Taking it Big: Developing Sociological Consciousness in Postmodern Times

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Steven P. Dandaneau

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  • Part I: Developing an Orientation to Self and Society

    Part II: Applying the Sociological Imagination: Three Models

    Part III: The Social Forces Working against the Sociological Imagination

    Part IV: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

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    Copyright

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    About the Author

    Steven P. Dandaneau is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Honors and Scholars Programs at the University of Dayton. He received his B.A. in economics from Michigan State University (1986) and his M.A. (1990) and Ph.D. (1992) in sociology from Brandeis University. His two previous books are A Town Abandoned: Flint, Michigan, Confronts Deindustrialization (1996) and A Wrong Life: Studies in Lifeworld-Grounded Critical Theory (1998), of which he is coauthor with Maude Falcone. He is also a contributor to Peter Kivisto's Pine Forge Press volume, Illuminating Social Life: Classical and Contemporary Theory Revisited (revised and expanded edition, 2000).

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    Dedication

    In memory of my colleague, Dr. Stanley L. Saxton, Jr. (1939–1999)

    Preface

    This book is intended as an accessible, current, and uncompromised introduction to what C. Wright Mills called the “sociological imagination.” It explains and demonstrates the value of the sociological imagination vis-à-vis the demands of today's postmodern society, critically addresses the chief forces working against its development, and invites students to adopt this form of self-consciousness as their own.

    Sociological thinking and, in turn, sociological learning, cannot get off the ground until the minds of students are freed from the myriad constraints that thwart the workings of a live, empirically exact imagination. The chief initial problem for the teacher and student of sociology is finding the means to accomplish this liberation. With this challenge in mind, I have composed Taking It Big in an unusual way, as a series of interrelated essays intended to encourage beginning students of sociology to think through a wide variety of topics from ecological crises to panic disorder, from hyperreality to the sociology of disability, and from Generation X to Generation Next. My hope is that this style of presentation will be true to the elusive nature of postmodern experience and will transform the reader's consciousness of this experience. This book is not Mills-in-a-box, a replication of Mills's mid-century distillation of the form of mind underlying the classic tradition in sociology. It is alive to today's social problems, the issues and troubles that afflict the postmodern world that Mills glimpsed only at its inception.

    Any book that sets for itself the goal of presenting and encouraging the adoption of a form of self-consciousness that grasps the interrelations between history, biography, and society, the never-ending interplay between levels of reality, and seeks to define the primary political challenges facing today's young adults sets for itself a difficult task. But such a book is needed for a number of reasons.

    First and foremost, people in this world and at this time need to develop a quality of mind that allows them to conceptualize the mind- and soul-boggling crises that confront humanity worldwide. There is no value in sugarcoating the fact that modern social development has left strewn in its wake a series of unprecedented human catastrophes and that the mindless extrapolation of modern society portends only greater catastrophes. Postmodernity is, as Zygmunt Bauman has defined it, “modernity without illusions.” Students today, I believe, must be presented a candid appraisal of our situation, an unflinching assessment of empirical realities.

    Of equal and related significance is the politically strategic importance of the present generation. Fundamental social change is a certainty in the near future. How will so-called First World societies act toward the demands for change associated with global ecological problems such as global wanning? How will Americans use their economic, political, military, and cultural power to affect the tragic human experiences that result from increasing global inequality? Will Americans come to see their current way of life as unsustainable? These are the types of practical questions that confront members of postmodern society. We can expect the current generation of educated young adults in societies such as the United States to play a crucial role in answering them one way or another. It is vital that members of these mass democracies have the ability to bring such issues into focus and meaningfully relate them one to the other and to what Mills called our “cherished values.” There is no other way, I think, to sustain hope for a viable democratic future than through efforts to make actual the everyday realization of the sociological imagination.

    We must also appreciate the situation faced by individuals fated to live in postmodern culture. Postmodern culture is a disillusioning way of life awash in antidepressants and submerged in a sea of television reality. Properly developed, the sociological imagination not only addresses the phenomenon of globalization but it also offers a defense against postmodern cultural excess. Indeed, it is a means for confronting the violence and harm inflicted by disillusionment itself. Such far-flung ambitions have always stood back of the promise of sociology.

    Taking It Big is a book that invites the reader to adopt a new form of self-consciousness appropriate to the challenges of today's globalized world and disillusioning everyday life. The reader is asked to critically engage topics chosen to highlight the postmodern extremes of imaginative sociological thinking and to take issue with any and every substantive argument presented. I do not, in other words, mean in this book to flatly present the truth of all things, nor do I mean to convey the sense that sociology has all the answers to the problems that confront human society and individual lives. Any effort to develop the ability to think sociologically—to think critically, reflexively, and with empirical moorings—is an open-ended project. This book is thus intended as a catalyst for learning, as an invitation to try on for size what is arguably the most fruitful form of self-consciousness developed in modern times, and then from this perspective, to weigh its value with respect to the troubles and issues of our postmodern lives. The point is not so much to learn the truth but to learn how to think about essential issues and troubles as sociologists themselves try to do, to become a participant with others in facing down the challenges of our present epoch.

    The book is divided into four parts. The Introduction, Chapter 1, is the only chapter that could be said to stand on its own. It presents the book in microcosm. Part I (Chapters 2 through 4) discusses current global and individual realities as a precursor to a detailed and original explication of the sociological imagination. In particular, I survey the chief global problems such as global warming that beg for urgent remedy and introduce panic and cynicism as the current defining polarities of what Mills called the experience of “trap.” I argue that the sociological imagination is the best means available for conceptualizing today's global problems and liberating one's mind from entrapment in postmodern culture.

