I am embarking upon a new project, the investigation of the social condition, identifying dilemmas that are inevitably built into the social fabric, and exploring the ways people work to address them. Some examples:
It is obviously important for a democratic society to provide equal opportunity for all young people. The less privileged should have the advantages of a good education. This is certainly a most fundamental requirement for equal opportunity. On the other hand, it is just as certain that a good society, democratic and otherwise, should encourage and enable parents to provide the best, to present the world as they know and appreciate it, to their children: to read to them, to introduce them to the fine arts and sciences, and to take them on interesting trips, both near and far. But not all parents can do this as effectively, some have the means, some don’t. Democratic education and caring for one’s children are in tension. The social bonds of citizenship and the social bonds of family are necessarily in tension. This tension, in many variations, defines a significant dimension of the social condition.
Another dimension of the social condition was illuminated in a classic lecture, “Politics as a Vocation,” by Max Weber: the tension between what he called the “ethics of responsibility” versus the “ethics of ultimate ends.” We observe an iteration of this tension in the debate about Lincoln, the movie. In politics there is always a tension between getting things done, as Weber would put it, responsibly, and being true to ones principles. Ideally the tension is balanced, as it was portrayed in the film: Lincoln the realist enabled Thaddeus Stephens, the idealist, to realize his ends in less than idealistic ways. A wise politician, Weber maintained, has to know how to balance, idealism with realism. But this tension goes beyond individual judgment and political effectiveness. Establishing the social support to realize ideals is necessary, but sometimes the creation of such supports make it next to impossible for the ideals to be realized. Making sure that educational ideals are realized, for example, equal educational opportunity, requires measurement, but the act of measurement can get in the way of real education. Making sure that funds distributed by an NGO to disaster victims get to the victims can get in the way of getting the funds to the victims. Most generally, organizing to achieve some end establishes the conditions for those who have their particular interests in the organization itself to pursue their interests. NGOs often provide for a comfortable standard of living for its employees in impoverished parts of the world, sometimes this gets in the way of realizing organizational ends. But this isn’t a new development: Robert Michels described this in the early 20th century, as “the iron law of oligarchy.” I suggest that we think of this as a dilemma built into the social order of things.
I think one of the most fundamental manifestations of the social condition animates the work of Erving Goffman. He explored the power of the Thomas theorem more intensively than any other social theorist. If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. Goffman was particularly interested in how in their expressive behavior people managed to define social reality.
The dilemma arises when people disagree about the reality, are ambivalent about it, or even want to flee from it. A prime example is the concept and apparent reality of race. It’s a social construction, as every college freshman comes to know. It’s a fiction, but a fiction that we cannot ignore, a fiction that we continue to treat as real. becoming a social fact. To pretend it doesn’t matter even as it does, is to flee from enduring social problems. But attending to the problems of race carefully has the unintended consequence of furthering its continued salience in social life. Recognize race and it continues to be real. Ignore race, and it is likely that you will ignore its continued negative effects. Controversies over affirmative action policies revolve around this dilemma of race.
I worry when political actors pretend that the complications of the social condition can be easily overcome, following one formula or another, with negative political consequences. This is what motivates me to explore the topic, why I feel compelled to do so. I am concerned that bad sociology also pretends that these tensions are easily resolved, often with a theoretical slight of hand. I am planning on working on this topic, developing a more adequate approach to the social condition, with my colleague, Iddo Tavory. We start by integrating the topic into our classes and publishing a series of essays in P.S..
I teach an undergraduate seminar on social interaction and a graduate seminar on Erving Goffman. Although I have taught these courses over the years, I have now my new special theme in mind. The dilemmas cannot be definitively solved, although schools of thought and political programs often purport to do so. Thus, the courses will present a critique of politics and sociology, along with an outline of a distinctive approach to the discipline.
As I teach these courses, I will be working with Tavory. We have already had some interesting discussions about the social condition and hope to continue them not only, as we already have, over coffee, drinks and meals, but also with our students. We are planning to visit each others classes, bringing students into the discussion.
I am particularly excited about this project. I think sociology can help us make sense of the human comedy and its tragedies; working on this directly with my colleague and our students makes the normal academic life well worth living.
A version of this article was first published in Deliberately Considered.