EPIGRAMATIC SOCIOLOGY: little wisdoms to ponder Here are 25 little sayings that thinkers about society have bequeathed us. I first listed them in my Sociology: The Basics but here they are again. There are many more – and they can be found in epigrams, under fascinations – will be following shortly. They are worth puzzling…
‘First of all, he said, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you”ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks.You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view..until you climb into their skin and walk around in it…. (page 41)
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
The work of the sociologist –photographer Cathy Greenblat has aimed to show the ‘active’ nature of Alzheimer’s across the world; and how ‘good care’ can be crucial in creating situations to enable a better life for people with Alzheimer’s. As she remarks: As a social scientist, I know how much expectations influence achievement, and I…
Here are a few thoughts from George Eliot. Her Middlemarch is one of the great sociological novels: it should really be a part of any sociology syllabus.
What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other? I cannot be indifferent to the troubles of a man who advised me in my trouble, and attended me in my illness
I concluded my textbook with another quote from her.
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
- O may I join the choir invisible
- O my I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
- In minds made better by their presence: live
- In pulses stirred to generosity,
- In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
- For miserable aims that end with self,
- In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
- And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
- To vaster issues.
- So to live is heaven:
- To make undying music in the world,
- Breathing as beauteous order that controls
- With growing sway the growing life of man.
- So we inherit that sweet purity
- For which we struggled, failed, and agonised
- With widening retrospect that bred despair.
- Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
- A vicious parent shaming still its child
- Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolved;
- Its discords, quenched by meeting harmonies,
- Die in the large and charitable air.
- And all our rarer, better, truer self,
- That sobbed religiously in yearning song,
- That watched to ease the burthen of the world,
- Laboriously tracing what must be,
- And what may yet be better— saw within
- A worthier image for the sanctuary,
- And shaped it forth before the multitude
- Divinely human, raising worship so
- To higher reference more mixed with love—
- That better self shall live till human Time
- Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
- Be gathered like a scroll within the tomb
- Unread for ever.
- This is life to come,
- Which martyred men have made more glorious
- For us who strive to follow. May I reach
- That purest heaven, be to other souls
- The cup of strength in some great agony,
- Enkindle generous ardour, feed pure love,
- Beget the smiles that have no cruelty—
- Be the sweet presence of a good diffused,
- And in diffusion ever more intense.
- So shall I join the choir invisible
- Whose music is the gladness of the world.
John H. Gagnon and William Simon.
Where does the drama get its materials? From the unending conversation that is going on at the point in history when we are born’. Kenneth Burke
John Gagnon and Bill Simon were amongst the towering intellectual influences of my early life. I read them throughout the 1960’s. They taught me that:
“ (1) Sexual conduct is entirely historically and culturally determined; (2) the meaning of conduct does not reside in a reading of the bodily activity of individuals; (3) sexual science is historically and culturally determined in equal measure ;(4) sexuality is acquired, maintained, and unlearned in all of its aspects and is organized by social structure and culture, and (5) gender and sexuality are both learned from of conduct and are linked differently in different cultures. (John Gagnon: The Interpretation of Desire p136 ID).
My first encounter with John was with the sociologists Michael Schofield who introduced me to him in 1970 in Wayland Young’s House – 100 Bayswater Road. He subsequently became the external examiner of my PhD, he visited Essex in 1984 (when I also met Cathy Greenblat), and I visited his hosting university Stony Brook in 1985. I first met Bill many years later at Santa Barbara in 1987 where we were both teaching summer school. I also met Lynn his wife. Together we had a wonderful summer together and Bill introduced me to the music of Andrea Marcovici.
John and Bill are both amazingly strong intellectuals in the best sense of that word.
