Thursday, April 02, 2009

Viewing Society Objectively

Charles Taylor, in Modern Social Imaginaries, has clarified an issue that is always a problem for me in teaching a sociological view of society.

It is normal for people to think of society from their personal perspective, of the people we know and the institutions that we interact with. We know there is a big world beyond what we know, but we tend to view it as like what we know, multiplied by millions. One of the great gifts that sociology brings is the ability to see that there are many kinds of people who are not like us. Sociology lets us see the big picture of society. Indeed, I think modern societies are so big and so complex that they could not function without sociology. Sociology provides the reflexive knowledge that makes it possible to make order in huge complex societies, as well as to understand order in huge complex societies.

I understand the big picture overview. James Scott's excellent book Seeing Like a State captures this sense of what it means to see society as a whole. Individuals disappear; the state planner deals with whole categories of people - sexes, races, classes, regions, religions, etc. Seeing like a state is, in a sense, one subset of seeing like a sociologist, of having a sociological imagination of society as a whole.

However, it is alienating to only see society from this large category, bird's-eye perspective. If you are the state manager or the equivalent (a captain of industry, a news publisher, a general) the state-level view is empowering. On the other hand, if you are not, if you are among the millions being managed, the state-level view is the opposite of empowering.

Some sociologists focus instead on how society is an open field for collective action. They study social movements. They study how ordinary people band together to fight the established powers and change the world. Indeed, such sociologists encourage, join, even lead social movements.

Sociology as a discipline, therefore steps back from society to view it both as a highly structured field of order, and a highly fluid field of resistance to, and reshaping of, that order.

Charles Taylor says that these two views are flip sides of the same coin of the modern social imaginary. In premodern societies, the society, the nation, the kingdom was one because it was anchored in a point or act that transcended ordinary time. God appointed the king, who unified the kingdom. The nation existed from time immemorial and embodied its primordial rights.

Modern societies, by contrast, are understood to have been made by "the people" in ordinary time. The state began to gather information to run this new kind of secular (meaning "in time") society to tax it, arrange its military security, create its representative institutions, and do the thousand and one things that states now do. If that is all that had happened in making modern states, we would only have, and only need, the "seeing like a state" view of society.

But modern societies also developed a counter-perspective on society, and with it a place for making counter-actions: the public sphere. The public sphere is the place in which social movements are made. They counter and balance the state.

Both the view from perspective of the state, and the view from the perspective of the public sphere - the view from the coffee house, if you will - are ways of viewing society objectively.

1 comment:

Clay Allard said...

I'm catching on. But the state sphere had a church sphere opposing it before the "public sphere" emerged; I see a conflict between two non-state spheres at work in us. The public sphere, secularly reasoning its way to understandings of marriage, law, sexuality stands now opposed by the church sphere in its traditional understandings and Scriptural stances.
How do two non-state spheres make their peace with each other? Can they?