“I don’t think the solution to any of these problems would be a very simple formula. It’s much more keeping your mind clear.”-Amartya Sen
I have been passionate about issues of social justice since a young age and have grown up in a family that values service to others. I chose to major in sociology because I wanted to understand the meaning of being an individual in society, but most importantly, because I believed that through this understanding, I could create change. Yet, the further I got into sociology, the more I discovered the complex systemic structures obstructing our ability as a society to reach this change.
Many of us go to college because we want to change the world with our ideas, and we need jobs after we graduate. We believe that we have learned from those who came before us, and we will be the ones to solve the problems that ravage our world; at least that’s what we’d like to think. What if we acted in a way that appreciated all actions and jobs, no matter how big or small their “greatness” is? Within the field of social justice, we must come to understand that no individual or small group of individuals has or will ever have the power to change a social structure. Rather, our hope for a more just society lies in the aggregation of small positive action worldwide by formal and lay sociologists alike. Using the foundations given to us by both classical and contemporary sociologists, in this paper I will develop my own thoughts regarding social justice, the meaning of being human, and the inalienable rights that accompany humanness.
My reassessment of sociology and my personal goals all began earlier this fall, when Dr. Arcaro assigned a reading for our Classical Sociological Theory class titled, “Man’s Control Over Civilization: An Anthropocentric Illusion.” Leslie White’s position in this article, that we sociologists cannot bring about structural social change, was, to say the least, discouraging and a bit of a shock to someone who believed that they were going to effect great social change. White writes, “Here again we see the situation in terms of adjustment rather than control. […] And knowledge and understanding make for more effective and satisfying adjustments. It would be advantageous if we could control the weather. But if we cannot, then weather prediction is the next best thing. And for prediction we must have knowledge and understanding” (354). The point of sociology isn’t to make the world a better place, because to think that we as humans can change the structures around us is anthropocentric. The point is to describe the system and adapt to it as best we can. Through our understanding of human interaction, we are equipped as sociologists, whether this is the formal career we choose or not, to understand, describe, and work to adapt or change things according to the world’s need.
White challenged my identity as a sociologist. And in his challenge, I found myself humbled. When seeking to carry out actions of social justice, we must remember that change of any magnitude is impactful. I fear that in our quest to be recognized by others, we have failed to take advantage of opportunities to act in small ways. These opportunities surround us daily, and we have passed them in favor of waiting for the big acts that will allow others to recognize us. I agree with White that we cannot make large cultural changes, but I also believe that we all have the power to bring about change and adaptation in small steps, which collectively through time and effort can amount to larger structural changes.
In order to sow the seeds of justice in our society, we must work to develop our social character. In his work, The Lonely Crowd, sociologist David Riesman proposes that individuals take on the social character needed by society at the time. Riesman identifies three main cultural types: tradition-directed, inner-directed, and other-directed individuals. According to Riesman, society began as a tradition-directed culture that emphasized the importance of rules created by ancestors and stability. Tradition-directed individuals were eventually superseded by inner-directed individuals. Inner-directed individuals did not conform to norms, but recognized the power that they had to flourish within themselves. Then, the Industrial Revolution gave rise to the other-directed individuals. These individuals look to how other individuals are living to construct their values and identity, and derive their sense of worth from the approval of those around them. Riesman’s overarching thesis is that, while outer-directed people are necessary for a society to function, modern society cannot develop to its fullest potential without leaders of true character, which the other-directed individuals lack.
In order to effect change, we must have inner-directed leaders who can stand for something other than the norm. Erich Fromm notes in his book, The Sane Society, “But there are also those whose character structure, and hence whose conflicts, differ from those of the majority, so that the remedies which are effective for most of their fellow men are of no help to them. Among this group we sometimes find people of greater integrity and sensitivity than the majority, who for this reason are incapable of accepting the cultural opiate” (Fromm 17).
Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of individuals whose character structures differed. They were leaders who recognized their internal power and ability to be confident in what they held to be true. Because of this, they rose as leaders and brought about great change in our world through leading the anti-apartheid movement and leading the Civil Rights Movement, respectively.
