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Sociology Thread

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Clydey
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Sociology Thread « on: May 13, 2010, 10:43 PM »
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For the small group of sociologists on the site, I thought we should have a place for discussing social theory.

Here's an old Giddens essay to get the ball rolling. Ruth, George, your thoughts?

Given how little interest there is in sociology on this site, I have a feeling this thread will go down a storm. Rolling Eyes

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Modern Reflexivity

What to do? How to act? Who to be? These are focal questions for everyone living in circumstances of late modernity and ones which, on some level or another, all of us answer...” (Giddens, 1991, p.70).

The above is a quote from Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Anthony Giddens’ 1991 treatise on the self and how it relates to the modern era. The questions he poses are of both existential and practical significance, unique to what Giddens calls the period of high modernity (Giddens, 1991); however, in the context of the modern age the existential and the practical are, according to Giddens, mutually inclusive (Giddens, 1991). In other words, ontological introspection is no longer a Cartesian-esque act of intellectual masturbation. It is a fundamental aspect of late modern life, with society no longer bound by the deterministic traditionalism of the pre-modern era.

What is modernity? The answer to that question is contingent on whom you ask. Giddens claims that modernity has its roots in the evolving modes of social organisation from the beginning of the 17th century (Giddens, 1990; Kaspersen, 1995). Turner (2000) suggests that the seeds of modernity were planted in the 16th century, with its “Renaissance culture of humanism” (p.23) influencing and predating the views of August Comte, traditionally thought of as the father of sociology (Andersen & Kaspersen, 2000). Some, such as Theodor Adorno, are of the opinion that modernity did not truly begin until around 1850, during the time of the Industrial Revolution (Calhoun, et al, 2007). However, prevailing wisdom suggests that the 18th century Enlightenment was the true midwife of modernity (Andersen & Kaspersen, 2000; Haralambos & Holborn, 2004; Delanty, 1999). To quote Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment is “man’s emergence from self-incurred immaturity” (Kant, 1784, p.1). It is characterised by an emphasis on reason above tradition and was the foundation for the rationalisation of social life (Andersen & Kaspersen, 2000).  If the Enlightenment midwifed the birth of modernism, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century can be said to have fostered it into maturity. The social, economic, technological, and industrial upheaval, beginning in around 1850, was one of the driving forces behind modernity (Giddens, 2001; Haralambos & Holborn, 2004) It was this combination of interrelated factors that laid the foundations for Western society as we know it today. The rapidity of technological change over the last three centuries is unprecedented (Giddens, 1990). Similarly, the scope of change that has occurred is unique (Giddens, 1990). One could argue the point that modernity has engineered more change over the last three centuries than has been witnessed in the entirety of the millennium that preceded it.

Modernity can be described as “post-traditional”. That is to say, it defines a society no longer constrained by the fetters of tradition. In pre-modern times, society lay under the thumb of religion and superstition (Turner, 2000; Haralambos & Holborn, 2004). The authority of the church and its brand of clerical totalitarianism governed an era of intellectual, cultural, and scientific constipation. However, in the context of this essay it is the period’s devotion to tradition that is most pertinent to Giddens’ theories of modern social life. Tradition would most often dictate which path one’s life would follow (Giddens, 1991). Factors such as social class, gender, ethnicity, and religious affiliation had the potential to both broaden and limit one’s horizons (Giddens, 2001). Being born the eldest son of a tailor tended to ensure that the son would learn his father’s craft and carry on that tradition throughout his lifetime (Giddens, 2001). Similarly, tradition held that a woman’s place was in the home (Giddens, 2001). Her life and identity were mostly defined by those of her husband or father, who seemingly took on the role of ontological surrogates. Values, lifestyles, and identities were shaped by one’s community. There was no cause for ambition. Individuals of all colours and creeds were faced with a bulletproof glass ceiling.

