When a March is a Movement

A social movement is an attempt to change the hearts and minds of the population as a whole in the service of aiding the interests of one group within the population. The Civil Rights Movement was successful at doing so by taking the high moral ground. The clean cut young people who were marched off to jail or hosed by police were superior in their ideals and aspirations to the white policemen and sheriffs who were their tormentors. That changed the narrative about white-Black relations in the South from being the one that had for generations been used by those who supported segregation, which was that black people were an unruly lot given to low morals and drunkenness and liable to violate white womanhood and nowhere near ready to have voting rights or be otherwise integrated into white society. The new narrative was that it was the black protesters who were middle class and appealing to law rather than the kind of order that was established by Bull Connors. There were a number of devices that were used to carry out this purpose and those included a charismatic leader, a legislative agenda, a distinctive means of demonstrating their convictions (which was, in this case, both marches of a previously unprecedented scope and sit ins) and an ideology (which was, in this case, that black people were people and so not an inferior social caste). Let us apply this analysis to recent protests against gun violence that were set off by the Parkland, Florida shootings.

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A Primer on Liberalism & Conservatism

Recent books have suggested that Liberalism is on the wane or is confused in its beliefs or was a movement of the moment that lasted from 1932 through 1968. I want to suggest, to the contrary, that Liberalism is one of the political philosophies that emerged in Early Modern Europe as a way to find a basis for authority and the way to organize the self that is different from the one that is provided by the Christian Church, which offers as its answers to these questions God-inspired monarchical leadership and a sense of people as being flawed by original sin but saved through the intervention of Christ. The alternative to Liberalism is a philosophy that emerged at the same time: Conservatism. These two philosophies continue to stand as the two alternatives, whatever are the short term successes and setbacks for each of them, and it does not seem to me that either of them will be soon supplanted by a very different understanding of what people really are.

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Sovereignty & Its Discontents: Blade runner or H.G. Wells?

The idea of sovereignty has been the prevailing theory of the state for at least a thousand years. It is the idea that the power of government was entrusted by God to kings and then, in the view of seventeenth century political theorists, the locus of power was shifted to officeholders responsible, in some sense, to the will of the people. In all of these cases, government was what the early twentieth century sociologist Max Weber defined it to be: a legitimate monopoly on the use of violence that could be exercised on any matters that came to concern the imagination of the government. First, there was the control of warfare, in that everything else was ruled by custom; then, ever more intrusion into the economy, violence used to enforce economic reforms such as collectivization or the regulation of the sale of bread; then, into ever more intrusion into social structure, so that violence or the threat of violence influences changes in the class structure and even the caste structure of the Jim Crow American South; and then into culture, strictly speaking, as journalists are swept off to gulags or killed. As Hugo Grotius, another seventeenth century savant, elaborated, the relation of nations to one another was one of perpetual war or potential war. Order existed only within the individual nation state. This is a long way from Kant’s Enlightenment vision of a state of perpetual peace ushered in by the gradual consolidation of nations into a giant single state.

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Social Problems & Role Theory

Social structures are invisible because they are, after all, nothing more than names for coordinated activities between people, and so are not available to the five senses even though they are made up of events and so are empirical. And yet people have an apperception of these structures even if they cannot give names to them because different structures do, in fact, have different “feels” to them, the job of giving specific names to distinct social structures left to professionals, the ordinary layperson knowing well enough about how the social world works so that he or she can live in it and manipulate it. Here is an example of one of those social structures, social problems, that people sense and therefore know about without needing to know about it with any precision except when a social crisis arises as happens, for instance, when there is a President of the United States who is clearly unsuited to the job and the American people have to decide how unsuited he has to be to be turned out of office.

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Here is a simple guide to human motivation.

