C. Wright Mills

Open up a can of sociology

Sometimes I worry I’m turning into my dad. I’m afraid I’ll start to seriously believe trite sayings like “success comes in cans not can’ts,” or listening to motivational speakers while I drive. These things don’t work. They don’t work because the world doesn’t reward hard work in anything like equal measure. They don’t work because positive vibes can’t control the balance of your brain as well as SSRI’s. I think I’m fortunate to know those things, but I don’t blame my dad for believing what he did. And I can’t help thinking some inspirational words are needed right now, even if they are leveled out with some sociology.

Have you noticed that the world is a mess? Trump is president. Chaos and absurdity abound. Have you noticed friends and acquaintances seem to be having trouble managing unexpected challenges that have made their personal lives feel as chaotic as our political world? I have. I can’t help but think these facts are connected. Instability breeds instability. The details of the Trumpian chaos and the personal struggles are endlessly complex in their moments, but less so in the abstract. In the abstract they aren’t even new or odd. If my dad had inspirational Bible passages on his checks, I’ve got sociological aphorisms like C. Wright Mills’ wise words, “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both,” or “People with advantages are loath to believe that they just happen to be people with advantages.”

I don’t know if the sociological imagination requires any more than those two fully packed sentences to get going. None of us chose to be born at this time, in this place, with these material advantages or disadvantages, in this body, with this brain. Most of our life is a function of things that were set in motion by randomness, and big or small choices others made before we were born. In addition, the choices we do get to make have consequences no one can fully anticipate. This is as true of the choices that end up good as it is of the ones that turn out bad. It is self-torture to believe that your own decisions are much more than putting one foot in front of the other on a path that shifts with each step you take (even if I am sometimes jealous of the fortunately brained people who seem to believe in their own remarkable agency). The relationships we make, and we do make them, are as much a function of the historical time in which we live as the work we do to ‘find ourselves’ or ‘surround ourselves with good people.’ Most of the times I’ve ‘found myself,’ it turns out I really found out who I used to be – and don’t want to be anymore – because of some new way I’m living – some way I don’t entirely understand in the moment but is a function of steps I took along the way.

I know this sounds like fatalism. It isn’t fatalism. We do make choices. We can choose to focus on some things and ignore others, like those who decide to ‘accentuate the positive.’  We can do right and wrong by others, and we can know that by their reactions when they let us see them. We should acknowledge the nice things when we notice them. We should make every effort to do right by others. We should recognize when we’ve done someone wrong and try to fix it. But this can’t mean ignoring hardship like it isn’t real; it can’t mean ‘going back to how things were.’ The flow of history and biography make these things impossible. I think what we can do is try to recognize how that flow is beyond any one person’s control. We can recognize that bad exists without granting it cosmic significance. It’s a mundane part of human life.

For me, remaining aware of these things is as valuable as my dad’s insistence on appreciating a sunny day was to him. People don’t choose their historical or personal conditions, some of which are truly miserable, and none of us can fully understand either. We don’t all have the same choices, and we can’t know the consequences of the choices we make. To recognize that is freedom from the torture that comes with believing that it’s possible to make no mistakes; from believing it is possible to eliminate the negative and avoid the inevitable struggles of living in the here and now. Besides, the sun is shining in Syracuse today.

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Why I do What I do

Two summers ago I attended a writing workshop hosted by my colleague Dr. Maura Brady, a member of Le Moyne College’s English department. We were fortunate that Dr. Ned Stuckey-French, from Florida State, joined to lead our daily sessions. The workshop was about creative non-fiction and finding one’s voice. It was a  valuable experience that has given me new ways to think about writing, and the work I do more generally as a professor. It’s helped me most as I think about what I’m doing with this blog, but I know it’s also helped me work with student writing, and in writing professional papers.

Out of that workshop, and a similar one the following summer, grew a project where a number of Le Moyne faculty have written essays about “Why I do What I do.” I have finished a fairly complete draft of my own essay, and I’m going to share it here.

What follows is a narrative about how I came to be a sociologist and my approach to doing this work. I hope it’s a good example of the genre of creative non-fiction, and maybe even a good example of public sociology.

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Wrestling with C. Wright Mills

I am by no means an expert on C. Wright Mills. I’ve read a couple of the excellent biographies and treatises on his work. Like many sociologists I do find him inspirational, and I’d love if my writing had the same eloquent urgency as his best does. Still, it’s hard to read his work today and not see holes. There is little to nothing about race or gender in any of his writing. It’s so absent, it’s stunning. How could a self fashioned radical, so concerned with human freedom, have been so silent about people who were so oppressed and who’s movements were beginning to take shape even as he wrote. It’s glaring, and I struggle with it when I take him as a model.

Nonetheless, what I find in his work is a thoroughgoing call to take the perspective of the radical if you are to produce sociological understanding. You must be radical, he seems to say, even as you look at those things that you cherish. Also, his work is humane in a way that so many other sociologists’ work, then and now, simply isn’t. You can read a lot of sociology and reach the end wondering if the author ever wondered at all about the experience of being human. You must be humane, he seems to say, if your work is to be the least bit relevant.

You must be radical. You must be humane. It’s stunning how often those two things are one and the same.

Cheerful Robots and Solar Drones: Rationality without Reason

When we first moved to Syracuse in 2005, the roar of the F-16s stationed at Hancock Field Air National Guard Base as part of the 174th Attack Wing were a regular part of the background noise. I would watch them fly over and mostly marvel at the impressive sound and speed, sometimes reminiscing of childhood trips to the EAA fly-in in Oshkosh with my dad and brothers. It’s easy to forget that these are machines of war if you focus on the awe inspiring physical experience of sound or the incredible technological achievement of human flight.

Today, Hancock is home to the MQ-9 Reaper. Quieter and smaller, the technology of these remote controlled aircraft is significantly more impressive than that of the outdated F-16.

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Starting from here

A number of scholars influence my approach to thinking about rituals of community and exclusion, domination and liberation, of power generally.  That sentence certainly gives clues to those who’ve done some reading about these issues.  For a few reasons, it’s worth my time to write briefly about the writers who have influenced my thinking thus far, and what I take away from their social commentaries.  First, I hope that it helps me identify useful ways to synthesize these ideas and to note informative points of contention.  Second, I hope it helps me see holes in my approach to this work I’m doing.  For example, the voices I comment on below are clearly gendered, raced, and otherwise privileged.  To ignore that as I start to think about rituals of power would be irresponsible.  I must also be sure to actually do something about it.  I also note that I regularly wonder how much of my inspiration is a result of misunderstanding.

First, I’m reading a lot of C. Wright Mills (or maybe I’m reading certain selections, a lot).  This is probably no surprise as Mills has made some of the most well known statements, within sociology, about power and individual freedom.  Mills forces me to think about what it means to be free given the intersection of biography with history and fate.  More specifically, we live and act within the rules of institutions that we defend intentionally or implicitly.  It seems clear to me that we frequently are blind to the inhumanity of our actions because we default, as part of the drift, to bureaucratic rationality.  So often one’s defense of an institution takes the form of legitimacy claims that seem meant to malign (imagined) radicals, but also silence those who might otherwise simply wish to engage in constructive conversation with no intention to dismantle said institution. (more…)