Has the Enlightenment taken society as far as its limitations will permit? That is one of the major sociological questions (Giddens, 1991). That the world has undergone dramatic changes over the past several centuries is a fact recognised by all contemporary theorists (Ritzer, 2008). However, some theorists argue that modern and pre-modern societies have more in common than not (Ritzer, 2008). Put another way, the claims of discontinuity promulgated by Giddens are not as pronounced as he would have us believe. Indeed, there are various schools of thought as to where society currently stands. Thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Frederic Jameson argue that the social world has undergone further, equally dramatic changes that are independent of modernity (Ritzer, 2008; Giddens, 2001). They believe that we are living in a period of post-modernity, in which Enlightenment values no longer govern society (Giddens, 2001; Haralambos & Holborn, 2004). It is characterised by the death of the meta-narrative. The grand narratives, they argue, are no longer sufficient to explain the world in which we are living (Giddens, 2001). The perceived linearity of history, with the seeming inevitability of progress, has been replaced by chaos. Globalisation means that we now come into contact with countless different ideas and values, most of which have no connection to our own personal histories or the areas in which we live (Giddens, 2001). Baudrillard suggests that Globalisation, and particularly the mass media, has had the effect of separating us from reality (Giddens, 2001). Celebrities exist to most of us only through television and magazines, yet we routinely develop strong emotions for them based on these media portrayals. Periods of mass mourning followed the deaths of Princess Diana and Michael Jackson, yet how many of those mourners could claim to have spent time in their company? Baudrillard further argues that there are no general, overarching theories of history or society, by suggesting that the media has “destroyed our relationship to the past” (Giddens, 2001, p.681). No longer is meaning created through a linear, unfluctuating local reality. Meaning is now forged through the media and its plurality of images, producing a state of perpetual flux.


Giddens has a different view of modern life. Although he accepts some of the post-modernists’ axiomatic claims about the time-space distanciation effect of globalisation, Giddens does not believe that we are moving into a period of post-modernity (Giddens, 1990, 1991, 2001; Kaspersen, 1995). Indeed, he asserts that the Enlightenment values of reason, progress, and equality are still very much relevant to modern society (Giddens, 1991). Giddens instead suggests that we are transitioning into an era of high or late modernity (Giddens, 1990, 1991). That is to say that the consequences of modernity have become more pronounced, more radicalised (Giddens, 1990, 1991). Previous to this, we were living in a time of simple modernity, as defined earlier. Giddens describes this phase of modernity as a “juggernaut” (Giddens, 1991; Ritzer, 2008, p.87) and a “runaway world” (Giddens, 1991, p.16; Giddens, 2001, p.679). In other words, we have no real control over it. It is already in motion and its effects are irreversible. However, that is not to suggest that the consequences of high modernity are undesirable. Giddens’ writings on the subject of modernism are more analytical and less critical than those of the post-modernists. He does not subscribe to the numbing pessimism of post-modernism. Arguably the most important feature of Giddens’ modernity is his theory of reflexivity. In contrast to pre-modern times, we now live in an era of constant reflection (Giddens, 2001). It is no longer possible for most individuals to simply follow established custom. There is an incessant need for self-reflection, which engenders various consequences.

One such consequence of high modernity, according to Giddens, is the separation of time and space (Giddens, 1991; Giddens, 2001). What Giddens means by this is the immediacy of social relations in circumstances of high modernity, relative to those of pre-modern societies. In traditional societies, interaction was for the most part restricted to face-to-face communication (Giddens, 1991). High modernity has had the effect of lifting social relations out of local contexts of interaction, placing them instead in the new sphere of global communication. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is the Internet, which has opened up countless modes of communication. From instant messaging, to message boards, to webcams, to podcasts, individuals now have the world at their fingertips. As Giddens puts it, the “when” and the “where” remain connected, but social relations are no longer mediated by place (Giddens, 1991, p.17). This lifting out of social relations from the local to the global is but one aspect of what Giddens refers to as the “disembedding of social institutions” (Giddens, 1991, p.18).

These disembedding mechanisms come in two forms: “symbolic tokens” (currency) and “expert systems”. Both are relevant to the social reflexivity of high modernity, but particularly the latter (Giddens, 1991). Expert systems refer to the systems of knowledge within which we place our trust. These systems permeate all aspects of our reality, from social interaction, to education, to transport, to consumerism (Kaspersen, 1995). For this reason, trust is a major feature of what Giddens calls the “reflexive project of the self” (Giddens, 1991, p.5; Giddens, 2001; Kaspersen, 1995). Trust in this context does not merely refer to faith in those to whom we are close. It comes in the form of “facework commitments” (trust in those within our vicinity) and “faceless commitments” (trust in abstract systems) (Kaspersen, 1995, p.98). These trust relations are fundamental to society’s functionality, allowing us to filter out various day-to-day leaps of faith that we take for granted. Giddens calls it the “natural attitude” (p.37). The natural attitude creates a sense of ontological security. Without these trust relations, one would likely suffer paralysis of the mind (Giddens, 1991). Even the most mundane aspects of day-to-day social life would foster a ceaseless feeling of paranoia.  We go to sleep and we trust in the security of our homes; we go to the doctor and we trust that his training is sufficient to correctly diagnose our ailments; we go to a restaurant and we trust that the chef has prepared our food hygienically; we go to the shops to buy food and we trust that we are not about to buy a product that will set off a fatal food allergy. Trust is not only an active agent in the constitution of the self, but it also provides us with the mental freedom to discover our self-identity (Kaspersen, 1995).


