Greenblatt’s new historicism

Stephen Greenblatt is a pathbreaking literary critic. But since the 1990s I've also looked at Greenblatt as a genuinely innovative and insightful contributor to the historical social sciences as well. He poses questions that are enormously important for anyone trying to make sense of humanity in history. What is a cultural identity? How do background …

Human cultures as self-creating systems

Some philosophers and others have imagined that human beings are largely fixed in their most fundamental capacities -- their "human nature". Along with this idea is the notion that there are fundamental ethical and moral principles that are unchanging and serve always as guides to human action -- and, perhaps, that philosophical ethics or theology …

Do norms and moral attitudes change over generations?

Moral philosophers have often written of ethical obligations, principles, and theories as if they were timeless and unchanging. Kant, for example, argued that moral obligations follow from the structure of rationality itself. The utilitarians -- Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick -- held that moral obligations are defined by the principle of maximizing happiness -- whether in the …

How professionals think

photo: Morris Engel, Dock Workers 1947 (link) The topic of how actors arrive at their choices and behavior has come up a number of times here. The rational choice model has been considered (link), and other, more pragmatist approaches to agency have been considered as well (link). Finally, a number of posts have considered the …

Culture change within an organization

It is often said that culture change within an organization or workplace is difficult -- perhaps the most difficult part of trying to reform an organization. What do we mean by this? And why is this so difficult? The daily workings of an organization depend on the activities and behavior of the people who make …

Social hierarchy and popular culture

There is some interesting work being done on the sociology of taste these days.  I'm thinking specifically of a literature that has developed around the idea of "omnivorousness" and social status.  Richard Peterson initiated much of this discussion in 1992 with an article in Poetics entitled "Understanding Audience Segmentation: From Elite and Mass to Omnivore and …

Bourdieu’s “field”

image: Emile Zola, 1902   How can sociology treat "culture" as an object of study and as an influence on other sociological processes? This is, of course, two separate questions. First, internally, is it possible to treat philosophy or literature as an embedded sociological process (a point raised by Jean-Louis Fabiani in his treatment of …

Knowing the population

At any given time there are huge areas of the unknown when it comes to the question, what do various members of our society care about? We have opinion research tools, of course. But we don't really have good answers to any of these questions: How do West Bloomfield teenagers think about their futures? Why …

Essentializing race?

PBS is running a program this month called "Faces of America" (link), hosted by distinguished African-American Studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  The program focuses on a handful of celebrity guests, a genetic profile for each, and then a variety of "surprising" discoveries about the genealogies of various of the guests. What I found surprising and …

Understanding Southeast Asia

Themes and issues from Southeast Asia crop up fairly frequently in Understanding Society. Red shirt demonstrations in Thailand, ethnic conflict in Malaysia, corruption and repression in Burma -- I think these are some of the more interesting social developments underway in the world today. And the resources needed for non-experts (like myself) to get a …

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