Sociology for Optimists


Mary Holmes

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    To Stevi Jackson, Lynn Jamieson, Sue Scott, Liz Stanley and Catherine (Lane) West-Newman. Many people have helped me through the sociological world, but these women have been outstanding in their encouragement over the years and I thank them.

    About the Author

    Mary Holmes is a sociologist at the University of Edinburgh. Her research is in the areas of the sociology of emotion, intimacy and relationships and political sociology. She has taught sociology in Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. Her recent books include Distance Relationships: Intimacy and Emotions Amongst Academics and their Partners In Dual-Locations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Heterosexuality in Theory and Practice (with Chris Beasley and Heather Brook, Routledge, 2012).


    This book is the work of a partial, prejudiced and ignorant sociologist.1 It struck me many times in writing it that it was hubris to attempt such a wide-ranging yet short account of the state of sociology as a discipline. I cannot quite recall how the idea for the book came about, except to say that I have long wondered whether and why sociology is intrinsically a miserable social science? Such wondering was prompted partly by a regular phenomenon, familiar to many who teach sociology, of students informing me that I had ‘ruined’ some aspect of their life. Having learned some sociology they now could not watch a movie/go on holiday/read a magazine/talk to their family/buy clothes or do anything much without analysing it in ways not usually conducive to enjoyment or peace of mind. Yet in telling me this they were not always sorry, and recognised gain as well as loss. Sociology provides valuable alternative understandings of the world. It can tell us things we do not hear from politicians or journalists; it makes us question how we live and how we do things and it points out the flaws of our societies. However, on other occasions my students, myself and many of my colleagues feel a frustration with critical sociological analysis of the terrible state of the world and want to know what can be done. If there is anything of value in this work, I hope it might encourage sociologists and students of sociology to take stock of what they have to offer for making sense of the world in which we live, and for changing it.

    Gradually it became clear to me that I wanted to advocate sociology as a way of thinking which not only criticises what is wrong with society, but which critically imagines how it could be otherwise – including ‘better’. Sceptical as sociologists have been when I have explained the book to them, they have also encouraged me by saying they think there is a need for it. I hope so. I have certainly been accused of being an optimist, sometimes with the implication that to be so is an intellectual failing or a regrettable personal foible. Optimism previously referred to the philosophical doctrine that this world is divinely created and thus the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz 1952/1710: 118). Now it typically means an individual psychological attitude involving ‘a tendency to hold positive expectations of the future’ (Bennett 2011: 303, see also 301). As I will set out, I understand optimism not as a failing, not as disposition, but as a critical action of the will (Gramsci 1973/1929: 175). It takes effort to exercise critical optimism, but I argue that it is vital in order to better interpret and change the world. Certainly it is important to try.

    In spirit the book also owes much to C. Wright Mills’s (1959) book The Sociological Imagination. I have not sought to reproduce that classic, but have been inspired by the way that Mills wrote. He wrote a short, readable book intended for students, but also of interest to colleagues. He wrote for students in ways that assumed they were intelligent human beings. He advocated for a particular approach to sociology, promoting it not as a science but as an imaginative way of thinking about the world. There are plenty of big sociology textbooks on the market containing glossy pictures and coverage of a wide range of sociological debates. Like Mills, I have aimed more towards a simple book that advocates a way of doing sociology: an optimistic way. I assume that students can and will read these essay-like chapters. Indeed I hope the students reading this might learn about essay writing by looking at how the chapters are written. The book may not always be easy, but I hope it has things that you can enjoy and that you will persevere even if you sometimes find it difficult. Pushing through those difficulties is a crucial part of learning and learning can be enjoyed.

    As I set out to explain why optimism is important to sociology I am slightly worried that I stole the idea behind this book from my friend Chris Beasley. She and Heather Brook and I talked for some time about writing about Pollyanna Politics and I honestly cannot remember whether my desire to write about optimism in sociology preceded this or not. This is to acknowledge a truly collegiate relationship and friendship with these two women and to humbly beg their forgiveness for not being able to untangle my own ideas from our collective musings. The book would be better if they had written it with me, but I stubbornly went on without them and they supported me, as always.

    While I was developing the ideas for the book I had the opportunity of teaching many of the ideas behind Sociology for Optimists as a Masterclass to fourth year honours students at Flinders University in Adelaide. I want to thank those who were students in the class for giving me insights into their own work and helping me think anew about sociology as a discipline. They also helped me think about optimism in sociology from a range of different angles and I hope this has enriched the book. The students in the class were Meredith Barrett, Ferdinando Biroccesi, Nathan Dalton, Damien Day, Michelle Esterhuizen, Brett Lennox, Samuel Muscat, Konstans Ostreva, Steven Renfrey, Andrew Riley and Zoei Sutton. (Catherine) Lane West-Newman came over from the University of Auckland to contribute to teaching the class and was a fount of intellectual inspiration. There were also appearances by my colleagues Riaz Hassan and Eduardo de la Fuente, I thank them for their collegiate respect. Doctoral students at the time: Jordan McKenzie, Dani Clark and Erin Carlisle also engaged with some sessions and impressed me as always with their fine minds. This class helped me consider some of the problems of my project but also made me very optimistic about the future of sociology.

