Sociology and the Good Society

As we spend summer thinking, not thinking, ruminating, not ruminating on classes, sociology, and the good society, I wanted to point to an oddity in the sociological ideology. An ideology is a set of beliefs about what we believe will happen, why it happens, and, as a retrospective tool, an interpretive lens for putting the past into some cohesive pattern. with the present It is not causal, nor is it scientific – though, it may draw from science, be scientific in outlook, and may be causal in how it shapes a person or class of person’s behavior. All disciplines have an ideological bent that crystallizes and saturates its students and practitioners, emanating from some mix of history, epistemics, and other contingencies like self-selection of students. In any case, sociologists learn a bunch of stuff early on in undergraduate and graduate training that largely goes uninterrogated and simply accepted as fact. And these tacit beliefs usually go unnoticed like most tacit beliefs wherever cosmologies are inherited. One of these little nuggets sits at the heart of this essay and forms one of the true paradoxes of sociology. A (ideological) paradox with immense and far reaching ramifications. I’ll call it the “community paradox,” which admittedly is a sloppy, imperfect name, but works for now.

The community paradox rests on sociology’s insistence on teaching classical theory as though all of it was theory and not just (bad) social philosophy constrained by both shaky data and predictably terrible interpretations. The basic paradox rests on a warped view of modernity founded on an incredibly tumultuous and rapidly changing period of time in European history. In short, the arguments are as such: modernity (usually code for urban, industrial, liberal [in the more classical political theory sense]) tore asunder the traditional bonds of premodern social organization. On the one hand, then, there was something lost: the ascriptive, deep kin-based social solidarity was protective, healthy, natural. On the other hand, it was delimiting, “primitive,” inherently inequitable.

The past is simultaneously a golden age to be wielded against the unnatural nature of the present while also being so different from the present that it might as well be inhabited by aliens and, therefore, does not serve as a good model for the good society. In part, this ambivalence rests on a bunch of similarly constructed binaries meant to distinguish the object of classical theory’s inquiry by throwing “modernity” into sharp relief with the past. Think gemeinschaft/gesellschaft; mechanic/organic; primary/secondary; communal/associative; premodern/modern; traditional/modern; sparse/dense; total self/partial self; personal/impersonal; specific/general. It is, of course, simpler to think in big containers, often dichotomous containers, if only because it makes pedagogy much more standardized and consumable.

It need not matter whether these are empirically true. For Marx, the arc of humanity went from some romantic horde sharing and caring to a class-based exploitative system (though, at least he saw the arc of humanity as ending well). For Durkheim, old societies were to be admired for their protective, cohesive qualities, but distrusted for the violence they do to the individual and her freedom, while modernity was, in theory, perfect, but in practice pathological. For Weber – who was much better at hiding his views on human nature – the enchanted nature of irrationally organized societies was always being impinged on the sociological version of the law of conservation: routinization, formalization, standardization, or rationalization, was always a threat to disenchant. He, of course, seemed genuinely concerned about the inevitability of a modern hyper-bureaucratized society ending enchantment once and for all. Simmel, too, contrasted the forms of society that fostered sociality and the totality of self vis-a-vis the metropolis and its tendency to objectify culture and people, reducing the to typifications and stereotypes. I can go on and on with this list, but will not bore you further.

But, that was then, this is now, a critic may push back. I give you, as evidence of the paradoxes implicit sway, Bowling Alone and recent papers on the decline in friendship and so forth (here, for instance). Both sorts of scholarship assume that there was a time in which social cohesion was better, denser, richer, more protective. For Bowling Alone, it was the golden age of associationalism in the U.S., while other scattered scholarship is delimited by data constraints (how far back surveys go). But, the irony in these studies, is that the golden age they sort of imagine was intensely critiqued by then-modern sociologists for being too conformist, too narrow in ideals, too inauthentic, too lonely. The scholars critiquing the massification of society were busy revering the 19th century for its publics and support of free-thinking, localism. So, in the end, golden ageism has been baked into the discipline but also with a careful, studied distance that only intellectuals — whose preferred, comfortable milieu is the very anonymous, cosmopolitan, culturally-rich modern urban spaces — could foment.

Is it correct that small, tight knit communities are too stifling, too nosey, too reproductionist of all the systems of inequality sociologists bemoan (particularly patriarchy), and, shocker, too “rube-like”? And, is it correct that urban spaces denature us? That impersonal ties, achieved over ascriptive categorization, hierarchy, and so forth are the worst thing to happen to humans? Below, I’ll address both of these questions a little further, shedding some light on them, but likely will not answer them in ways that are satisfying and definitive – sorry. That said, it is worth keeping, in the background, a much more complex question: what can sociology actually tell us about the “good society”? If the premodernity is littered with social organization over integrative and regulative for individuality and modernity is too individualized, to borrow a fairy tale metaphor, what is the “just right” porridge to eat or bed to sleep? Is there a good society or are sociologists implicitly, subtly saying we are all doomed?

