Each to each – understanding society

Before I studied Philosophy, I tried another field: Sociology – a field which I left, disappointed and confused, after two years. Where I had expected to learn to think about what society is, the studies focused on how to administer methods of research in order to solve problems of governments and large institutions with people. Research normally was top-down: one studied workers, immigrants, natives – not government officials, owners of companies or invaders of countries. To my mind the produce would therefore never provide substantial knowledge, but only useful tools to influence human beings for the benefit of the powerful.

Of course there were some exceptions: the old, left, Frankfurt School thinkers had studied ‘the authoritarian personality’ (in reaction to fascism) and criticized the Enlightenment, which had heralded progress and rationality, but meanwhile had suppressed and broken a lot too. And then, back in 1979, due to some radical teachers, we also had to study political economy from a textbook printed in Soviet Russia – but no one could take that seriously, as it was just a watered down version of a watered down version of what in Marx had been original thought. Mainstream sociology in my country, The Netherlands, was not bent however on anything critical, but only on providing tools to keep the status quo in order. The dominant theory was functionalism, which I thought to be a very strange, magical conjuring with models consisting of four rectangles, in which any forces in society ought to be ordered – and that would provide understanding? Actually, they were all rather foolish, the functionalists and the communists – the ones without beards and the others with, the ones smoking Marlboro cigarettes and the others hand-rolling tobacco like real workers would do… drowning themselves indiscriminately in theory.

The only real exception for me was an approach which was considered not very interesting for research (as it was understood – see above), but just had to be taught as a part of sociological history: symbolic interactionism. This was the only approach, to my view, which was based on real observation of real people. But, then, I abandoned sociology, and was soon absorbed in Plato, Descartes and other ‘great thinkers’ of the philosophical canon. The only thing which I always remembered was the expression ‘Looking-glass self’, which I thought was an expression of the interactionist thinker George Herbert Mead. It was not! As I found, when I finally returned to this piece of the history of sociology some five years ago. It was coined by a thinker whose name I did not remember, Charles Horton Cooley, but he borrowed the words of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. He changed them too, in order to capture the central idea of the long poem ‘Astraea’. Wrote Emerson: ‘each to each a looking-glass, reflects his figure that doth pass’ – Cooley changed it to ‘each to each a looking-glass, reflects the other that doth pass’. The central idea is that no human being has a fixed, given, identity, but that identity is a flexible thing, a reflection of social life in it’s plural forms. Each has as many identities as he/she takes part in different groups. And the same goes for groups – they get their diverse identities too from human interplay, and influence each other in the same process.

Since my return to the interactionists, I have been reading further along: Mead led me to Cooley, Cooley to James, James to Swedenborg, et cetera. And gradually I begin to understand the characteristics of these thinkers which explain my initial liking of symbolic interactionism. None of them tries to build his understanding from coarse oppositions like ‘mind and matter’ or ‘individual versus society’ or ‘reason over against emotion’, ‘nature versus nurture’. They all try to link the different ways human beings experience their world, to get a more complex, refined, understanding of what society is. Not the abstract communist substructure and superstructure or the weird Parsonian functionalist schemes – but a more concrete understanding of real-life processes and interactions. They are really worthy of the rediscovery of their works, not only in sociology, but also and perhaps more so in philosophy – as inspirational examples of non-ivory-tower thought.

Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) wrote Human Nature and the Social Order which I read in the Transaction Edition of 1983 [originally published in 1902]

A good commentary on his life and works can be found in Glenn Jacobs Charles Horton Cooley. Imagining Social Reality, University of Massachusetts Press 2006.

Also recommended: George Herbert Mead Mind, Self and Society, University of Chicago Press, 1934 and C. Wright Mills Sociology and Pragmatism. Higher Learning in America, Oxford University Press, 1966

The work of Cooley, and much many more interesting texts in the field can be accessed for free through the index of the Mead Project: http://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/inventory5.html#sectJ

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