October 1992

In my graduate days I studied both at the University of Utah and at Columbia University with a sociologist by the name of Thomas Francis O'Dea. One of his areas of expertise was in the sociology of religion and, although he was Catholic by background, he was quite knowledgeable about Mormon culture and had, in fact, written an important book in the 1950's titled simply The Mormons. During the time Tom lived in Salt Lake City he often exercised at the Deseret Gym, an establishment whose very name suggests its relationship to what was known locally as simply "the Church." One day while relaxing in the steam room after a noontime workout Tom was confronted by a local businessman who, in Tom’s account was somewhat belligerent. The man wanted an explanation of exactly what Tom was up to up there at the University. Was he teaching some kind of socialism? the man demanded to know. What was sociology, anyway?

With his characteristic bantam cockiness (he was 5'2"), Tom, who had gone from Harvard freshman to full professor in 12 years—a sequence that would have ordinarily taken at least 20—O’Dea replied: I get paid $70,000 a year to answer that question. (In truth, he quoted a figure quite a bit less, but I have corrected his salary for inflation [as of 1992] in order to make his point.)

I repeat this story here for two reasons. One is that even now—some 35 years later—an understanding of sociology is still not well established, much less embedded, in the American popular consciousness. As another sociologist (Peter Berger) has pointed out, occupational humor—even derisive humor—only works against the background of some minimal level of public awareness. So, how many jokes have you heard about sociologists recently?

The other reason for this story is that to whatever extent a knowledge of their activities is part of the conventional wisdom, sociologists are still associated or confused with social workers and socialists (who are already mixed up in people's minds). Yet, while I rue this condition, there are some valid reasons for both misunderstandings.

One reason is that what C. Wright Mills so aptly called the "sociological imagination" is difficult to grasp. My own experience has been that even those students who major in the discipline do not fully grasp its perspective until they've endured at least several years of graduate study. A second reason for the confusion is that there is in fact what can be thought of as a collective or "socialist" dimension at the very base of sociology.

Let me read a brilliantly cogent statement from the writings of an early 20th century American sociologist, Charles Horton Cooley, to illustrate both points. This is what Cooley wrote as a way of making a case for the essentiality of this discipline:

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 aspects of the same thing....

This incisive statement represents an excellent place to begin articulating the unique vantage point of the sociological perspective. As I've said, it is a perspective inherently difficult to convey to begin with, but it is especially difficult to convey to Americans, and perhaps most difficult to convey to Americans imbued with the imagined laissez faire of the American commercialism. The difficulty that is more specific to Americans and to American business people derives from our widely held but naive belief in individualism, a belief which is strongly nurtured by our common American culture and the political ideologies of both left and right.

A clue to this misplaced belief can be found in an error that Cooley makes in the first part of his statement—that "an individual is an abstraction unknown to experience." Actually Cooley is mistaken about our experience in two important ways. The first is that we believe we do know and experience individuals, and the second is that we believe that we experience them not as abstractions but as real, concrete entities. We believe these things because of the human tendency toward what the philosopher John Dewey called "misplaced concreteness" and to what someone subsequently referred to as a "hardening of the categories". That is, we tend to see the world in terms of its immediate, physical appearance, and since people appear to come individually packaged in separate corporal containers we mistakenly conclude that they are separate. Once committed to this mistaken perception, we tend to persist in it, often in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Furthermore, Americans display a passionate predilection—eloquently sacralized in our Declaration of Independence—to see a group as really an assemblage of individuals who have agreed to forego some of their individual "unalienable rights" in order to create—and become members of—that group.

In other words, we tend to assume that individuals exist first, and that groups then come into being if—and only if—a majority of these initial individuals transfer some of their innate personal and independent sovereignty to the group. Thinking they have thus created the group, these same individuals think they are equally free to withdraw from that group whenever they might choose. Perhaps nowhere is this view sponsored more dangerously than by those persons who argue that the Constitution guarantees their "unalienable right" to bear arms. (Perhaps the founding fathers meant "bare" arms.) A bumper sticker often displayed by such people states simplistically that "Guns Don't Kill People; People Kill People." That of course is true—as far as it goes. The fact is that people kill people—and in the United States, especially, they do so—with guns. To argue that the group has no prerogatives to impose restrictions on individual behaviors is clearly absurd. Each one of us can probably remember some occasion from our youth when we came up with what we were convinced was the invincible argument against any unjust parental demand: "I don't have to do it (whatever it was) because I didn't ask to be born!" What we were saying, of course, is that the family's rules didn't apply to us as separate independent individuals because we never agreed to belong, we had not willingly signed on. But, of course, as all of us quickly found out, oh, how wrong we were....

