were able to notice what had just not occurred to other people, as when David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd, saw Americans as engaged in trying to please one another, gain the approval of others, rather than engage in the dog-eat-dog tactics of interpersonal relations that had for so long been hallowed as the accurate way to assess the American character largely because that portrait was in keeping with the ideology of Social Darwinism that people claimed to believe. Insight triumphed over trumpeted theory. Robert Merton, writing at about the same time as Riesman, had an equally probing insight into American prejudice which he elaborated into an essay, “Discrimination and the American Creed”. He noted that when people said they were not prejudiced even if they engaged in discrimination they might be telling the truth. They were simply behaving as they were expected to do regardless of their personal feelings. Merton then did a twist on this insight that turned it into sociology. He created a typology of people who acted in accord with their beliefs and those who acted contrary to their beliefs and so decided that most people were “summer soldier” haters in that they would abandon prejudicial behavior if they were supported in doing so by a changed social context, which is indeed what happened over the next generation. Merton had done sociology because he had transformed what he noticed about the nuances of the human psyche into the objective, invisible social structures that give rise to these nuances.

Sad to say, though, sociologists in the past generation or two have for the most part sold their birthrights by becoming advocates for one or another social cause rather than remaining the people who provide the uncommon analysis and the uncommon wisdom. Their roles as social commentators has been taken up by journalists, such as those who work for the networks and the cable stations and for the New York Times, these people knowing less than what they speak, and they are joined in the commentariat by the behavioral economists who simply reinvent square wheels for the engine of social analysis that sociologists have been putting in place for the past two hundred years, and so get things only a bit right and so therefore very wrong. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the co-authors of Freakonomics, show how selling drugs is not a profitable activity except for those at the very top, and so drug dealing follows the economic logic of Hollywood and professional sports: the odds are long, people drawn into the occupation hoping to strike it rich, most of them not doing so and so continuing to live in their mothers’ apartments. That is true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Other reports on drug dealing activities suggest that those on the lower levels are children who are recruited to make individual transactions because they are not subject to severe criminal penalties and who do not depend on drug sales for their income because they do indeed live at home. Older drug dealers, including the top bosses, may not live at home, but they are not the smart businessmen Levitt and Dubner suggest them to be. Rather, they are borderline psychopaths who keep their own underlings in line with their unpredictable tempers and who spend their own money on closets filled with sneakers. Perhaps, given their impoverished psyches, they can think of nothing else to buy.

Levitt and Dubner fall into a bit of the conventional wisdom they decry. Top drug dealers are not, as the Godfather movies would have you believe, potential United States Senators gone awry. They are the flotsam of the underclass community who float to the top for a brief moment until they are pulled under by the inevitable ins and outs of gang violence. Economically speaking, the only skill they have to sell is their own craziness as a way to briefly hold together what is a very unstable organization. If the illegal drug industry were all that profitable, even at the top, it would long ago have been made respectable and taken over by, say, the tobacco companies, ever on the lookout for a new opportunity to attractively package and market an addiction. How do I know this? An economic analysis is not necessary if you look at enough of the ethnographies that tell you directly how drug filled neighborhoods operate, the drug dealers indeed providing, as Levitt and Dubner say, large compensation to the dead, though also so that they can be heroes to the little ones they will recruit as well as so as to buy off the elders from becoming informants. Drug dealers are less business men than they are urban guerillas, and their lives too are short and mean. That is what a social structural rather than a largely economic framework tells you.

The sociologists and the literary critics of the Golden Age regarded one another with contempt. Sociologists like my mentor, Amitai Etzioni, thought that reading "Moby Dick" did not make you an expert on American society, and literary critics like Lionel Trilling, who was regarded by other literary critics as very concerned for social contexts, thought of sociologists as crude and insensitive. Both sides forgot was what the two disciplines had in common. Literary criticism, for its part, is a set of techniques which are just as objective as those known to other disciplines. It is the analysis of documents to understand their nature as documents, not just the particular argument that is being made, not the black letter law of documents, but what makes the document make sense or appealing. It is to hearken back to Aristotle’s idea of rhetoric: what in these documents convinces people and why is it convincing? Sociology, for its part, addresses the real social world rather than a fictional world, and does so by seeing every instance both as richly as possible, a goal shared with literary critics when the critics try to do justice to a text, and also by seeing that instance as an example of one or another type, which is not that different from literary criticism when it considers specific novels as examples of one or another type of novel: the romance, the novel of social class, the “experimental” novel, the “post-colonial” novel. Moreover, what some sociologists denigrates as “qualitative” techniques, such as ethnographies or “insight based” analysis, is not just useful until a tight statistical analysis comes along. Rather, qualitative analysis provides a direct knowledge of the social structures that are operating even if it cannot quantify the contribution each of these structures makes to the apparent behavior which is the object of sociological explanation.

It is not necessary to persist in this shroud of ignorance. A combination of critical technique and sociological theory are applicable to contemporary social policy. Expect to find in social life the complexity of fictions and of literature in general. Use the documents available to the general public as the data that is out there about American life. That allows for an analysis of American society and social structure, American politics, religious institutions (not to speak of the religious texts that have for two generations now been subject to literary critical techniques), media structures as well as their products, and all those other phenomena (which is just about everything except, possibly, the natural world) which depend on words as those are expressed in one way, in one genre, with one set of understandings, rather than another. It is like Moses Hadas disclosing to me that cook books are literature, just the way the letters of Abelard and Heloise or the notebooks of Leonardo are also literature. What is it that they are about? How do they mix their materials? What is the distinctive purpose and the particular emotions associated with this presentation?

Such an approach reveals that the rhetoric of contemporary American politics, filled as it is with talk of trust and the need to look after the stability of the rich and the corporations the rich invest in, indicates the ways in which political elites are related to their dual and contrasting constituencies, the voters and their financial backers, so that, for example, the poor of Louisiana get lost in pork and national politics. That is not different from showing that campaign financing makes a difference; it provides evidence for how both major political parties in America combines populist rhetoric with elite interests. One can similarly address the question of why Americans are spending the part of their incomes that might otherwise be saved. Consult the facts of social life rather than macro-economic accounting schemes. That there has been an increase in what a sociologist might categorize as the carrying charges of social life, those all but fixed costs of daycare, car loans, mortgages, tuitions, and so on, means there is less reason for economists to decry the unwillingness of Americans to save. And so on, though not only about politics and social structure.