September, 1994

The science of sociology is a fascinating and peculiar approach to the study of human behavior, one that is still neither widely nor well understood. As an academic discipline, it grew out of the seeds planted by the Enlightenment of the 18th century.  It took root in the sprawling social turmoil of the 19th century, toward the end of which it began to blossom--finally coming to fruition in the 20th.

As this century now accelerates toward its end, a number of observers, including some from within the discipline itself, have begun to suggest that sociology is now in the late autumn of decline. Whether or not there is some truth in this claim, the life of this unique discipline has already produced a substantial crop; it is that product that I want to explore on these pages.

Early in the early 1800"s, sociology was heralded by one of its founders, August Comte, as the "Queen of the Sciences." In some ways it has lived up to that billing. Compared to the other social sciences that came of age during the 19th century—economics, political science, anthropology, psychology—sociology has had a distinct history. As it grew into maturity, it generated a number of offshoots, giving birth over the past eighty or ninety years to these newer disciplines: criminology, social work, social psychology, and gerontology. These pursuits often present themselves as more concrete and useful than their parent. This significance may, in fact, be more apparent than real, but with that casual irony of succession, they have detracted from sociology's claim to resources and primacy, and enjoyed a greater claim to public popularity. Yet there is no doubt, that if this second generation has eclipsed its origins, it is due in large part to the groundwork that the first generation has provided.

Whether or not sociology has fully exhausted its day in the sun (and we will leave that for others to decide), it has produced an array of brilliant and occasionally exasperating insights into human behavior. These insights offer an increased understanding of our own lives and the situations in which we live them. It is these insights that I would like to recount here, presenting them in a concise and practical way, believing that some of them may add insight to your own particular, but not necessarily unique experiences with life.

Many of sociology's practitioners have struggled to capture sociology's particular perspective, its unique slant on life, that peculiar angle at which it slices into the human condition and draws its conclusions, enlivened by those special qualities that flavor its views. In a brief but engaging introduction to the discipline—Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective—Peter Berger identified this perspective with four motifs: a desire to get behind the scenes in order to "debunk" the more official (and often sanctimonious) versions of the truth; a willingness to investigate those human activities ordinarily set apart and devalued as being "unrespectable"; a recognition that "not only identities but ideas are relative to specific social locations;" and a distinctly "cosmopolitan" attitude, open to whatever the world has to offer —"to other ways of thinking or acting" and "the measureless richness of human possibilities."

In another widely heralded statement, C. Wright Mills described "the sociological imagination" (in his book by the same name) as one which enabled the individual to make sense of the ways in which his or her individual biography intersected with the on-going events of a more comprehensive social setting, to understand that "larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals." For Mills, the real significance of sociology lies in its capacity to help each individual "to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society" and, in doing so, to distinguish between "the personal troubles of milieu and the public issues of social structure." Part of the advantage gained by such distinctions is in being able to determine whether what one is dealing with can be successfully addressed by one's individual, independent actions, or whether much larger and more complex social elements are involved.

The teacher who most influenced my interest in sociology, Thomas F. O'Dea, described the discipline as ultimately focusing on one simple, central question: What's going on here, anyway? he would often repeat. The operant word in that sentence, of course, the one that skews it to become sociological, is that little quizzical tag, "anyway?"

What's going on here, anyway? What's going on beneath the surface, behind the scenes? What blind processes are being worked to their opaque conclusions, what ulterior social agendas are being hiddenly pursued? We all have puzzled over such questions many times, however incoherently they may have occurred to us. Perhaps in this modern, or post-modern, age, these are questions that prick at our curiosity with ever greater regularity. Americans seem increasingly intent on inserting such queries into the very beginning of almost all our dealings with the world, and becoming more and more skeptical and cynical in the process. But once upon a time, and really not so long ago, these questions, certainly in their sociological guise, were never raised at all.