In order to bring about change today, we must reinvent sociology using new tools designed by a diverse group of individuals. In our quest to create a more just society in which the worth of each human is upheld, we are dealing with a completely different unit of sociological analysis than during the time of classical sociologists such as Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim (Arcaro, “Class notes on Nietzsche” 29 October 2013). With the invention of the Internet and faster transportation, our world is smaller than it has ever been. Yet with this new unit comes new abilities to effect change. Collective action spreads much quicker than it did even five years ago thanks to social media and online news sites. Yet borrowing the ideas of classical and contemporary thinkers can help us develop our own ideas regarding social justice. The classical sociologists provide a structure for our field of study. But, these classical thinkers can never know the experience of being a woman, of being of a non-white race, of being in the modern world with tools and concepts that had not even been conceptualized during their time. Borrowing from contemporary writer and social activist Audre Lorde’s book: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (qtd. in Arcaro, “Class Notes on Audre Lorde,” 3 December 2013). But before reinventing the tools to dismantle the structures of our society, we must first understand the tools that were used to build them.
Regarding social justice and a vision of the future, Marx had a positive view of human nature that saw us as resilient and strong humans. Through the efficiency of production, Marx believed that a time would come when there would be no unmet human needs. Marx imagined that the proletariat would eventually reject what was happening to them, and a grand proletariat revolution would ensue. In his view of the future, his famed idea, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would take root as a utopian society was created (Arcaro, “Class notes on Marx,” 2 September 2013).
In contrast, Max Weber’s vision of the future portrays us as hollow victims who will become more alienated and thin as time goes on (Ashley and Orenstein 237). Weber often wrote of the ills of bureaucratization. Weber saw bureaucratization as inevitable; as society gets bigger we cannot organize ourselves any other way other than a dehumanizing and massive institution of rules that restricts human flourishing. He believed that bureaucratization was an obvious default mechanism of social organization and that it would lead us to the quantification and objectification of things irrationally. He correctly predicted that this process would continue to intensify, increasing irrationality with increasing bureaucratization (Arcaro, “Class notes on Weber,” 19 September 2013).
George Ritzer’s term “McDonaldization” is the idea of rationalization, that everything is moving towards scientific and bureaucratized modes of operation. As society develops, it becomes more about what is easiest, which is to quantify and objectify the unquantifiable (Arcaro, “Class Notes on Weber”, 19 September 2013). From a Marxist perspective, this phenomenon is inevitable. With the rise of capitalism comes the rise of bureaucratization and commodification. This dovetails Marx’s concept of commodification because commodification relies on the process of making items for sale that are not sellable. The iron cage of rationality says that we are incapable of functioning as an efficient society without quantifying things. We are incapable of understanding things like success outside of the confines of numbers and comparisons. As Dr. Arcaro explains, “Not being able to make that which is real measurable, we have intended to make that which is measurable real” (Arcaro, “Class notes on Weber,” 24 September 2013).
Durkheim made a great contribution with his explanation of the role of the self in society. Society exists as a separate entity, sui de generis, of the individual. The moral individual has a consciousness of being a member of society and feels an obligation towards a greater social good. This exists alongside the distinct individual consciousness and fulfilling one’s individual desires (Arcaro, “Class notes on Durkheim,” 17 September 2013). Sociologists David Ashley and David Michael Orenstein comment, “Durkheim argues that social order depends on the moral activity of the members of society, but that moral individual activity itself depends on integration and socialization into a well ordered society” (91).
But how does society create a moral order that will encourage cooperation? Durkheim’s view of the future was a corporate society: “a future in which equality of opportunity and democracy would be perpetuated in a society organized in terms of industrial occupational categories” (Ashley and Orenstein 100). Ultimately, he believed, we need to organize ourselves, and that this organization would evolve naturally according to the divisions of labor. Politically and socially, we would organize along corporate lines, which would lead to a more stable society. If we were organized corporately and regulated, we would be more equal and healthier in our “feeling of solidarity,” (Arcaro, class notes on Durkheim, 17 September 2013, Jones 28).
George Herbert Mead thought more globally than many sociologists of his time. One of the ultimate concerns of Mead’s work with social action and social change was the idea of creating a “universal society.” Mead’s concept of the “universal society” provides a solid structure on which we can build a healthier society today. This concept is rooted in his concept of the “generalized other”,” which is borrowed from Rousseau’s concept of the general will, which involves an orientation towards the idea that the best actions are those that are best for the collective whole (Arcaro, “Class notes on Mead,” 1 October 2013). As Ashley and Orenstein explain, the “generalized other […] involves the socialized aspects of the self’s orientation toward the shared collective meaning and rules in a group, community, or society” (397). As humans, Mead believed, we are not born with a disposition to act towards the greater good of the collective whole, but are socialized to do so through our development as children. As we grow, we are able to orient ourselves to particular others, to small groups of generalized others, and eventually to the whole community. Mead’s vision of the universal society fits into this, since he believed that ultimately we will one day be developed enough to orient ourselves to all of humanity, thus living out the idea of the universal society (Arcaro, “Class notes on Mead,” 1 October 2013). In “The Objective Reality of Perspectives,” Mead writes, “it is only in so far as the individual acts not only in his own perspective but also in the perspective of the others, especially in the common perspective of a group, that a society arises” (177).
