What Is Sociology? Part Two (二巻)




As previously stated in Part One of this series on sociology, Charles Mills stated that:

Nowadays men often feel that their private lives are a series of traps. They sense that within their everyday worlds, they cannot overcome their troubles, and in this feeling, they are often quite correct: what ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bounded by the private orbits in which they live; their visions, and their powers are limited to the close-ups scenes of job, family, neighborhood; in other milieu, they move vicariously and remain spectators. And the more aware they become, however vaguely, of ambitions and of threats, which transcend their immediate locales, the more trapped they seem to feel.

The very shaping of history now out paces the ability of men to orient themselves in accordance with cherished values. And which values? Even when they do not panic, men often sense that older ways of feeling and thinking have collapsed and that newer beginnings are ambiguous to the point of moral stasis. Is it any wonder that ordinary men feel they cannot cope with the larger worlds with which they are so suddenly confronted? 

In order to cope many turn to religious faith, or find previously established faith deepened by the desire to survive and cope with these new worlds. Humans very often seek salvation from their circumstances, if such circumstances and ‘larger worlds’ are deemed insurmountable. Soteriology, the study/question of salvation, often involves mythology as much as it does what we call ‘organized’ religion; the ancient issue of salvation from the elements (weather, failed crops, dangerous animals) to the more modern desire for salvation from human foibles and/or evil (fascism, Nazism, disregard for the environment ergo disregard for human life). This is why mythology and myth making is as much a sociological issue as anthropological. Human religion reflects our desire to understand the world, why things happen and how they make sense to us, and our lives.

The writer Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) was (and still is) the most famous scholar of mythology. Highly influenced by the Tibetan Buddhist work the Bardo Thodol (Liberation Through Hearing During The Intermediate State, known mistakenly in the West as the Tibetan “Book Of The Dead), Campbell’s work dealt with the structure of the world’s myths and how they are related through the study of humanity’s common social behavior, among other things. In The Power Of Myth (a book based on a 1988 PBS interview series with Bill Moyers), Campbell states that:

One thing that comes out in myths, for example, is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light (p. 45-46).

But this desire to makes sense of our world – through stories that serve as archetypes for our own moral/social education and salvation – can be corrupted by the same (human) forces warned against in many of the myths themselves. If a myth is considered an actual account of history, then questioning its structure and morality can be considered socially unacceptable behavior (most often by those who wield power over others). In his essay on memory and myth in What Happens To History: The Renewal of Ethics In Contemporary Thought (Routledge: 2001), Tzvetan Todorov said:

The sacralization of the past is not the best possible way of making it live in the present. Nowadays we need something besides pious images. When commemoration freezes into permanent forms that that cannot be changed without cries of sacrilege, we can be certain that it serves the particular interests of its defenders and not their moral edification (p. 21).

Thus, we see human conflict (often all out war) occur when a society’s grand narrative of origin is challenged. Thus, to understand the conflict between religions and/or groups of humans who adhere to varying moral stances, it is helpful to look at a key sociological issue in human culture(s): the idea of what is good to do or be – ethics.


Ethics, though one aspect of society, could be called the most significant, as it can dictate how humans respond to various aspects of a particular culture. For example:

  1. What is good for humans to do? Should a list of good actions and thoughts be the ultimate goal for a society? Who would get to decide these actions and thoughts? Who would enforce them? What would be an appropriate punishment for transgression? Thus, ethics drive a society’s criminal code and penal system, for example.
  2. Which people are superior or most valued in society? Thus, who is inferior? Do money, age, family history, gender, sexuality, and/or education play a role? Should they? These are ethical questions as much as moral questions, as a multi-faith society must create a social code that is at least considered just (ethical).
  3. What predominant worldview forms the basis of a society? For example, are humans inherently good, or evil? What is definably good or evil? Who is truly beautiful, or ugly?

For sociologists and philosophers, reading the work of Aristotle (387 – 321 B.C.E) is especially important, as his writing is (arguably) the first major example of ethical inquiry in Western thought.