The shrewdness of Cooley's description is in its recognition that we are both individual and social at the same time. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim provides one of the clearest explanations of this duality of human nature. In fact, Durkheim reverses what so many westerners see as the usual--and thus, presumably, the "natural"--relationship between the individual and the group and argues for the opposite view. It is the group's existence that is primary; only after the group’s version of the reality of the world is established are the group's members then allowed whatever degree of individualism which that group has decided is appropriate. Durkheim would explain the emphasis on individualism in America as much more a result than a cause of American society; that is to say, individualism results from a group value. (Things don’t get much more ironic than that, but Americans have a poor appreciation of irony.) In a curious way we acknowledge this when we claim that we, our group, we Americans (unlike some others, perhaps)--believe in the value of the individual.

Let me try to emphasize this point with two somewhat simple illustrations. Actually, I want to overemphasize the point, since I have only a few pages to counter years of your previous socialization.

Here I want to introduce a concrete example to illustrate Cooley's point. Some of you may not be familiar with the little device I am going to refer to; it is called a frog, it is usually made of lead, and it is used inside the bottom of a vase to hold flowers in their intended arrangement. If I hold out to you one way—with the base forward—it appears to be a round, dull, solid piece of heavy metal. But if I hold it the opposite way—with the base toward me—it appears to consist of a number of thin, straight wires, parallel to one another and all pointing in the same direction. But if I shift it back and forth—from one view to the other—you will see that is both things simultaneously. And the fact is that only if it is both things simultaneously—the one and the many—is it able to do its job, to carry out its function. So it is with you, me, and the group.

My other illustration is a little more abstract. Imagine a stick figure representing a single person—an individual—drawn on a chalkboard. Here my challenge to your imagination is for you to draw a line around this individual which would mark him or her as a distinct and separate entity. Allowing for the little hairs on our skin we might be inclined to draw the line a quarter of an inch or so just past the individual’s edge. But wait. This person is a living organism--she has to breathe, trading carbon dioxide for oxygen. So we have to include some source for that oxygen; fortunately plants operate in just the reverse fashion to humans, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen. In fact, ecologists tell us that it takes about three deciduous trees to recycle the oxygen for each person, so we're going to have to break into our little bubble around this person and make it somehow include these three trees. But we also know that as a living organism this person needs a source of energy from outside herself--she needs to eat. Let me fast forward ourselves into the 20th century and say that rather than hungering for roots and berries this person wants a peanut butter sandwich--a peanut butter and orange marmalade sandwich! And a glass of milk! Actually, that doesn't sound like too much.... But let's see what happens. To make this sandwich we need two slices of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of orange marmalade, a knife, a glass, and a carton of milk. Where are they going to come from, and how are they going to get here?

Note that the simple addition of a sandwich and a drink to our picture is not so simple after all; suddenly we have created an amazing complexity. For example, where are peanuts grown? Most of us will find no peanut farms in our immediate locale. Let's say the peanuts come from Georgia. Someone has to grow them, get them to market, and sell them to a company that makes peanut butter. That company in turn has to ship it to Salt Lake City, and our individual has to buy it and bring it home. All of a sudden we've introduced all kinds of things into our picture--farmers, truck drivers, factory workers, management personnel (people with MBA's!), gasoline, refineries, trucks (and the factories they come from), roads, highways, construction companies, the highway patrol, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, the Interstate Commerce Commission, money, the U.S. Treasury, banks---on and on and on, and on and on and on. And, of course, many thousands of people--those whom sociologist Alfred Schutz called "anonymous others"--on whom we are continually dependent to make this multitude of things work.

Notice that all we have addressed so far is the peanut butter--we've still got glassware, marmalade (do we grow any oranges here?), bread, and a knife to go yet, to say nothing of coordinating all these activities through some kind of communication network and the use of language.

Well, what's the point here? The point is that an individual is an abstraction--there is in reality no such thing. And yet so much of what we talk about when considering the right thing to do is focused on this illusory abstraction.

The sociological perspective is one that argues for a much more inclusive frame of reference. The failure to include the whole complex system of other people inherently involved in what appear to be individual activities is not a failure of morality or of values, although it can be so judged; it is a failure of perception and recognition, a matter of inaccuracy.

This is not to say that moral questions or questions of value are not important; they may be the most important of all. Witness the presence of a philosopher on this panel. But these are the questions about which agreement or consensus is most often the hardest to achieve. The degree of difficulty which attends such questions often serves to excuse dealing with them. Often out of deference to the presumed rights of individuals we concede that moral and value questions are either irresolvable or are matters solely of individual preference or belief.

But--to quote my earlier mentor once again--what matters most often is not the ultimate question, but the penultimate one. The question we can effectively address is not what is the "Absolutely Right" thing to do, but how well can I behave in this situation, what is the right thing to do here and now, given the alternatives available. The answer to that kind of question demands that we understand the situation as much as possible. And, as I have tried to demonstrate, that situation, like all human situations, is inherently and complexly social.

If we are to be cognitively and intellectually honest--by which I mean in consonance with what the social sciences tell us--the question of doing the right thing can only be answered accurately and fully if we understand that the question itself is a social question occurring in a social context.