People play amusing games with Sari, the voice of Google. They ask to marry her. They ask her trick and obscure questions about history. They remark on how she never gets tired of giving you new directions when you have gone a block beyond where you were supposed to turn. What is funny about her is that she never loses her patience, even though she seems to be a human voice, and we know why that is true. She is, after all, a machine. People, on the other hand, get annoyed if you repeat a question more than a few times; they take offense at lewd remarks; they are displeased when they display themselves as ignorant. That is because they are reflective about where they fall short of their images of themselves, of their self-conscious selves. They know how they anticipate how they will act or have their actions looked at and so can measure where they fall short. This solipsism is the beginning of wisdom because it can be stretched to include all the many ways in which people anticipate the consequences of their actions and of collective action. Machines, on the other hand, are infinitely patient, never jumping to the future, because, after all, they are not exercising patience at all but merely being what they are, which is procedures whereby things get done through physical and electronic arrangements, whether that is a lever, always there to serve, or an automobile, whether or not it is driverless, and computers, that do get unplugged, but do not go mad, except in a metaphorical sense, as happens with any old fashioned IBM calculator when you tried to divide by zero: it just started jumping around the table. This distinction between people and machines, people having intentions and machines not, provides a lever into understanding motivation.

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The Fundamentals of Social Roles

Let us get through the tough and abstract part of saying why social roles are the fundamental unit of social life before getting on to some clear cut examples of social roles. A social role is any human activity that can be named, which is the same thing as to say that it is any human activity that can be typified, which means that it can serve as a model for such behavior, people comparing how they carry out an activity with the idea of the activity. Men and women are two different social roles, even if there are some cases that make this other than a binary choice, and even though it is a presumption to guess at some fundamental psychological makeup for these two (or more) roles rather than to settle for a definition of the two in terms of their overt biological characteristics.

A social role can be defined by its function or its circumstances or some combination of the two. Occupational roles usually center on functions. The job of a janitor is to clean up the floors so that other employees can use the offices, though it is also the case that janitors work at night when the rest of the employees are not there, and so share much in common with other night shift workers, like bakers, a lack of supervision and a family life that doesn’t follow the usual nine to five routine. Customary roles focus on circumstances. A priest may be someone who officiates at a liturgy, that being the essential function of a priesthood, even if it also provides other services to congregants, such as advice or consolation, but the main thing about a Catholic priest is a circumstance, his celibacy, which has for a thousand years been used as a sign of his elevation from his parishioners. Marriage is also mainly a set of circumstances: a shared bed and legal obligations one to another, whatever the state of affection between the two parties.  

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The End of Social Movements?

European social movements over the past hundred years have been largely out to change the values of one or more societies. These movements include Communism, Socialism, and Fascism and, more recently the drive to unite Europe into a federation and the counter-movement to reassert various European nationalisms. There are exceptions to this European pattern, such as the suffragette movement and the environmental movement, but the generalization holds. The United States, on the other hand, has over the course of the century from the 1880’s to the 1980’s had its history filled with movements that are interested in the issues that concern one or another particular section of the population, and that may account for the fact that American history is not regarded as a history of ideas while European history is so regarded. American movements for that period included the labor movement, which was out to protect workers; the reaction in the South against Reconstruction, which was out to re-entrench white minority rule; the temperance movement, where women wanted to save their husbands from drink; our own suffragette movement; and more recent movements, like the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement and our own environmental movement. But all that has ended. There has been no significant social movement in this country in nearly forty years, and the question is why that is the case.

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Three Levels of Culture: The Relationship Between Culture & Social Class

What follows is a primer on the relationship between culture and social class.

Culture is a set of objects and events that are fashioned or crafted so as to serve as objects of contemplation and so yield to their viewers or readers or auditors a variety of emotions, images and ideas. This is true of television, novels, operas, art installations, portraits and anything else elevated to a place where it can stand out as engendering aesthetic as well as other responses. This is the view of culture favored by the philosophical pragmatists of the last century, most notably John Dewey and Arthur Danto. It is very different from the view of culture that we might call anthropological because that view considers the culture of a people to be their entire way of life, including courtship behavior, religious rituals, the way they go about planting crops. The anthropological view does not distinguish very strongly between customs and choices. People do what they are expected to do, even if some warriors are braver than others. The pragmatic view of culture, as do other Western views of culture, thinks of culture as a way for people to lift themselves out of their immediate surroundings so as to have a sense of what is universal, of what is familiar or spot on, and of how an alternative to one’s current life might be.

