Sunday, July 17, 2005

A Few Sociological Thinking Traps - Watch Out!

I think this will be the last of my purely intellectual blogs for awhile. Next time look for something on an issue of the day, or week, or whatever. This one is a bit long, but I know you will find it worth the time.

Social life is composed more or less of seven dimensions of thinking and action. These dimensions are Moral/Ethical, Biological, Spiritual/Religious, Economic, Social, Individual, and Natural/Ecological. I'll define these terms presently and discuss each in a little bit of detail. as it applies to organizations.
Moral and ethical concerns rightly occupy some of our attention, but it is possible to go too far. We become too focused establishing (institutionalizing to use the sociological term) our preferred standards. How would we know when this is happening though? And what are the negative consequences for society?
Two types of social problems can develop from an overemphasis on moral or ethical matters. Crusades to legislate morality are a threat to individual freedom. Whether this is a problem depends, I suppose, on whether other people need their freedom more than they need to abide by somebody else's principles. Moral crusades may not even address the causes of the problems in question. Pornography provides a good example. Simply asserting that pronography is harmful or "sinful" and fighting it simply wastes resources and, perhaps, credibility that could be put to better use.
Biology clearly forces certain concerns upon us ( reproduction, protection from the elements, acquiring food and water, et cetera). A psychological sense of security may also qualify as a biological need. The problem here is that legitimate concerns sometimes become socially destructive preoccupations. I could, and probably will, write about the evils of instrumental social relations that are simply fostered and even rationalized by reference to reproductive logic, genes, and evolution.
Reproduction is the biological aspect of human life that's most likely to be overemphasized. This overemphasis on reproduction can lead to several problems. The value of human life becomes discounted (How many of us does nature really need?) and the value of human culture and creativity are devalued. The trappings of culture become mere window dressing for our quest to reproduce. Destructive shifts in morals and values can follow and threaten the structure of society. Adultery causes a surge in divorces, domestic violence, and mistrust - none of which bodes well for society or for the individual.
Religion and spirituality are helpful to society and to individuals in many ways. The benefits seem to include better physical and mental health, and lower rates of drug abuse. Religion and spirituality contribute to social stability because people are guided by a set of principles that keep them from misbehaving at a rate that spawns serious social problems.
What social problems can arise from becoming too concerned with religion or spirituality? The most obvious problem is with belief systems that become oppressive. Submit or die. Absolute certainty about the will of God causes intolerance of other views, and a desire to eliminate them. When this attitude guides a government or a religious movement the consequences for other societies and the individuals in them can be severe.
Spiritual and religious beliefs can distract us from the material world. This much is obvious and is partly the purpose of such beliefs. However, we can cause ourselves unnecessary social problems by focusing on the afterlife or on spiritual growth. Energy spent on such things distracts people (and their organizations) from dealing with manageable problems in this world. There is always something that can be done to improve peoples' lives. Extreme poverty can continue to exist because of a cultural emphasis on religion or spiritualism.
Religion or spirituality can provide excuses for doing nothing about a problem. Since God determines who is rich and who is poor there is no need to be concerned about the distribution of wealth (and power) in a society. This is exactly the belief held by many people in traditional societies.
Economics (particularly money) really matters but how much so remains open to debate. In modern societies you need money to secure the basics of survival and comfort. However, people can become obsessed with acquiring things or money. I hope this is not news to anyone. The personal consequences of acquisitiveness are well known so I'll not dwell on them here. On a societal level, a concern with acquiring more things can produce a high crime rate with all of the associated social and economic costs. This focus on economic rationality also promotes instrumental social relations; a problem which calls for a blog of its own.
The environment is obviously important so concern with it is justified, up to a point. We depend on the natural world for air, water, and food so indiscriminately exploiting nature is bad. So, how much concern can we have for nature before problems develop for society? What kinds of problems are likely? Socially, focusing on harmony with nature could be a disaster, or it could be required to save civilization and nature. In either case the odds of a catastrophe go up if we charge ahead with poorly planned social changes. How, for example, do we make a smooth and speedy transition away from fossil fuels?
Society can be considered the correct level of analysis as we think about social problems and how to solve them. This is the foundation for much liberal and radical thought: Society is the problem and must be reformed or destroyed and rebuilt. People are sometimes thought of as elements of the society. Is the individual nothing more than a cell in an organism we call "society"? Perhaps so, but there is one huge problem with this idea. At the societal level, the government becomes free to manage the population and economy to suit its own purposes. This thinking is a perfect foundation for totalitarianism or eco-fascism.
There are two more "social" problems with focusing on society as an independent entity. First, resources can be poured into goals with questionable value for society, and with disastrous consequences for many individuals. The Soviet Union under Stalin (forced collectivization and internal migration) and Communist China (forced industrialization that starved millions) are good examples. Anyway, totalitarian governments often fall apart because of their oppressiveness, unfairness, and inefficiency. These are things to consider before advocating greater government control of consumption or production.
If the society isn't so all-important perhaps the individual matters more than anything else. The Western tradition of emphasizing individual rights, personal freedom, and the value of individual human lives has had overwhelmingly positive effects on the world. What can happen when individualism is taken to extremes?
For society there are three possible problems. Crime may increase, making life dangerous and damaging the government and the economy. Second, public officials grow more corrupt as they use their positions to get more money and perks. Third, people waste time and money protecting themselves from theft, fraud, and manipulation. These problems can make society less efficient as increasingly complex legal structures evolve. Social capital is replaced with contracts, contingency fee lawyers, and fear of lawsuits or jail terms.
So, those are some of the problems that arise from focusing too much on one aspect of human life. Perhaps these ideas will prompt you some self-examination. Perhaps you've been lured into one of these thinking traps. You may believe that we cannot overemphasize our society's (destructive?) relationship with nature. If so, on what basis do you hold this belief? Ask yourself what other perspectives are possible and reasonable. Consider the same exercise if you tend to think about things in religious or ideological (i.e., Marxist, libertarian) terms. Your beliefs about society should be able to survive challenges to their validity, ethical foundation and/or utility.


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