Speaking Sociology in Clear

by Henry Farrell on June 20, 2006

“Teresa Nielsen Hayden”:http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/007671.html#007671 writes about finding an old sociology textbook in a second hand bookstore.

bq. _Bits that are familiar from age to age_: predictably, the book’s big on the idea that, until recently, traditional values held society together and enforced morality; but now that we’ve become an atomized society, other mechanisms of control will have to be found. People say that today, and I remember them saying it when I was a sprat, so it’s nice to find out that they were saying it in 1939. …

bq. The real reason I picked up the book: It discusses stuff you no longer see stated that bluntly. … the real prize was a section that turned out to have been quoted (approvingly) from Harold Lasswell’s Propaganda Technique in World War I. … We really don’t see people saying stuff like that in clear any more. Of course, being me, I’d be happier if we did.

When I read this I immediately thought of Charles Tilly’s work. First, because Tilly’s book, _Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons_ ( “Powells”:http://www.powells.com/partner/29956/s?kw=Charles%20Tilly%20Big%20Structures%20, Amazon) is, among other things, about how 19th century worries about the atomization of society have fundamentally shaped the concepts of 20th century sociology. Second, because I think Tilly’s writing is an excellent example of how sociology can speak in clear in both of Teresa’s senses. It’s written in straightforward, uncomplicated English with a minimum of jargon, and is admirably blunt when discussing matters that ought to be discussed bluntly. There’s a good example available online in a slightly iffy scan – his wonderfully brutal short essay, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime”:http://www.jesusradicals.com/library/tilly/warmaking.pdf. I also like these lines from his curriculum vitae.

bq. Among Tilly’s negative distinctions he prizes 1) never having held office in a professional association, 2) never having chaired a university department or served as a dean, 3) never having been an associate professor, 4) rejection every single time he has been screened as a prospective juror. He had also hoped never to publish a book with a subtitle, but subtitles somehow slipped into two of his co-authored books.

(there are a couple of other gems in the cv if you’re prepared to dig)

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06.23.06 at 8:14 am



ft32 06.20.06 at 9:35 pm

Calling Jim Henley, calling Jim Henley…


Thompsaj 06.20.06 at 9:36 pm

My undergraduate political geography prof assigned the “war-making and state-making” piece and the concept seemed so simple yet so apt that I wondered why you don’t hear the connection being made more often between what are considered legitimate and illegitimate organizations of violence. But then again, I suppose that’s Henry’s point: the people that do make the connection dress it up all fancy when all you need is to understand why the undertaker went to Don Corleone in the first scene of the Godfather.


Thompsaj 06.22.06 at 2:01 am

Henry, i apologize for killing your post. Perhaps now i’ll think twice before responding with maladroit cultural references.

Or perhaps brainy timberites don’t like the suggestion that social phenomena can be explained simply, the types who are unimpressed when Noam Chomsky claims not to know what “dialectical” means. I think Terry Eagleton said that simplification deconstructs itself: if the complex concept can be explained simply, then it wasn’t so complex in the first place; if the explanation simplifies something complex, then it couldn’t possible be so simple… again, i’m sorry


Benjamin Nelson 06.22.06 at 7:51 pm

“To the extent that the threats against which a given government protects its citizens are … consequences of its own activities, the government has organized a protection racket.”


I.E.: Nation-state creates a waste disposal system. This system involves the generation of greater waste than would be usual: the supplier (government) stimulates increased demand from citizens for the service, because it eliminates an inconvienience for them (thus people eat more, throw more crap out). Waste becomes unmanageable; the government is lobbied to protect its citizens from the rising tide of garbage. They send the garbage to the bottom of your local ocean. The increased production is a consequence of the government’s activities — yet this is obviously not a protection racket.

Perhaps what Tilly meant to say is that so-and-so is a protection racket to the extent that the threats are avoidable.

This is not to suggest that Tilly is off the mark with his comments in their entirety, just to point out the limited explanatory power that you have at your disposal when you only care to choose one kind of social cause. No doubt this makes me one of those brainy timberites that thompsaj warns us about. Beewwwaaaarreee

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