Inextricably linked to the idea of trust is the concept of risk. Perhaps more than ever before, we are living in a society fraught with risk (Giddens, 1991; Kaspersen, 1995, Haralambos & Holborn, 2004; Beck, 1992; Franklin, 1998). We are forced into an interminable state of risk, which compels us to constantly assess and reassess our actions. If I spend too much money at the weekends, will I be able pay off my loans? Should I sacrifice a steady job in order to pursue further education? If I purchase shares on the stock market, will I lose my money? (Kaspersen, 1995) It is not the mere fact that there exists more risk than ever before. It is the kind of risk that we both inherit and perpetuate. In traditional societies, risk manifested in the guise of natural disasters, bad harvests, and epidemics (Kaspersen, 1995). We no longer contend with the range of problems nature once posed; however, we have created our own risk profile, distinct from that of pre-modernity, which entails the all-encompassing threats of nuclear war and global warming. The distanciation of time and space interlaces with the modern concept of risk to produce extensional consequences, no longer confined to the local. Risk is inherent in progress, which is a fact that is not lost on us, yet we carry on regardless (Kaspersen, 1995). Science and technology is, as Giddens states, double-edged. Kaspersen (1995) suggests that, as in the case of the mundane day-to-day risks discussed earlier, we are desensitised to the potential consequences of our actions. Our ontological security is bolstered by the trust built up through the bombardment of risk information to which we are constantly subjected. We hear of global risk every minute of every day on Sky and BBC News, yet for many of us our lives remain unaffected. Our trust in abstract systems allows us to take our security for granted (Kaspersen, 1995; Giddens, 2001). Also, abstract systems do not serve as mere organisational tools for society (Giddens, 1991) . They play a role in the constitution of self-identity, as we increasingly rely on the testimony of perceived experts. How should we raise our children? What is normal? What is in fashion right now? Am I on the correct diet? The expert systems to which we are exposed help shape and guide us (Giddens, 1991).


Baumeister (1986) argues that modern reflexivity is defined by the rise of individualism (Giddens, 1990). If pre-modernity is defined by its rigid adherence to tradition, this era of high modernity represents the opposite extreme (Giddens, 1991). The absence of individuality is one of the key distinguishing features of pre-modern times (Baumeister, 1986; Giddens, 1991). For this reason, the search for self-identity is viewed as a problem exclusive to high modernity (Baumeister, 1991). When societies were more geared towards tradition, individuals could go about their lives in a relatively unreflective manner (Giddens, 2001). One could argue that this lack of social reflexivity accounts, at least partially, for the unspectacular progress of pre-modern societies. The reflexive writings of Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume, Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, etc. had the effect of both deconstructing society, while at the same time promoting change. This is an aspect of reflexivity that Giddens passionately advocates (Giddens, 1990, 1991). He insists that sociological texts, by their nature, are reflexive. Even making oneself aware of the concept of reflexivity induces reflection. In Giddens words, “awareness creates potential change, and may actually induce change in and through itself” (Giddens, 1991, p.71)  

The reflexive project of the self starts in infancy, with the early process of socialisation, which relies on the input of expert systems, which were in turn created through the input of other expert systems, which were earlier created by less advanced expert systems, and so on and so forth  (Giddens, 1991). In other words, modern reflexivity is a reciprocal process, like a social version of photosynthesis. Society is both created and reproduced through social practice (Kaspersen, 1995). And that last point is central to Giddens’ theory of structuration. It is an attempt to resolve the conflict between structuralism and social action, by arguing that they cannot exist independently of each other (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004). In contrast to pre-modern societies, we no longer play a relatively passive role in the construction of self-identity. As Giddens (1991) states, there are “an indefinite range of potential courses of action” open to individuals at any given moment (p.28-29). The mere fact that we make so many choices from moment-to-moment suggests the counter-intuitive notion that we are, along with the social world in which we exist, co-authors of our own destinies and the very social world that helped shape us. What to do? How to act? Who to be? More than ever, the answers to such questions have innumerable potential answers. We answer these questions every day. And in doing so, we create perpetual change. Giddens’ “reflexive project of the self” is misleadingly titled, as the self and society are forever linked. The cumulative effect of the billions of reflexive projects of the self engineers changes; therefore, the questions we ask and answer are focal questions for society, as much as they are for us.

