Friday, July 1, 2011

The Study of Community in American Sociology, c.1900 - c.1975 : Part I - Introduction & Bibliography

The Study of Community in American Sociology, c. 1900 - c. 1975

A version of this series of blog posts was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 2003.  It is an essay that began as a portion of my dissertation.  The passage of time and the inevitable shifting of interests have been such that it will never progress past this draft stage.  It does, however, make a number of observations regarding the history of the sociological understanding of community.  The value of these observations, is, of course yours to decide.

These posts investigate the productions of knowledge, techniques of discipline, and the various deployments of authority and desire referred to as ‘community.’  Community is a fundamental element of sociological analysis, but the meaning and importance of community has always been a problem for sociologists.  Thus, this essay explores the attempts to define and classify community in sociology in the period from c.1900 to c.1975.  During that time, the sociological investigation of community centered on the contribution of definition and classification to a systematic nomenclature and a descriptive terminology, the mapping of communities as territories, and the tracing of the history of community as the evolutionary development of a particular human essence.  The examination of the history of sociology and its study of community shows us that, like the history of any science, the history of sociology is as much the history of errors as it is the history of truths, and like the history of any science, its history is also a history of forgetting.
Keywords: Community, Degeneracy, History of Sociological Thought, Classification

      This series of blog posts outline the sociological study of community from c. 1900 to c. 1975.  The concept of community is a fundamental element of sociological analysis, but the meaning and importance of community has always been a problem for sociologists.  What is community? What is its definition?  What are its characteristics and structures/functions?  Is it to be preserved, developed, or surpassed?  Is community merely in decline as it is replaced by different bonds of society, with new social pathologies  emerging from its decline?  These have been questions that sociologists have grappled with since the beginnings of the sociological investigation of human social production.  Many productions of knowledge, techniques of discipline, institutions and deployments of authority and desire are referred to as ‘community’ --- so many that belonging to a community is assumed to be a normal condition of everyday life.  Moreover, community enters into sociological study because it  ‘is not a referential sign, but a call or an appeal’ (Sargent 1972:125) to something supposedly deep within us, but is nonetheless always on the surface and always at play.
      Sociologists implicitly believe that the anarchy of humans producing socially can be rationally understood and changes in society might be rationally guided.  At the same time, sociologists have tended to categorize, define and represent society as a sequence of evolutionary or progressive stages.   In much early sociological analysis, those classes that ‘stagnate’ or decay ---the ‘demoralized family,’ the dependent, the delinquent, the degenerate---have been made to admit their trespasses either in their own words through ethnographic studies or through the statistical analysis of the aggregated actions of a population.  In its mission to accumulate knowledge for the promotion or prevention of social change, sociology preserves the knowledge of their pathological deviations from normal social life.  This knowledge is still extracted from narratives and social statistics so that society may benefit.  Gradually, the discipline was positioned to be the watch-keeper of society through its provision of knowledge useful for the government of a population.
      It is fitting that a discipline so immersed in its own object could be represented as the physician/healer of social ills.  As the physicians of society, our role revolved around the diagnosis of social pathology and the proscription of social policies that might restore and regulate the equilibrium of the ‘societal community’ in Talcott Parsons’ phrase.  In order to apply its cures, sociologists developed a number of discreet areas of knowledge---criminology, social work, applied sociology, social movement participation, etc.---which, when allied to social theory, promised to provide a full anatomy of the social organism.  This concern was not only present in the works of Herbert Spencer, it is also to be found in later works such as Ehrenscaft and Etzioni’s Anatomies of America (1969) unabashedly provided ‘the anatomies and diagnoses of contemporary America as provided by sociologists.’ The best-selling Habits of the Heart (Bellah et al., 1984) was seen by an admirer as an elaborate ‘physiology of American spiritual distress’ (Birnbaum, 1985).  The sociologist examined the social body and rendered a diagnosis using the language of medicine to build a political analysis.  ‘Social science,’ Bellah et al. insisted, ‘is not like natural science: it is a form of political discourse’ tied to a knowledge whose subject is society itself.  What Alvin Gouldner (1970) called the ‘coming crisis in Western sociology’ arrived, and with it came the realization that sociology and sociologists are as embedded in the milieu as our subjects.
      In analyzing the sociological study of community, the later need to avoid the personae of the physician of society is equaled by the need to avoid writing about sociology as an achievement of a heroic or grand tradition, but both persist in the substrata of social problems and the history of sociology.  Rather than romantic narratives of the origins of sociology, our analysis of the field of sociology should investigate the thematics and repetitions which cut across the works of particular authors.  This requires giving a unity to the sociological texts and the practical deployments of sociological knowledge in public policy.  Focusing on the concept of community allows us to investigate elements which provide the historical a priori of community in sociology.
       Gouldner’s periodization of  ‘Western Sociology’ are familiar to most sociologists: ‘sociological positivism, Marxism, Classical Sociology and Parsonian Structural-Functionalism (1970:88-89).  This periodization has always been of great value for its clarity and has thus for good reason become almost commonsensical.  However, like all periodizations, it obscures the complexity of the history of sociology.  The periods are not so much eras as they are loosely connected and more or less chronologically arranged theoretical syntheses.  Gouldner’s own time is now seen as the period of a Neo-Marxism associated with transformations inside and outside of the academy.  This consensus was soon to be modified still further by feminist interventions and the further growth of empirical and social policy studies.
       Much of the classical sociological work on community is found in the specialized areas of rural and community sociology where ‘community’ became a fundamental unit of analysis.  The fundamental  sociological questions concerning community remain:  What is community? What are its characteristics and functions and how are these to be preserved or encouraged?  What are its moralities and techniques of discipline and control?  These questions remind us that the questioning of community is important to any sociological enterprise that seeks the nature, definition, and utility of concepts like family, group, nation, race, gender, class, society, culture, etc., and which deploys these concepts as the objects of sociological inquiry.
Next section: Understanding Community



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