I think it is extremely difficult, if not actually impossible, for us—modern Westerners of the twentieth century—to truly comprehend the totally different world in which most humans have lived; a world with which a significant majority of people alive today still are largely familiar. That world of our common past, and the world that continues to encapsulate so many humans today, was and is a world of limited knowledge, timeless tradition, and very little movement across space or among ideas. In a recent description of the Dark Ages, William Manchester successfully captures the bleakness of this constricted world: It was a world, he writes, where people had an almost "total lack of ego," an "almost total indifference to privacy" and "almost no awareness of time." It was a world, in short, in which "very little happened."

Each hamlet was inbred, isolated, unaware of the world beyond the most familiar landmark ....There were no newspapers or magazines to inform the common people of great events; occasional pamphlets might reach them, but they were usually theological and, like the Bible, were always published in Latin, a language they no longer understood....The folk were baptized, shriven, attended mass, received the host at communion, married, and received the last rites never dreaming that they should be informed about great events, let alone have any voice in them. Their anonymity approached the absolute. So did their mute acceptance of it.

Today, of the planet's approximately five billion people, as many as 80%—that is, 4,000,000,000 of our fellow humans—still live in such villages, although they are no so extremely isolated. Still, these small gatherings of people, often numbering less than a hundred, are separated and isolated from other such small gatherings of people. People in these villages are nearly identical, yet they are usually totally unknown to one another. The vast majority will never, in their entire lifetimes, travel more than 20 miles away from where they were born, and their entire stock of knowledge would not occupy as much space as a typical American city daily newspaper. Most often such knowledge would not be written down, of course, because very of them few of them would be able to either write or read it. Even today it is estimated that 50% of the world's population is illiterate or semi-literate.

Edward Muir, in the introduction to his study of civic rituals in Venice, provides a touching illustration of the localism and provincialism of such "villages". He tells of a conversation between "two stout grandmothers" sitting in front of a small neighborhood bar in the working class district of the city, overheard and then joined by he and his wife.

We talked of Venice. In dialect punctuated by demands for the barman to supply the correct Italian words, the women told us about life in the parish where each had lived her entire eighty-odd years. One teased the other about the wanderlust that had caused her to move one street away from her birthplace and about the exotic taste that had influenced her to marry a stranieroa "foreigner" from Padua, some twenty miles distant. The other in turn lamented abandonment by her children, who had all moved to the Lido, fifteen minutes away by boat. It was clear that the parish was the extent of their world: one had never been to the mainland; the other had bothered to visit Piazza San Marco only a few times in her life. The quiet parish was a place of great antiquity, their church's obscure patron saint protected his flock, the Virgin's presence was real, and the grandmothers knew who belonged with them and who did not. Their sense of space was narrow and confined; but their knowledge of their place was intimate, their satisfaction with it complete, their love it total.

This was the nature of the kind of world that existed through all of Europe's dark centuries. Only with the slowly increasing self-consciousness that characterized the early Middle Ages, did this world gradually break through its own self-containment, and subsequently burst asunder with the great intellectual and social fervor and upheaval of what we now call the Renaissance. Perhaps it is ironic, or perhaps it is simply an inherent part of the human story, that the great flowering of the Renaissance took place not far from the very spot where these two old grandmothers were still living, in 1972, in the "village" of their minds.

Throughout all of human pre- and ancient history, of course, humans have lived together in social gatherings and groups, however small. Perhaps the most fundamental truth of the social sciences is that we humans are irrevocably social; we don't come any other way except packaged together with our fellows. This truism has never been so neatly wrapped up as in the following statement by the early 20th Century American sociologist, Charles Horton Cooley:

an individual is an abstraction unknown to experience, and so likewise is society when regarded as something apart from individuals....`Society' and `individuals' do not denote separable phenomena, but are simply collective and distributive and aspects of the same thing....

