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.

Read More