The Sociologist in Despair

At university as an undergraduate, I thought that since the founding fathers Marx, Durkheim and Weber said nothing about sociologically important topics like marriage (the family), society being sociological (as distinct from just political-economic), and because it didn’t yet exist, the popular-culture-using generation … because of these absences, I entered this profession believing that it was my job to provide sociological bases for all these things.

I set to work. I studied the economic and social history that created modern society. I theorized and conceptualized, fitting pieces to together and throwing out ideas that didn’t fit. And finally, I had what I considered a worthwhile contribution to the sociology of society – I wanted to talk about all the stuff that was previously missing from our explanations.

But when I lifted my head up from my work and looked around I found that none of my topics appeared in sociology at all. The American Sociological Association* has no sections on society or on generations. Introductory textbooks have nothing constructive to say about wedding and marriage, generations as popular culture are absent, and nothing can be found suggesting that society as a whole is sociologically constructed.

From the absence of these topics in the profession, am I right to conclude that sociologists really aren’t interested in these questions? Do academics not want to listen to something new or to consider what has been left out of the profession? If so, it rather looks as though I have wasted my time. Today, the profession sends the message that my work is irrelevant and useless. Intellectually speaking, this means logically that my work deserves to go unpublished and unnoticed and I should despair. The current anti-Trump and anti-Brexit concerns do not explain sociology’s professional avoidance of love, generations and big sociology. These weren’t discussed under previous presidents or in earlier decades either.

It seems one must despair of sociology. I should add that my personal life and career are going fine; I’m a grandfather and employed at a university. My despair is logical and confined to intellectual endeavours to change social science. Apparently, I was wrong to think that sociology knew it needed improvement. On the contrary, the profession evidently doesn’t want to discuss its own deficits; it certainly presents no forums for doing so.

I’d like to be proven wrong. I hope we soon see throngs discussing new areas of sociological understanding. But at this moment the evidence of our profession makes for despair and, if enthusiasm for new learning ever arises, this seems a long time off in the future.

*The British Sociological Association has no streams on these topics either.

Do We Live in the Dark Ages of Social Science?

Society holds a strange ontological status. People know it exists but no-one can define it.

Margaret Thatcher’s famous comment, that “there is no such thing as society,” appears to address the first statement but is actually an affirmation of the second. We cannot collectively explain anything, blame or praise, by using a concept we cannot define. The notorious student essay, that beings ‘In today’s society,’ we know is off to a bad start because it’s going to try to explain our shared life from a causal force, society, which lacks any agreed definition. So this attempt at explanation simply cherry picks some favourite attributes to explain everything … or, more likely, the phrase ‘in today’s society’ is a discursive way to avoid the fact that we know nothing about what our collective life really is.

This is a serious problem for everyone. It puts social science in its own Dark Ages, a place where academic studies go on but nobody can explain the past, act in the present, or predict the future. For studying society, current social science is the equivalent of living in a climate without having any weather forecasting service. We record past weather statistics; we report on what is actually happening; and we make guesses about the future. But in no way can current social science venture any ‘societal weather forecast’ – however close in the near future or unreliable. We currently live in a social science Dark Age because this kind of prediction cannot be attempted at all.

The reason for this is that we don’t know where to begin. With what facts could we start to build a model of social life? We don’t know what our subject matter is. Progress is confounded by the lack of any working definition of ‘society.’ Meteorology has air, humidity, temperature, pressure, and the surface of the Earth. These result in very complex effects but at least weather forecasters know what they are dealing with. It’s not magic being released out of a bottle; the problem of prediction is limited to forces they already know about. Weather scientists are able to move on to the next step which is lots of time-contingent data collection, followed by modeling of this data by computer algorithms.

I am perfectly aware that human beings are different from the planetary atmosphere and that modeling human behaviour is different from natural science. Human beings can do things that are entirely new; this makes prediction of social phenomena harder. On the other hand, social scientists get information from their subject matter; human beings communicate about what they are planning and this makes social prediction easier than that faced by natural scientists. So, overall, which is easier to predict, the natural or the social? Nobody today knows the answer to this question for one simple reason. Social scientists haven’t even tried to do their part.

The social cannot become a science until its subject matter is defined. Professional social scientists still haven’t discovered what society is. Data could be collected but we are not doing this on the scale and in time-sensitive speed needed because we do not know what we are looking for. And we aren’t continuously running predictive models on our computers because we haven’t collected the relevant data about society. So we truly are in the Dark Ages of social science. We haven’t reached the starting point of being a science.

This is not because nothing is going on. Social scientists are working hard at researching and publishing. The problem is that their work is scattered into various mutually incomprehensible disciplines. We do not know whether these various fields are the cause or the symptom of not knowing how to collect together the information from different academic professions.