They studied at Chicago in the mid 1950’s. Subsequently John went to the Kinsey Institute and Bill joined him a little later (with a Hugh Hefner grant). They worked ‘crazily together’ till 1968; and then wrote the book Sexual Conduct by 1973. By this time they were also getting new career structures – John at Stony Brook, Bill at Houston (and- as it happens- with new partners and families). But after Sexual Conduct, they remained friends: you could always see them together at conferences; but the critical moment was over. Their intellectual lives moved on differently. We must all be grateful that they spent those five years together at Kinseyland. Without the right time, the right place, the people mix would this have happened.
John writes in his biographical essay:
Two senses of the world that I know Bill and I shared. First, was a certain view of our lives as accidental and contingent, lives that could have turned out quite differently; and second, a recognition of our marginality to the larger sociological profession as advanced by the Graduate Program in Sociology at the University of Chicago and recorded by the official historians of the department and the discipline….. …. P287 SC 2
They were, of course, writing before Foucault’s influential work (though as John has remarked when he encountered Foucault: “What Foucault does is too texty; its too parochially French.. he is not very new except to folks who are not well read in history and the other social sciences’……. P280 Together John Gagnon and Bill Simon were a powerhouse of ideas. Here is a potpourri of some of their ideas in axioms:
Therefore, the authors reject the unproven assumption that “powerful” psychosexual drives are fixed biological attributes. More importantly, we reject the even more dubious assumption that sexual capacities or experiences tend to translate immediately into a kind of universal “knowing” or innate wisdom – that sexuality has a magical ability, possessed by no other capacity, that allows biological drives to be expressed directly in psychosocial and social behaviors. Pyschosexual Development 1969
In any given society, at any given moment in its history, people become sexual in the same way as they become everything else. Without much reflection, they pick up direction from their social environment. They acquire and assemble meanings, skills and values from the people around them. Their critical choices are often made by going along and drifting. People learn when they are quite young a few of the things they are expected to be, and continue slowly to accumulate a belief in who they are and ought to be throughout the rest of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Sexual conduct is learned in the same ways and through the same processes; it is acquired and assembled in human interaction, judged and performed in specific cultural and historical worlds. John Gagnon Human Sexualities 1977: p2)
All conduct is scripted , and ..scripting theory is not merely to be applied to sexual conduct, but to all social conduct’ ID P136 Orig 1991
No Play Without A Script : We see sexual behavior therefore as scripted behavior, not the masked expression of a primordial drive. Pychosexual development 1969
We have allowed the homosexual’s object choice to dominate and control our imagery of him……..(we will) only begin to understand [ through]… those complex matrices wherein most human behaviour is fashioned’….. Formulation, 1967.
There was no magic in the world… The world is no longer enchanted, and it cannot be enchanted again. And the search for enchantment in sexuality must end in failure……. SSp284
The critical posture to maintain is that the future will not be better or worse, only different’. P233 SC2. P233.
It is abnormal to think scientifically. Most thought processes, as you go through the world, are impressions and fragments and pieces. You have to create an environment in which linear and highly coherent thought can go forward; you find a quite room, you close the doors, you turn on your computer, you look at the screen, you type. You pretend there is nothing else going on in your head. But that describes a specialized environment of a very specialized form of thinking…… SSp280
The most important permanent truth about sexuality is that there may be no important truths about sexuality that are permanent … all discourses about sexuality are ultimately discourses about something else; sexuality rather than serving as a constant thread that unifies the totality of human experience, is the ultimate dependent variable, requiring explanation more often that it provides explanation’ (Postmodern Sexualities 1996:142; xvii)
Quote of the Day:
On getting it all wrong!
“You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.” Philip Roth (American Pastoral)
I wake up most mornings with a deep sense of the multiplicities of things, and a bafflement at how we can ever comprehend any of it. I find Louis Macneice’s Snow quite inspirational.
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes –
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands –
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.
the starry, starry skies
and the snowiness of snow.
the infinity of lists
and the galleries of libraries.
little lives too full to grasp.
legions of dead too lost to see.
a babel of language and love.
a topos of inexpressible ineffability,
ad infinitum, this pluralistic world
Inspirations: William James
I first encountered the work of William James as an undergraduate in the 1960’s through his ideas of The Self.
