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The Social Condition: The Third Intellectual Project

Sociologists face three distinct intellectual projects in their work. They are well aware of two of them, but the third remains in the shadows. The two standard projects are the study of the social construction, and the study of social effects. The third, the study of the predictable existential dilemmas we face, is the one Jeff Goldfarb and I are working to develop in our work, what we call “the social condition.”

As every undergraduate student learns after her first introduction to sociology, our world is socially constructed. People constantly give meaning, together, to a world that may not have an intrinsic meaning to it. In its deepest form, the one that Berger and Luckmann saw so well over 45 years ago, social construction is an existential drama. It is not only that, as undergraduates quickly learn to recite, identities are constructed by a social world (gender and race being the favorite examples). This is, of course, true and important. It is, rather, that our entire existence, as so far as it is meaningful, must be socially constructed and re-constructed. Like a shoddy plane over the void of meaninglessness, we construct a meaningful world — a world in which human existence, institutions and identities make sense. We may not do it actively the whole time, as, after all, we are born already into a social world that precedes us, and so into a world of meaning. And yet, meaning is always in danger of collapse. In liminal situations — when planes hit the twin towers, when children are slaughtered in their school, or simply when a loved one dies — we suddenly see how rickety our world is.

The second sociological project is that of “social effects,” the intellectual project that has come to define most sociological work. Here, sociologists note that we encounter social categories and processes as a reality that is beyond us. And this world that we encounter is far from equal. Sociologists thus study how social categories predictably affect the way different people encounter their worlds, and their chances to thrive within them. To take a particularly poignant example, Devah Pager recently showed how having a criminal record affects the hiring of black men. To do so, she trained a group of black and white graduate students, and sent them with near identical resumes to find an entry-level job. The only real difference in their resumes was that half of the white and half of the black graduate students had a criminal record on their resumes. The results were chilling, though perhaps not as surprising as we would wish. White men without criminal records were the most hired, but after them were white men with criminal records, only then came black men without criminal records, and trailing them, with almost none hired, were black men with criminal records. In a country with such high level of incarceration of young black men, her work shows not only how racism operates, but how nigh impossible it is for black men who “paid their debt to society” to become re-integrated into the legal economy.

These two intellectual projects are, of course, crucial. They are important for sociologists, for whom they are the stock in trade; but they are also crucial for any of us who attempts to understand the world we live in.

But focusing on these intellectual projects may present a picture that is all too predictable. While it is true that we construct our world and live with the effects of its construction, we also live a life that is riddled with choices, with dilemmas, with angst. These dilemmas, and the way we answer them, is often the choices we are most proud of, the moments that define our personhood, as well as the type of society in which we live.

Although how we answer the dilemmas our lives present us is not something that a sociology can answer, sociology can focus on these moments — on the predictable tensions and dilemmas that we face. These dilemmas are built into the social fabric of our being in both large and small ways. Writ large, as Goldfarb has noted (see here and here), we can, for example, think about the inherent tensions of democracy that structure our political dramas. Our institutions and ways of life are contradictory, and living through them is not following a smooth script, but a minefield of difficult choices.

I tend to think about smaller moments. And here too, I find them riddled with tensions. Take, for example, what happens when we start an activity — be it learning to box, learning the guitar, falling in love, or become religious. All these activities have a strong experiential aspect to them. When I studied Orthodox Judaism, I was struck by how powerful the experiences of newly religious Jews are. Even in the most mundane of rituals, when they had to say a blessing before having a cup of water, some of my friends felt a deep experience of the divine. In a different key, the same goes for more profane activities and relationships. And in both cases, experience slowly becomes routinized. Prayers are learned by heart, music pours from the guitar effortlessly. On the one hand, mastery then has its own seductions — the ease, the control, how movements that were once challenging becomes almost automatic.

But these seductions are beset by challenges — for the person who had powerful religious experiences when he converted, becoming an adept means losing some of these moments. Instead of exuberance, religious experience becomes more fleeting, something felt only at intervals. Gaining mastery, then, is also losing something. And the balance of what is lost and what is gained is a hard one. Some people leave religion when experience changes; some try to take it up a notch, becoming stricter and stricter as a way to sustain the tension and excitement that they are in danger of losing.

But whatever they do, the conditions of this tension are predictable. Social research, in this key, doesn’t show solutions, but points to moments of deliberation, of uncertainty and angst. Studying the social condition cannot tell us how to solve these moments. It can, however, tell us where to expect them, and point us in the direction of describing and analyzing the existential dilemmas people traverse.

A version of this article appeared in Deliberately Considered.

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