DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Sociology: a river with many estuaries

Written by: on November 8, 2018

Sociology, like economics, has many theoretical strands that attempt to understand and articulate a view of the world from which social construction models can be created. Like economics, few of those strands strands see eye to eye. It is these multi-dimensional ways of seeing human society that motivated Elliot, and erudite sociologists like him, to write an introduction to the many abounding theories. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction is well written, and I appreciated that.[1] I didn’t spend time reading, and rereading, trying to understand what the author was attempting to say.

Most of us intuitively know that human beings have the capacity for love, care and respect. They also have the ability to destroy, hate, be self-indulgent and filled with anger. These experiences of human society tend to create two, diametrically opposed, views of the world: first, All people are innately good with the capacity for evil. Or, second, all people are innately bad but capable of good (when controlling social structures are in place). Depending which one you opt for will determine the trajectory of your social theory.

Then again, it depends on whether we believe society exists in any structured way. According to Elliot, there are the theorists, like Habermas, who believe that the public sphere is in demise because structuralism simply cannot exist.[2] Or, Bauman’s belief that “long term” social constructs are having to be reclassified as liquefaction, because, as the ground of social perceptions shift, the undercurrent of those movements permeates the concrete vision of fixed societal belief, thus throwing everything into turmoil.[3] Bauman also prophesies the demise of the nation-state as individual countries no longer have an effective fiscal means to control their economy – and money is both power and stability.[4]

The point of course, is that the very idea of ‘society’ is contested and Christian’s struggle with this. For the last thousand years, the developing world has been influenced by Judaeo-Christian values and perspectives, especially in influencing political understanding – much of which flows from an Old Testament kingship models, modified by Jesus theology and the Kingdom of God.[5] However, in pluralist and secular visions of the world, Christian visions of society are in the minority, and rarely represented in introductory sociology books.

Elliot highlights an issue I have become more aware of in recent years. As more people are educated in social perception through university education and internet media, our individual capacity to engage with the very conception of society and social interactions has increased exponentially. At the foundation of this development in congnitive social awareness, is the question I raised earlier – are we naturally good or bad? The prevailing belief is the former. Subsequently, as Elliot points out, the better educated and informed people are, the more likely good outcomes and helpful behaviour is likely to occur.[6] It’s a very optimistic and possibly naive view of the world.  To his credit however, Elliot’s own dialogue with contemporary social theory emphasises the answer laying somewhere in understanding all of the current positions taken as something of a patchwork of concepts that all contain useful observations. After all, the experts he uses are not to be queried without reasoned consideration. Elliot takes us on a journey of through the valley of sociological giants: Giddens, Derrida, Foucalt, Zizek, Lyotard, Bauman, Habermas, Adorno, Marcuse, Barthes, Bordieu, Kristeva, Irigary, Baudrillard, Butler, Levi-Strauss, and others. In as much as I don’t agree with all of their views, kicking giants in the shins for the sake of it, would be to ignore their large contribution to observation and good thinking.

Elliot has exposed me to a wide array of social thinking, the question I am left with, is how to integrate that thinking with my Christian perception of human and divine polity? How do we connect with one another – in the church, the world and in mission? Do people only possess one way of being in the world, or do we concurrently incarnate multiple ways of seeing the world? The latter seems to agree with Parker Palmer’s vision that paradox is indeed the essence of mature Christian thinking and engagement.[7]

Elliott concludes his book wondering about the hermeneutical application of current social theory towards 2025.[8]  In the final chapters, he considers how contemporary social theory has moved well beyond theory toward actual engagement in society.  There is little high minded academia at work in the final pages. Rather, it points to the fact that sociology has not just theorized about the nature of society as it has been, it reflectively understands how it has developed and continues to do so. There is much to learn from social researchers who spend years analysing both empirical and anecdotal evidence to create a theory of human disconnectedness in the midst of social chaos and cohesion. Rather than put it to one side, Christian leaders ought be engaged with how we live out our human traits – good and ill. And, in doing so, articulate the gospel of Jesus in the ever changing setting which is our humanity.

 

[1] Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction, 2 ed. (Oxford: Routledge : Kindle edition, 2014).

[2] Ibid. 183-185

[3] Ibid. 215-325

[4] Ibid. 338

[5] Christopher J. H. Wright, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004). 348f

[6] Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. 104f

[7] Parker J. Palmer, The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life, 1 ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008). 116ff

[8] Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. 368

 

Citations

Elliott, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. 2 ed. Oxford: Routledge : Kindle edition, 2014.

Palmer, Parker J. The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life. 1 ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Wright, Christopher J. H. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

9 responses to “Sociology: a river with many estuaries”

  1. Digby, I should’ve just read you and saved me the trouble of reading Elliot’s 400 page tome. I think you’re on to something when you divide people into two ways of thinking about human nature: inherently good or inherently bad. I take the latter view (Romans 3) to be true.

