Social Science?

The social sciences began as an attempt to apply the procedures of the hard sciences — in particular the use of empirical evidence coupled with mathematics — to a study of human behavior. Today it includes such academic disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and, at times, even history — though the latter sits on the fence between social science and the humanities, depending on how heavily historians lean on mathematics. The mathematics of choice is statistics and probability theory and the technique usually involves studies of individuals or groups and their behaviors, though behavioral psychologists have shown a remarkable affection for the study of rats. I have left many holes in this brief overview and my hope is that my friend Jerry Stark will fill some of them in as I am once again venturing outside my area of expertise.

But in venturing outside I resemble in important respects the work of the Australian sociologist John Carroll, to whom I have referred a number of times. Carroll seems to be venturing outside his area of expertise to the point that his brothers and sisters within the walls of sociology may well refuse to accept his credentials. I say this despite the fact that he holds two positions at present: at La Trobe University in Melbourne and as a Fellow of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. The reason I suspect that his credentials might be rejected (despite his lofty positions) is because he relies less on the methods of sociology as traditionally understood and more on the careful reading of the great works of the Western World. This is why I like him and find myself nodding in agreement as I read him, I suppose. We share the belief that we can turn to the novelists, poets, and philosophers to find out important things about our fellow human beings.

Carroll especially prefers such thinkers as Sophocles, Aeschylus, Kafka, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Jane Austen, and Rilke. He refers to them time and again in his book Guilt, to which I have referred in previous blog posts. He is particularly enamored of Kafka — especially in that author’s take on the current human condition, rife with guilt and unable to find peace. Carroll has developed a notion of what he calls “dispositional guilt” that he is convinced we are all born with — like original sin, if you will. It differs from moral guilt which can be eleviated by confession and remission in the form of good works and genuine remorse. Dispositional guilt, on the other hand, is something we are born with and which we simply cannot shake off. It’s with us always — in different degrees.

His book is an attempt to trace the history of guilt from very early times to the present — which would be 1985 when he wrote the book. And while I marvel at his observations and careful readings of the authors he takes up (even including a brief story by Kafka about a mouse who sings to her fellow mice to keep them calm) I cannot accept his conclusions about dispositional guilt. Outside the readings Carroll refers to I simply do not see a people wallowing in a sense of guilt they cannot shake off. I see, rather, folks filled with feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, occasional joy, and even tendencies toward violence — as I have noted in previous posts. A lively conscience is rare, especially a guilty conscience.

In saying this, I tend to agree when Carroll turns to contemporary times, times of “Matricidal Guilt,” as he sees it. Of these times, we are told that

“There are any least six main strands in modern culture that appeal directly to the value of oral remission [characteristic of matricidal guilt].”

These six strands include Consumerism; the Welfare State; Indulgent parenting and schooling; Nature, Community, Creativity, and Feeling; image and celebrity; and fear of poisoning. I shan’t take you through each of these, you will be happy to know, but I must mention that under the topic of consumerism he notes that “Consumerism operates on one very simple principle: if you feel bad, eat!”  What can one say? One must bear with Carroll, because, despite the fact that his reasoning at times seems off the mark, he strikes chords of brilliance and much of his analysis — be it in accordance with standard sociological procedures or not — is spot on. Take, for example, his analysis of “indulgent parenting and schooling,” a topic near to my heart:

“The dominant reformist strain in modern child-rearing and educational theory has been that of pure indulgence. Do away with punishment and repression; let the child’s innate goodness and creativity flourish. The ideology’s founding father was Rousseau [whose mother died soon after he was born], and it is consistent with his own need to restore the lost maternal paradise. In effect weaning is to be abolished. Parents are not to say No: in reality what they do is take to bribing their children to keep peace, offering a constant supply of biscuits and sweets. Here is the basic lesson for the child in being educated into the consumer society. Advertising psychology is followed: to offer the right product will get you anything — the consumer version of everyone having his price. And of course children have their price, but they do not get what they need, love that constrains as it encourages. Similarly teachers are not to say No, but rather worship at the feet of the child’s potentiality.”

Now, whether or not one agrees with everything Carroll says — or whether one wants to take him to task for leaning more on classics of literature and philosophy than he does the latest study in a professional journal — he is interesting, insightful, and provocative. And what he says almost always has the ring of truth, as when he says that what children need is “love that constrains as it encourages.” The constraint is missing because of the replacement of patricidal and what he calls “civilized” guilt with a matricidal guilt. In a word, authority is not a bad thing — in moderation — and our culture has erred in the direction of far too much permissiveness.

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