Let’s return to the fundamental challenge of defining society. The professions cannot agree on what society is as a whole thing; but they do provide plenty of components they believe exist within society.

Everyone agrees that society has, within it, a ‘polity’; we can all see government.

And we know that society has an economy. We know this because we measure the GDP and we can add in government expenditures – all using money currency. So we can know that US GDP is a bit over $18 trillion and that of China about $11 trillion. The economy is an illuminating example of what social science can do. Collectively, we have put the money and effort into continuous collection of economic data and whole industries are devoted to analyzing this information and predicting the future. In contrast, it is clear that an equivalent effort has not been put into studying society’s non-economic features.

And third, we know that society contains other areas of life that are outside both polity and economy. These are various and lack any unifying feature. As a result, various academic disciplines look at them, usually with unique approaches. Psychology looks a feelings but typically ignores other people and rejects the idea of studying people’s social roles in society. Demography looks quantitatively at populations as defined by biology and institutions; this means reporting fertility, nuptuality, morbidity, mortality and migration. Ethnographers ignore this and describe small pieces of current living with lots of descriptive detail. Unfortunately, this ignores all the big features of society such as its historical evolution, polity, economy, demographics and popular culture.

So, in this chaos of non-communicating disciplines, academic social scientists live in little villages ignoring each other and occasionally vying for dominion over others … which is exactly what we would expect to find in the Dark Ages. Nothing has risen up to the level of a unifying civilization. This is how far social science is behind the times.

The fact is that I, personally, have, for many years, been working on a definition of society. I’ve created one now which could be neater and appears rather complex. This is because it describes society in term of four sub-concepts that themselves need explanation to sociologists and to other social scientists. These new concepts still need defining and a lot of explaining to others will be needed. I am still optimistic that I can provide a good working definition of today’s society.

Does this mean progress is near at hand? Other social scientists, in their various fields, are no more aware of the missing definition than are lay people in the general public. In fact, non-professionals are, in many ways, ahead of what academic social scientists are able to acknowledge. This is the problem of ‘academic professional lag’ by which professors, in their private lives, are doing things that orient themselves to society which they cannot acknowledge in their professional writing and teaching. Currently, much that is practiced as part of society is inadmissible as professional social scientific truth. Consider marriage. Most educated people do marry in their private lives but nothing about this exists in social scientific publications. Again, consider generations. Academics are as ready as any lay person to recall what it meant to be ‘a child of the 90s.’ And they identify their formative decade as using Myspace before Facebook existed. But none of this time-contingent object-based knowledge will appear in their publications. As yet, key elements of social life cannot be connected, by any disciplinary field, with social scientific concepts of society.

This is why, officially speaking, society still does not exist. Still today, no academic sociologist can give you a definition of society that could be recognized as ‘American society,’ for example. Here’s a checklist of what such a definition should include to distinguish it from cave dwellers or ancient Babylon; polity, economy, ethnography, demographics, media culture and all the other unnamed stuff that holds large complex societies together. The presence, in the mind of one isolated speculative thinker, of a plausible definition of modern society isn’t going to lift social science out of its Dark Ages any time soon. Something big will have to come along to shake up a lot of people’s ways of thinking – not least within the walls of academia where science is supposed to dwell.

Roundtable on Generations – ASA meeting 2017

Opportunity to Meet People Studying Generations

Do you want to know more about Millennials, Gen-Xers and Boomers? Are you currently studying generations or teaching about them? The ASA currently has no section on “Generations,” so scholars have no location for bringing together their ideas.

I am organizing an ASA roundtable on “Seeing Generations Sociologically,” meeting on Sunday 13th August (10:30 AM, room 517C).  People interested in any aspect of generations should come along. Areas of interest include young people and new media, fashion, audience studies, changes in the workplace, urban revitalization, new consumption, youth mobilization, the life course and, most of all, the impact of generations on society.

This is an opportunity to bring together academics, researchers and professionals in various fields whose current work touches on generations. I am currently writing a book on generations and sociology – which I am happy to introduce to get the discussion rolling.

See you in Montreal in August.

On Watching “The Duff” as a Sociologist

Of the three recent films, “The Fault in Our Stars,” “The Hunger Games” and “The Duff” no critic today will likely take the last of these seriously. But as a sociologist, I must insist that “The Duff” is the only movie of the three that any thinking person should care about.

faultinourstars “The Fault in Our Stars” is a tear-jerker about teenagers dying from incurable diseases. This theme is neither modern nor conceptually plausible. Death rates in modern society have fall very low and teens are the group least likely to suffer an untimely death. What is more, nobody needs to be convinced that dying young is a bad thing; conceptually, this theme has zero challenge to it. On both counts, “The Fault in Our Stars” is an intellectual dud; nobody could learn anything medical or social scientific from it.