    Part II (Chapters 5 through 7) presents three models of the sociological imagination in practice. Each model emphasizes the extreme forms of history, biography, and social structure under conditions of postmodernity. In particular, I discuss the experience of disability, the hyperreality of Generation X, and the dynamics of postmodern religion. Each topic is treated as a liminal aspect of today's social and cultural world, that is, as edges and undersides of reality well suited to spark critical sociological thinking.

    Part III (Chapters 8 through 10) addresses the chief forces working against the widespread adoption of the sociological imagination. I discuss aspects of post-modernity that take direct aim at the very possibility of a sociological conceptualization of history, biography, and social structure. In particular, I attend to the collapse of public life into postmodern forms of propaganda, the much-discussed but dubious thesis of the end of history, and the tendency of sociology itself to suppress its connection with people living everyday lives. This last topic also encourages an understanding of sociology as inherently reflexive and self-critical.

    Finally, Part IV formulates the sociological imagination as a form of dialectical thinking dedicated to the practical development of critical social theories. That is, by way of conclusion, I underscore the ultimately political nature of the sociological imagination in part through an account of my own education in sociology.

    In private conversation, often with students, Mills would wave his hand in the air and advise, “take it big.” By this he meant to encourage expansive critical thinking not for its own sake but because the world—New York City, say, or the advent of nuclear weapons—demanded that we as humans learn to think in ways appropriate to the extraordinary nature of postmodern society, which, like its modern precursor, is a new and revolutionary type of society of our own design and construction and which in some ways is aptly regarded as a grand hotel and in others, alas, a grand hotel abyss. It is my contention that in the forty or so years since Mills originally penned his vision of what makes sociological thinking the most needed form of self-consciousness in the emergent postmodern world, our collective and individual problems have only grown larger, more insidious, and potentially more overwhelming. We must therefore, I believe, continue to pursue the project of taking it big but with renewed energy and with a more sober attitude than even Mills was able to maintain. We must work to develop our sociological imagination for these postmodern times in the hope that soon opportunities will present themselves for its effective use in the making of a human world organized around the values of reason and freedom. Even if the chances for its realization are increasingly distant, there is still a promise of sociology. This is not, in other words, a happy book. Given the state of the world, however, this should come as no surprise.

    Acknowledgments

    Many of the ideas in this book were first developed jointly with Maude Falcone and published in our coauthored book, A Wrong Life: Studies in Lifeworld-Grounded Critical Theory (1998). I thank Maude for allowing me to reproduce parts of her reading of George Orwell's last and most famous novel and especially for allowing me to again discuss our experience with our son Patrick; both these topics are more fully developed in this previous book.

    I also benefited from my experience in the 1999 University of Dayton Faculty Seminar in the Humanities and Social Sciences, directed by Fr. James L. Heft, and from my participation in the 1999 National Endowment for Humanities Seminar on Morality and Society, directed by Dr. Alan Wolfe. Both seminars provided stimulating environments in which to think through many of the ideas presented in this book. Both also provided research support, as did a University of Dayton sabbatical for the 1999 fall term.

    Many people read all or parts of the manuscript and provided advice and research assistance. In this regard, I gratefully acknowledge Maude Falcone, Steve Rutter, Dan E. Miller, Peter Kivisto of Augustana College, Daniel Chambliss of Hamilton College, and three University of Dayton undergraduates: Brandon Olszewski, Todd Cikraji, and Robin Dodsworth. I also received helpful comments from members of the University of Dayton Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work Student Organization.

    My developmental editor, Kathy Field, deserves special acknowledgment. Kathy's incisive editing and restructuring transformed the manuscript into a much-improved text. She also offered sound advice on the presentation of numerous substantive issues. I thank Kathy most of all, however, for her unfailing support and generosity. If this book is what I intend it to be—an accessible introduction to the sociological imagination—then it is so largely due to Kathy Field's expertise and concern.

    I would also like to acknowledge the good folks at Pine Forge Press. Paul O'Connell initially encouraged me to undertake this project and, after overcoming my natural resistance, finagled a free lunch for me with him and Steve Rutter. As has been noted by many Pine Forge authors, Steve Rutter is an unusually involved and insightful editor and an amazingly supportive publisher. Although I probably tried everyone's patience, Ann Makaris kept the wheels turning even when I was uncooperative. I also thank those at Sage—Diana Axelsen and Kelly Günther—who ironed out the final kinks and who saw the book through the production process, and Jeanne Busemeyer, who prepared the index.

    I am also especially grateful to Michael Bérubé for his permission to reprint material from his book Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child (1998/1996) and to Yaroslava Mills for her permission to use unpublished archival material from the C. Wright Mills Papers at the Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. I thank both Dr. Bérubé and Mrs. Mills for their generosity, the staff at the Center for American History for their able assistance, and John Summers of Rochester University for directing my attention to key documents in the archive.

    On the homefront, I thank Cheryl Felton for helping me take care of my children, Patrick and Maxwell, which is no small feat and which was essential to my having the time and energy to waste hours away at the computer. I also thank my brother Marcus Dandaneau for his willingness to visit often and make innumerable domestic improvements.

    Finally, this book is dedicated to my dear colleague Dr. Stanley L. Saxton, Jr. Stan was a great teacher and an even greater human being. He would tell his students that they were nothing but a “spot on a gnat's ass” unless they were mindfully engaged with the world and their lives in this world. Stan passed away just as I was beginning work on this book. Although I imagine him vociferously disagreeing with much of what I contend, Stan would also understand my concern for today's world and share my abiding interest in its young people. In his own way—and there are many ways—Stan always took it big.


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