Capsule book reviews, 2017-04-23 — April 23, 2017

Capsule book reviews, 2017-04-23

  • C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination

    Critique of sociology as it’s commonly practiced. On the one extreme (according to Mills) are those who dwell in the loftiest of abstractions; Talcott Parsons’s The Social System comes in here for particular scorn. Mills says that Parsons’s work is so committed to defining concepts, and getting definitions correct, that it can only focus on syntax rather than on semantics. That is, Parsons can tell us how words work together, but not how those words relate to the actual lived experience of real human beings. At the other end of the spectrum are those sociologists (Mills’s “abstracted empiricists”) who are excessively focused on the details of lived experience, such that they can tell us exactly what happens in, say, a specific Midwestern village. Without ever coming out and saying it, I think Mills’s critique of these excessively detailed sociologists is aimed at the Middletown studies.

    The proper study of a sociologist, says Mills, is the social system: the complex of psychological, economic, social, cultural, governmental, and (this last one Mills calls out for special attention) historical influences that impinge on the life of an individual human being living at a given time and place. Studying one small town, and then another small town, and then a third small town, and then pipe welders within a given city, and so forth, will not give a picture of the social system. The social system can only be understood by someone who appreciates both both the low-level (psychological) picture and the high-level (society-wide) one. This simultaneous understanding of, and empathetic living within, the two worlds is the sociological imagination.

    Much of the book feels like a mildly coded attack on specific sociologists, whom specialists within the field at the time of the book’s writing would have instantly decoded; 56 years later, it’s somewhat more difficult. Despite this encoding, the book’s directness — almost brashness — is refreshing — as when Mills notes that in the abstracted empiricists’ studies,

    the details are piled up with insufficient attention to form; indeed, often there is no form except that provided by typesetters and bookbinders. The details, no matter how numerous, do not convince us of anything worth having convictions about.

    or when he attacks Parsons and friends:

    What has happened in the fetishism of the Concept is that men have become stuck way up on a very high level of generalization, usually of a syntactical nature, and they cannot get down to fact.

    This directness has some value in what might otherwise be a dry recitation of petty academic squabbles. Mills argues convincingly that the disputes matter to real humans; his style especially calls this out.

    The 1960s come through as a faint rumbling in the background of Mills’s book. He angrily laments the industrialization and bureaucratization of sociology: the social sciences, he says, have become co-opted for use by governments, by militaries, and by corporate human-resources departments. That’s not how you understand a social system; it’s how you use science to more perfectly control human beings. And its effect on sociological practice is to turn sociologists themselves into cogs in a bureaucratic machine:

    explicitly coded methods, readily available to the technicians, are the major keys to success. In some of the founders [Weber, Durkheim, etc.], empirical techniques serve an imagination which, it is true, has often been curiously suppressed, but which one always feels to be there. When you talk with one of the founders you are always dealing with a mind. But once a young man has spent three or four years at this sort of thing, you cannot really talk to him about the problems of studying modern society. His position and career, his ambition and his very self-esteem, are based in large part upon this one perspective, this one vocabulary, this one set of techniques. In truth, he does not know anything else.

    I’ve read critiques of social science of this sort from other authors, though I can’t think of references at the moment. We’re (or at least I’m) inclined to think of the modern Ph.D. as the timeless way of things: you go to grad school, get assigned your little problem by your advisor, then solve your little problem, then spend the next 15 years of your career working on your little problem until you get tenure, at which point (the doctor dreams) you can work on whatever problem suits your fancy. It’s an argument like this by which my college mentor dissuaded me (whether he meant to or not — I think he was just being honest) from getting a Ph.D. You get sucked into one end of the bureaucratic machine and spat out the other. It’s the rare person (my mentor was one) who’s lucky enough to direct his own study; he’s one of the people of whom Mills would have said that “you are always dealing with a mind.”

    Mills’s final chapter — instructing up-and-coming sociologists on how to do meaningful work, and how to keep their minds active even while they’re getting churned through the machine — justifies the price of admission on its own. I found it deeply inspiring for anyone, not just sociologists, who’s afraid of going stagnant as he ages. While much of the book can feel like a flamethrower applied to the rest of the field, the last chapter is patient shepherding; it reveals Mills for what he is, namely a passionate, deeply humane researcher.

  • Pankaj Mishra, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present.

    We’ve lived before, says Mishra, in a world that feels chaotic and exhausted, as ours does today. The ISIS of yesteryear were the anarchists of the mid- to late-1800s. The global élites whom everyone loves to hate today were the capitalists of the industrializing world. Voltaire, whom the world remembers as the father of the Enlightenment, made a fortune and was happy to see the world run by merchants. There have always been two sides: on the one side, what today we might call the neoliberals or the technocrats, happy to tweak marginal tax rates here or grant the poor more or less health insurance there; on the other, those who believe that tribalism, community, blood, and fire are the real basis of society. There have always been anarchists happy to blow up the existing order; there have always been Mikhail Bakunins and Steve Bannons. There have always been Voltaires and Hillary Clintons.

    I hope I don’t sound like I’m coming down on either side here. On the one hand, books like Democracy for Realists convince me that the bulk of people are not moved by policy; they’re moved by the success of their team, their tribe, their party. They’re moved by war and by destruction. On the other hand, industrializing economies have been growing exponentially for centuries, and it should be our job to share this growth with the neediest members of our society; if expanding Social Security and improving the health of all Americans is the policy of a milquetoast technocrat, then count me as a milquetoast technocrat. The job of a humane politician in the 21st century is to channel this desire for blood and fire into socially desirable outcomes that help all Americans — to build up rather than to burn down.

    “We’ve been here before” is the lesson of Mishra’s painfully over-written book. “Go read yer Rousseau, yer Nietzsche, and your Voltaire” might be the secondary lesson. For all the ink this book spills, it doesn’t go much beyond “a pox on both your houses”: the anarchists are guilty of perverting Rousseau’s ideas into an ethic of destruction, while the heirs of Voltaire are the exponents of trickle-down economics who lack any empathy for the wretched of the earth. The only conclusion Mishra comes to is perhaps implicit: the last time we were in such a world, it only ended when World War I and then World War II detonated a large part of the world’s wealth. Maybe the only correct conclusion is that inequality needs a cleansing fire to wipe it out. That’s certainly the conclusion that Thomas Piketty, coming at the problem from a completely different different angle, arrives at. And maybe Mishra avoided the common problem of all books that diagnose a social ill, namely that the last chapter tries and fails to suggest solutions.

    Still, I think the right thing to do with this book is to skip it and mine the bibliography instead. Voters need more than the occasional tweak to the welfare state; they need to feel that they’re part of a community. And there will always be those whose only goal is to destroy that community. It’s the job of political leaders to harness these destructive impulses and direct them toward productive ends. What we need is political leadership, not the hopelessness that Mishra serves up.