Back to The Basics With Erik Olin Wright

Because even though the Fall term will soon be over, but not quite yet, I am already thinking ahead of how I am going to start the next term. Somehow, I am never fully satisfied with my first session of introduction to sociology, and of the way I explain the basics to grab my students’ interest.

But, lo and behold, Erik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers to the rescue. In the opening chapter of American Society: How It Really Works, they lay out the three major lines of sociological inquiries:

Description: what kind of society is this? How does it compare to other societies and their institutions? What are the similarities and differences? And that means getting the facts right through high-quality evidence and rational arguments

Explanation: opening the black boxes of different institutions and see how they work, and with what consequences. That is usually where theories come in. It is truly at this stage that it matters to think like a sociologist. And what does thinking like a sociologist mean? I find this definition almost perfect:

“The myriad of actions that we as conscious, choosing persons engage in are governed by rules. Howeever, unlike the rules of nature that govern the motions of the planets, these social rules are changed by the actions they regulate. Our activities are rule governed, but our activities also produce and transform the rules that govern those activities. Sometimes the changes in social rules are the result of deliberate actions by people – as when we change a law; sometimes rules change as the unintended consequence of actions. The central task of sociology is to understand how rules generate their effects, how people respond to the rules under which they live, and how the rules change over time.

This sociological approach to understanding and explaining society may seen trivial and obvious, but it is also quite profound. And it turns out to be a very complex matter indeed to figure out how these rules work and how, out of their interactions, the social facts we observe get produced.” (3)

Out of this, the authors delineate six aspects of social rules:

  • Rules are enforced through sanctions and consequences. To call something a social rule means that there is a system of sanctions sustaining it.
  • Rules take different forms.
  • Rules are not neutral. Social rules benefit some people and impose harm on others. As the authors note, the structural rules of basketball give an advantage to tall people over short ones. This is the same in many other social, political, and economic contexts. Ergo…
  • Rules and power interact. Rules are protected by power and those who benefit from social rules will use their power to keep them in place. “Social rules will tend to be stable when they confer power on the people they benefit.” (4).
  • Rules can be inconsistent.
  • Rules can change.

Evaluation: this is the most controversial aspect of sociology. The authors use five values that they use to evaluate the American society.

  • Freedom: low levels of coercion from others (note: not just the government) and capacity to have one’s life plans put into effect
  • Prosperity: high standard of living for most people, and not just the privileged few
  • Efficiency: rational economic outcomes on costs and benefits in resource use
  • Fairness: just treatment and equal opportunity, without unfair privileges or disadvantages
  • Democracy: public decisions as reflection of the majority and not just a reflection of the interests of the power elite

On all of these, and as the book demonstrates, the American society does not do as well as it should and to get there requires fundamental changes. At the same time, these values are American values and the authors argue for their realization.

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