This in turn leads to a highly significant observation. The answers we give to the question—what is the right thing?—are themselves social answers. What we have learned to think and believe, and how we are willing to act are the products of our social upbringing. Even more, how we respond in a particular situation is strongly affected by the social influences and pressures to which we have been exposed, not only in the past, but also at that very moment, in the particular social context in which we find ourselves raising the question.

In this respect it is important to note that social institutions hold a powerful sway over our actions, even when we think those actions are motivated solely by individual considerations. Marx summed up a powerful truth when he said that men--and women--are free to choose, but they are not free to choose any way they wish.

Each of us has already been highly socialized by these ubiquitous institutions; in fact we are now here in one of the most influential: the American university. Most of you are hopefully on your way to even more powerful institutions--those in which you will make your living--and which will markedly shape your lives in ways you cannot now anticipate.

I have used the sociologically correct term "socialization" to describe this process, but another way to say this is that we are each worked over--as dough is worked over to make bread--by the institutions we belong to and participate in. In turn, our belonging and participation in these organizations animates and empowers them; what they ultimately consist of is our behaviors, behaviors which often run along the normatively well worn paths of least resistance created by those who have preceded us.

Most people do what others want them to. The primary trick that every society plays on its members is to get us to want to do what we are going to have to do anyway. That is the way societies work. I am reminded here of that terse definition of maturity which states you know you have reached maturity when you find yourself doing something even if your parents want you to.

What all of us embrace most of the time is that most fundamental of all human inventions: the rules. We usually follow the rules, these paths of least resistance, not so much because they are physically imposed on us or because we're afraid not to comply with them. Our conformity is much more a function of desire, of emotional commitment, of volition. And, of a lack of imagination and the absence of that individualism we so strongly believe in.

But why do people embrace the rules so passionately? An immediate answer is that certain concrete rules--the everyday "here and now rules"--are continually in use by the people very much like ourselves who surround us, and who, by unwittingly following those rules, create the world we all live in. But a more complete answer would recognize that vague sense each of us has of the inherent "open-endedness" of life and the ways in which rules protect us from drifting aimlessly upon the vast sea of human possibility.

At an even more basic level, human interdependence--what we might call the inherent "groupiness" of individuals--can be understood in terms of a core set of anxieties that all of us humans experience at some level. These core anxieties--the fundamental fear of chaos, disorder, and disarray; the agonizing threat of loneliness and isolation; the awesome potential for incoherence and confusion--can only be relieved in constructive collaboration with others. To enable its members to meet these needs—for order, for membership, and for meaning, every group, all societies, each "happy band of brothers" (to use Shakespeare's felicitous phrase) provides its members with a stable frame of reference and set of definitions of what’s what, an underlying sense of belonging, and an abiding, if often unarticulated, awareness of direction and purpose. Order, membership, and meaning thus constitute those dimensions in terms of which both individuals and societies manage their experience and assuage their anxieties. As Dostoevsky says, speaking through the voice of the Grand Inquisitor, "all that man seeks on earth...is [to know] whom to worship, to whom to entrust his conscience and how at last to unite all in a common, harmonious, and incontestable ant-hill." In more contemporary language Peters and Waterman make the same point in their now famous book, In Search of Excellence, where they identify three needs that must be satisfied by any successful organization: "(1) people's need for meaning; (2) people's need for a modicum of control; (3) people's need for positive reinforcement, to think of themselves as [members of a winning team] in some sense."

The inevitably interdependence required to sustain these three staples of human existence provides groups with tremendous power over their individual members. Because we cannot exist as individuals without these social essentials means that the right thing will always be shaped by the groups to which we belong.

Sociology thus helps to focus any discussion of "doing the right thing" by demonstrating that the question always occurs within a social context and by insisting that any responsible answer must take into account dimensions which go beyond the individual. And sociology also informs us that there are forces at work that effectively move the challenge and satisfaction of responding to that question away from our individual control.

Sociology thus moves us in opposing directions. So I will end my remarks by leaving you with a dilemma. As an aside I should mention that I often tell my students that if history is the science of that which happens once, and economics is the dismal science, then sociology is the science which forces us to appreciate irony.

The irony is this: The sociological perspective that informs us that we are to a large extent captured by the very forces we think we control can also provide us with the tools for trying to escape those forces—the very same forces whose existence we had been oblivious to until we came to understand the world from the sociological perspective. Given this seemingly convoluted formula, one might think you would be better off, or at least do just as well, by not seeing the world from the sociological perspective to begin with. But that is just not so. That is why sociological knowledge and insight are so important. Enabling us to see more, and to understand that which we now see more fully, sociology--in fact, all the sciences which struggle to comprehend human behavior--enables us to imagine a more complete and multifaceted picture of our situation and thus to formulate more effective answers to the complex problem of doing the right thing, of doing the right things.