    The book you write is never quite the book you imagined, but if it gets anywhere near it is because of all those who helped. Norman Stockman was very kind and absolutely brilliant in the feedback he gave me on two chapters. His theoretical and disciplinary knowledge is awe inspiring. Those chapters no longer exist, but appear in different parts of the book, I hope making it better. Thank you to Nathan Manning, who read and helped improve an early version of what is now the chapter on freedom. The encouragement means a lot. Isabelle Darmon saved me from embarrassing misinterpretations of Marx and Weber in the Nature chapter, provided helpful references and quietly suggested jaw-droppingly good ideas, which I at once tried to appropriate without having the wit to do them justice. Anonymous readers Sage organised were also hugely helpful. Brent always helps and even though I was not entirely delighted when he telephoned me while I was trying to write what I thought was the final sentence of the book, of course he managed to inspire me as always.

    I am also indebted to numerous sociological colleagues for listening to me complain about the book. My sociology colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, have been kind, respectful and yet rigorously insightful in their critical engagement with these ideas. Their interest in the project has helped refine what it is I am trying to say here and why it might be important to say it. Appalling as much that happens in that world is, to me the point of sociology is that there is nothing inevitable about the way social life is organised. It could be otherwise and that means it could be ‘better’. Discussions of what ‘better’ might mean and how it might be achieved are crucial. Sociology has much to offer these discussions and I hope this account of the need for critical optimism can be a small part of that offering.

    What we can see or hear from a sociological perspective is necessarily limited (Kemple and Mawani 2009: 231), but lack of optimism imposes particular kinds of blinkers. In pessimistic terms, the emergence of sociology is usually talked of in terms of European thinkers making sense of the evils of industrialisation, and it is right that more should be understood about how sociology was implicated in eugenics, imperialism and the destruction of other peoples and worlds it involved (Connell 2007; Kemple and Mawani 2009; Renwick 2012). More attention to this is needed, but this book makes rather uneven efforts in that direction. I do try to draw on ideas and examples beyond Europe (including the UK), USA, Canada and Australia. Other limitations to sociology may have shifted and this needs noting. It may be the case that by the mid-twentieth century the social conditions in which sociology was done produced either a short-sighted abstracted empiricism or a rather blurred grand theoretical vision (Mills 1959). Now it may be grand empiricism and abstracted theorising that are dominant and equally problematic in how they depoliticise sociological thinking, restrict its communication to a wider world and limit the utility of sociology for addressing social problems (Kemple and Mawani 2009: 234–5). Yet, if the world is sometimes one of possibilities and not just problems, then sociology must try to understand those possibilities. It is important to consider imperialism not just as the destruction or subjection of passive ‘others’ (Tuhiwai-Smith 1999), nor just to put yourself in the shoes of others, as Mills (1959) recommends. It is important to listen (Back 2007), to learn to see the rest of the world from other perspectives (see, for example, Connell 2007). To centre the periphery and peripheralise the centre. This applies both to the world and to sociology.

    If you look at most big introductory sociology textbooks, once they have dealt with explaining what sociology is, they will cover roughly the same list of topics: gender, race and ethnicity, class, crime and deviance, education, work and organisations, the media, health and illness, families, religion, urban life, politics, the state. Occasionally there might be a chapter on poverty or on inequality or the environment or globalisation. None of these topics inherently require a pessimistic stance, but this hard-centred version of the sociological selection box typically presents these topics as ones that are fundamentally about continuing social inequalities, the control exercised by social institutions like work, family and the media and the increasing power of governments over their citizens. Thus, I depart from such a representation of the discipline in this book.

    The book is organised so as to show how a sociology for optimists might help us see the world in a slightly different way. The first chapter deals with how society is reproduced and how it changes. The focus is on social institutions like families, education and the media, but also on the importance of friends. Here an optimistic stance can allow exploration of how privilege is maintained, but also how it is challenged. Chapter 2 uses critical optimism to understand how people might find ways to enjoy their lives, and find pleasure even where social conditions might seem to make that difficult. The examples are about leisure, work and sex. Not only hope for more enjoyment but optimistic orientation towards greater freedom should be considered. Thus Chapter 3 discusses social and pro-democracy movements, organised crime, ‘swinging’ (swapping sexual partners), and youth culture as forms of resistance to social constraints. In further evaluating what a ‘better’ society looks like, it is argued in Chapter 4 that a critically optimistic sociology must deal with morals and ethics. Optimistic expectations for greater social equality are important in furthering these ethical evaluations and so that is taken up in Chapter 5. Emerging from these discussions is the importance of the relationship of individuals to those around them and the continued force of such connections is explored in Chapter 6. Trends around marriage, fertility and ways of living are examined from an optimistic stance. Chapter 7 then considers the insights to be gained from optimistically rethinking the relationship between human beings, other animals and nature; insights vital to dealing with challenges such as climate change. This leads to the reflections in Chapter 8 on forms of enchantment within current societies, and on how sociologists can optimistically consider the social importance of beliefs, meaning and imagination. The final chapter discusses to what extent sociology has involved optimism, and what we can learn about the necessity of some form of optimism for thinking sociologically. I maintain that sociologists and sociology are stronger when optimism is part of our critical repertoire.

    Mary HolmesEdinburgh, November 2015

    1. I paraphrase Jane Austen’s description of herself as author of the History of England, which she wrote aged 15. See the British Library’s virtual copy of the manuscript at

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