Review: Charles Thorpe’s Sociology in Post-Modern Times, in The American Sociologist, by Bernard Phillips
On the very first page of Charles Thorpe’s Sociology in Post-Modern Times, he writes, “Sociology matters.” He goes on to write: “The marginality and confusion of the sociological voice today constitutes the blindness of contemporary society, the inability of society to understand itself.” If society fails to understand its problems, he sees this as due to the failure of sociology to explain those problems. And, by implication, if we sociologists can develop a direction for solutions, so will society.
In this way, Thorpe invokes the spirit of Comte, Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Simmel, Just as our founders believed deeply in our discipline’s possibilities, and despite our massive problems and the near-universality of pessimism, we must not give up on the incredible potential power of sociology. He then proceeds to demonstrate his personal commitment to our discipline with nothing less than a hundred pages of notes and bibliography within a book of just under 300 pages.
This, all by itself, is worth the price of admission to Thorpe’s work. For pessimism about the future is very much the order of the day both inside and outside the academic world. And although he succeeds in cataloging, chapter and verse, the humongous number of ills in contemporary societies, at the same time he illustrates the power of the sociological pen. We see in his pages a detailed political, economic and scientific history of our times, including its major horrors. Yet the power of his pen clearly demonstrates that all is not lost, despite its appearing to be so.
His deep critique of the failure of so-called “advanced” methodological procedures within the American Sociological Review and the Journal of American Sociology resonated with me, granting that I’ve written four textbooks on research methods. I join Thorpe in seeing this as a dereliction of the sociologist’s duty to shine a light on the overall nature of society.
I would add that the problem of narrow specialization, which avoids any effort to develop insights of wide relevance, is by no means limited to those two sociological journals. I recall searching in vain for a deepening understanding of modern society as I poured over the entire May, 2023, issue of Contemporary Sociology.
I found Thorpe’s focus on the work of Alvin W. Gouldner most appropriate. Gouldner’s vision of the potentials of the sociological enterprise rivals that of C. Wright Mills as well as the founders of our discipline. Thorpe rightly views 1970, the year The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology was published, as a watershed year in the history of sociology. For we might use that year to mark the failure of the counterculture to achieve its aim of toppling our bureaucratic way of life. We might also see that year as yielding a growing loss of government’s confidence in sociology’s powers.
I also found Thorpe’s emphasis on the incredible importance of language for understanding the very nature of the human being as most salutary. When he writes metaphorically that we are language, he is making an important point. All too often, sociologists avoid what anthropologists have learned over the years.
Thorpe pulls no punches in his detailed analyses of American foreign policy, with its many contradictions of a view of the U.S. as the shining democratic City on a Hill. Americans, including many sociologists, pay far too little attention to the huge contrast between domestic and foreign governmental behavior. Neither does he avoid sharp critiques of our domestic movement away from democratic ideals over the last several decades.
Who and what are the villains we can blame for what is happening in American society and throughout the world, with its increasing authoritarianism? Thorpe’s answers are by no means unique, for they go along with what a great many sociologists have concluded. First and foremost, it is our capitalistic way of life which has yielded the growth of extremely conservative political ideology.
Capitalism, following Thorpe, points squarely away from the egalitarian ideals in the Bill of Rights. He sees that political-economic system as deeply wedded to the persisting hierarchies throughout society, to the greed that knows no limits in its ability to devour those with limited power, and to the inability of capitalists to gain awareness of their own limitations.
Another of “the usual suspects” is a conservative ideology which sees society as nothing more than a collection of individuals, and all the while avoids any understanding of the power of social structures. For example, if there are problems, such as school shootings, then they supposedly are due to individuals with deficient mental health.
A third villain is a scientistic approach to society with an avoidance of humanist values, which once again avoids the cultural contributions of anthropologists along with the many critiques by sociologists of the objectification of individuals in society. The emphasis on value neutrality is central to this failing.
It is exactly here that I will mount my alternative to Thorpe’s villains, which generally are the enemies of most sociologists. Thus, I am going against much of the taken-for-granted wisdom of the entire sociological community. If I am to be heard, I must violate the norms of reviewers, which require them to depart very little from the work under review, and to avoid putting forward a detailed alternative. For I require a good deal of space to make my points.