In Mead’s universal society, actions would be oriented toward all of society, ending all disputes and inequalities and creating a world where humans feel connected to a greater social whole. According to Ashley and Orenstein, Mead dreamed of a society in which, “all social potential would be fully realized in a world of unity” (395). Mead believed that individuals cooperating with one another will form a collective whole, and from this whole the human social spirit will be realized. Looking to the future, Mead was hopeful that since society cannot devolve, the increase in societal size would lead to an increase in social consciousness and an increased ability to generalize a greater “other,” which would ultimately lead to a universal society (Arcaro, “Class notes on Mead,” 1 October 2013).
I find it interesting that Mead understood the need to reinvent sociology in his conceptualization of the universal society. Ashley and Orenstein comment, “The universal society was to be one of unlimited growth and peaceful emergence of new social forms, and thus was not conceptualized by Mead as a static end stage in human development” (417). We must remember that the achievements of social justice are not an ending, but a step of progress. Because society is a dynamic structure that is constantly changing, there is no end to working toward social justice.
According to Mead, taking the role of the other also contributes to the continuation of society, since we are able to reflect on ourselves as objects to be responded to. Thus, as objects, the assumption is made that our actions are socially oriented and that our interactions with others and communications have meaning and purpose. This imagining of the generalized other and acknowledgement of meaningful and purposeful actions implies an investment in the future of the society as well. Different from Riesman’s other-directed individual, the individual who “generalizes the other” constructs their personal identity vis a vi what is best for the greater good, and is not simply doing so with the end goal of validating self-worth.
Interestingly, Mead never explicitly described his vision of a universal society. Additionally, Marx’s communism and Durkheim’s corporate society were never taken beyond abstractions either, and Weber saw nothing but darkness. Perhaps because no one can see into the future, these thinkers did not venture to believe that they could either. I agree with them—in some ways painting a picture of the unimaginable simply isn’t our job or within our realm of power. Our power as sociologists is in understanding and translating societal structures and adapting to the structures in a way that affirms the dignity and worth of each individual.
Contemporary sociologist Patricia Hill Collins serves as an excellent example of an individual who has taken the wisdom of classical sociologists and reinvented sociology to help push towards a more just society. A consistent theme in Collins’ work is questioning the traditional framing of issues by classical sociologists. Collins maintains that the positivist approach taken by the classical sociologists discounts the experience of the oppressed and those who have had less access to education because of the inequalities of society. Collins asserts that the epistemology of the classical sociologists fails to take into account that knowledge and truth are constructed from a white male perspective and their life experience.
Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I am well aware of the racial struggles of the past, and the struggles that continue today. I see that change took place, even when Martin Luther King, Jr. was told that the time was not right, and that they should wait until the people were more receptive to change. I believe in the power of change, and the power of the accumulation of many small changes to create larger structural change. I have faith in humanity and in our ability to work together in a way that respects the dignity of each individual.
As I continue to develop my theoretical perspective, I will question the assumptions made by those that came before me. I will seek to discover the truth from a fresh perspective that questions all assumptions with the knowledge that power affects how knowledge and truth are constructed within the sociological community and elsewhere. I believe that collectively, we can all work towards a world that encourages structurally the development of all human spiritual, intellectual, physical, and other potentials and acknowledges that humans are one species among many (Arcaro, “Class notes on normative humanism,” 7 November 2013).
As my journey as a sociologist continues, I hope to be a part of the slow but possible change in eradicating racial discrimination and poverty. If we can all find something that we are passionate about changing, our small changes and the small changes that these small changes inspire can amount to something great. Through our words, we can inform and through our actions we can inspire others to action.
Arcaro, Thomas. SOC 261. Elon University, Elon. 27 Aug.-3 – Dec. 2013. Lecture.
Ashley, David and David Michael Orenstein. Sociological Theory: Classical Statements. 6th ed. New York: Pearson, 2005. Print.
Fromm, Erich. The Sane Society. New York: Rinehart, 1955. Print.
Jones, Robert Alun. Emile Durkheim: An Introduction to Four Major Works. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1986. Print.
Mead, George Herbert. On Social Psychology; Selected Papers. Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1964. Print.
Riesman, David. The Lonely Crowd. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1961. Print.
White, Leslie A. The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Grove, 1949. Web.