The Premodern Problem, or How We Learned to Love/Hate Bucolic Life

A passage in Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (whose page numbers elude me as I write this) captures the gist of my argument. In discussing just how one dimensional humans are in capitalist societies, he contrasts sex in traditional times with modern times (modern = early 1960s). He imagines the former as sensuous, creative, spontaneous, and unencumbered by technology’s many trappings. The latter is mechanical in nature and unnatural locations (think the backseat of a small car – a VW Beetle, perhaps): cramped, unimaginative, rote, and objectified. Nevermind the unsanitary nature of life in the 18th century and before; or the essential free license men had; or the lack of birth control that not only threatened the spread of STD but also of pregnancies that were far more damaging for the woman and her family than for the man. Nor should we pay attention, according to Marcuse, to the increasingly liberal notions of sexuality that were unfolding in the 1960s in many corners of the west. What mattered was the fact that the idyllic past was superior to the present in all forms; it was two and not one dimensional. Humans were free then, sublimated now.

Admittedly, this take is influenced by Freud far more than classical sociologists were, but it’s underlying logic was remained indebted to those classic binaries. Equally true, Marcuse, like Marx, was not advocating going backward because there was something implicitly uncouth and uncivilized about the past. In the distant past were caricatures of foraging societies who lacked individuality, lived brutish lives, and were somehow less intelligent. In the more recent past, there were two models: aristocratic or peasant life. No sociologist worth their salt would ever pine for the life of the landed gentry, while peasant life was just as abhorrent as foraging life to our sensibilities.

At a theoretical level, the stakes were obvious. For Durkheim, there was a lot to love in the abstract about the comfort and support of premodern society, but it was also too over bearing, squelching the freedom the individual had presumably attained in modern times. For Marx, was more pragmatic: technology was a harbinger of material comforts hitherto unheard of or unseen, and thereby, should be celebrated!

But, these theoretical decisions have had consequences. In short, one might say that the golden ageism baked into the discipline gives a green light (and a set of models) for contemporary sociologists to reproduce the flaws of the founders. It is almost as though we are trained to always produces a perfect, idyllic foil for explicitly or implicitly judging the present, but ironically, never a model for the future. One might also say that this stance has major downsides to a science of societies.

For one thing, it obscures the biological, neurophysiological, psycho-social, and social continuities between so-called premodern and modern societies (a sleight of hand that adding the prefix “post” achieves, too, but for different reasons and with different consequences). It is correct to say biological evolution has not ceased to work on our brains and bodies; ~7,000 years ago, blue eyes, for instance, were virtually non-existent. But, it is also incorrect, given the overwhelming evidence we have, to suggest the earliest homo sapiens were radically different than modern humans, at least in terms of our brain’s size and shape. Finally, it is also naïve to presume hierarchy, status seeking, domination, wanton killing, rape, venture capitalism (that is, the kind of capitalism of raiding), and the like were non-existent. Humans are animals, despite our big brains and moral conscience. The evidence suggests aggressive male upstarts have always existed, going back to the last common ancestor we shared with chimps and, likely, with gorillas (Boehm 2001). Societies had to work exceptionally hard to beat back these upstarts, and thus when the conditions were ripe – e.g., real/imagined/manufactured external threats, needs for third-party adjudication, need for centralized risk management – a fine line between hierarchicalization and temporary centralization/consolidation of the legitimate right to make binding decisions about resource (in the broadest sense of the term) production, distribution, and consumption made social problems a constant, lurking in the background.

Put differently, we are not that different from the past. Marx and Marcuse are right to presume we are far more advanced technologically. We live in societies much larger, denser, and complex than ever before, but just how different are we? Probably not nearly as much as we believe. Rather, the past serves as a contrasting tool with the present, serving to both highlight whatever flaw the scholar sees as problematic today while also being hermetically encased and irretrievable. This comfortable process collapses 300,000 plus years of human evolution, acting as a Rorschach test: which time and place in the long duree is the analyst choosing as their foil against modernity? What is it they are yearning for that is lacking today? Whatever may be the answer, the one dimensionality proposed by Marcuse is, in fact, found in sociology’s stance towards the past and not in the present.