Later, I read more and more of his work. His ideas of pragmatism, the plural universe and kindness have been been important to me.
Nowadays I read him often.
Below are a few of his sayings that have inspired me.
William James asks his uncle : What is a life for? And is told: Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. (cited in Robert Coles: Handing one Another Along (2010) p241.)
Now the blindness in human beings … is the blindness with which we are all inflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves. We are practical beings, each of us with limited functions and duties to perform. Each is bound to feel intensely the importance of his (sic) own duties and the significance of the situations that these call forth. But this feeling is in each of us a vital secret, for sympathy with which we vainly look to others. The others are too much absorbed in their own vital secrets to take an interest in ours. Hence the stupidity and injustice of our opinions, so far as they deal with the significance of their lives. Hence the falsity of our judgments, so far as they presume to deal in an absolute way on the value of other person’s conditions or ideals…What is the result of all these considerations…? It is negative in one sense, but positive in another. It absolutely forbids us to be forward in pronouncing on the meaninglessness of forms of existence other than our own; and it commands us to tolerate, respect, and indulge those whom we see harmlessly happy and interested in their own ways, however unintelligible they may be to us. Hands off: neither the whole truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer, although each observer gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position in which he (sic) stands… William James, On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings…. James (1899/1913).
These then are my last words to you. Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living and your belief will help create the fact. The Will to Believe. (1896)
What most horrifies me in life is our brutal ignorance of one another… William James, in Richardson 2006 p381
The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me…William James
I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride. William James: Letters; and also cited in Biography” by Robert D Richardson 2006/7 p384
The Olympics: Lest We Forget
Dark Hope And Dreaming Ahead In Perpetually Troubled Times
I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.
Antonio Gramsci Letter from Prison (19 December 1929)
What we can do is…make life a little less terrible and a little less unjust in every generation. A good deal can be achieved in this way.
Karl Popper, 1949
‘Dreaming ahead’ (Bloch)
The Olympics bring us a dark hope. Along with a billion or so other human beings I watched with rapture at the opening of the Olympic Games last night, and especially the glorious march by of 203 nations. There were wonderful and extravagant moments. Yet the Olympics is also a moment of huge contradiction: of the promotion of human co-operation through competition and conflict; of the celebration of internationalism through nationalism; of the search for the ordinary man through the search for celebrity. And not to mention the claiming of the inevitability of ‘austerity through cuts’ while wallowing in extravagant major expenditures. Or the fear of terrorism justifying the extension of state power. Despite this, maybe for a moment we can and should celebrate the good side of humanity which the Olympics is meant to symbolise and seek it across generations and the future. .
But we should also never forget. Human beings always live in troubled times: in the past, in the present and in the future. One of the lessons of life is that troubles are indeed our lot. The world is in perpetual crisis though more so at some times than others. Experiments in creating better worlds often fail and frequently presage disasters; grand plans are rarely achievable; good deeds have unintended consequences; often we confront fatal remedies and pyric victories; the world is aleatory. And meanwhile human beings suffer in their billions. A glancing eye on history and recent times cannot encourage much optimism.
Take the very current moment. It is stuffed full of its own problems, though all may simply be versions of universal and long lasting issues. As I write, we confront:
Conflicts, war and armed crisis – usually sectarian and often religious across countries such as Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia, Korea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and the so called ‘Arab Spring’. The search is on to understand – and maybe alleviate- perpetual violence and conflict and the peace process.
Economic crises linked to the breakdown of neo –liberalism and capitalism –evidenced all around the world but currently notable in the Eurozone and Greece, Spain, Italy. The search on to provide a sociological account of a new or transformed human economic system which will not cause so such human damage.