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Natural Disposition

What is the natural disposition of mankind? That is to ask what are the basic emotions that make people recognizable to one another and not the ones added on by the veneer of civilization. What, in a word, are our “true” or “truest” emotions? The great psychologist-philosophers all tried to answer this question. Aristotle thought there was a very long list of standard emotions. Hobbes thought that there was an evolution of emotions from the most simple to the most complex, the key being when people learned or came to think in practical terms. Spinoza thought that emotions changed into one another, as when love turned to hate, and dispensed with Aristotle’s notion that there was a Golden Mean, whereby the best emotions were the ones between their extreme versions. Another way to answer the question, rather than to arrange a gigantic table of emotions, is to look at the actual history of mankind so as to see what emotions were exhibited by primitive, and so presumably more natural people. Durkheim looked at Australian Aborigines and concluded, based on their funeral practices, that the most basic feeling of humanity was reverence for the ongoing community. Australian Aborigines are about as primitive as you can get on the ladder of cultural evolution. In his book “A Commonwealth of Thieves”, Thomas Kennelly supplies us with portraits of a few of the Aborigines encountered by the early English settlers in Australia, and so let us consider what Kennelly tells us about people in their full naturalness, though the consideration of different Aborigines might offer different readings. We should remember, however, that we often use people who seem lacking and insufficient in some way or another even if they are singular to tell us all kinds of things about the general human condition. Helen Keller showed that people bereft of sight and hearing could still think and Ishi and the wild boy of Avignon showed us how children raised in isolation were limited as human beings.

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Cultural Moments, Cultural Amnesia

Before going on to discuss the present cultural moment, the Age of Trump, let us get straight the definition of the concept of cultural moment.

A cultural moment is the period of duration of a uniform set of preoccupations, emotions and meanings within a community. It consists of the things that people regularly allude to in their thoughts and their talk regardless of what is happening in their personal or work lives. These topics, feelings and images seem to the people of the community to be inevitable references and so not require people to explain why they are so preoccupied. A war, such as World War II, is a public event which defined a cultural moment that lasted from Pearl Harbor to past V-J Day. There may be overlapping events which are fads of the period, that associated with the moment. For World War II, that included swing music and Bond Drives and rationing. There also can be remainders of previous moments that conflict with the prevailing cultural moment but appear to be as such because they are allusions to alternative moments of public consciousness. Labor conflict, a theme from the Thirties, could not hold its own as a legitimate context of experience during the World War II culture, as John L. Lewis found out when public support for strikes disappeared in the context of war production patriotism.

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Social Distance

Social distance is a sociological concept that I will define as describing the differences between people that arises out of them having different ways of life resulting from their differing social classes. As a metaphor, it provides a sense of how social separation is like geographical separation, and that sometimes applies to sociological social distance, as when the poor live in the hills while the rich live in the flats, as occurs in Rio de Janeiro, or visa versa, where the rich live in the hills while the less affluent live on the flats, as occurs in Berkeley, California. Mostly, though, social isolation is a matter of people feeling comfortable or uncomfortable with one another (which comes close to the way Bogardus defines the concept) because of what they give off to one another about the way they lead their lives, as when people use more high faulting language than is part of common discourse in the community, or when people carry expensive accessories, real Gucci bags rather than knockoffs. Some people can tell the difference while others are just baffled. People who follow prize fights are likely not the swells who dressed up to go to championship fights, while it is noticeable that baseball is a sport that appeals across class barriers. Social distance is, I would  say, more significant and subtle than the bi-polar or multi-polar social divisions, like gender and race, that  have been the focus of attention for the past few generations, and which are noteworthy because they are largely overt, people classified clearly as of one or another kind, white or black or brown, or male and female, with a great deal of attention paid to those who fall in the middle, quadroons in an earlier time, transgender people nowadays. People fight for their classifications within and fight against those groups external to them in those dimensions of social life, some even holding out the hope of a time which  is post-racial and, maybe, sometime way off in the future, post-gender, in that people will be polymorphous in choosing sex partners. Social distance is not like that because people may not be aware of where they belong or the extent to which they belong to one social class or another and experience their membership within their social class as not anything noteworthy but only as the way they tend to be, the path of least resistance for habits, beliefs, accoutrements, language, and so forth. To borrow Erving Goffman’s term, people "give off" their social class, emit it, through their behaviors, rather than treat social class as a creed, even if ideologists of class may want people to become more self-conscious of their class and act in the interests of their class, just as some, and only some, Black men and women of the Thirties were known as “race people” because of their self-conscious adoption of race as the explanation of the social condition of Black people. Much more has to be said about social distance to restore it to its importance for the explanation of social life.