But in spite of this inevitable presence of the social, very little and only occasional attention was directed toward understanding it, and so society remained "undiscovered" for centuries of human life. (I am borrowing this usage from a popular introductory sociological theory textbook with the suggestive title: The Discovery of Society.)

Throughout all of time, then, people have lived in groups; they have been, as Cooley says, constantly in the presence of their own "two-ness." However present it had been, it was not really identified, pointed to, marked off, confronted, explored, investigated until in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Why would this be so? Why should it have taken so long? With something so constant, so insistent as the immediate social context of their own human lives, why would people not discover society until long after Columbus set sail for the Orient, after the Romans had mastered the building of roads and the hot water bath, after the Aztecs had determined the repeated patterns of the stars?

In order to try to clarify the answer to this question, I want you to try a mental experiment. Pretend you are in a sizable auditorium, one of a large number of people who have come to hear a guest speaker. A uniformed usher comes to the podium and announces there has been some difficulty and that everyone is being asked to empty the hall. Along with everyone else you stand, gather up your things, and file out. As fate would have it, you are the very last person to leave the room and just as you walk through the door someone asks, Is the place empty? You turn, look back, and say.... What? In all likelihood, you would probably nod your head and say, Yes, the place is empty.

But in fact the place is not empty. It remains filled with row after row of seats, the podium and the chairs on either side, the sound equipment, carpeting, lights, electrical wires, and numerous other pieces of this and that.

Now suppose that the decision is made to really empty out the auditorium, to remove all those things we just mentioned. Remember, this is a mental experiment—we can do a great many things imaginatively without any effort or cost—so let us conjure up a maintenance crew and give them instructions to remove all these things that have remained in the auditorium so that suddenly the rows of seats, the podium and chairs, the sound equipment, carpeting, lights, electrical wires, and all the numerous other pieces of this and that, including the stage itself, are all gone. And now you are asked the question again: Is the place empty? This time we will provide you with a flashlight (since all the lights have been removed) so that when you turn and look back you can see inside the auditorium. In all likelihood you would probably nod you head again, although perhaps a bit more hesitantly this time, and say, Yes, the place is empty.

But of course it's not empty. As you may already have surmised as you became involved in this little mental exercise—perhaps because you were beginning to become a bit skeptical yourself—however devoid the auditorium is of people and objects, it is still filled with air. Air is a rather interesting aspect of our environment: we actually don't see it—we look through it—and when we do notice it, it is usually because there is something wrong with it—it is polluted or smoggy. Most of the time we don't think about air. It's just there. In fact, air is always there. And air is invisible. Being invisible and always there, we take air for granted.

In many respects society is just like air. The purpose of this mental experiment is to demonstrate that something that is immediate and constant—like air—and like the society which similarly provides the very context of our lives—can easily remain undiscovered precisely because it is so prevalent. Society is like air because it is usually invisible, it is always there, and we take it for granted. In some ways our social participation is very much like our physical breathing; we take it in and give it out with practically no awareness. And yet we could not survive without it. Only when it becomes difficult or problematic, only when something isn't working the way we have unconsciously assumed it would or should do we take notice.

There is one more way in which society is like air. Again we can illustrate this with a mental experiment, although this one is a little more far fetched. At sea level air pushes down on us with a pressure of almost 15 lbs per square inch. While it is hard to know exactly how much surface the average person presents, just for the sake of this illustration let us say that it is 2000 square inches. That would result in a total pressure of 30,000 lbs—15 tons—pressing down on each and every one of us. Why aren't we crushed? Well, the explanation has to be that the force pressing down on us must be equalized by a comparable force pressing back. So it's no wonder we're so tired at the end of the day!

Just as air has pressure, so does society. In fact, people who aren't sociologists often talk about social pressure, how much of it we might be experiencing around some particular event or how it influences the behaviors of people we know, often especially our children. Pollsters measure it with their public opinion surveys and pass it on to politicians who then react to "the voice of the people."