Criminality, violence, and lawlessness across the world – Robbery in Cape Town, Drug wars in Mexico, Homicide in Rio & San Pedro Sula, Kidnapping in Grozny, Checnya, violence in Baghdad, lawlessness in Magadishu, Somalia. The search is on to understand crime not as a simple problem of individuals in themselves but to see how sociologically crime is so very bound up with the very conditions of the way a society is run – and to seek changes within the society.
Abject Poverty and extreme inequalities across the world – evidenced in slum cities, feral societies, and the manifest differences in lives between the mass outcast poor and the elite ‘super-rich’. The search is on to understand and to find the means to lift the poor out of their poverty and examine just how much wealth a life really needs. There is an obscenity on the planet when we live and ignore so much abject poverty of the many along side the luxuriant and wasteful lives of the multi billionaire few.
De-secularization and Global violence over religion – The Global Jihad, Buddhist Revolts in Asia- Sri Lanka, Mongolia, Tibet; Hindu Nationalism; Pakistan Conflicts; Pentecostalism in African countries; The clash of Fundamentalisms. The search is on to understand and change the dynamics of both inter and intra religious conflicts and violence –and their possible expanding futures in the world.
Gender and Sexual Violence across the world – Widespread domestic abuse, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, sex trafficking, female infanticide, rapes of all kinds (including war rape, work and sexual harassment, dowry abuse and sexual murder. And over 80 countries still outlaw homosexuality – some with the death penalty. Transgender issue remain an anomaly in many countries. The search is on for to understand and change gender and sexual inequalities across the world amongst many countries and groups who actively promote this kind of hatred and discrimination.
The World Crisis of the Environment and Population – climate change, expanding waste, water shortage, energy crisis, endangered species and population expansion with ageing populations are all putting planet earth and the people who live on it in jeopardy. The search is on to understand this ‘new catastrophism’ , to see what it is doing to human lives around the world, and to seek change.
Democratic Failure and Political Crisis – dictatorships in North Korea, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma; genocide in Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia; restrictions of freedom in China, especially in the media; a lack of equality, widespread corruption, a lack of free and fair elections. The search is to see how authoritarianism is still prominent, inequalities pervade and how democracies – after all this time, still fail and fail badly.
And so the list goes on and on……
Contemporary humanists and sociologists are charged with documenting all this bad news. It is hard to miss the wider tales of genocide, the long history of violence, wars, of gross global and local inequalities, of economic breakdown, of endless political corruption, social exclusion and environmental breakdown. It is indeed part of the wider social imaginary that we live in ‘crisis’, ‘bad times’, or as Wallerstein once put it, ‘The End of the World as We Know it’. Our newspapers, television and pundits tell us this every day. Indeed sociologists should perhaps spend more time critiquing this widespread view instead of simply mirroring it in the language of yet another damn crisis.
So here comes a problem: with all this, sociology can easily become the moaning, grumbling discipline. Excessively critical, we only look on the dark side of life. Much sociology becomes almost obsessively miserablist (espousing the philosophy of pessimism), misanthropic (cynically believing the worst of human nature and motivation) and melancholic (a mental state characterized by deep depression, sadness and gloom). Some sociologists are modern day doomsayers and apocalypse forecasters.
But dark as it indeed is, this is not the full story.
We also need a human sociology to take seriously the idea of hope and the future. Part of our work should routinely be the emancipatory project of imagining better human social worlds for all; and to engage in discussions about the values and practices which need to be developed to nudge us towards this potentially better world. As Ernst Bloch outlines in his magisterial volumes on The Principle of Hope (1938-47), we need a sociology of hope which might help provide some ‘outlines of a better world’. What might this project look like? The Olympics might bring a little of this? And I hope bits of this new web site will.
Watch this space.
footnote: The image is of the film of the 1936 Olympics made by Leni Riefenstahl. She is considered one of the greatest film makers of the twentieth century. They also capture the world of Hitler’s dreams.
The phrase ‘Lest we forget’ comes originally from a refrain in Kipling’s poem “Recessional’.