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The Audience Is In Charge

There is something mysterious, peculiar and profound about the existential relationship between audiences for art, literature, music, theatre and also the modern media of television and movies, and the objects of their attention. Critics from Aristotle to Northrope Frye have tried to turn the arts into the subject of a scientific discipline, and to my mind have been largely successful. You know how to evaluate a play or a novel because you have learned the type of thing it is and so apply the relevant criteria. Shakespeare does tragedies and he also does problem plays and you are simply mistaken if you expect to get the same thing out of both. That is what a scientist does. But people resist this impulse, if that is what it is rather than a wrongheaded attempt to make art into something that is not. Rather, what people do is evaluate first and then find reasons to back up their judgments. You think of Romeo and Juliet as a gushy teenage romance and then you find things in the plot or the poetry to back that up and simply decide not to notice or just fail to notice the dark side of the play: that these teenagers are obsessed with one another to the point of suicide. You don’t like Jane Austen because you think she repeats herself in every book when in fact she tells a different story and evokes different emotions in every novel, all in the service of her overall plot form, which is how a woman finds a suitable husband, the mystery being to discover what makes him suitable for her. It isn’t that a more callow interpretation is so much wrong, “interpretation” the right word to describe the way a reader makes sense of a book, as it is that a callow interpretation is a premature judgment that can be changed when a person gives a more sophisticated judgment to bear and so can more clearly see a book for what it is. The wise come around to Jane Austen; the rest never do, even if they are enchanted by Regency manners and the Regency setting. How does this world work, in which the audience’s prejudices and perhaps callow judgments take precedence over what is actually there, on the stage or in the text? How is it that we learn from literature by imposing our will on it rather than being its students?

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Foundation Stories

Every modern nation has a foundation story, based in history and social structure as well as in fable, that is used to explain the origins of that particular nation and thereby their distinctiveness. Foundation stories, varied as they are, are cultural creations based on historical and social structural circumstances, often tell something very true and abiding about a society--but not always, as we shall see in the case of Australia.

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First World Colonialism & Cultural Rebellion

We continue to understand colonialism in a nineteenth century way. We imagine it as economically advanced European Countries and the United States exerting economic, military, social and cultural influence over peoples in Latin America and Africa who are intimidated by the rifles and the religion of the dominating country, that applying even to China, which had been in decline, though no one knew how badly until their defeat in the Opium War which opened them up to granting even more foreign concessions. The economically advanced countries could think of themselves as carrying out the White Man’s Burden of bringing civilization to places whose own cultures and economies were backward or had deteriorated to the point that they could no longer be responsible for their own welfare. Ex-colonies are still in the process of getting over the time they were occupied by developing economies that allow for them to be independant and build a culture which produces a literature that looks to themselves rather than, let us say, to English models. But that is not what colonialism meant before the Nineteenth Century. The Low Countries, in the Fifteenth Century, became an appendage of Spain through dynastic inheritance, but when the new government arrived to take over, the Spaniards marvelled at the material wealth of the Lowlanders. Spain might occupy the land but the people did not need Spain’s culture or economic support. The same could be said of that other about to become new nation, the English colonies on the east coast of North America. Let us illustrate that fact and spell out its consequences.

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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.

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Economists & Sociologists

There are other closely related disciplines that really go into very different matters. These include such pairs as history and sociology; comparative literature and English literature; American studies and American history. But let us consider only the profound difference between an economic and sociological approach to social problems.