A Portrait of an Era in its Infancy

In contrast to the natural state of premodernity, modernity was distrusted by classical theorists. Unlike premodern times, modernity was unnatural. The hardness of concrete, steel, right angles, and a quickened pace of life easily parallels the hardened social characteristics of urbanity like impersonal social ties, anonymity among denizens of the megalopolis, shrinking family networks, objectified economic relations, growing secondary (read: utilitarian) associations, and the constant surveillance of the State. We are one-dimensional, robbed of everything subjective, communal, sensuous, moral; the world is disenchanted and, though efficient and productive, dehumanizing; mutual interdependence and liberal individualism allow for free thinking and diversity, and yet are vulnerable to overspecialization, alienation, anomie, exploitation, and the like.

Durkheim so feared the disintegrative forces of modernity that he wrote a book on suicide as caused by a confluence of modern forces that severed the strong ties of the past (of which he was ambivalent about in the first place!) and caused moral confusion. These harsh critiques remain as vivid as the images of smoky factories, dirty and impoverished urban spaces, and squalor of a Dickens’ novel. And while modernity is not only factories and cities, the classics and their descendants have mostly been engaged with urbanity, industrialism, and the like, which is perhaps why so many have rushed to move on from modernity into some imagined new stage of human life

(BRIEF DIGRESSION: A sort of irony in the unyielding fear and Cassandra-ism of classical theory is that for all the distaste for the dangers of modernity, academics are intellectuals and intellectuals have historically favored denser, culturally richer, more vibrant spaces. The image of the salon, coffee house, or beer hall life – real or manufactured by fiction – captures the effervescing qualities of Durkheim’s moral density. But, cities have also offered protection both in their provision of anonymity and in their relative politico-economic autonomy (at least since the Italian-city states [Rashdall 1936]) from the larger political territories in which they are nestled. Bologna, Salerno, and Paris were the first sites of universities, underscoring the pull cities had in the first place — legal scholars attracted second-born sons who were blocked by primogeniture from their inheritance and who saw few other honorable options beyond priesthood or monastic life — and their central place as engines of further growth.)

Were the classical theorists correct? Have denser populations in highly differentiated social organizational patterns dehumanized us?

Arguably, this position ignores several alternative interpretations of modernity that see life, today, as perhaps more closely resembling life in foraging societies. The long arc of history might be represented as a negative curvilinear line, with the poles representing a host of organizational elements that are in fact natural to the earliest homo sapiens and that these modern societies share with them today (Maryanski and Turner 1992); albeit with modifications, and some key differences.

Up until 10,000-12,000 years ago, small-scale societies were the rule and not the exception. The two basic organizational features of these small-scale societies? The abstract community and the nuclear family, which served as the basic productive unit. Not surprisingly, we share the former with Gorillas and Chimps, who have a very clear sense of membership in a community, while the latter is a result of selection pressures working on the other durable source of social organization: mother-child bonds. When humans settled down, extended family became increasingly important as lineage shaped property rights, inheritance, defensive measures, and collective risk management. Thus began the social cage of kinship. Fast forward to today, and we see that modernity has been an unabated assault on this cage, eroding the thick webs that ensnared people, and making the primary/immediate family the basic unit of social organization for most humans.

The question, then, are we happier with greater autonomy and fewer strong tie obligations, like other apes and foraging societies, or are we happier in dense, complex social networks? Intriguing question, to be sure. Clearly, our big brains allow us to be flexible in the diversity of milieus we can inhabit, but we are still apes whose neurobiology has not evolved radically since homo sapiens branched off.

Another example of the curvilinear pattern: stratification and inequality. At either pole, we find much lower levels of stratification and inequality (there is no evidence, to my knowledge, of a truly communal or communist society, despite humans’ best efforts). It is radical to speak of the current world as less stratified and inequitable as the past, but the data do not lie (Nolan and Lenski 2014; Sanderson 1999). In particular, one thing the social cage brought with it was pressures to consolidate and centralize leadership. For 300,000 years, humans worked hard to reduce domination and prevent enduring leaders from calcifying political roles. As the slow march of political differentiation accelerated some 5,000 years ago, so to did the extraordinary amount of oppression, injustice, impoverishment, and so forth.

This is not to say that inequality hasn’t sharpened over the last few decades (it has); or that poverty has been eliminated (it hasn’t); or that we couldn’t or shouldn’t be better (we can and should). It is a simple fact that the vast majority of agrarian societies consisted of the tiniest of proportions of humans living their best lives while the rest of society either serviced those people or were like the humans in the Matrix: born into the life of a battery to keep the system afloat, birth new batteries, and die once this purpose was served.

I could go on about other similarities. The rise of spirituality, syncretism, agnosticism, and secularism parallel preliterate religious life far more than the trappings of highly organized religions, for example. But, the bigger point is that the myriad social cages humans have spent millennia erecting as mechanisms of control have been demolished or reduced. Of course, the amount of control and domination, a critic might respond, has increased! So, how do we square the ape trait for autonomy and independence with the sharp rise of surveillance, biopolitics, and so forth?