Superficially, “The Hunger Games” looks a better candidate for learning about society. But, sadly, it is not. The fact is that nobody can learn anything from this or any other picture of dystopia. Modern societies cannot be run as dictatorships – they just don’t work this way. The most recent round of authoritarian dictatorships, those of the first half of the twentieth century, all collapsed under the weight of their own violence and mismanagement. No elite-planned competition of violence could keep any modern society together. No one could plan it; no group of people could execute it. Consider how the United States, which has the world’s largest military, cannot create a health care system that works reasonably and covers all its people. How less likely is that, in a democracy, a market economy, and an open media, any group of people could plan and run a system of compulsory, competitive and destructive games? Today’s fictional attempts to conjure up a dystopia don’t begin to provide a plausible picture of society. The idea of a fully planned dystopian society is impossible for a social scientist to take seriously. “The Hunger Games” ignores social science as much as “The Fault in Our Stars” ignores medical progress. We know that dystopias cannot exist so, as an assumption behind an entertainment, this premise offers zero intellectual challenge. You won’t learn anything from Katniss about either real people or actual societies.

When the bar is this low, it doesn’t take much for “The Duff” to soar into the heights of social science. But it’s more than just another high school movie. “The Duff” poses an intriguing problem of friendship and social ranking. Bianca becomes troubled by being the least attractive one in her group of girl friends. Significantly, it is not her enemy, Madison, nor even the cyber bullying of her fellow students, which is the thread of her story. “The Duff’s” truly important theme is how Bianca learns to deal with her own, entirely correct, assessment that she is least attractive one, the “duff,” in her group of friends. Any social scientist will find Bianca’s journey of self-discovery well worth studying. Can you conceptualize any of the work she does on herself using the concepts currently available in sociology? When social science can grasp any of Bianca’s learning and self-improvement, it will be on the cutting edge of human knowledge. The human situation here is all too real; many of us will not find ourselves on the top rung of success. And it’s vitally important to society that people deal with this constructively. Working with, and sometimes without, her friends, Bianca rebuilds herself into a more proactive and creative person. She shows us human social progress being created. Bianca, a self-defined “duff,” is a pioneering explorer of social science’s terra incognita – socially adept and high functioning self-improvement. While “The Duff” may never be considered a truly great movie – its dialog and dramatic scenes could be better – it’s the sociologist’s only choice when it comes to learning something new and genuinely interesting about modern life.

Poster Art and Sociological Metonymy

Performing Arts Office, Suffolk University, Dec. 2015
Performing Arts Office, Suffolk University, Dec. 2015

Look at this picture for the way varieties of footwear express people’s different identities in society. Each kind of shoe is a designed social object. In this poster, each designed object works as a metonym; each shoe reveals the bigger whole that is associated with it. It is a sociological principle that, because we are rich in designed objects, modern societies communicate about people by using metonymies like this. They fill our media and art. Metonyms have largely replaced symbolic expression which past state and tribal societies used. Past civilizations, which were trying to communicate the transcendental, relied on metaphor, which tries to show how something different from itself is a symbol that reveals an aspect that we cannot see. That was a kind of poetic way of seeing the world – as something magical and different from the Earthly and human. Notice how the poster is very modern in that it asks us to connect, metonymically, this-worldly things with what we cannot see so easily, namely the inner identities of people around us.

When Stars Hate Their Fans


Actor Benedict Cumberbatch has recently received bad publicity for finding his fans annoying, most likely because they embarrass him. It’s the “slash fiction” which he doesn’t like, stories which erotically pair the inexpressive Sherlock Holmes character he plays on television with his supposedly platonic companion, John Watson. Interviewers read him extracts from these imaginative and highly popular stories written by fans – knowing that they can get a rise out of him.

Writer Elizabeth Minkel in “The New Statesman” explains why Cumberbatch’s fans are rightly upset by this. How can stars hate their fans? A celebrity owes everything to his audience; they’re the ones who are buying his tickets and watching his shows.


What is surprising is that some celebrities still haven’t figured this out. In the 1920s, Rudolf Valentino was embarrassed by hordes of adoring fans. The movies were new then and fan actions were little understood. Men of Valentino’s era didn’t know what they were expected to do with the screaming and fainting women fans. Being a sex symbol seemed unmanly, undignified and impossible to respond to.

A century later, most celebrities know that they owe their success to their fans. Kathy Griffin explained that, at book signings, she smiles at whatever insults or absurdities fans say to her; she simply says, “Thank you for coming,” and that is enough. Fan fiction is something new and not widely understood. It is the new “movies.” Cumberbatch and his interviewers still have some learning to do.