[ Last edit by top_spin May 16, 2010, 03:50 PM ] IP Logged
Aileen
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #1 on: May 13, 2010, 11:28 PM »
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For the small group of sociologists on the site, I thought we should have a place for discussing social theory.

Here's an old Giddens essay to get the ball rolling. Ruth, George, your thoughts?

Given how little interest there is in sociology on this site, I have a feeling this thread will go down a storm. Rolling Eyes

I'm being serious here - well done and good luck, Clydey. clap Time MW had an intellectual thread for you, George, et al, to really get your teeth into. Smile

Might even pop in for a look myself, because, despite the sometimes obscure terminology and my lack of academic training, I find it an interesting subject.   
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Clydey
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #2 on: May 13, 2010, 11:38 PM »
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I'm being serious here - well done and good luck, Clydey. clap Time MW had an intellectual thread for you, George, et al, to really get your teeth into. Smile

Might even pop in for a look myself, because, despite the sometimes obscure terminology and my lack of academic training, I find it an interesting subject.   

Thanks. You're welcome to add your own thoughts, as is anyone who finds the subject interesting.
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janscribe
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Let's Go!!!

Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #3 on: May 14, 2010, 10:23 AM »
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I'm being serious here - well done and good luck, Clydey. clap Time MW had an intellectual thread for you, George, et al, to really get your teeth into. Smile

Might even pop in for a look myself, because, despite the sometimes obscure terminology and my lack of academic training, I find it an interesting subject.   
  Me too James - will come back to the article when I have time to digest it properly.
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #4 on: May 14, 2010, 10:24 AM »
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*Hay barrel*

Whistle
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Clydey
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #5 on: May 14, 2010, 12:36 PM »
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*Hay barrel*

Whistle

I didn't expect the thread to be buzzing with activity, Amy. There are about 3 or 4 people on the site who are interested in sociology and I doubt any of them have even been online since the thread was posted.
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Clydey
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #6 on: May 14, 2010, 12:43 PM »
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  Me too James - will come back to the article when I have time to digest it properly.

Thanks, Jan.

I was pretty high when I created the thread, though. I don't expect there to be much activity. I just checked some old posts and one of the members who works in this field doesn't want to discuss what she does at work when she comes on a tennis forum, so I imagine this thread will drop off the first page soon. :p
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #7 on: May 14, 2010, 12:51 PM »
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I didn't expect the thread to be buzzing with activity, Amy. There are about 3 or 4 people on the site who are interested in sociology and I doubt any of them have even been online since the thread was posted.

I wouldn't have took the piss if you never said "this thread will go down a storm" blah blah.
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Clydey
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #8 on: May 14, 2010, 01:13 PM »
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I wouldn't have took the piss if you never said "this thread will go down a storm" blah blah.

Fair enough. I'm perhaps just a touch cranky today.
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top_spin
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #9 on: May 14, 2010, 03:56 PM »
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Is your degree in Sociology, James?

I don't really like these people based sciences, too broad a subject.
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Sir Panda
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #10 on: May 14, 2010, 04:11 PM »
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Studied Sociology in my first year at university.

Found the sociology of media and crime extremely interesting, feminism and Marx/Weber, not so much.

Society is in itself, an extremely complex construct - amazes me how many people are ignorant of it.
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Clydey
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #11 on: May 14, 2010, 04:35 PM »
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Is your degree in Sociology, James?

It's a joint sociology and psychology degree. I'll be done with it by next week.

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I don't really like these people based sciences, too broad a subject.

They're inexact when compared to the natural sciences. That's what I dislike about them. I would have gone for a degree in philosophy, but the university closest to me only carried a social sciences degree.
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Clydey
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #12 on: May 14, 2010, 04:36 PM »
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Studied Sociology in my first year at university.

Found the sociology of media and crime extremely interesting, feminism and Marx/Weber, not so much.

Society is in itself, an extremely complex construct - amazes me how many people are ignorant of it.

I'm particularly interested in the study of crime. I actually have an interest in the psychology of sex crime.

Let the wisecracks begin.
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #13 on: May 14, 2010, 06:57 PM »
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I'm particularly interested in the study of crime. I actually have an interest in the psychology of sex crime.

Let the wisecracks begin.

lol you take all the fun out of it when you allow for us to have a go at you :p
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robbie
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Re: Sociology Thread « Reply #14 on: May 14, 2010, 07:23 PM »
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Let the wisecracks begin.
How can you say that James. Shrug
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