Aristotle studied at Plato’s academy and then went on to form his own school (his Lyceum) in a gymnasium, thus making it a training center for both mind and body. He taught his students to use comparison and contrast to catalogue forms, and thus find the common form or essence in a specific group (using the terms species and genus). By cataloguing ideas as well Aristotle also sought to understand what would lead to excellence (virtue/ethics) in a group of humans. His writing on what are excellent ways for humans to behave are collected in a work called the Nichomachean Ethics, “ethics for the education of Nichomachus,” Aristotle’s son.

The main theme in the Nichomachean Ethics is that personal satisfaction and happiness (eudaimonia) is the highest goal of all humans, and this is achieved through behaving in excellent ways. Thus, ethics is the art of developing excellent character and manners (arete: virtue), requiring constant training from an early age, behaving and thinking virtuously at all times. This virtue can be found somewhere between excess and deficient behavior(s). For example, what is the right amount of danger to face in order to develop the “right” amount of courage under fire? What is a “virtuous” way to eat? Eating only doughnuts is dangerous to our health (thus not virtuous), but eating only one healthy grain of rice a day is also unhealthy (not virtuous). Thus, two or three medium sized healthy meals would be the “middle” wherein we have eaten virtuously.

A virtuous person desires to behave in an excellent manner all the time, and thus Aristotle wrote that contemplation of virtue, and the wisdom gained from this particular act, is the highest form of virtue: the non-stop contemplative life of the philosopher is a highly virtuous one.

But a problem arises when we seek to live a virtuous life, and surround ourselves with what we might call virtuous, or important works by philosophers such as Aristotle. Aristotle is a famous philosopher and he has influenced many extremely smart people. Thus, it is common to see people interested in Aristotle because that is seemingly what smart people do. Thus, to read Aristotle automatically means you are “smart,” merely reading Aristotle means you are inherently as wise/virtuous. Some people use the social power (status) of reading philosophy to make it seem like they are better people than those who have not read Aristotle’s works. This would then make it seem like people who read Aristotle have good judgment as to what is virtuous, like they have better taste in books, art, music, and so on.


The idea that some humans have better “taste” in things is also a sociological issue. But is this true, or is this ability to have “better taste” a product of social training?

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930 – 2002) discussed this issue in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of The Judgment of Taste (1979). In it he states that judgments of taste are related to our social position, what we call our social class. This means that our tastes affirm or prove we are inherently high or low class, and all the positive or negative associations with each class system apply to us. Thus low class (poor) people, for example, have “no” taste, while those high-class members that can afford to buy paintings by Van Gogh inherently have “good” taste. The inability to move from poverty to wealth then means that one will never have good taste! Art, as symbol of taste, is thus a symbolic asset. Owning Van Gogh paintings means you will be able to associate with other wealthy patrons of the arts and thus have access to more economic opportunities through constant socializing with each other, others like themselves. This often means that these people want to hold on to all advantage(s) these symbolic assets give them and thus (attempt to) control that has access to them (who gets to move from lower to upper class status). This control of symbolic, as well as cultural, intellectual, economic capital is often seen in who is allowed to hold (and influence) political power/capital (leading back to my discussion of hegemony in Part One of this series).


Up to now, I have assumed what might look like the position that sociology is essentially a unified field of questions, fully agreed upon; sociological terms and styles are fixed. But this is not true, nor should it ever be true if sociology (or philosophy or ethnomusicology, etc.) is to remain a living, vital tradition providing insights into an ever-changing world. Sociologists often disagree (often quite vehemently) about the state of their field.

Sociologist Irving Horowitz, for example, said in his book The Decomposition of Sociology (1994) that sociology has been corrupted by ideology (Marxist), and thus is becoming irrelevant to actual social policy. Sociology, to Horowitz, should be the result of empirical investigation, and not a series of demands for correct politics (what society feels is correct to say/do/think at a given time). That same year, Keith Tester, though, wrote in Media, Culture, and Morality that academic cultural sociology was not addressing what we should do (advocacy) and thus is useless. Tester would then seem to be saying the opposite of Horowitz, that sociology should be informing social policy in terms of ethics (an ideology of what should we do ergo what is known about what we do). A statistical proof is not advocacy per se, and thus what is vs. what should we do would seem to be at odds with each other.


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