Minkel is right that fan fiction isn’t written for celebrities. But stars should not have to figure out for themselves the uses and social functions of fan activities. Isn’t it the job of social scientists to explain what fan adoration is all about? After all, it’s been around for a hundred years.

Boomers Versus Millennials: Are There Generational Cultures?

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s recent statement that he won’t perform in colleges any more, for this sociologist, highlights how important decades and time are in modern society. When do generations come to an end, and where are the boundaries that separate them? What stops an older generation and starts a new one? When a famous Boomer generation entertainer is suddenly rejected by Millennials, surely light is being shed on these questions.

What is the cause of this rupture? Its protagonist blames the younger generation’s changed values and outlook. “They’re so PC,” he says. What Seinfeld means by political correctness is less important than the fact that he identifies the younger generation as having a changed view of the world. Here we find two generations on the cusp of change, with the older one discovering that the younger does not appreciate it. For Jerry Seinfeld, the young are incomprehensible for not understanding the satirical use of racism and sexism which was the common currency of Boomers. In return, Millennials think his attempts at humor just aren’t funny. Two generations have parted ways. The “Seinfeld Show,” a comedy adored by the generation of the late eighties and early nineties has, for Millennials in the mid twenty-teens, descended into cultural insensitivity and irrelevance.

Seinfeld’s honest and heartfelt frustration about this alteration is nowhere more evident than in the fact that his own fourteen-year-old daughter rejects him. “That’s racist. That’s sexist. That’s prejudice,” she hurls at her 61-year-old father. Clearly they no longer share the same cultural terrain. He expostulates “They just don’t know what they’re talking about.” For her part, his daughter holds her ground; she isn’t budging.

Whether it’s a college audience or your own children, eventually a cultural gap opens up that separates whole generations. How long is a generation given to be itself and live on top of the wave? Recent research seems to show that cultural generations last about eighteen years (see my blog post “Generations: A Mystery to Social Science”). But until we get sociological research with representative samples of generations, we must catch at what straws of information we can. The separation of generations that sincerely baffles a famous person like Jerry Seinfeld shows us the sociological process going on here.

Source: Cavan Sieczkowski The Huffington Post 8th June 2015

Generations: A Mystery to Social Science

It is now widely understood that generations exist. Their patterns of change are regularly reported by the Pew Research Center, and their consumer preferences are sought by marketers. People recognize that generations have contrasting styles of life and ways of doing things.

But the existence of generations poses multiple problems for social science, most basically why generations even exist at all. Let’s look at the theoretical problem here. People’s lives are separated into successive phases during which they do different activities; modern people don’t just grow up and repeat the same thing all their lives. In different generations these phases remain pretty similar. Young people, for example, pursue the same general activities that they have done in every generation.

But generations become really important because at specific moments they alter these patterns in significant ways. For example, Pew Research found that young people have increasingly delayed their marriages or don’t marry at all. The chart below shows that each generation is clearly identifiable by name, as is the year when most of its generation is aged 18 to 32 years old – the peak point of its activities.

The problem here is how all generations go through the same phases of life but handle them in contrasting styles. There are two puzzles then. First, why do generations accept the same sequence of life phases in the first place? Why are activities segregated and why should they be pursued in a strict order? And second, what makes generations different from each other? Why is each one distinct from the previous? Is it possible that generations construct their own lives, and if so, by what means do they become the authors of their own collective style?

Social science should be able to answer big questions like these. Can it simply be an accident that modern society gives birth to these different generations? Unfortunately for us, social science is completely stumped; generations remain a huge unsolved mystery. It’s not politics or institutions that create them; no formal organizations or policies can be found that design contrasting generations. And it’s not the economy that appears to be creating them either. Economic inequalities exist within every generation, but these don’t stop people from sharing much of the same outlook, priorities, aesthetics and preferences as their peers.

The discipline that is best positioned to answer these questions is sociology. Generations are voluntary, based on attraction not coercion, and become effective by using temporary informal associations. These are all sociological qualities. But past sociology suffers from obstacles to recognizing generations; specifically, it holds onto concepts which actively deny that generations exist.

For example, ‘socialization’ theory states that parents create children who are photocopies of themselves. But to be part of their own distinct generation, children cannot be reproductions just like their parents. The existence of generations tells us, logically, that parents regularly fail to socialize their children. Different generations keep on appearing. Have parents failed?

An alternative sociology suggests itself. Perhaps social science could see generations, not as a problem, but as something that carries out a purpose or function for society. Maybe our society loves its generations and supports those parents who peddle back on the “socialization” and let generations come into being.

This possibility has fascinating implications. Perhaps generations can reshape society. This suggests that we live in a world full of exciting creative possibilities. A new and improved sociology that understands generations may be the first social science to shed light on this remarkable feature of modern society.