    In my original post, I made the observation that a lot of these social theorists were affected and influenced by World War 1, also known as “the war to end all wars.” When an academic takes the former view (inherently good, IG henceforth) and then something like WW1 happens, that’ll cause a major disruption in one’s worldview, which in turn requires some revisiting and revisioning. On the other hand, if one takes the latter view (inherently bad, IB henceforth), then we aren’t surprised that WW1 happens.

    A large majority of Evangelicals take the IB approach and sadly, what follows from that is not congruent with Christian duties. I’m convinced that many who hold this view that “everything is going to hell in a hand basket” think it’s wise to have nothing to do with politics, culture, society etc. After all, God will make things new so why bother?

    This, in my opinion, is wrong headed and goes against the admonition (Matt. 6) from our Lord. So many other things to say, but just wanted to register my thoughts on that for starters.

    • mm Karen Rouggly says:

      Harry and Digby – I am intrigued by your dialogue here. So if we are created as inherently bad, how do we hold that in tension with the fact that we are created in the Imago Dei, which is inherently good? How do we understand moral codes and ethics? Not that I disagree, just playing a little devils advocate.

      • mm Jenn Burnett says:

        I appreciate this dilemma. I think that is a pre-fall/post-fall scenario. I think of us as made in the image of God, so capable of incredible good, but with a fatal flaw that will always keep us from being good enough to maintain a stable, equitable world.

      • Digby Wilkinson says:

        Hi Karen. It’s not that we are created bad, it means the image in which we are made is marred. So, because it’s marred everything we do is tarnished. It’s the whole two trees thing from Genesis; we ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so we constantly sit between the two – but have a disposition for screwing things up. That’s ‘a’ theological explanation. Secular views tend to say we are born untarnished and have no knowledge of good and evil, so our lives are nurtured toward the social good or not. I lean to the former rather than the latter. Sociology tends to start from one of these positions too, generally the latter 🙂

  2. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Digby,
    Once again, thank you for getting to the heart of the matter. That is, from which pole of human nature are we starting. I am definitely in the band of Christians that are wrestling with concepts of society. I prefer to focus on the relationship of the church and its society. But in the midst of my struggles, I must remember to look up and beyond my own limited intellect and understanding. My focus on our Triune God is what keeps me learning as I continue to serve the society where I am planted. Blessings, H

  3. mm Mary Mims says:

    Digby, this is obviously, in your wheel-house. I am glad that you understand all of this and can make heads and tails of all of it. While it is somewhat interesting, I am concerned about how all of these theories are used. I hate people putting me in a box but I can understand why it is done. I pray people will use these methods for the greater good of humankind instead of using it as a measuring rod.

  4. mm Jenn Burnett says:

    I’m curious about your suggestion that ‘Christian visions of society are in the minority’. I suppose I wrestle with wether there is a clear ‘Christian’ view of society. Given that the emergence of Christianity was in the context of the expanding Roman Empire, I don’t feel like we ever get a model of of what Christian society should be. There seems instead to be a picture of what it looks like in the context of being oppressed. Instead of stable model, I see a more elusive, ever incarnating model of the church. Through the various social lenses we see, I continue to wonder at how I would articulate the gospel using the language and paradign which is being suggested. Each option having a particular flaw (from a Christian perspective) but acknowledging that there is also truth. It’s also fascinating to me that capitalism is most generally linked with Christianity and the two never seem particularly compatible to me. Which of these social theories get us closest to a Christian model?

  5. mm Sean Dean says:

    In seminary my nickname was ‘pointless’ because I don’t hold to any of the five points of (Dutch) Calvinism. The argumentative Calvinists in my classes would always think that my denial of total depravity was their silver bullet to prove me wrong. I fall in the Eastern Orthodox camp where the image of God has been completely distorted but is still present in humanity and as such humanity can’t be totally depraved. You have me thinking again about the fundamental nature of humanity, but I wonder if the issue is less about our initial state and more about our ability to change. Maybe we start out basically good, but are we able to move to a point of being better. Or if we start out evil are we able to be moved to a point of doing good. In adoption a big issue is attachment for the child. If a child is unable to emotionally attach to a parent then significant difficulties arise – to the point that the child can become a significant danger to herself or others. The thing is, attachment disorder can happen to kids from all sorts of different backgrounds. I wonder if the questions around our initial state are more about are we able to attach to a greater social order or not and less about how we start out.

  6. mm John Muhanji says:

    Digby, you are such an analytical character and I love the way you reasoned over Elliott’s writings. It is true Elliott has written things that we are facing then in our daily lives. Our social family fabrics are lost in the contemporary social theory. We seem to be drifting away from the community to individualism and that is dangerous. When I lived in the city of Nairobi in Kenya, it was very hard to know who your neighbors were because we all left early in the morning and arrived back at night. Over the weekends we have different hobbies and never knew or saw each other when we were close neighbors. we were very near yet very far from each other. we never knew each others names at all.

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