Before beginning, I want to clarify and emphasize my view of Thorpe’s achievements. First and foremost is his view of the importance of sociology, with its enormous potentials for helping to solve society’s escalating problems. Next is his deep understanding of the huge domestic and foreign problems presently confronting the human race. Third is his analysis of the failures of sociologists, illustrated by the narrowness of so-called sophisticated methodological tour-de-forces. Fourth is his understanding of the work of Alvin Gouldner. And fifth is his view of the centrality of language and values, following the importance of anthropological contributions.
Since I will be critiquing the focus on capitalism as a basic problem, I want to clarify my view of the contributions of Karl Marx. For example, I see his analysis of the alienation of the individual in the workplace as absolutely brilliant. His breadth of perspective puts to shame the relative narrowness of almost everyone in our sociological community. Equaliy important was his willingness to act in an effort to solve society’s problems, granting that some of his actions have had disastrous consequences. Other Marxists, such as Antonio Gramsci, have made enormous contributions to our understanding of contemporary problems.
In this space I can do no more than offer a brief outline of my views. I refer readers to six of my works, some with co-authors: Creating Life Before Death; “Countering the Threats to Democracy”; “Sociology’s Next Steps?”; “Sociology’s Next Steps? 50th Anniversary of Gouldner’s Vision and 60th of Mills’s Vision”; The Invisible Crisis of Contemporary Society; and “Toward a Reflexive Sociology.” Also, there is my website, behavioral-scientists.com, which includes access to my YouTube lectures.
My central idea is that an understanding of contemporary problems requires us to move a step beyond Thomas Kuhn’s analysis of the paradigms within disciplines as a basis for understanding scientific revolutions. We must move further up language’s “ladder of abstraction” to the fundamental assumptions or paradigm supporting our entire way of life. This is why I’m working to introduce a new Section within the American Sociological Association, “Paradigmatic Sociology,” and inviting interested readers to join me.
Gouldner, writing eight years after the publication of Kuhn’s book, recognized the importance of such basic assumptions, using the term “background assumptions.” He saw them as “beliefs about the world that are so general that they may, in principle, be applied to any subject matter without restriction” (29).
I build on Max Weber’s treatment of bureaucracy to illustrate such background assumptions or paradigms. We might see bureaucratic assumptions as applying to our entire way of life, and emphasizing persisting hierarchy, narrow specialization without the integration of knowledge, and personal conformity.
We might also envision a focus on evolution as an alternative paradigm, centering on equality, the integration of knowledge, and personal autonomy. One example of this approach was developed by Alfred Korzybski in his book, Science and Sanity (1933), inaugurating a movement which came to be called General Semantics.
Korzybski’s focus, following the importance of the number system within the physical sciences, was on teaching people to think gradationally rather than dichotomously, paralleling the idea of evolution. Samuel I. Hayakawa contributed the idea of a ladder of linguistic abstraction which moves up to a paradigmatic level. A. E. Van Vogt, a science fiction writer taken with Korzybski’s ideas, wrote two novels to illustrate them: The World of Null-A and The Players of Null-A. His focus was on the possibility of individual empowerment by learning gradational thought, with absolutely no limits on how far one might develop.
From this perspective, an antidote to bureaucracy is not socialism, which has been bureaucratic historically, but a focus on the importance and evolution of the individual. For social scientists, that idea has a conservative ring to it. Yet if we are to pay attention to human biology, as discussed by Stephen Jay Gould and Johnathan H. Turner, every single one of us is not only a learning animal. We have incredible potentials that remain unfulfilled by our bureaucratic way of life. Following Jurgen Habermas, for example, every single one of us requires nothing less than emancipation by developing “communicative competence.”
It is exactly here that I can introduce the idea of an interdisciplinary science of human behavior. Following the psychologist George A. Kelly, we are all scientists throughout our everyday lives without awareness of the fact. We have our theories, test our hypotheses, and attempt to predict and control the course of events within which we’re immersed. Movement from our bureaucratic toward an evolutionary cultural paradigm can help us to move from our very narrow scientific approach to human behavior toward an interdisciplinary one.
To present just one example of where such a broad approach can take us, I will refer to my argument in Creating Life Before Death as well as in my article available on my website, “Countering the Threats to Democracy.” That approach can address a question that I believe has not been effectively answered by social scientists or others: Why the modern backsliding from democracy toward authoritarianism? Why the movement away from democratic ideals over the last several decades in the U.S.and elsewhere?
We might start with Emile Durkheim’s analysis in his Suicide of the impact of the industrial revolution on the individual: “From top to bottom of the ladder, greed is aroused without knowing where to find ultimate foothold. Nothing can calm it, for its goal is far beyond all it can attain” (255). It is this “revolution of rising expectations” which is exacerbating what the Buddha saw, some 2500 years ago, as the basic problem of the human race in his First Noble Truth: the angst linked to the gap between what we want and are able to get.