Up to now I have been speaking metaphorically, talking about society as if it were just like air. This metaphor has served like a vehicle to take us from something that is familiar to something that is not. But of course society is not just like air. Metaphors are extremely useful, but just as we need to know when to utilize them, we also need to know when to abandon them. So, goodbye air, and hello water.

At one time or another we've all probably heard this philosophically-sounding question: Does a fish know it's wet? As dumb as that might sound, that is a rather intriguing question. So let's try one last mental experiment. Suppose you have two fish who want to go on vacation. One has the time to swim from its home in the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico; the other one, which has a much busier life-style, finds it more expedient to fly from its home in the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. The first fish takes several months to make the journey, while the second makes the same trip overnight. Let's include in our mental experiment that the average temperature in the Gulf of Alaska is about 45 degrees while the average temperature in the Gulf of Mexico is 70 degrees. Which of our two fish is more likely to register the change in temperature? And why?

You will probably conclude (correctly) that it would be that busier, high-flying fish. What this experiment illustrates is that a change which occurs slowly and gradually—the 25 degree change in water temperature experienced by our fish of leisure—is much less likely to be noticed than a change that happens suddenly, as would be the temperature gradient experienced by our fast-living fish, who in the space of hours rather than months makes the transition from 45 degree to 70 degree water.

But what about pressure; how does that come in to play? Here it becomes useful briefly to combine our two metaphors. It is probably now more instructive to think of social pressure as analogous to water current. So long as we are swimming with the current it's not likely that we will take much notice of it; it is when we go against the current that it's presence is felt. Social pressure is much like that. Operating on us with the constancy of air pressure, social pressure has an effect on us much like a water current, moving us ever so gently, yet firmly along. As long as we "go with the flow", it's very unlikely that we would realize that we are doing so.

Let me summarize here briefly: Society generally goes unnoticed because it is invisible, always present, and taken for granted—just like air for us humans and just like water for those fish. We are most likely to become cognizant of it, to have it intrude itself into our awareness, if it changes suddenly, within a relatively brief period of time. Like the fish not knowing it's wet—suspended in water—we tend not to know we're social—suspended in society. Not unless it changes suddenly.

Sociologists are almost universally agreed that society finally came to be discovered, in the sense I have been talking about, in the 18th and 19th centuries. And it was discovered by people who lived in what those countries that we now describe as Western Europe. What brought society to their attention, into the realm of consciousness, was a series of sudden, abrupt changes in its constancy, and a small but growing number of people who were willing and often compelled to resist or push back against those social pressures that engendered conformity in the majority of their neighbors.

Now our questions—why there and then?—can be more specific and our correspondingly answers can be more concrete: Because it was in Western Europe that radically disrupting changes in the nature of society occurred and made themselves felt. In fact there were four such changes, so momentous and laden with portent that they are usually described as revolutionary. They created revolutions in what people believed, in the way their governments worked, in how they made their livings, and in the procedures that led to knowledge. We refer to these changes, respectively, as the Protestant Reformation, the French and American Revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, and the Scientific Revolution. Any one of these monumental changes would have been disturbing in itself, but they interacted and combined with one another, further compounding their effects into a fundamental and profound disjunction with the thousands of years of human history that had come before.

As we look back across those thousands of years from our vantage point now, there are clearly other events which ushered in striking changes in the ways that humans lived their lives—for example, the development of writing, the domestication of plants and animals, and the emergence of cities. But these changes were the result of a much more gradual accretion over time. While the net result of these developments over many hundreds of years would be equally astounding, the slow rate at which they occurred would have made them unremarkable. That is, they would not have been noticeable enough in the experience of any one person's lifetime to draw their attention and suggest remarking upon. In fact, even across the experience of many generation's lifetimes there would be no appreciable change in the way people lived their lives, no difference in what they understood about the world and how it worked, so that between people who would share their experience of the world and pass it on to others there would be little difference and no debate.