I would argue we are not as controlled as one might suspect, especially when compared to the idyllic small community pf Marcusian imagination. A small percentage of crimes are solved; a not insignificant portion of the population cheats on their taxes, even a little bit, and never gets caught; people consume immense amounts of porn and can hide their addiction (and, I am not talking just run of the mill porn, but the types of sexual behavior that in a small town in the 18th century would be known through gossip and would lead to expulsion, in the case of a man, and perhaps being burned at the stake, in the case of a woman). Does the state excessively monitor and severely sanctioning segments of the population? Unfortunately yes. But, the idea that we are controlled is just another version of oversocialized sociological theory.

More broadly, every society works to monitor and sanction its people. Smaller, denser social spaces, like a chiefdom village or the idyllic American small town, are far more adept at doing this (see Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, for the amount of knowledge a resident would have of most other residents). Deviance is far more difficult to pull off, especially deviance that exceeds the local definition of “garden variety.” Modernity is significantly freer than at any point since 10,000 years ago, even if our keystrokes are being recorded.


There are empirical and theoretic implications for sociology’s adherence to this paradox. Consider the following example.

Durkheim’s larger goal was to demonstrate the power of sociology as a lens shaping research questions, methods, and the subsequent explanations for social behavior. It was not just about suicide, but suicide served as a perfect example for so many reasons. But, the community paradox constrained his analysis and framing and set the rules of the game for studying suicide (or any behavior that employs a explicit or implicit Durkheimian methodological logic). First, suicide is always a social pathology, but it is only in modernity that we can learn something interesting. Durkheim validates this decision by arbitrarily and glibly declaring fatalistic suicide a type only interesting to historians and altruistic suicide a relic of underindividuated “primitive” societies (for criticism of these decisions, see this and that). Imagine a general theory of anything that denies two of its four categories as relevant to inquiry! (It has had real effects on contemporary sociology of suicide in so far as they have eluded empirical investigation for the most part).

It also set up an untenable situation that speaks to a larger sociological dilemma (which I’ll unpack shortly): how do we ascertain what enough integration and regulation are? Too much or too little are unhealthy, but where is the “just right” porridge? This slippage weakens the explanatory power of his two great dimensions causing suicide. What’s more, it reinforces the mythology that cities are bad or unnatural. But, Durkheim offers no alternative, as he sees premodernity as a romanticized Garden of Eden (more protective, yay!) but ultimately a Panopticon of horror (no individuality, boo!). He even names one of his types of suicide (altruistic) after the fact that these societies have the “right” to demand individuals sacrifice themselves. The alternative, for Durkheim, is to embrace the liberal institutions of education and democracy, but at the cost of atrophying social ties and, where capitalism gets a foothold, moral relativism and dysregulation. Durkheim passes no real judgment, not explicitly, on the former, but his chapter on anomie offers a scathing critique of the ethos of capitalist urbanity.

The bigger issue here is Durkheim makes his readers think that suicide is a modern malaise, and not something endemic to human societies (which, it is); therefore, it is just outside the reaches of a comparative, cross-cultural sociology. Or, maybe he makes us feel that contemporary suicides are more problematic because contemporary society is not natural. He defines the parameters of sociology as modernity and the study of modern problems in the context of modernity, just as most of the classical theorists do by holding up the social problems most salient to them as exemplars.

Consequently, the old, which encompasses millennia of human evolution, are collapsed into a one dimensional foil to be easily compared to today because today is so radically different (a sleight of hand employed by postmodernists and post-everythingists, too). Even Weber, who is perhaps the most judicious and historically adept sociologist draws his own lines (pre-Reformation/post-Reformation) – though, in his defense, he is better at drawing on social continuities even if his empirics are sometimes questionable.

The last thing I will say requires stepping back from the details, and thinking about this paradox and what its says about sociologists and their view of the world. Philosophy has long wondered what the “good society” is, and this tradition greatly influenced the founders of the discipline; how could it not, as sociology, like most social sciences, grew out of philosophy. It still preoccupies the discipline’s zealous commitment to social problems and has taken purchase in an entire wing broadly defined as “critical.” And yet, the community paradox is broadly infused in our DNA. What does that say about us?

The past, if we squint hard enough, was once golden, but also abhorrent in too many ways to count. It is used as both a blunt instrument and surgical scalpel to critique modernity. The present is unnatural, filled with inequities, and prologue to the future. If these are our options, a golden age to which we objectively cannot return nor would we really want to return and a corrupt modern world, then what is a good society? Clearly, the best we can offer are utopias, but these rarely reflect the actual generalizable qualities of humans and human societies!

I offer no answers, just questions. Maybe there is no good society? Maybe there just are societies?

About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
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