Other social scientists have called attention to this growing aspiration-fulfillment gap, which was the centerpiece of what I saw as the invisible crisis of contemporary society. For example, Karen Horney called attention to the impact of advertising: “the stimulation of our needs and our factual frustrations in satisfying them,” in her The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (287). The historian Daniel Boorstin, in his The Image, declares: “We expect the contradictory and the impossible . . .We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive (4).
All of this growing frustration is nothing less than an invisible crisis, for such frustration tends to lead to increasing aggression. That aggression is, in turn, manifested by the turning away from democratic ideas and ideals which neither recognize nor solve our increasing aspirations-fulfillment gap.
However, what I’ve called “paradigmatic sociology” would open up to such a broad approach to knowledge of human behavior. It could, over time, help ordinary individuals learn to gain the interdisciplinary knowledge enabling them to avoid this widening aspirations-fulfillment gap and the increasing frustration and aggression tied to it. Of course, this would require a fundamental paradigmatic shift from a bureaucratic toward an evolutionary way of life.
Gouldner’s introduction of the idea of a “reflexive sociology” in his Coming Crisis gave recognition to the need for sociologists to embark on fundamental changes—I would say paradigmatic changes—if they are to remain relevant to the problems within contemporary society. He wrote:
The historical mission of a Reflexive Sociology . . . would be to transform the sociologist, to penetrate deeply into his daily life and work, enriching them with new sensitivities, and to raise the sociologist’s self-awareness to a new historical level . . . A Reflexive Sociology means that we sociologists must—at the very least—acquire the ingrained habit of viewing our own beliefs as we now view those held by others (487, 493).
In my 1988 article, “Toward a Reflexive Sociology,” I emphasized the methodological implications of sociology’s movement toward a reflexive approach. Presently, it is a rare study throughout the social sciences that takes into account the impact of the investigator on the research process, namely, “investigator effect.” This failure can open up questions about the validity of a great deal of published research. Gouldner’s call for a Reflexive Sociology suggests an antidote.
Gouldner’s breadth of perspective implies another methodological idea: questioning the emphasis on “value neutrality” within sociological research. Harold Kincaid along with other philosophers of social science made this point quite decisively in their volume, Value-Free Science? Ideals and Illusions (2007).
In closing my remarks, I refer once again to Thorpe’s fundamental idea: Sociology matters. It is up to us not only to enable society to understand itself, but also to help society take the actions desperately needed to solve our threatening problems. In my own view, Paradigmatic Sociology can work toward moving our entire discipline to answer this call. I believe the time for movement from pessimism toward optimism is at hand.
Boorstin, Daniel. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1961.
Durkheim, Emile. Suicide. New York: Free Press, 1897/1951.
Gouldner, Alvin W. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books, 1970.
Hayakawa, Samuel I. Language in Thought and Action. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1949.
Horney, Karen. The Neurotic Personality of Our Time. New York: Norton, 1937.
Kelly, George A. A Theory of Personality: The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: W. W. Norton, 1963.
Kincaid, Harold, John Dupre and Alison Wylie (eds.).Value-Free Science? Ideals and Illusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity. Garden City, New York: Country Life Press, 1933.
Phillips, Bernard. “Countering the Threats to Democracy,” Indiana Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 02, Issue 12/2021, 63-70.
_________Sociology’s Next Steps? Fiftieth Anniversary of Gouldner’s Vision and Sixtieth Anniversary of Mills’s Vision,” Contemporary Sociology, May, 2020 (49, 3), 226-229 (invited essay).
________Sociology’s Next Steps?”, Contemporary Sociology, July, 2019 (48, 4), 382-387 (invited essay).
_________“Toward a Reflexive Sociology,” The American Sociologist, Summer 1988, 138-151.
Phillips, Bernard, Thomas J. Savage, Andy Plotkin, Neil S. Weiss, and Max O. Spitzer. Creating Life Before Death: Discover Your Amazing Self. Champaign, Illinois: Common Ground Research Networks, 2020.
Phillips, Bernard, and Louis C. Johnston. The Invisible Crisis of Contemporary Society: Reconstructing Sociology’s Fundamental Assumptions. Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2007.
Van Vogt, A. E. The World of Null-A. New York: Berkley Publishing, 1945/1970.
________The Players of Null-A. New York: Berkley Publishing, 1948.