There was a time when the major advisors to political leaders on various social problems were social workers and sociologists. The tradition reaches back to when Jane Addams advised the Governor of Illinois at the turn into the Twentieth Century about how to deal with problems of urban poverty. FDR was served by Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins, although Hopkins eventually was given much broader responsibilities. That tradition perhaps reached its apex during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty where the major influence was Frances Piven, and the team of Richard Cloward and LLoyd Ohlin, as well asa other students of the sociologist Robert Merton, many of whom were social workers, and who offered up one program after another that was designed to make a difference to people in poverty by offering them one service piled up upon another. These programs were largely unsuccessful because they were to be measured by their outcomes but the input, like school lunch programs, while laudable in themselves, were never enough to make a difference in the overall condition of poverty, while the civil rights legislation Johnson also passed did make a difference because they changed the status of black citizens, making them into an ethnic group rather than a caste.

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A Minimalist Definition of Education

The distinctive goal of an institution is whatever is the primary goal of the institution, whatever other functions it may carry out, and even if its budget and talk seem more devoted to other activities than those that enhance that distinctive goal.  The distinctive goal of the military is to strip or counter the ability of the enemy to perpetrate organized violence through the use of its own abilities in perpetrating organized violence, never mind that the military also dallies in winning over hearts and minds and is an icon of patriotism. Other institutions, like Hollywood, also win over hearts and minds, and patriotism can be tied to vigorous, loyal dissent as well as to risking life and limb on a battlefield.

It is the same with education. Local suburban school boards may be preoccupied with making a campus shine even though their students will do well whether the campus looks good or not; local urban Parents Associations may talk a great deal about a learning environment when what they mean is that the school is safe enough for their children to attend. But a school without instruction in subject matter is a recreation program by another name, and so schools have to offer some version of the usual courses as well as the other things that motivate students to attend school so that they can be known and qualified as schools and thought to be doing the things schools are supposed to do. A college curriculum without liberal arts requirements is a training academy, and you couldn’t sell it to parents as a real college education unless you included those requirements, even if students don’t like to take those courses and even if the parents and students say that what they really want are the vocational preparation courses.

By that light, the distinctive task of education can be defined, in general, as structured instruction for the purpose of the development of disciplined thought about any subject matter. Plato thought that there was a single discipline of thought which pervades all thinking, and for which we retain the title of “logic”. Aristotle thought that there were many disciplines of thought, the rigor or “logic” of which depends on the subject matter and the audience which was to be convinced of the rightness of one or another view. This distinction between logic and logics still obtains. Some people develop large habits of thought, such as how to read texts or do statistical analysis, and some people learn particular disciplines, like economics and psychology and religious studies, and some people learn subject matters, like Southeast Asia, or mass communications, or African-American studies, and pick up smatterings of whatever disciplines seem to apply as well as a healthy dose of some particular discipline so as to provide tools for the study of the particular subject matter.

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Being Comfortable & Self-sufficiency

Dogs show themselves to be comfortable. My dog lies on his back under the air conditioner, the breeze going through his whiskers and onto the hairless part of his undercarriage. He has just been walked and so has relieved himself and he has been fed. His social nature is also satisfied in that I am present in the room with him while he stares out into space doing nothing but being comfortable. He exudes his comfort even though he doesn’t know he is comfortable, is not self-aware of his comfort. Maybe the dog is close to Nirvana, though I am not big on thinking it is better to be unconscious rather than conscious of one’s state. People, for their part, know when they are comfortable and knowing so is itself a pleasure and a satisfaction. I am ever more conscious of this self sufficiency as I get older even though I don’t think there ever was a time for me or for anyone else when we did not both sense and know when we were comfortable. I wake up in the middle of the night, aware of the silence, of the fact that I am breathing comfortably, that my bowels are untroubled, that the temperature is just about right, and that my thoughts can wander whichever way they care to. It is like when my wife slept next to me before she died though not as good as that, my listening to her unlabored breathing and touching her warm skin though not with so much pressure as to wake her.

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