Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Kentucky 50 by 50

I enlist your help in making a list of the 50 things in Kentucky that every Kentuckian should see or do.

In ten days I will be 49. I have lived in Kentucky for the last 19 years. I have done a few things that I think all Kentuckians should do -- been to Lincoln's birthplace, attended a race at Keeneland, been to the state capitol, eaten at Moonlite Bar-B-Q. Still, there are many I have not. I have never been to the Kentucky Derby. I have never really explored the Red River Gorge. I have not been to the Louisville Slugger Museum.

So I propose to post a list of the 50 things I want to see and do in Kentucky before I turn 50 in 2010. Please send me your suggestions.

I will post the list on my birthday (April 13). I expect the debate about the list will be interesting.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Is a Social Imaginary a Habitus?

Charles Taylor describes a social imaginary as a repertory of practices that a people use to make sense of their social world. This sounds like what Pierre Bourdieu means by a habitus. I think Taylor is contrasting a social imaginary, which ordinary people hold and act on, with a social theory, which intellectuals use to evaluate the world. Bourdieu contrasts a habitus with, among other things, a social structure imagined as a permanent thing, rather than a practice that people enact.

I think Taylor and Bourdieu start from different points, but converge on something quite similar - and quite useful in understanding how society is actually lived and made.

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.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Public Sphere is Secular

Charles Taylor's Modern Social Imaginaries is concerned primarily with how modern society created three new spheres in which people could act: the economy, the public, and "the people." All three were created by imagining them as separate from, and a check on, the polity - the state, as we now think of it.

Premodern Europeans already thought of a sphere separate from the state which acted as a partial check on it: the church. The public sphere, Taylor suggests, is analogous to the church. But there is an important difference: the public sphere is secular. Taylor does not mean that the public sphere has to be separated from God, nor that the people acting in it must be separated from religion. Rather, he means that the public sphere is a place created in time by the people (some of them, anyway) acting collectively. And the way the people interact with the polity, and the economy, and the democratic machinery of the people as sovereign, all take place in time with reference to the order of this world.

The time of the public sphere is homogeneous, profane time. We may think of religious time or eternity as also existing, but the business of the public sphere is conducted in this world's time. And the business of the public spheres of other societies are also conducted in time - in the same time and in the same relation to time.

The modern public sphere makes the "public opinion" of the modern social imaginary essentially secular in the way it is made.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Modern Social Imaginaries 1

I am working my way through Charles Taylor's Modern Social Imaginaries. I am thinking of using this book in my Macrosociological Theory class. Early in the book, Taylor illuminates one of the great problems in teaching social theory: it is an intellectual's way of looking at the world. Most people do not live their lives thinking about the theory underlying even their own actions, much less the order of society as a whole.

Thus, Taylor proposes the idea of a "social imaginary." Ordinary people do not think in terms of theory, but they do think. They do things for reasons that make sense of their world. Moreover, what they try to do is limited by what they imagine will be an effective way to act. A social imaginary is a shared notion of how the world works and what actions make sense in it. Doing those actions, if they tend to work, makes the whole imaginary seem more true, more legitimate.

In teaching social theory I am initiating students into the small circle of social theorists, at least for a time. Yet they - we - are already participants in the social imaginary that we theorize about and with.

Taylor says that one thing that is distinctive and important about modern social imaginaries is that they do incorporate some elements of explicit social theory. The great modern revolutions, especially the American and the French, enacted theoretical ideas that had been debated and thought through by intellectuals in discourse with other educated participants in making social life. Thereafter, the social imaginary included some theories about individuals, equality, and liberty.

When we are studying social theories, one of the important ideas we will need to keep in mind is Taylor's theory of the not-quite-theoretical social imaginary.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Half of Kids are First-Borns

The other day I noted that a fifth of older Gen X women had no children. To complete the set, I made a rough calculation, based on Census data, of the proportion of their children in each birth order position. For women 40 to 44 in 2006, their children were distributed thus.

Onlies: 21.1%
Firsts (besides onlies): 32.1
Seconds: 32.1
Thirds: 10.5
Fourths: 2.8
Fifths and beyond: .8

Sunday, March 29, 2009

What Would a Presbyterian Establishment Do Right Now?

I have been promoting rebuilding an authoritative (not authoritarian) establishment for the Presbyterian Church. The current votes in the church illustrate why we need such a thing.

The church has several amendments to the constitution before it for presbytery votes. One is the perennial attempt to remove the requirement that officers of the church be married or chaste in singleness. We keep voting on this because we have no establishment that can work out a settlement, behind the scenes and within the constitution, that will allow for the normal historic variation within the church on just how strictly each presbytery must subscribe to the constitution.

The other vote before the church has gotten much less attention than the sex amendment, but is more important in the long run. This is the proposal to adopt a new Book of Order. The proposed new book would be a general framework that could be adapted by the different presbyteries. If we adopted this new understanding of what the constitutional rules of order are for, we would not have to convulse the whole church every couple of years with a sex fight.

The Presbyterian Establishment, insofar as we have one, should come out strongly for this new kind of Book of Order. If we understood the constitution as a constitution, rather than as a rulebook, the Establishment could better function as an establishment within each presbytery, and across the whole church.